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On the Book of Jonah, and My Mother

Trying to understand this baffling story, which we read on Yom Kippur, gave me insights into my mother’s death

Ilana Bet-El
October 02, 2014

My mother died many years ago. Rosh Hashanah she was still at home, just; but by Yom Kippur she was in hospice and unconscious. My father stayed the night there, just in case she woke up over the fast. She didn’t wake up. We laid the table with the blue-and-white china set that was only ever used at the end of the fast. We drank the coffee—with hot milk—that she claimed was the only way to break the fast, and with it we nibbled at the yeast cake we had made, in her special way, which was always the first thing we ate. Then we all went back to the hospice.

The Book of Jonah is traditionally read on Yom Kippur. The whole book. Admittedly this is not an arduous task, coming in at four chapters, but it is one I have found lingers with me over time. I started to ask myself why. When I found a semblance of an answer, I realized it was relevant to my feelings about my mother’s death.

The Book of Jonah is a story that does not gel. It has a number of ideas and themes, but it lies somewhere between narrative and thundering repost. A mention of Tarshish, then the sea and a whale, and finally a lot of Nineveh and death and a tree that appears from nowhere and is then eaten by a worm.

Take the sea. It’s a relatively unexplored theme in the Bible: There is the story of Noah and his ark, and the parting of the Red Sea, but apart from that you get schlepped through deserts and lands, get invaded by Philistines or exiled to Babylon. On the whole, it is a landlocked narrative, making this one of the few coherent mentions of the sea. But just as you get into the possibilities of the landscape you find yourself in a whale. And from there on it’s like leftovers and out-cuts of the Book of Job. Why are bad things happening? If God is God, why does he want to blight a whole city? And what is the evil or bad the people there are doing? Not knowing your left from your right, which is the way it is defined in the Hebrew, would nowadays be considered a mild form of dyslexia. You’d be getting help for that, not death.

In short, I am intrigued by the Book of Jonah, but also baffled by it. And I realize that is the first connection: Death is not necessarily intriguing, but it is always baffling. Even after 27 years, I don’t understand my mother’s long illness, and I was and remain baffled by her death. Like many who have watched loved ones, and others, suffer, it is possible to chronicle the developments, to chart the disease, to list facts. But none of that makes it any more comprehensible.

A part of me thinks the author of the Book of Jonah may have suffered a death of a loved one and was taking bafflement as his theme. The clear narrative at the start, which has a sudden reversal into a fish and ends up in a gloomy debate with God—it very much follows the long path of sickness (for the fish, read: hospital wards) that leads many beloved onlookers to internal debates. Indeed, I think Jonah was a believer, but he had no faith in God; that is why he jumped ship and headed for Tarshish instead of Nineveh. The storm and the whale are about attempts to instil faith, which to an extent fail: Jonah goes to Nineveh and warns the population to repent—which they do— but he still has no faith God will act with reason. In the end it appears he has changed his mind, but the point is not resounding.

Such reflections are the second point of connection between my mother’s death and the Book of Jonah. I was, and remain, a believer—but my mother had faith.

In watching my mother suffer, and in line with many of my generation in Israel and elsewhere, I declared myself an atheist. God could not exist and let this—or the Holocaust, or war, or starving children in Biafra—happen. But having been brought up to believe, I realized I could not shake this off by will or reason. I am a Jew who believes in a God, in line with Jewish Western culture. But I have no faith. Not a scrap of it. I don’t believe this is a just God who will deliver me or mine from hurt and harm. But my mother did: She had faith. An amazing deep faith in God. Full stop. In watching her, I realized the difference between the two: She was at total ease because it was not her decision to make. She had faith in God to make the decision, and it would be right. I believed God was there but didn’t trust his decisions at all.

In the event, we were both correct. She went to meet her maker knowing he awaited her, and I thought he made the wrong decision. I am Jonah sitting outside Nineveh, thoroughly fed up. If you, God, want to prove you are Almighty by blighting a city or taking my mother, do it. I know you’re there. I believe you’re there. But don’t expect me to like your decisions.

My mother died on the first day of Sukkot; she was 53. It turned out to be a really bad choice of date—not that choice had much to do with it. If she had died just before or on the eve of Sukkot, it would have canceled the shiva. But since she died in the midst of it, the shiva was postponed. The burial was the first day, then we got up; and at the end of Sukkot we started sitting again. Instead of seven days it turned into 10 days with a hiatus in the middle. It was suspended time, a bit like Jonah in the belly of the whale, and we used it to try and purge some of the signs of the long illness. All the boxes of pills and the complicated medicines were tossed out. The family room that had become the sick room was reassembled for collective use.

People came from day one, even though the official shiva was not yet on. They brought food and stories and tried to comfort us. And though they seemed to stay forever, and the days were long and emotional, I learned that belief and faith are only one side of the equation. There is also tradition.

Tradition is the shiva, it’s breaking the fast with the same tea set or with the same friends; it’s the foods and the wishes and the clothes. It’s the knowing the same thing will happen at the same time every year, even a yahrzeit. Tevye, the fiddler on the roof, knew that. And so do we all.

On the last day of the shiva, Rabbi Fogel came to bring us out of it. A youngish man, he had known great grief when one of his children fell off a balcony and died. You never stop missing them, he told us. But over time, the pain is less sharp.

I agree.

Ilana Bet-El is a writer, historian, and political analyst.