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!

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