Yona on Yom Kippur
One of the most familiar aspects of the tefilla on Yom Kippur is the reading of “Maftir Yona” during mincha. The choice of reading this sefer as the haftara during mincha is already recorded in the Gemara in Masechet Megilla (31A). “B’mincha korin b’Arayot umaftirin b’Yona”, during mincha we read (the parsha of the Torah which discusses) forbidden sexual relations, and we read the haftara from Yona. As the Gemara does not explain why specifically this Parsha and haftara were selected, the meforshim step into the breach to explain the choice. Rashi explains that the reading of the Arayot was chosen to remind anyone who has fallen afoul of this prohibition to repent before the end of Yom Kippur. The Geonim see this as a necessary reminder since many people mistakenly believe that Yom Kippur itself will atone for our sins. This, however, is untrue, and only when accompanied by Teshuva does Yom Kippur ensure atonement. Hence, Chazal sought to highlight one of the most pervasive of sins in order to prompt us to do Teshuva.
The choice of Yona for the haftara seems more straightforward. The message of the power of Teshuva seems to make the choice of Yona a “no-brainer”. In fact, the curt explanation “mishum teshuvat Anshei Ninve”, because of the repentance of the people of Ninve, offered by Machzor Vitry (a 12th century halachik work on tefilla authored by R. Simcha of Vitry) emphasizes the self-evidence of this approach. Nonetheless, the Mishna Brura quotes the 14th century sage, Abudraham, who suggests that we read this haftara to emphasize the futility of fleeing from Hashem, certainly an appropriate message for Yom Kippur.
In his commentary on the haftarot, Rav Mendel Hirsch proposes a fascinating psychological explanation for the choice of both the Parsha and the Haftara. By the time we reach mincha we have already spent most of the day in prayer. We have (hopefully) experienced an inspiring tefilla whose apex is the recollection of the Avoda in the Beit HaMikdash. The contrast between the ideal of the Kohen Gadol in his full splendor representing us before God and our poor imitation in our current tefilla should not and can not be lost upon us. Thus chastened, our emotional appeal for forgiveness has reached a fevered peak. It is precisely at this point that we must be reminded that it is not our emotions which will determine our fate but rather our willingness to recommit ourselves to action and self improvement. The Parsha of Arayot reminds us of the need to reconnect to the moral foundations of our relationship with Hashem and with our fellows, while the choice of Yona emphasizes the power of Teshuva.
In his work “Iyunei Haftara” Rav Avraham Rivlin, the long time Mashgiach at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavne, suggests that it is the very focus on Teshuva in Sefer Yona which might explain Yona’s decision to run away to Tarshish rather than to fulfill God’s command to warn the people of Ninve of their impending destruction. As is pointed out by Rashi at the beginning of the Sefer (1:3), Yona fears the consequences of Teshuva by the people of Ninve. How would immediate Teshuva by the non-Jewish population of Ninve, prompted by only minimal rebuke, reflect on Am Yisrael? Yona, a disciple of Eliyahu HaNavi, knows that Bnei Yisrael have long resisted repenting, despite the continued entreaties of multiple Neviim. He has no allusions as to his ability to change them. Hence rather than add further damning evidence against Am Yisrael he decides to run away.
Yona is fully aware of the import of his action and expects to pay the price. Quoting the Mechilta (Peticha l’Parshat Bo), Rav Rivlin points out that Yona expected to die at sea. The Midrash takes a charitable view of Yona’s action, grouping him with Moshe Rabbenu and David HaMelech as Neviim who preferred to risk their lives rater than be tools for the indictment of Am Yisrael. And it is precisely this charitable view which leads Rav Rivlin to reject the explanation that it was a “fear” of Teshuva that led Yona to run away from Hashem. God does not appear to be particularly happy with Yona’s principled stand. He chases Yona down and forces him to complete his mission. According to the Gemarah in Yevamot (98A) God ultimately punishes Yona by withdrawing his Nevuah following the successful completion of his mission. None of this should have happened if Yona’s motives and goal were praiseworthy. Thus, In Rav Rivlin’s view, it is difficult to defend this position.
Before moving to Rav Rivlin’s preferred explanation, I would like to suggest a possible answer to his question. In Sichot Mussar (5731, Sicha # 33) Rav Chaim Shmuelevich Z’tzal (another long time Mashgiach of the Mir) points out that one’s obligation of introspection is not limited to exposing and then correcting flaws in one’s behavior. We must also examine our Avodat Hashem with the understanding that our sin may lie in behavior that we believe to be positive. The Gemara in Yoma (19B) relates the story of a Sadducee High Priest who proudly announced that he had brought the Ketoret on Yom Kippur in keeping with Sadducee, as opposed to Rabbinic, practice. The Gemara relates that he died in a most undignified way shortly thereafter. Surely his actions were L’Shem Shamayim, but that is of little consequence. He still paid the full price for his failure to properly perform the avoda. One could argue that Yona placed himself in the same boat (pun intended, I couldn’t resist!) by trying to run away from God’s command. Good intentions aside he was still punished by Hashem. (While it is beyond our scope to fully investigate the Midrash which compares Yona to Moshe Rabbenu and David HaMelech, it does not appear that the Midrash’s comparison of their actions is fully analogous. Moshe and David asked God to “punish” them rather than Am Yisrael. They did not, however, refuse to fulfill God’s command.)
Rav Rivlin’s preferred explanation for Yona’s decision to run from Hashem is that Yona was running from God’s character as a God of Mercy as opposed to a God of Truth. This idea is reflected in Yona’s own statement explaining why he had run away to Tarshish – “because I knew that you were a God of Mercy” (4:2). It seems that Yona can not accept Hashem’s willingness to forgive, to “sacrifice” His standard of Emet, truth, in favor of unmitigated Mercy.
This idea predates Rav Rivlin’s commentary. In his work Chazon HaMikra, Rav Yissacher Yakovson quotes the philosopher, Professor Tiberger, who in 1926 first developed the parallel between Yona and Iyov. In this view Yona can be seen as the “anti-Iyov”. Iyov struggles with the concept of Tzaddik V’ra Lo, why bad things happen to good people. Yona, on the other hand, struggles with the concept of Rasha V’Tov Lo, why good things happen to evil people. And in fact, just as Iyov can not be convinced of the logic of Tzaddik V’Ra Lo but must learn to accept it, so too is Yona incapable of understanding why Hashem is so willing to forgive in complete contradiction to what “emet” might dictate. He must simply accept this as God’s nature.
Yona’s conflict is indeed the paradox of Teshuva in general and Yom Kippur in particular. We stand before Hashem with nothing more than our prayers, our hopes and dreams on one hand, and our shame and embarrassment of our own failings on the other. What hope can we have that given our inadequacies and failings that our prayers will be accepted? From Yona’s perspective we are already lost. But Hashem’s perspective is a far different one. We stand before Him, certain that once again Chesed, mercy, will trump Emet.
May we all merit to be inscribed b’sefer chaim, bracha v’shalom u’parnassa tova.
Gmar chatima tov,
Rav Michael Susman