Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fish Storm

I learned a new term yesterday, courtesy of CNN.com: Fish storm.

The article covered predictions for the year’s hurricane season, and the particular sentence read, Tropical Depression One then drifted over cooler ocean waters and turned out to be merely a "fish storm," one that remains at sea and poses no threat to land.

In other words, a “fish storm” is a storm that affects only the fish, not human beings.

Of course, the term is inaccurate, on multiple levels – the storm can affect boaters and fishermen, it can affect beach erosion through increased wave activity, it can affect butterflies in Tokyo, and so on. Nonetheless, I love the term, because it perfectly describes the way we manage our responsibilities toward the world.

Fish Storm is a defense mechanism, a natural reflex to protect me from the world. “It’s not my problem,” as they say.

I write off certain news stories as fish storms, and move on without reading them. Sometimes this reflex is a good thing, such as when the story is about the latest Ashton Kutcher-Twitter kerfuffle, or Filipe Fa and the World’s Biggest Loser. But other times it reflects a desire to run away from serious issues, such as when stories about North Korea, Tajikistan or Darfur come up on the page. Those aren’t fish storms; I just want to treat them that way.

The fish storm defense mechanism comes up in the rabbinate a lot. A trivial example: We hold a “Kever Avos” memorial service at the cemetery before Rosh HaShanah, and many people request that I say a Kel Malei Rachamamim (memorial prayer) at their relatives’ graves. I pass the grave of someone who doesn’t have any living relatives, or whose relatives didn’t request it. Do I say a Kel Malei? Do I then stop and say one for every person buried in the cemetery?

Similarly, think of the million-man Mi sheBeirach list, which is so long because various people in shul received names of ill people in emails years ago and have not heard any update on their conditions.

Those examples are relatively trivial, but a rabbi's overreaching OCD has no end short of burnout, and can apply in many and diverse areas – teaching innumerable classes because someone, somewhere, wants to learn; contacting every potentially needy person to make sure they are all right; reworking and reworking derashos and articles out of concern for hitting every listener/reader just right. Sometimes you need to declare Fish Storm and write it off.

We actually just came across the same idea in Daf Yomi the other day. Bava Metzia 33a talks about my obligation to help an animal which is sprawled under a heavy burden, and it places a limit on how far out of my way I need to travel to offer assistance. We need that limit, both to provide a Fish Storm limit for those who will try to save everyone, and to forestall the Fish Storm response for those who wish to save no one.

“Fish Storm,” indeed. I like it.


  1. I was once in a fish storm. It was at the fish market and suddenly fish were flying everywhere. Let me tell you, getting hit in the head with a frozen fish is not fun.

  2. Thanks for a great take on the term.

    Rule #1: אם אין אני לי, מי לי?

    In other words, make sure you are taking care of your own emotional needs first so that you can prevent burnout, preserve mental health, and continue to do all the wonderful things you do for your community.