Yom Kippur 5780
October 9, 2019
It Was Never About the Fish
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


“So, what was it like?”

That’s the first thing they always say when they find out who I am. “So, what was it like in the belly of the whale?”

How I respond sort of depends on how many times I’ve been asked the question that day—how much patience I can still muster.

If I’m up for it, I start off with a bit of what some might consider pedantry…

“First of all, it wasn’t a whale. It was a dag gadol, a big fish. In antiquity, no distinction was made between fish and whales, and when William Tyndale and other biblical translators started calling it a whale in the mid-16thcentury, the label stuck.”[1]

“OK, fine. No need to get bogged down in semantics. We can call it a fish if it makes you happy….But, you’re Jonah. Like the Jonah! Living inside a fish…holy mackerel!”

“Ha, ha. Haven’t heard that one before.” I try to remain calm and polite, though secretly I’m rolling my eyes.

“Stop being so modest…or are you just fishing for compliments?”

“Can we just talk about something else? Anything else?”

“But come on, really, how was it? What did it smell like? How did you breathe?”

“I don’t really want to talk about…”

“Hey. Sorry. I don’t mean to open a can of worms…ha ha.”

“Look, friend. It’s not about the fish. It was NEVER about the fish. The fish is what grabs your attention. It pulls you into the story…”

“Oh, like you were pulled into the fish’s belly?”

“Yes. I mean, no. I mean, not exactly.”

This is often when their eyes begin to glaze over.

“Listen,” I say. “If it makes you feel better to think that I was literally inside a fish, that’s fine. But that’s not what I’m about. That’s not what my story’s about.”

It’s about then that they start backing away. I’m a real hit at cocktail parties.

But here’s the thing: if you’re reading my story for a tale of rugged survivalism and thrilling adventure on the high seas, you’ve missed the point. The fish is a nice plot point, a convenient deus ex machinathat helps to fast-forward the evolution of my character from reluctant agent of God to faithful servant. By the time the rabbis who canonized the Tanach got their hands on my life story, it had been condensed into four fairly short chapters.

To me, the truly interesting stuff, the real heart of the matter, comes in chapter four. I say that only in retrospect, because chapter four of my book depicts a side of me that I’m not real proud of. In it, I’m moody and glum, and I even have the chutzpahto talk back to God. But that confrontation with God opens my eyes in a way that no big fish ever could have. You see, I’m sitting around sulking under the shade of a gourd plant. God makes the plant wither and die, which only makes me more miserable. To add insult to injury—or so I interpreted it at the time—God gives me a scolding speech, asking me “Ha-heitiv charah lach?- Is it right for you to be angry?”[2] God ends this castigation on the admonition that I should learn to care for cattle!

Care for cattle? I’m shvitzing to death, I’m out of my gourd (and, quite literally, out of my gourd), and, yes, I’m angry! Yet God wants me to worry about a bunch of cows?!

Well, in a word, Yes.

More than the people of Nineveh, more than any “giant fish” stories, God wanted me to think about the gourd and the cows. Small stuff, right? Insignificant when compared to the socio-emotional capabilities of humans. Worthy of only the most minor concern, particularly when measured against the vast complexities found in the rest of God’s creation.

That’s what I thought, too. But then I realized that unless we pay attention to everything around us—the large and the small, then we haven’t really been paying attention at all. God wanted me to turn my anger away from my own well-being and show true righteous indignation about all of the problems plaguing our world.

It’s not about the fish.

As we all know, God thought my most significant role in life would be prophesying to the people of Nineveh. I had the chutzpah to disagree, so now my legacy for eternity seems to be that I’m known as the giant fish guy. That pains me, but to understand my side of the story, you’ve got to know what I knew about Nineveh. They were a pretty bloodthirsty lot[3], but they feared God, and they weren’t dumb.[4] To an individual, each Ninevite who saw me and heard my message was going to engage in some serious self-reflection and change his or her personal behavior.

But Nineveh was so broken, so divided, so full of anger and fear that even when they finally turned themselves around, it was still problematic. They were just going through the motions; people were talking without speaking, people were hearing without listening, people were writing songs that voices never shared[5]…hey, that’s good stuff—I hope someone is writing this down! Anyhow, people had forgotten how to meaningfully interact with and relate to one another. While they might have made enough personal change to stave off God’s plan to destroy them, they still did not come together as a community.

When I came through Nineveh and unspooled my prophecy, I got the reaction I anticipated. The king freaked out and issued a decree that everyone should fast and put on sackcloth, and the population went for it, hook, line, and sinker…

Sorry, fish joke…comes with the territory. But really, it’s not about the fish.

The people of Nineveh went through the motions—but did they show charity to the less fortunate in their community? Did they care for the sick, or the widow, or the orphan? “Ha-heitiv charah l’cha? Is it right for you to be angry?” Have you gotten angry in the proper fashion?

Some would say that if their repentance was good enough for God, it should be good enough for me. But it was God who helped me learn to be sensitive about gourds and cattle and the seemingly small details. God always wants to believe the best about people; God always wants to welcome people back into the fold. So the bar’s set fairly low: pretty much the first effort someone makes toward teshuvah, God’s there with an outstretched arm[6] to say, “Welcome home, buddy!” But just because the bar is set low doesn’t mean that we can’t take it upon ourselves to surpass that bar and do better.

