Before I moved to Israel, I was always puzzled by the ending to the Book of Jonah, read on Yom Kippur as part of the mincha service. As you might recall, Jonah is upset at G-d for pardoning the city of Nineveh, and he says: “Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” Jonah then goes to the outskirts of Nineveh, builds himself a hut and looks out upon the city (perhaps hoping that the people would backslide into sin and thus destruction). G-d causes a gourd to grow, and Jonah “was very happy about the plant” because of the shade it provided him. But the next day G-d causes the gourd to wither, “and Jonah begged for death, saying, ‘I would rather die than live.’”
I could never understand Jonah’s reaction to the gourd. Okay it gave him shade, but wasn’t he laying it on a bit too thick with this business of wanting to die when the gourd shriveled up? Then I moved to Israel and started hiking around the country, and I learned that the difference between full Mideast sun and a nicely shaded area is, well, striking. There are days when to stand in the sun is to feel like the heat is being bored into you, and yet if you make it to a shaded sanctuary suddenly the weather seems pleasant; the breeze that had seemed ineffectual only moments before is now cool and refreshing. I learned to always be on the lookout for shaded areas, and I even have a scar just below my right pinky as a souvenir from a shade-hunting sortie that ended badly (let’s just say that it’s a good idea to obey all “stay on trail” signs). So it was only after making aliyah that I really understood Jonah’s reaction to the death of the gourd.
I will close here with some thoughts from my friend and teacher Rabbi Lior Engelman that nicely capture the connection between Yom Kippur and the Book of Jonah: “Yom Kippur is a day when the spirit of pardon and forgiveness blows through the world. A day for the renewal of the trust between the Master of the Universe and the creatures of His world. A day when the honor of G-d increases because of the good that is victorious in His world.”
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is a tennis coach who made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies.
He and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.