Monday, October 31, 2022

Noah, Jonah, and Life After Catastrophe


The stories of Jonah and Noah are deeply intertwined. The very name “Jonah” itself suggests a link; Jonah in Hebrew is “Yonah,” or dove, which is the type of bird that Noah sent out of the ark to see whether the flood was over. Thematically, there are contrasts and parallels. Noah is commanded by God to take refuge in a boat, as protection from God’s wrath; Jonah defies God’s command by fleeing in a boat from God’s mercy. There are multiple other similarities, including how characters offer sacrifices after being saved, the counting of forty days to destruction, and how gardening takes center stage at the end of the story. It is clear that the Book of Jonah is meant to be read with the story of Noah in mind.


What is the meaning of these literary connections? At first glance, Jonah is the anti-NoahNoah is devout, while Jonah flees God’s calling; Jonah is even willing to sacrifice his life to defy God. Noah saves a remnant of a world from destruction; and although Jonah does save Nineveh in the end, he makes it clear that he would prefer Nineveh to be destroyed. Noah saves a menagerie of living beings by bringing them on his ark, while Jonah endangers an entire boat full of sailors with his presence; the boat is only safe after Jonah is cast into the sea.


Jonah could be dismissed as a rogue prophet who has turned his back on God and man; and the Book of Jonah is merely a repetition of the story of Noah, a reminder that the way of destruction is not the way of God.


This interpretation misunderstands Jonah’s motives. Jonah is actually a prophet of justice who finds inspiration in the story of the flood, when a world of wickedness was washed away. Jonah is principled in his desire to punish the evil-doers and to segregate the righteous from the unworthy. The flood, he believes, is the best blueprint for a human future.


But Jonah is not a reactionary who conveniently forgets the end of the flood story; he knows that after the flood God promises that “never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood,” and designates the rainbow as the symbol that “never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” However, Jonah understands this divine promise as a concession to reality, a pragmatic necessity, to prevent the world from being destroyed on a regular basis. As Don Isaac Abravanel puts it, without God’s forbearance, “it would be necessary to have a flood every year, even perhaps every month,” due to humanity’s sins. God’s covenant of the rainbow does not undermine the importance of justice.


Jonah offers a clear answer to one of the most difficult questions in the Noah narrative: What was the purpose of the flood? God sent the flood because “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5) Yet, after the flood, the Torah explains that the reason why there will never be another flood is because “every inclination of the human heart is evil” (Genesis 8:24). The identical rationale is given for why God brought the flood, and why He promises never to repeat the flood! If humanity is equally evil both before and after the flood, what exactly did the flood accomplish?


Jonah would answer that the flood is a constant reminder to humanity that we are fundamentally unworthy. Even if God can’t destroy the world again, we need to recognize that this is merely a loophole, letting humanity off the hook from a punishment they actually deserve.


Similarly, the rainbow can be seen as a reminder of man’s utter inadequacy. The Talmud (Ketubot 77b) explains that there were no rainbows during the lifetimes of exceptionally righteous rabbis. Rainbows are evidence of humanity’s abiding guilt; they would disappear when the merit of a great rabbi tipped the scales in favor of humanity. In other words, we are all just a rainbow away from oblivion.


This is why Jonah finds God’s command to save Nineveh both unbelievable and unpalatable. Why save the wicked from destruction? If it weren’t for technical problems, destruction would and should be the norm. It is worth noting that Nineveh is built by Nimrod, the grandson of Ham, who is cursed and rejected by NoahJonah may be following in Noah’s footsteps by rejecting the wicked descendants of Ham, while at the same time, fleeing to Tarshish, the city built by the descendant of Noah’s blessed son Jephet. Jonah can very well claim that he is carrying on Noah’s legacy, cursing the wicked while blessing the good.


Despites Jonah’s own views on the subject, it is love that stands at the center of the eponymous Book of Jonah. It explains that God cares about every living being, and doesn’t want another flood. When Jonah continues to protest God’s mercy even after the people of Nineveh repent, God responds by saying: “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people…and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). It is with these words that the book ends.


Two perspectives arise regarding the flood. One is that the destruction of the world is a reminder that man is always skating on thin ice, one rainbow away from catastrophe; the flood is a symbol of human failure. The second is that the flood is a cataclysm that leaves God crying out “never again,” pained at the destruction of His beloved creatures; the aftermath of the flood is a testament to God’s love for all living beings. The Book of Jonah gives voice to both alternatives, because both have a place in the Jewish tradition. And echoes of this theological tug of war are ever present in Jewish texts, but this debate became far more significant a generation ago.


After the Holocaust, the Jewish world grappled with how to make theological sense of an overwhelming catastrophe. The Holocaust raises painful questions: How can we reconcile our belief in God with the brutal murder of even one innocent child, let alone a million and a half? How do we remain loyal to our covenant with God after such a horrible destruction? And above all, where was God?


There is much to write about this, but allow me to focus just a bit on the final question. Some see the Holocaust as very much a part of divine Providence, a catastrophe intended as a divine admonition to change course; in other words, the Holocaust was part of God's plan. Others make the argument that God was in hiding, to allow history to proceed, perhaps to allow for absolute free will. But the answer that interests me most is this: God was there with the Jews, crying alongside them.


Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, lived his final years in the Warsaw Ghetto. He left behind a series of sermons that were hidden in milk bottles right before he was deported, and found in the ruins of the Ghetto after the war; they were later published under the title Aish Kodesh. In 1942, as the persecutions were becoming even more horrible, he offered several sermons on the same theme: God is crying alongside us. In February, he said this in a sermon: "Now the Jew, who is tormented by his afflictions, thinks that he alone suffers, as if all his personal afflictions and those of all Israel do not affect God above…scripture states however, that ‘in all their troubles He was troubled’ (Isaiah 63:9) … Our sacred literature tells us that when a Jew is afflicted, God, blessed be He, suffers, so to speak, much more than the person does." In another sermon from July, the Rebbe said: "How can we lift ourselves up at least a little bit in the face of the terrifying reports, both old and new, which tear us to bits and crush our hearts? With the knowledge that we are not alone in our sufferings, but that He, blessed be He, endures it with us, as the Book of Psalms states, 'I am with him in his trouble.’" The Piaseczner Rebbe looks for God in the Warsaw Ghetto, and finds Him crying with His beloved children.


This view raises more theological questions than it may answer. Does God have emotions? Is God powerless in the face of evil? Yet despite these obvious issues, the Piaseczner Rebbe’s interpretation retains an intense attractiveness, the distinctiveness of words that carry a profound truth. He is reminding us about God's call at the end of the Book of Jonah, and that out of catastrophe, there is a thin, small voice calling out, telling us that we should be looking for love, and only love.


Even before the war, this idea was a foundation of the Piaseczner Rebbe’s teachings. One of the best known stories about the Piaseczner Rebbe was told by Shlomo Carlebach. He had met a streetcleaner in Tel Aviv, who as a child, had been a student in the Rebbe’s cheder in Piaseczno. The man had lost all of his family in the Holocaust, and was a hunchback due to the beatings he had received in Aushwitz. Carlebach asked him what he remembered about the Piaseczner Rebbe. The man, after some prodding, related that the Rebbe would eat the Shabbat meals with the children, and at each meal would repeat: “Children, precious children, just remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” The man related that so many times he had given up on life, and then he would hear his teacher’s voice call out, “Remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” And so in Auschwitz, he would do favors; in Tel Aviv, he would do favors. This teaching kept him alive.


And this is the ultimate lesson of the Book of Jonah and the story of Noah: Remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor. It is this love that keeps the world going.

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