There are few biblical texts so tied to a specific moment on a specific day as the book of Jonah. Every year, after we’ve sat in contemplation for three-quarters of a day and those who are fasting are really starting to feel weak, we open the tale of this reluctant prophet. Maybe it’s the whale, maybe the gourd. Maybe it’s Jonah’s complaining when we ourselves would rather have a snack too.
Classical Jewish sources are largely silent on why the sages selected Jonah as the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon. The Talmud simply says it is so without any explanation (Megillah 31a), but we are given a clue in a discussion of what rituals and prayers a community must perform on public fast days—the kind held when the community thought it was in the wrong and communal repentance was required. On those days, an elder would lecture the group, saying that it’s not enough merely to adorn oneself with sackcloth and ashes in a sign of remorse; one must actually change one’s ways (Taanit 2:1).
As their proof text, the elder would quote the book of Jonah. Remember the city of Nineveh, against which Jonah was sent to prophesy: the capital of the great Assyrian empire who God sought to destroy on account of their wickedness. It is not merely because the Ninevites donned sackcloth and ashes, but because they changed their ways that God knew their repentance was genuine. And for that, they are saved (Jonah 3:10).
Jonah is not the paradigm of teshuvah that we’re meant to emulate on Yom Kippur. It’s the Ninevites.
In truth, the Ninevites’ reversal is remarkable, bordering on ridiculous. Here comes this grumpy little guy, marching through the streets of one of the most powerful empires of its time, saying that some god Nineveh doesn’t even worship is about to destroy them. And they believe him! The Ninevite king himself jumps off his throne to sit in ashes.
This is the model of teshuvah we’re supposed to follow? Even Jonah is shocked.
As I studied the text again in preparation for this year, I was struck by the language—two words, in fact—the Ninevite king uses when he commands his people to heed Jonah’s prophecy.
“Let all turn back from their evil ways and from the violence which is in their hands,” he says. “Who knows? God may turn and relent—turn back from the heat of anger—so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:8-9).
Who knows. This powerful king of an immense empire completely upends his society, and he’s not even sure it will work.
Mi yodea, who knows.
In 2021, I think these are the two most important words in the book of Jonah.
Every day right now it seems we confront the unknowability of the future. Do we hold services in person or online? How do we send our unvaccinated children to school? When can we gather with the friends whom we dearly miss?
And there are collective and global questions. How will we mitigate climate disaster when so much is out of our individual hands? Can we build a civil public when factions can’t agree on facts? Is a more just future really achievable?
It seems every conversation ends with someone sighing, “who knows…” Jonah might run away too.
But today, our tradition calls us to model ourselves after Nineveh, a people who commits to teshuvah while also saying “Who knows.” We are at home with our tradition, with humanity, when we accept that we cannot know the ultimate outcome of our actions, that we cannot plan for every contingency. We make the best decisions we can, we commit to living out our values, and we take cautious steps forward.
After all, who knows? Maybe someday it will be our story that our descendants retell, when they need courage to face the future. Maybe it will work out for the best.
May this be our goodness, for which we are sealed in the book of life.