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The Necessary Loss of Innocence

The Necessary Loss of Innocence


Editor’s Note:This was written following the horrific murder of Leiby Kletzky and the massacre in Norway.

I think it’s telling that, in over forty years of leadership, the Lubavitcher Rebbe left New York City only three times: to visit the children at Camp Gan Israel and Camp Emunah, Chabad overnight camps in the Catskill Mountains.

Equally telling is the message he elected to address to them on one of his visits to Gan Israel, in the summer of 1960.

These words are being spoken for the children of this camp session, and also for the children who will be joining in subsequent sessions, as well as for all Jewish children. I will be grateful and indebted to whoever passes this on to children wherever they may be.

“Who is wise? He who learns from every person.”We are here in a camp that is called Gan Israel, which means “a garden in Israel”—for every Jew carries the title “Israel.”

The reason the name “Israel” was chosen over other names of the Jewish people, such as “Jacob,” is because “Israel” is also the name of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism.

One of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings is on the mishnah: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.”

The Baal Shem Tov asks: “Not every person is a proper teacher. So how can we say that a child who wishes to be wise should learn from every person?” He explains: “When one meets someone who conducts himself properly, the smart child should learn from him how to behave. And when one encounters someone who is the opposite of tzaddik (righteous), he or she must learn from that person how not to behave. Never should one do the things that a wicked person does . . .”

Here’s why I find this talk fascinating.

Of all the Baal Shem Tov’s revolutionary teachings, most of which are optimistic and dwell on man’s innate goodness, the Rebbe chose this, shall we say, grave teaching with which to address these and “all Jewish children wherever they may be.”

As for the teaching itself, the Baal Shem Tov’s interpretation of this mishnah departs from, or even contradicts, its apparent meaning. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person” seems to be saying that there is no person that has nothing positive to offer or teach.

Taken to the extreme, it has even been seen by some “progressives” to advocate the very liberal, and sometimes dangerous, approach that no matter how demented a person or ideology appears to be, if we only spend time and effort trying to understand them, they have something to contribute to the world.

And yet, the Baal Shem Tov, who is known, as is the Lubavitcher Rebbe, for his ingenious redemptive thinking and approach, in this instance qualifies his optimism about the human spirit by rendering a portion of society beyond the pale of positive teaching.

For the purpose of contrast: in his book titled HaYom Yom, an anthology of short teachings for each day of the year, the Rebbe has an entry that enumerates seven lessons in the service of G‑d that we can learn from a habitual thief!

The Rebbe felt it necessary to make them aware of the weedsNevertheless, when talking to a group of pure little children—and through them, he intended, to all children of the world—the Rebbe chose to underscore the fact that certain aspects of people’s behavior are negative and utterly corrupt.

And here’s the point.

In my humble speculation, and that’s all this is, it wasn’t despite the children’s innocence that he selected this teaching for them, but because of it. Children tend to be trusting and unadulterated (un-adult-erated?), and naturally believe in the good of people. They instinctively see the world as a garden of Israel, and therefore, we might say, as a responsible gardener, the Rebbe felt it necessary to make them aware of the weeds.

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
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jamie moran London, UK July 8, 2014

please publish the seven things we can learn from a thief! i read this ages ago, and loved its wisdom and humour. one of the 7, if senility has not claimed my brain, was 'to work at night.' they were all penetrating.. look, the glory of Jewish tradition is how down to earth, how human, its wisdom is.. Reply

Anonymous August 28, 2011

Sanitizing Violence IN human Society I believe that G-d's ideal for humankind, as expressed by Isaiah, "Thou Shalt Not Hurt or Destroy."
Modernity, capitalism, consumerism, the GDP economic mentality of growth at the cost of our earth.....Treating all other life as property.....These behaviors desensitize the human heart. When we teach reverence for all living beings, only then, I think, we heal our disconnect to nature, in my opinion,, a word that means Gd. Seeing Gd in all that live, breath, will to live, offers our path to holiness. May I additionally request that ALL rabbi's encourage a return to a vegetarian, vegan diet, the ideal diet of peace and innocence and health. Reply

Anonymous August 27, 2011

even handed It always catches my attention when rabbis stop pushing the beauty of all people, because this is the reality of good and evil that exists in all men. No one is exempt.

