Jonah seems the unlikeliest of heroes. His disinterest in fulfilling God’s word, and clueless efforts to flee from God’s command, render him at best mildly antisocial. Reading the story each Yom Kippur, I’ve wondered at the decision to make it the centerpiece of the mincha service. As a parable for teshuva, it presents fear of global destruction as a motivator for personal change, a less-than-ideal way to frame the spiritual growth towards which we work. And if we are expected to relate to Jonah himself and not the contrite sinners of Nineveh, he does little more than continuously run away, only bowing to God’s will when his lack of any alternative becomes evident. The story ends with Jonah disappointed by Nineveh’s repentance, leaving him in the wilderness beneath a withered gourd plant that mysteriously bears witness to God’s love of humanity; what should we do with this anticlimax?
And yet during the pandemic, when preparing adult ed classes for SAR’s Machon Siach program, I found myself returning to this book, and in particular to its concluding image: a distraught Jonah wishing he could continue to shelter beneath the leaves of his gourd plant in the wilderness, hearing God’s rebuke but apparently unable to respond. As an English teacher, I tell students to trust their instincts; if something in a text seems difficult, it’s probably meaningful in ways they have yet to unpack. With this approach in mind, I let my mind wander: what kept bringing my imagination back to this moment in the text, at this moment in time?
And I started to daydream.
School had resumed, and to an extent normal life, but I struggled to set aside the memories of those more disrupted early pandemic days. During those months when my English classes were relegated to Zoom and I felt increased pressure to ensure my students experienced our time together as deep and true and important, the streets of Teaneck were empty, foxes and wild turkeys roamed my neighborhood, and everything seemed to matter so much more than it had. I spent hours alone in my backyard or on my front stoop, took long walks along the river, endlessly walked my dog. Friday evenings I davened in front of my house to welcome Shabbos, the next morning davening aloud in my family room, singing more of the tefilot than I ever had the patience to enjoy in shul. And when the time came to return to the synagogue, I balked. I’d found something that my life had been missing, and I was reluctant to lose it.
And I wondered: was this my Jonah moment?
The image of Jonah seeking solace in the wilderness; my memories of walking, hiking, sitting in my backyard, the loss of community as shuls closed: how did I really feel about all this, and where did I really want to be? The Book of Jonah began to crystallize for me around another aspect of human experience: Jonah’s ambivalent relationship with community. Does he have a family? A country? Separate from people, he is nonetheless the kind of person whom God apparently deems worthy of prophecy. We see him, alone, at the bottom of the ship, sleeping through the storm, in the belly of the whale, in the desert. While he has an ethical sensibility– sacrificing himself for the sailors– his sense of connection to people remains in doubt. He has to be forced to preach God’s word, and he prefers the company of his gourd. He isn’t a misanthrope, exactly, but a man who values solitude, and who is forced by virtue of his belonging to a religious community to involve himself with others. His ambivalence is painfully manifest when God demands that Jonah acknowledge how much more important people are than plants, a question Jonah never answers. The right answer is obvious, but he doesn’t say what he can’t feel. Reading Jonah’s story at that moment of my life, when God, in a sense, asked me when I would come back to shul, like Jonah, I knew the right answer, but I too had a hard time saying it aloud. If the readings of the Book of Jonah with which I grew up emphasized sin and repentance, what emerged upon rereading was the seductive appeal of “me time,” of quiet, of nature. Less a commentary on teshuva, the text became a demonstration of my struggle to balance the individual and the community.
My experience preparing for this class, then, highlighted something I have long assumed as an English teacher: Reading is personal.
I have seen this in my classrooms: students yesterday complained about Hamlet’s indecisiveness; now they criticize his sexism; Lady Macbeth was once a sociopath; now she’s a feminist. The shifts in their responses indicate what each reading moment really represents: a particular reader understanding a particular text at a particular time. When readers move from asking what a text is about to asking why they see a text the way they do, reading becomes an act of self-discovery, and the text becomes a mirror in which readers find themselves.
In this context, three conversations emerge.
First, in my English classes, I try to realize this aspect of the reading experience. Looking back on my feelings during the start of the pandemic, for example, I recognize the narcissism of my anxiety, how looming fears turned my thinking inward; as a teacher, at that time, I tried to leverage this anxiety, asking my students text-to-person questions and foregrounding inspiration as a goal.
Second, Machon Siach at SAR High School represents an effort to read our community through the lens of high school teachers’ experiences. Implicit in this project is the belief that the vantage point of high school educators can initiate serious discussions about serious issues. Teachers who spend so much time in the classroom are, in a sense, readers. Our experiences, and therefore our insights, are deep and unique.
Lastly, preparing to teach the Book of Jonah made me think both about the mitzvah of Talmud Torah as well as how we teach our children to engage in this mitzvah. Yes, we need to mine Torah for examples to follow, for role models, for ideals against which to compare ourselves. But I wonder whether we can also adopt an approach that is less comparative and more reflective, guided by the assumption that self-improvement can only emerge from self-understanding,
Perhaps there is a way to teach our children to approach the Torah not only as a well full of deep waters, but also as a mirror in which we see aspects of ourselves we never fully understood.