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Existence and Destiny

Discussions on the Book of Yonah


by Rabbi Haim Lifshitz



 Translated from hebrew by S. Nathan
l'ilui nishmat esther bat mordechai

Once upon a child-time, I took a flying leap. (I was seven or perhaps eight.) There, I was free! Jumped out the window and gone. I did not even look back at our little house, situated among the miserable shanties of Yaffo - hiding huddling homes that crowded the back allies.

It is tomorrow. Yesterday was a holy day: Yom Kippur. Father is deep in study (as usual). Mother is trying...and trying ( weary her voice sounds - she must be nearing exhaustion...) to reach the mind of a lazy pupil, but his brain is befogged.

But I'm off - off to the sea. It's wild there; you'll find a cliff-strewn and deserted beach. I sit myself down on a great rock and stare, astonished. Waves shatter themselves against boulders, breaking upon my rock as I sit. A wave rises its formidable height, but then suddenly, helplessly, it collapses and hurries away. It clears the way for the next wave: That one wants to try its luck, too.

I shall not falter, my rock assures me. Here I stand and here I stay. (I do not fear the waves, because my Creator has planted me in this position.) I shall not waver in my line of duty.

How it revived me, you cannot imagine. What a change from the distress - the weariness of utter poverty - that sat in our home. It was a brief pause in time, a break in the midst of battle - my own Sisyphian battle with a harsh and unyielding existence.

It was an escape, but I experienced it as an encounter - with the titans of nature. Here were God's true soldiers. The waves roar on, and thunder. How well they hold the tune. It's been playing in my ears ever since last night.

Round and round it goes in my head - the Haftorah tune: "Water encompasseth me to my very soul. Verily the seaweed doth wrap about my head..."

A whole night and a whole day have passed since that happened to Yonah. Poor Yonah. But Yonah is very rich - he's not poor at all. That's why they give him the Haftorah to read. He's the richest man in town. Just yesterday he dissolved in tears when he read the Book of Yonah. "He answereth me from the belly of hell." His own belly of hell, not the fish's belly. How fat he is... How could the fish swallow such a fat Yonah? But perhaps Yonah the prophet did not resemble the rich Yonah at all...

I worried about Yonah, that poor guy. To this day my heart gives a slight flutter whenever I think of him. What a fate...

I searched the waves. Where had he stood? On this spot? Where had he waited for his boat? He needed a boat that would take him very far away...

Maybe he sat on this very rock, the one I'm sitting on. A ship appears suddenly on the horizon. My heart lurches lightly. Can Yonah's story repeat itself? In fear I ponder this question. I do not envy Yonah. I ponder his bitter fate. Poor guy. He deserved better.

Hey, there's Maishyankel the shoe fixer (what's he doing here?) sitting on a rock utterly alone (like me). I take a step in his direction, hesitate, then another step closer. He notices nothing. He is sunk deep in thought. No muscle moves. I am suddenly uneasy. I feel worry, and wonder. I love this old skinny man. Never have I seen him without motion. He is always moving. Always inspired, running, talking, excited...banging his shoemaker's hammer, energetic as a young man. Always singing - his voice is hoarse and sweet, his melodies unforgettable. His chazoras hashatz tunes will play eternally in my memory.

But he is still now, and motionless. And his lips are murmuring. And his eyes search the waves. He attempts to penetrate their depths with his piercing gaze. He must have lost some valuable item...

He loves me too I know it. Chaimke, he calls me. Or sometimes, The Rabbi's Son. His eyes light up and laugh, as they always do when he discovers my presence.

Mother airs her grievances to Father. Why on earth must he rise at the crack of dawn to daven with the old dayan? And with Maishyankel? Why must he go and toivel in Yaffo's sea before hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashona? Why does he ignore the boy? (That's me.) He should pray with the whole congregation. He is their rabbi.

In Mother's view, a rabbi's place is with his people, in the synagogue. A rabbi should not neglect his baalebatim.

Father ignores her (as usual). His eyes explore non-stop the Gemora page. He offers no reply.

"Maishyankel, why are you going fishing?" Maishyankel chuckles to himself. "Fish for Shabbos. A mitsvah..."

I recall hearing from Father once that it's a mitsvah to eat fish on Shabbos to repair the souls of tsaddikim who have been reincarnated in fish.

"Why are the souls of tsaddikim reincarnated just in fish, Maishyankel?"

