Ah, summer. Barbeques. Sun. Long Shabbatot, beaches and blue skies. And the kids? They’re in day camp, having a blast. They bounce from baseball to hockey, from arts and crafts to learning, to music, to dance . . . until they finally come home exhilarated and exhausted.
Of course we all know the best part of summer—no school and no homework!
But there is one critical skill that our kids have to learn, and summer is the time to learn it: they must learn to swim. It says so in the Gemara:
“A father is obligated with respect to his son… to take a wife for him, and to teach him a trade. Some say he is obligated to teach him to swim” (Kiddushin 29a).
What a list of responsibilities! How do we accomplish these for our children?
How do we teach them a trade? We send them to school, and maybe college. Check.
How do we find them a spouse? That’s a little more complex, and far beyond the scope of this article. But maybe a shadchan can help. Check.
But whom do we turn to for the swimming skill? Who is our swim shaliach? The camp lifeguard, of course—me. For the past ten years, I have been teaching kids to swim at Ruach Day Camp on Long Island, New York.
Since that is what I do for eight weeks every year, I have always been greatly interested in that bit of Gemara parenting advice. Why is swimming up there next to finding your child a spouse and teaching him a trade? Those are tasks that seem essential to life, but swimming? One of these things is not like the other.
Over the years, I’ve asked various rabbanim why swimming is included. The answer I’ve often been told is that it is a lesson in safety. The baraita is telling us that we must teach our kids survival skills.
Ok, that makes sense. I’m a lifeguard after all, and we are all about safety. Swim with a buddy; no running on the deck; wear a lifejacket when going boating. But why choose swimming when discussing the topic of safety? The Gemara should have mentioned rules for staying safe when swimming instead.
Indeed, if the baraita was really all about safety, it could have brought up so many other lessons parents should teach their kids, such as:
Don’t play with fire.
Don’t talk to strangers.
Always cut your bagel with the knife pointing away from yourself.
You get the idea.
So why swimming?
Usually, a child learns to swim when he is around four or five years old (earlier if his bubbe has a pool in Florida). At that age, a child has just figured out how the world works. If I lift this and let go, it drops. If I trip, I will fall. If I try to dunk my head in the bathtub, Ima will yell and I will sputter and choke. Four- and five-year-olds have finally arrived at the point where the laws of nature make sense.
Then they come to the pool and these crazy lifeguards tell them that they can dunk their heads and not choke, that they can lie down on the water and they won’t sink—they’ll float.
Baruch Hashem these kids have manners, so they don’t say what they think, which is, “Are you nuts, lady? The world doesn’t work like that! I’m four; I’ve been around, and I know from bath time that except for my Ivory soap, stuff sinks in water.”
So I demonstrate and cajole:
“Put your face in, I’ll give you a prize!” “Can you touch the floor of the pool with your hand?” “Kick your feet!” “Move your arms!”
But however much I show and explain and bribe, the kids do not learn a thing until they want to. There is “a moment.” With four-year-olds, you can watch it fleet across their faces. They make an internal decision to try, to conquer themselves and their fears and to, literally, take the plunge and dunk. It’s Pirkei Avot in action: “Eizehu gibor? Hacovesh et yitzro” (4:1).
And it happens over and over, as they continue to learn new skills. Diving: “You want me to jump headfirst into where?!” But they do it. You watch them transform into giborim before your very eyes.
Perhaps that is what the Gemara is trying to teach us as parents. If it was to just keep our kids safe, the best advice would be “Make sure your kids stay away from water.” But that is not the Gemara’s approach. Perhaps the major lesson the Gemara wants us to teach our kids is to overcome fear and just get in the pool. To live life, not avoid it. Because once you get past all that fear—swimming is really fun! It’s there for us to enjoy.
May we all learn from these kids and overcome that which is holding us back in our own lives, whether it’s trying to learn something new even though we fear looking ignorant, or doing chessed even if we fear failure, or reaching out to an estranged family member despite our fear of rejection. We must learn to overcome and take the plunge.
I’ll see you at the pool.
Ann D. Koffsky is an author and illustrator. For the past decade, she has also worked at Ruach Day Camp as a teaching lifeguard.
Illustration: Ann Koffsky