Breakers and Billows: Thoughts on Jonah for 2020

These recent months have been an emotional trial for all of us. Wherever we are, we’ve likely felt trapped by the inability to see our loved ones, the inability to gather together, the inability to go about our lives as we are used to. Simultaneously, we’ve experienced a breakdown of civil bonds and a crisis of leadership that has left many of us unmoored, struggling to hold onto hope.

Our protagonist Jonah finds himself in a similar situation, in the moment he finds himself swallowed up by the giant fish. Knowing Jonah, we might expect him merely to kvetch in such a situation. (Then again, who hasn’t given their share of kvetching these days?) But the book of Jonah is not kind to its eponymous character: we are meant to judge him, harshly, first for fleeing God’s call, then for napping during a crisis, and finally for caring more about his own comfort than the fate of countless Ninevites. Emotional and moral maturity are not Jonah’s strongest traits.

Yet, when he is in the belly of that fish, he offers a prayer from his heart. Here are some of its most moving images:

In my trouble I called to the Lord, and God answered me;
From the belly of Sheol I cried out, and You heard my voice.
You cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea, the floods engulfed me;
All your breakers and billows swept over me…
The waters closed in over me, the deep engulfed me.
Weeds twined around my head.
I sank to the base of the mountains; the bars of the earth closed upon me forever…
When my life was ebbing away, I called the Lord to mind…
Deliverance is the Lord’s!

Jonah 2:3–10 (excerpts)

It’s as if these words were written for our own time: “The floods engulfed me, all your breakers and billows swept over me; the waters closed in over me, the deep engulfed me; I sank to the base of the mountains, the bars of the earth closed upon me forever.”

We can imagine ourselves in the depths with him. What prompts this outpouring from Jonah’s soul that touches our own?

In one midrashic retelling (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 10:9), the giant fish takes Jonah on a tour of the deepest, most mythic parts of the world: they travel to the source of the ocean waters; they find the pillars of the earth; they follow the paths at the bottom of the Red Sea by which the Israelites escaped the Egyptians; they even glimpse the fabled netherrealms of Gehenna and Sheol. Eventually they reach the great foundation stone of the world…and on that stone, in the deepest depths of the world, Jonah finds people praying.

These worshippers were the sons of Korach. According to rabbinic legend, the sons of Korach are trapped beneath the earth, where they sing songs of praise and worship. Some of the biblical psalms are attributed to them, said to be their words.

So this is the scene Jonah and the fish encounter at the end of their tour of the deeps: the sons of Korach standing in prayer. I think they were singing what we now call Psalm 42. This is some of this psalm’s imagery:

My soul thirsts for the living God…
My soul is downcast; therefore I think of You in this land…
Where deep calls unto deep in the roar of Your waterfalls;
All Your breakers and billows have swept over me…
I say to God, my rock, “Why have You forgotten me, why must I walk in the gloom?”…
Have hope in God; I will yet praise God, my ever-present help, my God.

Psalms 42:1–12 (excerpts)

Psalm 42 from the sons of Korach and Jonah’s prayer are the same. They even contain the same line: “All Your breakers and billows have swept over me.” They are cries from the depths of despair, cries for redemption.

Jonah is not one from whom we would expect heartfelt prayer, yet just when he is most desperate, drowning in the depths, he finds others who know how that feels. He finds others who express the same hopelessness, the same yearning for release. He finds others with whom he can join his voice in prayer.

And this is the key to Jonah’s freedom.

We so often feel these days as if we are drowning in wave after wave of bad news. All these breakers and billows sweep over us, and we yearn for redemption. Like Jonah, we have seen some deep places, and our foundations have been shaken.

But it is in the depths that we might finally see things as they really are. In the depths we discover our capacity for prayer and our capacity for action. And it is in the depths that we discover that none of us is alone. As the sons of Korach proclaim: deep calls unto deep.

Like Jonah, we have others with whom we can link our voices. There are others who strengthen us and whom we can strengthen. That is what many of us have uncovered in these recent months of stress and isolation: the bonds we share that go deep in our souls.

Jonah speaks to and with us in this tumultuous year of 2020. When we are drowning among the breakers and billows, that is the precise moment to find the others who also struggle for redemption. We lend support and let them support us, and we raise our voices in one chorus of protest.

We have seen the depths, and, together, let us find our way back to the surface. May we achieve that redemption, speedily and in our days.

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