A friend of mine was telling me about his penchant for watching copious amounts of television that may or may not be G-rated. When I mentioned that it might not be such a great idea and that he’s probably exposing himself to an unhealthy degree of indecency, he answered, “Yeah, but I learn so much from it! I can’t even tell you how much certain shows have deepened my relationships, heightened my understanding of spirituality, and made me a more honest person!”

Wow—I never knew that watching TV could be so holy!

Which got me thinking, does his answer really make any sense? Let’s take his word for it that he’s not being distracted by the indecency and he really has gained something positive and even holy from his pastime—does that make it a wise choice?

If I feel that I’m able to possibly find spirituality somewhere, but it carries an inherent risk, should I go for the kill, or play it safe?

To what lengths do we go with our transformative efforts?

Let Them Eat Fish

Our parshah has a very strange conversation between G‑d and Moses. It is right after the Israelites stir up trouble in the desert and complain to Moses. They’re sick of the boring manna, and they want something different. They want real food!

Moses is confounded and turns to G‑d, “Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat!’”1 G‑d responds that He’s got it covered, and will provide so much meat, it will literally be coming out of their nostrils.

Moses isn’t finished yet. He pushes back, “Wait, there are over 600,000 people here, and you’re going to give meat to all of them?” And then Moses adds these puzzling words, “If sheep and cattle were slaughtered for them, would it suffice for them? If all the fish of the sea were gathered for them, would it suffice for them?”2

In other words, “G‑d, do you really have enough meat for them? I mean, there aren't even enough fish in the entire ocean to feed these people!”

It’s downright bizarre that Moses questions G‑d’s capabilities, but we’ll leave that for another column. I want to zero in on the fish detail. How did fish get involved? By Moses’s own recounting, the people were asking for meat, so why did he talk about giving them (or not giving them) fish?

The people wanted a steak dinner and Moses was pushing for sushi. But why?

The Land and the Sea

We’ll understand Moses’s push for sashimi by first pointing out some differences between meat and fish as explained in Kabbalah. To do so, we look to where the two respective types of creatures live—the land and the sea.

Kabbalah3 analyzes the difference between land and sea, focusing on two particular features that set them apart.

First, to the eye that beholds the sea’s surface, there is nothing other than the sea, nothing beyond a blanket of water. By contrast, a quick glance to any landmass reveals an abundance of life.

Second, much of the life that does exist in the ocean is inseparable from it, demonstrably unable to live outside of it. Take a fish out of water, and it dies. By contrast, on land, while much of life is indeed sustained by what grows from the ground, this is not a demonstrable truth like fish in water.

Land and sea are metaphors for how G‑dliness can be perceived.

The sea represents the G‑dly perspective: like the surface of the ocean that belies any other existence, so it is in G‑d’s view. There is nothing other than Him. Period. And like life in the sea, any and all entities that do exist, are simply part of His unity, completely dependent upon and subservient to Him—like a fish that cannot live out of water.

Then there’s the land, teeming with life forms that appear to be independent from their own source of vitality, the earth. This is akin to our human perspective vis-à-vis G‑d. We operate in a reality that screams, “I made myself and there is no G‑d!” We don’t live in a reality where it’s only G‑d and we have no separate entity or life of our own. We feel very much alive without Him, and it takes tremendous effort to even realize that there’s a G‑d at all.

Meat and Fish

This difference between land and sea impacts the creatures they each host. Meat is representative of something more distant from G‑d, more brute and crass.

By contrast, fish are just a bit more spiritually sensitive, not as materially base as meat.

In what context does this subtle, Kabbalistic difference between these two menu options make any difference?

Well, as a Jew, there’s actually surprising relevance. You see, in Jewish thought, the act of eating food is not just something we do to survive another day; rather it’s something that when carried out properly has much purpose and meaning. When you eat breakfast not just because you enjoy cereal, avocado toast, or oatmeal, but because you’re looking to be energized for another day of kind acts, religious service, and other such positive ventures, then the simple act of eating is elevated into something holy. Instead of being a hedonistic thing to feed the body and the flesh, it’s a sacred act that transforms and sublimates the food you eat.

And here is where the spiritual nature of the food you eat is relevant: the coarser and more material something is, the harder it is to properly transform into something holy. Of course, with proper intention you can transform (almost) anything you eat into something purposeful (provided it’s kosher), but the spiritual challenge can be greater with some foods more than others.

It is in this context that is stated that meat is “baser” than fish. In other words, it’s harder to sublimate.

(Interestingly enough, this explains why Jews traditionally eat fish before meat, as any Shabbat dinner menu testifies: first we approach the food that is spiritually easier to sublimate, and having mastered that, we move on to the harder stuff.)

Moses’s Push: Hedge Your Bets

Now we can understand why Moses pushed for the Israelites to eat fish: he was nervous that the people lacked the spiritual mettle to eat something as fleshy as meat with purpose. To hedge that spiritual risk, Moses wanted the people to receive fish instead—an easier proposition.

Ultimately, G‑d gave them meat, but there’s much to learn from Moses’s approach.

The meat and fish of which Moshe spoke are metaphors for the broad spectrum of things we interact with every day.

G‑d has tasked us with an important mission on this earth: to take everything we interact with and transform it into something holy. Whatever we eat, wear, own, or play with—it’s eminently possible to utilize it in a meaningful way that elevates a mundane, random interaction into a purposeful and divine touchdown. Raunchy television is really out of the question, but there are other, more benign matters on the spectrum of life, of course.

Given that extraordinary opportunity and power, some may be tempted to take it all the way, to tackle some pretty nasty stuff and make something holy out of it. After all, if you have the superpower of making a steak dinner into something as holy as Yom Kippur prayers, why not go all the way!

With this attitude, you can fool yourself into thinking that you’re immune to the spiritual risks lurking in certain parts of the neighborhood. “Nah, I can be friends with them, because I will be a positive influence on them, and I will make our interactions into something incredibly meaningful. I can watch this movie and cull spiritual life lessons from it without getting distracted by the indecency,” you say.

While these are noble intentions, you must be aware of the risk involved and, like Moses, hedge your bets. “Do not bring me to a test” we say in the morning prayers, and while you may be spiritually gifted with incredible transformational capabilities, sometimes, it’s best to be humble and stick with something safe.

Pass the sushi, please.4