Do You Know How to Swim?

Camp Ramah is a wonderful place, where Jewish values, texts and teachings come alive and are part of the daily experience of every member of the camp community. At Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, the main building at the swimming pool features hand painted artwork that includes a passage from the Babylonian Talmud enumerating the obligations that a father has toward his son:

“A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.” (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 29a)

Contemporary Jews have interpreted this passage as teaching what obligations parents have toward their children—to instill a sense of religious identity, to strengthen family connections and to encourage work that is productive and fulfilling. The artwork at the breicha (pool) at Ramah, of course, highlights that the Talmud considers it a mitzvah to teach a child how to swim. But I’ve often wondered why the Rabbinic Sages chose teaching a child how to swim as an example of good parenting.

Perhaps the answer lies in this week’s Torah portion – Beshalach – in which the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery continues with the Israelites being pursued by the Egyptians while their backs are up against the Red Sea. His people facing annihilation, God splits the sea, enabling the Israelites to trek across to the other side, and making the water come crashing down on the Egyptian army, drowning them and ending the threat for good. A Talmudic passage embellishes the Torah story by saying that the sea did not split until a man named Nachshon ben Aminadav waded into the water up to his nostrils. Apparently the Israelites, unable to believe that God would deliver them from danger, were reluctant to enter the sea. Only when Nachshon, acting on faith, took the plunge into the water and went in all the way up to his nose, did the sea split. His demonstration of faith both reassured God and inspired the Israelites to follow him.

The tale of Nachshon’s bravery teaches us two things. First, we should all try to cultivate the ability to believe in things that cannot be objectively described or proven. We live in a world that has been overcome by science and technology. Our growing mastery of the world has yielded many benefits and blessings, but it must be balanced by an awareness that some things in our world happen not because of human cleverness or ingenuity but because of a higher power that creates and sustains life. That awareness, the capacity to believe in something that cannot be proven scientifically, is otherwise called faith. Faith, like love and compassion, inspires and encourages us to do things for reasons that defy objective explanation. I’m not suggesting that faith should lead us to jump into the ocean if we know we can’t swim. But the Biblical character Nachshon’s example reminds us that sometimes we ought to act on faith and not only because we have objective reasons to do something.

The second thing we learn from the tale of Nachshon’s bravery is that every community, every generation, needs its leaders and example setters. Had this man not set an example for his people to follow, there would have been no crossing of the Red Sea and the story of the Israelites would not have continued beyond that point. Again, I’m not suggesting that leadership requires doing something irresponsible or dangerous. Rather, the anecdote about Nachshon simply reminds us that someone has to take the lead and inspire others to act.

Perhaps the Talmudic sages, when they wrote that a good parent teaches his child how to swim, were really saying that a good parent should inspire his children to be like Nachshon, a person who went for a swim in the Red Sea when it really counted, a person who was able to cultivate faith, and someone who was inspired to step into the role of leader when the situation called for it. Good advice, I think, to this day.

Note: This Dvar Torah is inspired by an Oheb Shalom member who is a thoughtful and engaged student of Torah…thank you!

Can You See Me?

In a couple of weeks I will have the opportunity to travel to Vienna with Amy and two of my sons for a week-long visit. We chose Vienna for a variety of reasons after strongly considering Amsterdam, where we could have visited with Peter Drucker and Suzanne Vine, former Oheb members who now live there. But while both Peter and I would have enjoyed seeing each other, he discouraged me from coming in the winter because the days are so short. Apparently, at this time of the year it’s still dark outside well past the time that the sun would have already risen here in the New York area, and it sets in the sky earlier than it does here as well.

If you live in a region where the days are short and the nights are long, you probably get used to the absence of natural light. Perhaps that’s what the Egyptians felt when they experienced the ninth plague- darkness. We read in this week’s parasha:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)

Commentators have written about the nature of the darkness that descended on Egypt. Some understood it not as ordinary darkness, which is merely the absence of light, but as a phenomenon in and of itself. Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) said that the plague of darkness wrote that “the darkness which came over the land of Egypt was a phenomenon in its own right, so real that it could be felt and could not be dispelled by light.”

