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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What I Will Pray For This Tisha B’Av

This week, the Jewish world will observe Tisha B’Av, a solemn day on which we recall catastrophes that have happened to the Jewish people throughout our history, primarily the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of our people from the Land of Israel for a period of time that lasted nearly 2,000 years. Tisha B’Av (the name means simply “the 9th of Av,” which is the current Jewish month) is one of two 24-hour fasts on the Jewish calendar (the other being Yom Kippur), and includes the reading of the mournful Biblical book of Lamentations and chanting of kinot (dirges). In our day, so far removed in history from the time of the destruction of the Temple, Tisha B’Av has become a time to focus on Jewish peoplehood and the importance of unity. Often, texts and stories about the perils of people engaging in acts of gratuitous hatred and insensitivity are the focus of our discussion on Tisha B’Av.

This year, I expect that my prayers on Tisha B’Av will be infused with concern and worry about the war going on between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. I’m imagining that my mind and my heart will be focused not on the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, but on the danger, pain and suffering that are the offspring of war. I want to share what I think I’ll be praying for when I close my eyes in Tefilah on Tisha B’Av.

The first thing I’ll pray for is that the soldiers of the Israel Defense Force can come home to Israel in safety and unscarred by battle. I’ll pray for an end to war, and for an end to the reasons that this war had to be waged. I’ll pray that the young men of the IDF no longer have to risk their lives in battle, and that the reservists who have been called up to supplement the standing forces can return to their lives unharmed. And I’ll pray about the sadness of the lives of Israel’s soldiers that were cut short, and the pain that is surely endured by their families and loved ones.

I’ll pray that all the innocent men, women and children of Gaza who have suffered at the hands of despotic leaders and who have had their hopes for peaceful, productive lives sacrificed on the altar of ideological hatred, find their lives restored and their fears calmed. And I’ll pray about the tragedy of the civilian lives that are lost each day this dreadful conflict goes on.

The next thing that I’ll pray for is that in place of chaos, conflict and violence, the world in which we live becomes a place of wholeness where everything is in its proper place. On Tisha B’Av, we speak about the world being “overturned” (Olam Hafuch in Hebrew). Where people, communities and nations should be peaceful and tolerant of one another, we have conflict marked by violence. Where Israel, a democratic and peace loving nation that seeks to defend itself against terrorism, should be admired, instead is vilified in the media and leaders and followers cheer for the terrorists to be victorious. Where the Jewish people, who have contributed so much to the advancement of human civilization and who should have the respect of the world community, are instead the targets of hatred and disdain. Where people should love and embrace one another in a spirit of co-existence and tolerance, we have instead hatred marked by the desire to destroy the other. Where people of all ages should be able to pursue their dreams, they are drawn into war and violence. Indeed, on Tisha B’Av we symbolize Olam Hafuch by not wearing Tallit and Tefilin during the morning service (the only weekday morning in the Jewish year on which we should but don’t wear them), but we do wear them at the Mincha service in the afternoon. This year, I’ll pray that the acts of violence that shake our world every minute of every day, and the violence of war that has rocked Israel these past three weeks, are no more.

In the spirit of Tisha B’Av, I’ll pray that the destruction wrought by war, the broken lives, the broken homes, the shattered dreams, be replaced by new growth, new planting, new hope and fresh promise for the future. This is the rhythm of Tisha B’Av, one that I first experienced at Camp Ramah where this mournful day is experienced in a profound and impactful way. We begin with tasting “churban” (destruction), by telling stories of loss and tragedy. The first part of the day is marked by solemn chanting of our prayers, spoken and not sung, by reciting sad dirges and reading the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) whose words and cadence and melody quietly speak to us of the awful price of hatred and violence. But as the day goes on, we begin to focus on “binyan” (building), on gaining strength and confidence and hope that our dreams and ideals can be realized. This year, I’ll pray that the destruction, the hatred, the pain and suffering, the churban in this world, be replaced by binyan, by building up and by wholeness.

This is what I’ll pray for on Tisha B’Av…perhaps it should be what I pray for every day.