Nineveh, The Animals – And My Grandmother. Thoughts For Yom Kippur

My grandmother passed away earlier this year aged 97. She had grown up as the youngest child of the Chief Rabbi of Dusselfdorf, a city in Western Germany, and with the rise of Nazism had fled aged twelve to London. Her parents remained until their apartment was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938 after which my great-grandfather was imprisoned for a short while before being able to escape to the UK.

My grandmother loved animals and for as long as I can remember always owned a cat who she spoilt terribly. She did not spend much time with religious texts and so I was struck when she once remarked to me that her favorite verse in the Bible was the final one of the book of Yonah:

ואני לא אחוס על־נינוה העיר הגדולה אשר יש־בה הרבה משתים־עשרה רבו אדם אשר לא־ידע בין־ימינו לשמאלו ובהמה רבה

And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well!”

God argues with Yonah – how can He not care for a city with so many inhabitants? He cannot see them destroyed! They are simple people who do not know the difference between left and right! And moreover – and with this book ends – there are so many there animals too. It was the animals that, for my grandmother, summed up the pathos of the book. She loved animals and apparently God did too – so much so, that they would be a factor in the decision to save the city from destruction.

I’d like to explore this idea and make the argument that the animals play a key role in the book of Yonah and capture one of its most radical ideas, an idea that the prophet Yonah himself is unable to entertain.

Yonah has an argument with God. Only at the end of the book – after having seen Nineveh saved from destruction – does what is really on Yonah’s mind come to the fore. ‘And he said O God, isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country, this is why I ran away and fled to Tarshish’: He continues:

…כי ידעתי כי אתה אל־חנון ורחום ארך אפים ורב־חסד ונחם על־הרעה. ועתה יהוה קח־נא את־נפשי ממני כי טוב מותי מחיי

… for I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, forgiving of evil.  And now, please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

Although Jews throughout history have said words to this effect as praise of God, requesting His mercy, Yonah uses them not as prayer, but as bitter, biting critique. Enumerating God’s attributes of mercy, is not a petition, but rather an accusation. God – you are too merciful. You do not treat the wicked as they deserve to be treated – instead you are compassionate. You do not punish injustice – instead you abound in kindness.

The original account of God’s attributes of mercy – given to Mosheh in the aftermath of the golden calf episode in Shemot ch.33 – speaks of the Almighty being slow to anger, abounding in kindness and in truth, erech apayim, rav hesed v’emet. Yonah consciously changes this: ‘slow to anger, abounding in kindness, forgiving of evilerech apayim, rav hesed, v’nichem al hara’. God forgives evil and this is nothing to be happy about. God is not truthful. Truth would be to punish evil. Falsehood is to let Nineveh live. Who in fact is truth? Yonah. The son of Amitai. Yonah the son of truth.

So angry is Yonah that the prayer (‘And Yonah prayed…’) is in fact a death wish (‘please take my life from me’). Because if being Your emissary o God means inaction in the face of evil, then I wish to have no part in it. If You won’t let me run away, then kill me now.

Yet was Yonah correct? Great crimes had indeed been committed in Nineveh but hadn’t its inhabitants repented? It is the quality of this teshuva, or lack of it, which lies at the heart of Yonah’s argument with God. To unpack the dispute a full reading of Nineveh’s response to Yonah in ch.3 is required:

ויחל יונה לבוא בעיר מהלך יום אחד ויקרא ויאמר עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת

Jonah started out and made his way into the city the distance of one day’s walk, and proclaimed: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

ויאמינו אנשי נינוה באלהים ויקראו־צום וילבשו שקים מגדולם ועד־קטנם

The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.

ויגע הדבר אל־מלך נינוה ויקם מכסאו ויעבר אדרתו מעליו ויכס שק וישב על־האפר

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

ויזעק ויאמר בנינוה מטעם המלך וגדליו לאמר האדם והבהמה הבקר והצאן אל־יטעמו מאומה אל־ירעו ומים אל־ישתו

And he had the word cried through Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water!

ויתכסו שקים האדם והבהמה ויקראו אל־אלהים בחזקה וישבו איש מדרכו הרעה ומן־החמס אשר בכפיהם. מי־יודע ישוב ונחם האלהים ושב מחרון אפו ולא נאבד

They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish.”

 

What is to be made of this description? Briefly read, it seems like a perfect turning around.

They believed fully in God, they publically demonstrate through fasting and proclamations the decision to mend their ways. It is not one strata of society that experiences the transformation, rather it runs from the people on the street all the way to the royal court. An explicit articulation of the change they intend, ‘Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty’. A perfect teshuva. No wonder then that the passage concludes with God’s decision to drop all charges:

וַיַּ֤רְא הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶֽת־מַ֣עֲשֵׂיהֶ֔ם כִּי־שָׁ֖בוּ מִדַּרְכָּ֣ם הָרָעָ֑ה וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם הָאֱלֹהִ֗ים עַל־הָרָעָ֛ה אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר לַעֲשׂוֹת־לָהֶ֖ם וְלֹ֥א עָשָֽׂה׃

God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.

