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Jonah: The Psychological Story

Meditations Inside a Fish

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • September 24, 2012
  • |
  • 8 Tishrei 5773
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Jonah: The Psychological Story - Meditations Inside a Fish

Dedicated by Robyn and Josh Goldhirsch
in loving memory of Isser ben Dovid Halevi Shapiro

Dedicated by David & Eda Schottenstein 
In loving memory of a young soul, Alta Shula Swerdlov
And in merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya", Schottenstein

No brainer 

A freshman in college started his first day of classes. His Jewish teacher was clearly an atheist, and started the day by saying the following: "Students, is there anyone here who can see G-d? If so, raise your hand. If there is anyone here who can hear G-d, please raise your hand. If there is anyone who can smell G-d, raise your hand."

After a short pause, with no response from the students, the professor concluded, "Since no one can see, smell or hear G-d, this proves conclusively that there is no G-d."

A student then raised his hand and asked to address the class. The student approached the class and asked, "Students, can anyone here see the professor's brain? Can anyone hear the professor's brain? Can anyone smell the professor's brain?"

After a short pause, he concluded, "Since no one can see, hear or smell the professor's brain, this proves conclusively that he has no brain."  

A prophet escapes 

The biblical book of Jonah, read during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, relates one of the most moving tales of the Tanach. It is the story of a prophet, Jonah, living in the year 700 B.C.E. who was determined to run from G-d.

G-d called on him to travel from Jerusalem to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh[1], and influence its large population to repent from its immoral and corrupt ways. Instead, Jonah went to the old port city Jaffa and boarded a ship voyaging to Tunisia, Africa[2], where he thought he would find respite from G-d[3].

"Then G-d cast a mighty wind toward the sea," the Tanach relates, "and there was a great tempest in the sea, so that the ship seemed likely to be wrecked. The sailors became frightened, and they cried out, each man to his god; they cast the wares that were on the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. But Jonah had descended to the ship's holds and he lay down and fell fast asleep.

"The shipmaster approached him, and said to him, 'How can you sleep so soundly? Arise! Call to your G-d! Perhaps G-d will think of us that we perish not!'

"They said to one another, 'Come, let us cast lots, that we may determine because of whom this calamity fell upon us.' So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. They said to him, 'Tell us...what is your occupation? From where do you come? What is your land? And of what people are you?"  

Turning Amphibian   

Jonah accepted upon himself the blame for the storm, since he had attempted to run from G-d. Jonah suggested to them to heave him into the sea, "and the sea will calm down from upon you, for I know that that it is because of me that this great tempest is upon you."

"So they lifted Jonah and heaved him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging."

While in the sea, a large fish swallowed Jonah, where he remained for three days[4].

From the fish's innards, Jonah speaks to G-d. These are his words: "I cried to G-d out of my distress, and He heard me; From the belly of hell I cried out, You heard my voice. You did cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods compassed me; all Your billows and waves passed over me... I descended to the bottoms of the mountains, the earth with her bars closed in on me forever; yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my G-d..."  

Jonah returns 

"Then G-d commanded the fish," the Tanach continues the tale[5], "and it spewed out Jonah unto dry land." Finally, Jonah takes on his divine mission, traveling to the Assyrian capital and causing a moral transformation in the hearts of its people. An evil civilization committed itself to redefine its life and relationships.

But when Jonah discovers that G-d had indeed accepted the population's repentance and would not destroy the city, he is grieved. He does not feel the city should be exonerated from many years of immoral and evil behavior[6] and he asks G-d to kill him, "for better is my death than my life."

As a good educator, G-d now proceeds to demonstrate to Jonah, in a rather creative way, his error.  As Jonah is resting under a booth at the outskirts of Nineveh, a leafy plant rises up to provide shade over his head, affording him much comfort and serenity. When the next morning brings a heatwave and a worm eats the plant and it withers, Jonah expresses his profound anguish over the loss. To which G-d responds: "You took pity on the plant for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow; it lived one night and perished after one night. And I - shall I not take pity upon Nineveh the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty-thousand persons... and many animals as well?"  

This concludes the four short but incredibly rich chapters of the book of Jonah.

Why do we read this story on Yom Kippur? And what is the relevance of this episode to our lives?  

Two layers of Torah 

One of the most fascinating elements about the Torah is that all of its stories contain, in addition to their literal concrete interpretation, a psychological and spiritual interpretation. Every detail of every tale recorded in the Torah contains an allegorical and metaphorical interpretation, symbolizing an event that transpires continually within the human heart[7]. The sages and rabbis have, over the course of 3,000 years, decoded the inner metaphysical meaning of most of the Torah's stories.

