How many of you like to read detective stories? How many of you have ever tried to write a detective story? If you have, then you know that the key to writing a good detective story is that you have to plant enough clues so that the reader has a chance of figuring out who did it, but you must not plant so many clues that it’s no challenge to figure it out.
In today’s Torah portion, Gd is a great detective story-writer. He wants us to get the strong connection between the story of Noah and the story of Jonah—which we just read on Yom Kippur—and so He plants a great number of clues to make us aware of the connections:
- Both stories deal with storms. In the Noah story there’s a storm so strong that it overwhelms the world. In the Jonah story a storm nearly wrecks the ship on which Jonah is traveling as he tries to run away from Gd.
- In both stories the hero is saved from the storm by being enclosed in a container—Noah in the ark and Jonah in the belly of a big fish.
- In both stories there’s enormous sin. In the Noah story, the whole world was evil and corrupt; and in the Jonah story, the whole city of Nineveh was evil and corrupt.
And just in case you don’t get the connection from these clues, Jonah is mentioned in the Noah story and Noah is mentioned in the Jonah story! In the Noah story Noah sends out a dove to see if the flood waters had receded and if it was safe to come out. The Hebrew word for dove is yonah—Jonah! And in the Jonah story the text (3:10) tells us: vayinacheym haElokim al hara (Gd changed His mind and decided not to destroy the city of Nineveh). The word Vayinecheym contains within it the name of Noah!
With all these clues, you don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes or an Agatha Christie to understand that these stories are connected. The question is why? Rabbi Philip Graubart suggests that the connection between these stories is the “Inside/Outside” dilemma. He writes: Both Noah and Jonah struggle with the question of how to relate to the insider and the outsider in their lives. Jonah despises the outsider; Noah seems to care very little about the outsider. Jonah says explicitly that he wants Gd to destroy the wicked city of Nineveh. When Gd sees their repentance and decides to let them live, Jonah is angry. He sulks and says that Gd is gullible, and he is angry that Gd is willing to let the people of Nineveh live.
Gd has to rebuke him for being so hostile to outsiders. He says to him: “Do you really want me to destroy all of Nineveh, which includes a great many small children who are too young to know right from wrong?” Jonah does not answer this question. As the curtain falls, he says nothing in response to Gd’s question. And that implies that he really does want Gd to destroy all of Nineveh, lock, stock, and barrel. Jonah has no use for the outsider. All he cares about are his own people.
And Noah? Noah is not so explicit in his hatred of the outsider as Jonah is. But his contempt for them is there—between the lines. When Gd tells him that the wickedness of humanity has become unbearable and that He is going to destroy the world with a flood and save only him and his family, Noah does not argue. Noah does not plead with Gd to change his mind. He simply goes about building an ark so that he and his family will be safe. The ark takes many, many years to build. And so when people go by and see him building an ark—on dry land—and ask him what he is doing and why, Noah has an opportunity to warn them of what Gd is about to do. He has a chance to try to persuade them to repent. But he does not do so. Noah is only concerned with saving himself and with saving his family. If the rest of humanity goes under—that is their problem, not his.
And so Gd imprisons them both, Noah and Jonah, in a narrow place, hoping that the experience of being cooped up in a narrow place will teach them that life cannot be lived only within a narrow circle, that people have to be concerned with the welfare of those outside as well as with the welfare of those within their immediate circle.
In both cases, the lesson fails. Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to repent. Nineveh had long been an enemy of Israel and so Jonah wants it destroyed. Noah is cooped up in the ark for a year working night and day to feed all the animals. According to some commentators, this was his punishment. Since he didn’t care about the welfare of human beings, he must now worry about the welfare of animals. Behind that comment is a sense that Noah is a person who doesn’t care much about the welfare of others. And so the Midrash teaches us that if it was cold Noah would cover himself with a blanket while Abraham would light a fire to warm others.
Why do I tell you these stories about Noah and Jonah? Because the dilemma they faced then, faces each and every one of us today: How should we relate to the tension between inside and outside in our lives—caring for those who are close and caring for those who are outside our immediate circle? It’s right to care most about those with whom our lives are intertwined. But there must be limits. We live in this world and what happens in one part of the world eventually affects us all.
I don’t know about you, but I confess that when I read the names of those who died in a plane crash or those arrested for a crime or those listed on the obituary page…I look mostly for the Jewish names. I know it’s not right, but I do it. But when a hurricane or an earthquake strikes another state or a far off country, I respond with whatever help I can give. I show that I care about these people who are total strangers but who are in distress, because I don’t want to commit the sin of Noah or Jonah. I don’t want to care only about my own…for my Gd is the Gd of the whole world.
There are some—especially prevalent among Jews—who commit the opposite sin. They care only about the rest of the world and not about their own people. And so we have philanthropists who give millions and millions of dollars to save the whales but not one penny to Jewish causes—and that can be just as much of a sin as caring only about our own. Clearly the lesson of both Noah and Jonah is that we must care about both—the inside and the outside.
Gd rebukes Jonah for being so narrow and tells him: “I care about the people of Nineveh and so should you. They too are created in My Image.” And in the Noah story, after the flood, Gd sends a rainbow saying 3 times (Gen. 9:13-16) that the rainbow is the sign of the covenant—not between Gd and Noah—but between Gd and all flesh that is on the earth! Gd is the Gd of the whole world and cares about the whole world. And that’s the lesson we have to learn.
All of us are more comfortable and feel safer when we’re among our own—and understandably so. But the world is not a cocoon. And our purpose is not just to be safe and snug. Therefore, we have to care about those outside our circle as well as those within it.
I don’t know if Jonah ever really learned this lesson. When the curtain goes down on the Book of Jonah we see him still boycotting Nineveh and sulking that Gd had not zapped them. And we’re left to wonder whether Jonah ever repented or not.
And I don’t know if Noah ever really learned this lesson or not. Maybe he did, because he started the world over again after the flood…and all the races of the world are descended from him, and so I guess that he had to be sensitive to the fact that all the world is really, ultimately, one family. But the Torah does not say explicitly that Noah came down from the ark any wiser than he went up in to it. The Torah does not explicitly say that Noah ever regretted not warning the people that a flood was on the way and that the world would end unless they repented.
But we do know that Noah planted a vineyard and got drunk after he came out of the ark. Could it be that he did so to drown out his guilt for having cared only about his own and not about others?
Let’s conclude with looking at the story of the one who follows Noah in the Torah—Abraham. Abraham is known for 2 things. The 1st is caring about his family. He risks his life and goes to war to rescue his nephew Lot. But he also profoundly cares about others. He stands up to Gd on behalf of the wicked city of Sodom and tries to save them. Can you picture Jonah standing up to Gd and saying: “If there are 50 good people in Nineveh will you save it?”
Rabbi Graubart concludes his thought saying: The great symbol of Noah is an Ark—a closed in container like a cocoon. And the great symbol of Jonah is the belly of a fish—also a closed in container, a kind of prison cell. But what is the great symbol of Abraham? It is a tent—a place where he and his family live. And this tent was open on all 4 sides so that Abraham could see and reach out and welcome strangers who came by, from whichever direction they came. A tent—which symbolizes care for those inside—and 4 open flaps—which symbolize readiness to embrace the stranger—these are the signs of how Abraham resolved the tension between Inside and Outside that confronted Jonah, that confronted Noah, and that confronts each and every one of us.
May we learn from Abraham’s example. Amen!