When you’re sitting at the doctor’s office beside a half-friendly nurse, staring at a needle the size of your spinal chord in her hand, your mindset wouldn’t be one of complete ease. Once this terrifying injection begins inching toward your skin, perhaps the most convenient reaction is to run as far away as humanly possible. Despite all instructions to sit still from your now not-so-friendly nurse, nothing seems more relieving than the thought of sprinting away from shots of any kind. Clearly, these doctors do not know half as much as you do about Tetanus, chicken pox, or Menangitis—if disease prevention involves pain, it is not worth it!
For Yonah, a prophet and humanist, running was not only a constant in his life, but also a method for both avoidance and Cheshbon haNefesh, the accounting of the soul. The name Yonah in Hebrew literally means dove, the symbol of peace; it is rather ironic that Yonah’s habit of running created tension and unrest with God. However, unlike other rebellious leaders in Jewish history, Yonah chose to run full circle. Throughout the four chapters in the book of Yonah, we witness Yonah running from God and to God. We experience God’s work in an ungodly nation through a prophet whose natural instincts weren’t so different than ours.
Yonah ran from God. God commanded Yonah travel to Nineveh in order to proclaim its destruction. Yonah, realizing that this commitment was not worth his own fears, reacted with an action. With a one-way ticket to Tarshish, Yonah ran from not only a life threatening responsibility, but also his own self-doubt. This esteemed messenger of God was truly stuck in his own pool of self-consciousness and needed a quick leeway out. Like most Jews living in post-modernism, Yonah struggled with his own doubt. Only years after Yonah’s life did we discover the significance of embracing our lack of certainty, or as we call it today: faith. Rabbi Art Green, the author of Radical Judaism, suggests that we should shift our focus. “We people of faith have nothing we can prove; attempts to do so will only diminish what we have to offer. We can only testify, never prove.” We blindly blame Yonah for avoiding God when he was really just struggling with the same doubts we embrace as the essence of Judaism today. We, Jews in a post-modern world, endorse the Tarshish, or the haven for avoiding troubles.
Yonah ran to God. By the second chapter, Yonah had already experimented with his running. En route to Tarshish, the city where responsibilities disappeared and self-doubt was welcomed, Yonah was swallowed by both a big unidentifiable fish and his own loneliness. Without direction or guidance, Yonah succumbed to the prayer of his own heart and ran back to God. Perhaps it was the overwhelming sense of loneliness that drew Yonah back to the responsibility that God originally gave him. By running away from the commitment, Yonah ran away from any guidance and comfort that accompanied it. Once he was in complete solitude, Yonah admitted that despite his own doubts and fears, he could not live a life of faith alone. Today, as the search for a revived Judaism rises, we continue to place the most value on community. Judaism, with all of its ups and downs, will never survive without a community to sustain it. Yonah needed to successfully run away from his fears before realizing how crucial it was to face them.
Perhaps the process of running from and to God is the core of our Judaism today. We must recognize that God is not only the haven for our doubts, but also the partner with which we embrace them and search for answers.