By Rabbi Allison Berry
The Talmud in Kiddushin 29a teaches us: “A father has the following obligations towards his son-to circumcise him, to redeem him, if he is a firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a craft or a trade. And there are some who say that he must also teach him how to swim.”
This summer, each and every week I would reflect on this passage as I watched my two year-old son struggle at his swimming lesson. The battle of wills would begin the night before. My small boy would bravely state, “don’t like the swim lesson” as he prepared for bed. But my husband and I would stand firm. In the morning again, “no bathing suit!! No swim diaper. No water!!!” He would go kicking and screaming to the pool. Fear overtaking him, he would stand on the steps of the pool and cry, kick and scream while an over-anxious and often very frustrated adult would cajole him into the water.
Now it is the end of August. I wish the story ended differently. But my son is a toddler and he is stubborn. He has not learned how to swim. He still does not like the water. Last week, when I had begun to fear the money and time spent on swimming lessons had been wasted, I had a glimmer of hope: When he thinks no one is looking, my stubborn child dips a single, small toe in the water. I play it cool and pretend not to see him.
Of course, we must ask – why do the rabbis of the Talmud require parents to teach their children to swim? Why must I stand firm and faithfully dress my child in his bathing suit, braving his hysterics each week?
The rabbis of the Talmud see swimming as a metaphor for the wings we give our children. Much as it sometimes pains us, as much as they might need a push, the ultimate role of a parent is to teach a child how to be independent. At first, when a child learns to swim, we promise to hold tight – we will not let go! But slowly over time, we teach our children to make their own, good decisions. We can loosen our grip and lean back. We hold our breath and sometimes pretend not to notice as they take their first tentative steps. Finally, once we are sure our child is steady, we remain close by, but actually let go.
Over the next few weeks as school begins for the year, many of us who are parents will send our children off into the world. We buy the requisite school supplies, pack up lunch and wave goodbye as the bus drives away (maybe we even sigh with relief J and marvel at the quiet). These moments are always bittersweet. We are thrilled as our children conquer the challenges of a new year, but also struggle to stand to the side as they grow and stretch in new directions.
In the year to come, as parents and as human beings we will not always have all the answers. We will meet many challenges. But we can rely on the wisdom of our tradition to guide us. Who knows – maybe next summer my son will proudly (God-forbid) jump off the high diving board! Or maybe – remember I am still a nervous mom – make a small jump into my waiting arms.