The same is true, of course, regarding the story of Jonah and the fish. In addition to the simple, literal meaning of this moving episode, taking place in a particular milieu at a specific location, this tale should also be viewed as a metaphor for a mental and spiritual story transpiring today. Indeed, the Zohar states[8], that the story of Jonah is really a story about "the entire life span of human beings in this world." It is this inner story of Jonah that I wish to explore in the continuation of this essay. 

Journey of a Soul 

The name Jonah in Hebrew -- Yonah -- means a dove, representing the inner soul of man, that fragment of truth, that little piece of G-d that constitutes the core of human identity[9]. The dove is one of the only animals that once it encounters its mate, remains forever loyal, never exchanging it for anybody else. Similarly, the soul embodies that part of the human-animal that may run and hide, but ultimately never replaces the truth of G-d for the pleasures of the material world[10].

Nineveh, the large, powerful, and corrupt city, is a metaphor for the planet we inhabit, filled with petty politics, vanity, and corruption. Jonah, the human soul, is dispatched by G-d on a mission to revolutionize the earthly landscape; to introduce the light of G-dliness and holiness into every aspect of terrestrial life. Man is a messenger who carries a message; man is a witness to the presence of the living G-d.  

Denying Your Reality 

But very often, we choose to run from our life's mission, rejecting our identity as witnesses. We embark on a ship, represented by the body containing the human soul, just as a ship contains its passengers[11], and attempt to escape, physically and emotionally, to a place where we can more easily embrace the illusion that we are bereft of mission and message, that we are no more than creatures seeking satiation and self-gratification. We sail blithely through the waters of life, ignoring the inner voice of G-d, all the while trying to convince ourselves that we are happy. 


Everything seems fine and dandy until turbulence begins to shake up our lives and palm pilots. The turbulence of the sea in the Jonah story is a metaphor for the tumultuous circumstances that life presents, threatening the very survival of our "ship" -- our body and existence. At this point, many people awake from their illusion.

Yet there are those who, precisely at such moments, become even more detached from their authentic reality. "The sailors became frightened, and they cried out, each man to his god... But Jonah went down to the ship's holds; he lay down, and fell asleep."

Jonah, according to this interpretation, represents the human being who may see the world turn over, but he continues to sleep, making believe that all is normal, that his life is a success story. And the greater the turmoil, the deeper the chaos, the more this person sinks into the muck of his slumber, oblivious to the disintegration of his reality. 

A Tickle  

At this point, the person usually experiences a tickle from his divine consciousness. "The shipmaster approached him, and said to him, 'How can you sleep so soundly? Arise! Call to your G-d! The other sailors, too, speak to Jonah and say: 'Tell us... what is your trade? From where do you come? What is your land? And of what people are you?" The shipmaster, the captain of the body, represents the Yetzer Tov(11), the spark of G-d residing within the human soul. This spark calls out to the soul, asking, "How can you sleep so soundly?" How long can you be in denial of your universe gone mad? How much longer will you make believe that you don't get it?

"Remember from where your soul came," the inner voice speaks to a Jonah who eagerly craves to return to his sleep. "Remember your authentic occupation and from what people you are," it says to him. Stop denying who you are; run not from your destiny as a witness to the voice at Sinai charging you with the mission of paving a road through the jungle of history. Escape not your calling to dig and uncover the divine art in every aspect of life. 

Resignation and Surrender 

A strange and melancholy honesty takes over Jonah. His moral instinct finds perverse expression in his suggestion to the sailors to throw him into the sea to rid themselves of the burden imposed by his existence.   This represents the profound existential anxiety that takes over many a soul upon discovering that it can never truly convince itself that G-d is nonexistent. Caught in a limbo state, afraid to embrace G-d fully and unable to run from G-d, the soul resigns itself to death. "Just get rid of me," Jonah cries to the voices within. "Bury my soul."    At this devastating moment, the human being surrenders his last vestige of spiritual dignity, allowing his soul to be swept away by the raging waters of lust and addiction. What is even worse, he allows his human identity to become swallowed and converted into an amphibian creature. Ceasing to see himself as different from an animal, he is "free" at last to truly ignore the presence of G-d.   The Talmud[12] teaches that in biblical language fish serve as a metaphor for uninhibited sexuality, since fish multiply excessively. Jonah being swallowed by a fish is therefore to be understood as a metaphor for a soul being swallowed by sexual addiction and promiscuity.    The Hebrew term used in the story for a fish, dagah, can also be translated as anxiety[13]. This represents an alternative emotional response to the turmoil of life. The person throws himself into materialistic pursuits, so that the extraordinary anxiety and stress involved in climbing the financial ladder eclipse the deeper anxiety of his soul. He allows himself to become swallowed up completely in his career until he forgets that he is a human being.  


