“Let Truth Spring Up from the Ground”: Truth’s Changing Role Throughout History

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Natan Oliff

Rabbi Shimon said: When God was about to create Adam, the ministering angels split into contending groups. Some said, ‘Let him be created.’ Others said, ‘Let him not be created.’ That is why it is written: ‘Mercy and truth collided, righteousness and peace clashed’ (Psalms 85:11). Mercy said, ‘Let him be created because he will do merciful deeds.’ Truth said, ‘Let him not be created, for he will be full of falsehood.’ Righteousness said, ‘Let him be created, for he will do righteous deeds.’ Peace said, ‘Let him not be created, for he will never cease quarreling.’ What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took truth and threw it to the ground. The angels said, ‘Sovereign of the universe, why do You do thus to Your own seal, truth? Let truth arise from the ground.’ Thus it is written, ‘Let truth spring up from the earth.’ (Psalms 85:12) (Bereishit Rabbah 8:5; Emphasis added)[1]

God continues to dialogue with the attribute of truth throughout the Bible. However, whereas in midrash, truth only appears as an abstract attribute, in the Bible, truth emerges from the actions of Phinehas, Elijah, and Jonah.[2] A couple of patterns emerge amongst these “Truth Personas.” They hold others to often unreasonably lofty standards, which society inevitably fails to meet. Similarly, they value lasting change and improvement but reject short lived repentance and resolutions. In sum, the moral and religious inconsistency of the masses frustrate the Truth Personas.

The Truth Personas may remain steadfast in their beliefs, but other variables change as history marches forward. Specifically, human morality develops. As humans develop morally, the role of truth in society diminishes, and mercy grows in its stead. Why? For the immoral person, a sin is a natural outgrowth, an outward manifestation of their inner disposition. As God responds to the immoral person with the attribute of truth, with punishment, it deters the immoral person from future sins.

However, the opposite standard applies to the moral person. For a moral person, a sin is an aberration that creates an asymmetry between their inner purity and outward impurity. Likely, their sin emanates from a lack of knowledge, physical temptation, or human frailty. Thus, God responds to the moral person with mercy—with forgiveness. Mercy provides moral people with the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and improve. Thus, as the Bible progresses, God’s preference for mercy strengthens, and God’s tolerance for the Truth Personas’ zealotry weakens.

The Phinehas Narrative and Analysis

God’s dialogue with the Truth Personas begins with Phinehas. Amidst an orgy of licentiousness and idolatry, he kills a couple in public. God then responds:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of peace [brit shalom]. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’” (Numbers 25:10-13)

Phinehas’s actions are commendable, as God rewards Phinehas with the eternal “pact of priesthood,” and his zealotry atones for the Israelites’ sins. Additionally, God bestows a “brit shalom” upon Phinehas, which is likely a positive reward.[3]

The Elijah Narrative

God’s attitude towards zealotry shifts in Elijah’s story. Elijah gathers the Israelites on Mount Carmel. He rebukes them for worshipping both God and the idol Ba’al. He then challenges the priests of Ba’al to have Ba’al bring down fire on an altar. They fail. Yet, God sends down fire. The Israelites declare loyalty to God and execute the priests of Ba’al. When Jezebel, the idolatrous queen, hears of Elijah’s crusade, she threatens to kill him. Frightened, Elijah flees to the desert and prays to die. An angel provides food for him and encourages him to continue his journey. After forty days and nights, he arrives at a cave in Horeb, which leads to the following scene:

Then the word of the LORD came to him. He said to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He replied, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” “Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and have put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” (I Kings 19:9-14)

God then instructs Elijah to appoint new kings and anoint Elisha to succeed him as a prophet.

