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In Sharks We Trust

A Torah portion of difficult choices

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A whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium. (Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the religious holidays, Jewish and otherwise, of all the civil observances and national commemorations and personal anniversaries, one annual celebration, I firmly believe, stands alone: Shark Week.

For those unfamiliar with the immensely popular televised tradition—a breed, I’m sure, more hard to find these days than the megamouth shark, only 41 of which were ever spotted—Shark Week is an annual weeklong affair during which the Discovery Channel abandons any educational pretenses it might have once had and instead devotes its entire lineup to, well, you’ve probably guessed it by now.

And so, while Hanukkah has its gifts and Thanksgiving its roasted bird, Shark Week brings with it splashy oceanic thrillers with titles like “Sharkbite Summer,” “Great White Appetite,” and “Shark After Dark.” It’s as impossible to resist as a peckish hammerhead with a craving for calves.

Last week, then, I joined millions of other likeminded Sharkies to watch the festival of fins. Between diving cages and bloodied waters, a sliver of an epiphany struck: sharks, I realized, sharks are what it’s all about.

I mean it in the most literal sense. Consider this: put sharks on television, and millions will tune in. In 2007, the Shark Week premiere drew 3.9 million viewers; a year later, 4.2 million; this year’s numbers are expected to be even bigger. Then there’s Jaws, Open Water, Deep Blue Sea and a plethora of other movies featuring the alabaster omnivores. Given their cultural ubiquity, one would think that humanity is forever being threatened by these hungry monsters, chomped to bits in alarming rates.

Nothing could be further from the truth: according to the International Shark Attack File, the fastidious record-keepers of bites and nibbles, only 59 attacks were documented last year. Of those, 19 were a result of direct provocation—i.e., a human being not sufficiently evolved to realize that sharks were best left untouched. Two attacks happened in the aftermath of an air/sea disaster, meaning people were literally falling from the sky, like the manna of yore, into the sharks’ happy palates. In 11 of the cases, the sharks were biting ships, not people, and in two more the victims were deceased long before eaten. Seven incidents were eventually classified as non-attacks and dismissed, and in 18 cases there had been insufficient information to ascertain any sharkly guilt. The math is evocative: unprovoked, sharks only attack people very, very, very rarely.

And yet we’re terrified of them, and we entertain ourselves by imagining what it must be like to be mauled. To understand this peculiar phenomenon, we need a crafty commentator.

Like Moses. Although he’s famous for his dalliances in the desert and couldn’t help but part the only large body of water he ever came across, Moses would have most likely understood the logic behind Shark Week all too well.

Here he is, in this week’s parasha, being all cryptic. “Behold,” he tells the Israelites, “I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know.”

At first glance, this appears to be a morsel of empty rhetoric. Isn’t Moses just saying that the Israelites will be blessed if they obey God and cursed if they don’t? Hadn’t he been saying more or less the same thing for 40 hot years? Isn’t it a bit redundant by now?

The answer, of course, is no. Because, this time around, Moses is deliberately vague. Piety equals blessings, wickedness shall be cursed. This is a vision that stresses not the punishments and the rewards, but the choice. Morality, Moses suggests in this short and powerful passage, should never be about playing hide-and-seek with the Supreme Being. It should be about weighing the consequences and exercising free will.

It’s a lesson we humans never seem to learn. Walking in the desert, the Israelites looked up to a vengeful and punishing God, a deity that emerged from the heavens to dispense justice and wrath. Sitting on the couch, Americans stare at slick and menacing sharks, beasts that emerge from the depths to spread terror and fear. Both peoples are seeing the same thing: a terrible, otherworldly creature that can do with men as he pleases, a towering thing that lives outside of the boundaries of ordinary existence, haunting and imperious and impossible to control.

It’s a mighty comforting thought. Sharks, like God, are a stand-in for everything we don’t understand, all that we are deeply afraid of, that which we wish never, ever to encounter. The original trailer to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws makes this point exactly: “It will attack and devour anything,” a grave, deep voice says as the camera cuts through the water. “It is as if God created the devil and gave him … jaws!”

Strange as it may sound, it’s a devil we need. Without believing in God and sharks, all we have to go by as we try navigate our environment are our own fragile and flawed selves, our own senses of responsibility and decency, our own minds and hearts and souls. And that’s one truly terrifying concept.

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In Sharks We Trust

A Torah portion of difficult choices

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