Swimming and Flames by Gevura Davis
Many of us mothers look toward summer with mixed feelings. While we are thrilled to not have to deal with wake-up times, rushing to the bus, lunch, snacks, homework, teachers and always having clean and matching socks (it’s not just me who struggles with this, right?), it also means many more hours of the day that need to be filled, more potential for fights, boredom and sticky Slurpee to clean out of the car. (Stay strong, Mamas. The days are long, but the years are short.)
Personally, my favorite part of summer is swimming (just not the wet bathing suits and towel escapades). As a 15-year swim team veteran, including varsity letters in high school and year-long competitive team in elementary school, I thought for sure teaching my kids to swim would be a piece of cake. But, I was wrong. Very wrong. I thought that my ease and love of the sport would mean they would pick it up easily, just by watching my example. What I have learned over a decade of teaching kids to swim is that the key is giving them the confidence that they can do it without me.
With painstaking patience, I have to first teach them proper technique, then watch them try and fail. First, just practicing kicking while their hands are on the wall. Then, floating and maintaining their weight in the water. Then, the arm strokes. And, breathing with coordination. In the end, they have to put these skills together and do them all at once. At first, I have to guide them across, almost holding them. Then, I only use one hand, then, even a few fingers so they can feel me and know I’m there if they need me. The final achievement is actually making it across without me, just hearing my voice of encouragement. After a few of these tedious lessons, of course, they are able to swim across, and within days, I am not needed at all. I can return to my deck chair and enjoy watching that child grow and develop into a full swimmer, totally independent of my help or encouragement.
This is really the entire education process: raising children, guiding with love, investment and patience with the children we were gifted, as we hope to watch them blossom into independent Jewish adults.
In this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alot'cha, we learn how the high priest would light the great menorah in the holy Temple. The verse says he should light the candles (Bamidbar 8:2). But, the Torah uses an odd word for lighting – beha’alot’cha – which means “in your raising up.” Why does God choose this word rather than the more conventional word for lighting, le’hadlik, which we use when we light candles on Shabbat and Yom Tov? What does raising up have to do with lighting?
Our foremost commentator, Rashi, helps answer this question, and at the same time, provides a deep foundational concept of Jewish education. He says it is stated in this way to instruct the priest that he must kindle (that is, hold a fire to the wick) until the flame rises by itself. We all know that sometimes we light a candle, but it goes out shortly thereafter because we didn’t leave the flame on the wick long enough. The Torah describes it in this way to ensure the high priest leaves the flame alit.
What is Rashi’s deeper message? When educating our kids, just like when teaching them to swim, the great art is figuring out how best to light their candles and ensure they stay lit. We all want our children to grow into Jews who care about their people, who are educated about what it means to be Jewish, and who will ultimately choose to carry on the torch of Jewish continuity, not only out of responsibility, but also out of a great love of our faith and culture.
The problem, of course, is that it’s so easy to outsource their Jewish education. Drop them off at Hebrew school or day school, send them to camp, hire a tutor to teach them for bar and bat mitzvah and encourage them to engage in a Jewish youth group, and go to college. Yes, all of these are essential tools in helping provide positive Jewish experiences, but how can we ensure, to the best of our abilities, that their flame will stay lit? The high priest had to first make sure that his own flame was lit. If we want our children to be inspired about being Jewish, we ourselves have to be! If we want them to have a lifelong connection to Jewish learning, we have to as well! If we want them to continue the Shabbat tradition, we have to invest in that and be sure that our children see how much we love it!
Just like teaching our children to swim requires us getting in and swimming with them, holding them tightly until they are ready be independent, so too with their Jewish education. We have to make it a priority in our lives, show them how much we invest personally in our Judaism. It’s not always easy, but fortunately, JWRP has connected each of us with amazing leaders who are there to help light our flames and keep them lit.
Gevura Davis is an educator who currently works as the Director of Women, Youth and Family Division of the Etz Chaim Center in Elkins Park, outside of Philadelphia. She recently moved from Kansas City with her husband and five children.