The Rebbe is clearly telling us that you must be prepared to run from mean people. This is not always possible since there are lots of confidence men and charlatans in our midst. They are a minority, nonetheless, children must be taught that they exist. Even adults too.

As a society we are taught to obey/respect authority, and this is one of the most pernicious calamity of education and every day life. Too many authorities are corrupt in small or big ways. No institution is off limits in this regard, especially those who refer to themselves as authorities. When you see such phrases as " authentic ", be it Kabbalah or otherwise, be prepared to run . Those people are simply trying to corner a market, and they are crooked. Reply

Forever Mom LA via August 26, 2011

The price of becoming a wise child There is also saying : "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.." And I still think following : Why the individual who held and then murdered Leiby was so fearful of his community and its reactions. Why did he choose murdering a child vs facing the people on the street?

And why the few women who were aware of his destructive behavior did not report him, did not do anything about it?"

My point is, that we can tell our children as much as we want and requests that they will be "wise". And "yet" we , the adults, still have a responsibility to do something about it. We , adults, must protect our chidlren.

Might be if we would be "smart enough" and responsible enough then our children could afford to keep their innocence a little bit longer.

I was molected at age 3 while sitting on the knees of a man and my mother was right there, next to me. And yet, when I screamed and tried to run away my mother shamed me, spanked me and putted me right back. I got "very wise" AFTER. Reply

Frank Silbermann Memphis, Tennessee via August 26, 2011

How to learn from a Benini Granted, we can imitate a Tzaddik's behavior, and we can learn to not do what the wicked person does.

But aside from the few who are wholly wicked and the even fewer who are wholly righteous, the vast majority of people are at various places in the middle.

So to learn from everyone, for each behavior of each person, Jew or gentile, we must use our judgement to determine the category into which the behavior falls -- whether to imitate the behavior, refine the behavior, or to do the opposite of the behavior. Reply

ruth housman marshfield , ma August 25, 2011

children are our gardens Recently a neurologist friend of my husband's came to visit with her husband and two girls. The girls, age ten and age 8, came bouncing out of the car, racing towards me. The older child extended her hand and introduced herself warmly to me, and said how glad she was to see me. The younger child did the same. They were sincere and not doing this clearly in a rote way. I know this, because when it was time to leave, they asked to say good-bye to a friend of ours who was staying, who has Parkinson's, who did not go on a beach walk with all of us.

These children are wonderful and I sense they will become caring, amazing adults. Because they are so sensitive, and truly find joy in others.

We're all here together and must teach caution and the down side but do it, with love.

Of course children need to be warned about the world because though everyone is no doubt part of a cosmic story, people are hurt, and worse, and children need to exercise caution and must be taught these things. Reply

Laura Slitt August 24, 2011

Innocence I was an innocent child once. I trusted my parents, Hebrew School, teachers at secular institutions....
I trusted my government. Something happened though, that has happened to too many little girls and boys, that made me withdraw and not come out until I learned what happened was not my fault.
People can make light of this all they want, but when entire cultures made up of all religions, eat like predators, ALL predatory behavior manifests, keeping us away from the true light of Gd, that exists in every being from birth.
There are two kinds of people, peacemakers, who seek the gentle side of humanity, hidden under centuries of learning to conquer and dominate, and predators who abuse by force, their power( as this poor child's butcher did), from the time humans adopted the herding behavior.
Peace begins when we teach children that EVERY living being has right to life and that our bodies should consume the ideal food from the earth.
We have become symptoms of our predatory diets. Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles, CA August 24, 2011

Thank You for these type of articles.....
I find them very inspiring and heart felt. Reply

Carmen August 21, 2011

Recalls... I recall my father telling me inumerous times when I was a very little girl ,never to accept candies from strangers;he also asked me to report him if -G-d forbid-a maid touched my body improperly...

But,unfortunately,as much as the Rebbe loved these children ,as my father loved me,there are dangers that neither an advised child nor an experienced adult can predict, and sometimes they are just there,beneath our own roof...

But nevertheless we still must learn from that and ,at least, one of the learnings is to keep this people and their negative and utterly corrupt behavior very far from our lives ,once unveiled and “destroyed”....

Unfortunately,there has no better eye opener than actual experience... Reply

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