Analysis of The Elijah Narrative

God disapproves of Elijah’s attitude, as God rejects his prayer for death and questions his decision to abandon society. The awesome display of the wind, earthquake, and fire—followed by the soft, murmuring sound—also serves to rebuke Elijah. Malbim (I Kings 19:13) interprets this display as a symbolic rebuke. A successful prophet does not criticize with a stormy, loud, or fiery demeanor but rather encourages with soft, tender words. This explanation complements the midrash (Eliyahu Zuta 8) that imagines a dialogue between God and Elijah. In this dialogue, God reprimands Elijah for criticizing the Israelites and not advocating on their behalf. Following this educational spectacle, God again asks Elijah “Why are you here?” With this question, God grants Elijah the opportunity to adopt a merciful disposition. Instead, Elijah repeats his previous answer and complains about the Israelites’ failures. Since Elijah refuses to change, God retires him and anoints Elisha in his stead.

The Jonah Narrative

God further champions the attribute of mercy in the Book of Jonah. God commands Jonah to prophesize to Nineveh. Instead, Jonah flees and boards a boat to Tarshish. God sends a storm that threatens the ship, and the sailors panic while Jonah sleeps in the bowels of the boat. After waking him up and praying, the sailors cast lots that fall on Jonah. After Jonah identifies himself, they ask for advice:

They said to him, “What must we do to you to make the sea calm around us?” For the sea was growing more and more stormy. He answered, “Heave me overboard, and the sea will calm down for you; for I know that this terrible storm came upon you on my account.” Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to regain the shore, but they could not, for the sea was growing more and more stormy about them. Then they cried out to the LORD: “Oh, please, LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person! For You, O LORD, by Your will, have brought this about.” And they heaved Jonah overboard, and the sea stopped raging. The men feared the LORD greatly; they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and they made vows. (Jonah 1:11-16)

A fish swallows up Jonah. Fearing death, Jonah prays to God, and—after three days—the fish spits Jonah out onto land. Again, God commands Jonah to preach to Nineveh. This time, Jonah listens and proclaims that the city will be overturned in forty days. In response, Nineveh fasts and repents from their sins and thereby averts destruction:

This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved. He prayed to the LORD, saying, “O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” The LORD replied, “Are you that deeply grieved?” Now Jonah had left the city and found a place east of the city. He made a booth there and sat under it in the shade, until he should see what happened to the city. The LORD God provided a ricinus plant [kikayon], which grew up over Jonah, to provide shade for his head and save him from discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the plant. But the next day at dawn God provided a worm, which attacked the plant so that it withered. And when the sun rose, God provided a sultry east wind; the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became faint. He begged for death, saying, “I would rather die than live.” Then God said to Jonah, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.” Then the LORD said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!” (Jonah 4)

Analysis of The Jonah Narrative

Jonah cites God’s attributes as his motivation to flee to Tarshish: “O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (Jonah 4:2, emphasis added). Yet, a comparison with the original list of God’s attributes (Exodus 34:6) reveals a discrepancy as Jonah replaces the original attribute of “truth” with “renouncing punishment.” Jonah prizes truth. Yet, he believes that God does not practice truth but rather prefers mercy.

Jonah’s journey differs from Elijah’s journey. Initially, God allows Elijah to launch a reign of zealotry. With a fervent demeanor, he declares a drought, criticizes Ahab, and challenges the idolatrous priests. God only encourages Elijah to embrace mercy after he despairs and deserts society. In contrast, God manages Jonah’s entire journey. God prevents Jonah—unlike Elijah—from preaching truth. From the outset, God forces Jonah to serve as an instrument of divine mercy and prophesize to Nineveh. Whether in the bowels of a boat, the stomach of a fish, or the shade of the kikayon, Jonah cannot escape God.