But Maishyankel is mumbling, murmuring to himself all the while. He does not even look at me. He is not focused on me. His usual smiling kindly gaze is not there.

"Because...the sea cannot receive impurity...all that is here is pure..."

His eyes scan the waves tirelessly. He wishes to uncover something, but the waves keep it concealed from him.

"Yonah the prophet also got reincarnated in a fish, Maishyankel?" I continue my interrogation. "Yes, Chaim'ke. In the whale that swallowed him."

I am overwhelmed with anger and sorrow: "But he managed to escape. God made the fish throw up, Maishyankel. It threw Yonah up on the beach..." Tears come to my eyes. One eye's tears hold anger, and the other eye's, anguish.

Maishyankel makes no reply. His expression is somber, uneasy. His gaze rakes the waves.

But I make my peace with them. How good they smell. We are on friendly terms, they and I. Their salt wet smell rises to my nostrils and I feel at ease. A soft sea breeze - gentle, soothing, not angry at all - steals across my face and dries my tears.

The grim waves are all gone. The sun dips to the horizon. On the south side, the sea is shining. Tiny beach fish leap and glitter in blinding flashes of light. It's fun down there...

Serenity of tranquility: What care they for dry land problems? The waves and I - we make peace between us. We belong together, us two.

They can do no wrong, it seems. No harm. They offer no hint of menace. Certainly they would never (but they did - just yesterday, in the haftorah) rip my safe space asunder and charge forth from their dark ominous depths.

Whatever became of Yonah? Where is he now?

"Chaim'ke! Come quick." Maishyankel surges trembling forward, he sits no more. "Help me pull, Chaim'ke. Hold with me. Here - grab hold of the handle of the rod. Pull. For God's sake, pull..."

We pull with all our might, with our very souls, we spare no effort, Maishyankel and I. But in fact we are being pulled, by a force more powerful than ourselves, into the wave depths. Slowly, we are dragged in. I lose my footing, the crumbly ground is treacherous.

I am light as a feather; I am easily drawn in. Further and further, deeper and deeper, the waves grow higher around me.

"Hold on, Chaim'ke," Maishyankel cries to me. "The hour is at hand. He is come."

I pull and I am pulled with all my might. Maishyankel's mouth mumbles strange meaningless words. I pull and I pull. Inexplicably, I am not afraid of the deep water. I pay no attention to Maishyankel's incessant murmuring - as he repeats the same meaningless words over and over.

The sun is setting. We are being pulled into the deep, step by step, but in my heart - no fear. I sense an invisible hand gripping us - its power is untold. We are pulling but in fact we are being dragged in, and down. The waves are over my head by now, erupting madly. I never let go. I will not release Maishyankel's fishing rod. Maishyankel too holds on tight, pulling with his last bit of strength - murmuring words, pulling, murmuring words, pulling. I feel no fatigue. I am helping Maishyankel. I trust him utterly. Why? I do not know.

The sun sets and suddenly we are cast up upon the shore. We land heavily on our backs. I lay at Maishyankel's side, and I feel nothing. Maishyankel is suddenly sobbing. He mutters to himself in a faint voice: "Missed. We missed him.": He cries softly to himself: "We almost caught the moment...but not quite..." He continues to shed his bitter tears - tears of helplessness and sorrow: "He didn't come. Lo achshar dora. (Our generation is not worthy...)

"Who didn't come, Maishyankel?" "He. Little fool. He. Moshiach. Yonah. He was reincarnated in the fish. He came to us. He bit at our bait. He was calling to us. Ah, we are lost now. Everything is lost." Bitterly, Maishyankel weeps.

I shiver lightly. The chill evening air penetrates my wet clothes. A flawed reddish moon hangs above us, indifferent. The lights of the city are pale. They do not intrude on the still moment.


Time passed. Maishyankel's fame spread, until he was renowned throughout the Jewish world. Even the Chazon Ish would call on him, would make the effort to rise early, to come to Maishyankel's door and to receive his blessing. Their sessions were private. No one knew what passed between them during these encounters; what issues pertaining to the welfare of the Jewish people were secretly decided.

They came from all over. Jews of every stripe. They crowded into our narrow alley - for blessing, for counsel...

On the Simchas Torah before the Six Day War, he left us, to travel to a world where all things are good. To comfort us, he left a letter (we were not to open it until after Pesach) in which he foretold the miracle soon to unfold.


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