It was the summer of 1980 on the Georgetown University campus. I had just returned from spending my junior year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and because of credits I had received for taking Hebrew ulpan during the previous summer, I discovered that if I took two summer session classes I could graduate in December rather than June. So that’s what I did. One of the two classes was a foreign affairs course taught by a visiting professor from Tel Aviv University, and one of the other students in that class was Egyptian. Although he was from Egypt, for most of his life he had lived elsewhere, since his father was a member of the Egyptian diplomatic corps. So Hisham had spent many of his elementary school years in London, where his father was Consul, and went to high school in Nicaragua, where his father was the Egyptian Ambassador.
1980 might well have been the high point in the Egyptian - Israeli relationship. Israel had completed its withdrawal from Sinai and returned it in its entirety to Egyptian control. The land border between Israel and Egypt was open and you could take a bus from Tel Aviv to Cairo. Or, as I did with a friend, you could take a shared taxi from the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem to the border between Egypt and Gaza at Rafah, take another taxi from Rafah to the Suez Canal, cross the canal by ferry and then take a third taxi to Cairo. Israelis and Jewish tourists in Israel regularly visited Egypt, and there was some, although less, traffic in the other direction as well. It may have been this new spirit of cooperation that lead Hisham to take a course taught by an Israeli. At any rate, we soon became close friends and wound up rooming together in an off-campus apartment.
Although of Muslim background, Hisham considered himself an atheist, but like most Georgetown students he was nonetheless interested in religion at least in an academic way. I was taking an advanced tutorial in Hebrew bible and was beginning to think about going to rabbinical school after graduation. In 1980, Jerry Falwell and other elements of the Christian evangelical right wing were starting to come into prominence, and I remember one evening Hisham and I sat and watched a Jerry Falwell speech on TV. Hisham finally turned to me and said “this is the Muslim Brotherhood, except in English.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was the first Islamist organization, created to make Sunni Islamic sharia the law of the land. It was founded in Egypt in 1928 and, although it exists all over the Arab world, Egypt remains its heartland. In 1980 the Egyptian governing class was very worried about the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed Sadat's government, and especially the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel. And they were right to worry, since in the fall of 1981 Sadat was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In many ways I served as Hisham’s guide to all things American, and he wanted to understand the phenomenon of Christian fundamentalism more. He found my approach to religion somewhat puzzling, since in Egypt, whether Muslim or Coptic Christian you were either religious or not. The kind of religiosity exemplified by the Jesuits at Georgetown, or liberal forms of Judaism, which takes scripture seriously but not literally, was something new to him.
It must have been this time of year, because we were discussing the Book of Jonah, which we of course read on Yom Kippur afternoon. At any rate we were standing on Wisconsin Ave. waiting for the 30 bus to take us uptown to the corner of Wisconsin and Mass. Aves, where our apartment was, when we were approached by an attractive young woman. She had a name tag that identified her as a “WOW Ambassador.” I didn’t know exactly what group or denomination she represented but I assumed that she was a missionary of some type.
The young woman asked us “do you always stand around on street corners talking about religion?” I responded “well, I was just explaining to my friend here how fundamentalists get the Bible all wrong.”
She was somewhat taken aback and said “why, whatever do you mean?”
I responded “take the Book of Jonah, for instance. A fundamentalist will go to great lengths to try and convince you that there was an actual man whose actual name was Jonah, who was swallowed by an actual whale and actually lived three days in the belly of that whale and then was actually spit up on dry land and actually lived to tell the tale. Meanwhile, with all the emphasis on the actual whale, they miss the whole point of the story.”
“Which is?, she asked.
“That God forgives you if you repent.”
“How do you get THAT?”, she nearly shouted.
Thankfully, perhaps through divine intervention, our bus pulled up and the conversation ended.
I suppose for this young lady it may well have been difficult to understand that the point of the Book of Jonah is indeed that God forgives you if you repent. Because if you are a fundamentalist Christian, you don’t believe that. God doesn’t forgive you if you repent; God only forgives you if you profess your faith in Jesus. So that can’t possibly be the message of the Book of Jonah; it must, therefore, be a test of faith in our accepting of the literal truth of a story which scientists will tell you can’t have happened as described, since no one could survive for three days in the belly of a whale without being killed by the digestive juices.
There is a great video which you can find on youtube that deals with the different ways men and women tend to relate to problem-solving called “It’s Not About the Nail.” Perhaps a good tagline for the Book of Jonah would be “It’s Not About the Whale.” Our sages chose the Book of Jonah for the Haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon -- the entire book. Why? Surely, it’s not about the whale.
Jonah was a reluctant prophet but he was also a successful prophet. The other prophets of the Bible like Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah were sent to the Israelites to get them to repent, and generally had very little success. Jonah, on the other hand, was sent to Nineveh. Nineveh was in what is today Northern Iraq and it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It was the capital of the kings Sargon and Sennacherib who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Hezekiah and carried the ten tribes of Israel into captivity. The book of Jonah describes it as a metropolis of 120,000 people and three days’ journey to cross, and the archeological ruins extant today confirm this as possible. The book of Jonah describes Nineveh as a wicked city worthy of destruction, but God sends Jonah to get them to change their ways.
