One of the highlights of the Yom Kippur service is the reading at Mincha (afternoon services) of the Biblical book of Yonah (Jonah). As the focus of the story is the repentance undertaken by the inhabitants of the ancient city of Nineveh, its connection to the Day of Atonement is clearly apparent. The overall lesson of the story, though, touches a much deeper chord.
The story begins with God commanding Yonah to go to Nineveh to inform the people that, unless they leave their evil ways and repent, there will be dire consequences from the Almighty. Yonah, rather than following God’s directive, attempts to run away and not fulfill his mission. This immediately raises a problem. Only the most righteous of individuals became prophets, so it is very difficult to understand why a righteous individual such as Yonah would not attempt to complete his Divine mission. Why would a prophet of God not go to Nineveh as commanded?
The commentators explain that it was Yonah’s love of the Jewish People that drove him to avoid going to Nineveh. He was concerned that the people of Nineveh would indeed do teshuva, repent, and this could possibly cause problems for the Jewish People. Of course, if the people of Nineveh did teshuva, in their repentant state they would not attack the Jewish People, so foreign exploitation of Israel at this time by these people could not have been the problem. The issue to Yonah was how Nineveh’s positive response to this call to repent, in comparison with how the Jewish nation had not responded to such calls, would look before God. Many prophets were sent to charge the Jewish People to repent from their evil ways, but with limited results. Here one prophet of God, namely Yonah, goes to Nineveh and these people repent. Could this not increase God’s anger towards His people? Yonah ran, as he wanted no part in such a possibility.
In the concluding section of the book, God teaches Yonah why he was wrong in trying to avoid going to Nineveh. God is the Creator of the Universe and his care and concern is for all humanity and, most importantly, for the good. The charge to Yonah was to take action to thwart evil – to warn the people of Nineveh of the consequences of their evil actions so that they would turn from evil and do good. This goal of accomplishing good, Yonah was thus taught, should take precedence even over the positive value of his love for Israel. Our ultimate value should not be solely that Israel does, and benefits from, good, but that all humanity should similarly strive to meet this goal for the good. Beyond our love of Israel must be our love of what is right.,
This would seem to be an important value in our times as well. Unlike Yonah, our love of Israel and our concern for the greater, overall good of humanity are not in conflict. Those who wish to harm Israel are not just enemies of the Jewish People, but are dangerous to the world – and, in contrast to the people of Nineveh, they do not seem to want to change their ways and repent. What Yonah still teaches us, though, is that our driving concern in these difficult times should not solely be our love for Israel and the Jewish People but, most importantly, we must also care for – and actively bring into our consciousness — the harm that this evil could bring to the entire world – and take action with this in mind. What we do for Israel must always meet this standard of the good. As we hear Maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur, our thoughts should not just be on the importance of being ‘United with Israel,’ but also on the even greater call, which is that for the sake of humanity, we must be united in the battle against evil.