Should Religion Be a Source of Comfort, or a Source of Truth?

October 11, 2016 | Dovid Bashevkin
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In the book of Jonah, traditionally read during the Yom Kippur afternoon service, the famously reluctant prophet does not state the reason for his flight from God until near the book’s conclusion, after the people of Nineveh, moved by his warnings of doom, repent and earn divine forgiveness. Only then does Jonah petulantly tell God that he fled because “I knew that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and Who relents of evil.” Dovid Bashevkin comments:

While Jonah clearly intends to offer an explanation as to why he ran, his justification at first glance still remains unclear. A close reader, however, will notice that Jonah invokes the opening of the familiar refrain of Moses, known [in rabbinic literature] as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, that are repeated throughout the High Holy Day liturgy—albeit with one exception. The standard sequence . . . ends not with the phrase “niḥam al ha-ra’ah” [here, “relents of evil’] but rather with the term emet, truth. The word niḥam derives from the word [for] comfort. Jonah in his irritated description of God substitutes comfort for truth.

Jonah [whose father’s name also seems to derive from the word for truth] finally discloses his frustration with [his task of bringing God’s message to people]. “You want to know why I ran away? Because for most people God, religion, and spirituality are not about truth, but about comfort.” . . .

As a prophet, Jonah has proclaimed God’s impending wrath to wayward communities, and time and again he sees them repent out of fear. Man, when confronted with his own mortality, finds comfort in the community and eternal promises offered by religion. Jonah, however, grew tired of [supplying a] temporal haven for man’s fear of crisis and transience. If religion is only a blanket to provide warmth from the cold, harsh realities of life, do concerns of theological truth and creed even matter?

What was God’s response to Jonah’s religious torment? The story of Jonah ends abruptly. God provides a tree for the ailing Jonah to find shade. After momentarily providing Jonah with comfort, God summarily destroys the tree. Jonah is crestfallen. With the sun beating down on him, Jonah pleads for death. God, in the closing statement of the story, rebukes Jonah for becoming so attached to the comfort of the tree, while still failing to develop any empathy for the religious struggle of the people of Nineveh.

Comfort, God reminds Jonah, is a need inherent in the human condition. The comfort provided by a tree no more obscures the role of God than does the comfort that religion provides. The means through which we find solace need not obscure the ultimate source from which all comfort derives.

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