Jonah is one of the Trei Asar / תרי עשר, twelve prophets in the Hebrew Bible called the minor prophets because their books are relatively short compared to the major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Jonah is unusual because he preached repentance, not to the Israelites, but rather to the citizens of Nineveh – pagan Assyrians. We read the Book of Jonah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur because its main theme, like the Holy Day, is teshuva /תשובה, repentance.
The Bible tells us that Jonah spent three days the belly of the big fish-דג גדול/dag gadol. He had fled from G-d after the prophet had been commanded to go to Nineveh to preach to the Assyrian king and people. Jonah’s plan instead was to flee to Tarshish/תרשיש in the west (possibly Spain). Jonah boarded a ship to sail as far away from Nineveh as he could get.
The Almighty caused a storm to toss the ship about like a cork. The sailors prayed, each to his own god, for protection. But Jonah knew it was because of his disobedience to the Holy One that all the ship’s crew was imperiled. He said, “Throw me overboard.” Reluctantly they did, and calm waters returned.
G-d summoned the gigantic sea creature to swallow Jonah whole in one gulp, so that, living in the stomach of the great fish (not a whale), he might reconsider his conduct and his faith. Jonah did, and then prayed after three days and nights in the darkness, in the abdomen of this marine beast:
I cried out in my distress to the Lord and G-d answered me. From the bowels of
the Underworld I called out in desperation and you heard my voice. (Jonah, Chapter 2:3).
Many people today all over the world must feel like Jonah, sitting in darkness, pleading for Divine intervention. Our darkness is not physical, but it may feel like it, in that the danger cannot be seen, only it’s effects. Like Jonah our distress is fueled by great uncertainty as to what our future may hold.
Jonah called out to the Creator for relief. So can we. But for those three days in darkness Jonah was all alone. We all have each other. We practice social distancing.
But spiritually we are brought closer together. We also have science. Our civilization has been studying viruses for many decades, pandemics for even longer. This enemy, the coronavirus COVID-19, will be defeated by all of us working together.
Later in his supplication to the Holy One from the belly of the fish Jonah prayed:
When my soul flagged I remembered Adonai, my prayer came unto You, to Your Holy Temple. (Jonah, Chapter 2:8).
G-d is here to support us if we are willing to work together to help ourselves. This is a moment for both science and for faith.
Our spirits may waver, but if we remember our Redeemer we can courageously meet and destroy this pestilence. If we are wise, we might even use this medical and economic emergency as a template for solving future problems.
May we working as a global community not only vanquish our viral foe but grow together as one family of humanity.
Rabbi Richard Baroff is president of Guardians of the Torah.