Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020). In this post, he reflects on what Jonah can teach us about the current moment.
As we read numerous times throughout his eponymous book, Jonah flees from his moral responsibility, his sacred calling. When God calls Jonah to bring righteousness to Nineveh, and to save countless lives, he shirks his prophetic duties. When pressed to stand and represent the ideals of faith and repentance, Jonah flees. Why should we continue studying this man and his book? How can he, in his capricious self-centeredness, inspire us to be representatives of peace and understanding?
I’ve thought a lot about Jonah lately amid the tumult that has affected our nation. We, as a country, are suffering greatly. Extreme partisanship, racial divides, and lackadaisical, apathetic leadership have led America down a dark path. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police was a symptom of a greater problem we face—the lack of interest in introspection and the unwillingness to look at the meta-issues our nation struggles with. Intellectual stagnation has taken hold; the race to find consensus in the lowest common denominator has replaced the active search for reconciliation.
As I worked on writing my commentary on the Book of Jonah, I wrestled deeply with its ethical lessons. On the surface, Jonah is the antithesis of what we want in our leaders. His earthly cowardliness seems to stand at odds with his heavenly mission, and his constant deviation from his task shows that, perhaps, he is not up for the job. But this is precisely the brilliance of the Book of Jonah. Out of all the prophets featured in the Hebrew Bible, Jonah is the only one who seems to be like a regular human being. He has limits, he has scars, he has foibles.
And through his failure, we see ourselves. His life is a mirror to our soul.
But also, through Jonah’s failures—and there were many—we see the potential for spiritual growth and healing. During the prophet’s sojourn in the great fish, he reflects in quarantine, in complete darkness, on what must be the lowest moment in his life. The walls are closing in around him (literally, the gills of the fish move in and out at a steady pace, marching against the pressures of the sea), and Jonah seemingly has no options for escape. He has but one tool in his arsenal: he prays. And he prays. And he prays some more. And then he is released to complete his mission. Jonah proclaims God’s message to Nineveh, saving the city and its inhabitants.
As I write in my book: “We have the capacity to improve the world while striving for spiritual fulfillment and further attachment to justice” (page 118). Jonah sought to escape his obligations; we shall embrace them.
At this current, challenging moment, we should pray as Jonah prayed. Our prayer should strengthen our deepest moral resolve to serve as listeners, humble allies, and bold mobilizers. At times of great import, much like what we are witnessing today, we must remove ourselves from the negative forces that bring us down so that we may elevate others. In other words, it seems as if we are to ruminate in great, dark quarantine inside fishes of our own making. Now more than ever, we need to engage and embrace those who are truly hurting. Unlike Jonah, we can charge ahead with empathy and passion. The #BlackLivesMatter movement should rouse us from our spiritual lethargy, galvanizing us to push society forward to end inequality and bigotry.
Let us hear the call and be leaders for positive change.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, both published by CCAR Press