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The Book of Jonah is unique in that it is read as Yom Kippur approaches its culmination at Mincha. The obvious connection between Yom Kippur and Jonah is that the concept of teshuva is a prevalent theme in the story. However, it seems that in addition to this general focus on teshuva, there are valuable lessons that can be learnt from the behavior of Jonah that can deepen our understanding of Torah in general, and teshuva in particular.
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchiv (known as the Brisker Rav) was once talking with someone who was placing the blame on the Jewish people’s problems on other people. The Brisker Rav argued and he backed up his opinion on an incident in the Book of Jonah: Jonah has left the Land of Israel on a ship in order to avoid having to warn the people of Nineveh to repent. While he is on the ship, a terrible storm begins to rage, and the idol worshipping sailors ask Jonah what they should do. He answers that they should throw him off the ship, “for I know that it is because of me this storm is upon you1.” The Brisker Rav pointed out that Jonah was a Prophet of God. Yes, he did err in trying to evade his mission, but was nonetheless a great tzaddik. Everyone else on the ship was an idol worshipper. In Jonah’s situation, he could have easily blamed the sailors for the drastic situation. Yet he did not do that. He recognized that he was at fault and he took responsibility for it. The Brisker Rav continued, “This is why we read the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon. There will always be people around us whom we can identify as the cause of the storm, and it is very easy to do so. However, Jonah teaches us that we would do better to recognize our own role in the matter, for that is something we can do something about2.”
The practical lesson is obvious here; when bad things happen around us, it is always easy to ascribe blame to others, and it may well be true that they have some level of guilt. However, the Brisker Rav teaches us that this is not our business. Rather, we should focus on our aspect of responsibility for the situation and focus on that, rather than being busy criticizing others. This is a vital component of teshuva, for if one does not learn lessons from the events surrounding him, then he is failing to heed the messages that God is sending him.
A second story involving the Brisker Rav3 teaches another key point in the foundations of repentance. He once asked a man, “What do you do?” Assuming the Rav was asking for his occupation, the man answered accordingly. Yet the Rav asked the same question again. Thinking he was hard of hearing the man answered again. When the Rav repeated the question a third time the man realized that he hadn’t been misheard. The Brisker Rav explained that he wasn’t asking the man what was his job, rather what he lived for. He continued that the only true answer to the question was found in the words of the Prophet Jonah, when asked what his trade was. He answered: “I am a Hebrew and I fear Hashem, the God of the Heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”4 The Brisker Rav was teaching us that regardless of the activities a person is involved him, they don’t constitute his ‘raison-d’etre’ – his purpose in life. His purpose is to fear G-d and do His will.
Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein5 adds a fascinating point based on Jonah’s words: He asks, that Jonah himself was not simply answering a single question, of ‘what do you do?’. Rather, the sailors asked Jonah a number of questions: “Tell us now, on whose account has this evil befallen us? What is your trade? and from where do you come? What is your land? And of what people are you6?” While Jonah clearly answers some of the questions, he does not seem to have addressed the opening questions when the sailors asked, what to make of their predicament, and so on. So how did Jonah satisfactorily answer all their inquiries? Rabbi Bernstein explains: “Here we are being taught a fundamental lesson: The answer to most of life’s questions regarding how we should respond to any given situation is to begin by affirming who we are. Once that is established, the other answers will naturally follow7.”
Jonah’s message teaches us that the foundation of repentance is built on the fact that we must establish who we are and which of our actions over the past year we identify with. This will have a dramatic effect on how we will act throughout the year, after the inspiration of the High Holy Days has faded. When faced with so many of life’s difficulties, if we remember the foundational idea of ‘I am a Jew’, then it will be far easier to find the clarity to react correctly with the challenges we will be facing.