Berachos 61b: Fish Were Created for the Water

Berachos 61b: Once the evil government decreed that Jews were forbidden to study Torah. Papus ben Yehuda found Rabbi Akiva gathering groups in public and teaching Torah. He said to him, “Akiva, aren’t you afraid of the government?” He said to him, “I will give you a parable: A fox was walking on the bank of the river, and saw the fish gathering in one place and then another. ‘Why are you fleeing?’ he asked them. ‘From the nets cast by men,’ they said. He said to them, ‘Would you like to come up onto the dry land, and I will live with you just as my fathers lived with your fathers?’ They said to him: ‘Are you the one they call the wisest of the animals?’ You are not wise, but foolish. If in our element of life we are afraid, all the more so in our element of death!’ So too with us: if now, when we study Torah, our life and the length of our days (Devarim 30:20), we are killed, all the more so if we ignore Torah study!”

ברכות סא ע”ב: תנו רבנן: פעם אחת גזרה מלכות הרשעה שלא יעסקו ישראל בתורה, בא פפוס בן יהודה ומצאו לרבי עקיבא שהיה מקהיל קהלות ברבים ועוסק בתורה. אמר ליה: עקיבא, אי אתה מתירא מפני מלכות? אמר לו: אמשול לך משל, למה הדבר דומה ־ לשועל שהיה מהלך על גב הנהר, וראה דגים שהיו מתקבצים ממקום למקום, אמר להם: מפני מה אתם בורחים? אמרו לו: מפני רשתות שמביאין עלינו בני אדם. אמר להם: רצונכם שתעלו ליבשה, ונדור אני ואתם כשם שדרו אבותי עם אבותיכם? אמרו לו: אתה הוא שאומרים עליך פקח שבחיות? לא פקח אתה, אלא טפש אתהִ ומה במקום חיותנו אנו מתיראין, במקום מיתתנו על אחת כמה וכמהִ אף אנחנו, עכשיו שאנו יושבים ועוסקים בתורה, שכתוב בה (דברים ל׳) כי הוא חייך וארך ימיך ־ כך, אם אנו הולכים ומבטלים ממנה ־ על אחת כמה וכמה.

Before Theodor Herzl became a Zionist, he contemplated assimilation as a solution for anti-Semitism. He thought that Jews had devised the Jewish religion as a response to their rejection by the hostile outside world. Now, however, the outside world had since changed for the better, granting equality to the Jews, yet the Jews remained separate; this aroused anti-Semitism. The solution, therefore, was for Jews to assimilate.

In a conversation with his friend Ludwig Speidel, he compared Jews to seals which, according to the theory of evolution, were originally land animals that evolved to live in water. They could therefore evolve back into land animals again.

“However, anti-Semitism, which is a strong if unconscious force among the masses, will do the Jews no harm. I hold it to be a movement useful for the development of Jewish character. It is the education of a group by the surrounding populations and will perhaps in the end lead to its absorption. We are educated only through hard knocks. A sort of Darwinian mimicry will set in. The Jews will adapt themselves. They are like the seals, which a natural catastrophe cast into the ocean. There they took on the appearance and property of fish, which of course they are not. If they ever return to dry land and are allowed to remain there a few generations, they will do away with their finny feet.” (The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, p. 10)

Amazingly, Herzl’s argument is exactly that of the fox in Rabbi Akiva’s parable. The fox says, “Come and live on the land with me, just as my fathers lived with your fathers.” In other words, the fox is arguing that the fish were not really created for the water. They originally lived on land, and only adapted to live in water due to the circumstances.

The fish’s response, and our response to Herzl is no! The Jewish people were created to live by the Torah. The Torah is not just a temporary response to circumstances. Therefore, leaving the Torah is like a fish leaving the water. Without Torah, the Jewish people would be unable to breathe and would certainly die out. Herzl thought you can take away Judaism from the Jews, and they can continue to be Jews. With his subsequent idea of Zionism, he, and his successors, continued to think the same way, except that the abandonment of Torah would take place on a national scale. The response to him is that Torah is the defining feature of Jews, and without it, there will be no Jews.

But there is more. The fish made a “kal vachomer” – they told the fox that coming onto the land would solve nothing as far as the fishermen, and it would create the additional danger of lack of oxygen. Here too, time proved that Jews who assimilate – whether on a personal or a national level – are still attacked by anti-Semites, and even if they escape, die out spiritually. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, died personally at the hands of the Romans, but kept Klal Yisroel alive by passing down the Torah to the next generation.

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