Book of Jonah
I always loved the story of Jonah and the whale. Why do we read it during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Let's recap the story: God tells Jonah to go to Ninveh and to prophesy that in 40 days, God will destroy the city. Instead, Jonah goes to Jaffa, boards a ship, and sails for Tarshish. A great storm arises. Frightened, Jonah goes to sleep in the ship's hold. The sailors somehow recognize that Jonah is responsible for the storm. They throw him overboard, and the sea becomes calm.
A great fish swallows Jonah. Then three days later, God commands the fish to spit Jonah back out upon dry land. God tells Jonah, "Let's try it again. Go to Ninveh and tell them in 40 days I will destroy the city."
The story is a metaphor for our struggle for clarity. Jonah is the soul. The soul is assigned to sanctify the world, and draw it close to God. But we are seduced by the world's beauty. (Jaffa in Hebrew means "beauty.") The ship is the body, the sea is the world, and the storm is life's pains and troubles. God hopes confrontation with mortality will inspire us to examine our lives. But Jonah's is the more common response - we go to sleep (have a beer, turn on the television). The sailors throw Jonah overboard - this is death. The fish that swallows Jonah is the grave. Jonah is spat back upon the land - reincarnation. And the Almighty tells us to try again. "Go sanctify the world and bring it close to God."
Each of us is born with an opportunity and a challenge. We each have unique gifts to offer the world and unique challenges to perfect ourselves. If we leave the task unfinished the first time, we get a second chance. Jonah teaches us that repentance can reverse a harsh decree. If the residents of Ninveh had the ability to correct their mistakes and do teshuva, how much more so do we have the ability to correct our former mistakes and do teshuva.
(source: "The Bible for the Clueless But Curious," by Rabbi Nachum Braverman)