When you’re out here every day like I am, tikkuning the olam—that’s prophet lingo for the work we do trying to help change the world—you learn to recognize the difference between those who are really able to incorporate change into their routines, and those who are the likely recidivists—who, as soon as they think nobody is watching, are going to revert to the same old habits as before.

My colleague and contemporary, Isaiah[7] might even have been thinking of folks like the Ninevites when he said that the sorts of actions God desires of us are, “To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe them, And not to ignore your own kin.”[8]

True teshuvah, the kind that sticks, the kind that Isaiah says is most pleasing to God, must move beyond any “going-through-the-motions” for just a day, or week, or month at a time. You have to be willing to make it impactful and lasting, to sincerely make an effort to re-align your moral compass. And you need to have the ability to look beyond yourself and really explore how your behavior is impacting others. That was what held back the Ninevites in their process.

It’s challenging to be an active participant in this world. If we only look out for number one, only concern ourselves with our own troubles and needs, then things seem a bit more manageable. But that’s not really fulfilling the opportunity or obligation of human existence. As I learned when I tried to flee to Tarshish, we’re all in the same boat. And since, believe me, going overboard isn’t a great option, it behooves us each to grab an oar and weather the storm together.

It’s exhausting, to be sure. It’s easy to develop outrage fatigue—wherein you get so tired of railing against all of the injustices in the world that you just want to give up. Oftentimes, that’s accompanied by compassion fatigue—where you have difficulty caring about the world around you, because the magnitude of your own problems seems too enormous.
I’ve fallen victim to these two maladies myself, more often than I’d like to admit. It’s hard enough being a prophet; it’s even more difficult when you can’t seem to bring yourself to care about your neighbors and their troubles. That’s why God made my gourd shrivel up. That’s why God lectured me about cattle. I needed the proverbial smack on the forehead to open my eyes and my heart – to make me stop whining “woe is me” and to stand up, take notice, and take action. I needed to find the right kind of anger to guide my life.

Look, I don’t mean to project my experiences onto others, but my fellow prophet Elijah had a crisis of faith kind of similar to my own. Instead of running away like me, though, Elijah chose to ask for a sign of God’s presence—some affirmation that his preaching a message that seemingly was falling on deaf ears was indeed a worthy venture. And when Elijah tries to get these answers, the Divine voice questions him: “Mah l’cha, Eliyahu? What’s up, Elijah? What are you doing here?”[9]

Many people might read this exchange and think that God is asking, “Elijah, why did you come to this particular location? Why did you think that a cave near Mount Horeb is the best place to talk to Me?”

But those interpretations miss the mark. Just as my story isn’t about the fish, Elijah’s story isn’t about the cave. “Mah l’cha Eliyahu?” is a more existential question. It’s similar to the question God was asking me when my gourd plant was taken away and when I was reminded about the cattle: “Ha-heitiv charah l’cha? Is it right for you to be angry?” Why do you care? what is your purpose? What will be your legacy?

In the eyes of many, I’ll probably always be the “fish guy.” But hopefully Elijah, Isaiah, and I, along with the other prophets of Israel, also made a broader impact on the human psyche, inspiring people to care about the world in which we live, and the individuals – human, animal, or vegetable—that reside therein.
We all want to know that, at the end of our time here on this earth, our lives will be judged as having had meaning and purpose. Meaning is the internal question “Mah l’cha?—why am I here?” Purpose is the external conversation we have with others—“Ha-heitiv charah l’cha?—what are you willing to get angry about? What are you willing to help with?”[10]

For me, the key to answering these two questions was looking beyond my own ego, looking beyond my disdain for the Ninevites, and learning to care and get involved on behalf of the little things or little people in the world who don’t always have someone in their corner. You may find yourself drawn to a different form of interaction with the world. But if you read my story and get hung up on the fish, then you’re missing the opportunity to explore these key existential questions.

It’s not about the fish.

You don’t need to be a prophet to engage with God in making this world a better place. Find your purpose. Get angry about it. Get involved. Make a difference. And as you do so, may God find you worthy of being inscribed for goodness in the Book of Life, Blessing, and Peace.


[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonah retrieved August 27, 2019.
[2] Jonah 4:4 (the phrase is repeated again in 4:9). Translation following many contemporary biblical translations, including NIV and NKJV.
[3] The city of Nineveh also appears in the prophecy of Nahum, and is depicted in this manner.
[4] According to the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra, who says the Ninevites would have immediately understood the serious of their sin upon seeing a prophet of God come into their community.
[5] “Sound of Silence,” by Paul Simon, from the Simon and Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.
[6] A metaphor frequently cited in connection to God, the image of the outstretched hand (זרוע נטויה) first appears in Exodus 6:5.
[7] Scholars believe that both Jonah and Isaiah lived in the 8thcentury BCE. There is much speculation that the latter portions of the book of Isaiah were written at a later date, but at least some of Isaiah’s prophecy is contemporaneous with Jonah’s.
[8] Isaiah 58:6-7.
[9] I Kings 19:9
[10] Inspired by a teaching from Rabbi Karen Kedar.