Call for Dialogue: The Story of the Book of Jonah and the Lessons We Can Learned from It



The Book of Jonah, read at the height of the High Holy Days, has long been the subject of numerous and diverse interpretations. In the following lines, we will address the dialogue that takes place betweenJonah and his G-D.

Jonah's initial response to the divine command is surprising: "Now the word of G-D came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.' But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of G-D." Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah chooses to "flee to Tarshish from the presence of G-D." There is no dialogue here; Jonah does not argue with G-D (as previous prophets did) and does not explain why he refuses to cooperate. He simply rises and goes—in the opposite direction.

Even later in the verses, Jonah's silence is emphasized. A storm tosses the ship, the wind howls, and all the sailors cry out to their gods. Jonah goes down to the ship's hold and falls into a deep sleep. Even when the captain rebukes him, "Arise, call upon your G-D!" Jonah does not respond. Finally, the sailors cast lots, and, upon learning the results, turn to Jonah with five questions, to which Jonah responds only partially. The sailors turn to G-D in fervent prayer: "And they called to the Lord and said, 'We beseech You, O G-D... for You, O G-D, have done as it pleased You.' But Jonah himself does not turn to the G-D. Faced with the forces of nature and foreign sailors—Jonah's silence resounds.

For three days and three nights, Jonah remains in the belly of the fish, and only afterward does he turn to G-D in prayer. Surprisingly, Jonah offers a song of thanksgiving to G-D, echoing the style and language of the Psalms, and in the last verse, Jonah declares, "Yet will I sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving." Jonah returns to speaking with G-D, returning to pray to Him "With the voice of thanksgiving, I will pay that which I have vowed."

What led to this turnaround?

The central verse in Jonah's words is, "And I said: 'I am cast out from before Your eyes, yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.'" Jonah thinks he and G-D have parted ways. No more communication, no connection, and no bond. Indeed, this is how Jonah behaved in Chapter 1. Reflecting on the events that led him to the belly of the fish led him to a different conclusion—God did not give up on him. The storm, the sailors, fate—all were ways for G-D to communicate with him and not abandon the connection. Jonah acknowledges this insight in the belly of the fish. It is important to note that Jonah did not change his mind—he did not retract his refusal to go to Nineveh. Indeed, when Jonah emerged from the belly of the fish, G-D had to command him again to go to Nineveh.

Jonah's song of thanksgiving and prayer is a song of gratitude for the connection. Even if Jonah continues to resist obedience, he has learned to acknowledge that G-D continued to engage in a dialogue with him and did not give up on the connection.

Later, Jonah will fulfill his mission—in the most minimal way possible—and only then will he cry out and tell God what bothers him and why he truly fled. Throughout the book, until the last words, it seems that Jonah does not agree with his dealings with Nineveh and with the response of its inhabitants. But since Jonah emerged from the belly of the fish, he has engaged in dialogue.

The Book of Jonah teaches us always to be in a relationship, even if there is disagreement and no agreement. The very dialogue is important in itself. This is true with God, of course. And it is also true in relationships, in parenting, in society, and even in our tumultuous national context."