Machon Daniel Institutions



Nature and Freedom  

Original publication date:

It’s extremely important to train a child according to his nature. We should not try to change his personality, but give him the resources to use it for the good. Unfortunately, this most fundamental principle of Torah education is overlooked today, both by parents and in the schools, which have become so institutionalized that they hardly pay any attention to the individual differences of their talmidim. Needless to say, a great deal is lost and, most tragically, children who could have lived good lives if they’d had the right education can also be lost. Our goal should be to help the child find a way to invest his personality in good behavior. An aggressive, outgoing, physically oriented child cannot be shut up to study all day. It simply wouldn’t work. But if his personality is acknowledged, he can be educated to be a talmid chochom using those qualities.

There are all kinds of different people who use their talents l’shem shamaim, and they’re all needed. If a person can accept that and deal with that, his children are far more likely to find a way to use whatever traits they have to be bnei Torah. If he tries to force them into a mold, or to use them to fulfill some ideal which, often as not, he himself failed to achieve, he is in danger of destroying them.

When a child becomes bar mitzvah, his father makes a blessing: "…who has exempted me from this one’s punishments.” It sounds as though he is saying, "I’ve taken care of you for thirteen years. Now I’m not responsible for you anymore. Do whatever you want. Thank G-d I’m not involved in this anymore.” What kind of father speaks like that?

Until the age of thirteen, the child is subordinate to his parents. The child is responsible because he is acting out of the inclinations he has from birth and has otherwise acquired, to a large extent, from his parents. He does not yet have the capacity to suppress and control his impulses. He cannot yet be held fully responsible for his behavior. He does not yet have free choice. So the parents have to see to it that the child’s predispositions are properly guided. They function as his yetzer hatov. Once the child has a yetzer hatov of his own that is strong enough to govern his other impulses, then he is no longer morally subordinate to his parents. Now that he has the ability to use those impulses properly, he can stand on his own. In reciting the blessing at his son’s bar mitzvah, the father is affirming that his son has grown up and is capable of making his own choices.

But a person who doesn’t work on his character is never going to free himself from his instinctive predispositions, and they’re probably going to lead him the wrong way, no matter what they are. Rav Simcha Zissel, the Alter from Kelm, said that Darwin proposed the theory of evolution because he never saw a real human being. So he could imagine that the animals around him who walked on two feet and looked like human beings probably came from apes. Which, considering the quality of those human beings, may have been an insult to the apes. If he had seen a real human being, like my rebbe, Yisrael Salanter, he never would have formulated such a theory. That sounds very nice, but it also sounds like a great exaggeration. How could he say such a thing? Do you really think that Charles Darwin was some kind of subhuman animal? Charles Darwin was a very sophisticated and intelligent person, probably a very nice and well mannered person. He was also, to a certain degree, a religious person. So how can he say that his friends were human beings so animalistic that when he looked at them, he figured they must be descended from apes? Why shouldn’t we assume that his friends, like him, were well mannered, socially accepted people, many of them scholars and men of position—serious human beings, like Charles Darwin. What he is saying doesn’t seem to be realistic unless you believe that every goy is just an animal.

Nevertheless, it’s true—not because Charles Darwin’s friends were brutes—but because of the difference between an animal and a human being. There was a debate between the Rambam (some say it was the Maharal of Prague and some say Yonason Eibshitz) and a priest. By the way, there’s good reason to believe that any story told about three different people never really happened. The question was whether an animal can be trained to go against its instincts. The priest maintained that it could be done, the Rambam held that it was impossible. The priest proposed they try to do it. The Rambam agreed. The priest took several cats and trained them. After a few months, he invited the Rambam to a banquet where he would see for himself that he had trained the cats to go against their nature. At the banquet, the priest stood up and rang a little bell. Out from the kitchen came ten cats dressed in tuxedos carrying a towel over one arm and a tray in the other. They were walking on their hind legs, perfectly erect. They curtsied to the guests and served them their entree. The priest turned to the Rambam and said, "Okay, there it is. That kind of behavior is certainly not instinctive to cats. The instinct of a cat it to walk on all fours, they are walking on their two hind legs—to say nothing of their elegant behavior.” "Fine,” the Rambam said, "but it’s a long meal. Let’s see what happens.” The priest rings his bell again. The cats come out and serve the main course. They behave perfectly, better than waiters. But the Rambam still wasn’t convinced. The priest gets up and rings his bell for desert. In the meanwhile, the Rambam takes out a little box from his pocket, puts it on the floor and opens the cover. Two minutes later, the cats come out with the desert and there is pandemonium. Dishes are strewn all over the floor. The cats, of course, are chasing the mice that the Rambam let loose. The Rambam turns to the priest and says, you can train a cat to be a waiter, but when the mice are out, he’ll remember he’s a cat.

That’s an animal. It’s a product of instinct. No matter how much you train it, the instinct remains. As long as nothing stimulates its instinct, it will behave as it was trained. But as soon as there is an intense stimulus that arouses its basic instinct, it will revert to its natural behavior. A human being also has natural impulses, but a human being can train himself to suppress them so that he maintains his standard of behavior no matter what. That training and the ability to be lifted above natural impulse by that training is what makes a person truly human. Without that training, however sophisticated and noble a person is, when the "mice” come out, when he’s tempted to act out his natural inclinations, he’ll drop on all fours and turn into a cat.


MDLeff  is taken from the shiurim of Rabbi Zev Leff
and transcribed and edited by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman
Layout & Design: Lev Seltzer
Rabbi Yona Vogel, Rosh Yeshiva, Machon Daniel



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  Last modified: October 05, 2014