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Teaching Swimming

Twice a day we recite the familiar phrase of the Shema, “You shall diligently teach them to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:7) What are we obligated to teach? The tradition provides us with specific answers. Parents must teach their children Torah and a craft. Some add, to teach them to swim too. (Kiddushin 29a)

The Talmud asks, why do parents need to ensure their children learn a craft. So that they might be self-sufficient and capable of earning a livelihood. Not to teach children a trade is akin to instructing them how to steal. And why swimming lessons? Because their lives might depend on it. (Kiddushin 30b) Swimming is a basic survival skill. Children who do not learn survival skills such as swimming and the practical skills of a craft can not succeed in any society – ancient or modern. The Talmud is very practical. Like today’s parents it wants to make children into successful, well-adjusted adults.

But the Talmud also wants to be sure these children become Jewish adults.

And this is why teaching Torah is the most important obligation a Jewish parent faces. This is also the most difficult challenge. Our culture values not Torah learning but the practical and survival skills of preparing for a career and saving lives. In fact we have allowed Torah learning to become only a practical skill. Children master Hebrew so that they might have a beautiful bar/bat-mitzvah. Learning Torah means practicing a Torah portion so that on that day the reading will be flawless and the performance masterful.

Yes, Torah is a skill but it is not a reading skill. Torah is a survival skill that also helps to shape success and happiness.

Ours is a generation that was taught only the skills of reading Torah and not an understanding of its beauty and meaning. The power of Torah is not hidden. Torah shapes moral human beings.

Now we are the parents. And we are noticeably uncomfortable and unsure of ourselves when God asks us to teach Torah to our children. If we don’t know, we can’t teach. Hillel responds: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” (Shabbat 31a)

The Talmud further advises: If parents must choose between educating their children or themselves, parents take precedence. (Kiddushin 29b) An analogy: If, in an emergency, the oxygen mask drops, first put on your mask and then your child’s. Why do airlines advise you to discount your instincts? The wisdom is simple: If you pass out from lack of oxygen, you can’t help your child. Instincts are not always right.

And so it is with Torah. Torah is a survival skill. If you don’t learn Torah your child won’t either. All the wonderful children’s programs will only work wonders if parents are there – in body and spirit – with their children.

Judaism’s magic is most felt at home. If there is no Torah at home, Torah will remain a reading skill that one masters by age 13 and then graduates from needing. Why do I need Torah, thinks the recent 13 year old, when my parents don’t?

Why do I love Torah? It is the same reason I love swimming. My parents took me swimming.