The Torah in Parashat Vayechi tells of Yaakov’s famous blessing to Yosef’s two sons, which concludes with the wish, “ve-yidgu la-rov be-kerev ha-aretz” – “They shall multiply like fish in the midst of the land” (48:16). The plain meaning of the verse is that Yosef’s sons should reproduce “in the midst of the land” like fish do in the water. As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains, Yaakov wished his grandsons that they should be fruitful “like fish in water, in the midst of human beings on earth.”
Others, however, suggested an alternate reading, explaining that Yaakov in fact referred to fish living “in the midst of the land,” out of the water, outside their natural habitat. Yaakov extended this blessed to his grandchildren in Egypt, as his family was in the early stages of what would be a long, harsh period of exile away from their homeland. They would be enslaved by and submerged in a foreign nation and foreign culture with values and a lifestyle drastically different from their own. Yaakov here was blessing his children that they flourish and prosper despite being “like fish in the midst of the land,” in a place that is not naturally suited for their success and growth.
The message of Yaakov’s timeless blessing, then, is that we must endeavor to adhere to our traditions and values even “in the midst of the land,” even in situations and circumstances that make such adherence difficult. Like a fish brought out of the water to dry land, we occasionally find ourselves in a situation or an environment that make our spiritual survival, let alone success, seem almost impossible. Foreseeing these formidable challenges that his descendants would so often confront over the course of their long history, Yaakov blessed us that we should always have the strength, courage and resolve we need to spiritually survive and flourish in or out of the water, both when circumstances are favorable for religious growth and achievement, and when they pose immense religious challenges.
(Based on an article by Sivan Rahav-Meir)