Rabbis Without Borders
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I remember vividly the horror I felt seeing my daughter sinking below the surface of a pool two summers ago. I had told her to remain on the stairs next to her brother while I swam to another part of the pool to retrieve a ball, but as I swam back with the ball, I saw that she had left her perch and was sinking. Thankfully, I reached her quickly, pulled her up to the surface, and she was fine.
Ever since that moment two summers ago I have insisted that my daughter only enter water if she is wearing her “floatie.” We constantly schlep it around during the summer, from pools to the beach, and I am able to relax with her in the water knowing that she is safe. Now that she is older, and since we have a new baby, lots of distractions, and an anticipated lengthy trip to California to visit family, I thought it was time for Gabby to learn how to swim.
The Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin 29a, enumerates a list of obligations parents have to their children. These include teaching them Torah, helping them find a suitable spouse, and preparing them for future employment. At the end of the list of obligations, Kiddushin 29a states: “And there are some who say that [parents] must also teach [their children] how to swim.” This is an odd, and oddly specific, addendum to the list of core parental responsibilities. Of all the skills to learn, why swimming? I assumed, based on my harrowing experience above, that this latter command is about the life-saving aspect of learning to swim. And this may well be true. For a people who lived near bodies of water in Talmudic times (from the Mediterranean to the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates), learning to swim could well be a life or death necessity. But, as with many mitzvot, I believe there is not only a practical dimension to the obligation to teach children to swim but also a deeper, meaning-making component. Observing my daughter, first-hand, I have come to see many ways in which learning to swim is teaching her critical life lessons.
First, learning to swim teaches that struggle within safe parameters equals growth. I know it isn’t easy for her to kick her legs and try to blow bubbles. I see her expending significant effort. Stretching out a couple feet in front of her, I see her struggle to reach me. But each time I am at the ready, hugging her as she arrives, letting her know how close by I am. And each time she succeeds, she is able to go just a little bit farther the next time.
Second, and relatedly, I have learned that complacency does not equal security. Having her repeat the same distance each time, or catching her every time her head unexpectedly goes in the water, does not help her learn to swim. It leads to stagnation, overconfidence, and, as a result, danger.
Finally, the gusto she exudes every time she says, “Daddy, let’s practice without my floatie,” has reinforced for me the excitement that experiential learning can provide. Learning to swim, for her, is not a chore but an opportunity. It generates exuberance, not boredom. It is everything education should be–knowledge, application, and fun.
As Gabby grows ever closer to swimming proficiency, I am grateful not only for the safety that her new knowledge provides, but also for the important lessons she has taught me in the process.