Does Yonah actually think he can flee God? Ask Ibn Ezra to Yonah 1:1 and Radak to Yonah 1:3. Is Yonah not familiar with Yeshayahu HaNavi’s teaching “melo kol haaretz kevodo, Hashem’s glory encompasses the entire world” (Yeshayahu 6:3)? Did not David HaMelech state, “Ve’ana mipanecha evrach, and where could I go to escape from You?” (Tehillim 139:7)?
Yonah’s flight from Hashem appears utterly irrational! Tanach records those incidents only from which all generations can learn (Megillah 14a). Why does Tanach record such utterly bizarre behavior?
Rashi and Ibn Ezra’s Classic Answer
Rashi (1:1) presents the classic explanation of Yonah’s flight (quoted above as well): Mashal (a parable) to a slave of a kohen who seeks to flee his master and therefore runs into a cemetery (where the kohen is forbidden to enter). The gambit fails, of course, since the master simply summons another slave to retrieve him from the cemetery.
Ibn Ezra bolsters this explanation from the language of the pasuk. He notes that Yonah did not seek to escape “mipnei Hashem, from Hashem,” rather “milifnei Hashem, from the presence of Hashem” (Yonah 1:3). Yonah did not think he could elude Hashem and instead sought to simply “step out of nevuah range.” Yonah perceived Chutz LaAretz as what we would call “out of bounds,” out of the playing field, so to speak, of prophecies about Nineveh.
A Deeper Explanation of Rashi and Ibn Ezra
Even in light of Rashi and Ibn Ezra’s explanations, Yonah’s behavior still appears entirely unreasonable and even irrational. It calls to mind Adam HaRishon and Chava’s pathetic attempt to “hide” from Hashem after they ate from the Etz HaDaat (the Tree of Knowledge) (Bereishit 3:8). Yonah must recognize the foolishness of his calculations. From the remainder of Sefer Yonah, Yonah does not at all seem to be naïve or simple-minded. Why then did he exercise such poor judgment?
We suggest that Yonah’s ill-fated attempt to flee from God’s jurisdiction is the perfect description of the mindset when people sin. People sometimes think, quite irrationally, that they can act independently from God. Most often, though, they fail to think at all. Had people properly thought out their behavior they never would have disrespected God’s will.
Chazal teach (Rashi to Bamidbar 5:12 s.v. Ki Tisteh Ishto citing Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar 5) “Ein adam chotei ela im kein nichnas bo ruach shtut, a person sins only if overcome by irrational thinking.” However, the objective observer, similar to readers of Sefer Yonah, recognizes the irrationality of a sinful act. The sinner, on the other hand, caught in the throes of his misdeed, fails to recognize the foolishness of his act.
How to explain, for example, people who are piously meticulous in prayer at the synagogue and Torah study in the beit midrash, yet act reprehensively when at their place of business? Why do people who would never dream of eating anything that comes even remotely close to non-kosher log on to foreign and forbidden sites on the internet or view a movie that is not fitting to watch?
Sadly, such behavior may be explained as people irrationally viewing certain areas of life as “religion-free” or “God-free zones.” Just as Yonah thought he could escape into a God-free zone by leaving the Land of Israel, so too those who violate God’s laws thoughtlessly and foolishly delude themselves into thinking that a God-free zone exists. On Yom Kippur we are expected to take a good, hard look at our lives and examine our actions and deeds. Our bird’s-eye view into the absurd behavior of Yonah should grip us, bring us back to our senses, and help us avoid such counterproductive, self-destructive and self-sabotaging violations of God’s laws.
Yom Kippur is a day when we immerse ourselves in holiness and remove ourselves from our usual human urges. This allows us to reboot and reset our behavior so as to act in better ways after Yom Kippur is over. Sefer Yonah plays a critical role in our rebalancing, rebooting and reimagining our lives. It leads us to realize our potential to achieve spiritual excellence.
Yonah is most likely motivated to flee God due to his anger at God for adopting too lenient judgment of mankind in general, and Nineveh specifically. His flight to Tarshish to elude God’s presence is senseless, perhaps spurred on by his anger. Our recognition of the senselessness of Yonah’s actions has the potential, especially on Yom Kippur, to guide us back to act in a sensible, wholesome, and constructive manner. A manner in harmony with, and not in conflict with, the loving God whose every command is issued to serve our best interest.
Sefer Yonah communicates to us readers on Yom Kippur to have a look from outside of ourselves. We can see the behavior Yonah is overlooking and we must make sure not to overlook similar behaviors in ourselves.
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.