The Book of Jonah (read as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon) is a constant source of wisdom and insight. Like every great work of literature, it can be read over and over again, always with new discoveries and insights.
The narrative is relatively simple. A man named Jonah seemed to be arbitrarily singled out by God for a difficult task: “Go immediately to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.”
Every child knows what happened next. Jonah tried to escape the call. He took the next ship out of town and ended up in the belly of the beast. From the darkness of “the big fish,” he found that no one can escape the call of destiny. Before long he was in Nineveh speaking the message God put in his mouth: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
But it’s what came after that never fails to astound. The people of Nineveh immediately got the message. They did repent. But there is a nuance in the story that is ever more remarkable — once the people repented, the King of Nineveh followed suit.
“When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, pit on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”
Then the king sent forth a decree that everyone in the city should fast and pray with the hope that God’s judgment will be overturned.
Familiar words read and re-read thousands of times over the centuries. In the midst of our own fasting and praying, do we miss the subtle lesson imbedded in the story? The people must repent first, and then the leaders follow.
Whether it is the context of our community, our congregations, the State of Israel, or the United States, the people set the moral agenda and only then can the leaders take up the call. As Hillel reflected when confronted with a challenging question of Jewish law: Pay attention to the people, if they themselves are not prophets they are certainly the descendants of prophets.
Every community leader eventually learns this lesson. In times of great challenge, attune your ear to what the people are saying and your eyes to what the people are doing.
The wisdom of the king of Nineveh was found in his ability to take the people’s example and follow it, but also to articulate it in a thoughtful and organized response with a clear goal in mind.
In Judaism, wisdom resides with the people, not with the leaders.
The leaders show their mettle by their ability to embrace the collective moral insights of the community and to find the means to elevate and inspire. The turning point in the Book of Jonah is not found in the midst of the great fish, but when the king of Nineveh rises from his throne and joins the people in their cathartic act of repentance.