Pinocchio’s Jewish Roots

by | Sep 24, 2021 | Blog, Jews around the world

It was Mamodines, the Rambam, who said, ”Nothing can stand in the way of teshuvah.” Our sages teach that God is open to Teshuva, which has been described as the spiritual change in someone’s behavior. In fact, our rabbis teach us that God is open to Teshuvah from any person, at any time, for any sin.”

The practical example that supports the whole idea of returning to a spiritually guided life is the story of Jonah. But for us here in Italy and for many around the world we have two examples; Jonah of course, but also the little wooden puppet whose story was created by Carlo Collodi in 1883, in a book called the Adventures of Pinocchio.

It is traditional that on Yom Kippur day we read the book of Jonah, study it, and consider applying its lessons to our own lives. It’s not traditional to read The Adventures of Pinocchio, but today we’ll break with tradition and do just that.

First, Jonah. A well-respected prophet and teacher, Jonah’s life is moving along “swimmingly.” (pun intended!). That is, until God instructs Jonah to leave his hometown and travel to Nineveh. “Nineveh? Thooey!” Is Jonah’s first reaction. Why? Jonah knows that the city is filled with misguided souls, ne’er do wells and no-goodniks that most people stay away from. Jonah complains that “Nobody goes to Nineveh,” but God remains firm. “Go to Nineveh and help the people improve their behavior. Help them find new direction, more positive ways to live.”

Jonah understands that God’s directive is important but he just doesn’t want to go. Instead he runs in the opposite direction until he reaches the sea. There he boards a ship headed for Spain. “Whew, surely God won’t bother me now.”

But that’s not what happened. During the journey a fierce storm nearly sinks the ship. The sailors are terrified but Jonah knows how to bring about calm. Jonah admits to the sailors, “I have brought this storm to you. Throw me overboard and the rain and wind will stop.”

The sailors were reluctant but Jonah finally convinced them. Now as Jonah is flailing about in the water, the sky is clear and the sea is calm. And just when Jonah thinks he’s in the clear, a giant fish, big as a whale, appears and in one big gulp, swallows Jonah. He descends into the fish’s stomach. For three days and three nights Jonah shouts, cries and prays for forgiveness. And then, amazingly, the enormous fish gives a giant belch and Jonah is launched out of the fish’s stomach and on to dry land.. . very near to the town of Nineveh. Jonah, now a changed man, follows directions and helps the people of Nineveh repent.

But Jonah is not the only one who learns about teshuvah the hard way, in the stomach of a giant fish. A little wooden puppet, ego-driven and defiant, has a similar experience. Like Jonah, Pinocchio’s self-centered behavior landed him inside a giant Dog Fish and like Jonah, Pinocchio had to take a long look at his actions, admit his errors and make some life-changing decisions.

Carved out of wood by Gepetto, a kindly old man who longs for a son, Pinocchio comes to life thanks to Gepetto’s wood-working skill and loving kindness. All goes well until Gepetto announces to Pinocchio that he must go to school. When Pinocchio points out that they have no money for school books, Gepetto decides to sell his coat to purchase the books Pinocchio needs – that’s how determined Gepetto is that Pinocchio should study.

But like Jonah, who did not want to go to Nineveh, Pinocchio had no desire to go to school and like Jonah, Pinocchio runs away. In fact, Pinocchio said, “I must run away because if I remain here I will be sent to school and made to study. ”Neither Pinocchio nor Jonah wanted to do what a higher authority was asking of them.

Like Jonah, Pinocchio runs to the sea, but unlike Jonah, Pinocchio deliberately tries to find the giant fish because he has learned that Geppetto, in his search for Pinocchio, had been swallowed by this monster of the sea. Gathering his courage, Pinocchio deliberately enters the fish and at last finds Gepetto there. Together they build a huge fire causing the giant dog fish to sneeze – a blast so strong that they fly out of its stomach and land on the shore.

The specific details are different but the story of Jonah and the Pinocchio’s experience share commonalities that we can apply to the meaning of the High Holy Day season. Beyond the obvious, that Jonah and Pinocchio both find redemption in the stomach of a giant fish, the act of teshuvah and the spiritual reward for making a change is apparent in both stories. . In fact it is Gepetto who, in an eerily similar statement characteristic of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, – it is Gepetto who says to Pinocchio, “Well done, Pinocchio! To reward you for your good heart I will forgive you for all that is past. Try and do better in the future and you will be happy.”

For all of us, Pinocchio’s journey and Jonah’s journey are the journeys we can take as we begin a new year. For Jonah, when he first was confronted with God’s direction, he runs from it. Only through a cataclysmic event like his encounter with the giant fish, was Jonah able to pray, reflect and make teshuvah. For Pinocchio, finally he proves himself brave, truthful and selfless by risking his life to travel deep into the depths of the ocean to save his father. He put ego aside and embraced an altruistic purpose.

For Jonah and Pinocchio their experience inside the fish’s stomach is a symbol of the transforming power of “teshuvah” (“returning”) and the positive changes it can bring. For Jonah, the reward is significant. He embraces his life’s work with renewed enthusiasm. For Pinocchio, the reward is also great. Thanks to the power of “teshuvah” Pinocchio awakes to find that great change is possible. Pinocchio is no longer a puppet. Instead He has found his authentic self. Pinocchio has become a real boy.