(1:4) But HaShem placed a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty
tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.
The beginning of our verse tells of a calm and stable situation. His
escape apparently successful, his ship out on the high seas, his new
community accepting and responsive, Yonah finally finds the peace that he
so craved. But, as so often in life, G-d intervenes and denies the prophet
the escape that he so eagerly sought. He unerringly strikes at the very
pillars that supported Yonah's escape; he removes precisely that upon
which Yonah relied.
Yonah set up for himself a cozy little refugeas following:
1. "(Yonah said:) I escape to the sea, place where His Glory is not
found" (Pirke D'Rabbi Eliezer)". Yonah thought that he would be safe at
sea; correspondingly, "And Hashem placed a great wind unto the sea…".
The Sages tell us (see Radak) that this storm surrounded the ship from all
sides while, at the same time, other ships passed unmolested all around
it. The miraculous nature of this storm is supported by the unusual
phrasing (placed a great storm), and the sailors casting of lots. Casting
lots is not the usual way of dealng with a storm. Clearly these expert
survivors of many a sea trouble saw something unique and very different in
2. " …and there was a mighty tempest". We had in the past discussed the
fact that unexpressed prophecy burns like fire within a prophet, giving
him no rest, overwhelming his senses, his sense of propriety, at times
even his compliance with the habits and customs of men (see Yrmia 20, 9).
It is probably this feature of prophecy that accounts for the frequent
perception by the uninitiated that prophets are "madmen". We do not know
whether the agitation ever abates in someone who consciously refuses to
answer his prophetic call. What is clear is that the storm outside
mirrored and reinforced the tempest inside. The raging and storming of
which we read represents the inner psychological state of the hapless
prophet, again caught in Almighty's grasp.
3. Yonah had found solace and succor in the company of the seafarers and
now this refuge was in danger for "…the boat thought itself at the point
of breaking". As the commentators (Radak and Ibn Ezra) point out, the
device of using an inanimate objects to refer to sentient beings is fairly
common. In our case it means that all the people in the boat recognized
its imminent destruction. The description of sailors as "the boat" also
points out the high level of unity that they achieved under Yonah's
influence; no longer a ragged band of sailors from all over the world, the
men were now the boat and the boat became the men.
What would we expect Yonah to do? Will he cry out to G-d in prayer? Will
he admit that he was wrong? Will he promise to obey from now on an
forever? Yonah did none of these.
The psychologists teach us that denial is one of the most powerful
qualities of the mind. Those in the helping professions tell and retell
most remarkable and surprising stories of their experiences with its the
power and range in the face of most undeniable evidence. The ability of
the human mind to completely ignore all evidence contrary to its cherished
assumptions and beliefs does not cease to amaze and perplex. Not even the
greatest storm and most evident and present danger is guaranteed to move
some individuals from their moorings.
The destruction and unraveling of Yonah's plan was complete. In but a few
minutes his refuge is to be no more. How does the prophet react?
"…and Yonah descended to the depths of the vessel and he went to sleep
This enigmatic passage occasioned much surprise and many explanations over
the ages. Imagine, a rolling boat, clanging chains and shouting men, the
roaring waves and the cracking of wood - and Yonah goes to sleep?
Let us for a moment consider the significance sleeping under these
circumstances. I think it obvious that sleep in this situation represents
withdrawal. This prophet who, unlike other prophets did not argue with G-
d, who ran away from the challenge, again retreated. Where there is no
physical escape, there always remains an option to escape into dreams.
When reality cannot be denied, fantasy can still take its place. It is for
nothing that the boat is now called 'sfinah', the only occurrence of this
word in the Tanakh. This word is related to the Hebrew root "sfn" -
hidden, covered, obscured. It is the most appropriate word to use for one
who descends into the "sfina" to escape.
We have barely began to explore the meaning of Yonah's sleep. There is
much more that needs to be said about it and it will be said in the coming
lessons. What should begin to be coming in sight, however, is the
relationship between denial and repentance. As Yonah's story unfolds, we
encounter the intertwining of withdrawal and engagement, denial of fault
and admission of sin, sleep/ death and rebirth/ redemption. Over the
tapestry of the raging ocean we will begin to see the awesome towering
presence of the prophet Elijah. The Sages say that Yonah was the son of
the Zorephite woman, born through his blessing and by his breathrevived
from the dead (See the discussion in Abarbanel to 3:4 and Kings I,17). We
will see and analyze how Elija responded to the apparent defeat of his
mission, when everything he had worked for seemed to be lost. (For those
who cannot wait, you can peak into Kings, 18:4-5). Of course, these men
were immeasurably greater than we; yet, We will learn that being a prophet
was not easy and that on their much higher spiritual level they also
struggled and we will discover in the lives of prophets lessons for us
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.