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The Prophet Jonah: Leadership and Taking Responsibility

Dr. Einat Ramon
| 12/09/2007
High Holidays

These days are a time of crisis: a crisis of leadership and of faith in leaders. They direct us to the question of what are the traits of a leader. In the Mincha service on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), a few hours before the end of the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar, Jews read the Book of Jonah. Jewish tradition seeks to conclude Yom Kippur with the universal story of the prophet, the leader, who responded to the call to prophecy thus: “And Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before God” (1:3). Why did Jonah flee? And from what?

The Midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (9 th century) stresses that Jonah was an extraordinarily successful prophet. Every time he brought the word of God to his audience – Jews and non-Jews alike – they were persuaded by his words of reproof and repented. Why then did he seek to hide? Did he prefer that the nations he addressed not take God’s word to heart? Did he, as we are often wont to interpret, truly desire the people of Nineveh to be punished and not repent of their evil ways?

Biblical history, especially prophecy, is replete with images of leaders alienated from the nation – leaders who fail to influence the people during their lifetime. This idea of the frustrated prophet, unable to deal with a depraved people who embitter his life, runs like an unbroken thread throughout the Bible. Even God Himself, the nation’s leader, symbolized as its father and mother, feels alienated at times from the people. Jeremiah, in his prophetic mood, describes God thus: “Oh that I were in a lodging place in the desert, that I would leave my people, and go from them, for they are all adulterers, an assembly of disloyal people” (Jeremiah 9:1). According to this description, God, or the prophet, strive to distance themselves from the people, for they tire of them. They are tired of the people’s corruption and moral incompetence. The wilderness to which the prophets flee expresses loneliness, but also a social purity and escape from the vulgarity of the masses.

According to the Midrash, Jonah’s flight derived from his sensitivity to public opinion. Jonah understood that which modern statistics have shown us: the chances of a leader being popular once he acts like a leader are about 8% (!). In other words, leadership almost always inherently entails inevitable exposure to disdain, ingratitude and alienation from the people it serves.

Man’s nature as described in the Book of Jonah depicts a deep tension between our immediate inclination to criticize leaders and our yearning for real leaders. It may be that a society such as ours, built on mass communications, sharpens these tendencies. The eagerness to belittle the actions of leaders, on the one hand, coexists with the tendency to admire leaders who are empty vessels, on the other. Leadership was always a tough and thankless task. The Book of Jonah, like the Book of Deuteronomy which deals with the leadership struggles of Moses, reflects the leader’s pain. In general, the Jewish sources assign high value to responsible leadership for the nation of Israel and for humanity, in order to encourage us to assume positions of leadership despite the inevitable price exacted by these jobs.

We might also consider the Book of Jonah a story of development and maturing process of the successful prophet who, despite his proven success, does not personally internalize the deeper message of his prophecy. We might interpret Jonah’s flight precisely as an expression of one of the necessary traits of the prophet or true leader: self-effacement. Leaders who assume their job out of a sense of superiority over the people will ultimately fail at their task. Indeed, many charismatic leaders of the 20 th century suffered from delusions of grandeur, and we are well aware of the abyss into which they led their nation and the entire world.

Many people desire leadership that will stir their souls and flatter them, in order to be wrapped within the inflated ego of the leader. But this type of leadership, though pleasurable for the leaders, is considered false prophecy. It does not lead society anywhere safe, good, useful or moral.

Jonah’s Self-Effacement: A Leadership Trait?

Jonah’s first flight from God is an instance of “I am not deserving of glory or honor, for I have many flaws,” in the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto of 18 th century Italy in his book Paths of the Righteous . But precisely because of Jonah’s reluctance to take on the job, God continues to seek him out and considers him worthy and indispensable to the task. Jonah who flees is not unworthy, as we may see him upon first reading; on the contrary, the self effacement essential to leadership is what causes the prophet to flee.

At the start of the story Jonah is swallowed first by the sea and then into the bowel of the fish. In these places he is alone with the knowledge that he is just a man, far from the public eye. The sense of mission and God’s call pursued him even here in his lonely solitude. On the one hand, he is a man, with fears, weaknesses, depression, doubts; yet on the other, the ship’s captain senses Jonah’s uniqueness and his capability to calm the storm, and that is why he awakens him (in more than one sense) and exclaims, “How can you sleep? Call upon your God, perhaps he will reconsider so that we will not perish” (1:5). When speaking with the ship’s sailors, Jonah bared his identity: “I am a Hebrew and I fear God, Lord of the heavens;” though despite his awe of God Jonah was still not prepared to assume the difficult leadership task intended for him.

