Twenty-seven years ago, I wanted a name beginning with the letter “J” for my son, to honor the memory of my maternal grandmother Jennie Strochak. An abundance of boys’ names begin with J, many of them Biblical in origin: Jacob, Joseph, Jonathan, Joshua, Jeremy (after Jeremiah). My British husband (Geoff with a G) favored Josie, from the classic Western “The Outlaw Josie Wales” which prompted an “over my dead body” from me as I contemplated the ridicule that would be heaped on a boy named Josie. The song “A Boy Named Sue” resonated with Geoff; eventually he agreed that Josie, or even Josiah, was a non-starter.
About two weeks before the baby was due, I received an urgent call from my mother: “Whatever you do, don’t name him Jonah.” According to Mom, the name Jonah was bad luck. “Name him something freilich,” she said, using the Yiddish word for joyful. “Why not Joel?”
My son was a blondie from birth, with bright blue eyes, which suited my image of Jonah as a sea captain, perhaps of Nordic descent. In contrast, the other name we were considering, Joshua, filled my imagination with dark curls and dark eyes. I like to say Jonah chose his name. According to the Talmud, an angel comes to the mother and whispers the baby’s name. Cradling my son in my arms in the maternity ward, I tried out both names, and his azure gaze (blue like the sea) deepened and intensified when I murmured: Jonah.
Fast forward a decade. It’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. I had persuaded my son Jonah to attend the afternoon service, known as Minhah. Minhah comes a few hours before the day-long fast draws to a close. It’s the time during the service when the Book of Jonah is chanted aloud in Hebrew in congregations around the world. I wanted Jonah to hear it. But first the rabbi gave a short Dvar Torah, or teaching, on Jonah. I don’t remember the details, only the overwhelming message: Jonah was silly, Jonah was cranky, Jonah was selfish. In short, he was a fool. Don’t be a Jonah.
Ten-year-old Jonah expected to be inspired by his famous namesake but instead heard only ridicule. His round face suddenly looked drawn; his bright blue eyes (bright with tears?) fixed on the floor. In those years Jonah was often in trouble in Hebrew School for not paying attention, for distracting other kids. Now the other children, dragged to shul for Minhah, glanced at him and snickered. Their parents looked at me with pity.
Why had I brought him? Had I forgotten the pitfalls associated with the character of Jonah? From that Yom Kippur on, I dreaded the short Dvar Torah that preceded the Hebrew chanting of the Book of Jonah each year. All the rabbis preached the same message: Jonah rejects his calling as a prophet. Jonah runs from God. Jonah lacks compassion for the people of Ninevah. The list goes on: Jonah is narcissistic; Jonah is stubborn; Jonah is literally asleep at the wheel (of the ship, that is). Don’t be like Jonah.
Before Minhah on Yom Kippur, our synagogue often invites a guest speaker to inspire us in the fight against world hunger or poverty or bigotry. When the rabbi resumes the bimah, he or she says a few words about Jonah – usually contrasting Jonah with the Tzadikim (righteous people) we have just heard from, who care about others.
I stopped urging my son Jonah (now 27) to attend Yom Kippur Minhah at all. I wondered: had I blundered not only when I invited my ten-year-old Jonah to attend the Yom Kippur Minhah service, but in that moment in the maternity ward when his name became Jonah?
According to the Midrash, a child should have a name with a positive association, because every time it’s spoken – or thought of – one is reminded of its meaning. The Midrash gave an example of a good choice (another “J” name, as it turned out, “Judah” which means “thankfulness”) and of a bad choice – Nimrod, bad because it means “rebellion” and because the evil ruler Nimrod tried to kill Abraham.
My grandmother Jennie was an exceptionally smart, kind and gracious woman, a woman ahead of her time even though she had only an eighth-grade education. But Jonah is not simply a male version of Jennie; it’s a Biblical name with associations all its own. Could naming my son Jonah have been a mistake?
The truth is: I love the story of Jonah. We all know the story: Jonah refuses God’s command that he prophesy Ninevah’s destruction and instead boards a ship bound for Tarshish. The ship encounters a terrible storm and is about to be dashed on the rocks. Jonah advises the sailors to toss him overboard to appease God’s anger. That’s when he’s swallowed by the Great Fish and spends three days in its belly. Finally the Great Fish spits him out, unharmed: “And then the word of God came to Jonah a second time.” Jonah goes to Ninevah and prophesies its destruction. The people repent and are saved. Instead of rejoicing, Jonah feels betrayed. His prophecy has proven false, as he feared from the start.
