Posts tagged " Jonah "

Who Are You Calling a Hebrew?

October 8th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 12 comments

The Mayflower’s historic 66 day voyage in 1620 from Plymouth, England to the New World was characterized by what was then typical hardship for both passengers and crew.  Arduous handling of the heavy canvas sails, coping with almost non-existent bathroom facilities, and barely surviving on non-refrigerated food were only a few of the challenges faced by those who made that voyage.

While much has improved for mariners, one activity that plagued those on the Mayflower still requires attention today.  Whether a cruise ship like the Symphony of the Seas at over 1,100 feet long (more than a thousand times larger than the Mayflower) or the small motorboat on which the Lapin family explores coastal British Columbia, all boats have bilge pumps.  Their purpose is to return the water that inevitably finds its way into the bottoms of boats back to where it belongs—outside the boat.

The Mayflower had two large unwieldy contraptions made of wood that required the manpower of several men to operate.  Today’s vessels admit far less water and most are equipped with electric bilge pumps which switch on and off automatically as necessary.  Still, even though one knows that the bilge pump will deal with it, it’s always a little disconcerting to spot water in the bottom of one’s boat, especially if it looks like a little more than should be there from normal shaft seal drippage or condensation.  It always reminds me of how utterly dependent one is upon the watertight integrity of one’s ship.  Perhaps this is why sailors tend to be either superstitious or religious.

The fact is that crossing any body of water is an unnatural act for humans.  But whether it is building jetliners or controlling our anger at an insult, we humans specialize in overcoming nature!  So, whether it is a ten-year-old boy crossing the village pond on a home-made raft or an intrepid sailor competing in one of the grueling single-handed round the world races, crossing a body of water is a significant and meaningful experience.

Even crossing over water by a bridge is significant enough to spur an entire collection of bridge idioms: ‘cross that bridge later’; ‘build bridges’; ‘burn bridges’; ‘cross that bridge when we get to it,’ and so on.  Crossing over water plainly carries significance.

Which makes the oldest and most venerable name for Jews also significant and meaningful.  The name Hebrew, as in “Abraham the Hebrew” is a loose transliteration of the Hebrew word, IVRI. 

And the fugitive came and he told Abram the Hebrew…
(Genesis 14:13)

IVRI means someone who has crossed over, usually a body of water. 

And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river,
and led him throughout all the land of Canaan…
(Joshua 24:3)

Abraham’s first act of obedience to God involved leaving his birthplace and crossing the Euphrates River. 

Joseph in Egypt was referred to as a Hebrew.

Now it happened, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, that she called to the people of her house, and she spoke to them, saying, “Look! He brought us a Hebrew man to mock us.   
(Genesis 39:13-14)

Joseph had also crossed a river, the Nile on his way to Egypt.

Guess who else crossed water and is also called a Hebrew?  That’s right, Jonah.

And they [the sailors] said to him, “Tell us now, because of whom has this evil befallen us? What is your work and whence do you come? What is your land, and from what people are you?” 

And Jonah said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven, Who made the sea and the dry land.” 
(Jonah 1:8-9)

In their founding years, the Israelites experienced three distinct geographical places.  First, they were in Egypt.  Then they transited from Egypt to the desert where they spent 40 years.  Thereafter, they transited from the desert to the Promised Land.  Both of these transitions involved crossing water, respectively the Red Sea and the Jordan River (Exodus 14 and Joshua 3).

Not surprisingly, Jews are called Hebrews, meaning “the water crossers.”  Throughout Scripture, crossing water is always seen as a metaphor for a significant life transition and Hebrews—Water Crossers—are meant always to be ready to transition to a new level of growth.  This may be why Jews, in general, are the world’s worst relaxers.  There’s always another bridge to cross, another journey to take, another challenge to seize.  Now is not the time to relax.  It never is the time to relax.  And it wasn’t ever time to relax for the Pilgrims either.  In more ways than one, they saw themselves as America’s first Hebrews!

Insights like this one emerge from studying Scripture in the Hebrew language through the lens of ancient Jewish wisdom. Reading a Thought Tool once may provide interesting insights, but rarely leads to life changes. To help you re-read, absorb and share the information, we have gathered three years worth of Thought Tools into our 3 volume Thought Tool Set. You can find it the books separately in e-book form, but holding a book lends itself to a deeper experience. This week, get all 3 volumes for the price of two and be prepared to make significant life transitions of your own.

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Storm Shelter

September 17th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 14 comments

I am spoiled. When I contemplate boating, I picture vacationing with my family among the magnificent islands of the Pacific Northwest. But except for a blessed few people and times, boarding a ship has not meant leisure, but instead was a risky way for crossing oceans.

