Finding Compassion on the Road to Nineveh—by Ayala Emmett

After the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, three of my cousins, ages two, five and nine, were saved by the compassion of Catholic families. Tragically, other family members did not survive as country after country closed its borders to Jewish refugees. When the Nazis were defeated in 1945 a worldwide slogan promised, “never again.” Over the years and most recently, the unbearable suffering of desperate refugees has reminded us that the promise “never again” has faded from memory. We realize now that compassion must be invoked, summoned and rekindled again and again. As nations like Hungary brutally shut their borders, leaders like Pope Francis, the Chief Rabbi of France and the former Chief Rabbi of England have engaged in infusing compassion by appealing for world empathy, concern and caring and urging immediate refugee relief.

This week, on Yom Kippur, on the day we ask for God’s compassion, we recite the Book of Jonah in the afternoon service. Jonah’s journey is marked by his resistance to care for others as God is asking him to do. The narrative opens with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh, the big city of the ancient Assyrian empire, and warn the people that they must repent. Instead of thinking of the people of Nineveh and their impending disaster in which many could either die or become refugees, Jonah decides to flee. He turns himself into a voluntary refugee, running away from God. Jonah hardens his heart, refuses to warn people and embarks on a boat to go to Tarshish. His voluntary flight turns into a refugee plight; the ship is about to sink in a threatening sea storm, a scene that foreshadows recent refugee tragedies. As the storm intensifies, the winds get more ferocious, and the sailors cry and pray, Jonah confesses that he is the cause of their predicament; the next step to save the lives of all others, is to place Jonah in physical danger, a sure drowning in treacherous water. Jonah encourages the shipmates to throw him off the ship. And they reluctantly fling him overboard.

Jonah, as we know, does not drown; he is saved/swallowed by a big female fish, dagah in Hebrew. Jonah now prays, “I called in my distress to God and God answered me.” (2:3). “I cried out –You heard my voice” (2:3). Like refugees on the seas before and after him, Jonah is hoping to reach dry land, and the fish lets go of him, spitting him out on the shore. Yet, even after that harrowing experience Jonah is reluctant to open his heart. God, however, leaves him no other option he must go to Nineveh to make God’s announcement, which Jonah does without empathy or concern for the people. He is angry while the people of Nineveh open their hearts, they “called mightily to God” and repented and “God relented.”

Jonah should rejoice. Here is a biblical declared desire of every prophet that the people would repent, change their ways and God would offer compassion. Jonah just cannot do it, he has no pity for the people, and from the start, he confesses, he has been afraid that they would indeed atone, regret what they had done, would change their ways and God would forgive them. This had been all along the process he feared, the reason for his earlier escape.

Jonah, to the end is self-centered. He expresses feelings of joy and rejoicing not when the city is saved, but when a tree suddenly appears giving him shelter from the unbearable heat. God, however has a message for Jonah by causing the tree to shrivel and die, leaving Jonah exposed to the elements; he faints from heat and exhaustion and wants to die. God has the last word asking a rhetorical question, “You took pity on the tree on which you did not labor, nor did you make it work. And I shall not take pity on Nineveh, a city in which there are a hundred and twenty thousands persons who do not know their right hand from their left and many animals as well?! (4:10-11) God’s words about the tree are not really about a tree, as the narrative’s rhetoric indicate; the issue is not how Jonah feels about the tree, it is about Jonah’s inability to see beyond his own wellbeing and his refusal to extend himself for others.

The book has a message for us since we all have a Jonah in us; we have moments when we too are tempted to flee to Tarshish, that is, to avert our eyes from the current refugee suffering. The Book of Jonah is a call to us to find compassion on the road to our own Nineveh.

Every year on Yom Kippur I think about my cousins who were saved by people who risked their lives to care for them, who sheltered them until the end of the war. One of my cousins once told me that he felt that he could never repay them for saving his life. Yet, as Rabbi Haim Korsia, Chief Rabbi of France said, we can act now, we can pay it forward for all those who were saved, and in memory of those who could not find refuge, and we can do it because we follow Jewish values that view all refugees as our brothers and sisters in humanity.