The first time I can remember wanting a fish for a pet was when I was seven or eight years old. It was during the Purim Carnival at my Temple. The holiday of Purim celebrates how Mordechai and Esther saved the Jewish people from the evil Haman. Each year the Temple runs a Purim carnival for kids, and the game that I wanted to play again and again was the “Goldfish Toss.” There were maybe fifty small jars, all filled with water, a few of which had small goldfish within. You would stand back, toss the ping-pong ball, and if it landed in the jars with one of the goldfish, you went home with a new friend in a plastic bag.
More than once I won the Goldfish Toss, brought home the goldfish and set up the requisite bowl. However, my prized new pet never lasted more than a few weeks. That is what happens when you never clean out the goldfish bowl.
Picture: A Hama Nishiki goldfish courtsey of wikipedia.org
After a few years, my parents bought a 10 gallon aquarium, advertised as containing everything you would need to create a beautiful new home for tropical fish. Within the glass aquarium I found a Penn-Plax filter, a heater, some green fluorescent gravel, a few plastic plants and a little treasure chest whose lid would open and close as a stream of bubbles flowed out of it. I diligently followed all of the directions, de-chlorinating the water, preparing the filter, and setting up the plastic plants. My first aquarium was a complete disaster. Not a single fish that I bought lived for very long. The neon tetras, mollies and the delicate angel fish had a brief stay in my tank.
So it went for a few more tries. I would follow the directions, set up the aquarium, and my fish would swim happily for a few months. Then the inevitable mistakes and lack of cleaning would lead to the demise of those beautiful black mollies or tiger barbs. One time when I was about ten or eleven and all of my fish died, I decided that maybe the problem was that the aquarium was not clean enough. So I washed it out with bleach! Needless to say, the next set of fish was doomed from the start. Looking back, I wish that my parents would have seen what I was doing, and prevented the unnecessary carnage.
It was not until I was eighteen that I finally figured out how to keep the fish alive. It happened by sheer accident. I went through the usual routine. The aquarium looked great for a few months, and then all the fish died. I was about to clean it out and give up, when I saw something amazing. There were six very tiny baby fish that looked like tadpoles. A female blue moon platy fish had given birth. Soon those babies had more babies, and the tank was full of twenty or so blue moons, all healthy. The aquarium lasted about four years, with many generations of fish, and I took great pride in it.
As I look back on it, I am not sure why I kept trying to set up a new aquarium after each failure. It did cross my mind that it was not nice to keep killing fish. However, I loved the beauty of the tank. At night, with all of the lights off in my room except for the aquarium fluorescent bulb, I would watch the fish floating contently in the water. From a half-inch neon tetra to a large rainbow trout in a stream, fish are very serene animals. If I had a rough day at school, I could sit and watch the aquarium, and feel a sense of peace.
The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. On the Sabbath, the day of rest, we say to each other “Shabbat Shalom,” which means “May you have a day of peace.” Searching for serenity in our busy and complex world is not easy. Between the phone ringing, the constant arrival of text messages, the internet and the television, it is easy to feel distracted and stressed even when at home. A serene aquarium reminds us to take a moment to breathe and to appreciate the joys of family life.
Owning an aquarium also taught me what it means to care for another living creature. One of my Bar Mitzvah students wrote a speech about a pet lizard that his parents bought him. He said that he always forgot about the animal, and fed it very infrequently. He was not surprised that the lizard did not last very long. It was a good lesson for the young man to learn about responsibility, but I wish that the animal did not have to suffer for him to come to this understanding.
Keeping an aquarium or owning a dog or a cat is a serious undertaking. Sometimes we forget that the animal is totally dependent on us to stay alive. By keeping pets, parents have the opportunity to teach their children caring and compassion, and they also have the responsibility to make sure that the animal is not harmed.
Judaism is concerned with the welfare of animals. Tzaar baalei chaim is the Jewish value of avoiding the unnecessary pain of other living creatures. The book of Deuteronomy says that if you see your neighbor’s ox or sheep gone astray, you must return it to him, so that the animal does not suffer. Likewise, if you find a mother bird in a nest, you may not take the mother along with the eggs. Rather you must send the bird away before taking the eggs, to lessen her suffering.
It has been about five years since I last had an aquarium. Taking care of the fish was just too much work, and I always felt guilty when my mistakes caused the death of another living creature. But I do miss watching those tiny colorful tetras swimming serenely in the tank. Today I have a bird, a small green nanday conure, who is very cute, but not very quiet or peaceful. She loves to squawk and ring her bell. When I crave shalom and serenity, I go fly fishing, where I sometimes have the privilege of holding a beautiful brown trout in my hands, and then releasing him back into the river where he belongs.