Heroes and Villains
Yom Kippur Sermon
Southport Reform Synagogue
The Heroes and Villains Among Us: Abraham and Jonah
One of the great unexpected delights of rabbinical school was discovering that so many of my fellow students are science fiction and fantasy nerds. Star Trek, Star Wars (but never both at once!), Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings – all these modern-day sagas were loved, cherished and dissected by us students. I guess it makes sense: these narratives are so archetypical and we rabbis love a good story and a good book.
One fantasy, however, that many of us have been particularly engrossed with is the ‘Game of Thrones’ book series by George R.R. Martin, also a successful television series by the American network HBO. In most fantasy and sci-fi, there is not so much space for moral ambiguity or psychological depth. Not so in ‘Game of Thrones’ – set in a brutal Medieval world, even the most noble of characters know their darker sphere and even the greatest of villains have some redeeming qualities. Its realism makes the saga truly compelling. It is the same realism that Tanakh displays.
Heroes and villains may not be so different; and that applies too to our inner heroes and villains.
A meaningful example of such a hero-villain continuum is found in two of our High Holy Day protagonists: Abraham and Jonah. Abraham is often cast as the heroic man of faith who argues with God for the redemption of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jonah, however, is seen as the reluctant and petty prophet who has no desire to bring his redemptive message to the people of Nineveh. There are many parallels between the two stories and I think they are deliberate. We can see the Jonah story as a ‘Midrash’ on the Abraham story. The Jonah narrative is, if you will, a sequel that subverts many of the messages of the Abraham narrative in order to bring to light more meaning.
This idea is not entirely my own. The technique of reading different Biblical texts as midrashic commentaries of each other, as sequels that subvert or affirm each other, was developed by the Biblical scholar Judy Klitsner in her book ‘Subversive Sequels in the Bible - How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other’. The idea behind reading Biblical texts this way is called intertextuality – that a story can be multilayered, nuanced and possess different possible readings. It is both bold creativity and deep respect, trusting that the Biblical stories can teach us something both new and profound.
Let us start with Abraham.
The first narrative is that of Abraham, spanning the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, chapter 18, versus 16 to 33. Abraham bids farewell to the three mysterious men who announce that he and his wife will still bear progeny. Abraham sees them off in the direction of Sodom. Meanwhile, God says to Himself: ‘shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing?’ (Gen. 18:17) God decides to confide in the patriarch, saying about Sodom and Gomorrah, ‘za’akat S’dom v’Amorah ki rabah v’chatatam ki kav’dah me’od’, ‘the outcry of [against] Sodom and Gomorrah is very great and their sin is very heavy’ (Gen. 18:20). God decides that the cities should be destroyed. Abraham’s response is startling: rather than acquiescing to God’s plan, Abraham challenges his God, saying, ‘ha’af tis’peh tzadik im rasha? ’, ‘will you even sweep away the righteous with the wicked’? (Gen. 18:23, translation mine) only to continue with, ‘hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?’, ‘shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?’ (Gen. 18:25). He then famously proceeds to bargain with God over the lives of the few righteous in Sodom. However, God does not relent and overturns the cities.
Abraham’s heroic act of moral bravery stands in contrast with Abraham’s other moral weaknesses such as the Binding of Isaac, where he fails to challenge God in order to spare his beloved son’s life.
Jonah, in the Book of Jonah, makes the inverse journey. Abraham represents the hero archetype, and Jonah is our villain. We feel empathy with Abraham; he champions the cause of the oppressed and makes peace. Jonah, on the other hand, is less easy to empathise with. Jonah flees from before the Eternal when charged with his prophetic mission to ‘call on Nineveh’ (Jonah 1:2). Not only does Jonah flee far, far away in the opposite direction, to Tarshish (Spain), but he also relishes in God’s ‘condemnation’ of Nineveh. Jonah is a weak character. He goes down to sleep on the ship to Tarshish in the middle of a storm (Jonah 1:5), shows little concern for the plight of the (non-Israelite) sailors on the ship (Jonah 1:6), is displeased at Nineveh’s repentance (Jonah 4:1) and wallows in self-pity as his beloved kikayon, (bottle gourd plant ) perishes.
Finally, the book ends with a happy end for Nineveh but rather unhappily for our anti-hero. Jonah does not get what he wants. He is left to brood on his own moral failings. How are these two incredible stories linked? Jonah is the ‘subversive sequel’ to the Abraham saga. The Jonah narrative ‘flips’ a number of key elements in the Abraham story to teach us something about both God and humankind. Both Abraham and Jonah start off seemingly solitary and enjoy an intimate relationship with God. Both are travellers. But while Abraham travels towards God (Gen. 12:1), Jonah flees from God (Jonah 1:2). If anything, Abraham travels across land - arduous and slow - while Jonah travels by sea - efficient and fast. Perhaps the message is that it is difficult to march towards goodness but easy to sail away from it.
Jonah is almost a polar opposite of Abraham. Whereas Abraham is praised by non-Abrahamites, such as Melchizedek (Gen. 14:19), Jonah eschews relationships with non-Israelites, as he goes down to hide in the ‘belly’ of the ship. The character differences become most apparent in the moment of confrontation with God. Abraham lays the groundwork for the later prophetic traditon: that of the prophet interceding on behalf of the accused by ‘standing in the breach’, even for those outside of the Israelite covenant. Jonah, however, fails miserably in this regard. Even Elie Wiesel doubts whether he deserves to be called a ‘prophet’ since he does not seek to ‘save men but to punish them’!
Not only can we examine our prophet but also the people they enter into prophetic relationship with. While innocent ‘Gentiles’ (for lack of a better term) fail to avert the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, it is on account of innocent ‘Gentiles’ that both Jonah and Nineveh are spared. Gentiles play another unique role in the book of Jonah: as the ‘innocent’ sailors who try to deal with their misfortune ethically and honestly. They are reluctant to throw Jonah overboard and embrace ‘ethical monotheism’ (Jonah 2:13 and 14). The sailors show the kind of ‘Abrahamic’ moral courage that Jonah is lacking! The other Gentiles featured in the story are the inhabitants of Nineveh themselves who repent quickly and successfully. Nineveh succeeds where Sodom fails. Finally, God, too, undergoes significant subversion. In the Jonah account, He is far more compassionate. Wrath is amended with mercy and the God of Jonah is a far more forgiving and universalist God than the God in the Abraham narrative. It is as though God Himself has undergone radical change. ‘V’ani lo achus al Nineveh, ha ir hagedolah?’, He says (Jonah 4:11), ‘should I not care for Nineveh, the great city?’.
Whereas Abraham unsuccessfully appealed to God’s justice, Jonah unsuccessfully tried to block God’s mercy. If we see the Jonah story as a sequel of the Abraham story, then perhaps God wanted Jonah to do what Abraham did: resist His judgement. Not only does God care about repentance; He cares for humanity as a whole. It is God’s Self Who provides the ultimate prophetic message of universal Divine Love when the prophet fails.
We must, in a way embrace both the villain and hero within us; to grow in self-awareness and self-improvement.
If both God and His prophets can grow and cultivate compassion, then so can we. It is with good cause, then, that we travel through Yom Kippur with Abraham and Jonah by our sides. They are both conflicted characters, who do both good and ill. They are real; of flesh-and-blood and three-dimensional. No wonder us sci-fi and fantasy geeks find our Tanakh so compelling. The best stories don’t only keep us riveted but they help us change and become better versions of ourselves and help us to see the best both in our fellow man and in God.
What better plot is there for the High Holy Days?
G’mar chatimah tovah!