"But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before the presence of the Lord" Jonah 1:3
The book of Jonah is perhaps the focal point of the afternoon of Yom Kippur. The story is one we are all familiar with. The prophet Jonah is instructed by God to warn the people of Nineveh to turn back from their evil ways but his calls to them went unheeded and he attempts to flee from his divine mission.
He finds himself on a boat that is caught up in a fierce storm, raging unabated. On introspection he realises that God is calling him from on high and he insists on being thrown into the sea.
The Vilna Gaon teaches that Jonah's journey symbolises the journey we all make. We are born with a subconscious realisation of the fact we have a mission. Often we seek to escape, because our mission is one that we are afraid to attempt.
In the biblical story, the places Jonah sought sanctuary were Jaffa and Tarshish. Rebbetzen Heller, a contemporary lecturer, observes that the literal meaning of the names of these cities are beauty and wealth. We comfort ourselves externally by escaping from our inner knowledge of our mission in life through the pursuit of wealth and surrounding ourselves with beauty. Our bodies are like Jonah's ship in the rough waves of the challenges that life throws at us, for example illness. The sailors on the ship symbolise the talents and capacities that serve us. As with Jonah, who is cast into the sea, we realise that they, too, cannot save us from our futile desire to escape ourselves.
It is on Yom Kippur afternoon, when we are weak from fasting and at our most vulnerable, that our fate and that of our people beckons, as it is precisely in such a fragile state that we are able to finally transcend our ego, surrendering our desire to control life and submitting at last to accepting our mission whatever it is.