And yet, paradoxically, at this very moment, the soul, for the first time, encounters G-d.   "From the belly of hell I cried out," declares Jonah. Until the soul reached the belly of hell, it was busy running from G-d and from itself. Only when man reaches his nadir can he suddenly discover the presence of a living and caring G-d. Why?   Because a soul, by its very nature, can never remain in one place. It must always be in a state of movement. The only question is in which direction it moves: Is it running to G-d or from Him? Therefore, once the soul hits rock bottom and can no longer move downward, it must begin to move upward[14]

The New Challenge 

Man's rediscovery of the truth -- that he is here on a mission -- causes the fish to spit out the soul. Man abandons his addictions and promiscuity. He embarks now on his journey to make a difference in people's lives, to bring holiness and G-dliness into his own life as well as into the life of a mundane and egocentric society.    Yet, soon the soul becomes distressed over G-d's loyalty to our world. The soul, once discovering the truth of G-dliness, craves to remain in a sacred environment, removed from the filth of many human environments. "Why must I deal with so much profane ugliness?" cries the soul. "Am I supposed to dedicate the remainder of my life to understand the pettiness and politics of small human beings"?    For this is the predictable pattern: After the soul discovers G-d's living presence, it craves to become an ascetic, to escape the confinements of a lowly universe and melt away in His infinite light.   At this stage, G-d reveals to Jonah, to the soul, that by infusing the unholy with the holy the ultimate plan of G-d is fulfilled. Only in the muck of planet Earth does the glory of the Divine-human partnership shine forth. The soul, despite its natural resistance, must learn to emulate G-d and embrace the world, not escape it. 

Two Types of Sleepers 

So why do we read this story on Yom Kippur?   For there are two types of human sleepers. There are those who find themselves in a lighter sleep, who with a gush of inspiration or turbulence will awake; and those who are so submerged in their slumber that even the most powerful explosion will not budge them.     The first category of people wake up via the sound of the Rosh Hashanah shofar[15]. The primitive, piercing sounds of the ram's horn, stemming from the simple primitive depth of the human core, inspire the soul to return to who it really is.   But there are those people who sleep through everything, even the mighty sound of the shofar. The ship is about to break, but they are asleep. The Titanic is about to go under and they are stretched out on their first-class deck chair smoking cigars, oblivious and numb to reality.   Tremendous Anti-Semitism, a President of a sovereign country denying the Holocaust, enemies scheming each day to destroy a country and its people, deep moral and emotional confusion among society, deep depression and alienation among so many youths -- but they are asleep. A world caught in the grip of fear and confusion, yet they are busy playing the game of vanity. We continue making believe that life is, more or less, normal.  

A Profile of Pharaoh 

One of the Chassidic masters once described the lowliness of the Egyptian emperor Pharaoh. The Bible describes the night when Pharaoh dreamed a mysterious dream and awoke. "Then," the Bible continues[16], "He fell asleep, and dreamed a second dream." It turns out that these two dreams contained the secrets of survival for the entire Fertile Crescent.   "Nu, I can understand the fact that go to sleep," remarked the Rebbe of Kutzk. "But once you experience such a powerful dream filled with secrets of the world's future destiny, how can you go back to sleep?! For this you must be a Pharaoh!"    This is the profile of a person who can hear 100 blasts of a shofar, but he just puts the alarm clock on snooze and turns over in bed[17]

The Day that Tolerates No Cover-Ups 

Then comes Yom Kippur.   This is the one day a year that does not tolerate any facades. On this holiest day of the calendar, all the veils are lifted! The sheer truth of the living G-d breaks through all the walls, reaching even those who have tucked themselves away under a myriad of blankets.    On Yom Kippur, even those who have sunk into the deepest of slumbers can hear the voice of the captain, "How can you sleep so soundly? Arise! Call to your G-d!"[18]


[1]To get to Nineveh nowadays is not difficult. All we have to do is to start from Haifa, in the Land of Israel, and simply follow the famous oil pipeline all the way to Mosul, in Iraq. There, across the Tigris River, on the left bank, opposite Mosul, lie the ruins of the once proud city of Nineveh.  Nineveh was one of the first cities ever built, constructed by King Nimrod (also called Ashur), the father of the Assyrian people, in the time of Abraham. Under the powerful Assyrian kings the city was enlarged and beautified. Sargon built a strong wall around Nineveh, including and uniting it with three other cities. It was this enlarged city that the Prophet Jonah speaks of as a city of "three days' journey."  Nineveh became one of the most elegant, rich and powerful cities in the world. Its tremendous beauty can be seen even from excavations. Recently, they excavated in Nineveh the greatest library of antiquity, in which were found tens of thousands of clay tablets containing the entire Babylonian and most of the world's literature. The excellent order and care of the library is astonishing. 