The whole business of the whale comes in because Jonah doesn’t want to accept this mission. He gets on a boat heading to Tarshish, which was most likely a city on the southern Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey. So Jonah headed northwest instead of northeast as he was commanded. Why? We don’t exactly know, at least not at first. But Jonah quickly learns that you can’t run away from God. His boat is almost capsized by a storm, and Jonah tells the sailors that it’s because of him and the only way to stop it is to throw him overboard. At first the sailors -- all of them non-Jews -- are reluctant to do so. They row hard, trying to get back to land, with no success. Then they pray to God not to let them die because of another man’s sins. But their prayers are of no avail, and finally they do throw Jonah overboard. Then he’s swallowed by the whale and after three days spit out on dry land. He’s learned his lesson, and this time embarks on the mission he was given.
He gets to Nineveh and travels one day’s journey into the city. He proclaims that within 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown. And now we begin to see a possible reason for Jonah’s reluctance. Prophets who were sent to Israel were met with hostility, sometimes thrown in jail, sometimes even killed, but rarely did they succeed in prompting a change in behavior. But the Ninevites believe Jonah. The people and the king proclaim a fast, and everyone wears sackcloth and ashes and refrains from food for three days -- even the cattle. The king urges everyone to turn away from their evil and violence. Maybe, if they do so, God will forgive them and not destroy the city. It’s not about the whale.
And so Jonah heads back to Israel, pleased with himself for a job well done, and everyone lives happily ever after. Right? Well, not exactly. He’s not happy at all, in fact he’s furious. He says to God: “see, I knew this would happen, and that’s why I tried to get out of this assignment in the first place. “For I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Why is Jonah so angry? A lot of commentators claim it’s because he’s been made to look foolish. After all, he proclaimed that Nineveh would be destroyed and now it’s not going to happen. But I don’t think this is what’s going on here. Although we often think that a prophet is someone who can accurately predict the future, that’s not what a prophet is at all. A prophet warns of what will happen if the people don’t repent and change their ways. Far from looking foolish and being a failure, Jonah was a smashing success. He wasn’t sent to Nineveh to predict the destruction of the city; he was sent to warn the inhabitants that their city would be destroyed if they kept up their evil ways. And they believed him! They changed their ways! The city wasn’t destroyed. It’s not about the whale.
And this, my friends, is precisely what gets Jonah angry. Maybe because he wanted Nineveh to be destroyed; after all, they were the enemies of the Jews. Or maybe he was upset because the Ninevites made the Jews look bad in comparison. God sends prophet after prophet to Israel, and nothing. But one little pipsqueak of a prophet sent to Nineveh, and boom, total repentance. We’re supposed to be God’s special people, schooled in morality and the ways of the Lord. What’s going on here? At any rate, it’s not about the whale.
But Jonah doesn’t give up hope. He decides to camp out east of the city and builds himself a sukkah, waiting to see if maybe the city will be destroyed anyway. So God makes a special plant grow to shade him, and Jonah is happy. Then God sends a worm to destroy the plant, and Jonah once again is furious and wants to die. So God essentially says to him, “you can have compassion on this plant, which you didn’t plant or water. It came up in a night and was destroyed in a night. But you get mad because I have pity on Nineveh, a city of 120,000, and all their animals besides.” You see, it’s not about the whale.
The people of Nineveh became, for the rabbis, the classic paradigm of what true repentance, teshuvah, means. There is a tractate in the Mishnah called Ta’anit -- a Ta’anit is a fast which is proclaimed in the wake of some extraordinary catastrophe, the classic paradigm being a drought. And so if there is a drought, tractate Ta’anit tells you how the community is supposed to respond -- the assumption being, of course, that the drought is sent by God as punishment for the community’s sins.
When the drought has gotten really severe, this is what the sages tell us to do:
What is the order of the fast-days? The ark containing the scrolls of the law is to be brought to the city square… the elder shall then address them in heart-moving terms: "My brethren, consider that it is not written in respect to [the repentance of] the Ninevites, that God regarded their having wrapped themselves in sackcloth, and considered their fast-days, but that 'God saw their acts, and that they had turned from their evil ways' (Jonah 3:10), and the tradition of the prophets also is, 'Tear your hearts, and not your garments' (Joel 2:13)."
The town elder as cited by the Mishna conveys the powerful idea that fasting and sackcloth are merely the outer trappings of repentance, whereas the requisite change must be a fundamental reorientation of lifestyle. Nineveh epitomizes this ethic. Though they did fast and don sackcloth, this was not the critical element. Instead: 'God saw their acts, and that they had turned from their evil ways.'
It’s not about the whale.
This afternoon we will read the Book of Jonah. Shortly thereafter is Ne’ilah, the hour of the “closing of the gates.” We’ll hear the Shofar, our fast will be ended. What happens the next day? Will we as individuals, as a community and as a country, have changed our behavior? Will we turn from our evil ways, love the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked? If so, our fast will have meant something. Let us make it so. It’s not about the whale.