Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild

My favourite part of the Book of Jonah is Chapter Five. You won’t find it in the printed editions, because it is a chapter – thanks to a form of ”Interactive Narrative Composition” – that the reader, each reader has to supply for themselves. So it is never the same twice. Its main theme is Jonah’s reaction to what God has said and done – or rather, what God has said and NOT done. It is not a sequel but a continuation, a further development.

The scene is set for us in Chapter Four and so we know the location and the main characters; We know that Jonah is sitting under a dead tree outside the mega-city of Nineveh, that he is angry and upset and frustrated. He would seem to have good reasons for these feelings. He has been dragged from his normal, humdrum routine and predictable life by a divine voice that has compelled him, against his will, to leave everything and everyone he knows and to undertake adventurous and dangerous journeys. Although he has resisted, tried to run away, tried to hide, he has experienced what no other person on earth (or in the water) has experienced – he has survived being thrown overboard a ship in danger of sinking in a storm; he has survived three days and nights in the belly of some sea monster; he has managed to walk all the way from the Mediterranean coast through Lebanon and Syria to the centre of Iraq. At some risk, for it is always a dangerous thing to deliver an unpopular message, he has gone into the centre of the most evil and brutal and violent city on earth and he has called out ”God is angry with you all! In forty days God will destroy this city!” Then he has got out, somehow, and found a place outside where he can sit in the shade and watch the show. Until the tree providing his shade dies and he gets a headache through sunstroke.

But then: Nothing happens. And Jonah asks God ”Why Not?” and God answers, ”Oh, well, you see, I’ve changed My mind. After all, the city is full of the most dreadfully ignorant, incompetent, illiterate and mentally-challenged people, not counting the animals who are barely lower than them in intellectual attainments. So, well, I decided not to do it after all.”

That is the end of Chapter Four in the printed texts. Then Chapter Five starts. Here is one version:

”WHAT?” cried Jonah in a rage. ”What?! But You knew this already before I set off, before you made me set off! You KNEW already what kind of people there were here, you KNEW they were stupid, as thick as two short planks, uneducated, unable to think outside their own tiny comfort zone, unable to see beyond their own city walls and borders. You KNEW already there were lots of animals here. So what? Every day You kill thousands of people! They get up, catch an illness and drop dead; or their hearts give way or you send them a blow, a stroke. They fall off steps, they get crushed by a cart. Do you care about THEM?  Every day thousands of animals are killed in Nineveh – I don’t have the statistics, it is true, but I have seen the market place, well, just ONE market place and I can tell you there were hundreds of cows there, of calves, of sheep, of lambs, of goats, of pigs, of donkeys, of horses, of rabbits – did I tell you they eat rats here, too, and dogs, and cats? Chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, pigeons, larks? They were all there to be slaughtered! There’s a kebab or a burger joint at every corner! And that’s not even counting the rats who are poisoned or killed in traps, the dogs beaten to death; The snakes trodden on, that’s not counting the millions of insects trodden on by sandals, splattered against a wall, caught in fly traps! Every day! Don’t come suddenly the hoity-toity politically-correct animal lover to Me, God! Don’t play Vegetarian games with me now! I know better!”

There was a pause. A deep pause, a pause that got longer and longer. When God spoke, it was no longer in anger. God’s voice was mild, conciliatory, almost pleading.

And the word of the Lord came once again to Jonah the son of Amittai. ”But you haven’t understood, Jonah,” said God. ”This whole journey. This whole mission. It wasn’t about Nineveh. No, it never was. It was about YOU. Would You be able to obey? Would You be able to change? Would You be able to show sympathy and feel empathy for other people forced to leave their homes and all they have built up, their families and all they care about, and face an unknown future in a strange land? Would YOU be able to feel sympathy for people at risk of drowning in a small boat in a storm-filled Mediterranean? Would You feel sympathy for people in Iraq and Syria whose cities are indeed being demolished around their ears, complete with all their fellow inhabitants and all their animals? Can’t you even feel a bit of sympathy for a tree that grows and then dies in the dry heat, when it cannot cope with the climate in which it had thought it could grow? I notice you did nothing to water it or care for it, you just took the shade for granted. Isn’t that typical? You assume there will always be cool shade or fans or air-conditioning, you complain when it isn’t there or isn’t working, but do you ever think where the energy comes from? Or at what cost? Or who has to work so hard so that you can sit in comfort?

This whole journey has been about YOU, Jonah. You complain to Me when the people of Nineveh, stupid though they might be, suddenly take notice that things cannot continue the way they have until now, that something will have to change, starting with their attitudes, if their city is to survive. But would you not complain if they didn’t? If your words had been ignored? And tell Me – If, now, I were to say to you, ”Go, Jonah, Go back to your homeland and go back to Jerusalem and say to the people there, 'God is angry with you because of what you are doing’ ” – do you think they would behave any better, do you think they would listen to you, do you think they would change their ways, put on sackcloth, sit in ashes, fast and pray and consider how they might mend their ways? Do you? And if you do, then go and do it, Jonah, and I will help you on your way, but if you don’t, deep in your shrivelled heart, then please don’t get all self-righteous with me and think you are any better than these Ninevites. Just calling yourself a Jew isn’t enough, you know. You have to BE Jewish as well! That’s what a covenant is all about.”

This is a spine-chilling, dramatic, exciting spot, a real cliff-hanger, a duel of words between the Master of the Universe and an individual Jew who is struggling with the concepts of individual and communal Responsibility and Repentance, of Self-Criticism, of Honesty with Himself – and theoretically here Chapter Six could begin – but I don’t want to go too far, too quickly. Maybe next year, at Yom Kippur. If we ever reach that point. Incidentally, according to tradition Jonah stayed on in Nineveh and was buried there, his 'Nabio Yunus’ tomb near Mosul becoming a place of pilgrimage until blown up by ISIS in 2014. But that’s just a minor 'spoiler alert’.

Not everyone here today is a writer by nature, but all of you have ideas – I certainly hope you are not as stupid as the inhabitants of Nineveh have been described, not knowing the difference between Right and Left – not even as these terms apply to Politics – and all of you have read the first four chapters of this bizarre but wonderful book.

So – I wish you all a very creative, and thoughtful, and helpful, and challenging time, writing your own Chapter Fives – and then perhaps you may discuss your drafts with your friends and neighbours, and you may consider what both you, and they, may learn from it. Can we reach, truly, a Happy End? Time may tell – depending on what we tell it. But a lot depends on what WE put into our chapters. And our lives.


Chatimah Tovah,

Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild