Of Porgies, Flounder, and the Whale
It was a magical summer, the kind that many of us experienced when we were very young and remember fondly for the rest of our lives. I spent that summer, as I did most of my childhood summers, with my family in the Rockaways, a beach resort in the outer borough of Queens, in New York City.
It was a full year before my bar mitzvah, so I was spared the burden of preparing for that milestone. Instead, I spent the summer fishing in the company of my friend, Milton.
Let me tell you a bit about Milton, and let me tell you about the kind of fishing we did. Milton was about a year older than I, and whereas my parents were strictly Orthodox and sent me to a Jewish day school, Milton's parents were not observant at all, and he attended a public school. Nevertheless, we had a bond during those preteen years that transcended our different religious backgrounds.
As I recall, we went fishing every single day of that summer, with the exception of Saturdays, when Milton, out of respect for my religious scruples, found other ways of entertaining himself.
We set off every morning for the Cross Bay Bridge, which traversed a section of the Jamaica Bay. We waded into the shallow water and easily trapped several dozen little fish which we called "killies" and which served as our bait. Instead of fishing rods, we had a "drop line," using a spool of wire to which we attached fishhooks and lowered from the bridge into the water.
Our catch usually consisted of several fish known as porgies, which were very bony and which my mother insisted were not kosher. Occasionally, on our lucky days, we caught a flounder or two, which we proudly brought home for dinner.
We spent most of the time talking philosophy in a very speculative, but very self-certain manner typical of boys our age. Because of our very different religious backgrounds, we argued a lot about religion and were preoccupied by questions about God, the meaning of life, and how to know right from wrong.
As the years since that summer turned into decades, I lost track of my childhood friend, and I totally forgot the specifics of those discussions. I did remember that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fell very early that year, so that my family stayed in the Rockaways for the High Holidays. And I vaguely recalled that just before that Yom Kippur, I told Milton the story of Jonah, who, like both of us, knew a thing or two about a fish – and about a much bigger fish than our porgies and flounder.
This year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, so we do not read from the regular cycle of Torah portions. Instead, we sample scattered passages in Leviticus and Isaiah, but in the Mincha service we read the entire book of Jonah. I must confess that over the many times I read the Jonah story, I never again connected it to that distant discussion with Milton.
That is, not until I met Milton again, several years ago. Almost fifty years had transpired since we last met as boys. I was a guest lecturer at a synagogue outside of Baltimore. Afterwards, a member of the audience approached me and asked if I was the Heshy Weinreb he knew back in the Rockaways. Milton and I were reunited.
After that evening we met several times to review the divergent paths our lives have taken. There was one major difference. I hardly recalled that discussion about Jonah, but for Milton the story of Jonah was what kept him connected to the Jewish tradition.
Quoting Milton to the best of my ability, this is what he said:
"I learned that day that just as the porgies and flounder in Jamaica Bay had their destiny, some to swim freely for the rest of their existence and others to be food in the frying pan, so do we all have our destinies.
"I learned too, that God singles each of us out for a very special individualized mission. That mission may be a major prophetic one, as was Jonah's, or it may be much less significant. But we each have our calling, our vocation.
"I learned, and in my case, I learned it the hard way, that try as one might, one cannot escape his mission. Jonah tried to flee to the sea to avoid what he was meant to do. I have tried other ways but always found my way back, not in the belly of the great fish, but remembering our amateur philosophizing while trying to catch little fish.
"I learned too, and this has been the most helpful lesson of all, that the Almighty has mercy upon all His creatures. He cares for all mankind, and sends His Jewish prophets to the aid of even their Gentile enemies. He even cares for the kikayon, the strange plant under which Jonah found shade and shelter.
"And finally, I learned that God not only wants us to change, but expects us to change, and helps us change. "Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than a hundred and 20,000 persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left..." (Jonah 4:11) may have been doomed for its sins. But they could improve their behavior, and they did, and they earned God's own mercy."
The lesson's Milton learned are there for all of us to learn as we read the book of Jonah this Shabbat.
As for me, I learned another lesson as well. It is a lesson I learned time and again over the course of my various careers. Sincere words never miss their mark. Teachings conveyed from the heart are heard much more frequently than we can imagine. In the words of Kohelet, the biblical book which we will read in the synagogue during Sukkot:
"Cast thy bread upon the waters, for after many years you will find it." (Kohelet 11:1)