What a blessings it is to be able to bounce out of bed each morning on fire to fulfill one’s purpose for living. One of the most potent antidotes to feeling low, miserable and even depressed is having a purpose, knowing it, and passionately propelling oneself towards it.
As an ardent boating enthusiast, I find the behavior of the Bible’s most famous mariner, Jonah, to be quite baffling. At the very height of a furious storm that threatened the very survival of their ship, the terrified sailors cast their cargo overboard to lighten the vessel. Obviously, during such a tempest the safest location is high up on the struggling vessel from where escape might at least be possible. That is why lifeboats on every ship are found on the upper deck. Nobody in his right mind would voluntarily remain far down in the belly of the boat. Many victims of the Titanic drowned down in bottom decks of the doomed liner.
But Jonah descended down into the bilges of the ship, lay down and fell fast asleep.
Clearly this was a man without a worry in the world. But don’t envy him. Only the dead have no worries. And that’s the clue. To Jonah, dying was not that different from his living existence. Jonah was an avoider of challenges.
God elevated Jonah and made him His prophet. God dispatched him on a challenging mission to Nineveh. Instead of confronting the challenge, Jonah elected to avoid it and attempted to escape to Tarshish.
Jonah represents you and me. He represents leaders in politics and in business. He represents parents and preachers. Jonah had been given a life mission by God. Just like each of us, he had been given the gift of a real purpose for living.
From each of us, God expects specific performance and achievement in some specific mission. After all, if God is to be taken seriously then He must be taken personally too. We must each distill our own life experiences and our own spiritual adventures into the essence of what it is that we alone have been created to achieve.
Life itself demands no less, but the search is challenging, even dangerous, and the mission, once found is always formidable. Having problems and worries is a barometer of life. Confronting them is the elixir of immortality. But Jonah preferred escape.
In reality, only one escape exists: view life as meaningless and seek solace in entertainment. Distract ourselves to death. Jews are fond of the toast, L’Chayim—to life! What that really means is affirm life. But the only way to affirm life is by embracing your own moral mission with all its challenges.
Attempting escape means choosing an empty alternative. It means abandoning your own great moral challenge. It means a life in which the dull gray monotony of existence becomes almost indistinguishable from death.
Jonah tried to abandon his Divine destiny. Instead of traveling to Nineveh as commanded, he attempted to evade his whole purpose for living by escaping to Tarshish. Since evading one’s mission is an embrace of death, it is no wonder that Jonah was content to die in the sinking ship.
When we try to avoid our mission, it is not because we consider the attempt to be futile. It is because nothing has awoken us. Only one thing could awake Jonah to his destiny and help him find his own redeeming mission in life: three days in the belly of that fish.
It was an unimaginable place of wet darkness where Jonah huddled among the giant pulsing organs of life. Was this living cave to become a grave—the end of his life, or was it to become a womb—the real start of his life? It could have gone either way. The choice was Jonah’s to make.
The one time in the Jewish calendar that the book of Jonah is read in synagogue is late in the afternoon on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. As the sun starts setting and the famous fast day is ebbing away we read:
Jonah left the city and sat at the east of the city. He made himself a booth there…”
It is quite impossible to read that verse without thinking of the Festival of Sukot, sometimes called Tabernacles or the Festival of Booths that commences just five days later. Yes, the book of Jonah read on Yom Kippur really does hint at the forthcoming Festival of Booths.
As if to parallel that chronology, of all the many laws governing conduct during the Day of Atonement, the final regulation, the last word as it were, is that Jews ought to commence building their booths for Sukot immediately following the conclusion of the fast.
The idea is that every day is connected to its yesterday and its tomorrow. Rosh haShana, New Year, is linked to Yom Kippur by the Ten Days of Repentance. In turn, Yom Kippur is linked to the next holy day, Sukot by the final reading of the day, the Book of Jonah.
It is interesting that much of the information surrounding Jonah is disclosed in the tractate entitled Booths. (Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah Chapter V) It is there that we discover Jonah’s identity and origins. Ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that he was the son of the widow who was Elijah the prophet’s landlady in the first book of Kings, chapter 17. The lad had died and, in response to the entreaties of his bereaved mother, Elijah brought him back to life. Later in his life we encounter him as the prophet Jonah. This helps explain why he seemed so fearless of dying during the storm. After all, he had died once before and had been resuscitated once before—by Elijah the prophet.
