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Simcha FisherMarch 22, 2023
Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash

My community band practices in the basement of a synagogue, and there is a strange work of art on the wall. It’s rendered in wood, painted in bright colors, and it shows something I have never seen before: A whale diving into the deep, surrounded by brilliant fish. Nestled in the whale’s stomach is a man.

You are thinking it is Jonah, and I guess it is. But he is not a desperate, raggedy prophet in dire straits. He is an old man, clearly Jewish, with a noble profile and glasses, a kippah on his head and a fringed blue-and-white tallit on his shoulders. He is sitting on a little wooden chair at a little wooden table. Overhead (yes, in the whale) hangs a little wooden lightbulb, and by its light he is reading one of a stack of little wooden books. Just sitting there quietly reading a book, inside the whale. The whale looks slightly alarmed, but the old man is perfectly at home, learning.

I thought immediately of a Reddit post I recently saw, written by a young woman who was enraged at her father for spending his own money, at the end of his life, on a long-delayed college education. What does the old man need to go to college for? His life is almost over! The money should be preserved, not wasted on a man who’s almost gone. It was even worse than the Prodigal Son: She was not only demanding her inheritance ahead of time but also begrudging that her father should have any of it.

This is what it fundamentally means to be a Christian: It means to know that what we are doing is getting ready. What we are experiencing, all the time, is learning.

I thought of my own father. Partly because he looked a little bit like the bearded old Jew with his wooden books and partly because he did keep on learning, right up until the end. From books, to be sure. His bedside, when I went there to tidy things up to sell our old house, was smothered in books. But he was not necessarily pushing himself academically in his final years. I think he died watching TV (not that there’s anything wrong with that—he was tired).

What I mean is that the last several years of his life tested him mightily. The family fell to one crisis after another, and finally my mother lapsed irretrievably into dementia, and he had to learn to pour love into her and get nothing in return but mumbles and flutters. He had to learn so much. He was so old, but he had so many things to learn before he was delivered from this life.

During this time, he told me that the Lord was taking more and more things away from him, and he was glad, because it was getting him ready for death. He smiled when he said this. He was grateful it was happening—the getting ready, not the dying. He did not seem to feel, against all odds, that it was a dark time, even as his life dwindled away.

This is what it fundamentally means to be a Christian: It means to know that what we are doing is getting ready. What we are experiencing, all the time, is learning.

The Jonah art is meant to be amusing, I’m sure. “It’s always the right time to read a book” is certainly a familiar refrain in Jewish homes. I am aware that there is the temptation, in some quarters, to let scholarship itself become an impediment to illumination. It is a little too easy to love books themselves more than wisdom; to love wisdom more than its source. I thought about how it really is true, at least, that it’s always the right time to learn; how the darkest times are the best times to learn.

All that is inside the belly of the whale is the name of the Lord.

I prodded this idea a bit, and thought back to the darkest times in my own life, the most “in whale” moments I’ve been through. First, I recalled the time I went in and out of heavy labor for three full days, and I was so sick and wretched. But we lived in a small, poor town with scant medical care, and because it was New Year’s Eve, they didn’t have enough people on hand to help me induce labor. So I sweated it out, day after day, weeping, not sleeping, trapped in the belly of the whale of those endless, inefficient contractions. I remember praying, “Lord, whatever you want me to learn through this, I promise I will learn it later, just make it stop!”

No.

Eventually, I was delivered of that baby, and she was beautiful and it was a happy new year. We named her Sophia, wisdom.

But I also thought of an even worse time, not of physical pain but emotional trial. As for so many others, the Covid-19 pandemic coincided with a prolonged personal crisis. I went through an intensely oppressive and trapped time when I didn’t know the way forward and all my choices were bad. And I remember how dark it was, and I remember praying, “Lord, I don’t feel you here. But I believe you are here.”

You see, I had learned something.

And again, I was delivered.

I don’t know how to say it more plainly than that, without making it sound like nothing at all. Here is what I know: All that is inside the belly of the whale is the name of the Lord. That is what it says inside those books. That is what is breathed through every contraction, squeeze and release: It is the Lord. We can’t learn it later. Or if we try, God will just send another whale another time, because he’ll eat us up, he loves us so. I don’t know why, but we have to learn to know him in the dark, when all our other helps have been taken away.

And it doesn’t last forever. Eventually we are delivered, in the name of the Lord.

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