​Learning from the Story of Jonah


In the Biblical worldview, our world has a moral compass and our history is intimately linked to our actions. Our collective crimes and injustices result in our pain and suffering, and our ancestors called this divine judgment and divine wrath. In the words of the enlightenment philosopher Hegel, “World history is world judgement.” The Bible is a series of historical atrocities interpreted by our ancestors as divine judgement for our collective moral and ethical failures. Our ancestors’ crimes usually included materialist idolatry and injustice, corruption, violence, and war, and an atmosphere of mistrust and spite. And our weakened society too often turned against itself in civil war, or was unable to fend off invaders like the Assyrians or the Babylonians.
And then tucked away near the end of the Bible, written a few generations after we returned from the horrors of the Babylonian exile, is the Book of Jonah, the book we read on Yom Kippur. The Book of Jonah is one of the few inspiring stories in the Bible where God becomes angry at a group of people not led by Moses, and then nobody dies. In Nineveh, where the collective violence and suffering were so great, there was no divine wrath. It stands out in the Bible as a story of when world history is not world judgement, but world mercy. So, it is worth mentioning that the Book of Jonah is a work of fiction, but I assume you already know that because of the scene when Jonah is living in a whale’s stomach.
Jonah is a person who knows that he needs to go to Nineveh, the corrupt and violent capital city of the big empire, and urge them to repent and change their behavior or else history will judge and be wrathful. Jonah then does everything he can to avoid this responsibility. He runs away in the opposite direction, he hides, he just wants to disappear and forget it all. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Jonah is running to Tarshish, while Nineveh is tottering on the brink… What is the use of running to Tarshish when the call is to go to Nineveh?”
But who here can’t sympathize with Jonah? Who wants to go and speak truth to power? It is much easier to hide and run away. A whale’s stomach seems much nicer and safer than going to the capital and urging repentance so that in this moment in history, mercy might just overrule judgement.
This past year, I started a group called March on Harrisburg. In Pennsylvania, we have a systemically corrupted State Legislature; the Electoral Integrity Project labeled Pennsylvania a “partly free democracy.”
From January through May, we lobbied 230 of the 253 Pennsylvania State Representatives and Senators for our bills to end gerrymandering, ban unlimited gifts to public officials, and create automatic voter registration.
Miracles happen when we lobby, but it is not in our standard cultural conditioning to calmly and politely put truth before power. And too many mornings, before picking up fellow citizen lobbyists in Northwest Philly and driving two hours to lobby in the State Capitol in Harrisburg, I found myself in the shower vomiting from anxiety. In too many meetings with Legislators I just wanted to disappear. Some days, I called in sick when I could have gone.
From May 13th – May 21st, we marched 105 miles from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. The march was moving and meaningful moments were abundant. But it is not within the realm of socially normal behavior to turn a 2 hour drive into a nine day walk, and I found myself bitter and worried in 45 degree torrential downpours when we set off from Philadelphia, and I jumped at the opportunity to join the advance lobbying team in Harrisburg when there was no shade to be found from the 95 degree heat in the open farmlands of Lancaster County.
And then, the morning of Monday May 22nd, we marched into Nineveh, into the State Capitol in Harrisburg. We came to protest the inaction of Representative Metcalfe and move him to act with responsibility. He is the powerful committee chair who refused to meet with us despite three months of persistent and polite requests, and he is also blocking all of our pro-democracy bills in the House.
At 10:00am in the Capitol rotunda, Rep. Metcalfe’s “Make the Second Amendment Great Again” rally was underway. 75 of us stood outside of his office, right next to the rotunda. I was in the rotunda crowd, and at 10:25, four people standing on the second floor unfurled a large banner reading “Make Corruption Illegal, March on Harrisburg,” and they were promptly arrested by Capitol police. Behind me, I noticed a man a few years older than me who looked very upset by the banner. I asked him what he thought about it. He went off with a standard string of rationalizations, ‘Who do these people think they are, what are they talking about, corruption has been around forever.’ I said, ‘I think they’re trying to get a Republican sponsored gift ban bill through, hb39, to make a part of the corruption illegal.’ He wondered about the bill, I pulled it out of my pocket, and he read it. He said he liked the bill and asked what the problem was, and I said that it was Representative Metcalfe. We’d met with almost every legislator, we know this bill would pass, but he refuses to meet with us, let alone move the bill through committee. He said, ‘Huh, I’ll talk with him tonight, he’s my father in-law.’ I said thank you, and then said that more nonviolent civil disobedience was about to happen to highlight his father in-law’s obstruction, and we shook hands and parted. As the second amendment rally ended at 11am, I walked over to the Representative’s office and sat in with seven others and we were promptly arrested. An hour later, 11 more people would be arrested at his committee hearing. The next day, five more were arrested for walking into his office and asking for a meeting.
In the early afternoon of Wednesday, May 24th, we gathered in front of his office. He was behind a wall of police and thick doors, refusing to meet with us yet again. We gifted him items of low economic value that would still be allowed under our bill: We gave him a cake because we are sweet people who just want to break bread with him. We gave him a coffee mug because he needs to wake up to the state of the State. We gave him some purple, nonpartisan flowers. We gave him some office supplies to help him schedule a meeting with us. And then I gave him my tzitzit, my sweat stained Jewish ritual undershirt with fringes attached at each corner. I gave him my tzitzit because they are a symbol of ethical obligation and a reminder to act with responsibility. A reminder that it is in his power to move the story of our times from judgement and wrath to love and mercy. In Nineveh, the king and all the officials put on sackcloth. He still hasn’t met with us, but we continue to try, because “Nineveh is tottering on the brink.”
Rabbi Heschel wrote, “The striking feature of our age is not the presence of anxiety, but the inadequacy of our anxiety, the insufficient awareness of what is at stake in the human situation. It is as if the nightmare of our fears surpassed our capacity for fear.” If you would rather run to Tarshish or hide in a whale than go to Nineveh, know that you are not alone. There are many Ninevehs in life, and we are responsible for making the journey.
In our Yom Kippur Haftorah, Isaiah commands us, “Clear the road! Remove all obstacles from the road of my people!”
Don’t let fears, anxieties, and unwillingness be stumbling blocks on the road between you and Nineveh.
Rabbi Heschel wrote, “It is necessary to go to Nineveh; it is also vital to learn how to stand before God. For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet, our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship.”
Yom Kippur is the holiday when God moves from the throne of judgement to the throne of mercy. Jonah teaches us that mercy will be given if it is earned, if we are so moved and able to move.
About 1,700 years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud decided that God prays, and that this is the prayer God says, “May it be my will that my mercy may prevail over my other qualities, so that I may deal with my children mercifully, and stop short of strict justice.” G’mar chatima tova, may history seal us in the book of life.
Rabbi Michael Pollack is the Executive Director of March on Harrisburg, a non-partisan group that lobbies, marches, and does nonviolent civil disobedience to end gerrymandering, ban unlimited gifts from lobbyists to public officials, and create automatic voter registration. To learn more, go to www.MarchOnHarrisburg.org.

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