Commanded to proceed to the great Assyrian capital of Nineveh, the prophet Jonah chose instead to flee across the ocean. Why did he seek to escape the word of G-d?
Jonah had two reasons for his flight. First, he feared for his own reputation and safety. If he prophesied the destruction of the city, and the people responded with repentance and thereby averted their fate, they might indict him as a false prophet and perhaps even seek his death.
Second, Jonah feared for his Jewish brothers. If the Gentiles responded to the words of the prophet with repentance, how poorly would this reflect upon the Jews, who had ignored generations of warnings from their own prophets and persisted in their corrupt ways?
The narrative of Jonah’s flight records a series of divine decrees: the Almighty designated a storm to turn back Jonah’s ship, a great fish to swallow him when he was cast into the sea, a large tree to grow miraculously over his head to give him shade, a worm to attack the roots of the tree so that it should die the day after it came into being, and finally an east wind to wither the foliage over Jonah’s hut and expose him to the unrelenting rays of the sun.
Each of these communicated a lesson to Jonah. The storm taught him that he could not escape the word of G-d. His incarceration in the belly of the fish taught him to reflect upon his errors and to repent. The tree taught him that G-d’s mercy arrives in the blink of an eye, and the worm taught him not to take G-d’s mercy for granted. Finally, the east wind taught him that all human effort comes to nothing if not by the grace of G-d.
Together, this series of events taught Jonah the value of every creature under the sun. Jonah’s attempt to leave the inhabitants of Nineveh to their fate, even with the intention of protecting the Jews from divine wrath, came from his failure to recognize that every human being is created in the image of G-d, and that even the beasts of the field serve the Almighty by following their natural inclinations. G-d does not grade on a curve, but judges every individual according to his own merit.
The message of Jonah on Yom Kippur is that each and every one of us has a mission designated by the Almighty, and that no matter how we may try to chart a course in some other direction, the winds of Divine Providence will steer us back again and again to confront the purpose for which we were created. The word tshuva, usually translated as “repentance,” literally means return. With infinite patience, G-d will direct us back however many times it may take, until we willingly return to that path He has laid before us.
We may resist. If so, like Jonah, we will find no shortage of obstacles blocking us at every turn, and urging us to return to travel the road we were created to follow.