In “Everything in its Place,” Oliver Sacks’ final work before his passing, the world renowned neurologist and author, opens with a section called “First Loves.” His first chapter in this section is called “Water Babies” describing his lifetime passion for swimming.
As I read it, the calendar was flipping to June. I am not sure if June ever felt like it hit so quickly like it did this year, but here it is.
While each season has its own special rhythm and signposts, the pool, the lake or the ocean and our swimming has a unique place, yes, even in Halacha.
The Talmud teaches in Kiddushin, among other things, that a parent is obligated in brit milah, to teach Torah, to teach a trade and help find a mate for children. Some add that parents are also obligated to teach them to swim as well. (וי”א אף להשיטו במים)
Out of all of these skills, it seems that swimming is out of place. What makes swimming on par with all of these other critical moments in the life of Jewish parenting?
The Talmud provides what seems like a simple answer—חיותיה הוא it is necessary for his life, chiyuta hu. חיותיה הוא , according to Rabbi Steinsaltz, means that a child will not drown if they fall in the water and life will be saved if one knows how to swim.
Swimming gives children and adults חיותיה, life, in many other ways as well. There is possibly no other place where children can learn grown-up lessons and grown-ups can access their child-self more than in lakes, oceans or pools.
For children, water is a wide, often scary space where the muscles of adulthood are to be worked. In her blog about swimming and summer camp, Miriam Shwartz, writes, “I think the rabbis had a larger intent in mind when writing this (Gemara). After all, learning how to stay afloat in inhabitable, dangerous, and/or difficult conditions is what life is all about really..it indicates that we are obligated to teach our children skills that will allow them to survive independently of our help when the need arises. And I think this principle is perhaps the essential function of effective parenting.”
For children, immersion in water can be a scary moment. Teaching them that they can emerge, float and navigate in scary territory builds their resilience and confidence. As parents and educators, we must teach these skills in order for maturity to emerge and grow so children can live in the world of adulthood.
But, I would argue that chiyuta hu is also critical for us in these spaces. So often, during the dreary days of winter, we, as adults, as parents and even teachers, feel ourselves in doldrums, with the need to be invigorated and revived. Being by the water can meet this need..
Being poolside, shoreside or seaside can be a place of return to primal state. For adults, water can be a place of wonder and “ecstasy.” As Dr. Sacks writes, “There is a total engagement in the act of swimming, in each stroke and, at the same time, the mind can float free…And then there is the wonder of buoyancy, of being suspended in...a medium that supports and embraces us.” As Dr. Sacks says, in the water, “one can move one’s hands like propellers….one can become a submarine...investigating the physics of flow with one’s body.” In the water, we access a child, bathtime-like awe rarely felt in our lives as adults.
We are told by the prophet Malakhi that in Messianic times Elijah will come and link the generations, as he states “He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malakhi 3:23)
וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם
Few places fill this prophecy on earth like the beach, the lake or the pool. Maybe that is why so many family photos are filled with pictures of families by the water. It is because that is one of the singular spaces where children love to feel like grown-ups and grown-ups love to feel like children.
So this summer, when we enjoy time with our families in water, take that snapshot and store it in our memories throughout the year, for the water is one of those unique spaces where generations touch and access a little slice of heaven on earth.
By Rabbi Aaron Frank
Rabbi Aaron Frank is the head of school at Kinneret Day School.