And yet, a slower, more deliberate reading gives a clear insight into where Yonah was coming from.

After a single day in Nineveh, Yonah has already produced quite the reaction: V’ya’aminu anshei Nineveh b’Elokim – and the people of Nineveh believed in God. The bell that that this verse rings takes us back to Shemot. Post the splitting of the sea and the exodus from Egypt we read, ‘v’yaminu b’Hashem u’vMoshe avdo – and they (the Jewish people) believed in God and His servant Moshe’. Both the immediacy and the extremity are befuddling. Are we really to conclude that the greatest moment of Israel’s faith, having witnessed the destruction of Egyptian tyranny at God’s hand, is paralleled by a city of pagan sinners who have a brief encounter with a reluctant Israelite prophet who utters five words in a language they most likely don’t understand? I struggle to believe in their belief.

Moreover the seeming superficiality of the repentance also provides us with pause for thought. Public fasts, proclamations and sackcloth? My personal preference for sincere teshuva would be the words of the prophet Yoel (Yoel 2:2):

קרעו לבבכם ואל קרעו בגדיכם Tear your hearts and not your clothes

Yet the real clincher lies with the animals of Nineveh. Read the proclamation again: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water!

 

The animals had to fast?! What had they done wrong?! And if this sounds extreme, the continuation moves from the sublime to the ridiculous: They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God.

 

Animals fasting and in sackcloth. This, God, says Yonah, is what You call teshuvah?! Is God a cultural-relativist with no objective yardstick? Is the Almighty trolling Yonah? Yonah leaves the city ‘… until he should see what happened to the city’ (4:5) – in other words to watch from the outside just how long it would take (days? hours?) for Nineveh’s superficial and hypocritical repentance to dissolve itself back into unembarrassed evil.

 

On the balance of the evidence many objective readers would be inclined to agree that Yonah is right and God is wrong. Nineveh is wicked and the city’s apparent repentance does not convince. Soon enough they will be back to their old ways.

And yet God will have the final word. The book concludes with story of a tree called a kikayon. Kikyoni in modern Hebrew means, ephemeral or fleeting.

 

In the heat of the day Yonah rejoices at finding shade under this tree that God has caused to sprout above him. But then ‘God assigned a worm at the beginning of the following day, and it attacked the kikayon so that it withered’ (4:7). Yonah is deeply grieved over the loss of the kikayon and again requests for his life to be taken from him. And with this Yonah has lost the argument.

 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה אַתָּ֥ה חַ֙סְתָּ֙ עַל־הַקִּ֣יקָי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָמַ֥לְתָּ בּ֖וֹ וְלֹ֣א גִדַּלְתּ֑וֹ שֶׁבִּן־לַ֥יְלָה הָיָ֖ה וּבִן־לַ֥יְלָה אָבָֽד

The LORD said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight

 

You tell Me, says God to Yonah, that you don’t believe in the power of that which is temporary. That a momentary, superficial repentance on the part of Nineveh is not enough to satisfy you. And yet here you are, lamenting the loss of your kikayon which was here one day and gone the next.

 

And if that is so ‘Should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, as well as many animals?’ (4:11). Yes, those very same animals who were dressed up in ridiculous sackcloth and made to fast. They are simple and helpless – how can I not care for them? And so the animals have their role too says God, – even if they represent the height of Nineveh’s superficiality – and partly on their account will I forgive this city.

 

————–

 

In her final years, the old age home my grandmother lived in had a small farmyard of animals in the garden – rabbits, goats, a huge pig and others – which gave her great joy[1].  She had seen the whole world she knew destroyed by Hitler. In some small unarticulated way, the love and the home that she gave to animals may have been her own response to those who had vandalised her parents’ apartment on the night of Kristallnacht. Love and care for those who would otherwise perish. No wonder the final verse of the book of Yonah spoke to her across the millenia. For God too loves both humans and animals in their simplicity and helplessness and values their genuine expressions even when those expressions are fleeting and arrive clothed in superficiality.

Perhaps we should read Yonah on Yom Kippur with the following in mind. Our own resolutions for change may be closer to those of Nineveh than we would hope. Sincerity and heartfelt prayer is easier in the middle of Neilah than it is on a dreary day in March six months later. Genuine resolutions may give way to easy comfort and carelessness. Our teshuva may be kikyoni. May it be Your will, Hashem, to be as generous to us as You were to the residents of Nineveh.

Gma

Nancy Hannah Wolfson nee Eschelbacher. Born Dusseldorf, Germany 1921. Died Birmingham, UK 2018

[1] On the positive effects experienced by the elderly from living in proximity to animals see Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, ch.5 and www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4248608/

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