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Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – A Fine Kettle of Fish

Operation Inspiration


Often, when an idea strikes me for a column, I’ll jot it down in an e-mail draft and then when I have to write, I’ll go back to my list of ideas and start. But then, sometimes, things just intrude on my psyche and I simply have to write about them at that moment.

So, here I was, sitting at my computer, ready to write a column, and ‘DING’ my phone lights up. It’s a video and a news story about how scientists in Israel have taught goldfish to drive! OK, that’s not a headline you read every day, so I stop what I’m doing, and I watch. Sure enough, a researcher named Professor Ohad Ben-Shahar from Ben Gurion University was explaining that they put a fish tank on a motorized, wheeled cart, with a camera on top, aimed downward to track the fish’s movements.

As the fish moved in the tank, the motorized cart moved in the direction they were heading. They trained the fish to “drive” towards a target, in this case a pink board on one wall of a room, and when they navigated there, the little fishies were rewarded with a food pellet. I kid you not, this is a real research study, funded in Israel, where they make high-tech advances in medicine and computing and defense, and now, in goldfish. I’m not sure why this species was chosen but it was, after all, an Israeli study and maybe in the fish world that’s the equivalent of Goldberg or Goldstein.

So, by rewarding the fish with a food pellet, the fish, “after a few days, “10 days maximum” understands that it needs to find the target and drive the vehicle towards the target.” And what did they learn? According to Professor Ben-Shahar, they learned that a fish, as primitive as it may be, can be taught complex tasks and even learn to “drive” on dry land, something that is very different from what it’s used to from its typical evolutionary and behavioral processes.

Wow. I’m amazed. First of all, that someone thought of this idea. I mean, it’s essentially a Segway for fish that doesn’t require balance. They just sort of aim for where they want to go and the cart takes them there. Then, that they are given credit for driving. I mean, it’s not like they have to parallel park in Brooklyn on a Friday morning when everyone is shopping for Shabbos.

But even more surprising is that an Israeli researcher, with a Kippa on his head, thinks that this study is just about goldfish!

As I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, I’m going to turn this fish story into a human interest piece. Nothing in this world is incidental and not a lesson for us. The Chofetz Chaim famously identified things we could learn from various bits of technology, and I intend to do the same here.

While normally goldfish are given the short end of the stick and people say their memories are only 3 seconds, science has proved this isn’t true. They can remember things for weeks, months, or even years. One elegant, simple experiment to disprove this theory involved a teenager who dropped a red Lego piece into his fish tank and then dropped food around it. Though afraid of it at first, after a few days of this, his fish realized the red Lego was an indicator of the food so they began swimming to it as soon as it was dropped in.

He then stopped putting the Lego in and waited a week. When he dropped it again, the fish swam there, showing they remembered things for a week. I love experiments like that. Simple, to the point, done.

Anyway, so how do I compare the fish to people? Well, anyone who ever heard of R’ Akiva and the fox story will see this coming a nautical mile away. We are like fish who live in our protective environment of water, i.e., Torah. We nevertheless have to navigate in a world that is foreign to our habitat and we are often encouraged to leave the water in order to accomplish tasks that can only be done on dry land.

This experiment says to me that it is entirely possible to achieve what we must in the outside world without giving up our protective atmosphere. We don’t need to shed our values and blend in with the “outside world” because the Head Researcher will make sure we have vehicles to get where we need to and then He can reward us for doing so and reaching our targets.

If even a fish, as primitive as people think it is, can learn to do this, how much more so do humans, who may not be as smart as the One running the experiment, but have the ability to learn from the goldfish test, have it within them to learn to do this.

Not only that, but we learn that you are led in the direction you aim to go, and given credit by Hashem as if you did all the driving. That’s incredible.

To me, that’s the real lesson from this study, and you know what? For this invaluable knowledge, I’d say it was worth the money!

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