Revisiting Jonah in the belly on Yom Kippur

Maybe it’s a profane analogy, but ranking the prophets is like picking stocks, a highly subjective exercise. Ask 20 rabbis, you’ll get 20 different lists.

Well, maybe except for Isaiah and Elijah who consistently rank numbers one and two.

And isn’t it strange that Elijah — a perennial favorite — doesn’t have his own book? Samuel’s got two.

Even Haggai, a lightweight, thunders against moral apathy in his four short pages, titled — what else — “Haggai.”

His mama must have loved it.

“Well yes, he’s a prophet, so he doesn’t bring home much of a paycheck, but he’s got his own book, you know.”

Poor Mama Elijah just looked straight ahead

Jonah, whom we read on Yom Kippur, is also one of these lesser lights. He delivers no inspirational sermons — no thunder and lightning portending the Armageddon to come; only one small prayer that the prophet delivers from the gut of the great fish that swallowed him.

Then, later, the brief warning to the Ninevites: “Only 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

Even more humiliating to a prophet than serving as fish food for a giant gefilte, is the fact that the Book of Jonah is not about Jonah. In fact, the prophet is the butt of the book. Public relations-wise, it’s a disaster for Jonah, who is chastised by his Creator.

Nineveh, as far as I know, is his last assignment. Like Haggai’s mama noted, the pay was never great, and now what does a 65-year-old ex-prophet do for medical insurance?

Remember the story?

The Lord commands Jonah to preach to the Ninevites. The message — consistent with the High Holy Day theme — is repentance.

But the prophet flees and buys a discount ticket on a freighter, plying the Joppa to Tarsus trade.

It turns out the reason the ticket’s so cheap is that it’s a three-day trip in the belly of a big tuna — a punishment for his rebellious ways.

And if you think the United shuttle from Boston to New York is confining, try a cubicle in a tuna fish.

Of all the prophetic books, this one is overwhelmingly the most ecumenical.

Sure “your people will be my people,” but in the Book of Jonah the Lord throws a mantle of compassion over the sinners of Nineveh — and their beasts.

In the shortest speech on record by a rabbi, politician or prophet, the verbally parsimonious preacher declares, “Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

Boy, is Jonah a blind prophet.

It turns out, he’s as bad at prediction as all those stock analysts who recently went to jail and your local weather person.

“Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock … feed nor drink water, but let them be covered with sack cloth both man and beast.”

That’s what the King of Nineveh tells his subjects in order to avoid the Lord’s wrath.

The message is: Jews, non-Jews and animals are all divine manifestations.

Find me another passage in the entire Tanach that sings such a universal anthem of love. The Ninevites listen and clean up their act. Repentance and the Lord’s mercy cancel a Sodom and Gomorrah encore. But our prophet is disappointed.

So why do we pair this bizarre Haftarah (a Haftarah in which whales, gourds, cattle and reformed sinners share the stage with God’s prophet) with Yom Kippur, the most awesome of our Holy Days.

The official answer is: I don’t know — go ask your rabbi.

But to me, the Jonah story encompasses the entire world of man and beast. It is wildly ecumenical. And obviously, the theme is forgiveness. If even the beasts of Nineveh regretted their excesses and dodged destruction because of their contrition, well there’s hope for us. Repentance will shield us from the evil decree.

This is a happy Haftarah with a Hollywood ending — a touch of joy to temper the solemnity of Yom Kippur.