Israel Report

September 2002         

Jonah, Jihad, and the Fish

By Rabbi Daniel Lapin - September 19, 2002
As an ardent boating enthusiast, I find the behavior of the Bible's most famous mariner, Jonah, to be quite baffling. I also find the behavior of 42nd president (Clinton) to have been quite baffling. This week's congressional hearings confirm that our intelligence community had known for years of the threat posed by Islamic Jihadists. Yet the Clinton White House ignored these warnings. It even ignored murderous attacks against our barracks, embassies, planes, and ships. Did President Clinton really not know what any schoolboy knows: that when confronted by bullying barbarism, timidity and cowardice only invite further torment? Of course he knew, but he preferred to be distracted.

Let's get back to Jonah. At the very height of a furious storm (The Perfect Storm?) that threatened the very survival of their ship, the terrified sailors even cast their cargo overboard to lighten the vessel. Obviously, during such a tempest the safest location is up on deck where escape from a sinking vessel is at least possible. Nobody in his right mind would voluntarily remain far down in the belly of the boat. (Titanic?)

"But Jonah descended down into the bilges of the ship, lay down and fell fast asleep." (Jonah I:5) Clearly this was a man without a worry in the world. But don't envy him. Only the dead have no worries. And there is the clue. To Jonah, dying was not that different from his living existence. Just like Clinton, Jonah was an avoider of challenges.

Jonah had been appointed to the highest office in the land. He had been made a prophet and was dispatched by God 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 also represents the presidency of our great land. 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 specific achievement in some specific mission. After all, if God is to be taken seriously then He must be taken personally too. I must distil my own life experiences and my own spiritual adventures into the essence of what it is that I alone have been created to accomplish. 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. Jonah preferred escape.

Only one escape exists: view life as meaningless and seek solace in entertainment. Distract ourselves to death. However, Jews are fond of the toast, L'Chayim-to life! It means affirm life by embracing your 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 mission 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 isn't because we don't know how futile is the attempt. 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.

September 11th, 2001 served the same purpose for us all. It was an unimaginable nightmare from which sprang unforgettable acts of heroism that will live forever in the chronicles of American history. Instead of becoming our grave, it has become the womb of the next American Era. As we embark on the adventure of joyfully confronting the challenges that our land faces, this Book of Jonah, with its ultimate emphasis on moral education, repentance, and redemption, can serve as our roadmap. It teaches that the real way to confront bullies and barbarians is with courage and strength.

The American Alliance of Jews and Christians is a project of Toward Tradition, whose president, Rabbi Lapin, comments each Thursday on the week's Torah reading (parsha), drawing on themes relevant to restoring American greatness and ensuring Israeli security.

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