By Mark Gerson
One of the abiding principles of Jewish biblical interpretation is that there are “70 faces to the Torah.” This means that there are multiple ways to legitimately interpret and properly learn from any biblical passage (70 is used because seven is the Jewish number of completion). Indeed, there are 70 faces to this statement! The word “face” in Hebrew is plural. There is no way to say “face” in the singular because there is no notion of a person having only one “face.” If something doesn’t exist, there is no need for a word to describe it. We can appreciate the truth of this insight by how we present ourselves differently on LinkedIn and on Facebook, in worship and at a football game, in a job interview and at dinner with friends.
Like everything else in the Bible, there are 70 faces to Jonah 4:10-11. God, commenting on Jonah’s reluctance to prophesize to the evil Ninevites while being happy to receive the mercy of a plant that grew instantly, tells him, “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city…”
One “face” of this statement is of God showing Jonah—who was first identified as “Jonah the son of Amittai” (son of “truth”)—how even Jonah appreciates the existence of mercy. There is nothing “truthful” about a plant that appears at full size and strength overnight. Its ascendance is due entirely to God’s grace and mercy and Jonah, in spite of being the “son of truth,” loves it. He learns that even he, a man defined entirely by truth, appreciates and needs mercy.
Another “face” of this statement is revealed through Jonah’s reaction to God’s “appointment” of a worm that destroys the plant. The plant did not exist the day before—and yet its absence grieves him “so deeply that I want to die.”
Does Jonah realize the absurdity of caring so deeply for something that is here today and gone tomorrow due to no work of his own? We are not told, because the story is not primarily about Jonah. It is, as both a book in the Bible and a work of truly great literature, about each of us.
Every parent (and perhaps every child of a parent!) can understand exactly what God might have been thinking. All of us parents have marveled at how the most minor annoyances (or even perceived annoyances) can deeply upset a 4- or 5-year-old child. It is cute to us because we know that the problem is not real, that the moment will pass (the speed with which 4-year-olds can go from inconsolability to joy always astonishes), and that the child will soon become more mature.
Unless, as Jonah demonstrates, they don’t—or really, we don’t. Perhaps the only difference is that when we were children, our parents marveled at what made us upset—but now that we are adults, God marvels at what makes us upset. A question for this Yom Kippur season of reflection and repentance: Who among us has not had Jonah 4:10 moments (or more) where we are driven to inconsolability by some equivalent of the gourd that didn’t even exist in our lives yesterday? Such sorrow may not drive us, as it does Jonah, to a death wish. But it will drive us to distraction from more worthy things that would otherwise command our inevitably limited attention.
The self-reflection that this face of Jonah 4:10 offers may just be the most important we can have. More than Jonah, we each have many beliefs, claims on our time, relationships to develop, opportunities to pursue, texts to study and places to see. Such are the gifts of living in a prosperous, free, dynamic and creative society. But the hours in our days and the years in our lives are inelastic. This means we will die with much of what we ask unanswered and much of what we want to do unfulfilled. Which will those be? The answer stems from our response to another question: What, from my many faces, should I focus on?
How can we avoid this problem of Jonah 4:10 and focus on the things that deserve our most precious and limited resources—those of attention, concern and time? A characteristic of the internet—one of, perhaps, its 70 faces—is how accessible it makes insightful commentary on the Book of Jonah. One such sermon was given seven years ago by Pastor Chris Weeks of the Kent City Baptist Church in Michigan. Pastor Weeks, in discussing Jonah 4:10, provides what might be the corrective. He cites a prayer written by Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse.
From my chairmanship of African Mission Healthcare, I know Samaritan’s Purse to be an organization that saves lives and alleviates suffering throughout the entire world in the name of Jesus Christ with astonishing effectiveness. So, I was looking forward to seeing what the founder of this remarkable and sacred institution prayed in a Jonah context.
This great humanitarian entrepreneur said, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.”
Indeed, the spirit of Bob Pierce’s prayer would have saved Jonah from the absurdity of equating his life with that of a newly formed plant. It will similarly orient us, particularly at this time on the Jewish calendar, to the things that are worthy of our most precious resources: attention, concern and time.
Jonah isolated the problem, Bob Pierce provided the answer—and now that the Jewish New Year has begun, we have the God-given chance to live accordingly.
Mark Gerson, a devoted Jew, is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who (along with his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson) is perhaps the world’s largest individual supporter of Christian medical missions. He is the co-founder of African Mission Healthcare (AMH) and the author of a forthcoming book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.