Yom Kippur afternoon
September 28, 2009 / 10 Tishrei 5770
In 1891, a young sailor named James Bartley was an apprentice on a whaling vessel called “The Star Of The East.” As the “Star of the East” traveled through the South Atlantic in pursuit of a tremendous whale, disaster, somewhat inevitably, ensued, the ship was capsized and Bartley, much to his surprise, I'm sure, was swallowed by the whale.
Bartley was discovered three days later as the now dead whale was being cut open. The gastric juices from the whale's stomach had burnt off all of the hair on Bartley's body, and permanently bleached his skin bone white. For the remainder of his life he was blind. Despite all this, he was otherwise healthy and in good shape after two weeks of recuperation.
Ultimately, Bartley returned to England, where he worked as a cobbler for the remaining eighteen years of his life. The final, fitting epitaph carved on Bartley's tombstone read: “James Bartley -1870-1909 - A Modern Jonah.”
What bothers me about this legend, which originally came from a 19th century newspaper article, is that it leaves out the most important part of the Jonah story. While it maintains the iconic image of the whale, it removes God from the equation. Jonah, unlike Bartley, did not have fellow whalers to save him. The whale that swallowed Jonah was never cut open; rather, Jonah's redemption came from God.
It's a beautiful moment. Jonah, a skeptical, perhaps cowardly prophet, tries to run away from God, only to realize the futility of his actions. So he turns to God. His prayer, uttered while in the belly of the whale, is the crux of the story; it is the turning point for Jonah, and it demonstrates one of the key lessons of the book: That God does hear our prayers.
In Jonah's prayer to God, Jonah says: "You cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea, the floods engulfed me; All your breakers and billows swept over me... The waters closed in over me, the deep engulfed me. Weeds twined around my head. I sank to the base of the mountains; the bars of the earth closed upon me forever." This depicts Jonah before he's had his satori moment, when he is still stuck in despair. This is the pre-transformed Jonah speaking; all he can see is misery and gloom.
But something wonderful happens to Jonah, to change his outlook on life: he's swallowed by a whale! It sounds terrible, but it becomes a powerful, transformative experience. This is a valuable lesson for us as well; and while I don't want to try to explain the nature of suffering, this is, after all, a drash on Jonah, not Job, good can sometimes come out of pain and hardship.
Certainly, for Jonah, the belly of the whale is a place of rebirth. He goes in a scared, reluctant, faithless prophet and comes out a champion, a man who has confidence in God's ability to engender change. The word which is used in the Book of Jonah for fish or whale, dag, is related to the word daggah, which means “to multiply, to increase.” In fact, daggah is the feminine version of dag, which is used in the clause marking the start of Jonah's prayer. So Jonah goes into the fish as a small, unassuming man and, through prayer and through God, comes out a strong-willed, motivated, prophet. He has been multiplied. His devotion, compassion, understanding, drive, have all increased.
The second half of his prayer – representing the post-whale, already transformed Jonah, has a different ring to it. Jonah says: "You brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God! When my life was ebbing away, I called the Lord to mind; And my prayer came before You, into Your holy Temple." Jonah has been redeemed; his faith has been restored, and, what's more, God has answered his prayers. It's truly a stunning moment. And I can't help but find myself jealous of the connection which Jonah demonstrates here with God.
Because, often, I feel like my own prayers go unanswered.
And this is what I find so difficult about the Book of Jonah – I feel as though it presents a model which is too good to be true. The whole book, in fact, works out too well; everything is wrapped up too neatly. Jonah angers God, God warns Jonah, Jonah repents. God spares Jonah. The people of Nineveh anger God. God warns the people of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh repent. God spares Nineveh. Every loose end is tied up with a nice, pretty bow, like in a Disney movie.
