I have a new hero, and it’s a bit embarrassing.
Embarrassing to admit that I’ve studied and taught this character for decades and always assumed he was the anti-hero, the person we shouldn’t become, the epitome of someone who was impelled by a mistaken zeal to lead a mistaken life.
My anti-hero has become heroic.
I’m talking about Jonah.
We read the Book of Jonah in the afternoon service of Yom Kippur. Jonah is the image in our minds’ eye as we plea to God for our lives, watching the gates of life closing, at the Ne’ila service.
Why did I think Jonah was the anti-hero? God tells Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh and implore the people to repent – and Jonah says no thanks, he won’t do it, he disagrees with God’s wisdom. He doesn’t want to give the people an opportunity to repent because he doesn’t believe their repentance will be sincere and authentic. God’s plan does not align with the plan of Jonah, the prophet.
Rather than follow God’s assignment, Jonah runs away, boards a ship, and eventually tells the sailors to throw him overboard. He will do anything to escape what God has chosen and commanded him to do.
I always thought the message of the book of Jonah was: You cannot and should not run away from God. You need to surrender to God’s program.
Now I’m not so sure.
I’m asking myself: After Jonah refused to follow God’s order, why didn’t God just choose someone else? Why do we need to hear this story of not submitting to God’s voice? And furthermore, Jonah, till the very end, does not relent and concede that God’s instructions were right and just. The book ends with a question. Why do we have a book in which the protagonist never seems to get the message?!
But that is precisely the point.
The book of Jonah is trying to convey a complicated truth. Life is more complex than just following and obeying the word of God.
God created the world in which there are two truths: The external voice of God and the internal voice of the soul. God gave us a divine soul that conveys to each of us a very private and personal truth. God communicates to us through both channels. Our inner voice, the voice of our soul, is also the voice of God. The struggle to harmonize these two voices is “wrestling with God” – as Jacob did, earning the name Yisrael. This is the unique spiritual quality of the Jewish People. We are not simply obedient. At our peak spiritual prayer experience – the amida (silent standing prayer), we neither prostrate ourselves nor kneel; we stand erect and tall before God. We do not relinquish our own truth.
Jonah listens to the voice of God while remaining faithful to his truth throughout the story.
In the end, Jonah remains a flawed figure, a flawed prophet. On one hand, the Midrash relates that during a moment of ecstatic ego dissolution, Jonah receives ruach hakodesh (the holy spirit) and becomes a prophet, hearing the voice of God. Yet, afterwards, Jonah cannot reconcile God’s message with his own inner truth. He never harmonizes these two voices of truth. He may not be a hero, but there is a heroic element in his determination and commitment to stay true to his own divine inner voice.
The educational message of the book of Jonah is paramount today. We educators need to help our students hear both of these voices. We need to help them reflect, identify, and struggle to harmonize them. For centuries, Jewish educators primarily instructed their students to hear the external voice of God as expressed in our tradition and wisdom literature. This approach does not work in today’s world.
If we only focus on conveying an external truth while denying the inner truth of each student, then we will inevitably disconnect our students both from our holy books and from themselves. During my tenure as an educator during the last 30 years I have asked countless young Jews why they have chosen to leave Judaism. Most often they have replied: “There was no place for me to hear my own voice. My teachers (and parents) did not hear me, did not see me, and did not allow me to express my own voice, my own truth.”
The Book of Jonah is read as the sun sets on Yom Kippur, as we are taking vows for the coming year in exchange for our lives.
Perhaps Jonah’s journey is meant to remind us, amid our vows, to not lose or betray our unique voice: the voice of our soul, which God implanted in us. To remind us that the never-ending struggle to harmonize our soul’s truth with God’s message is exactly where we are meant to be.
This article is cross posted on the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge blog.