Jonah, Pinocchio & You in the Belly of the Terrible Shark

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I was raised on the Bible and Disney movies. So I have always seen a connection between the Book of Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon and the fairy tale of Pinocchio.  In both stories, a big fish or a whale swallows the main character who escapes that certain death.  Over the years as a rabbi, I have often introduced the reading of Jonah by mentioning this similarity to Pinocchio and people have always responded with a smile or a chuckle.

But this year, both because of things that have happened to me personally and because of what’s going on in the world, I find a deeper connection between the two stories.  I want to give you brief outlines of the Book of Jonah and the story of Pinocchio and use them to explore what it means to be a good person and a righteous nation.

G-d commands the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, in what we would call Iraq today.  The Assyrians are a terrible people who invade another country every spring like we start a season of baseball.  G-d tells Jonah to tell the Assyrians to stop it, to repent of their evil, or they will all die.  Jonah does not want the Assyrians to be saved, he wants them to die, so he takes a ship in the other direction, toward Spain, to escape the command of G-d and his responsibility as a prophet.  But you can’t get away from G-d; G-d is everywhere and sends a storm that endangers Jonah’s ship. Jonah explains to the crew that the storm is his fault, and they eventually throw him overboard. A great fish swallows him and in the belly of the fish he prays to G-d and says that he now gets what he should do.  So G-d has the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land and Jonah goes to Nineveh, where he tells the people to repent, and they do, but Jonah still doesn’t really get it.  He’s angry that the people have had this chance to repent and be saved.  He says to G-d, “This is exactly what I was afraid of.  You are so merciful,” and G-d says, “I am merciful, because the Assyrians are still my children and I love them, and I want them to return to Me.”

That’s the story of Jonah. Unlike every other prophetic book that is written in the first person, by the prophet himself, Jonah’s story is written in the third person.  It is about him, because, like most of us, he can’t see himself, and he can’t even learn the lessons he’s been taught by his experiences.  Jonah doesn’t get it but we do:  Either there is mercy and justice for everyone or there’s mercy and justice for no one.  We must save people. This is the role of the prophet. This is the role of every human being.

Now, you may be asking what a Biblical story with a the theme of saving others could have to do with the children’s tale of Pinocchio.  Let me outline the fairy tale now, with references to both the original Italian tale by Collodi and the Disney version that we all know.

Here’s the original. The carpenter Gepetto is given a mysterious piece of talking wood.  He sculpts it into a marionette. Like any newborn, the puppet that he names Pinocchio only cares about himself.  Geppeto teaches his son to walk but Pinocchio accidentally burns his feet off.  It’s okay: his father rebuilds his feet.  Gepetto sells his own coat to buy his son an ABC book for school, and then, for 20 years, Pinocchio doesn’t see his father again.  The rest of the book is about Gepetto’s search for his son and Pinocchio’s search for his father.  Pinocchio has adventures, blunders around, trusts the wrong people; makes terrible choices.

The 1940 Disney version adds a Blue Fairy and Jiminy Cricket and some songs and changes the ending.  In the movie, Pinocchio eventually realizes that his father is in trouble and finds his father inside Monstro the whale.  Pinocchio is resourceful and builds a fire so that Monstro sneezes them to safety.

But the original Collodi ending is profound.  Pinocchio finds his father in the belly of the terrible shark.  He says “Oh father, dear father!  Have I found you at last?  Now I shall never, never leave you again.”  Gepetto has been living in the shark for two years, reduced to a compartment in the shark’s stomach, eating the food from the ship that he had been swallowed with.  But now he’s down to his last crumbs and his last candle. Pinocchio asks, “What will happen when this last candle burns out?” and Gepetto says, “And then, my dear, we’ll find ourselves in darkness.”

So Pinocchio says that they must escape, running out of the shark’s mouth and diving into the sea.  But Gepetto can’t swim.  So Pinocchio tells his father to climb on his shoulders and he will carry him safely to shore.  Gepetto asks how a marionette will have that strength and Pinocchio says that if they die, they shall at least die together.  Pinocchio swims away with his old father on his back and they are saved.

The image of Pinocchio swimming through the dark waters, nearly sinking under the weight of Geppeto’s body, making his way through the gray blue night with the moon shining above them and the huge open mouth of the terrible shark behind them, is an image that I cannot forget.  The foolish puppet has become a figure of redemption; now he becomes a real person.

We are only real people when we try to save others.

That’s what G-d is trying to tell Jonah: You can only be a real prophet if you save other people.  Jonah asks: “Why should I save them? Shouldn’t I concentrate my attention on my own people?”

Jonah is like a lot of us in the United States today. Like Jonah, our country struggles, trying to figure out its responsibilities in the world.  Shouldn’t we care about ourselves before we do for others? Shouldn’t we rebuild our bridges and our schools before we build bridges and schools in Iraq and Afghanistan? Throughout our history, we have debated the issue of intervention, where and when we should intervene in the violent conflicts around the world. Jonahs today say: “We can’t take care of everyone, and besides, we’re helping people who are ungrateful and don’t even like us.” Throughout American history, our leaders have been faced with difficult questions, such as: “If a government massacres its own people, should we try to save those people?” We have debated such issues then and now because we’re always trying to figure out what to do.  It is an appropriate and necessary debate.  What is our role in this world?  Like Jonah, many of us want to run in another direction, but one way or another we feel compelled to get involved.  President Obama ran on a peace platform but has led America in three different conflicts at the same time.

