A Drop of Torah
This week's Torah Portion is Parshat "Bo." The text continues the story of the Ten Plagues: "And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart…. and Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and said to him: 'Thus saith the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My People Go!" Since water is only mentioned once in this week's parsha, and that is only to tell the Israelites to roast the Passover sacrifice over fire and not soak it in water (12:9), it's necessary to read a bit deeper into the text. Or at least to read differently into the text.
Now, I will show my own hand and say that I do not eat fish. In fact, I am very opposed to the industrial fishing practices that are currently pillaging the ocean. There are currently over a million fishing vessels on the high seas at any given time, removing trillions of fish, with no one to police the activities which take place there. IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) fishing is a crime that no one seems to be able to stop, and the vast majority of people are unaware of it. Illegal fishing is estimated to cause an economic loss of between 10 and 25 billion dollars annually, in addition to human rights violations and human trafficking.
In 2020, an estimated 55 million+ Americans regularly went fishing. For them, this is a relaxing activity that gets them out into nature or a bonding experience as parents go fishing with their children. Now, even though I don't eat fish, I have no quarrel with individuals who catch fish to feed their families. I have a serious problem with recreational fishing ("catch and release"). Sport fishers catch fish and then release them back into the water alive. This might seem better than catching and killing the fish, but in reality, it is a cruel practice contrary to Jewish law. There is a Mitzvah known as Tzar Ba'alei Chayim (צער בעלי חיים), which is the prohibition against causing pain to animals. The nature of Shechitah, the kosher slaughter of animals, is that it is supposed to be the quickest and least painful way to kill an animal for food (we'll leave that discussion for another time). But, the practice of fishing is inherently cruel.
Imagine a fish swimming in the water, looking for food. It sees a tasty bit and eats it, like you or I would eat a cookie, only to have the searing pain of a hook rip through its mouth. As it pulls away in pain, a sudden, vicious yank pulls it back. This is when it gets fun for the fisher because this is the "fight." But it's not a fair fight. What is a sport for the fisherman is a life or death struggle for the fish. It's not entertainment. It's terror. Fish have nerves, just like dogs and cats, and humans. They feel pain. They know fear. And the bigger the fish, the stronger the fight, the longer it takes, and the more fun for the fisherman. But the exertion, pain, stress, and terror for the fish, even if released, is often fatal. Once the fish is caught, it's taken out of the water, held up by its gills or the fishing line long enough for a photograph to be taken for posterity, and then put back in the water. All just harmless, relaxing fun… unless you're the fish.
Let My People Go
Having said all of this, and I’ve only scratched the surface, I feel like Moses standing before Pharaoh as I say to you: “Do Not Let the Fishes Go.” Catch and release is cruel and contrary to the laws of Tzar Ba’alei Chayim. If you must fish, then eat what you catch, and be cognizant that you are taking a life. Remember to be merciful and grateful. Pharaoh’s downfall was hardening his heart. Don’t be like Pharaoh. Fish are living, sentient beings that are beautiful and an essential part of the aquatic ecosystem. They deserve to be treated with compassion.
I must also say there are many other activities which can get us outdoors. If it's the water you love, buy a kayak, get a boat (or find someone else who owns a boat), put on some coral-safe sunscreen, and sit on the beach or the bank of a river or lake and let the sun and the water relax you. My personal favorite is scuba diving. If you still need to, get scuba certified and see the fish in their true beauty underwater in their world. Not on a hook or in a net, but where God put them. In the water. Let the Fishes Stay.