Nature and Freedom  

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.