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Shabbat Devarim – July 28, 2017/6 Av 5777

Friday Night Drash

The prophet Habakkuk states [1:14]: ותעשה אדם כדגי הים כרמש לא משל בו – Va-ta’aseh adam ki-d’gei ha-yam ke-remes lo mosheil bo – “You have made man like the fish of the sea, like creeping things without a ruler.” The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3) asks how are human beings like the fish of the sea? To which it offers three answers:

  1. Just as the fish of the sea as soon as they are lifted onto dry ground they perish, so it is with man: as soon as they separate themselves from the words of the Torah and from the mitzvot they perish.
  2. Just as the fish of the sea, as soon as the sun shines upon them, they perish, so it is with man: as soon as the sun shines upon them, they perish. [Not a statement about global warming, but about God judging the wicked with the heat of the sun.]
  3. Just as it is the way of the fish of the sea that any fish that is larger than his fellow devours his smaller fellow, so too it is with human beings: Were it not for the fear of the authorities whichever person is greater (i.e. more powerful) than his fellow would devour his fellow. And this concept is expressed by that statement which we have learned in the Mishnah (Avot 3:2): Rabbi Chanina, Deputy of the Kohanim, says: One should pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of the government a person would devour his fellow alive.

It is because of this third interpretation that we recite a prayer for our country during the Torah service and we display an American flag on our bimah.

Thus we see that a primary function of government is to protect the weaker in our society from the stronger. While accepting that the natural order is for there to be individuals with greater power than others, it also suggests that government needs to provide a corrective to those who would take undue advantage over the less powerful. It is the powerful – anyone who is in a position to take advantage of others – who need to fear the government, not the weak. It is the powerful who need to be constantly reminded that, just because they can do something that may adversely affect others, does not mean that they should. Just because a company can charge whatever they want for a product doesn’t mean that they should – if it means that weak will suffer.

It isn’t, of course, all or nothing. Governmental over-control in society can be just as damaging as under-control. But most frightening to our tradition is when we are life the fish of the sea, like creeping things without a ruler: when there is no government, there is anarchy – and then, truly, people would devour each other alive.

Shabbat shalom.