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.