Furthermore, God reveals that even Jonah—at his core—believes in mercy. According to the attribute of truth, Jonah deserves death for his sin of ignoring God’s command. Yet, when facing death in the fish’s stomach, Jonah invokes the attribute of mercy and prays for salvation. From his ivory tower, Jonah advocates for pure justice and truth. However, when in the trenches, Jonah instinctively inclines towards mercy.[4]

God also utilizes the kikayon to highlight Jonah’s hypocrisy. After Nineveh repents, Jonah stations himself outside of the city and waits defiantly for Nineveh’s repentance to unravel.[5] If Nineveh returns to its evil ways, it will prove that their repentance was temporary and insincere. True change lasts forever. False change withers and disperses. In response to Jonah’s stubbornness, God decides to teach him a lesson through the medium of the kikayon. God erects a kikayon to provide shade for Jonah, but it withers after only one day. According to the attribute of truth, Jonah must ascribe little significance to the shade of the kikayon, as its temporary existence nullifies its importance. However, Jonah grieves greatly.[6] Thus, this episode reveals that—in truth—Jonah values the temporary. Again, a gap emerges between the lofty truth that Jonah preaches and his natural desire for mercy. Jonah’s actions testify against the words his lips utter.

In the Book of Jonah, God’s strong affinity for mercy reflects the actions of the secondary characters. These characters act with genuine morality and religiosity.[7] The sailors try to save Jonah. When the lots identify Jonah as the cause of the storm, the sailors decline to immediately dispose of him. Instead, they ask Jonah how to stop the storm, and he suggests that they throw him overboard. Yet, even following Jonah’s suggestion, the sailors first attempt to row to land. Only then do they resolve to throw Jonah overboard. Even so, they first beg God not to hold them accountable for murder, and afterward they fear and sacrifice to God.

Similarly, after hearing Jonah’s prophecy, Nineveh immediately repents and abandons its evil ways. Mishnah Ta’anit (2:1) cites Nineveh’s transformation as an example of sincere repentance: “The elder among them says in front of them words of admonition, “Brothers, it does not say of the people of Nineveh, ‘And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting,’ but, ‘And God saw their deeds, for they turned from their evil way’ (Jonah 3:10)””.[8] The inhabitants of Nineveh internalize the rituals of repentance. They fix their evil ways.

God favors mercy because—despite their naiveté—the secondary characters show potential for enlightenment. The sailors fail to realize that Jonah causes the storm and so they frivolously pray to God and row to shore. Nevertheless—in contrast to Jonah’s cynicism—their antics reveal a deep faith in morality and God. Initially, the people of Nineveh perform evil deeds. Yet their subsequent repentance demonstrates that these evil deeds emanate from a superficial ignorance and not a deep corruption. Once Jonah alerts them about their ignorance, they repent. God believes that ignorance requires mercy: “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!” (Jonah 4:11, emphasis added).

Characteristics of the Truth Personas

A disdain of the temporal and alienation from society characterize these Truth Personas. Elijah temporarily succeeds and revives the nation’s religious spirit. Yet his success matters little to him, as history indicates that their spiritual high will eventually collapse into idolatry. Similarly, Jonah disregards the repentance of Nineveh because he believes it will be temporary.

Moreover, adherence to truth leads to alienation from society. Scripture does not introduce Elijah. He immediately declares a drought, but we learn nothing about his lineage and family. Zohar Hadash (Ruth 84:3) asserts—about Elijah—that we do not ask familial questions about an angel of heaven. In this matter, the Bible contrasts Elijah with his successor Elisha, who runs to kiss his parents before leaving them. The distant, mysterious Elijah watches the filial warmth of Elisha as he bids goodbye to his parents and home. Other characters view Elijah as a transcendental, awesome figure, as a superhuman. Obadiah says to Elijah: “When I leave you, the spirit of the LORD will carry you off [to a place] I know not where” (I Kings 18:12). Similarly, Abarbanel (II Kings 2:2) notes that a group of prophet disciples specifically approach Elisha because they fear Elijah. Not only does Elijah exhibit mysterious, superhuman characteristics, but he also eventually dissociates from society and runs away to Horeb.

