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Maybe one day all of the trout in the world will get together and plot their revenge for being fooled by thread and feathers, reeled in at the end of a line, and often released but sometimes eaten by tall two-legged creatures. If such a meeting should ever happen, the trout might decide to give us a taste of our own medicine, and make a human being live in the belly of a fish for a while and see how he likes it.
Such is the story of the prophet Jonah, who fled from God’s command, was thrown overboard from a ship, and then swallowed by a big fish. (Although we often hear that it was a whale, the Hebrew text uses words which mean big fish). After three days and nights, Jonah prayed to God, and the fish spit him out on dry land.
The Book of Jonah offers many lessons for our lives today, and not just about what it would be like inside of a fish’s belly. In reading the tale of Jonah, we learn that God has a relationship with all people, no matter what their religion. Fleeing from God, Jonah boarded a ship with non-Jewish sailors. When a great storm arrived, Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard but they refused. When the storm worsened, the sailors finally asked forgiveness from God and tossed Jonah over the bow. Then the righteous sailors offered sacrifices to God and made vows. The sailors were not Jews, but they knew the power of God.
God has a relationship with all people, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and those who are unsure what they believe. It was a high school English teacher of mine, who said that God is on top of a mountain, and every religion is a different path working its way up the slope. Some twist and turn, others try the steep slope, but all of these paths lead to the same source, a compassionate God.
At this time of year, many communities gather for an interfaith Thanksgiving Service, as we do here in Ridgefield. When Jewish and Christian clergy join together on the pulpit, it is an important reminder that we all pray to the same divine source.
A second lesson from the Book of Jonah is the value of finding a place for reflection and prayer in our lives. After the sailors threw him overboard, Jonah spent three days and nights inside the belly of the fish. On the third day, Jonah prayed to God, a moving and powerful prayer, asking God to save him from the darkness and bring him back to the light. God heard Jonah, and the fish spit him out on dry land.
Jonah’s experience reminds us that even a dark and lonely place, like the belly of a fish, can become a place of prayer, reflection and returning to God. Prayer can bring light into dark places.
Just as Jonah found a connection to God while in the fish, we too can find places for solitude and introspection in our lives. When we go for a walk, go to the gym or go fly fishing on a beautiful river, we take a break from the stresses and demands of the everyday.
We assume that it was gross and slimy inside of the fish’s belly. But a midrash, a story from the rabbis, offers a different interpretation. According to the sages, the belly of the fish was actually a synagogue, and light shown through the eyes of the fish to bless Jonah. Perhaps Jonah was not imprisoned in a jail cell. Rather the belly of the fish was a place for prayer and introspection, like a synagogue.
Prayer can be a time to remember what is truly important, family, relationships, helping others and living with integrity. Prayer can also help us see that the aggravations of daily life, and the need to acquire material possessions are truly not worth all of the energy and time we devote to them. The story of Jonah reminds us that moments of solitude and prayer can help us to see our highest priorities and to realign our actions and our lives accordingly.
One final lesson that the Book of Jonah offers has to do with leadership. Jonah was a prophet but not a great leader. He fled from God’s command. Later, after escaping the fish, Jonah went to Nineveh to proclaim God’s message. But instead of running from house to house, or trying to get everyone’s attention, Jonah half-heartedly walked into the city square and spoke only one sentence: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Luckily someone heard him!
In contrast to Jonah’s lack of passion, the King of Nineveh took up the mantle of leadership and saved his people. When the King heard that his city was in danger, he told all of his subjects to fast and wear sackcloth. But then he personally got involved. The King took off his royal robes, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. The King of Nineveh was a role model for his people and they followed him. The greatest leaders are those whose lives serve as an example to all of us.
Political leaders are role models when they act with integrity and seek to serve the greater good and not themselves. Business leaders are role models when they expand their business ethically without harming others or the planet. My fellow clergy members and I seek to live a life that reflects the highest teachings of our religious traditions. For example, it is not always easy “to love your neighbor as yourself,” but we strive for this high standard.
As a Rabbi, I give sermons each Friday night at services, trying to craft words that will inspire and motivate. But it is not enough to write or to listen a sermon. We must all seek to make our actions match our words, to set a good example for those around us, and especially in my line of work, to practice what we preach.
While there are many more lessons to be fished out from the Book of Jonah, let us stop here for now. Stay tuned for more articles on Jonah and his piscatorial adventures.