Teshuva Out of Love Vs. Teshuva Out of Fear, Rav Avraham Yisrael Sylvetsky

(Translated from Hebrew)

“He Who opens the gate to those who come knocking in repentance”-

The Teshuva Refuser

While perusing the Book of Yonah and following the development of the story it relates, we cannot but be astonished at Yonah’s stubborn and consistent refusal to incorporate the concept of teshuva into his own life. Our amazement at his refusal to proclaim Hashem’s prophecy for Nineveh is surpassed by that engendered by his ongoing refusal to ‘return’ to his Creator, to do his own personal teshuva, in the face of the vicissitudes brought upon him by Hashem.

A ship about to be broken apart by a storm at sea, its sailors’ naked fear and their heartfelt cries, are not enough to prevent Yonah from sleeping soundly in the bottom of the ship, sunk in his own sins. This is not intentional suicide in order to escape prophesying at Nineveh, as we might think at first glance, but a deep-seated opposition to the concept of teshuva, as will be evidenced from a close reading of the book’s next chapters.

His very soul under water, lost in the bowels of a whale in the depths of the ocean, Yonah calls out to Hashem, pleading, praying, describing the crises and waves that have tried to overcome him, recalling the ‘halls of  Hashem’ and even vowing to bring a thanksgiving offering to the Beit Hamikdash as mandated for survivors of life-threatening danger. All this makes the absence of confession and teshuva for his transgression all the more glaring, and the Abarbanel notes that omission. Was it not incumbent upon Yonah to do teshuva in his hour of suffering? Is it possible to utter his heartfelt tefillah without doing repentance?

Even later on, once he has delivered the prophecy at Nineveh, when Yonah asks for death as the sun’s rays beat mercilessly on his head, he refuses to ‘return’ to Hashem. The Angel of Death’s sword hovers above his neck, but he still refuses to confess and express regret at his wrongful actions. It is hard not to think of the Rambam’s strong words at the start of the Laws of Fasting (Chap. 1, 13) concerning the trait of cruelty that epitomizes those who do not do teshuva despite the troubles and sufferings to which they are subjected. Doesn’t Yonah’s repeated hardheartedness evince a most terrible cruelty – meted out by Yonah to his own self?

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