Are we raising calves or people?

Friday, 26 June, 2015 - 10:17 am

In the summer of 1927, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, was arrested in Leningrad for “counterrevolutionary activities.” Despite the threat of a death sentence, by the miracles of Hashem and through the agency of worldwide political pressure, he was released on his 47th birthday, the 12 of Tammuz. This day is celebrated as an important breakthrough in the fight against Soviet oppression of Jews and the showdown of good vs. evil.

What many do not know is that this was actually the seventh time that he was arrested for his crimes of looking out for the interests of Jews and Judaism. His first experience with Russian justice was at the tender age of 11. The story can be read at

In brief, his father would give him money for memorizing passages of the mishna. He used that money for a free loan fund to help poor Jews on market day. One day he observed a Russian policeman attacking a Jew that he was helping. The policeman beat the Jew while falsely accusing him of stealing a calf. In defense of the Jew the young Yosef Yitzchak pushed the policeman. The policeman had him arrested and thrown into a dark jail cell. While he was there he utilized the time to review the mishna that he had memorized, thereby calming himself from his initial fear. Suddenly, he heard noises coming from the other side of the cell. He struck a match and discovered a bound calf moaning and grunting. It was the calf that the Jew was accused of stealing. A short while later he was freed and he managed to expose the policeman as the thief who tried to frame the Jew. His father, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, declared, “You did well to protect the dignity of an honest Jew. And if for that you suffered for a few hours, so what? Now it has also been demonstrated to you, how good it is that you are fluent in mishnayot by heart. Were it not for this knowledge, in what way were you any better than the calf? But because you knew the mishnayot… the hours of imprisonment passed with words of Torah and prayer, in which lies the advantage of man over beast.”

The last point was one emphasized by the Rebbe when retelling the story. He explained that there is a valuable lesson here regarding the importance of proper education. There were two individuals in the jail cell. Both desired to be free, but each for a different reason, and each one dealt with the situation accordingly. The calf sought to be free so that it could eat and roam and trample and satisfy its every desire. When it could not do those things it grunted and moaned. As if to say, “why am I being restricted in my quest for self-indulgence?”

The child, who was raised by worthy parents to value what was important in life, desired freedom so that he could properly live his life in a meaningful way in the service of Hashem. When that freedom was inhibited, he still strove to make the most of his circumstances by reviewing his studies by heart, thereby injecting some meaning even into an imprisonment.

As we raise our children we have to consider what kind training we are giving them. Are we teaching them to be calves, where every one of their whims and desires must be indulged immediately if not sooner? Are they being raised to believe that anything or anyone that stands in the way of those indulgences should trampled, pushed or kicked? Do they think that when they don’t get what they want they should grunt and moan until it is given to them?

Or are we teaching them to be people? The spirit of a human strives upwards toward greater refinement and spirituality. Are they learning that a higher striving can transform any circumstance into an opportunity for growth? Are they learning to respect authority? Do they understand that G-d is all-seeing and all-knowing and they are always in His presence?

Each child becomes a part of society. As the moral fiber of the world seems to be crumbling around us this task assumes a greater sense of urgency. When the news consists mostly of murder, cheating and immorality, our obligation to influence the future is that much more vital.

Ultimately goodness will prevail. Let us be a part of it!

Mazel Tov to Hannah Binkowitz and her family upon her Bat Mitzvah this weekend.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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