The Fox and the Fish – Jews and Torah Today
This week’s Torah portion is Yitro in which God reveals the divine Self at Mount Sinai and the Torah is given to Moses and the Israelites.
A well-known tale from the Talmud (B'rachot 61b) tells the story of the great Rabbi Akiva (circa 40-137 CE) who in defiance of the Romans continued to teach and practice Torah.
One day Pappus bar Judah found Rabbi Akiva sitting in a public place teaching and studying Torah to a group of students. Fearing for the great Rabbi Akiva’s life, Pappas asked the master, “Are you not afraid of the Roman government?”
Rabbi Akiva replied with a parable:
'Once, a fox was walking hungrily alongside a river looking for his next meal when he saw a group of beautifully fat fish swimming in schools just out of his reach.
The fox called out to the fish, 'What are you fleeing from?'
The fish answered, 'We’re trying to avoid the nets that fishermen cast out to catch us.'
Slyly, the fox said, 'I know of another stream across the woods where there are no fishermen, and I would gladly carry you there so you can continue safely on your way.'
The fish weren’t fooled by the sky fox and replied, 'Aren’t you the one known as the cleverest of all the animals? You aren’t so clever after all! If we’re in danger here in the water, which is our home, how much more so would be in danger on your back and out of the water!'
'So it is with us,' Rabbi Akiva explained. 'If we’re in danger when we sit and learn, teach and practice Torah, of which it is written “For that is your life and the length of your days,” (Deuteronomy 30:20), how much worse off we will be if we neglect the Torah!'
Rabbi Akiva returned to his studies and teaching.
The story ends tragically. Akiva, among Judaism’s greatest leaders, was arrested and tortured to his death. He was asked by his students how he could continue to teach Torah even though it meant his death. He answered, ‘All my life I have wanted to understand the commandment “You shall love God with all your heart, soul and might” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and now I understand.
The life waters in which the Jewish people swim is Torah. Without Torah we are as if alienated from ourselves, a people without spiritual and moral moorings, without memory, and without transcendent purpose.
Torah is the central reason that the Jewish people is the longest continuous surviving people anywhere on earth. Though our numbers, between 15 and 17 million world-wide, is small, we are a force for holiness, decency, goodness, and high ethical standards.
The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) teaches: “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – The Torah opposite all” (i.e. The learning of Torah is equal to all the other commandments because in learning, we perform the mitzvot and shape a way of life that enables us to be worthy to stand before God).
I often ask b’nai mitzvah students when explaining how they are the latest link in the chain of Jewish tradition (sharsheret hakabalah), reaching back to Abraham and Sarah, whether there will be others in the next generation after them that will understand what it means for them to be Jews and what they will do throughout their lives to assure the Jewish identity of the next generation?
I explain that Torah learning is the key and that the Jew’s life-long learning will determine the nature of our people, our values and concerns, and will assure our people’s continuity from one generation to the next.
Whenever we read Torah we return to Sinai again, as we will do this week in reading the 10 Words (i.e. the 10 Commandments).