A Fish Story for The Fourth

The other night I noticed something strange about one of the two “oscars” (Astronotus ocellatus) in my aquarium. I bought the fish years ago and it has grown from less than an inch in length to more than half a foot; it’s the largest inhabitant of the tank. It was just lazily swimming around as usual, but its mouth seemed to have sprouted some sort of mass.

Coming closer to the glass, I saw that it was no tumor but rather the still wagging tail of another fish, a white gourami, protruding from the oscar’s mouth. The larger fish had attempted to swallow the unfortunate gourami, only partially succeeding (at that point; eventually it had more success). My wife, whom I unwisely called over to witness the sight, was fairly appalled. I was more sanguine. It’s a fish-eat-fish world, after all. I wasn’t happy to lose the gourami, but animals do what their natures prescribe.

The timing of the event was interesting, as the third chapter of Pirkei Avos was designated for study that Shabbos, and the Fourth of July was looming.

The second mishna of that perek of Avos conveys Rabbi Chanina S’gan HaCohanim’s dictum that one should pray for the welfare of the government, since were it not for the fear it inspires in citizens, they would swallow one another alive. The Gemara (Avodah Zara, 4a) derives that idea from the prophet Chabakuk (1:14), who compares people to fish. “Just as with fish of the sea, the larger swallows the smaller,” the Gemara observes, “likewise among people, were it not for the fear of the government, the larger would swallow the smaller.” My personal experience with aquaria over many decades confirms the fish fact, that if it fits in one’s mouth, it’s food; and my observation of human beings, through history books and contemporary reports, corroborates the rest of the contention.

There are, of course, good people in the world, who have consciences—i.e., awareness of G-d—and would be good even without the threat of punishment by temporal authorities. But there are many others who see the world only through the lenses of their own desires, and whose self-serving, even sociopathic, tendencies are held in check only by the existence of prisons and execution chambers.

Which brings us, indirectly, to the Fourth of July, when the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and our country came into existence. Too many citizens see July 4 as, above all, a legal holiday, a time for summer barbecues and sales, and an opportunity to endanger life and limb with explosives.

For American Jews, at least thoughtful ones, the Fourth is an opportunity to reflect on our wondrous country. While no political entity is perfect and there has been anti-Semitism here as everywhere Jews live (and even where they don’t, astoundingly), Jew-hatred has never been part of United States policy. Debates about what the US might have done differently during the Holocaust or about its War years immigration policy aside, there can be no doubting that overt anti-Semitism has never been a characteristic of American policy or conduct, and that our country has been welcoming to Jews and has provided us the same protections as it provides all Americans, not to mention opportunity for social and economic advancement.

Many Torah observant Jews do not embrace the rituals of secular holidays. (Though barbecues are nice; loss of fingers, not so much.) But we all do well to ponder— ideally daily, but at very least on our country’s birthday—the gift to our people that is this particular way-station in golus.

Not only because it has absorbed so many members of the tribe, embraced Jews in myriad professions and fields, even as members of Congress and the Supreme Court, out of all proportion to our 2% of the population. (Approximately 8% of Congress, and three of the nine justices, are Jewish).

But also, and fundamentally, because the United States, while not perfect, is a place where the law of the aquarium has been replaced by the law of the land, where upright citizens are not oppressed, and criminals are deterred.

A place, in other words, well deserving of our prayers.


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