Monday, September 17, 2007

Yonah (Yom Kippur)

Even Wikipedia has a d'var Torah on Yonah (but this is my one)

The Haftorah for Yom Kippur afternoon is the book of Yona. It tells the story of the prophet Yonah who was sent to Ninveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. He was to tell the people that G-d was displeased with their actions, and the city would be overturned. Yona refuses his mission and attempts to flee from G-d by leaving Israel for Tarshish. He is eventually forced by G-d to accept his task and go to Ninveh. The citizens of Ninveh, led by their king, repent and G-d forgives them. Meanwhile Yona, who has set himself nearby to watch the imminent destruction of the city, complains to G-d that He is not being truthful and just if He forgives the people. G-d uses the kikayon tree to teach Yona that He shows mercy to people because they are dear to Him.
It would seem that the theme of the story is repentance, thus making it appropriate for Yom Kippur. What is not clear though, is whose repentance we should be focusing on. At first glance it would appear that Yona repents and admits that G-d is right, and he is wrong for wanting the destruction of Ninveh. In fact the Midrash records Yona’s repentance before G-d, in which he acknowledges that he has sinned. However the text of the book itself gives us no indication that Yona has learnt his lesson.
Perhaps we are supposed to learn from the repentance of the inhabitants of Ninveh, that they immediately changed their ways. However, there is dispute amongst the commentaries as to whether the repentance of Ninveh was sincere or only the outward appearance of repentance, with no real commitment to change. Also, if that is the punchline, why does the story continue?
Maybe the message that we should learn from the book of Yona is the comparison between the non-Jewish reaction to the warning from G-d, and the Jewish one. For decades before and after this episode, G-d sent prophets to Israel and Jerusalem berating the people for having abandoned the ways of justice and goodness, and threatening them with destruction. However they refused to listen and to change, just as Yona in this story seems impervious to G-d’s lesson. Ninveh, on the other hand, a non-Jewish city, immediately take note of G-d’s displeasure with them and make a change. Even if it is not a complete repentance, at least they heeded the warning that they were given. Therefore it seems apt that their empire was the one to eventually wage war against Israel and take the ten tribes into exile. Those who can repent are the ones who are able to punish those who cannot repent.

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