Jonah also distances himself from society and runs away to Tarshish. The Bible’s various descriptions of Tarshish reveal that Jonah does not arbitrarily select it as his destination. As a wealthy kingdom, Tarshish would send fleets of ships loaded with precious metals to King Solomon (I Kings 10:22). Isaiah (66:19) lists Tarshish among the nations that do not know God. In short, Jonah views Tarshish as an Edenic destination, a prosperous and comfortable nation free from God’s yoke.[9] The Book of Jonah furthers this sense of alienation from society through images of shelter and cover.[10] Jonah descends into the recesses of the boat to sleep, resides in a fish’s stomach, and takes solace under the shelter of the kikayon. This recurring image drives home Jonah’s separation from society, how he wishes to escape the intensity of life under God’s yoke.

Changes Across the Truth Personas’ Stories

Throughout the Truth Personas’ stories, God’s tolerance for zealotry shrinks. God condones Phinehas’ act and even rewards him. In contrast, Elijah’s zealotry produces mixed results, as he initially achieves considerable success but eventually burns out. God rebukes him and implores him to embrace mercy. In the next story, God suppresses zealotry from the outset, forces Jonah to herald a merciful message, and educates Jonah about his natural inclinations towards mercy.

Humanity progresses morally throughout these stories. Phinehas faces a nation engaging in utter moral depravity as droves of men sleep with women from a foreign nation and worship their idols. This lack of shame culminates with the leader of one of the tribes fornicating in public. Elijah confronts a morally ambiguous nation who worships idols and allows the murder of prophets. Yet, they swear allegiance to God and eradicate the idolatrous priests after Elijah’s performance on Mount Carmel. Jonah confronts a world filled with naïve, but moral, inhabitants. The sailors genuinely attempt to save him and express remorse after they cast him into the sea. When informed of their impending destruction, the citizens of Nineveh repent and abandon their evil ways. The moral progression of humanity underlies God’s diminishing tolerance for acts of truth. For a moral person, sin results from a lack of knowledge or human weakness, not from evil intent. Rather than rebuke, people need guidance and the opportunity to correct their mistakes. Thus, a soft, gentle, murmuring voice best guides people who desire morality and God.

How Thinkers Used Humanity’s Moral Development to Redefine Halakhic and Hashkafic Norms

R. Kook believes that humanity’s moral development drives history:

The world is made up of a goodness that constantly increases, and it is this same goodness that is also revealed in the desire and nature of humankind. In the past, man’s nature and desires were coarser than they are now, and in the future they will be more refined than they are at present. In the past, the core of Torah and musar was directed more toward nullifying natural desire, because it was overflowing with evil. In the future it will develop and take on a new form, to the point that the expression of man’s innate desires in all of their capacity will become a moral necessity, and it will then be evident how much good is embodied within them (Orot HaKodesh II 544).[11]

R. Kook views history as the constant expansion of goodness in human nature.[12] Earlier humans possessed a coarser nature that required strict religious and moral regulation. However—as history progresses—human nature progresses, and strict religious and moral regulations become less necessary. The progressive nature of human morality leads Meiri, R. Kook, and the prophet Isaiah to redefine halakhic and hashkafic norms.

Meiri—who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries—proposed an innovative approach to gentiles in his time. Halakhah limits commerce with idolatrous gentiles as it may lead Jews to either contribute to or benefit from idolatry.[13] However, historically, Jews in Christian Europe conducted commerce with gentiles out of economic necessity. This dissonance between Halakhah and economic reality motivated halakhists to retroactively justify these business dealings. Most halakhists found technical solutions to solve the rift without really addressing the fundamental shift in how Jews related to their non-Jewish neighbors. Meiri, however, reinterprets the status of gentiles in Halakhah and views Christianity and Islam as non-idolatrous religions. This position solves the concern that Jews would indirectly contribute to or benefit from idolatrous practices. Since the surrounding gentiles were not considered idolatrous, Jews could not possibly contribute to or benefit from idolatry.