Surely it cannot be that on Yom Kippur, as we move from Kol Nidre, the evening service that marks the beginning of the fast, through Shma Kolenu and the Al Chet and Isaiah and Yizkor, that a few hours before the metaphorical “closing of the gates,” we are scheduled to read about a worthless character, with a purely negative message: don’t be like him! Other patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets – from Abraham to Rebecca to Moses — are flawed human beings, and yet we acknowledge their flaws and extol what’s good or great in them.
There had to be another side to Jonah. Why else would Jews all over the world read about Jonah in the afternoon on Yom Kippur? We are light-headed and headachy and our stomachs gnaw; our mouths taste sour. A few hours more and the service and fast will conclude. We will exit the synagogue for our family and friends, our bagels and lox. Why now turn to Jonah? There had to be a more satisfying answer – for me even more than for my son who, in his practical way, found my deep dive into Jonah lore entertaining but unnecessary.
Admittedly, my initial research was not encouraging. It wasn’t only at my local synagogue that Jonah had a bad press. On Atlantic.com, I found an op-ed piece about Jonah entitled “The Sullen Prophet.” A Dvar Torah on the web played on the fact that the name Jonah –“Yona” in Hebrew — means “dove.” The writer went on to declare Jonah a birdbrain. Father Mapple preaches in Moby Dick to the whalers:
“See you not then, shipmates, that Jonah sought to flee the world wide from God? Oh! Most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God … How plainly he is a fugitive! No baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag – no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux.”
In Melville’s novel, Jonah’s fleeing from God defines him. Psychoanalysts likewise fixate on Jonah’s flight. Carl Jung outlined a Jonah-and-the-Whale complex. Christianity, on the other hand, offers a different take — at least in part. Jesus compared Jonah’s three-day-long sojourn in the fish’s belly to the three days leading up to the resurrection.
I learned from my research that classic Jewish sources vary in their view of Jonah. The Gaon of Vilna, an eighteenth century Kabbalist, saw Jonah’s journey as a metaphor for the journey of the human soul and the ship in which he sets sail as the human body. Some Midrashic commentators wrote that at the time of creation, God specifically fashioned a fish “great” enough to swallow Jonah:
“The fish was so large that Jonah was as comfortable inside of him as in a spacious synagogue. The eyes of the fish served Jonah as windows and besides there was a diamond which shone as brilliantly as the sun at midday, so that Jonah could see all things in the sea down to its very bottom.” (From Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Bible, Jewish Publication Society, 1909 (page 605)).
Ironically, my deepest insight into the placement of Jonah in the Yom Kippur service came from Islamic versions of the Jonah story. In northern Iraq a shrine in Tel Yunis marks the place where Jonah, or “Yunis” in Arabic, is believed to be buried. For centuries Muslim women who were unable to get pregnant went there to pray because Yunis is the prophet of second chances.
The prophet of second chances. That made more sense to me than anything else I read. It made Jonah’s story seem particularly suited to Minhah on a day — Yom Kippur – when each of us is asking God for a second chance.
Finally, after completing my research, I asked the rabbi of my synagogue if I, a mere congregant, might deliver the short Dvar Torah during the Yom Kippur Minhah service, before the Hebrew chanting of the Book of Jonah. After some hesitation, he agreed. And so, at 4 pm on Yom Kippur, with my 20-something son sitting in the back of the synagogue, I tried to convey what the Jonah story meant to me:
If you’re like me and other mid-life Jews, I began, you approach Yom Kippur with a certain amount of dread. While Rosh HaShana is sweetened with apples and honey and festive family meals, and each of the other Jewish holidays has joy and food to go around, Yom Kippur is different. It’s a time of reckoning. Unlike the secular New Year, it’s a time to recall all the ways we fell short and to vow to change for the better: an intense and sometimes painful self-examination. The magical thinking embedded in the ritual can be intimidating: a hand will inscribe us for good or for ill in the book of life; the gates of repentance are about to close. Will I be permitted inside? What if I don’t measure up?
There are peak communal moments to be sure, as the full voice of the congregation rises in melodies we have known since childhood. But ultimately the journey through the day is a personal and essentially lonely one as the bulwarks of Jewish life (and all life) − food and sex − are denied to us. That’s not to say that Neilah, the closing service, which follows Minhah and concludes when three stars appear in the sky, isn’t joyous. It most certainly is, as the children gather on the bimah, waving their glo-lites aloft, to hear the final blowing of the shofar (the ram’s horn). Finally, of course, at around 7:30 pm, we leave the synagogue. We return then to life as it was and will be. Too often the very attributes we have regretted and vowed to expunge reassert themselves almost immediately.
