Recently, we read on Shabbat about the laws of kashrut, and we learned of the two characteristics which render creatures of the sea Kosher. It is stated in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 11, “These shall you eat of all that are in the waters: whatever has fins and scales.”
Beyond its literal meaning, this verse is filled with symbolism. In traditional Jewish literature the Jewish people are likened to fish. For example, in the book of Genesis, we read about Jacob who blesses his children that they “proliferate like fish within the land…”
Thus, in the verse above, the Torah can be seen to be outlining two fundamental criteria which help constitute what it means to lead a “kosher” life. Scales primarily serve to protect fish from the elements, to keep their bones and bodies intact from predators and adversity. The function of fins, on the other hand, is to facilitate marine travel. They allow fish to lift, thrust, and steer themselves through water, to advance beyond their current station.
In the human condition “fins” can be interpreted as ambition since both fins and ambition serve as instruments for advance. “Scales” can be likened to integrity, to the protective ethical armor we build in order to protect our values and belief system from external threat.
Both ambition and integrity are essential ingredients for successful living. Without ambition one can become passive and complacent; without drive there is nothing to motivate us to travel beyond our comfort zone and seek to expand our horizons.
At the same time, the danger of ambition is that in the pursuit of the better life, we can come to compromise our core principles and beliefs. The desire for more and better, if left unchecked, can become all-consuming and corrupt our moral compass, leading us to try to eliminate anyone and anything that stands in our way.
The drive for growth and expansion, while crucial for self-development and self-actualization, if not married to honesty and humility, can fast deteriorate into narcissism and greed, desensitizing us to the needs and wellbeing of others.
Which is why it is so essential, in a world that often glorifies material success at all costs, that we inculcate within ourselves, our children, and communities, integrity and good character,