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.