During the times of Rabbi Akiva the Evil Roman Government decreed that it was forbidden for Jews to learn Torah. Rav Pappus ben Yehuda found Rabbi Akiva organizing shiurim and learning Torah in public. He said to Rabbi Akiva, ‘Are you not afraid of the government?’ Rabbi Akiva said to him, ‘Let me tell you a Mashul that this situation is like; a fox was walking along the river’s edge when he spotted a fish swimming back and forth. He asked the fish, ‘What are you running from?’ The fish replied, ‘from the nets that humans are spreading over us, to capture us.’ ‘So why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We can dwell together like our ancestors did!’ The fish said, ‘Are you really the one that everyone says is so wise?! You’re not wise! You are so foolish. If in our environment where we live, we have to fear for our lives, how much more so must we be fearful in an environment that will surely cause our death!’ So too us. When we sit and learn Torah, of which it is said, “It is your life and lengthens your days”(Devarim 30:20), we may be running around from the nets, struggling to escape our tormentors, yet we are still in our own environment. But if we leave the “water”, if we leave our environment and neglect the Torah, then how much more so must we fear for our death! (Brachos 61b)
Fish don’t look out onto the dry land and think, “Look at those guys up there, on dry land, living happy and peaceful lives. Let’s go join them!” God gave us the Torah, our water which sustains us, because we are a nation with a unique mission and set of talents that no other nation possesses. If we constantly attempt to leave the water, thinking that we need to be like those that tread on land when in reality we are created to swim the currents, we become like a fish out of water. A fish needs to be in its proper habitat in order to survive. While a fish may live outside of the water for a short time, it flops around, using its last moments to search for the water it requires to survive. When Yosef was thrown into the pit by his brothers left to die, the Torah describes its condition as empty of water. As the pasuk says, “The pit was empty of water”(37:24). Rashi says that this implies there were snakes and scorpions in the pit. The pit represents the human mind, the water represents The Torah. Like a fish out of water, the further we distance ourselves from the source of our life we delve into a state of danger. And just like a pit devoid of water, a Jew without Torah becomes a habitat for the snakes and scorpions of the spiritual world. Our mission is to ensure that we are genuine about keeping a flow of Torah in our lives. Jews thrive in the refreshing waters of Torah, yet unlike fish, we will always have the opportunity to swim again. For the pasuk says, “God’s Torah is wholesome, it restores the soul” (Tehillim 19:8), we will always have the chance to right our wrongs, but the first thing we must do is get out of the pit and into the waters of Torah, our real dwelling place.