EXCERPT: Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives

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The following excerpt comes from Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary (June 2016) by Rabbi Steven Bob.

From Chapter 9: Overcoming Despair—Why Does He Sleep So Deeply?

He lay down and fell asleep. The captain went over to him and cried out, “How can you be sleeping so soundly? Up and call to your God.” —Jonah 1:5–6

In verse 5 Jonah falls asleep. This verse is often read to mean that Jonah was already on board, sleeping in the hold when the storm began. Ibn Ezra sees it differently, that Jonah goes to sleep in order to hide “from the danger of the sea and His anger.” Ibn Ezra suggests that “perhaps he did not enter the ship before this [storm began].” Perhaps the storm was already raging and Jonah sought sleep to escape the fury of the storm and God’s anger.

Abarbanel adds, “The text says this to explain that as the sailors cried to their gods, Jonah did not cry out to Hashem, for he was embarrassed and ashamed to raise his face to Him. So ‘He lay down and fell asleep’ thinking that he would die there. For sleep is one-sixtieth of death, and so he prepared himself for it.” Jonah sleeps in the hold of the ship, retreating from life. For Jonah the hold of the ship seems like a womb. He sleeps peacefully, oblivious to the chaos of the world around him.

Psychologists tell us that some people who suffer from despair or depression or are afraid of what’s to come sleep to escape, and this could be what Jonah is doing. He could be going to sleep to escape the crisis.

Late one afternoon, when I was nineteen years old, I opened a letter from the University of Minnesota telling me that I was no longer a student; I had flunked out because I wasn’t regularly going to classes. I went right to bed and didn’t get up until the next morning, fourteen hours later. I scared my roommates. I clearly did not want to face the reality of that letter. I was frightened of how my parents would respond, and I was terrified of what action my draft board would take. I slept to avoid the real-life crisis before me.

On occasion nations seem to retreat into sleep to avoid facing clear and present dangers. In 1938 Winston Churchill published While England Slept, attacking the United Kingdom’s lack of military preparation to face the threat of Nazi Germany’s expansion.

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Sleeping individuals, as well as sleeping nations, sometimes require an “alarm clock” to awaken them. Winston Churchill saw this as his role. In our story, the captain of the ship does not allow Jonah to continue to escape through sleep. He wakes Jonah up.

The Hebrew words that begin the captain’s call to Jonah, “Mah l’cha nirdam,” literally mean, “What is this to you, O sleeping one?” Rashi rephrases it as “How can you be sleeping? This is no time to sleep!” Abarbanel adds, “And it is as if he says to Jonah, ‘Don’t you see the difficulty of this moment and the great danger in which we stand? How can you not feel it?’”

Jonah is not on the boat all alone. The captain wakes Jonah so that he can help save the ship. Jonah’s despair could cause greater damage than just damage to himself. The captain does not say to Jonah, “Wake up and save yourself!” Rather, the captain’s message is “Wake up and perhaps you can save us!”

A famous midrash tells of another sea traveler impacting other passengers. A group of people were traveling in a boat when one of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath him. “Why are you doing this?” his companions said to him. “What concern is it of yours?” replied the man. “Am I not drilling under my own place?” And they replied to him: “But you will flood the boat for us all!” (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6). In our story, Jonah’s slumber could lead to the sinking of the ship.

People deep in despair do not need to hear that their despair is not real; they need to hear that they do not face their problem alone. They need to hear that their despair impacts many people. They need to hear that they have the power to act, that they are more powerful than they imagine themselves to be. Abarbanel says that the captain explained to Jonah what to do: “And if you say that you do not know what to do, act like the sailors. Get up and call to your God. You know how to do that.”

The first step in emerging from despair is to get up and see that you are still alive. With the support of others you can see that you are not the only one facing this kind of crisis. Then you’ll have the wherewithal to confront your circumstances and your possibilities.

A.A. plays a powerful role in the lives of recovering alcoholics. “Alcoholics Anonymous® is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism” (A.A. Mission Statement). It’s a model for a wide variety of support groups, including a very unusual one, Illinois Parents of Murdered Children. I spoke to this group once, and at the beginning of the meeting each participant told his or her story of tragic loss. Sharing the stories did not lessen their pain, but shared experience did give them strength to face the “rough water.”

Some people are fortunate enough to be part of a strong circle of friends or a close-knit community that is always there to provide support in difficult times. Active participants in strong, healthy congregations report such experiences. I see this in my congregation, and I hear about it happening in others as well.

Abarbanel suggests that the sailors, who had concluded that their prayers wouldn’t stop the storm, saw Jonah’s prayers as their last hope. Abarbanel writes, “And they did not yet know if the God of Jonah would be greater than all their gods. But they said, ‘Perhaps the God of Jonah will pay mind to us and not destroy us.’ They mean to say if our gods do not have the strength to save us, perhaps if we draw ourselves close to the God of Jonah and if we are united, He will be able to save us.”

The sleeping Jonah, hiding in the hold of the ship, doesn’t seem the least bit heroic. Rather he is engaged in a game of spiritual hide-and-seek. The captain finds him and wakes him, hoping that maybe Jonah’s prayers will be their salvation. In the next verse Jonah’s role in the storm begins to become clear to everybody on board.