Rabbi’s Sermon-Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774

Swimming Lessons for the New Year
Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5774
Rabbi Todd Chizner

At around 1 pm one afternoon, we sat in our TV room with the weather channel on, and yet we were also watching the scene play out in the backyard, beyond the window.  The wind was picking up.  My eyes went from the TV to the outside–where the swings were whipping around in all directions– to the dining room table, which was piled high with supplies.

I couldn’t sit still so I walked into the dining room and checked that we had enough candles and batteries . I checked the flashlights so that they were in working order.  My wind-up am fm radio was working.  I then walked to pantry.  As I opened the door I thought to myself, “Do we have enough food just in case?” As I scanned the shelves, I regretted not getting more stuff . The wind was really getting strong outside.  We had several gallons of water, but we didn’t have that many cans of food, and most of the cans we did have were beans.  Why did we have so many beans? Baked beans, black beans, kidney means (I thought to myself, I hope we don’t have to survive on beans).  As I closed the pantry door and was walking back towards my family, the power went off.

There was no boom or crash, but the sound of the wind outside became all the more…apparent.  Gusting.  Howling.  As I entered the room, I saw my family watching the window. I followed their eyes and saw the trees bending at weird angles, and as I turned my glance back, I saw my children’s faces were also at weird angles, with looks of fear and panic.

Quite frankly, I was frightened too.  It was clear that Hurricane Sandy was real and things were only going to get worse over the next few days –as it turned out weeks and months.  A thought kept on going through my head: “I wasn’t properly prepared.  Why?”

Over the next two weeks (we were without any power for that entire time) we had lost quite a few roof shingles and would eventually need to have our whole roof replaced. I didn’t have a generator.  After two days, we threw out all the contents of our refrigerator and freezer. We definitely didn’t have enough imperishable food (and, I haven’t eaten beans since then).

Then, after about a week, my wife’s minivan just died and my car was running low on gas.  The gas stations were either not open or open at odd times with incredibly long lines (as I am sure you all remember).

At one point, I became nearly panic-stricken. I had thought to myself, what if, God forbid, I need to rush someone to the hospital and I don’t have enough gas to get there.  So, I did what any rational person would do: I went on my cell phone and went to u-tube and watched a video on how to siphon gas from a car.  I was able to get a plastic tube into the tank and attempted to siphon gas from the minivan.  It was quite a scene. However, I couldn’t get a drop out gas out.  I felt completely helpless, frustrated and unprepared.

Luckily, after a few days, both my brother’s home and Lauren’s sister’s home got power back and we were able to stay with them a few nights each.   And, in a few days were able to get gas.   Much of my worry dissipated.

Of course, many people and homes had it much worse than we did, but the fact remains that Hurricane Sandy hit all of us , and it hit us with a sense of the real dangers in life and with the question, “Are we properly prepared to face the real dangers in our world?”

The reason why I feel this is a worthy question for all of us to consider is not just because of Hurricane Sandy, it’s because of the string of scary events that happened last year that we were not prepared for.

After Hurricane Sandy, we were made aware of a different kind of unpreparedness –- the incredibly tragic shooting at Sandy Hook elementary.  At first there was the shock and deep sadness for a senseless act of violence.   Every American mourned the loss of these innocent children and teachers.

But then, every school realized that they were unprepared for this contingency.  Schools run fire drills, but that wasn’t enough anymore.

And as parents, we felt unprepared after this shooting too.  As much as we didn’t want to have to think about it, as much as we wanted to continue to believe that it was perfectly safe to let go of our children’s hands and put them on the bus, or drop them off at school, or leave them anywhere out of our direct sight, we began to rethink all of that.  Do we know if our children can handle themselves when they are not in our protective sphere?

Then, continuing in the series of events that shook us to our core, two bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon. Cities all over the country began to see how unprepared they are.  And they began to figure out ways to amp up their security at city-wide events.

And the list goes on.

Jewish wisdom has a response to all of the scariness and dangers in our world.  And, while this wisdom was written about 1800 years ago, it needs to be brought into the light now and re-introduced to all of us today. The Talmud sums up the Jewish wisdom of how to address the real dangers in our world by saying “we are obligated to teach our children how to swim.”  And this has nothing to do Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida.

What is it the connection between swimming and responding to life-threatening situations?  We have to think like a 3rd century person to begin to understand the full impact of this wisdom.  Back then, when this wisdom was written, if you were swimming it was probably to keep you from drowning.

No one had personal pools.  Water was scary.  When people traveled by boat the boats very often would capsize.  And bridges were known to fall apart.  A person who couldn’t swim would very likely die.  Thus, the obligation to teach swimming probably had nothing to do with recreational skills, but rather with teaching survival skills.

Thus, the first step our Jewish wisdom tells us to show us how to proverbially swim in our dangerous world is to be able to identify the real dangers and train ourselves and our children how to respond to each one.