Traveling by ship was dangerous and frightening in the days before exotic cruising. Ships served as the precarious means of transportation to start a new life, for trade or as a means of livelihood like the potentially deadly 19th century whaling ships and, indeed, today’s commercial fishing boats.

The book of Jonah opens with a different type of boating:

And Jonah arose to flee… from before God…
and he found a ship going to Tarshish…
(Jonah 1:3)

And God sent a big wind over the ocean and there was a great storm
upon the ocean and the ship appeared likely to shatter.
(Jonah 1:4)

And the sailors were terrified … and they threw all the articles
on the ship into the ocean to make it lighter
and Jonah went down
to the bilges of the ship, lay down and fell asleep.
(Jonah 1:5)

The word ship appears four times in these three consecutive verses. Only by looking at the Hebrew text can you see that the word in the first three instances differs from the fourth. The first three use the the Hebrew word ONiYaH. The final instance of ship uses the word SeFiNaH.

א נ י – ה                       ם פ י נ ה    

ship: SeFiNaH                  ship: ONiYaH

How can Scripture suggest that the ship Jonah slept in is different from the ship described earlier? One clue is that this is the only place in Scripture where a sailing vessel is called a SeFiNaH.

Take a look at two more Biblical vessels. In the days leading up to the great flood, God instructed Noah to make an ark:

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood…
(Genesis 6:14)

Later, Moses’ mother floats her son down the Nile:

And when she could hide him no longer
she took for him an ark of bulrushes…
(Exodus 2:3)

Although English translations sometimes call Moses’ craft a basket, the Hebrew labels both a TeiVaH.

ת ב ה

Ark:  TeiVaH

The different words for floating conveyance reflect different purposes. Neither Noah nor Moses had a destination. Their arks were not designed to be sailed or even controlled. Their boats were merely refuges from peril.

The ship Jonah boards is a commercial one. Her crew chooses to face constant struggle. There might be too much wind or too little. There are shoals and reefs to avoid. The challenging trip is undertaken in order to accomplish a goal.

When Jonah goes to sleep at the end of verse 5, he is using the ship for a uniquely different purpose. He is avoiding reality. The ship is a hiding place for him, not a means to a destination. It isn’t even a refuge; he is indifferent to its fate as well as his own.

We get an added clue to the function of a SeFiNaH from the Hebrew word itself. One magic of Hebrew is that certain letters share a relationship. When you exchange one of these letters for the other, the two words that result share a connection. Among these related letters is the first letter of the root word for Jonah’s boat when he goes to sleep and the first letter of the word for “hidden”. (Remember that Hebrew reads from right to left)

  צפן      ספן

        Boat      Hidden

On extremely rare occasions one needs to board an ark. Buffeted by external forces, be they physical, social or economic, there is no further action one can take to influence one’s life. At that point finding refuge, as in a TeiVaH and surrendering all to God’s mercy is the only option.

But most of the time, one wants an ONiYaH, a purposefully sailed ship whose course need to be constantly adjusted and controlled. The ship to avoid at all costs is Jonah’s SeFiNaH, the equivalent of burrowing under the blankets and giving up.

In ancient Jewish wisdom, a sailing ship sometimes serves as a metaphor for a self-contained existence. When you leave the dock you must carry everything you need with you. Acquiring anything additional is uncertain; it depends on weather and wind, both of which are out of your control. Preparation is a prerequisite for a successful passage. Part of the preparation is making sure you board the correct ship.

Reading the news it isn’t hard to think that the world is going to pieces around us. Like with Jonah, sinking into despair is tempting, yet wrong. Forming a deep relationship with God is the best way to arm and motivate oneself to take action. One way of achieving that is by delving deeply into His word. Today’s Thought Tool is a reprint from 2009 and perhaps even more timely than it was then. You can have it to read and reread in the book Thought Tools Volume 2. That book, along with over 20 other ancient Jewish wisdom resources,  is available in our Complete Library Pack and Complete Library Pack PLUS. As we prepare to close our store for Yom Kippur both of these, filled with timeless tools for life,  are on sale during this period of time when Jews read the book of Jonah aloud as God is sealing the fate of individuals and nations for the coming year.

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What’s up with Jonah?

November 22nd, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 16 comments

My question is about Jonah.

Why was he so angry with G-d that he would not go to Nineveh? Here is a man so stiff-necked that he would rather drown than obey G-d? Here is a man who kept himself in the belly of a sea giant for three days before he repented and agreed to do as G-d instructed him. After preaching in Nineveh, he sat down and again was angry.


