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Insights from Jonah and the Whale

When Jonah got out of the whale, he did not go back for his hat.

This past weekend The Book of Jonah was read for Yom Kippur services in synagogues around the world.  There are many lessons one can glean from this short book, and one seems relevant to lawyers.

The Almighty asks Jonah to tell the Ninevites that their wickedness is known and they will be destroyed.  Jonah is not asked to save the people he warns, or convert them.  He is assigned to give them notice of their wickedness and expected fate.

Jonah is afraid to even transmit this message of wrongdoing and doom.  Instead he attempts to flee the jurisdiction.  He does not get far.  A whale is directed to swallow Jonah.  After three soul searching, traumatic days and nights Jonah is vomited onto dry land.

A changed Jonah now accepts his ordained business.  Presumably still fearful, Jonah shows leadership and warns the Ninevites.   The lawless townspeople realize they are in big trouble for not having followed the laws.  They change their ways and are granted a pardon.  The pardon confuses and upsets Jonah.  He claims he tried to run away because he knew there would be a pardon.  At best that would have been a guess.  The book ends with a difficult exegesis, told in parable, about life and who controls life.

As lawyers, we certainly do not control our client’s lives.  However, we must give warnings when needed.  That is true for criminal and civil lawyers of all stripes: transactional, litigation, tax and other regulatory lawyers.   Whether behavior is changed or pardons for past transgressions granted is not up to us.  We are responsible for warnings.  As with Jonah, when we do the right thing we may get some shade, but, also as with Jonah, whether the shade stays is not up to us.

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