Photo Credit: Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

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. – Kiddushin 29a

Obligated to teach a son to swim? What is one to think of this? Certainly the great gaon Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was baffled as to why teaching “swimming” per se is an obligation a father has to a son. Every “danger” posed by swimming is posed by any number of other things. So too any benefit swimming might bring.

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So what is it that makes swimming unique?

In Divrei Aggadah, Devarim 14:9, Rav Elyashiv presents a compelling interpretation. He begins by asking, What does “swimming” convey? Certainly, if one were to drop a piece of wood in a river it might remain above the surface of the waters but no one would suggest it is “swimming.” It is merely floating along; passive and at the mercy of the river’s current.

His point is that people cannot merely float, and to swim is to be actively engaged, to willfully employ skill to counter the physics of the water, of their environment. After all, to do otherwise, to “not swim,” is to sink and drown.

This, then, is fundamental to what the Talmud is teaching us. A Jew must be a swimmer. He cannot be passive. A father must teach his son Torah, a trade, help find the right life partner – but to assure all this happens, that it all “works,” a Jew often has to willfully oppose the physics of life: he must swim, otherwise he drowns.

A Jew must be in control. He cannot be swayed by the worldly currents and cross-currents that buffet him. Society, culture – life and experience – these are turbulence, they are threatening and destabilizing currents. To live a Jewish life, a life of Torah, is to do more than merely stay afloat, to go wherever the currents carry you. To live a life of Torah is to swim against these currents.

Rav Elyashiv takes this obligation and its lesson even further. The Jewish people are compared to the creatures most associated with swimming – fish. “V’yidgu larov – and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land” (Bereishit 48:16)  In addition to the ability to swim, what distinguishes kosher fish? To be kosher, a fish must possess two attributes. It must have both fins and scales. Its fins propel and guide the fish through the water. That is, fins give the fish the power (analogous to the inner strength a Jew must possess) to go against the current.

This is the essential lesson in the Talmud – that a Jew must be master of his movement in the world; he cannot allow himself to be swayed by outside forces.

The second attribute of the kosher fish is its scales. Scales protect the fish from harm. They are a defense. So too, the Jew must have “scales” that protect him from harm. For Jews, these “scales” are Torah learned and mitzvot performed.

V’yidgu larov. The verse poses an insight and a puzzle – an insight that Jews can be compared to fish; a puzzle in that “proliferating as fish within the land” is counterintuitive. After all, shouldn’t fish proliferate within water?

The answer to this puzzle speaks even more powerfully to our point. In order to be as the kosher fish, with its fins and scales, a Jew must possess inner strength and armor to remain kosher regardless of the environment in which he finds himself. No matter the currents, a Jew’s “fins” must find him swimming in the true direction through life. No matter the slings and arrows of life and experience, his “scales” protect him and his soul.

Another aspect of a kosher fish that distinguishes it from other kosher creatures is that other creatures can become non-kosher – through improper shechitah or any number of other treifos. Not so with fish. Which is why Yaakov made the blessing by saying v’yidgu…b’kerev ha’aretz. Be fish-like, everywhere. Remain in your original state no matter where you end up. Do not let who you are be affected or influenced by the cultural currents swirling around you.

Stay in control.

There are so many aspects of life that demand that we know how to “swim”; so many instances when we must remain in control despite the countless diversions, distractions, and circumstances that vie for our attention. Our forebears, our teachers, our sages anticipated and provided guidance against so many of them. There is, however, one “tool,” one “device,” one “gift” for which those who came before us could not protect us because they could not even have imagined it.

How could they have conjured up this wonderful, demanding, and damning device? How could they have imagined a palm-sized instrument that would allow us to speak instantly with loved ones across oceans and time zones, get news, play games, or interact with millions of people whose faces and concerns we can never really know?

How could they have foreseen such a device and the manner in which it has transformed its immense potential into a damning and addictive diversion, calling like a mythical Siren and seducing us from our path and our goals?

The iPhone (and its competitors) has sapped us of our strength; insinuated itself within our inner, intuitive workings; and snuck past our natural Torah defenses.

So insidious has the iPhone become that it no longer dominates just our waking hours (studies suggest the average cell user checks his phone 35 times a day; 56 percent of parents own up to checking their devices while driving; 75 percent of smartphone users admit to having texted while driving at least once…) but it also affects our “resting” hours. More than half of all smartphone users check their phones shortly before going to sleep and nearly three-quarters reach for it as soon as they get up. Sixty-one percent of users sleep with their phone turned on under their pillow or next to their bed.

Ping!

I’ve been in restaurants and seen a table of diners each sitting at their table looking at their phones rather than at the real live, in the flesh people seated next to or across from them.

We have ceded control.

Many years ago, Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message,” suggesting that the medium was at least as important as the content of the message in how it is perceived. This is surely the case with our iPhones and smartphones. In raising the alarm about these phones I am not focusing on content. Yes, the Internet can be a dark place of truly horrific messages and content. But it is also a place where one can find endless shiurim, where Torah knowledge is available at the tip of one’s fingers, where it is possible to engage our greatest sages anytime, anywhere.

It is not the content but the thing itself that has robbed us of our “fins” and our control. Yes, it is possible to maintain our “scales” while using our phones – for example, to engage in Torah learning. But we must remember that our obligation is to teach our sons to swim; to use their fins and to be in control.

My focus is obviously not the online experience per se, for that can be uplifting and profound. My focus is on the device itself, the thing with which we have entered into an unwitting and self-destructive relationship. It is easy to dismiss the gentleman who went to Las Vegas to “get married” to his phone (in truth, he did it to make a point) but it is harder to dismiss the truth that as a practical matter for too many of us our most demanding, fulfilling, engaging, and satisfying relationship is with an object we carry in our pockets.

We text endlessly and incessantly. WhatsApp. Snapchat. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. (We even have a “Twitterer in Chief”!) We do it all. All the time. Even when there is a living, breathing, engaging, wonderful person within arm’s length of us.

Our lives are determined by FOMO (fear of missing out). We suffer anxiety attacks if we are separated from our phones for even a short time.

The behavior is exactly analogous to that an addict. And no one is more indicative of someone who has lost control than an addict.

The Torah-driven, Jewish life is to be exactly the opposite of the life of an addict. It is to be a life of meaning, of engagement, of control.

And yet I almost never see a Jew – a shomer Shabbas, mitzvah-performing Jew – without a smartphone or an iPhone. I have seen good, observant mothers pushing strollers while engaging with their phones rather than with their children. I know of fathers taking phone calls as soon as they walk into the house, seeming to forget there are children there that need and deserve their attention.

V’Yidgu. We are meant to be fish all the time, in every environment. Fish cannot be rendered non-kosher. Other animals can be. We need to be kosher fish, not any other kosher animal. Our smartphone is insidious and seductive. It can be a lifesaver – literally. It can be a wonderful tool – when we control it, rather than the other way around.

But there is no way one can look at smartphone use and not see that it is controlling us.

Test yourself. Can you turn off your phone – really turn it off, not just put it on vibrate or airplane mode? Can you ignore it for two hours? Five hours? Can you sit at the table with friends or family and not slip it out of your pocket to just “take a glance”?

If trying to do these things causes you stress or anxiety, you need to “swim like the fishes.” Strengthen your fins. The currents are treacherous. The safe harbor is off in the distance. Swim!

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Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author, and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.