I wonder, is this how we approach the dangers in our modern world?  Is it how today young parents face dangers?  I’d have to say “no, not at all.”  Frankly, the ancient Jewish wisdom of teaching swimming with its inherent dangers in the teaching itself is completely contradictory to the modern pop-culture wisdom of over-protection.  Today’s parents are faced with a barrage of safety precautions that can make kids think that everything is dangerous or everything is about avoiding danger , instead of living life knowing how to face those dangerous situations.

In an article entitled, Help for Overprotective Parents, Jennifer Breheny Wallace writes, “A couple of years ago, my then five-year-old son William took a standardized test in which he was asked about everyday objects.  When asked “What do candy and ice cream have in common?” William replied, “They both give you cavities.” For the question “What is chewing gum?” William answered, “A choking hazard.”

Here is just a small list of the overprotective measures today’s parents–and by extension, grandparents–take, along with teachers, babysitters, legal guardians, etc: childproofing doors, cabinets and outlets,  avoiding choking hazards with bags, hot dogs, and grapes, getting rid of germs (germs are everywhere), anti-bacterial products for hands, the bathroom, toys, and even clothing , helmets, car seats, knee pads, elbow pads, face protectors,  lots and lots of sunscreen, playing outdoors but only with close adult supervision  (i.e., “Don’t walk around the block by yourself , don’t ride your bike where I can’t see you, go on the computer but no personal information, put filters on internet searches.  And DON’T EVER TALK TO STRANGERS)!”

I am not suggesting that we remove all the safety features.  I am suggesting that we learn from the swimming analogy and raise self- reliant children.  Swimming really is the perfect example.  Think about it, the very first thing a new swimmer is taught is the danger of the water. That is why the very first thing new swimmers learn is to put their faces in the water and blow out instead of breathe in.  If they breathe in they can drown.  The next skill that is taught to new swimmers is the back float.  Why?  So if they fall in the pool unexpectedly or if they are in the pool and start to panic, they can turn on their back and be safe.  This Talmudic quote encourages us to face life’s dangers and not to avoid them. We are supposed to apply this wisdom to all dangers.

I think that psychologist turned Jewish educator Wendy Mogul put it best when she said, “Our job is to raise children to leave us…  If they stay carefully protected in the nest of the family, children will become weak and fearful” (Blessing of a Skinned Knee).

When we feel unsure of ourselves in a given situation, we are less likely to try it and feel fearful of it.  For example, when children learn they can only ride a bike in their driveway or can only play outside when parents are watching, they learn to fear these activities and life itself.

Many of today’s kids live with too many fears and anxiety.  Recently, I spoke with a nurse who works at a sleepaway camp over the summer.  She explained that one of the nurse’s growing responsibilities is to administer medication that the parents have sent up with the kids.  The nurse told me that over the past few years the most common medication given to kids is for anxiety.

Listen how the author Blue Greenberg showed how one community dealt with fear and anxiety in their kids.  She recalls an ugly incident in Riverdale in which several Jewish teenagers were beaten up by anti-semites.  The local rabbi’s sensible suggestions, one entirely in keeping with this Talmudic teaching, was, “The time has come to teach Jewish kids karate” (How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household).

This wisdom can be applied beyond parenting to each and every one of us about facing reality and not putting our heads in the sand and hoping we won’t have to deal with the bad stuff.  In fact, it is what makes this joke makes sense.

One day, the world’s leading astronomers spotted a comet and predicted that in four days the comet would strike the glaciers of the arctic region, melting the glaciers and completely covering all the land on earth with water.  The pope got on television and implored all Catholics to take communion immediately and prepare to die in a state of purity. The Dali Lamma got on television and implored all Buddhists to meditate and prepare to accept death in peace.  The Chief Rabbi of Israel got on television and said: “Ok folks, we have only four days to learn how to live underwater. Get to work.”

Jews have been a people who have never taken life lying down. We don’t simply accept fate.  We have always attempted to face our fears with intelligence and solutions.  Judaism is a wisdom tradition that teaches us that God gave us good brains and good bodies in order to use them both to protect yourself and to keep your children safe-–and to not be afraid of every bump in the night.

This past year has proven to us that none of us are impervious.

On a personal note, I will admit that I still don’t know how to siphon gas from a car, but I did get a more fuel-efficient car.  Plus, I now have a generator and I know how to use it.  I am also making a point to teach my children life-saving skills:  knowing what to do in case of an emergency, knowing everything from how to use knives (for cooking) to using the stove (the grill) so they can stay at home by themselves, or take the dog for a walk around the block without an adult so that they can go out into the world with confidence and fewer fears.

I hope and I pray that this upcoming year will have fewer scary events than last year.  But mostly, I hope and pray that you and I make the year less scary and less anxiety-ridden because we have chosen to face the dangers in our world.  May we all learn how to swim in this upcoming year.

Shana Tova,

Rabbi Todd Chizner