Ben Gurion: The Book of Jonah and the Value of a Human Being–by Matia Kam

Ben Gurion: The Book of Jonah and the Value of a Human Being
Matia Kam

Jonah stamp 1963 courtesy of wikipedia

The book of Jonah is read as the Haftrah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur prior to the Minhah service. The book of Jonah illustrates God’s compassion for every living thing—human and nonhuman—and therefore reflects the special meaning of the Days of Awe. Unlike other festivals, the High Holy Days are not national celebration but are days of judgment of humans and the world—all that inhabit the world and its nations as well. Thus High Holy Days have a two-fold aspect: a general, universal aspect as well as a particular and interpersonal one. They highlight the standing of both the individual and the community (tzibur) before God, as seen in the actions of the people of Nineveh and of Jonah in the whale—in prayer, in repentance and in hopes for mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

David Ben Gurion wrote about the book of Jonah and emphasized the presence of God’s image in human beings, in each person[1]: “A whole book in TANACH, the book of Jonah, is dedicated to the idea that God’s compassion extends equally to all nations, to the people who worship idols as well as to the people of Israel. When the prophet [Jonah] is angry with his God for saving the city of Nineveh, God responds: “You felt sorrow about the withering of the Kikayon tree, that you did not plant nor nurtured, a tree that sprang up in one night and was gone the next. And I should not show mercy for Nineveh a large city, that has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left and a multitude of animals as well!?” (Jonah, 4:10-11).

Ben Gurion emphasized that “the great prophets did not hesitate to place the Israelites at the same level with other nations”, and to support his claim he cited Amos (9:7): “You the children of Israel are to me like the sons of Cushites, said God, thus I brought Israel out of Egypt and the Philistines out of Kaftor and Aram out of Kir.” Ben Gurion noted the Jewish people refused Jesus’ narrow message of referring only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That narrowing is in contradiction to the Jewish tradition (Midrash Elilhu Rabbah 10) that proclaims that, “I call to witness the heaven and earth, nations and Israelite, women and men, slaves and maids, all according to their actions, for the holy spirit dwells in all.” Ben Gurion wrote on that approach: “I know of no statement in world literature that is more courageous and humane about the value of human beings without distinction of nation, gender or class. According to the midrash, “the holy spirit imbues every human being whose actions merit it, whether the person is a Jew or gentile, man or woman, a slave or a free person.[2]”

“The deep belief of the Jewish nation in the supremacy of the spirit was linked to its faith in the value of a human being”, since all humans are created in God’s image, “and there is not an expression deeper or more profound to express the specialness and worth of humans than that idea [=God’s image]”. Since all human beings are created in God’s image, all have equal rights, therefore human life has always been in Jewish tradition “precious and holy.” Thus the sages have described the essence of Torah: “Love your fellow as yourself.”[3] That love of your fellow human being is not limited to the Jewish people: “You shall treat the strangers among you as citizens and you shall love them as yourself because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus, 19:34). Ben Gurion added that “already in the ancient period there was an inclusive universal conception in Judaism”, a conception that echoes in the King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple: “Also the gentile who is not of your people Israel, but will come from a distant land for your name’s sake…will come to this house to pray. You will hear from Heaven your place of dwelling and You will act according to all that the gentile calls out to you” (Kings 1, 8:41-43).

Elsewhere, in a response to Winston Churchill’s essay “Moses our Teacher” Ben Gurion wrote: “The God of Israel was the God of the World (He created all), and Adam and Eve, who were created in God’s image – were neither Jews, nor Christians, nor Muslims,” and they were not “White, or Black or Yellow”—they were “humans” created in “God’s image.” The God of Israel is also the God of justice and the God of “Love, compassion, and kindness.”[4]

[1] David Ben-Gurion, Singularity and Mission, in: the Eternity of Israel, Ayanoth Ltd. Publishers, 1964′ pp. 27 – 28.
[2]David Ben-Gurion, Advocating Difference, in: Vision and Way, Vol. 5, Am Oved Publishing house, 1958, pp. 108 – 109.
[3]While a number of English translations of the Hebrew is “Love your neighbor as yourself” the ArtScroll Mesorah Publications is the closest to the Hebrew “reah”, fellow.
[4]David Ben-Gurion, The Old Man and the People, Collected and edited by Dr. Zehava Ostfeld, Ministry of Defense Publishing House, 1988, p. 230.

Translated from the Hebrew by Ayala Emmett