[2] That is how Ibn Ezra, Mahari Kra and Abarbenel understand Tarshis. See Rashi and Targum for alternative translations.

[3] The commentators explain, that the Divine presence does not manifest itself in a revealed way outside of the Holy Land. Also, prophecy can't be experienced usually outside of Eretz Israel. So Jonah thought that by traveling to a location remote from Israel he would a) be entering a domain where G-d will not pursue him (Rashi), or b) where G-d would not be able to use him as His prophet to travel to Nineveh (Radak, Metzudos, Abarbenel, Malbim. Cf. Ibn Ezra for another interpretation in this "escape."  Why did Jonah refuse to serve as G-d's messenger to Nineveh? One reason is because he foresaw the holocaust the Assyrian empire would bring upon the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and he craved its destruction (Abarbenel and Metzudos). Another reason is because Jonah felt that the gentile citizens of Nineveh would respond to his call and indeed transform their lives from evil to good. This, Jonah felt, would highlight the degenerated condition of his fellow Jews who after years and years of  hearing rebuke from many a prophet still remained morally obstinate. As a loyal lover of the Jewish people, Jonah chose to run from G-d's calling (Pirke Dreb Eliezer chapter 11; Radak, Metzudos and Malbim).   It should be noted, that despite the fact that Nineveh was ultimately saved by Jonah, years later, in 612 BCE, the city was besieged by the Babylonians and Medes, and destroyed completely, never again to be inhabited. The mighty Assyrian Empire, which had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, met its end.

[4]For skeptics who find it difficult to embrace this story as reality, it is worthwhile to mention that in the Princeton Technological Review of 1927, there appeared a story about a large mighty fish who during an attempt to liberate himself from the fishermen's net, turned over the fishermen's boat and swallowed one of the men.  The fish was ultimately caught and killed. When they opened the fish, three days after the event, they discovered the fisherman wrapped up like a child in its mother's womb, but the man was alive and returned to a totally normal life. The only lasting physical effect was that his skin changed to white. Why did a physical fish actually swallow Jonah? Maimonides believes that this was a vision, not a physical reality. Yet most of the biblical commentators are in agreement that the story took place literally.

[5] Jonah 2:11. 

[6] See commentators to Jonah 4: 1-3 for more reasons why Jonah was so perturbed that G-d accepted their repentance.

[7] See Ramban to Genesis 1:1; Asarah Maamoros Maamar Chekur Din 3:22. Likkutei Sichos vol. 23 pp. 37-39 and many references noted there.

[8] Zohar Vayakhel p. 199. Cf. Tikkunei Zohar Tikkun 21.

[9] Throughout the Song of Songs the divine bride is compared to the dove. See Berachos 53b and Shir Hashirim Rabah 1:15 for many comparisons between the spiritual experience of Jewishness and the character of the dove. 

[10] See Shir Hashirim Rabah 1:15.

[11] Zohar ibid.

[12] Yuma 75a. Thus, when the Jews lamented to Moses, "we remember the fish  we consumed in Egypt for free" (Numbers 11:5), they were lamenting, according to the Talmud, the many intimate restrictions they received at Sinai.  The fact that fish multiply excessively is what inspired Jacob to bless his grandchildren, "may they proliferate abundantly like fish in the land" (Genisis 48:16. See Rashi ibid.)

[13] Tikkunei Zohar ibid.

[14]Or Hatorah by the Tzemach Tzedek.

[15] Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah chapter 3.

[16] Genesis 41:5. 

[17] It is interesting to note, that according to one opinion in the Midrash, the leader of Nineveh was none other than Paroah from Egypt... So even he ultimately awoke and saved his city from destruction.

[18] This essay is based on the writings of the Kabbalah and Chassidic masters. See sources noted in footnote #8; Or Hatorah (by the Tzemach Tzedek) Derushim LeRosh Hashanah pp. 1372-3; Sichas Shabbas Eikev 5747; Sefer Hasichos 5749 vol. 2 Parshas Shoftim; Sefer Letorah Ulemoadim (by Rabbi S.Y. Zevin) to Yom Kippur. 

My thanks to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance. 


Please leave your comment below!

  • Anonymous -5 years ago

    Priceless words. Thank you so much for this perspective

    Priceless words. Thank you so much for this tremendous perspective on life


    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • September 24, 2012
  • |
  • 8 Tishrei 5773
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by Robyn and Josh Goldhirsch
in loving memory of Isser ben Dovid Halevi Shapiro

Dedicated by David & Eda Schottenstein 
In loving memory of a young soul, Alta Shula Swerdlov
And in merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya", Schottenstein

Class Summary:

Jonah: The Psychological Story - Meditations Inside a Fish

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