As we get closer to the spring season and balmy weather, many parents are thinking about enrolling their children in swimming classes. As an educator, former director of swimming programs and instructor of ages toddler through adult, I’m often asked the same question, year after year, and I’ve learned a lot about the answer. Why is swimming, seemingly a pastime or exercise, so important that the Talmud (in Kiddushin 29a) requires a parent to teach it to a child, along with Torah and a trade? What makes it a Jewish life skill?
One can easily understand the commandment to teach Torah as well as a trade; both provide structure and sustenance. In this context, swimming seems out of place. There are surely many other subjects more important than having fun in the water. Many people live inland; their exposure to danger from water is, at most, infrequent. Learning how to swim may be more necessary today than in the past, but how much more necessary? Is it so necessary that one would have to tie up resources for a prolonged period of time to learn it properly? One would need to find a water source, a teacher and the time to learn. What ties Torah, a trade and swimming together?
It must have been obvious to the sages, as sources do not discuss this question. But we’ve pointed out strong arguments against learning how to swim. So what’s going on? When we understand what goes into learning how to swim, how our mindset must change, and how our bodies must adapt to survive in the water, one can begin to understand that learning how to swim teaches us how to survive outside the water as well. Physical, emotional, social and spiritual processes occur while involved in Torah study and learning a trade. These are subjects done sitting or on your feet, and the lessons learned apply to all aspects of life. This learning, technically, is happening while one is grounded, feet fully on the ground. These are certainly easier conditions in which to handle survival-related activity than when under the stress of not having your feet on the ground.
Swimming is different. Unlike any other modality, subject or area, water (mayim is spelled the same forward and backwards – very telling in and of itself) is immutable. Water can’t be grasped. It’s touchable, but it will slip through one’s fingers. We spend nine months in the confines and comfort of the amniotic fluid filled womb. The water is not foreign to us, but we are not breathing on our own. Our sages teach us that it is in this place of total water immersion that we learn the entire Torah. Incredible! When we reengage the water for swimming purposes, we do not have our feet on the ground. We are back to the place where our minds are most open, where we learned before we were even born.
Some personalities approach this endeavor without fear, and others are terrified. Both approaches are dangerous to survival. The fearless hold their breath and aren’t afraid to be under the water, but they won’t know how to keep themselves up when they lift their heads up. They don’t understand their limits. They don’t have the skills to survive, to endure. The fearful though, are stuck, unable to put their faces in the water. They are held back by the fear of what might happen, by the unknown. The water bothers them, makes them uncomfortable. When they learn to keep their heads above water, it’s often without putting their faces in the water. When their faces get wet or splashed, they become disoriented and feel unsafe, because they don’t have the skills to endure.
At some point in the learning process, both the skills of the fearless and the skills of the fearful come together, and one becomes a better-rounded and safer swimmer. The process of learning how to meet your anxieties, build skills, develop independence and utilize the water as a tool with which to work, to become one with, gives the swimmer ownership. This accomplishment, which is achieved by overcoming fear and challenges, is different from the physical, emotional, social and spiritual processes one goes through while learning Torah and a trade. This is so because, in the water, your life really is threatened. There is an existential threat that can become fatal through bad decisions or poor skills.
When one achieves ownership, one is capable of taking these skills and applying them anywhere and while in the process, the discovery is exciting. Learning and fun exist together, creating a wonderful experience and environment. Learning Torah, learning a trade and learning swimming skills unite the processes for preparing for life and all it entails. The time and obligation to teach your child or yourself to swim, whatever your skill level, is now! Let me help you or your children on the journey of learning how to swim, and we can fulfill the obligation together