Jonah—a midrash on responsibility

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Yonah and, in many congregations, spend some time discussing it through the long hours of the fast. It seems like there’s something new to discover every year, so this year let’s do a quick review of Yonah in light of the middah of responsibility.

As the book opens, Yonah doesn’t seem to want the responsibility that Hashem gives him, to “get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out to it that their wickedness has ascended before me” (1:2). Instead of going up to Nineveh, Yonah goes down . . . down to Yafo, down into a ship bound for Tarshish (the exact opposite direction from Nineveh), down into the ship’s hold, and down for a nap, while the ship’s crew are fighting for their lives against a mighty storm (1:3–6). The pagan ship captain finally has to yell at Yonah to “get up” and pray, using the same imperative, qum, that Hashem used in verse 1.

But prayers are to no avail, and Yonah’s downward journey away from his God-given responsibility continues. The verbal root yarad was repeated four times in quick succession, ending with Yonah’s nap in the hold of the boat. Now the sailors toss him out of the boat to appease Hashem and Yonah sinks to the bottom of the sea: “to the base of the mountains yaradti, I have descended” (2:7). Yonah “hits bottom”—initiating a concept that will make sense to countless recovering addicts—turns around, and finally accepts his responsibility to “Get up and go to Nineveh (3:1-3),” as God commands, with the same phrase that opened the whole book, and the third and final qum.

So Yonah will go to Nineveh and proclaim whatever God commands, and we’ll discover what kept him from accepting this responsibility in the first place.

Yonah proclaims, Nineveh repents, and God changes his mind about destroying it. Then Yonah takes on responsibility that’s not his—worrying about why God decides to forgive the wicked city, and whether this is a good idea. Apparently such worries had kept him from accepting his responsibility to proclaim God’s word earlier: “O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (4:2).

We often avoid fulfilling our real responsibilities by taking on responsibilities that aren’t ours. I mentioned the concept of hitting bottom, often heard in discussing addiction. In my occasional work with recovering (and not-yet-recovering) addicts, I’m struck by how many are rather controlling people. Some guy can’t get his own drinking, with all its consequences, under control, but doesn’t hesitate to tell his wife how she ought to do the dishes or discipline the kids, neither of which he’s willing to do himself. He gets so frustrated with trying to control her that he goes out to have a few beers and disappear for the night, obviously dropping all his own responsibilities on the way.

So, Yonah questions God’s greater purposes, which are far beyond him, and avoids his own responsibility, which is close at hand.

The lesson for us in this season of repentance is that we might need to turn away from the things beyond our control, and hence beyond our responsibility, and focus on the things for which God will really hold us responsible, even if we’re tempted to run from them. 

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