Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A fish tale

A demographic study of the cities (in this week's torah portion) of refuge described in this week's Torah portion reveals a surprising element in their population. One would assume that the cities would be comprised solely of the Levites who lived there permanently and of any individuals who killed accidentally who were seeking protection from their pursuers. However, there is another group: Rabbis. The Talmud (Tractate Makkot) explains that any individual who fled to the city of refuge must take his rabbi with him (not his lawyer, accountant, or doctor). By analyzing this law, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the primacy of Torah in one's life.

This obligation emerges from the verse, "He [the accidental killer] must flee to one of the cities and live" (Deuteronomy 19:4). Physical sustenance alone does not enable the killer to "live". Only when it is coupled with spiritual sustenance (i.e. his rabbi) can he truly live. An uncharacteristic comment of Rambam (Maimonides), one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, supports this notion. Although Rambam's style in his legal magnum opus is to elucidate Jewish law, he adds a revealing comment when articulating the requirement to bring one's rabbi to the city of refuge. He writes that wise individuals devoid of Torah knowledge and studying are considered devoid of life. The Torah infuses life.

A story told about Rabbi Akiva crystallizes the indispensability of Torah. Rabbi Akiva lived during the period of Roman persecutors who forbade Torah study. Despite the ban, Rabbi Akiva continued his studies and was captured and sentenced to death by the Romans. When asked by his students why he took such a risk, he shared with them the story of the fox and the fish. A clever fox offered a fish a wonderful proposal: "Come onto land and you will be saved from the fisherman's net!". The insightful fish responded, "While in the water, there is a possibility that I may live by evading the fisherman's net. However, on land I am sure to die." Without the potent waters of the Torah, we too cannot survive.

Upon leaving this world, one of the questions that Hashem will ask every human being is whether we set aside time to study Torah every day (Talmud Tractates Sanhedrin 7a and Shabbat 31a). The Torah is not merely a legal guide to life. Through learning the Torah, we deepen our appreciation of the mitzvot and reinvigorate our relationship with Hashem. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us make a commitment to immerse ourselves in the sea of Torah and may we be blessed by its living waters each and every day.

Perhaps I am trying to bait you, dear blog reader, but here is a mezuzah from Daniel perfect for the person who loves to fish. In the Jewish tradition, fish are symbolic of fertility and abundance. They thus appear on a wide variety of Judaica objects and manuscripts. The prevalence of the fish symbol on illustrated ketubbot (wedding manuscripts) and on amulets for barren women is quite obvious. We have seen other fish on JJ... like this one and and this one. I am sure there are other fish in the sea; I will be sure to bring them to you.

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