A Blessing and a Curse: Choose

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

The great Gaon Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was baffled as to why teaching “swimming” per se is a father’s obligation to a son. Every “danger” posed by swimming is posed by any number of other things. So too any benefit swimming might bring. What 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.

To swim is to be actively engaged in a skill to survive and thrive in an otherwise threatening environment.

A father must teach his son Torah, a trade, help find the right life partner – but to assure all this succeeds, a Jew must willfully oppose the physics of life; he must swim else he drown.

A Jew must remain in control. Society, culture – life and experience – are often threatening and destabilizing “currents.” To live a Jewish life, a life of Torah, means more than merely staying afloat and being carried wherever the currents flow. 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 creature most associated with swimming, to fish. V’yidgu larov – “and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land” (Bereishit 48:16)  All fish swim. A kosher fish is distinguished by two attributes; it must have both fins and scales. Fins to propel and guide, scales to protect.

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?

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 where 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” (Torah learned and mitzvot performed) protect him and his soul.

Another aspect of fish that distinguish them from other kosher creatures is that other creatures can become non-kosher – through improper shechita or any number of other treifos. Not so fish. Which is why Yaakov blessed them, 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 for it is only by exerting self-control can we engage in meaningful ways with our community, our Torah, our God.

In her “The Daily Portion,” Sivan Rahav Meir was moved to write about Rina Shnerb, an innocent and sweet seventeen-year-old who was murdered last week in a terrorist attack. But before she wrote what she intended, Rina’s mother, Shira, contacted her and asked that instead she convey a message dear to Rina’s heart, a warning about the insidious danger of cellphones and smartphones.

“She felt that we all surf, literally, to the wrong places. We do not control the device – it controls us. She was only seventeen, but the waste of time, the distraction and lack of ability to focus among her peers – bothered her a lot and occupied her mind.”

The family felt that anyone who wanted to do something for Rina’s iluy neshamah, the elevation of her soul, commit to limiting the control cellphones exert in his/her life and choose to rediscover the balance life had before the cellphone.  

In Re’eh, Moshe Rabbenu challenges the people with a choice. “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.”

Every day, every hour, we have a choice. We can sink, or we can swim. We can engage deeply and meaningfully in Torah, in mitzvot, in our community or we can let the currents drag us down.

I imagine what Rina would have thought had she been at Camp Morasha this summer season.

Established decades ago through Yeshiva University – where the best of the Modern Orthodox community taught, inspired, and led – Camp Morasha provides such ruach! I confess, it holds a place dear in my heart for it was there that I began my own teaching career. Rabbi Norman Lamm sat in on my classes and then offered loving suggestions for improvement and growth – for me and my students.

Of course, in the 1970’s there were no phones, no messaging, no WhatsApps, no laptops, no social media, no FB. It was all face to face, and heart to heart. None of us could have foreseen the world of social media to be ushered in by the smartphone. How could we have conjured up this wonderful, demanding and damning device? How could we have imagined a palm-sized device 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 how it has transformed its immense potential into a damning and addictive diversion, calling us like a mythical Siren and seducing us from our path and our goals.

Smartphones have sapped us of our strength; they have insinuated themselves within our hearts, upending our intuitive workings and breaching our natural, Torah defenses.

So insidious is the smartphone that it no longer “merely” dominates our waking hours (studies suggest that the average cell user checks his phone 35 times a day; that 56% of parents own up to checking their devices while driving; 75% of smartphone users admit having texted while driving at least once…) but it also affects our “resting” hours. More than half of all smartphone users check their phones within an hour of going to sleep and nearly three-quarters reach for it as soon as they get up. 61% of users sleep with their phone turned on under their pillow or next to their bed.


In restaurants, diners sit at their table looking at their phones rather than the real live, in the flesh person seated across from them!


We have ceded control! We are drowning…

So, it was a pleasant shock to read that this summer Camp Morasha had instituted a “no phone” policy. What would happen? Would the world come to an end?

Hardly. Dear Rina would have been as pleased as I to learn that during the summer, campers began to behave like God’s blessed creatures. They "looked at each other. Not a passing glance here and there; they really looked at each other. They spoke with one another and interacted with nature and with the world around them…” (Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, Surviving and Thriving Without Screens).

They swam.

If we can embrace dear Rina’s hope and put down our smartphones, disengage with social media and reengage with ourselves and those around us, if we can once again swim our own lives will be uplifted.

But it is hard. We text endlessly and incessantly. WhatsApp. Snapchat. FBing. Instagramming. Tweeting. We do it all, all the time. Even when there is a living, breathing, engaging, wonderful person within arm’s length of us!

We are addicted to our smartphones! And no one has lost more self-control than an addict.

The Torah-driven, Jewish life is exactly the opposite of the life of an addict. It is a life of meaning, of engagement, of control. And yet I almost never see a Jew – shomer Shabbas, mitzvah performing Jew – without a smartphone. I have seen good, observant mothers pushing strollers talking on their phones instead of engaging with their children. I know fathers who take phone calls as soon as they walk into the house, seeming to forget that there are children there who need and deserve their attention.


V’Yidgu… We are meant to swim; to be fish all the time, in every environment.

The smartphone is insidious and seductive, it is brilliant in its intuitiveness. It can be a lifesaver – literally. It can be a wonderful tool – when we control it, rather than allow it to control us.

When we swim.

The day after Shira Shnerb spoke to Sivan Rahav Meir, she received over a thousand resolutions from students, from mothers, from fathers determined to do what the campers at Camp Morasha had been able to do – to look at another and see, really see.

V’yidgu larov may we proliferate like fish within the land and may we all swim!

Rabbi Safran’s “Something Old, Something New – Pearls from the Torah” available on Amazon