Heavyweight Fight Of All Time: Avraham Vs. Yonah

We often think of Rosh Hashanah as leading up to Yom Kippur, one stage in a progression leading to that awesome day. While that’s true, on a deeper level there’s a contrast between the two days which has a great relevancy for ba’alei teshuva. The two days illustrate two different ways to serve G-d, and understanding the difference is important.

If we had to pick one person who most represents Rosh Hashanah, we would pick Avraham. On both Rosh Hashanah mornings we read about his challenges with Hagar and Ishmael, and his almost unearthly demonstration of belief in G-d when he’s ready to bring Yitzhak as a sacrifice in the Akeidah. And if there’s one person who most represents Yom Kippur, it’s Yonah, as we read his story on Yom Kippur afternoon.

Avraham and Yonah had significantly different ways of following Hashem. For Avraham, when G-d asks him to do the seemingly impossible and bring his son as a human sacrifice, he replies Hineni – here I am, I’m ready to do Your complete bidding. No matter how hard the task, Avraham puts his complete faith in Hashem and is ready to follow Him to the ends of the earth.

On Rosh Hashanah we see a similar dedication in Chanah. Faced with a lifetime of infertility, she cries out to Hashem and places her fate completely in His hands. She further shows her dedication to Him by promising that if she gives birth to a son, he will forever serve Hashem. Sure enough when a son is born, Chanah brings him to assist in the Mishkan.

On the contrary in the story of Yonah on Yom Kippur, he is also asked to do a challenging assignment. His response? He refuses and tries to run away.

Ba’alei teshuva know this difference very well. There are points in all of our teshuva journeys that we must make the choice and say Hineni, here I am G-d, I’m ready to commit myself to Torah Judaism. Whether it’s giving up certain enjoyable activities on Saturday for the purpose of keeping Shabbas, or rejecting a favorite food, or dealing with the pressure from family and friends as we become frum, we’ve all had to put down our foot and say Hineni, I’m ready. And most of us have known other Jews who were exposed to the same positive influences and opportunities, but for some reason decided it was not for them at the time and like Yonah turned away.

For ba’alei teshuva, the job doesn’t stop there. Even once a person overcomes these hurdles in his return to Judaism, the performance of Judaism requires a continued ability to overcome new hurdles, to repeatedly be able to say Hineni.

What is the source of this strength to overcome new hurdles? The Rabbis say “Ma’aseh avot siman lebanim- the actions of the forefathers are a symbol for the children.” We often see that the actions of the patriarchs and matriarchs foretold what the Jewish people would later do. The dedication and commitment of Avraham, Chanah and countless other Jews throughout history gave us the ability to overcome our challenges in retuning to Judaism and serving Hashem.

But where does the commitment of Avraham and Chanah come from? How does one say Hineni when given the hardest test? How do we try to approach that level of observance?

We can answer these questions through another famous question. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, seriousness and penitence. Rosh Hashanah in contrast is a day for eating, spending time with loved ones and enjoyment. Therefore shouldn’t the day of enjoyment come after the day of fasting? We should fast first and afterwards celebrate!

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter answers that one of the purposes of Rosh Hashanah is that we’re crowing Hashem as our King. We have to first remind ourselves that He is King and everything revolves around Him, and only then can we do proper teshuva and prayer on Yom Kippur.

That’s the level Avraham was on. He was the first person to independently discover G-d, and walked around with a constant focus and knowledge that Hashem is in charge and that our goal in this world is only to do his bidding. Once he completely accepted his role as a servant of G-d, he was able to become the amazing person we know him to be.

Yonah on the other hand didn’t completely internalize this message. He also was a noteworthy person and a prophet, but he didn’t have the same level of focus on G-d. Yonah represents the Jew who gets to Yom Kippur without having the proper concentration on G-d. He’s a person who went through Rosh Hashanah and the 10 days of repentance without gaining the proper perspective, so when he gets to Yom Kippur he can’t face the awesome challenge of the teshuva and prayer that G-d demands.

I had the great privilege to speak with Rabbi Lazer Brody from the Lazer Beams blog recently. He pointed out that everyone today talks about having true dedication and commitment to G-d. But do we really know what that means? Before becoming frum, Reb Lazer served for many years in the IDF Special Forces. He says true dedication is when your commanding officer tells you to go into a mission where you know you will probably die, and yet you do it wholeheartedly because that’s your assignment. Dedication is doing anything you are commanded, no matter how challenging it is. That’s the level of commitment we need, and that’s what Avraham showed.

How do you achieve it? Avraham knew that every item he had in the world came from Hashem, and that all of his possessions were only given to him to serve Hashem. That’s why his tent was open on all four sides. He was always looking out for guests, to invite them in for a meal and get them to make a bracha and thank Hashem for food. Just as he knew that every physical possession was given to him to help him serve G-d, Avraham knew that every item he had in his life was given to him to help him follow Hashem. Therefore when he was told to offer his son as a korban, as challenging as it was, he knew that this was the purpose that Yitzhak was given to him, and it was time to give him back to Hashem.

Yonah lacked this trait. We don’t learn anything from Sefer Yonah about his property or outlook on ownership. But one lesson stands out. When he leaves Nineveh to watch its destruction, Hashem sends him a leafy plant to grow over his head to shade him from the sun. The next day, a worm nibbles it and it dies. Yonah mourns greatly for it. However this plant was a free gift from Hashem! Yonah didn’t work to achieve it and didn’t realize that Hashem gave it to him for a particular purpose. He was too focused on what he could gain from the plant, instead of figuring out a way to use it for better service of Hashem.

Avraham’s ability to recognize the purpose of all of his possession was the foundation for his belief in Hashem, and is a way for us to strengthen our focus as well. We need to realize that all our property and gifts were given to us by Hashem and that He has a specific purpose in mind.

When Hashem blesses a person with many gifts, it’s easy to wonder “What did I do to deserve this?” The real question one should be asking is “What will I do to demonstrate that I’m worthy of this?” G-d gives us gifts not as rewards for something we did previously, but as opportunities to make a difference in the world. We need to always see our wealth, health, family or other gifts as opportunities to better serve G-d and refine our personalities. From this we come to increase our G-d centric focus, and then when the hard challenges come up, we’ll be able to say Hineni, we’re ready.

2 comments on “Heavyweight Fight Of All Time: Avraham Vs. Yonah

  1. Robert,
    Yasher Koach. Thanks for the comment!
    Yes, there are numerous ways to understand Yonah’s hesitancy. I presented just one of them.


  2. Keep in mind Yonah was a spiritual giant in his own right. According to Rabbi Barry Shafier, shlita, Yonah was not afraid of his assignment. He knew that Nineveh was slated by Hashem to exile the Jews (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria). However, the Nineveians had too much sin on their hands and didnt deserve to punish Israel.

    Yonah knew that if the Nineveians did Teshuvah (which they did) they would endanger the Jews!

    Yonah’s mistake was not that he was afraid. Rather he tried to get out of being a cause vehicle to bring evil on the Jewish people.

    This is very similar to Isaiah’s rebuke to Hezekiah when the latter found out his son would be the evil King Menashe! Nevertheless Isaiah rebuked King Hezekiah for trying to manipulate future events. Despite the fact that Menashe and Isaiah were arch enemies and that Menashe would later by Isaiah’s killer!
    — see Rabbi Shafier’s latest Yom Kippur Shmuz which discusses this subject in detail.


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