Monday, August 29, 2011

Fly Fishing and Compassion

Compassion is a core value in many religious traditions. Judaism teaches that everyone, no matter how poor, must give tzedakah, charity, to remember that there is always someone out there in a more difficult situation. Jews must also visit the sick, feed the hungry and perform gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness.

A day of fly fishing in Argentina this spring reminded me that compassion can occur on a stream as well. Although not in the famous fly fishing region of Patagonia, my guide Lucas and I spent a few days fishing the streams of Cordoba Province. On the third and final day, completely exhausted, I cast my black woolly bugger into a deep pool. When I tried to lift the fly, it would not budge.

For the next ten minutes it felt like trying to pull a safe through the stream. The rainbow trout that I finally held in my hands Lucas estimated to be 22 inches and 5 pounds. It was twice the size of anything I had ever caught before. I was giddy.

After the requisite pictures, I held the fish in my two hands. I paused for a moment to appreciate its beauty. I thought briefly of keeping the trout for dinner. But then I realized that this magnificent fish should live another day, and I released her back into the stream.

When you have the power to harm someone or something, and you choose not to, you have preformed an act of great compassion. I could have easily kept or killed that fish. But I realized that despite my power over the trout, I needed to be kind and let it go. Catch and release fly fishing teaches us to have compassion for those fish, and perhaps ultimately those people, over whom we have power.

Choosing not to harm others out of compassion applies well beyond the stream. Managers know that they can make their employees miserable. They can also choose to act with kindness and try to understand the employees’ perspective. In family life, we all know what to say to our spouses, siblings and parents to make them angry or to hurt their feelings. In every relationship, we have the power to harm those that we love. But we have another choice as well, to be kind. Just as I held that fish in my two hands, we hold the strings to the hearts and souls of our loved ones. We too can choose the path of compassion and kindness.

While I release the vast majority of fish that I catch, I also keep the occasional trout. As a rabbi, I have no moral objections to keeping fish for sustenance. However, the act of releasing a fish can also teach us lessons about compassion that extend far beyond the stream. The Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, is also related to the word for womb. Just as a mother cares for a child, we too are to care for others. In fly fishing, as in all of life, our task is to reach towards this high standard of compassion, to treat others with kindness and to use our power not to harm but to help.


Rabbi Sharff said...

That sounds like an awesome trip!

Newsman said...

Well said!

Alan Maki said...

Once again, you have taught us an important and valuable lesson. This time about compassion. I hope lots of people read this because our world sure could use a lot more compassion towards our fellow human beings and the way we treat the air, land, water, plants and animals and everything comprising the world we live in. I have passed this blog post on widely. Thanks.

Mary said...

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Nicholas Harp said...

Enjoyed reading your piece and thinking about it--thanks for sharing your experience.

I find myself conflicted about the thoughts on compassion. I know that physically it doesn't hurt a fish much to catch it, and I can see how the act of freeing the fish reminds us of our capacity for compassion and emancipation.

But wouldn't it be yet *more* compassionate not to bait the fish and yank it out of the water in the first place? Is emancipation truly compassion if we are the cause of the original imprisonment?

I'm not an animal rights militant and I have great respect for catch/release fishing. I just wonder how well it works, fully, as a trope for human decency. I mean this respectfully and in the interest of dialogue. Thanks for reading!

Fishing Charters said...

I am very much impressed with your post abut Compassion. I hope lots of people read this because our nature needs lot more compassion towards our fellow human beings ,plants and animals and everything comprising the world we live in.

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Unknown said...

You have inspired anyone, Rabbi. In fact I was really inspired because you teach me a lesson that we can have compassion even though we are on the streams. This is telling that everything here in this world, every God's creation must be treated well and be kind to them all. I am very much proud of you because you have spend many hours in the stream just to catch fish but you set it free because of kindness you have.

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JustFly Fishing said...

Sounds like an awesome trip, nice fish :)