A prophet escapes

The biblical book of Jonah, read during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, relates one of the most moving and fantastic tales of the Bible. It is the story of a prophet, Jonah, living in the year 700 B.C.E. who was determined to run from G‑d. G‑d called on him to travel from Jerusalem to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh1 and influence its large population to repent from its immoral and corrupt ways.

Instead, Jonah went to the old port city Jaffa and boarded a ship voyaging to Tunisia, Africa2 where he thought he would find respite from G‑d.3

"Then G‑d cast a mighty wind toward the sea," the Bible relates, "and there was a great tempest in the sea, so that the ship seemed likely to be wrecked." Jonah accepted upon himself the blame for the storm threatening their lives, since he had attempted to run from G‑d. Jonah suggested to them to heave him into the sea, "and the sea will calm down from upon you, for I know that that it is because of me that this great tempest is upon you."

"So they lifted Jonah and heaved him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging." While in the sea, a large fish swallowed Jonah, where he remained for three days.4

Finally, Jonah takes on his divine mission, traveling to the Assyrian capital and causing a moral transformation in the hearts of its people. An evil civilization committed itself to redefining its life and relationships. But when Jonah discovers that G‑d had indeed accepted the population's repentance and would not destroy the city, he is grieved. G‑d then proceeds to demonstrate to Jonah, in a rather creative way, his error.

This concludes the four short but incredibly rich chapters of the book of Jonah.

Two layers of Torah

...what is the relevance of this episode to our lives?

Why do we read this story on Yom Kippur? And what is the relevance of this episode to our lives?

One of the most fascinating elements about Torah is that all of its stories contain, in addition to their literal concrete interpretation, a psychological and spiritual interpretation. Every detail of every tale recorded in Torah contains an allegorical and metaphorical interpretation, symbolizing an event that transpires continually within the human heart. The sages and rabbis have, over the course of 3,000 years, decoded the inner metaphysical meaning of most of the Torah's stories.

The same is true, of course, regarding the story of Jonah and the fish. In addition to the simple, literal meaning of this moving episode, taking place in a particular milieu at a specific location, this tale should also be viewed as a metaphor for a mental and spiritual story still transpiring today. Indeed, the Zohar states, that the story of Jonah is really a story about "the entire life span of human beings in this world."

It is this inner story of Jonah that I wish to explore in the continuation of this essay.

Journey of a soul

The name Jonah in Hebrew — Yonah — means a dove, representing the inner soul of man, that fragment of truth, that little piece of G‑d that constitutes the core of human identity.5 The dove is the only animal that once it encounters its mate, remains forever loyal, never exchanging it for anybody else. Similarly, the soul embodies that part of the human animal that may run and hide, but ultimately never replaces the truth of G‑d for the pleasures of the material world.

Nineveh, the large and powerful and corrupt city, is a metaphor for the planet we inhabit, filled with petty politics, vanity and corruption. Jonah, the human soul, is dispatched by G‑d on a mission to revolutionize the earthly landscape; to introduce the light of G‑dliness and holiness into every aspect of terrestrial life. Man is a messenger who carries a message; man is a witness to the presence of the living G‑d.

Denying your reality

...very often, we choose to run from our life's mission...

But very often, we choose to run from our life's mission, rejecting our identity as witnesses. We embark on a ship, represented by the body containing the human soul, just as a ship contains its passengers, and attempt to escape, physically and emotionally, to a place where we can more easily embrace the illusion that we are bereft of mission and message, that we are no more than creatures seeking satiation and self-gratification. We sail blithely through the waters of life, ignoring the inner voice of G‑d, all the while trying to convince ourselves that we are happy.


Everything seems fine and dandy, until turbulence begins to shake up our lives and palm pilots. The turbulence of the sea in the Jonah story is a metaphor for the tumultuous circumstances that life presents, threatening the very survival of our "ship" — our body and existence. At this point, many people awake from their illusion.

Yet there are those who, precisely at such moments, become even more detached from their authentic reality. "The sailors became frightened, and they cried out, each man to his god... But Jonah went down to the ship's holds; he lay down, and fell asleep." Jonah, according to this interpretation, represents the human being who may see the world turn over, but he continues to sleep, making believe that all is normal, that his life is a success story. And the greater the turmoil, the deeper the chaos, the more this person sinks into the muck of his slumber, oblivious to the disintegration of his reality.

A tickle

At this point, man usually experiences a tickle from his divine consciousness. "The shipmaster approached him, and said to him, 'How can you sleep so soundly? Arise! Call to your G‑d! "

The shipmaster, the captain of the body, represents the Good Inclination, the little spark of G‑d residing within the human soul. This spark calls out to the soul, asking, "How can you sleep so soundly?" How long can you be in denial of your universe gone mad? How much longer will you make believe that you don't get it?

