Parashat Vayehi: Deceptive Vigor
We read in Parashat Vayehi of the special blessings Yaakob Abinu granted to Yosef’s two sons – Efrayim and Menashe – before his death. Yosef brought his sons before Yaakob, and Yaakob pronounced the famous blessing which concludes with the wish, "Ve’yidgu La’rob Be’kereb Ha’aretz" – "They shall multiply like fish in the midst of the land" (48:16).
The Midrash offers a number of different explanations for why Yaakob blessed his descendants that they should multiply specifically "like fish." One explanation is that just as fish jump excitedly to greet every drop of rainwater that falls into the ocean, lake or river, so do the Jewish People eagerly and lovingly cherish every word of Torah that we learn. Fish are not lacking water; they live in large bodies of water which contain more than enough water for them. Nevertheless, they enthusiastically welcome every single new drop that falls – representing the excitement that we should experience every time we have the opportunity to learn more Torah. As much as we have learned, as much as we know, every "drop" of Torah is precious and should cause us great excitement.
The Midrash also gives another, more famous, explanation, stating that just as fish cannot live outside water, the Jewish People similarly cannot live without Torah. The study of Torah is as crucial for our existence as water is for the existence of fish.
Rav Mordechai Gifter, esteemed Rosh Yeshiva of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland (1915-2001), developed this analogy further. He explained that when we observe fish swimming in the water, they swim slowly and calmly, without much energy, and without making any noise. But the moment the fisherman lifts his net out of the water, the fish inside the net start thrashing frantically, moving about in a frenzy. Somebody who didn’t know better might think that the fish are healthier, stronger and more energetic at that moment than they ever were inside the water, but of course, it’s just the opposite. The calm, tranquil existence in the water is what the fish are supposed to experience; the thrashing outside the water is a sign that something is wrong, that the fish are about to die.
Rav Gifter taught that the same is true of Jews and Torah. People who do not study Torah might appear to be more "alive," as they involve themselves in all kinds of different activities, enjoying many different kinds of experiences, and displaying a great deal of enthusiasm and vigor. But the true life of a Jew is the calm, tranquil experience of sitting with a book, or in a class, or in a study hall, absorbing the sacred words of the Torah. The vigor exhibited by those who are taken out of the "water," who are not involved in Torah learning, is deceptive. It is a sign of spiritual demise. True life is experienced by living in the calm, peaceful "waters" of Torah, immersing oneself in the sacred word of Hashem and being enriched, inspired and elevated by His timeless wisdom.