Yet, Meiri expands the implications of his position beyond the economic realm. Meiri describes non-idolatrous gentiles as “nations restricted by the ways of religion,”  as moral. This assertion renders many halakhot obsolete. The Mishnah Avodah Zarah (22a) suspects gentiles of bestiality, rape, or murder and thus prohibits a Jew from leaving an animal, a woman, or themself alone with a gentile. Meiri (ad loc.) asserts that these prohibitions do not apply to his contemporary Christians or Muslims, as they are “nations restricted by the ways of religion and punish these actions.” According to Meiri, Avodah Zarah discusses idolatrous gentiles who are “filthy in their actions and ugly in their attributes.” However, the immoral, primitive gentiles discussed by Avodah Zarah do not represent the Christians and Muslims of his time. Thus, the Meiri exempts Christians and Muslims from any prohibitions motivated by fear of crass immorality.

Meiri also applies the principle “nations restricted by the ways of religion” to gentiles’ judicial rights and obligations. For example, Maimonides rules that a Jew should let a gentile die instead of desecrating shabbat (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Shabbat 2:20). Meiri invokes this principle to exempt Christians and Muslims from this ruling, and thus holds that a Jew must desecrate shabbat to save the life of a Christian or Muslim (Beit Ha-Behirah Yoma, Y. HaKohen Klein ed., p. 212). Meiri even applies this principle to hashkafic statements. For example, the Meiri extends the saying that “Israel is not subject to the stars [i.e., determinism]” to moral gentiles (Beit Ha-Behirah Shabbat, p. 615). In sum, Meiri believes that Avodah Zarah equated gentiles with immorality. However, the rise of moral religions, mainly Christianity and Islam, motivated Meiri to elevate their status.

Six hundred years after Meiri, R. Kook reimagined the status of heretics. The Jewish tradition treats heretics harshly. Shulhan Arukh invalidates their testimony (Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 34:22), prohibits returning their lost objects (idem. 266:2), and permits loaning to them with interest (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 159:2). Rambam relegates them below idolaters in status (Hilkhot Edut 11:10) and even says it is a commandment to kill them (Hilkhot Rotzeah 4:10). However, R. Kook saw sparks of holiness in the work of heretics in his time, namely secular Zionists (Shemonah K’vatzim 1:327). R. Kook believed that the secular Zionists possessed strengths that religious Jews lacked. They exhibited stronger love for Klal Yisrael, the land of Israel, and the revival of the nation (Orot Ha-T’hiyah 43).

This worldview actualized itself throughout his life. When asked to eulogize Theodor Herzl, R. Kook faced a challenging situation, as Shulhan Arukh prohibits mourning heretics (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 345:5). He compromised and delivered a general eulogy that never explicitly mentioned Herzl. The eulogy discussed Mashiah ben Yosef, the messiah who would revive the physical component of the nation and pioneer the path for spiritual redemption (Ma’amarei Ha-Raiyah, Ha-Mispad Be-Yerushalayim, translation into English by Bezalel Naor available in When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook). Implicitly, R. Kook identified Herzl with Mashiah ben Yosef and viewed Herzl’s work as the flowering of the final redemption. Similarly, R. Kook led expeditions to secular kibbutzim to enhance ties with the secular Zionists, create dialogue, and expose them to traditional Jewish practices. Just as Meiri reimagined the moral status of gentiles, R. Kook redefined his contemporary heretics, the secular Zionists, as forerunners of the final redemption.

Isaiah imagines a king who wields power properly. The Bible distrusts the concentration of power that occurs in a monarchy. It provides a series of laws meant to curb the king’s power. The king may not excessively acquire chariots, wives, or gold, and he must always carry and read the Torah to develop a fear of God (Deuteronomy 17:16-19). This concern plays out in the Book of Samuel. The Israelites’ request for a king upsets Samuel, who proceeds to warn them that the king will abuse his power (I Samuel 8). The continuation of the narrative illustrates these different abuses of power. King Saul develops a paranoia and orders the massacre of the city of Nob because he suspects they helped David (idem. 19). Additionally, David abuses his power to commit adultery with Bathsheba and then send her husband Uriah to his death (II Samuel 11).[14]

