May 15, 2024
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The Sailors Ask Yona,’ ‘What Should We Do?’

Despite the raging storm and despite establishing Yonah’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the sailors still endeavor to save Yonah along with their own lives. The sailors’ question (Yonah 1:11) “Mah naaseh lach,” “what should we do to you?” is another example of their midat harachamim, extraordinary kindness that goes well beyond the call of duty. Although the sailors enjoy the right to immediately kill Yonah since he is undoubtedly a rodef (unnecessarily placing their lives at risk), they still seek to prod Yonah to repent.

Malbim’s Explanation and Binyamin Jachter’s Alternative Idea

Malbim understands “Mah naaseh lach” as the sailors offering Yonah the opportunity for them to sail to a port that is nearest to an overland route to Nineveh. Binyamin Jachter argues, though, that the sailors were asking a man of God how to manage the situation. Indeed, the pasuk makes no mention of the sailors pressuring Yonah to travel to Nineveh.

Binyamin believes that because the sailors refrained from pressuring Yonah to visit Nineveh, Yonah was granted the opportunity to talk to Hashem directly and to determine for himself what he is willing to tolerate to avoid his mission. He eventually concludes while in the large fish. Binyamin believes that this decision would never have emerged from Yonah’s internal struggle had the sailors applied considerable pressure.

An Additional Explanation

One could also understand the sailors as acting prudently. In trying to prod a recalcitrant individual to act sensibly, a delicately balanced approach is needed. A mixture of subtle pressure and offering a choice is an effective method to take.

For example, in my quarter of a century experience as a get administrator who often deals with recalcitrant spouses, I have learned that threatening such people or issuing orders to such people is counterproductive. No one is comfortable with the indignity of eliminating an ability to choose. On the other hand, a gentle but firm hand is necessary to guide the recalcitrant to a better psychological place and better choices.

This is precisely the brilliance of the sailors saying to Yonah “Mah naaseh lach.” On the one hand, it firmly communicates to Yonah that the situation is dire, and they will take action to avoid catastrophe. However, they still offer Yonah a choice, and some say as to the steps they will take to save their lives.

It is also a prod to Yonah to repent. They are delicately implying to Yonah if you do not repent, we will cast you in the sea. They express their point, though, not as a direct threat but in an indirect manner that respects Yonah. The sailors hope that by not forcing Yonah into a corner, Yonah will act reasonably and save himself and his fellow passengers.

Conclusion

According to Binyamin’s approach, like Yonah, we can take pressure as an opportunity to make a decision, but the final choice must be internally generated. Thus, the sailors ask Yonah to have a look at his situation. Yonah then is hurled into a predicament, which calls into question the scope of what he is willing to do to uphold his beliefs. Yonah proceeds to make his final, internally driven choice with a prayer to Hashem, and Hashem follows up by releasing Yonah from the fish.

Hashem does the same for us on Yom Kippur. By reading and hearing Sefer Yonah, we are receiving the gentle but firm message to adjust and improve our behavior for the betterment of all and avoidance of catastrophe. The decision to better ourselves, however, must come from ourselves and ourselves alone.


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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