Catherine G.

Dear Catherine,

Like you, we are fascinated by the book of Jonah. In fact, it has been the topic of at least four Thought Tools as well as one section of our audio CD, Day for Atonement: Heavenly Gift of Spiritual Serenity. (Go here and type Jonah in the search box to find the relevant Thought Tools.)

This correctly suggests that the topic is too large for an Ask the Rabbi answer. However, we wanted to focus on one of your sentences. You write: “Here is a man so stiff-necked that he would rather drown than obey G-d.”

We would like to suggest that you can go to any mall, airport or university and find that the majority of people there fit that description as well. Sadly, you can go to many churches and synagogues and find the same. Obeying God is easier in theory than in actuality. We all tend to resist being told to do things we don’t want to do or to refrain from those things that we do want to do. We often rationalize and  intellectualize our refusal; sometimes we simply pretend that God has nothing to say about the issue at hand.

Don’t you know people who are drowning in unhappiness rather than obey God’s vision for family and society? There are pieces of Jonah in all of us. Studying him should encourage us to look in the mirror.

Wishing all of us Bible study that makes us uncomfortable,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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If you missed it, you can see it HERE


Fishing for Life

October 6th, 2016 Posted by Thought Tools 1 comment

What a blessings it is to be on fire to fulfill one’s purpose for living.  One of the most potent antidotes to feeling low or miserable is having a purpose 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 height of a furious storm that threatened the 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.

“But Jonah descended down into the bilges of the ship, lay down and fell fast asleep.”
(Jonah 1:5)

Clearly this was a man without a worry in the world.  But don’t envy him.  Only the dead have no worries.  That’s the clue.  To Jonah, dying was not that different from his living existence.


The Jonah Tart

July 27th, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

Certain phrases such as, “Where’s the beef?” leap into the national language. Other phrases glide into the shared language of smaller groups. When my children were younger, we read many books aloud. This lasted way beyond the years when the children became fluent readers. I have fond memories of taking turns reading Thomas Hardy’s  The Mayor of Casterbridge with my then sixteen year old son.


One book we enjoyed as a family was a memoir written by a man recalling his late 1800’s childhood. (I don’t remember the title but if anyone does, please let me know.) He and his siblings were raised in Maine by their grandfather, and our favorite chapter concerned a day when the grandfather was away from home. The children decided to bake tarts, and to add a note of suspense and excitement, they doctored one tart with all sorts of less than tasty flavorings. Once baked, each child would pick a tart and they would bite into them at the same time. Most of the faces would be wreathed in smiles – and one child would grimace and race for a glass of water. The lone, unfortunate tart was known as the “Jonah,” named for the prophet who brought storm conditions to the ship he boarded.  


As the tarts finished baking and anticipation grew, the children heard a knock at the door. There stood an elderly man who introduced himself as their grandfather’s friend, who had been away for many years. After explaining the grandfather’s absence, they invited him in and offered a drink. Just then, the tarts were ready and the guest exclaimed, “Oh, it has been so long since I’ve smelled such wonderful pies!”


The children were trapped. Good manners demanded that they invite their guest to join them. What was meant as a fun game was turning into a potential nightmare. You can imagine the tension as they sat around the table and passed the tray! As each family member bit into a tart so did their guest, and as fortune would have it, he turned red and started coughing as the Jonah effect took hold. 


Once all was calm, the children explained what had happened and braced for a stern lecture. To their great relief, the guest burst out laughing and as he headed out, asked them to tell their grandfather that Mr. Hannibal Hamlin sent regards.


That night, the children greeted their grandfather with the message of his friend’s visit, omitting the details which might earn them a punishment. On subsequent visits, Mr. Hamlin shared their reticence.


Just how momentous the day had been was something the children did not understood until years later. Hannibal Hamlin had indeed been away from home for years, serving as Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president during his first term of office. He was returning from that position, having relinquished the title to Andrew Johnson, who shortly thereafter became president following Lincoln’s assassination.


I thought of this story and how the phrase, “the Jonah” became part of our family shorthand, in the aftermath of publicizing our Holy Hebrew! webinar. The announcement was dogged by technical glitches as our Thought Tool email bounce rate soared due to server issues, our links went to the wrong or blank pages, and numerous emails vanished into the stratosphere. I only hope that the class’s Jonah status ends long before the webinar actually starts, and we recover with as much grace as Vice-president Hamlin.  If you are interested in finding out more, it is with not quite as much trepidation as the children had, but neither with equanimity, that I provide this link for you to explore.  Holy Hebrew! 

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