Herein lies the irony of power. Ideally, the king should instrumentalize power to effect change, distribute welfare, and ensure human flourishing within his borders. However, as history shows, power often morphs into an end in and of itself. Rulers lose sight of broader goals and become paranoid. Soon, they abuse their power to retain power. Isaiah beautifully reverses this historical phenomenon and describes a messianic king who governs properly:

But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, A twig shall sprout from his stock. The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, A spirit of counsel and valor, A spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the LORD: He shall not judge by what his eyes behold, Nor decide by what his ears perceive. Thus he shall judge the poor with equity And decide with justice for the lowly of the land. He shall strike down a land with the rod of his mouth And slay the wicked with the breath of his lips. Justice shall be the girdle of his loins, And faithfulness the girdle of his waist (Isaiah 11:1-5).

Isaiah inverts the normal image of a king. Kings fall prey to the allure of their senses. David’s eyes behold Bathsheba and entice him to sin. Saul’s ears hear of how Nob helped David and push Saul to massacre the entire city. In contrast, the messianic king overcomes the pull of his physical senses and relies upon his spiritual senses endowed with divine wisdom. Furthermore, kings equip themselves with violent physical weapons to slay their enemies. However, the messianic king relies upon spiritual weapons—the “rod of his mouth” and “breath of his lips”—to slay the wicked. Similarly, he girds himself, not with physical weapons, but with spiritual values of justice and faithfulness. Finally, kings often corruptly employ power to help an inner circle of elites. However, the messianic king champions the cause of the lowly and destitute. Thus, Isaiah exemplifies the moral perfection of humanity through the image of a moral king.

Understanding the Midrash of “Let Truth Spring Up from the Earth”

“Let truth spring up from the earth.” The key to understanding this midrash lies in the relationship between the attribute of mercy and the attribute of truth. Sometimes they may overlap. For example, a parent may refuse a child’s request for candy. On a superficial level, the parent employs the attribute of truth, seeing that the child did nothing to deserve the candy. However, on a deeper level, the parent acts in accordance with the attribute of mercy. Candy is unhealthy. By denying their child’s request, the parent protects their child from developing an unhealthy sweet tooth.

This phenomenon works in the reverse direction. In a moral society, an act of mercy may also be an act of truth. In such a society, humans are well-intended and strive to correct their mistakes. Thus, forgiveness serves as the most appropriate response to mistakes. In other words, mercy serves as the most truthful response to well-intentioned mistakes. With this understanding, we can reinterpret and understand “let truth spring up from the earth.” God never intended to recreate the harsh truth that argued against the creation of humanity. Rather, God intended to cultivate a softer truth. In its infancy, Truth was harsh, as humanity’s moral depravity required strict justice. However, as history progressed and humans developed morally, mercy became more appropriate for the human soul. Mercy became truthful. At the logical conclusion of this process—the messianic era—humanity will be so morally advanced that only pure mercy will be fitting for their souls. On that day, mercy and truth will be one.

I would like to thank Avi U-Mori Dr. Ira Oliff for helping me edit and write this essay.

[1] Translation from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,

[2] Traditional Jewish sources associate Phinehas, Elijah, and Jonah with each other. In the Midrash Aggadah (Numbers 25), Reish Lakish identifies Phinehas with Elijah. In the same midrash, God attributes Phinehas’ zealotry to Elijah. Similarly, the Zohar (II; 197a) explains that “Jonah draws from the strength of Elijah.” Both characters ask to die, and the Bible describes both with variants of the word “emet”. Also, Yalkut Shimoni identifies the child whom Elijah revives as Jonah.

