“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.” Talmud (Kiddushin 29a)
Once upon a time not so very long ago, those obligations were very real and true in the most literal sense. A parent had to ensure that their child was known in the community, had a certain level of education, learned a trade, found a spouse. That much of the Talmud’s quote makes intuitive sense.
But what about swimming? I’ve heard some people teach that this was a Talmudic shorthand for a parent’s responsibility to teach a child how to protect themselves from dangerous natural forces – more than protect, to have the skills to turn a dangerous situation (drowning) into a positive activity (swimming). In the same category would be teaching a child how to handle animals, how to read the lay of the land to know where to plant or build and how to navigate through terrain to get to their destination safely.
Today, everything this quote from Talmud teaches is still true, although sometimes in a more distilled form. We still welcome our children – boys and girls – into the community and ensure their identity is known. We still work hard to ensure they have the proper level of education. When we are lucky and skillful, we are able to help them grow into people who can create an honest, open and loving relationship with another person; when we aren’t lucky or skillful, they still seem to manage it OK, although with far more bruises than we’d like to see.
We help them see their own natural inclinations and skills and guide them to leverage those skills into a meaningful career.
But again, I’m left with “swimming”. How, in this modern-day, does the injunction for me to teach my children to swim fit in?
Of course there’s summer camp and swimming lessons – the p’shat (plain text) sense of the reading. But there’s got to be more.
I submit to you that in today’s world, the equivalent of “swimming” is “cooking”.
If, in its original form, “swimming” was representative of natural danger, then we need to teach our children to handle themselves in the kitchen to avoid the inherent dangers that food presents: eating too much, eating too little, eating the wrong things. As they move into adulthood, we want them to know that (despite what Bill Cosby says) chocolate cake is not a good breakfast choice. We want them to know that traditional cooking techniques do not include “Swanson” and “Lean Cuisine”.
More than that, we want to teach them to respect and honor the things God provides. We want them to know that they can elevate the fruit of the earth and the trees into something that is both fulfilling and joyful. You can’t do that when it comes from a box in the freezer section.
Keeping kosher adds yet another flavor to the Talmud injunction. As parents we need to teach our children how to feed themselves while maintaining the mitzvah of kashrut, even when their shopping cart contents don’t come with OU stickers.
As I write this, my family and I have been keeping kosher for about a year and a half. It’s been an incredible journey where we’ve learned a lot. But one of the unanticipated results is that all four of my kids are much more involved in preparing our food. I’m not talking about “stir this while Mommy reads the recipe”. I’m saying the 8-year-old takes things from raw ingredients to a prepared dish on the table with little supervision. My older two kids work part-time at a kosher bakery.There is an awareness of (not fixation on, but a healthy respect for) food.
I don’t think that would have happened had we not started down this path.
On Friday afternoon, as everyone is bustling around the kitchen, preparing the best they have to offer in an attempt to clothe the Shabbat table as beautifully as they will clothe themselves for synagogue, it does look a bit like synchronized swimming.
Of course, the idea of swimming – of avoiding life’s dangers – goes beyond cooking. Knowing how to manage one’s time or money both could count as swimming, as do a host of other skills some of us take for granted while others struggle with (and suffer from the lack thereof) their entire life.
So consider, for just a moment, whether you are honoring the Talmudic tradition – are you teaching the children (and by extension the adults) around you to swim? Are you yourself drowning? What can you do to rectify that?