Torah: Without our laws, we are fish out of water


Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1-11:47

ll Samuel 6:1-7:17

“This you may eat from everything that is in the water: everything that has fins and scales in the water, in the seas and in the streams, those may you eat” (Shemini 11:9). The Talmud (Berachot 61b) relates how the second-century talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva taught Torah to the Jewish people at a time when the Romans banned it under penalty of death. When warned that he was endangering his life, Rabbi Akiva replied with the following parable:

A fox was once walking by the bank of a river, and saw fish darting from place to place. “What are you fleeing from?” he asked the fish. “To escape the nets of the fisherman,” the fish replied. “In that case,” said the fox, “come and live on dry land together with me and I will protect you.” “Are you the one they describe as the cleverest of animals?” the fish asked the fox. “You are not clever, but foolish. If we are in danger here in the water where we live, how much more so would we be in danger on dry land, where we would surely die?”

Torah is to Jewish survival, said Rabbi Akiva, as water is to fish. Yes, we are in danger, but if we were to leave Torah, which sustains our existence, for the dry habitat of contemporary culture, we would certainly perish.

The long, complex and extraordinary journey of the Jewish people throughout history is thus compared to the life of a fish in water. Our survival and success in the waters, however, require two components: We must have “fins and scales.”

While many assume the origins for kosher are for health or other reasons, the Torah makes no such claim; rather, it states the purpose is “so you shall be a holy and sanctified nation.”

Yet what is it about fins and scales that makes a fish so sacred that it confers holiness upon its consumers?

The Kabbalah teaches that the physical attributes of fish, and of all animals, reflect their psychological and spiritual qualities. It further explains that the food one consumes has a profound effect on the psyche. Therefore, when one eats the flesh of a particular creature, the “personality” of that creature affects the person in some way.

It was 1941. Never before in history had the human so descended to the depths of depravity to become a beast of prey, grow claws and decimate those who desired to live in tranquility, sending the Jewish world up in flames. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, kept a private journal during those war years that was discovered after his passing in 1994. In an entry dated Sept. 11, 1941, he expands on this kabbalistic insight as to the essence of what the kosher signs of fish may teach us. The two traits that make a moral and productive human being: “fins” and “scales.”

As the armor that protects the body of the fish, scales represent the quality of integrity, which protects us from the many pitfalls that life presents. A man of integrity will not deceive his customers, in spite of the financial profits involved. He will not lie to a friend, despite the short-term gain from doing so. Integrity means that one has absolute standards of right and wrong and is committed to a morality that transcends one’s moods and desires. Integrity preserves our souls from becoming predatory.

Fins, propelling fish forward, represent ambition. A healthy sense of ambition, knowing one’s strengths and wanting to utilize them in full, gives a person the impetus to traverse the turbulent sea of life and to maximize his or her God-given potential. It propels us to leave our unique imprint on the world.

This then is the lesson of the two signs. To have only scales without fins, we fail to bring holiness and morality to the world. To have only fins (ambition) without integrity turns a human into a predator.

The life of a fish depends on its ability to swim upstream. If it permits itself to be swept along by the current, it won’t survive. It is only because God has endowed the fish with the instinct to swim upstream against the forces of the currents that it can thrive. So it is with us.

Yaakov, our patriarch, blessed his descendants to be like fish (Genesis 48:16) with the prayer “Hamalach Hagoel,” which we sing at night to our children when we tuck them into bed — that like fish, may they be able and willing to swim upstream, to resist the temptation of running with the herd and getting swept along with the tide.

So by keeping kosher not only will we become a holier nation, but it just might make us kinder people.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi
is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].