The lesson to be learned is that there are three avenues to finding our mission and thrilling to our purpose. First, it can be dark and frightening days in the belly of the fish. This is to say, some experience that has the potential either to bury us or birth us anew. Second, we should relate deeply to the interconnectedness of days. If today lacks clarity, know that tomorrow will soon arrive. Finally, rebirth is possible. The old Jonah died in that fish, just as he did as a lad. In both cases, he was restored. Finding our purpose is the same as being restored to life. And bounding out of bed each morning is a joyful reaffirmation of the life you live.
14 thoughts on “Find Yourself in a Fish”
Many are the things I’ve learnt here. Thank you so much for sharing.
Thank you, Rabbi, for this wisdom. Tomorrow afternoon I will be reading the Book of Jonah with fresh eyes.
Hello Rabbi Lapin, This very day I have been struggling with my purpose as I have for a long time. Wondering again what my purpose is. Seems whenever I struggle a message like yours appears to help me along. Thank you.
WAY interesting, Rabbi (and Susan)! You are drawing on more literature than just the Torah and enriching us greatly. (All Christians are first of all Jewish, but most of us don’t know it!) Added to whatever we may be currently experiencing, you have us going “Hmmm!” and helping to keep us open-minded. Process thought springs from the feedback loop (among other things), and now and then we see ancient wisdom that supports it, along with the quantum physicists. “Now” is the accepted time, and “now” is built out of all those yesterdays. We can’t change the past, but we can go back and change our perspective on it. Thanks so much!
Thank you Deb–
I think you may understand it better than the quantum physicists. About two years ago, the scientific magazine Discover, had a story on quantum physics that contained this nugget:
The central issue is that physicists don’t know what the most basic equation of quantum theory actually represents. “There is no standard interpretation,” says Antony Valentini, a theoretical physicist at Clemson University. “It’s extraordinary. I don’t know of any comparable episode in the history of science.” Where does that lack of consensus leave physicists? After all, quantum mechanics isn’t just a branch of physics; it is modern physics. If physicists can’t agree on — or don’t know — what their reigning theory is all about, does it mean they’ve hit a wall in terms of understanding the world?
So stick with us here, Deb, and we’ll all try to keep on track with truth together.
I always look forward to your enlightenment and I must say you never disappoint. This one is one of those articles that I will share as usual for many days to come. Beautiful and oh so well written. wow Rabbi!! Every Christian needs you Rabbi. God bless you truly.
“The idea is that every day is connected to its yesterday and its tomorrow.”
The interconnectedness of days is actually a big idea. Maybe huge is more like it. I just stumbled onto it while studying why societies crash. The future is heavily dependent on the past. That’s a feedback loop. And what do feedback loops like to do? They like to crash. Crashes are built right into the system. No help needed.
How do you stop feedback loop crashes? Negative feedback. Something like automatic debt release at fixed intervals would work. Maybe God was on to something.
I’m visual, and imaging Jonah in the belly of the whale got quite uncomfortable. I love the analogy of the belly (of the fish) being a womb where from our darkest moments can be a rebirth of life. In case we are slightly curious of our Who can make that difference (from the decision of death to life) for us Christians, it is Yeshua. For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so was the Son of Man in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. Matthew 12:40 where He arose on the 3rd day to Eternal Life.
When I read “Jonah was an avoider of challenges”, I immediately put my own name there too. Just last night the Lord spoke something to me along the same lines. Being aware of the problem is the first step towards fixing it. Thank you.
Excellent message and delivery Rabbi Lapin, a wonderful online Shabbat Shuva Drasha!
Thank you so much Gidon–
We remain big fans of your Avodat HaKodesh, your holy work in the Holy Land.
Wishing you a healthy and prosperous 5780.
Wow, I had never heard the part about Jonah being he same little boy as the one Elijah brought back! Is there a place where I can read this for myself? I find it very interesting, and would like to read more. 🙂 Thanks ever so much. 🙂
Profound literature as always Rabbi. It’s always a learning experience reading your material.
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