The Talmud relates that the wicked Roman government once decreed that Jewish people should not engage in the study of Torah (B. Brachot 61b). Rabbi Akiva publicly disobeyed this injunction and convened assemblies where he taught Torah.
When Rabbi Akiva's contemporary, Papus, discovered this blatant disregard for the Roman decree he wondered: "Akiva, are you not afraid of the regime?" Rabbi Akiva responded with a famous and colorful parable.
Once a fox took a walk near a brook and saw fish swimming past, darting from place to place as if they were fleeing some danger. "From what are you fleeing?" asked the fox.
The fish responded: "From the nets of people who try to catch us."
The fox had a cunning plan to help the fish: "Why not come up onto dry land where you will be safe from the nets? And we will dwell together, you and I, just as my ancestors dwelt with your ancestors."
The fish were not persuaded: "Are you the one that they describe as the cleverest of animals? You are not clever, but a fool! If we are afraid for our safety in our own habitat, finding it difficult to escape danger and remain alive in the water, in a place that ensures death - that is, dry land - should we not be afraid all the more so?!"
Concluding the tale, Rabbi Akiva turned to Papus to unpack the parable: "The situation facing us is similar. Now we sit and engage in the study of Torah, which is described by the words: For it is your life and the length of your days (Deuteronomy 30:20), and we nevertheless fear for our safety. Were we to forsake Torah, we would be in even greater danger." The extent of Rabbi Akiva's vivid parable is deeper than the short explanation he offered Papus.
Who is the fox? While the fox is popularly depicted as a cunning creature, here the fish are disdainful of his offer to help, mockingly calling him foolish. Was the fox trying to lure the fish out of the safe waters onto dry land where he could easily feast upon them? In Rabbi Akiva's parable there is scant evidence that the fox was being conniving; apparently he was honestly trying to help the poor fish. Yet a closer reading may reveal that the fox indeed had an ulterior motive.
The fox tells the fish: "Why not come up to dry land where you will be safe from the nets? And we will dwell together, you and I, just as my ancestors dwelt with your ancestors."
In our tradition there is no evidence that the fox ever dwelt with the fish. The only time animals dwelt together was during the deluge when Noah built an ark to house all the animals. Yet even at that time the fish had no need for Noah's haven; they remained outside the ark swimming and surviving happily in the floodwaters.
The fox's words are from start to finish filled with misinformation aimed at cajoling the fish out of the water. Similarly, it is with such definite yet unfounded statements that the truth is so often clouded. At times we are outfoxed by conniving voices from within our own hearts or from those around us that make claims about our relationship to Torah. Such voices speak with the confidence of a charlatan as they wheedle us to forsake our tradition.
The fox tries to coax the fish out of the water. A fish out of water remains alive for some time: Perhaps the fish could have come onto dry land for a short break from the daily dodging of the fishermen's nets and their hooks? Elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that a fish is considered dead as soon as a prescribed area of its body, a sela, has dried up. While it may continue to flounder, it is no longer considered alive (B. Shabbat 107b). The fish has the appearance that it is still alive as it flips hither and thither; alas, its life is over. Similarly, a person who is without Torah may not notice the spiritual death, deluding himself as he continues the struggle that he calls "life," yet this is merely an illusion; without Torah we are hardly alive.
A final point about the parable: The water sustains the fish as Torah sustains the Jewish people; water is the natural habitat for the fish, and Torah is the natural habitat for the Jewish people. Indeed in countless places the Torah is compared to water. The source for the public reading of the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays is the comparison to water: Just as a person cannot survive for three days without water, so too survival without Torah for three days is impossible (B. Bava Kama 82a). Elsewhere our sages tell us that just as water flows from high places to low places, so too Torah remains with humble people who are not haughty (B. Ta'anit 7a).
Rabbi Akiva's message is clear: Torah is our lifeblood. To be sure, studying Torah may have a price - at times of persecution such as during Rabbi Akiva's era. Torah study has been a capital offense; in times of peace the cost is merely the time and effort we dedicate to the pursuit of Torah. Regardless of what the price of Torah study is, in a world of limited resources we are forced to choose how to allocate the resources at our disposal. It would be incongruous, for instance, to choose luxury items over basic goods; we make sure we have bread to put on the table before we spend money on expensive jewelry. Rabbi Akiva demonstrated by his own conduct that Torah study is not a luxury item, an indulgence for those who can afford it; it is a basic need for every person in our nation.
Appropriately, each evening in Arvit we declare that the Torah and God's commandments are "our lives and the length of our days, and we will ensconce ourselves in them day and night."
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.