By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva.org
Commentators wonder why Sefer Yonah was included in the Tanach. Other prophets devote individual prophecies to other nations but only Yonah consists solely of a prophecy to the people of Ninveh. What makes this story relevant for Am Yisrael?
R. David Kimchi advances several theories. Perhaps this story challenges the Jewish people. If Ninveh could transform their society and repent, surely the chosen people should find the wherewithal to do so. Alternatively, the story instructs us regarding the ways of God. Hashem wants all human beings to repent and He offers that option to the nations of the world as well. Finally, a story about a prophet surviving three days inside of a fish conveys the wonders of God.
Abravanel disagrees with Radak’s first approach arguing that the people of Ninveh did not accomplish a full repentance since scripture makes no mention of their destroying the local idols and temples. Therefore, they can not truly serve as a model for emulation. Indeed, traditional sources debate the quality of their repentance and we shall return to this question in a forthcoming post.
According to Abravanel, the Ninveh model would not influence Am Yisrael. A people capable of ignoring the Torah’s messages and the words of the greatest prophets can ignore the Ninveh example as well. I believe Radak could parry this critique fairly easily. Sometimes, the cumulative effect of many forces motivates repentance. Different people react differently to various stimuli and some Jews may be particularly affected by the actions of their gentile neighbors. Lack of previous success in inspiring repentance would not provide sufficient reason to stop trying a host of methods.
Having disagreed with R. Kimhi, Abravanel offers another suggestion. Perhaps the story teaches that God always realizes his divine purpose. Yonah tries to escape his mission from God but the prophet ultimately performs that mission to great effect. We send much of life in the futile attempt to avoid God and his commanding voice and the book of Yonah instructs us about the futility of our attempts.
When we read this work each Yom Kippur afternoon, a duality of themes should affect us. On the one hand, God loves humanity and compassionately provides the possibility of repentance for each person and nation. On the other hand, God manifests awesome power and inescapable force. If Yonah aids our Internalizing love and fear of God, it surely deserves a place in our holy scriptures.