A Different Path to Teshuva: Why We Read the Book of Yonah on Yom Kippur
Rabbanit Chamutal Shoval, a graduate of OTS’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), is the Ohr Torah Stone Scholar-in-Residence in North America and a Talmud teacher at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School
A deep examination of the Book of Yonah evokes many questions concerning the character of Yonah, his attempt to escape the mission he is given, the people of Nineveh and how Yonah reacts to their repentance.
The key question is, why, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, do we read a story about teshuvah (repentance) that is seemingly unconnected to the Jewish nation? What lesson is there for us in the story of the people of Nineveh? Why do we choose to highlight the story of repentance of these particular people?
Following his maritime trials and tribulations and his refusal to fulfill his calling, Yonah finally arrives in Nineveh. There, he turns to the people, warning them that if they do not repent immediately, Nineveh will be destroyed. And without any resistance or delay, the people of Nineveh repent:
“And Yonah began to enter the city, a day’s journey, and he proclaimed, and said: ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’. And the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them” [Yonah 3:4-5].
Midrash Yalkut Shimoni highlights the difference between the People of Israel — a stiff-necked people — and the people of Nineveh: “I sent one prophet to Nineveh and they harkened unto Me and believed in Me; but this nation (Israel), how many prophets did I not send to them time and time again and they harkened not unto me.”
The Midrash explains that the People of Israel are a stiff-necked people; a nation which does not repent easily and needs constant reprimanding by numerous prophets. In contrast, the people of Nineveh repent immediately after being rebuked by a single prophet.
The comparison between the People of Israel and the residents of Nineveh is not meant to denigrate Israel in any way, nor does it serve as a further reprimand; rather, it comes to show the People of Israel that there is a way to do simple and spontaneous teshuvah.
“And God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, which He said He would do unto them; and did not do it” [Yonah 3:10].
The entire story of the repentance of the people of Nineveh is captured in seven verses that encapsulate a simple story of repentance: rebuke, remorse and God’s forgiveness.
In contrast, in its several thousand years of existence, the Jewish People have had a complicated relationship with God. A repetitive movement of coming closer and drawing back: sinful conduct, suffering, repentance and reverting to sin yet again.
It is an intricate relationship characterized by the desire to be close to God, going astray, exile, redemption — a tumultuous cycle. Am Yisrael desires a life of sanctity and wants to fulfill God’s will; however, in reality this is not always the case. The Sin of the Golden Calf; the lack of faith during the wanderings in the desert; instances of theological infidelity even while living in the Land of Israel; the destruction of the First Temple followed by that of the Second Temple; God’s ensuing hester panim — “hiding His face from us”; all of these contribute towards the relationship between God and His people: constant breaches of trust followed by restoration.
For this very reason, once a year, God wishes for us to read an alternative story of repentance. A simple story. On the holiest day of the year, God calls on us to put our complicated history aside and learn a lesson from the story of the people of Nineveh. On Yom Kippur we are given the opportunity to choose simple repentance, as exhibited by the people of Nineveh: teshuvah consisting of a mere seven verses involving rebuke, repentance and forgiveness.
The prophet Zephaniah wrote: “Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city [ha’ir ha’yonah]! She harkened not to the voice, she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord, she drew not near to her God” [Zephania 3:1].
Rashi, in his exegesis on Zephaniah, explains that the word yonah is a reference to Jerusalem, which, unlike the city of Nineveh, finds it difficult to repent and harken unto the word of the Lord. “Until now the reference was to Nineveh, but here he [the prophet] reverts to Jerusalem and says it will be a mockery, a city lying in its own filth, reeking of its sins.”
As can be seen, the Book of Zephaniah plays with these similar words — “yonah and Nineveh” — contrasting the two. The yonah finds it hard to repent, but Nineveh repents immediately.
On Yom Kippur, as we read the Book of Yonah, we have a once-in-a-year opportunity to do teshuvah with no “baggage” from the past, without any mediation and unburdened by the rebuke of a myriad of prophets. Simple, straightforward teshuvah.
Once a year we have the chance “to step out of ourselves” and be, if only a little bit, like the people of Nineveh who repented wholeheartedly. God promises us that if we repent with a sincere heart, He will accept our teshuvah. The story of the people of Nineveh is meant to serve as an inspiration and a source of strength: God is waiting for our return; He will receive us with open arms.