So too with Jonah. His journey begins with passivity and fear, as he runs away from a task too difficult to face: God’s command that he preach to the people of Ninevah, a city known for its cruelty and evil. But in the midst of the storm, awakened by his frantic shipmates, Jonah says: “I am a Hebrew. This storm is my fault for running away from God.” He encourages the sailors to sacrifice him to save themselves (“Heave me overboard, and the sea will calm down for you”) − hardly a cowardly or selfish act. Once in the belly of the Great Fish, he prays to God. He doesn’t simply say: Get me out of here. Instead of praying to be released, Jonah recounts what has occurred:
“The waters closed in over me,
The deep engulfed me,
Weeds twined around my head.
I sank to the base of the mountains;
The bars of the earth closed upon me forever.
Yet You brought my life up from the Sheol.”
From the belly of the beast, Jonah doesn’t say, rescue me. Instead, he sings a psalm of praise to God for raising him up from “Sheol.” In Hebrew literature, Sheol is one of the earliest versions of the afterlife, a place of darkness, removed from the light of Adonai; it is the great equalizer, a place where both righteous and unrighteous dwell, as in each of us.
When, three days later, Jonah finally is spat out by the Great Fish, he does go to Ninevah and deliver the prophecy that God has commanded. His prophecy is short and to-the-point, lacking the extended poetry of the other prophets: “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overturned”. The people of Ninevah repent in a single day (rather like we do on Yom Kippur) and are saved from destruction. Jonah’s prophecy, though proven false, is amazingly effective.
In contrast to Jonah, who remains a solitary figure throughout the Book of Jonah, the sailors and the people of Ninevah each experience a form of communal repentance. The sailors exemplify good intentions; they hesitate to throw Jonah overboard because such an act, although in accordance with God’s will, may look to the outside observer like murder. The people of Ninevah, faced with imminent annihilation, not only fast and put on sackcloth in the face of Jonah’s dire prophecy, but dress their cattle in sackcloth and deprive the cattle of food and water. Is it any wonder that Jonah, to quote Hamlet, believes that Ninevah’s signs of repentance are but “the trappings and the suits of woe”? His mission accomplished, Jonah is aimless and despairing once more. The heightened spirituality he experienced in the belly of the beast is gone. He is disappointed in life, and ready to die.
This is where Jonah’s conduct receives the greatest criticism. Yet aren’t we like him? The heightened moments of self-knowledge and repentance and rededication we experience on Yom Kippur do not last either. During the year ahead, feelings of failure and disappointment will intrude — including the anticlimactic feeling that comes after having completed a difficult task, a feeling that we have lost our purpose. With the return to the real world of everyday, such feelings are inevitable. Like Jonah, we need second chances – and third and fourth chances, too.
Finally, when we reject Jonah, we reject ourselves.
At 5:30 pm, as Yom Kippur nears its end, we want nothing more than to curl up asleep, like Jonah under his carob tree in the final verses of the Book of Jonah. Preferably when we wake up, we’ll even be able to eat. Like Jonah, we may feel gratitude for the tree and the shade and rest it provides. In the text, the tree shading him withers and Jonah is again exposed to the elements (this time a hot sun instead of a raging storm). Jonah rails against the unfairness of life; he wants to die. His reaction to this physical discomfort seems excessive. Has Jonah learned nothing? It’s so easy to see Jonah’s plaint at this point as purely self-centered. But according to the text, God does not. God says: “You cared about the tree, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.” God gives Jonah the benefit of the doubt and reminds him of his ability to care about another. In the Book’s final sentence, God reminds Jonah of the world outside himself: If Jonah so mourns the loss of a single tree that appeared and perished in one night, “should not I care about Nineveh,” God asks, “that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left [i.e., children], and many beasts as well?”
The Book of Jonah concludes abruptly − some scholars say in the middle of a verse — with a question (the one quoted above) that seems to trail off into the unknown.
I concluded my Dvar Torah by observing that Yom Kippur, too, ends with a question. Will we maintain our spiritual connection as we confront life in all its perplexing complexities? Will we forgive ourselves, and those around us, when we – and they – fall short? Like Jonah, each of us has traveled to our own personal Sheol and back. As we walk out into the starlit night, the year ahead is an unfinished clause, a question that each of us, in our way, must answer.
As I stepped down from the Bimah, I saw my son in the back row, listening intently as the Hebrew chanting began.
As for the name Jonah: What better appellation for a child? A question mark . . . an unfinished clause. A prophet of second chances. While Judah may mean thankfulness, Jonah is about forgiving, about the propensity to run away from difficult tasks, to forget to be grateful, to fall short of our own and others’ expectations. Jonah reminds us that we all, at times, need a second chance.
Of all the names to give a child, Jonah may be the most prophetic.
The most human.