The haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon, known as “Maftir Yonah,” is one of the most celebrated haftarot of the year. Our tradition has it that the recitation of this haftarah in the synagogue brings with it the blessing of wealth, and has the ability to arouse a person to teshuvah (repentance).1

The obvious reason why this haftarah is read on Yom Kippur is because the story of Jonah is a story of teshuvah. Jonah, a Jewish prophet, was instructed by G‑d to travel to the non-Jewish metropolis of Nineveh. There he was to warn them that if they did not return from their sinful ways, the city would be destroyed.

Upon Jonah’s eventual arrival, the king of the city instructed a national repentance on a massive scale. Men, women, children, and even animals fasted and donned sackcloth. They mended their wicked ways and returned all stolen objects to each other. As a result, the city was spared.

The drama of the story, however, is of Jonah’s initial refusal and ongoing reluctance to fulfill this seemingly simple mission. No sooner had the instruction come for him to go to Nineveh than Jonah boarded a ship to “flee from before G‑d.” A raging storm engulfed the ship, threatening to sink it. In the end, Jonah has himself thrown overboard by the sailors, as they together determine that he, and no other, is the cause of the storm.

A large fish is prepared by G‑d, and it swallows the drowning prophet. Jonah spends three days in the belly of the fish, and prays to G‑d from within it. In the end, the fish spits him out alive on dry land.

But even after this ordeal, Jonah was still reluctant to go. G‑d came to him a second time with the same instruction, and Jonah understood that he had no choice. After going to the city and his mission proving a resounding success, the prophet fell into deep grief.

G‑d taught Jonah a lesson by making the sun beat down very strongly in the place of his encampment outside the city. G‑d then caused a plant called kikayon to grow at that place, to shelter him from the sun. Overnight, however, G‑d sent a worm which caused the kikayon to shrivel up and die. Jonah was now beside himself with frustration and pain from the heat.

G‑d told Jonah: “You took pity on the kikayon, for which you did not toil nor did you make it grow, which one night came into being and the next night perished. Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?”

As sinful as they were, the city and its inhabitants were G‑d’s creations. If there was an opportunity for them to repent and do better, it had to be utilized at all cost.

Recalcitrant Prophet

The recalcitrance of Jonah is the mystery of the entire book. Why did the prophet not want to go to Nineveh? Where was he running? How could such a great man—a prophet no less—think that it was possible to “run away” from G‑d?

Rashi explains that Jonah’s flight was because he knew that “the gentiles are quick to repent. Should I prophesy to them and they repent, it will mean that I am condemning Israel, who do not heed the words of the prophets.”

To this end, Jonah fled from the Land of Israel, for “the Divine presence does not rest [on a prophet] outside of the Holy Land.” This seemed to Jonah a way to be freed from this guilt-laden mission, as G‑d would then not communicate with him.

As such, this is one of the most breathtaking and historic accounts of ahavat Yisrael, love for the Jewish people.

Here was G‑d Himself coming to Jonah and giving him an instruction. The Talmud says that a prophet who withholds his or her prophecy is deserving of death.2 Indeed, had G‑d not intervened by the fish first swallowing and then ejecting him to safety, Jonah would have lost his life at sea. But to Jonah this did not matter. He preferred to die rather than be the medium through which his people would be seen in a bad light.

It was for this very reason that Jonah was so frustrated over his “success” at Nineveh, and why in the last part of the book he actually asked G‑d to take his life.

As said, this drama is the running theme of the entire book, taking up the majority of its content. It is obvious that Scripture is interested that we read and understand not only the story of Nineveh’s repentance, but also of Jonah’s reluctance.

The book of Jonah appears as one of twelve small books of Scripture known as Trei Asar (“The Twelve”). The book of Jonah is followed by Michah (Micah), which in turn is followed by Nachum. The book of Nachum speaks almost entirely of the sinful city of Nineveh and its final destruction. Nachum lived after Jonah had brought Nineveh to repentance, but evidently their repentance was only temporary. Not long after, they relapsed and returned to their wicked ways.

This adds special significance to the verses we append to the haftarah, which are the last three verses of the book of Michah—which sits between Jonah and Nachum. These verses describe G‑d’s special bond with the Jewish people, who are “the remnant of His heritage.” No nation has endured anything like the Jewish people have—and all for the sake of G‑d and the covenant with Him. If G‑d went to such lengths just for Nineveh to (temporarily) repent, how much more so does G‑d’s compassion and kindness apply to the Jewish people.

The complexity of the motives in the book of Jonah is palpable. Suffice it to mention that G‑d never admonished Jonah for fleeing from Him, and Jonah never repents for doing so. The story of Jonah, like every story told by the Torah, is—in its entirety—a timeless teaching.

One concrete lesson to be learned from Jonah is the utmost precaution that has to be taken in not casting the Jewish people, collectively or individually, in a negative light. On this holiest day of the year, we read of the lengths to which Jonah went so as not to even imply something negative about his people. Situations and actions may need to be called out and rectified, but simple negative talk, or even the implication of such, is to be totally avoided.