The Heart of Darkness.
Yonah - 3: 8-10
Who knows, G-d may turn and change His mind, and turn back from His
so that we do not perish (3,9).
The King had called his people: "Let each man turn away from his evil ways
and from the injustice which is in his hand (3,8)." He now expresses a
hope that this repentance may be accepted and save his people from assured
destruction. This reading of the verse as expressing doubt and hope, is
found in Radak and Ibn Ezra and it is supported by a very similar
sentiment expressed by the sailors during the storm in Chapter 1,
6, "Perhaps G-d will give it thought and we will not perish". An almost
identical verse is found in Yoel 2, 14 and there it is also supported by
(The verse itself is quite ambiguous in the original Hebrew for it can
also be read as: "He who knows will repent and G-d will change His mind
and turn back from His wrath…". This statement is much more emphatic that
forgiveness must always follow repentance. This understanding, shared by
Targum, Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Mahari Kara is supported in the Yonah verse by
its cantillation marks which place a separating stop, a kind of a comma,
after "repent and not after "knows", so that it reads, "He who knows will
repent, and G-d will change His mind…" rather than, "Who knows, G-d may
repent and change His mind…".)
The apparent insecurity and lack of certainty that Hashem will accept
sincere repentance is in remarkable contrast with the assurance expressed
by many other Scriptural sources. Compare it, for example, with the
assurance of complete acceptance of his repentance exhibited by David in
The contradiction to one of the most accepted tenets of religion, that
sincere repentance is always answered, is noted by Radak to Yoel 2,14, who
writes: "Even though we said that it is one of the attributes of Blessed G-
d that he repents of evil and this is beyond doubt, still, if the sins are
great, He may not repent until minor punishment is meted out…".
The insecurity expressed by the sailors, the inhabitant of Nineveh and
even in the book of Yoel may be a reflection of the distance and a gulf
from G-d that they experienced. One who had given G-d nary a thought,
suffers a profound sense of alienation and dislocation when suddenly
thrust before his Presence. The sailors and the Ninevites were shaken out
of their complacency and their acceptance of injustice and callousness as
normal order of things; even the Israelites, in the midst of the plague of
locusts, felt very far from G-d's grace and forgiveness. Without warning
and unprepared, they abruptly perceived themselves and their life as G-d
sees them, not how they thought of themselves. Suddenly, they were no
longer paragons of virtue and pinnacle of civilization; now they saw
themselves as puny and woefully stained human beings standing in judgment
before the Most High.
This abrupt reversal in self- perception is a part of the conversion
experience well-attested in psychological literature since William James.
The complete and total reversal plunges the self into utter darkness that
can only be inverted by surrender of the hitherto most precious, basic and
ingrained components of personality, a sacrifice of self in order to save
oneself. In fear and trembling, man surrenders before overwhelming might
of G-d and offers up parts of himself in shaky hope for salvation and
survival. There is little security, love and sense of uplift in this kind
of experience, although it may initially feel so. Surely it is better than
nothing; yet, it is full of darkness and it is so, so tempting for
darkness to come in.
Most Jewish thinkers, with a few notable exceptions, have seen repentance
of this kind as suspect. On the deepest level, it demands a form of self-
death, giving up- and denying a part of one's personality, past history
and nature. It is often accompanied later by deep regret and a sense of
loss, grief and depression or, in an attempt to deny that loss, by
fanatical intolerance and hostility turned outwards as religious
intolerance. Sometimes the penitent, unable to bear the loss, quickly
rejoins his past life. At other times, he or she remains profoundly
conflicted; in lieu of a life-affirming and uplifting religious
experience, conversion-repentance leaves the individual to dwell in
darkness and loss. Even if the change is stable, the real work of inner
change only begins, not ends, at the point of conversion experience (See
more on this in the beginning of Orot Hateshuva by R. A.I.Kook). One has
to change one's way, not only one's actions.
As we will see, G-d willing, next week, the Rabbis were deeply suspicious
of Nineve's repentance. It seems to me that the book of Yonah deliberately
sets up a contrast between Yonah and the Ninevites. Yonah certainly did
not repent all at once. He resisted and kicked and screamed every step of
the way. Yet, as he confronted one cherished belief and assumption after
another, he changed inside in ways that were much more profound,
meaningful and lasting than if he had undergone a sudden conversion.
Yonah's long process of inner change is contrasted with the quick and
unexpected change of heart of the sailors in Chapter 1 and the Ninevites
in Chapter 3.
The King of Nineveh understood that repentance is more than a conversion
experience. He asked his people to return the "injustice" in their hands
and he also called them "to turn each man from his evil way".
Interestingly and significantly, they complied only in regard to "And G-d
saw their deeds that they turned away from their wicked ways…"; it does
not appear that they "left the injustice in their hands" behind at all.
The Rabbis debate the meaning of this omission. Next week we will take up
the disagreement of the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud in this regard
and the two different understandings of repentance that underlie their
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.