Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.
“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! . . . But WHAT is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches?
Thus Melville’s Father Mapple passionately preaches in Moby-Dick. His question has been pondered by Jews throughout the centuries. Read in its entirety in the synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, Jonah is the only multi-chapter book of the Bible to be so honored. Indeed, Rabbi Yitzhak Etshalom has suggested that if the brief Torah reading preceding Jonah has little to do with the day, but merely continues where the morning reading left off, this may be precisely in order to emphasize that, in a departure from the usual priorities, the haftarah, or prophetic portion, is in fact the critical text for the occasion.
What, then, makes it so significant, and what lesson does it teach about Yom Kippur?
At first glance, the lesson could not be clearer. Sent to the Assyrian city of Nineveh to foretell its destruction, Jonah, despite himself, ends up inspiring its denizens to repent, and the city is spared. This is precisely the outcome that Jonah himself had most feared—he wanted the sinners to suffer God’s punishment, and had acquiesced in his assignment only after having first tried to flee and been forced to endure an underwater ordeal. So Jonah himself had to be taught a lesson—about God’s mercy and forgiveness—and at the end of the book this lesson is conveyed by God Himself in so many words.
Is that the reason why Jonah is read on Yom Kippur: namely, to focus our minds on the power of repentance? That is certainly part of the explanation. But numerous other prophetic passages dwell on the same theme, and all of them have the virtue of being briefer. Is the reason then that the book of Jonah emphasizes not just repentance and atonement but the repentance and atonement of Gentiles living in a faraway land?