[3] Some commentators think it possesses a more complex meaning. Abarbanel (Numbers 25:11-12) views the brit shalom as a command to protect Phinehas from revenge, and Netziv (Emek Ha-Davar on Numbers 25:12) sees it as a promise to Phinehas that his violent acts will not engender violent tendencies. Thus, Abarbanel and Netziv highlight the negative side effects of zealotry, that it may create enemies or instill violent traits. Still, brit shalom likely has a positive sentiment. Even according to Abarbanel and Netziv, the brit shalom does not serve as moral criticism of Phinehas’ act. Rather, the brit shalom solves the negative side effects of Phinehas’ act. An act could produce negative side effects but still be positive. Thus, God supports Phinehas’ act.

[4] I heard this idea from Dr. Orit Avnery in a shiur titled “The Dove That Did Not Take Flight: Peshat and Symbolism in the Book of Jonah” given at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s Yemei Iyun 2020.

[5] The verse says that Jonah waited to “see what happened” (Jonah 4:5). Jonah cannot be awaiting the result of his prophecy because Nineveh already repented and averted destruction.

[6] I heard this idea from Rabbi Amnon Bazak in a shiur titled “Sefer Yonah V-Sukkot B-Mikrah (Part 2)” given on Torah in Motion.

[7] Aharon Mirsky, Fivel Meltzer, Yehuda Kiel, Da’at Mikrah: Trei Assar (Mossad HaRav Kook, 1990), 330-332.

[8] Some members of Hazal believe that Nineveh’s repentance was insincere. Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi (Y. Ta’anit 2:3) thinks that Nineveh threatened to harm their animals if God did not relent. This opinion stems from the weird detail that the animals of Nineveh also fasted. Furthermore, Rabbi Yohanan (Ta’anit 16a) believes that they only returned the stolen goods in their hands but not from their closets and drawers. This idea emerges from a close reading of the verse that they returned “ . . . from the violence (hamas) which was in their hands” (Jonah 3:8, emphasis added). According to R. Yohanan, they only repented for things literally in their hands. While this stream of thought possesses merit, the story explicitly says that they repented, and God forgave them. Thus, the simplest reading of the story is that Nineveh sincerely repented. For another analysis of the Jonah narrative which similarly touches on the themes of the nature of Nineveh’s repentance and motivations, and Jonah’s insistence on truth and reaction to Nineveh, see David Bashevkin, “Jonah and the Varieties of Religious Motivation,” The Lehrhaus (October 9, 2016).

[9] I heard this idea from Dr. Erica Brown in her shiur titled “From Tarshish to Nineveh: Jonah’s Long Walk to Responsibility” given at Herzog College’s Yemei Iyun Be-Tanakh 2020.

[10] I heard this idea from Dr. Orit Avnery in a shiur titled “The Dove That Did Not Take Flight: Peshat and Symbolism in the Book of Jonah” given at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s Yemei Iyun 2020

[11] Translation from Ari Ze’ev Schwartz, The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook (Gefen Publishing House, 2018), 170.

[12] Even though R. Kook died before it occured, the Holocaust poses a major challenge to R. Kook’s theory. How could such unprecedented atrocities occur if humanity was more morally developed than ever before? One possible answer is that moral development only occurs on average. That is to say, even though the average German in the 1930’s and 40’s was more morally advanced than the average human from any era beforehand, that does not rule out the possibility that historical conditions would allow for a small group of evil people to gain power. Additionally, modern technologies magnified human power. New communication technologies such as radio and film allowed governments to spread propaganda. Thus, a small group could utilize these new technologies to create groupthink and execute a genocide.

[13] Many of the ideas in this paragraph come from Dr. Moshe Halbertal’s excellent essay. See: Moshe Halbertal, “‘Ones Possessed of Religion’: Religious Tolerance in The Teachings of The Me’iri,” Edah Journal 1:1 (2000): 1-25.

[14] Dr. Moshe Halbertal discusses how the Book of Samuel explores the effects of politics and power in a lecture on YouTube titled “The Problem of Power and The Nature of Political Crime.” For a more in-depth analysis see Moshe Halbertal, Stephen Holmes, “The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel,” (Princeton Press, 2017).

Natan Oliff ( is a software development engineer at Amazon.