America seems to lurch from crisis to crisis creating ad hoc solutions to every problem that appears.  It feels like others define the American agenda. To which I must respond: Never let anyone else define your agenda, whether you’re a country or a person.

So what is America’s role in the world?  I would say: It is the role of Jonah, to save others. But our recent presidents have not agreed. In 1973, Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, asked President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to help save the Soviet Jews. They said no. “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger told Nixon. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.” What bothers me the most about this is not that Kissinger was Jewish, not that he lost thirteen family members in the Holocaust, but that this is exactly the attitude that America seems to have to this day. America has interests, and we fight wars based on objectives.

Our leaders have consistently refused to see intervention against genocide as an objective of American foreign policy. When Hutu militias were slaughtering Rwandans by the hundreds of thousands, President Clinton passed up countless opportunities to intervene. President George W. Bush decided that America did not have an interest in the Sudan, so he let millions suffer. But Bush went to war in Iraq and one of his main reasons was that the Iraqi government was killing its own citizens. Today, we worry about the people of Libya but not of Syria or Yemen. I know that the people in charge of our foreign policy know a lot more than I do, and that they understand the real world better than I do. They only want what is good for America’s interests. They did not want to intervene in those horrible situations because they decided it was not in our country’s interest to do so. But everything seems to get decided according to our interests. We should be interested in preventing genocide. That’s what G-d is saying to Jonah: If a lot of people can be saved, you must save them. We cannot run away and stowaway on a ship.  Jonah couldn’t run away and neither should any American president.

America must prevent genocide. Our interests come and go. I do not believe in dying for a strategy. I believe in dying if we must if it is to save the lives of countless others. The systematic murder of human beings is the worst thing in this world. The Book of Jonah shows us G-d’s moral vision that it is our duty to save lives.  What America needs is that same moral vision and the guts to follow it.  You must know who you’re supposed to save.

Pinocchio lurched from crisis to crisis but then found himself by rushing to save the person in the world who loved him the most.  Pinocchio didn’t have Jonah’s role. In our personal lives, it’s not complicated.  We’re not President. We don’t have to figure out the problems of the world. We know exactly who we’re commanded to save.

Our modern age has brought us longer life spans and with them many years that can be filled with different physical crises.  And for all the wonderful professionals, we find that there will always be a crucial role for the family during these crises.  But sometimes, some of us run away in the other direction, we take a ship to Spain at the moment when we’re needed the most.  We send money and we say that we do our part, leaving the brunt of the work to another family member.  We’re really good at making excuses: “I couldn’t get away from work,”  “You know I’m just no good in hospitals,” “She’ll do better than I ever could.”  We are adept at alibis. Like America, we are concerned with our own interests, our own convenience. G-d forbid we should change our vacation plans when a loved one gets sick.

I’ve often praised those who are there, advocating for their loved ones, making sure that the institutions do the best they can.

But now I have to tell you, based on my own experience, that nothing is more important in our entire lifetimes than to say to our loved one who is caught in the stomach of the terrible shark, whose candle is about to go out, who is in utter, utter despair: “Get on my back and I’ll save you.

Get on my back, my father who sacrificed so much for me;

get on my back, my mother who cared so tenderly for me, my spouse who so central to my life;

I will carry you, my dear, dear child more precious to me than life itself.

And if I can’t save you, we’ll do every single thing we can do to try.”

There in the crisis and the darkness, where your loved one has been reduced to one room, one bed, one compartment of the shark’s stomach, there is your chance to stop being a puppet pulled by the strings of rationalization, to stop being a puppet and become a real human being.  Maybe we’re not real until we have hard moments of transcending ourselves and our needs and our wants and we have experienced moments of transcendence, of selflessness.  There is your loved one reduced to a shell, looking already like a skeleton, suffering such dehumanization, this very private and prudish person who can’t do anything for herself, who after a whole life of achievement and caring and goodness has been reduced to infancy, there is your loved one and there is your chance.  There is your loved one and there is your chance. You don’t get many opportunities like this in your life and you must grab it.  To those who have been there and done this, I want to tell you that nothing, no career accomplishment, no award, no business deal, no position, nothing you have ever done was more important than this. I want to say to those of you who have been there, who have carried your loved one in the cold raging sea, I am so proud of you.

Jonah found himself in the belly of the fish and he got it.  Pinocchio found his father in the belly of the shark and he got it.  America must get it: We should be about saving lives. We must get it: Life will present us with the most horrendous, painful, excruciating moments and that’s when you have to find the strength to pull off all the strings by loving that person as they need to be loved at that moment no matter what it takes.

And your loved one may very well drown as you try to escape, but you will emerge from the gray-blue sea like you’ve never been before.  You will be truly human.