Go Fish

Parshat Chukat
July 13, 2019 / 10 Tammuz 5779

When I was still swiping for dates, I had a strict no-fisherman policy. Any time I saw someone posed with a large, freshly caught fish, I swiped no. No matter how cute they were, no matter how smart or Jewishly engaged, I was convinced there was no way I would ever fall in love with someone who liked to torture small, scaly animals for sport.

And then there was Solomon. We met, and I liked him so much that when I saw those self-same fishing pictures on his profile, I decided to give him a chance. Solomon loves to fish. Deeply loves to fish. Whenever we go hiking, he pauses at every river and stream to look for fish. He points out places on the shore that you could stand and insists on telling me strategies for how to catch fish. Whenever he can take a day away, he looks like a schoolboy, bouncing for joy, excited to go on a fishing expedition with his dad and brothers. Over the course of our relationship, he has quietly and continuously begged me to try fishing with him. And even though I regularly eat fish—and have no illusions about how that fish ends up on my plate—for some time I insisted that fishing was not for me.

But love does strange things to people. After months of discussion, and after I convinced myself with the flawless logic that since my cat played with her food, it would be ok for me to try just once, I found myself stepping onto a fishing boat with Solomon last week.

It was quite the scene. A party boat peppered with rods and lines and tubs of little fishes strewn about the deck. There were fishing experts. The kinds of people that arrive in their khaki zip-off shorts with caps decorated in fishing lures, no-nonsense expressions, and fully stocked tackle boxes. There were families with kids, parents admonishing them to not lose their shoes overboard and to be careful around the sharp hooks. There were young men, tatted and strutting around with beer, bragging about how they were going to win the pot for the largest fish. And then there was me.

I clung to the boat, discovering the unpleasant echoes of seasickness as we pushed off the dock, but once my Dramamine kicked in, I was in for a surprise. Fishing was actually quite fun.

I liked being on the water, with the salt spraying in my hair and the sun playing down on my skin. I enjoyed watching the other people, especially the boat staff who managed rods and reels and fish with such expertise. And, though I should confess that I spent more time feeding the fish than I did catching any fish, I found that I loved the experience of holding a rod, looking out at the watery horizon, and focusing intently on the sensation of that long pole in my fingers. I loved waiting to feel the thrum of a fish nibbling below and trying to synchronize my movements with that fish so that I could bring it to the surface.

Before this trip, I thought fishing was just putting bait on a string and waiting for a fish to bite. I didn’t realize that fishing requires skill and technique. Fishing is all about responding to something you can’t see, something you can only imagine. To fish is to gather information with your fingertips and to respond to touch. I was hooked. I begged Solomon to take me back, and we went fishing twice more over the course of the week. I caught dinner. Now I’m counting down the days until we can go back.

What happened here? As I reflected on this strange turn of events, I realized that part of what hooked me was the sheer novelty of it. Most days I live in suspended animation, engaging my mind and my heart, but leaving my body almost entirely out of the equation. I spend my working hours swiping on my phone, moving my wireless mouse around my desk and typing away at my keyboard. I rarely think about the sensation of my fingers touching the screen, or about what each surface feels like.

Fishing was so different. It was hours of breathing and touching and feeling and focus. Like yoga, but without having to stretch. And, as I come back to this world, I’m realizing how much I crave that kind of physical connection.

Our world has shifted from being super engaged in the physicality of every process, to being activity adjacent. It used to be our ancestors grew their own food and hunted their own game. Then, people scavenged for food in the grocery store. Now, with Instacart and Amazon Now, we don’t even go to the store. We just swipe and click and wait for the groceries to arrive at our door.

It used to be our ancestors would weave fabric by hand, sew clothing, attuned to the feel of the fibers on their skin. Then, people would bargain hunt in the mall. Now, we swipe for clothes. We swipe for dates. We swipe for news, no more folding the paper expertly around an article.

Today, everything feels the same. Everything is a swipe. Texting is the same sensation as emailing as reading the newspaper and scrolling through Facebook. Our senses are deadened by the monotonous touch of screens. More and more, our bodies are suspended, curled around a screen, cushioned from contact with the world.

This is true for our lives in general, and this is true for our Judaism too. Once upon a time, when our ancestors were first building their relationship with God, their first action was to build a sanctuary of touch. The Mishkan was filled with rich fabrics, woven together to create a beautiful effect. There were altars and metal adornments. There were sacrifices, smells, heavy lifting, and the smoke of atonement received. Judaism used to be a physical encounter. A physical encounter that connected us to an idea and to a God we couldn’t see. Jewish practice was like fishing in heaven.

But now, our Judaism is muzzled by the frantic pace of our world, quieted by technology. These days, we say we are Jewish by cultural affiliation, by food, by humor. Our Jewish practice often involves sitting and reading words. When was the last time we dug our heels in and braced ourselves against the weight of tradition? When was the last time we got our whole beings engaged in spiritual practice?

For too long we’ve left our bodies behind. It’s time to re-engage. Time to go fishing.

This week, I want to challenge you. Pick something new, something out of the ordinary that takes you offline and back into the world. Put your phone away, and stow your screens, and dive in with your whole being. Go fishing for the present moment. Who knows what magic you’ll find?

Last week, after 12 solid hours of fishing, I had caught exactly one small fish. It wasn’t even big enough to filet. According to our expert fishing guides, it wasn’t a particularly tasty fish either. I believe their exact words were something along the lines of “good luck.”

That night, Solomon and I roasted that little fish on a skewer over the fire. It was a precarious set up—we had balanced the fish on a skewer designed to roast marshmallows and several times we almost lost the fish to the fire. But we managed somehow and successfully leveraged that little fish onto a plate. It was delicious. It had this yummy light flavor, perfect texture, and just the right hint of salt and spices. We both ate the whole fish standing in a matter of seconds.

We have a friend who likes to say, “it’s called fishing, not catching and for a reason.”  Let’s not allow the world to convince us that life is about the catch. Let’s go fishing.