Jonah the Jew

Why did Jonah say, "I am a Hebrew?"

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A hint to Moses' meaning may lie in the very term "Hebrew," which derives from the verb "la'avor," to cross over. Abraham is the first to be called ivri, no doubt because he crossed over to the land of Canaan from the other side of the Jordan. But there is a theological corollary to this point: Abraham crossed over because the God who addressed him in Mesopotamia told him to, assuring him that He would be with him on the other side. For this is a God Who is not attached to one country because He existed long before countries, a God Who rules the universe because He created the universe. The name "ivri" thus connotes one who, believing in this God, asserts that no place on earth is devoid of His presence and providence.

God on the Water

Back to the first chapter of Jonah. It would seem that Jonah told his fellow sailors from the start that he was seeking to flee his God. If this did not disturb them, it was because they were sailing into international waters where the territorial gods had no power. Then, as the storm hits, each cries out to his own god—in the vain hope, perhaps, that the various deities thus summoned might get together and mount an international rescue operation. When that fails, when the lot falls on Jonah, and when they demand to know who he really is—and he tells them—then, stunned and awed, the men finally grasp the true gravity of their situation. The rest of the story, starting with their casting Jonah into the sea, follows in logical progression.

And so we return to what the rabbis may have had in mind in choosing the book of Jonah as the final scriptural reading on Yom Kippur. The sun is beginning to set, and worshippers are scant hours away from returning to their regular lives, where God's presence is not so easily apprehended as it is in the synagogue on the year's most sacred day, and where every temptation exists to gerrymander the divine out of one's daily experience. Here, in Jonah, is the only place in the Bible where the essence of Jewish identity is so succinctly and powerfully summarized.

Ivri anokhi!  God is to be found anywhere, at any time. In the words of the American founder John Adams, this doctrine—"of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe," which Adams took to be "the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization"—constituted the gift of the ancient Hebrews, who alone "had preserved and propagated [it] to all mankind." It is the lesson taught by the book of Jonah, and its message to all who hear it on Yom Kippur is that we must live our lives accordingly.

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Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik is Associate Rabbi at Kehilat Jeshurun in New York. He is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, for whom he is currently working on a book about Judaism and Christianity.