Reah: Like fish with fins

Reah: Like fish with fins

“This may you eat of all that is in the waters: Everything that has fins and scales, may you eat. But anything that has no fins and scales, you may not eat,” states the Torah in the portion of Reah.

The Talmud states (Nidah 51b): “All [fish] that have scales also have fins [and are thus kosher]; there are [fish] that have fins but do not have scales [and are thus unkosher].”

This raises the big question, as the Talmud itself asks (Nidah ibid; Chulin 66b): Why are fins presented as an identifying sign for kosher fish when they are redundant, since scaled fish inevitably have fins as well?

The Talmud’s answer consists of three words: “Yagdil Torah veyaadir,” to make the Torah larger and stronger.

This answer seems strange. How does the superfluous sign of fins make the Torah “larger and stronger?”

In order to understand this we need to preface with a story from another part of the Talmud.

The Talmud (Berachos 61b) tells of how Rabbi Akiva taught Torah in public at a time when the Roman government, under the Emperor Hadrian, prohibited such activity. Another sage, Pappus ben Judah, warned him 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,” replied the fish.

“In that case,” said the fox, “come and live on dry land together with me.”

“Are you the one they describe as the cleverest of animals?” the fish replied. “You are not clever but foolish. If we are in danger here in the water, which is where we live, how much more so on dry land, where we are bound to 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 identity, to enter the dry land of the Romans, we would certainly die.

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 water requires two components: We must have scales, but we must also have fins.

The scales are a thickened layer of “skin” that is designed to ward off external dangers, such as sudden changes in temperature and water pressure. Scales are the “armor” which protects the body of the fish.

Fins, the wing-like organs that propel fish forward, allow the fish to move along in the water, to make progress and advance to great distances, to “journey” in different directions, and not to remain in one space and location.

Every part of Torah can be understood on many different levels and this verse in our parsha is no different. Besides the straight-forward simple understanding, each mitzvah has a psychological and spiritual message as well.

Judaism was meant to influence the world. We were meant to be a “light unto the nations.” The Torah that was transmitted to us by G-d through Moshe Rabbeinu contained truths, ethics, morals, and values that we were meant to share and indeed influence the world with them. But what happened to us? The vast majority of Jews, especially since the Enlightenment movement several hundred years ago, fall into one of two categories.

One group of us are so scared of the influences of modernity that we become insular and build ourselves self-imposed enclosed communities. We forget the Torah’s universal message. We are so concerned that our children will be influenced by outside forces that we shut ourselves out and of course thereby diminish any chance of truly changing the world through the values we hold so dear. These are the “scales” Jews. We focus solely on the armor, on protecting what we have, on sheltering ourselves and our children, just as the scales protect and armor the body of the fish.

Then there are the “fins” Jews. This group seeks to assimilate and move forward and progress with modernity. Sure they believe in universalism but have forgotten the roots of the universal message we are meant to give to mankind.

Comes the Torah and tells us: For a fish to be kosher, for the Jewish people – compared to the fish – to fulfill their mission in life, it must have scales, but it must also have fins. And the latter is also essential to the kashrus of the fish; the latter must be specified because it too is vital to understanding our role in this world.

First and foremost, the Jewish people require scales. We must always don the spiritual armor which will guarantee our survival: Torah and Mitzvos. Jewish education, family purity, kashrus, mezuzah, tefilin, Shabbos, study of Torah, tzedakah, love of our fellow Jew.

And the fact is that a fish which has scales, if you are truly rooted in Torah, in the “scales” of Judaism, you will also have fins. But yet the Torah makes a point to specify that fins constitute an essential factor in the kosher status of fish and in the kosher status of the Jewish people.

Why? asks the Talmud.

And the answer? Yagdil Torah veyaadir! Because our job is to make the Torah big and powerful. Our mission in life is not only to maintain our own spiritual and moral integrity and to shield ourselves from the evils of the world. Our role is also to saturate the entire world with the light of Torah; to transform the entire universe into an abode for G-d. It is not enough for us to remain protected behind our scared armor. No! You must acquire fins, and start swimming. You must broaden your sphere of influence to the furthest possible places.

Each of us has a sphere of influence – our family, community, business associations, and all other contacts. We must make sure that the values, the morals, the majesty of Torah reaches every person and every location.

Yagdil Torah veyaadir! The truth, the depth, the light of Torah must permeate all of the Jewish people, and all of humanity. We must swim and engage the world. Not because of insecurity, not because of fear, guilt, shame, envy; on the contrary – because the whole world craves and yearns for the direction of Torah. May we merit to be that light unto the nations.