Sometimes, I ask my daughter to do something simple and routine, like brush her teeth. But, she knows that brushing her teeth means that bedtime is just around the corner. I’m sure that she knows that she can’t escape sleep forever. As young as she is, she has already experienced literally hundreds of nights, and therefore hundreds of bedtimes. So, whether she could articulate it or not, at some level she knows that inevitably, no matter how much of a fight she puts up, she will eventually fall asleep. Yet, that does not stop her from protesting bedtime. And because brushing her teeth is linked to bedtime, when she hears me tell her to go into the bathroom and get her toothbrush, she runs the other way. When she does this, of course, I often end up chasing her, catching her, and redirecting her to the bathroom. And no matter how reluctant she is, she eventually brushes her teeth, gets into bed, and falls asleep.
Jonah, the hero of our haftorah reading this afternoon, is considerably older than my daughter, yet his reaction to G-d’s request that he go prophesy in Nineveh is strikingly similar to my daughter’s response to being asked to brush her teeth. Precisely because he feels confident that he can predict the outcome of a series of events, he runs away from the first step in the series. It turns out that Jonah was right in his prediction of how events would unfold. Apparently, he was familiar with the routine. But, the only way we know that Jonah’s prediction of how events would unfold was accurate is that he, like my daughter, did eventually do what was asked of him.
Did Jonah really have any choice in the matter? Could he have continued to try to run from G-d? Perhaps. He could have led G-d on a more dramatic, more prolonged chase. He could have fled from his duty for so long that he forgot why he was running or why calamities continually occurred in his presence. Some of us live our entire lives like that. We say that we are born under an unlucky star, that our luck has run out, that no one ever cuts us any breaks. But maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe the reason that some of us experience so much trouble in our lives is that we are fleeing from G-d’s Will, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Maybe all of those challenges that we face in life are designed to help awaken us to our own true destinies. After all, most of us do not receive clear instructions from G-d, as Jonah did. We are left to fumble about and find out life’s mission by ourselves. But that doesn’t mean that G-d doesn’t leave signs for us to find, doesn’t place obstacles where we aren’t meant to tread and a clear path where we are.
I’m not trying to suggest that the easy path is necessarily always the one that G-d wants us to follow. On the contrary, I think that challenges make us stronger. They are what enable us to grow, to realize our true potential. But we have all experienced moments in our lives where things just seemed to click – the moment felt right, the connection to another human being was there, or we realized how everything in our lives combined to put us precisely in this place at this time. Those are the moments given to us to glimpse G-d’s signposts in our lives. Those are the moments when we, whether on purpose or by accident, find our lives precisely conforming to G-d’s plan for us as individuals.
Of course, if G-d has a plan for each of us, and if each of us has only one particular purpose on earth, then one needs to pose the age-old question of whether human lives are predetermined or whether we have free will. Many much greater philosophers than I have spent countless hours debating this topic to no clear resolution. We appear to be free to make our own choices in our lives. We subjectively feel as if we are making choices and are in control of our own lives and destinies. Yet, simultaneously, we are bombarded by stories of predestination and of G-d’s interference in the world to bring about a particular desired outcome.
Which is real/true? Our feelings or our stories? Certainly, we all acknowledge that some stories we tell one another are true, while others are made up – a way of getting a point across, entertaining, or trying to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical. Similarly, we can all point to instances when feelings we have had represent reality, and times when the feelings are divorced from the reality around us. We may have a particularly vivid dream in which we fight with someone which leaves us feeling angry at that person for something that he or she never did. Similarly, we may feel as if we are in control of a situation and making meaningful decisions when really there is someone else more powerful than us pulling the strings and limiting the available options.
I want to suggest that, like so much of life, the answer is not black and white. It is not that life is either predetermined or that we have free will, but a combination of the two. G-d has a plan that includes each and every one of us. But, the choices that confront us are, indeed, real choices. Just because a parent has a vision for how his or her child’s life should turn out, does not mean that the child cooperates, the child may make choices that are not consistent with the parent’s vision of the future. Some outcomes are beyond our control, no matter what choices we make. No matter how much my daughter fights bedtime, sleep will eventually overtake her. But, along the way, she may have successfully exercised her free will and chosen not to brush her teeth.
Jonah’s eventual preaching in Nineveh and the people’s last minute repentance does not seem quite so inevitable as falling asleep. And maybe there’s nothing in the Jonah story that is actually entirely predetermined. Maybe he really does have free will throughout. But whether the end is truly inevitable or not, it is clearly a fulfillment of G-d’s vision for how the world for be. According to G-d’s plan, it is proper that the citizens of Nineveh repent, and it is Jonah’s role to be instrumental in bringing about that repentance.
Sometimes, we get so stuck in our own little bubbles, our own view of the world, that we forget that there are different perspectives out there. In some ways, the story of Jonah is like the oft-repeated metaphor of the tapestry. When one looks at the backside of a tapestry, it appears to be nothing more than a jumble of thread and knots arranged in no particular order at all. From the perspective of the back of the tapestry, one cannot see the plan inherent in the whole. However, when you turn a tapestry over and take a step back, the individual threads merge into a rich texture and a singular image or pattern.
Often, we are unable to see the pattern that G-d has in mind. But, occasionally, G-d gives us a glimpse of our place in the greater scheme of things. Rarely, this occurs in the form of a direct command or request that an individual do something specific – as in the case of Jonah. Other times, we get a little flash of insight, an intuition or feeling that something is the way that things are meant to be, the way that we are meant to live our lives, the purpose that G-d has in mind for us, either as a community or as individuals.
Sometimes, these flashes of insight scare us. For one reason or another, we don’t feel qualified or capable of fulfilling the destiny G-d seems to have marked out for us. When that happens, despite the fact that we know (or think we know) what G-d wants and / or expects from us, we deliberately try to flee from G-d’s will. We may even do everything in our power to avoid doing the one thing that G-d is demanding of us. Of course, not everyone who fails to follow the divine grand scheme of things is willfully disobeying or running away from G-d. There are those who run away from the divine plan unintentionally. They just aren’t able to see the hints that are being left all around them. After all, most of us do not get as direct instructions from G-d as Jonah got.
But, I want to reemphasize the fact that I believe that G-d does have a plan for each and every one of us. Each of us has a job to do in this world. Our lives have purpose. And nothing good comes from trying to hide from our true task in this world. As Jonah learned the hard way, when we deviate from the destiny G-d intends for us, we face rough storms and places as dark as the belly of the whale. Yet when we are willing and able to live up to G-d’s assignments, we become better people, people who are capable of affecting change in others. When children brush their teeth and go to bed on time, they are healthier and enable their parents to keep their sanity. When Jonah goes to Nineveh, he gained confidence in himself and helped bring others back to the ways of G-d. By doing what G-d expects of us, we fill our lives with meaning and enrich the world around us.
May you be sealed for a fulfilling, enriching year.