Jonah, God, & the Castor Bean Tree
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
In the last few verses of the Book of Jonah (which we read on Yom Kippur), Jonah's well-being depends on this small tree, a "lower form of life" that he had not planted or cared for. It shaded him from the broiling sun.
Yet he showed no concern or compassion for it until God took it away, just as he had shown no concern or compassion for the people of Nineveh until God had him swallowed up by the sea and a fish.
Jonah is our selves. Not only do we often turn our backs to those of other communities and cultures, but we ignore the forests and the other life forms that sustain us.
The forests care for us, look out for us, feed us (oxygen), shade us (from global warming). Can we learn from the story of Jonah, or are we so uncaring, uncompassionate, that not till God takes the forests away from us (that is, through the process and consequences of our own acts we take them away from ourselves) will we begin to care for them?
God tries to teach Jonah by making an analogy: As the tree is to Jonah, says God, so Nineveh is to Me.
This is puzzling. Jonah needs the tree. Though we usually think of trees as a "lower" form of life than human beings, Jonah needs the tree.
Does God NEED Nineveh? Does Nineveh nurture God in something like the way in which the tree nurtures Jonah?
Is God saying, "This lower form of life, Nineveh, is NECESSARY to Me. To ME, Divine though I am!!" Perhaps, precisely because what it means to be Divine is to care about all forms of life. Amazing!!
And the book ends with God's affirming that even the cattle of Nineveh are part of the great weave of compassion.
The Book of Jonah teaches us that trees and human beings, fish and cattle, along with Nineveh and Israel, are all bound together in God's caring. Perhaps are not merely objects of compassion in the eyes of the Compassionate One, but all expressions, aspects, of the God who cares.
division of ALEPH; author of Godwrestling -- Round 2 and Seasons of Our Joy; and
co-author of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven.
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