Nineveh, for example, offers us yet another picture of repentance which is overly idealized. Rather than give a long, fire and brimstone speech that might convey some of the fear and trembling which Jonah expressed earlier while in the belly of the whale, all that Jonah says when he finally arrives in Nineveh is “forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That's it? That's his whole prophecy? Amazingly, it's enough, for what happens next? “The people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.” This is even more baffling, for why does it tell us that the people “believed God” when Jonah's one sentence doesn't mention God at all? It doesn't say “forty days and God will overthrow Nineveh.” God is left out of it entirely. And besides, the whole conceit of overnight human change, as sincere or insincere as it may have been, seems totally far fetched, even for a book where animals can talk and great seas can split in two.
And yet, here we are again presented with an image, an idea that I want so badly to believe in: that God will hear our prayers, that God will change the verdict, that God will save us. But... but will God hear our prayers? Will God change the verdict? Will God save us?
Perhaps the key lines with kavannah: if we were only to pray as repentantly, as sincerely, as longingly as Jonah, than surely, our prayers would be answered. But, of course, people pray sincerely all over the world, and their prayers, sometimes, perhaps often, do go unanswered. So maybe the secret lies in the intention of repentance: maybe the reason why Nineveh was saved was because the people repented so wholeheartedly. However, this is not necessarily the case. As our sages teach in the Talmud: “A repentance of deception was carried out by the people of Nineveh.” The repentance of Nineveh, it was believed by some, was insufficient because the people were simply responding to an external threat; Their repentance, therefore, was not real teshuvah, because the only reason why they changed was because their lives were threatened. It did not come from a deeper place.
And yet, the verdict is nonetheless changed; Nineveh is spared. Everyone's saved, and everyone lives happily ever after.
This does not sit well with me, and it's not because I'm such a macontent that I don't want other people to be happy. God forbid. I'm glad that things worked out for Jonah; I'm happy about Nineveh, really. But what bothers me is that this does not present us with a realistic model to work with. Not only that, but it's an image which in fact overlooks much of the pain and suffering of day-to-day existence. People pray all the time for redemption, for salvation, for help. And all the time such prayers are left unanswered. People repent, people change, people turn new leaves. And this too is often unrewarded.
This has troubled me immensely as I've worked on this drash. For weeks I've thought about this idea, and tried to find some redeeming conclusion from the text, or some other lesson which the book could impart. But despite everything that I thought and read, I couldn't help but feel that what Jonah ultimately presents us with is a lie. It's a beautiful lie, it's a lie that I want to believe in, but I think it's ultimately a lie. Because in real life, things just don't work out like that. And while this contradiction may exist in Jonah, it is nonetheless a poor emphasis for a dvar. Hence my predicament.
Fortunately, I had my own transformative, whale experience. I was davening selichot, and when I came to the part of the service towards the end, during Mi She’Anah, where we say “May the One who answered Jonah in the belly of the fish... answer us.” I got it. Something clicked.
The model in Jonah may be fictitious, or idealized. But the the thing about prayer is that it's supposed to be about the ideal. It's not necessarily supposed to be about tangible results. All that we can do is hope and pray that something will come from our prayers, whether we can recognize that something or not. All that we can do is pray that, like Jonah, our prayers will be answered, or at the very least, heard and considered. When we pray, we should truly believe that God is listening; and it would be chutzpah of us to assume that we know why God answers some prayers and not others or even in what manner God answers any of them.
I had to take a step back to truly learn this lesson. Our prayers might go unanswered, but they will not go unheard. We have to pray for the strength to believe this, and we have to pray that our prayers will, ultimately, be answered. And while I realize that this is itself a paradox – to pray for answered prayers – that's just the way faith works. In order to believe in something, we have to take the first step, that great blind leap, and just believe.
Kierkergaard said, “faith is the highest passion in a human being. Many in every generation may not come that far, but none comes further.” Even if we can't believe that our prayers will be answered, we can strive to at least hope and pray that our prayers are heard. That's a start. May God answer all of our prayers the way God answered those of Jonah. Shana Tova.