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Instructional Swim

It is finally upon us – the Jewish annual summertime killjoy – Tisha B’Av – the ninth of Av. My daughter came home from her Chabad day camp last week with her bathing suit. “Why did they send this home,” I wondered aloud as I scraped the remnants of her peanut-butter sandwich off of the straps. “We’re not going swimming anymore,” she told me somberly. “Because of Moshiach (the Messiah).” I made my best muppet face and tried to nod understandingly.

Tisha B’Av, an annual fast-day, marks a number of calamities that occurred throughout Jewish history, most notably the destructions of the first and second temples. Traditionally, the period of mourning which culminates on Tisha B’Av begins three weeks earlier, on the seventeenth of Tamuz. During this period of time, referred to as the Three Weeks, some Jews refrain from listening to live music, shaving, or cutting their hair. Weddings are traditionally not held during this time. The mourning intensifies after Rosh Hodesh Av – the first day of the month of Av, and continues through the nine days preceding the fast day. During this time, some refrain from eating meat, doing laundry, and – swimming. Precisely when most people in the Northern Hemisphere are splashing in the water, we remember that we have been singled out throughout history, and, in commemoration, put our bathing suits on the shelf and sit on the side, trying to shade ourselves from the hot sun.

Growing up in the modern Orthodox Jewish world, I went to summer-camps where, during this period of time, Instructional Swim was allowed, and Free Swim was taboo. You couldn’t have too much fun in the water, but they had to somehow fill those long summer days. I remembered those doggy-paddling days when, after the girls were tucked into bed, on the Eve of the Eve of Tisha B’Av, I snuck out for a swim. As I flew through the water, I tried unsuccessfully to suppress the overwhelming dolphin-like joy I feel half-way into the swim, and then wondered why I was trying to suppress it. On my way home, the week-old moon peeked at me from the twilight sky. We looked at each other, and I realized that I still hadn’t quite figured out my belief and practice system. I then had a moon epiphany: everything I’d thought was true about grown-ups, including the notion that they knew what was right, let alone what they thought was right, was illusory. Instead, our cycles are like the moon’s – moments of shining clarity, moments of hidden uncertainty.

This week, to fill the time that she’s not swimming, my daughter is, together with the other three-year-olds at camp, building the Beis Hamikdash – the Temple – brick by brick, by doing mitzvot, good deeds. I love her camp. I love the idea that we, with our little dimpled fists, and our passion, and our vision, build the world we want to live in. I wonder, though, if somehow, we could build in our bathing suist, splashing and soaring through the moonlit-water.

–Maya Bernstein