By Yochanan Gordon
Summer is here! After all we have been through with Hurricane Sandy and other wild weather events that wreaked havoc, shifting our equilibrium and testing our resolve, it sure is relieving to be able to shed the extraneous layers and walk freely in the warm summer sun.
I don’t know what it is, but despite many efforts on my parents’ part, I never had the drive to learn how to swim. I must say that as a young child I did swim. It seems funny, but I seemingly could only swim underwater. So at a certain point after I joined sleepaway camp, where swimming is a part of the daily routine, my parents hired an instructor to teach me the techniques of swimming. I don’t know if it was the instructor or me, but no matter how hard I tried I could not get myself into it.
As it is with everything in life, we tend to grow content with our routines and not worry too much about the things that we missed out on, regardless of how important they may be. So today, while I still slush around the shallow section of the pool, I’m doing whatever I can to see to it that my children follow my wife on this one and develop an excitement for swimming, because it is a healthy and rewarding exercise.
But this article is not really just about swimming. The Gemara in Kiddushin (daf 29a) tells us about the mitzvos that a father is obligated to perform with regard to his children. The Gemara states, “A father’s obligations vis-à-vis his son is to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a firstborn, to teach him Torah, to take a wife for him, and to teach him a craft. Some say he is even obligated to teach him to swim in water. Rebbe Yehuda says, ‘Anyone who does not teach his son a craft has taught him the practice of banditry.’” The Gemara subsequently asks, “Has he taught him banditry? Rather it is as if he taught him banditry.” Rashi explains that with no other recourse to provide for his needs, this child will have to resort to unethical conduct to support himself and his family.
Its literal interpretation notwithstanding, I’d like to suggest that when the Gemara states that some say a father is obligated to teach his son how to swim, it means more than just the literal exercise of swimming. The need to develop another explanation is that it really doesn’t fit well into the context. The Gemara listed a number of mitzvos unrelated to a father’s obligation to help secure his child’s future where it could have inserted the “yesh omrim” as well. Perhaps in addition to telling us that a father is obligated to teach his son a craft, the Gemara is telling us something else along these lines. As further support for developing an alternative interpretation, immediately following this the Gemara mentions the detail about the uneducated child being taught banditry and then concludes “it is as if he taught him banditry,” since the child will have no other means of providing for his family—wedging the father’s obligation to teach his child to swim between his obligation to teach him a craft and the result of his negligence in not doing so.
To thrive as a Jew in this world requires that in addition to achieving the skill and wherewithal to be successful in life, we need to constantly work on ourselves, strengthening our Jewish resolve in a world that steers us in a very different direction. Building business, amassing fabulous wealth, and achieving repute are just one part of the equation. Our goal in all of this should be to refine the mundane world and sanctify G‑d’s name through our actions.
This two-tier process exists with regard to Torah as well. Learning Torah and amassing knowledge throughout Torah is just one element, whereas internalizing and applying its messages in life is the second half of the whole. The Gemara in Ta’anis states, “Gadol shimusha shel Torah yoser m’limudah.” As important as learning Torah is, it doesn’t compare to the benefit that we gain as a result of closely observing the way our leaders conduct their lives in general, particularly through difficult situations and trying to implement their way of living into our lives.
I’d like to suggest that this applies as well in the area of being taught a craft. More than the importance of learning the skills of trade is acquiring a path in life with which to navigate the vicissitudes of the world of commerce and business from the perspective of the Torah. The currents of anxiety that have become part and parcel of our daily endeavors to earn a livelihood demand a certain vigilance to always view issues from a Torah perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the spur of the moment, focusing on what needs to be done now instead of what is expected of us in the bigger picture.
In the philosophy of chassidus, the Mabul which we read about in Parashas Noach is represented nowadays by the daily grind of having to eke out a living, pay the bills, and make sure everyone in our immediate company is comfortable. But accepting this challenge is not, G‑d forbid, futile. The Alter Rebbe, in his ma’amar titled “Mayim Rabbim,” writes that Kabbalistically the root of these daily pressures originate in the world of Tohu, whereas our spiritual selves originate in the world of Tikkun. What results is that our ability to overcome the daily pressures, anxieties, and fluctuations of success and failure allow us ultimately to become elevated to a higher level than we experienced even on the day we were born into this world.
We see this from the verse which reads, “The waters increased and raised the teivah so that it was lifted above the earth.” The teivah is the ark that G‑d had commanded Noach to build, which he did for 120 years leading up to the Deluge. The verse is telling us that these raging waters are not meant to defeat us, but rather to elevate us and bring us closer to fulfilling the purpose for which we were put into this world.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the word “teivah” is interpreted to mean “word.” Furthermore, he writes that the only way to protect ourselves from the raging waters of life is to enter the words of Torah and tefillah. It emerges then that the mitzvos ha’ben al ha’av to teach Torah, a trade, and to swim are all part and parcel of the same mitzvah of instilling within us the resilience to remain focused and committed Jews in a fast-paced world.
Swim away! v
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