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A Sefer Like No Other: Radak’s Stunning Introductory Question on Sefer Yonah

The question itself is shocking. Radak, a premier commentator, asks why the Tanach (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) would bother to include a nevuah (prophecy) directed to the population of Nineveh, all of whom were not Jewish. The question presumes that the Tanach collects and records Hashem’s communications only as they pertain to the Jewish people. Indeed, Radak notes, Yonah is the only sefer in Tanach in which Jews play no role.

Support for the Radak’s Question

The eighth of Tevet, two days before the fast on the tenth of Tevet, is regarded in piyyutim (liturgical poetry) recited by Ashkenazic Jews as a day of mourning for our people. Chazal teach that the eighth of Tevet is the day king Ptolemy compelled 70 sages of Israel to translate the Torah into Greek (Megillah 9a). This gemara and the piyut for Asarah B’Tevet indicate that the Torah is directed exclusively at the Jewish people and thus provides evidence for the Radak’s presumption.

Radak’s Three Answers

Radak answers that Sefer Yonah is incorporated into Tanach since Nineveh’s teshuvah (repentance) serves as a model and inspiration for future teshuvah. Nineveh provides an especially good role model since the people repented the first time they heard rebuke from a navi. Their actions also serve as somewhat of a rebuke to us: if non-Jews were rebuked once and repented, all the more so we, who constitute Hashem’s special nation, should certainly heed the call of genuine spiritual leaders to repent.

This is certainly a critical message to hear on Yom Kippur. Sefer Yonah, according to Radak, communicates the importance of being willing to accept mussar from the community’s spiritual leadership. Indeed, the Mishna (Ta’anit 2:1) notes that on fast days the community’s leadership cited the response of the people of Nineveh as a model for us to emulate on these critical days.

Another reason given to include Sefer Yonah in Tanach is to record the great miracles described therein, such as Yonah surviving in the large fish for three days and his release from the fish, for all generations. Indeed, Ramban, at the conclusion of Parshat Bo writes that recognition and acknowledgement of Hashem’s open miracles leads to an appreciation of the daily hidden miracles Hashem performs for us.

One may ask, though, why we need to know of the miracles experienced by Yonah in the fish if other open miracles are described at length elsewhere in Tanach. What specific lessons do these miracles teach?

One answer may lie in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Selichot mentioning Yonah’s survival in release from the fish as a precedent for Hashem answering our tefillot. We learn from this extraordinary episode that (as taught in Brachot 10a) that even in the most extreme of dangerous situations, one should never relinquish hope in Hashem’s salvation.

Another lesson may be the extent to which Hashem will ensure we remain on task. The Chafetz Chaim (Shaar Hatziyun 622:6) writes that Yonah’s survival in the fish and his release teach us that we cannot opt out of our divinely ordained purpose in this world, and if we fail to do so Hashem will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure we accomplish our task. Yonah’s survival and release in order that he execute his divinely ordered task to address Nineveh reflects Hashem returning us to this world in a gilgul form to complete our mission.

In his third and final answer, Radak notes that Sefer Yonah teaches that Hashem accepts teshuva and extends forgiveness to all individuals and nations of the world. Sefer Yonah clarifies for us that indeed “V’rachamav al kol ma’asav, Hashem extends His mercy to all of His creations” (Tehillim 145:9).

Sefer Yonah broadens the horizons and perspectives of Jews to include all of the world’s inhabitants. As the sefer concludes, how could Hashem not be concerned and emotionally invested in a large city of more than 120,000 people?

Although Hashem undoubtedly reserves His special love for Am Yisrael, His special nation, Hashem is invested in the spirituality and well-being of every person. He is called “מלך העולם” (King of the entire world), after all. So it’s not just about us. As the Ramchal teaches, the universe is created for man to choose well, Jews and non-Jews alike. In addition to the universal responsibility to choose well, the Jews have a special responsibility to bear.

Additionally, Sefer Yonah has made a great stride toward bettering the world and its population. Yonah/Jonah is a wildly popular biblical story that has successfully
communicated to all nations of the world that Hashem cares about every human being and that every human being is redeemable. Perhaps it is because of these essential lessons that Hashem influenced Sefer Yonah to be written in a most compelling manner that in every generation attracts untold millions to its powerful messages.

Conclusion

Radak in his final answer reverses his original assumption that the Torah is reserved exclusively for Am Yisrael. Just as Hashem broadened Yonah’s horizons and perspectives in Perek 4, so too is the Radak and our outlook expanded by this intense interaction and dialogue with Hashem.

Of course, the most obvious reason to include Sefer Yonah in Tanach is its grappling with some of the most fundamental issues of Torah life. At the heart of Sefer Yonah is the struggle between Yonah’s advocacy for the administration of Middat HaDin, Hashem’s attribute of strict justice, and Hashem’s insistence on the necessity of Middat HaRachamim, Hashem’s merciful aspects. This tension is of universal concern, as is the issue of the suffering of the righteous addressed in Sefer Iyov, and thus it is most appropriate that non-Jews serve as the focal point in this sefer.

Perhaps, though, because the tension is so readily discernable, Yonah is an ideal choice to read on Yom Kippur. At the height of the Yom HaDin (Day of Judgement) we are reminded that Hashem conducts Himself with a balance of din and rachamim, and that even the most undeserving can still repent.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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