The Fox and the Fish

(from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot, page 61b)

Long ago, the Land of Israel was ruled by the Romans, who were cruel and barbaric rulers. Once, the government of Rome issued an edict forbidding Jews to study and practice the Torah. Pappus bar Judah found R. Akiba sitting in a public place, rather students about himself, and teaching and studying Torah, in defiance of the Roman edict. This was an enormously dangerous thing to do, for the penalty for violating the Roman law was death.

Pappus bar Judah was shocked that Rabbi Akiba was taking such a risk. In amazement, he asked, "Akiba, aren't you afraid of the Roman government?"

Rabbi Akiba replied with a parable, a story to explain his actions:

Once, a fox was walking alongside a river. He could see fish swimming in schools in the water. It appeared to him that they were swimming to and fro, as if trying to escape something or someone. The fox was very hungry and thought that a nice, fat fish would surely make a delicious lunch for a hungry fox.

The fox called out to the fish, "What are you fleeing from?"

The fish replied, "We are trying to avoid the nets that fishermen cast out to catch us."

Slyly, the fox said, "Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you will be safe from the fishermen's nets?"

The fish were not fooled by the sly fox. They replied, "Are you the one that is known as the cleverest of all the animals? You are not clever! You are foolish. If we are in danger here in the water, which is our home, how much more would be in danger on land!

So it is with us, Rabbi Akiba explained. If we are in great danger when we sit and study, teach, and practice Torah, of which it is written "For that is your life and length of your days," [Deuteronomy 30:20], how much worse off we will be if we neglect the Torah!

And with that, Rabbi Akiba returned to his studies.

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