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Conclusion of Chapter 2
The prayer of Yonah is full of contrasts. From heights to depths, from
despair to exultation,…and from speaking directly to G-d to describing Him
in third person. It is interesting that most of the psalm is in second
person but indirect and descriptive sentences are found in the beginning,
the middle and the end of Yonah's prayer. They are;
3. And he said: I called out of mine affliction unto HaShem, and He
answered me; out of the belly of the nether-world cried I, and Thou
heardest my voice.
8. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered HaShem; and my
prayer came in unto Thee, into Thy holy temple.
10. But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving; that
which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is of HaShem
The seesawing in prayer between second and third person mode of address is
peculiar to the second chapter of Yonah but is a general feature of Jewish
prayer. Our blessings usually start off directed to G-d - "Blessed are
Thou…". However, they immediately veer away into the indirect and
descriptive, for example - "the King of the Universe, who brings bread
from the earth". The same is true of prayer. Students of Jewish liturgy
often find the foreignness of free interchange of second and third person
to be one of the most significant barriers to understanding and
internalizing Jewish mode of worship. Is there something in this
peculiarity that can help us to understand Yonah?
One of the earliest thinkers to take up this question was Rabbi Solomon
ben Aderet, the Rashbo (d. 1310 A.C.E.). He writes in one of his
letters: "You have known already that there are two foundations and
everything is built on them. The first one is that G-d's existence is
necessary and non-contingent, of which there can be no doubt. The second -
that the full truth of His existence cannot be known by anyone other than
Himself. He may appear as if existing in revealed reality but in truth His
essence is hidden and unattainable to anyone. In order to impress upon us
these two corner-stones of religion, they (the rabbis) set up the text of
blessings to express both the revealed and the hidden. We begin
with "Blessed are Thou" like a person who is talking to another person
right in front of him. We then switch to "Who has commanded us with his
ordinances…" - for the essence of his being is hidden and unattainable?
(Responsa 5, 52, see also Ramban to Exodus 16, 26).
The Rashbo's thrust is pedagogical, not devotional. It remained for the
kabbalistic masters to reveal the relevance of this liturgical phenomena
to individual worship (Tanya 1,50; Tzidkas Hatzadik, 4). They drew upon
the description of angels' service in Ezekiel 1,14 and 22 to conceptualize
it in terms of touching a profound reality and immediately withdrawing
14. And the Chayos ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of
22. And over the heads of the Chayos there was the likeness of a
firmament, like the color of the terrible ice, stretched forth over their
Ezekiel describes a certain boundary above which G-d's Presence can be
glimpsed. A type of advanced angels, called Chaos, can for a moment
extend "their heads" above the barrier and glimpse something of this
presence. Overawed and overwhelmed by what they see, they immediately
withdraw and retreat. The whole process is blindingly quick, like a flash
of lightning. The use of lightning imagery is significant for it brings to
us the concept of spiritual insight as a brief but intense illumination
which we can tolerate but for a moment. The power and brightness of this
flush in the darkness ensures that we cannot hold on to it for long.
However, armed with the memory of this glimpse we can return to the
darkness of everyday life and illuminate the path upon which we must walk
(Rambam, Introduction to the Guide).
The relevance of second and third person mode of address to Yonah is, I
think, clear. The prophet began his prayer, alienated from his G-d, for he
had ran away from Him. The flow of prayer brings him to the realization of
his predicament and is able to raise his face to Him in prayer. Yet,
bitterness is not fully gone and soon enough the alienation creeps back
in; he finds that he cannot talk to G-d but only about Him. Still this is
an immeasurable improvement over sullen silence. The seeds of repentance
have sprouted and germinated. Although the prophet ends his prayer in
third person, he accedes to G-d's will. The door has been opened and
eventually he will deliver his complaint directly to Hashem's ear.
We are about to proceed to the second part of the book of Yonah. Much of
what we are about to read can only been understood if we keep this fact in
mind. We find Yonah oscillating between accepting and disobeying, reaching
and retreating, understanding and obstinately negating.
It is difficult, truly difficult to break finally and decisively through
the straightjacket of denial and self-delusion. Yonah knew that salvation
comes from Hashem but he couldn't ask Him for it directly. He ended his
prayer in third person: "Salvation is from the L-rd." So often we
encounter people who seem aware of their faults and deficiencies and
appear determined not to be entrapped by them and yet they are, over and
over again. Slipping and rising, realizing and forgetting the insights so
laboriously gained, life is, as R. Nachman of Brelov teaches, not a circle
but a spiral. One rises and falls and rises and then finds oneself at the
same point - only on a higher plane. Each person has his or her own test
and they do not change in essence as one progresses spiritually. The
challenge of small person may be his appetite; when he becomes a great
saint he may instead lust after knowledge and wisdom. A kind of desire
that may appear to a little person to be great righteousness, may be
considered self-indulgence and a shortcoming for a saint. Our destiny is
to face same challenges repeatedly; our goal is to elevate the level of
life's challenges as high as our strength allows.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.