The bowel of the fish into which Jonah was swallowed for three days and nights symbolizes a further stage in spiritual development: removal from human contact prepared Jonah for the loneliness found in human society. This ability ensures that the leader will fulfill his lonely task without being dragged after the herd. Furthermore, within the fish Jonah felt closer to God than when he declared his faith, identity and nationality to the captain on the ship.

Within the confines of his enclosed space, the prophet depicts the connection to God not intellectually, but more intimately: “Out of my distress I called to God and He answered me” (2:3), “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered God” (2:8). In the course of the prophet’s maturing and development he undergoes a religious reversal: from a cerebral recognition of God as the Lord of Creation, “who made the sea and the land” (1:9), Jonah arrives at a deep, personal connection with God.

From this mature stance, resulting from a process of psychological and theological distillation, the prophet now stands as a leader facing the residents of the big, brazen, corrupt city of Nineveh, and in full confidence announces that “in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.” Precisely because of Jonah’s mature personality, the people heed him. Why, then, does Jonah again sink into bitterness, withdrawing into his loneliness in the shade of the gourd? After all, if the people of Nineveh indeed “repented of their evil ways,” (3:10), they apparently did not mock his reproof but respected him and his prophecy.

Jonah’s alienation from his public does not stem from the fact that they escaped punishment, but that their repentance was not absolute. True, the people of Nineveh left their evil ways, but not totally. Had their repentance been untarnished, Jonah would not have been troubled by the terrible prophecy going unfulfilled. He would then become a hero in the eyes of those who repented because of him. However, as it seems in this story, the mundane, everyday wickedness continued. Mockery of the different, recoil from the loner, disdain for the weak, and manifestations of disrespect of leaders are not considered serious moral wrongs, but simply the way of the world, part of fallible human nature. The people of Nineveh may have ceased to murder, pillage, rape, bribe, and cheat but they persisted in the small injustices in everyday life that are due to the petty and weak nature of mankind.

Jonah, having undergone a lengthy but thorough maturing, cannot resign himself to God’s merciful tolerance of these human fallibilities.  Jonah demands complete justice, without mercy. Having experienced the close and intimate connection to God, he now seeks absolute divine justice. So when the intimate God, who dispatched Jonah on this mission, does not discharge the full measure of moral justice, Jonah is angry. He is angry with God because of God’s compromising acceptance of a lower level of goodness.

Yet before Jonah sinks into anger and depression after carrying out his mission, he lays before us the prospect of a budding hope and reconciliation which are the spiritual shore he has reached; the end of the long and painful, yet full and strong process that a mature leader should reach. After all, the last lesson God teaches Jonah is: “I shouldn’t have pity on the city Nineveh?” (4:11). In other words, as long as society maintains a reasonable level of righteousness, mercy is preferred to strict justice.  There are instances in which the leader must learn restraint from God’s example, to forgive pettiness, to turn a blind eye to small sins. The ultimate purpose of this is to preserve human life, which is most sanctified.

What does Israel have to learn from Jonah? What does he add to the Torah of Moses concerning understanding God? Moses describes God as “compassionate and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth … who will not clear the guilty ” – that is, a God of absolute justice and no compassion was a necessary model at that early stage of the Torah’s formation, when the foundations of monotheism were being laid. Jonah changes the end of this verse, adding “who repents of evil.” At the end of the process undergone by the maturing leader, the prophet Jonah discovers a God who repented of evil. Jonah reaches this realization after passing through the stages of loneliness, distance, closeness, responsibility, disappointment and finally, understanding the right combination of justice and compassion.

Jonah, then, is a prophet in development, wavering between closeness and solitude, called to his mission yet feeling unworthy of it; a learning and autodidactic prophet, who lacks faith in himself but does his best. A prophet who rises and falls, but who, through it all, becomes acquainted with new aspects of man and of God, and who, because of this, succeeds in influencing people, returning them from evil and in so doing, saves their lives.

Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon is Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and a lecturer in Jewish Thought and Women’s and Jewish Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem.

Photo: Jonah and the Whale in the Jami’ al-tawarikh (c. 1400), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Einat Ramon is a senior lecturer in Jewish thought and Jewish Women’s Studies at Schechter and one of the founders of professional spiritual care in Israel (she is the writer of Israeli spiritual caregivers’ standards and ethical code.)  In 2012 she founded the Marpeh program – the only academic program for the training of spiritual caregivers in the context of pluralistic Jewish studies, where she teaches and supervises chaplaincy students and Israeli pastoral education supervisors-in-training. Dr. Ramon writes academic and popular books and articles about contemporary Hassidic spirituality, the philosophy and methods of spiritual care , Zionist and North American Jewish thought, and modern Jewish women’s theology and ethics— particularly concerning family and bioethics issues. She is a third generation native Jerusalemite, received her doctorate in Religious Studies from Stanford University, she is married to (Reform) Rabbi Arik Ascherman and is a mother of two.

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