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Vaetchanan and Swimming Torah

This week we find the words of the V’Ahavta in the week’s portion. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions which I charge you this day... (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Two words found in the V’Ahavta summarize life’s most important work: v’shinantam l’vanecha—and you shall teach them to your children. On the surface the meaning of this verse seems obvious. Parents are obligated to teach their children everything. The Talmud explores the specifics. Parents must teach their children Torah. Okay we expected that answer from the great repository of Jewish wisdom. The Talmud continues: parents are required to teach their children a craft. Why? Rabbi Judah responds: Those who do not teach them a craft teach them thievery. And some say: to teach them to swim too. Why swimming? It is because their lives may depend on it. (Kiddushin 29b)

I love that ancient rabbinic statement—and not just because I am an avid swimmer. It is instead because it encapsulates much of what I believe our tradition is supposed to represent. Judaism sees Torah not only as the imparting of values but also of providing our children with practical skills (craft) and even with survival skills (swimming). To raise up our children into independent adults they must be able to discern right from wrong on their own. They must be able to fend for themselves, facing challenges—again on their own. They must be able to survive without us—yet again, on their own.

Sure you can swim with friends but no one, not even parents, can do the swimming for you.

The teaching of values, the imparting of traditions can continue between parents and children well into adulthood but children must carve out their own path and make their own way. They must meander through life’s struggles on their own. Today it sometimes appears otherwise. Nonetheless I continue to believe that despite technological innovations, a parent might not be, and perhaps should not be, a phone call (or text) away. Let go. Let them swim into uncharted waters. Trust in your teachings. Take faith in your Torah.

Curiously the Torah uses shinantam for teach rather than the more common m’lamed. This particular word derives its meaning from the Hebrew, to repeat. Why would the Torah use the word, repeat? My repeated admonitions to my children are more often than not my worst parenting moments. “Do your homework. Clean your room. Call your grandparents.” These exhortations are greeted with nonchalance and more often than not go unheeded. I am the only one who hears my repeated words. “Don’t swim so far from shore!”

Then what could the Torah intend? If repetition is the worst teaching method then what could this unusual word choice mean? An insight must be hidden in the verse’s words. The best lessons are those that our children see us do repeatedly. Those actions that they see us do are the best Torah we can offer our children. This is what will prove most lasting.

This is what the Torah portion means by its words, “Repeat them to your children.” The best teaching is what our children see us do, over and over again. If you want your children to be generous, give tzedakah. If you want your children to be learned, then let them see you read and even take classes. If you want your children to be committed to their health then let them see you exercise. If you want them to find Judaism meaningful then bring Judaism into your own lives.

Over and over, again and again, this is what our children must see us do. They discern what is most important by observing what we do over and over, again and again.

So let them see you swim.  And get them swimming on their own.

Take this to heart. Our children are supposed to swim farther and faster than we ever could have managed, and than we ever could have imagined.