The Ship Threatened to Break Up
“Jonah, descending into the ship, is the human soul descending into this world to enter a human body. Why is she called יוֹנָה (Yonah), Jonah? Because as soon as she joins the body, she is יֹנַה (yonah), cheated, in this world, as is said: וְלֹא תוֹנוּ (Ve-lo tonu), You shall not cheat, one another (Leviticus 25:17). Then a person moves through this world like a ship in the great ocean about to break up, as is said: The ship threatened to break up (Jonah 1:4).
When a person is in this world he sins, and thinks that he can flee from the presence of the Lord, who pays no attention to this world. Then the blessed Holy One casts a mighty windstorm—the Decree of Judgment, which stands constantly before the blessed Holy One, demanding a person’s punishment. This is what torments the ship, calling attention to the person’s sins, to seize him.
Once the person is seized by that tempest, in his sick bed, what is written? Jonah went down into the hold of the ship, and he lay down and fell asleep (Jonah 1:5). Even though a person is lying in his sickbed, the soul is not aroused to return to his Lord to redeem his sins.
What is written? The captain approached him (Jonah 1:6). Who is the captain? The good impulse, who guides all. And said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep?…’ (ibid.)—this is no time to sleep, for you are being brought to judgment for all that you have done in this world. Repent of your sins!
Reflect on these things and return to your Lord. What is your work (Jonah 1:8), in which you engaged in this world? Confess it before your Lord. Where do you come from? (ibid.)—reflect on where you come from: from a putrid drop, and you will not be arrogant before Him. What is your country (ibid.)—reflect that from earth you were created and to earth you will return. And of what people are you? (ibid.)—reflect whether you have ancestral merit to protect you [cf. M Avot 3:1].
Once he is brought to heavenly judgement, that tempest—which is the Decree of Judgement raging against a person—demands from the King to punish those royal prisoners, and they all come before Him one by one. At that moment, the members of the court approach. Some pleas in his defense, others against him, and the Decree of Judgement demands punishment.
If that person is not found innocent, what is written? The men rowed hard to regain the shore, but they could not (Jonah 1:13)—those who pleaded for his innocence strive to restore him in this world, but they could not. Why? For the sea was growing stormier (ibid.)—the Decree of Judgement grows stormier from the person’s sins and overwhelms them.
Then three appointed messengers descend upon him: one who inscribes all the good deeds and misdeeds that the person performed in this world; one who produces a reckoning of his days; and one who was with him in his mother’s womb, as we have established and the Decree of Judgement does not subside until the time that is described: They picked Jonah up (Jonah 1:15). They picked up—when they carry him from his house to the cemetery… If he is wicked, the proclamation is: ‘Woe to so-and-so! Better for him if he had never been created!’
Then what is written? They threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging (Jonah 1:15)—when they place him in his grave, the place of judgment, then the Decree of Judgement, that was storming, subsides from its raging. And the fish that swallowed him is the grave.
What is written? Jonah was in the מְעֵי (m’ei), bowels, of the fish (Jonah 2:1). The bowels of the fish is the belly of Sheol. How do we know? As is written: מִבֶּטֶן (mi-beten), from the belly, of Sheol I cried out (ibid., 3)—he was in the bowels of the fish and called it the belly of Sheol.
Three days and three nights (Jonah 2:1)—the three days that a person lies in the grave, when his belly bursts… Afterward, the soul ascends, while the body decomposes in the dust, until the time when the blessed Holy One arouses the dead… Of then, it is written: YHWH spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land (Jonah 2:11).
After that voice is aroused among the graves, every single grave will spew out the corpse it contains, as is written: The earth will cast forth spirits of the dead (Isaiah 26:19)” (Zohar 2:199a).