Other commentaries understood the darkness that fell on Egypt not as a physical phenomenon but as a spiritual one. The darkness was indicative of a callousness and indifference that set in between people. Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (1897-1943, Poland) wrote:

The greatest darkness is when a person does not see his fellow and does not participate in the distress of others. People could not see one another – they did not feel the other’s distress. Their senses were dulled — no one could get up from where he was. This is what the Sages meant when they stated in Shemot Rabbah that “the darkness was as thick as a golden denar.” Running after the golden denar increases one’s egocentrism, dulls his eyes, and makes it difficult for him to feel the distress of others.

Friedman quotes the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah) in suggesting that such callousness was fueled by greed and a frantic chase after money. The phrase “golden denar” implies earning money not merely for one’s needs or to be comfortable, but to chase after amounts of money far in excess of what one needs (like $1.5 billion dollars!). That was the darkness that fell on Egypt—an indifference to the essential humanity of the other and seeing the people around us as obstacles to achieving our own goals.

The story of the plague of darkness reminds us to be vigilant about seeing and valuing the humanity in the people around us. Whether it’s a matter of racial diversity, sexual preference, differences in religious belief and practice, or differences in political philosophy, all issues that have afflicted society especially in the year gone by, we can’t afford to allow darkness overtake us, making us blind to the basic humanity that unites us. When that happens, we truly have a plague on our hands.

You Don’t Have to Take It

The worst thing about gun violence in America is, of course, the tragedy and pain of senseless killing. Who among us can truly empathize with someone who has lost a loved one to a killer brandishing an assault rifle? Who can truly feel their pain or their sadness? I admire and marvel at the courage of Mark Barden, who lost his 7-year old son Daniel in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago, for speaking about his loss and then introducing President Obama at a press conference. Somehow he was able to translate his pain into an activist message, but I suspect that most others who have experienced such searing tragedy do not find that possible.

Perhaps the second worst thing about gun violence in America is that we’re getting used to it. We’re not even surprised or shocked any longer when we hear of a mass shooting somewhere in the country. Even the Torah, in this week’s parasha, hints that one of the tolls taken by such grim experiences in life is that we grow accustomed to them. In Exodus 6:6, God reiterates to Moses His promise to end the enslavement and degradation of the people of Israel: “Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you…” The Hebrew phrase that translates as “the burdens of the Egyptians” is Sivlot Mitzrayim. A Chasidic commentary points out that the word Sivlot comes from the word “tolerate” (in modern Hebrew, Savlanut means patience). The effect of the enslavement on the people of Israel was not only physical; they had gotten used to the burdens placed on them and had learned to tolerate them. The physical torment of slavery was made worse because they had grown numb to their pain. As a nation, have we come to tolerate such tragic and senseless taking of life? Has apathy set in to our national consciousness, a feeling that nothing can be done to keep us safe?

Every generation must have its activists, its inspired and courageous individuals who do not see the burden of violence as something to be tolerated. Moses, Aaron and the Elders of Israel were the activists for our people ages ago, coming along to remind us to shake off the feeling of resignation as a prerequisite to claiming freedom. In our day, there are numerous organizations that are devoted to resisting the gun culture in our country and to opposing powerful gun lobbyists. The message of such organizations to us is that gun violence need not be a burden that is tolerated and that we need not sacrifice our safety or that of our children.

Moms Demand Action is one such organization. Our Social Action Committee has partnered with MDA to present two outstanding programs this year on gun violence prevention. A third will take place at Oheb Shalom in the coming week, on January 14 at 7:00 PM (next Thursday night). MDA will present its Be Smart Campaign, designed to educate parents and grandparents about gun safety and empower adults to ask the necessary questions about the presence of firearms in a place where we expect our children to be safe. Avoiding gun violence, including the unintentional firing of a weapon, cannot be taken for granted, yet it’s likely that most people feel awkward about asking whether or not guns are present where our children or grandchildren will be, or simply don’t think to ask. The Be Smart Campaign includes a video and a moderated discussion, and is appropriate for parents or grandparents who care for young children. I encourage you to attend this important event on Thursday night, because gun violence is not something we must accept.