The Book of Jonah, read in its entirety during the Yom Kippur afternoon services, is the story of your life. This is what the Kabbalah says.
I know what you’re thinking. “This has got to be a metaphor, because I have never boarded a seafaring vessel bound for Tarshish to escape prophecy, gotten caught in a storm, had the crew throw me overboard and been swallowed by a fish.”
You’re right. Those things haven’t happened to you. And they probably won’t happen to very many of us. But, still, the Zohar says that this is the real story of your life.
You are Jonah. The real you, for “Jonah”—in Kabbalistic parlance—is another name for the soul. Hence, the story of Jonah is the story of a soul’s journey here on earth. Thus, on Yom Kippur, as we examine our lives and consider our purpose in this world, we remember the historical Jonah whose real-life narrative symbolizes our spiritual odyssey.
Your story begins at birth. A soul from on high is plunged into an earthly body. Before its descent, the soul lived an angel-like existence, basking in a glow of spirituality, intimately bound to its Creator. But the soul must leave its home. It is confined to a material vessel, its senses overwhelmed by the brash stimuli of this world. “Jonah,” the soul, “boards the ship,” the body. And where does this ship take its passenger? “Away from the presence of G‑d.” Indeed, the very name of Jonah—closely related to a Hebrew word meaning “aggrieved”—alludes to the unique frustration of the soul confined to the body.
The soul, Jonah, the hapless passenger, has traveled far away from G‑d. Yet, where can one go and be far from the One? Where is it that the Omnipresent cannot be found? Has the soul—upon entering this coarse, physical realm—really left G‑d behind? Just as G‑d was with Jonah at the moment of his first prophecy in the Holy Land, so too was G‑d with Jonah as he languished on the high seas.
And yet, we, like Jonah, delude ourselves into thinking that our journey to this earth has somehow taken us “out of range” of our relationship with G‑d. Like Jonah, we take this perceived distance as an indication that we have somehow been dismissed from our mission. But no; the soul does not escape G‑d by coming down to this earth. To the contrary, it is an agent of G‑d, a representative of His will charged with imbuing sanctity into the mundane and perfecting an imperfect world.
Sooner or later, the false lure of material satisfaction comes to its inevitable conclusion, and the physical life to which the soul had resigned itself grows unruly and fierce. “The Almighty rouses a furious tempest.” Not to punish, heaven forbid, but to shake the soul from its complacency, for “Jonah had gone down to the inner part of the ship . . . and slept.” The soul is numb.
“So the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your G‑d!’” A voice of conscience stirs from within. “What is your occupation?” What have you done with your life? Why are you here? Why were you sent?
The moment of truth. The soul must acquiesce. G‑d is here too, and I am none other than His very messenger. My life has a purpose. “I am a Hebrew, and I revere the G‑d of Israel!”