Before we explore the main topic of this week's lecture, I share an
exchange with a member of this chabura.
Question: Why does Yonah tell the men to throw him overboard when
he, in effect, makes these good men murderers? Why does he not jump off
It is a great question. Some commentators (see Malbim) in fact, say that
Yonah descended into the bottom of the ship so that he is killed first
when the water pours in and the others will then be saved.
I would suggest that the issue goes deeper. We should ask why, in the
first place, the sailors were being threatened with death because Yonah
was on the ship; they certainly did not do anything wrong?
The answer is, I think, along the lines that we have been developing here.
Once Yonah joined this little society and even became its spirit and
inspiration, all its members were now responsible and guarantors for one
another. They all could be held culpable for his sins. This is why they
had to disengage from him and eject him from their group. He could have
jumped overboard but it would not have freed them for they needed to be
set free from association with him.
Now to the subject of today's lesson.
And Yonah descended into the bottom of the ship and went into deep
What is the meaning of this strange reaction to the events taking place on
the deck above? The tempest growth stronger and fiercer, the ship rocks
and groans, the wood splinters and the sails flap and come apart. Here
below, Yonah lays himself to sleep and falls into deep slumber. How could
one fall asleep under such circumstances? Was this a result of emotional
exhaustion or was it the last escape of a man who had nowhere else to run?
Certain commentators (Mahri Kara) suggest that what is described here as
sleep is profound and utter depression that enveloped Yonah as gloom
settled over his mind and heart. A man of highest caliber, of profound
spiritual and intellectual gifts, he was finally and completely bested.
All rationalizations and theories crushed, all rebellious romanticism
melted away before the might of the storm and He who sent it. Now, all
illusions fell away. He was but a puny human being, a nothing before the
grandeur of the Master of Nature. Sleep was death and death was the only
remaining escape. As the storm howled outside, Yonah sought death and he
found refuge in slumber, its closest cousin (I am indebted to S. Peters in
her Learning to Read Midrash, Urim Publications, 2004 p. 66 and Y.
Bachrach, see below, for this insight.)
His reaction was not all that unusual. Consider how Eliahu and Moshe
responded in a somewhat similar set of circumstances. As we pointed out in
the past, Yonah was not only a student of Eliahu but the child of the
widow who he had revived from death. Eliahu literally breathed his spirit
into the child (Kings I, 19). Is it surprising then that Yonah followed in
his master's footsteps? The first one, to my knowledge to draw attention
to this similarity was R. Dovid Luria in his classic commentary to Pirkei
D'Rabbi Eliezer. He writes this (Ch. 10, 32): "That is, that in the
suffering of his soul he he fell asleep, similar to what it says by
Eliahu "and he asked his soul to die"… and he lay down and fell asleep
under one of the bushes". You might want to review Class 3 at this point
for more on the comparison of Yonah and Eliahu.
The motif of death and resurrection as it related to sin and repentance is
important to understanding the message of the entire book for that is
precisely what Yonah is about to undergo - death at sea and rebirth in the
belly of the fish. The Sages tell us that the fish was pregnant (see
Radak), implying precisely this idea.
Here are the relevant verses form Kings I, 19.
Please recall that Eliahu escaped into the desert from the wicked queen
Izevel after his great triumph over the priests of Baal. At pinnacle of
his success, he suddenly lost everything. No one defended him; he had to
run for his life and found himself alone in the desert. All his work
seemingly for nought, all his efforts to bring Israel back to Hashem
And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beer-
sheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there.
But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat
down under a broom-tree; and he requested for himself that he might die;
and said: 'It is enough; now, O HaShem, take away my life; for I am not
better than my fathers.'
And he lay down and slept under a broom-tree; and, behold, an angel
touched him, and said unto him: 'Arise and eat.'
Sleep as death.
It is interesting and significant that Moshe also asked for death when he
experienced what must have appeared as complete failure of his prophetic
mission (See Bamidbar 11:14-17). Though on the surface one might be
tempted to understand this as merely a psychological reaction to extreme
stress, underlying it are essential questions about repentance. We are
quite used to the idea of repentance - tshuva as one of the basic ideas of
Judaism but it is in truth completely illogical and seemingly against
nature and common sense. In the words of Mesilas Yesharim (Ch.4): "For
according to the Attribute of Justice, it would be fitting that the sinner
be immediately punished and with full measure of wrath…for in truth, how
can a man fix that which he already damaged and the sin had been done?
Behold, he killed a man, he committed adultery, how can this be repaired?
Can that which had been done be made to disappear from reality?" Yet, the
Torah teaches us that it can and that it does. Without repentance there is
nothing but death; with it one can repeatedly choose life. As Rabbi Y.
Bachrach points out in his classic "Yonah and Eliahu" ( Mercaz Shapiro,
6th edition, 1984, p. 50) the relationship between Divine Mercy and
Justice preoccupied all prophets "for it is at the pinnacle of how man
recognizes G-d (in this world) and they were willing to give their life
for it". This question is basic to understanding and internalizing the
concept of repentance - how could one possibly correct that which is
already done and long passed. There is a great mystery in man's ability to
repent and rebuild and it translates into the same mystery as death and
rebirth, G-d's Justice and His Mercy.
Though at the end of his road, with no hope in sight, Yonah did not give
in for, as we explained in Class 4, he could not make peace with the world
that run according to the Attribute of Kindness. "They asked Prophecy: How
is sinner to be punished? It replied, "The person who sinned, he shall die
(Ezek 18:4)." They asked the Holy One Blessed be He: "How is the sinner to
be punished?". He answered: "Let him do repentance and I will accept it as
it is written: "Good and upright is Hashem, therefore he will teach the
sinners the way" (Yerushalmi Makkos 2:6, geniza version). The book of
Yonah is first and foremost about this central question of religious life.