"Remember from where your soul came," the inner voice speaks to a Jonah who eagerly craves to return to his sleep. "Remember your authentic occupation and from what people you are," it says to him. Stop denying who you are; run not from your destiny as a witness to the voice at Sinai charging you with the mission of paving a road through the jungle of history. Escape not your calling to dig and uncover the divine art in every aspect of life.

Resignation and surrender

A strange and melancholy honesty takes over Jonah. His moral instinct finds perverse expression in his suggestion to the sailors to throw him into the sea to rid themselves of the burden imposed by his existence.

This represents the profound existential depression that takes over many a soul upon discovering that it can never truly convince itself that G‑d is nonexistent. Caught in a limbo state, afraid to embrace G‑d fully and unable to run from G‑d, the soul resigns itself to death. "Just get rid of me," Jonah cries to the voices within. "Bury my soul."

At this devastating moment, the human being surrenders his last vestige of spiritual dignity, allowing his soul to be swept away by the raging waters of lust and addiction. What is even worse, he allows his human identity to become swallowed and converted into an amphibian creature. Ceasing to see himself as different from an animal, he is "free" at last to truly ignore the presence of G‑d.

The Hebrew term used in the story for a fish, daga, can also be translated as anxiety, states the Zohar. This represents an alternative emotional response to the turmoil of life. The person throws himself into materialistic pursuits, so that the extraordinary anxiety and stress involved in climbing the financial ladder eclipse the deeper anxiety of his soul. He allows himself to become swallowed up completely in his career until he forgets that he is a human being.


And yet, paradoxically, at this very moment, the soul, for the first time, encounters G‑d.

"From the belly of hell I cried out," declares Jonah. Until the soul reached the belly of hell, it was busy running from G‑d and from itself. Only when man reaches his nadir can he suddenly discover the presence of a living and caring G‑d. Why?

Because a soul, by its very nature, can never remain in one place. It must always be in a state of movement. The only question is in which direction it moves: Is it running to G‑d or from Him? Therefore, once the soul hits rock bottom and can no longer move downward, it must begin to move upward.

The new challenge

Man's rediscovery of the truth — that he is here on a mission — causes the fish to spit out the soul. Man abandons his addictions and promiscuity. He embarks now on his journey to make a difference in people's lives, to bring holiness and G‑dliness into his own life as well as into the life of a mundane and egocentric society.

Yet, soon the soul becomes distressed over G‑d's loyalty to our world. The soul, once discovering the truth of G‑dliness, craves to remain in a sacred environment, removed from the filth of many human environments. "Why must I deal with so much profane ugliness?" cries the soul. "Am I supposed to dedicate the remainder of my life to understand the pettiness and politics of small human beings"?

For this is the predictable pattern: After the soul discovers G‑d's living presence, it craves to become an ascetic, to escape the confinements of a lowly universe and melt away in His Infinite Light.
The soul...must learn to emulate G‑d and embrace the world, not escape it.
At this stage, G‑d reveals to Jonah, to the soul, that by infusing the unholy with the holy the ultimate plan of G‑d is fulfilled. Only in the muck of planet Earth does the glory of the Divine-human partnership shine forth. The soul, despite its natural resistance, must learn to emulate G‑d and embrace the world, not escape it.

Two types of sleepers

So why do we read this story on Yom Kippur?

For there are two types of human sleepers. There are those who find themselves in a lighter sleep, who with a gush of inspiration or turbulence will awake; and those who are so submerged in their slumber that even the most powerful explosion will not budge them.

The first category of people wake up via the sound of the Rosh Hashanah shofar. The primitive, piercing sounds of the ram's horn, stemming from the simple primitive depth of the human core, inspire the soul to return to who it really is.

But there are those people who sleep through everything, even the mighty sound of the shofar. The ship is about to break, but they are asleep. The Titanic is about to go under and they are stretched out on their first-class deck chair smoking cigars, oblivious and numb to reality.

September 11th, massacres in Israel — the worst bloodshed in modern Jewish history — but they are asleep. Children being blown to pieces and a world caught in the grip of fear and confusion, yet they are busy playing the game of vanity.

Israel's political leadership has, over the past 10 [now 20 – Ed.] years, been paralyzed by the mythical fantasy that if it tolerates evil, the world will finally love them, a myth that has brought rivers of blood flowing through the streets of the Holy Land. But despite all of this, some of us are still asleep. We continue making believe that life is, more or less, normal.

This is the profile of a person who can hear 100 blasts of a shofar, but he just puts the alarm clock on snooze and turns over in bed.

The day that tolerates no cover-ups

Then comes Yom Kippur.

This is the one day a year that does not tolerate any facades. On this holiest day of the calendar, all the veils are lifted! The sheer truth of the living G‑d breaks through all the walls, reaching even those who have tucked themselves away under a myriad of blankets.

On Yom Kippur, even those who have sunk into the deepest of slumbers can hear the voice of the captain, "How can you sleep so soundly? Arise! Call to your G‑d!"

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