Beis Moshiach/Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry
A few months ago, Rabbi Fishel Jacobs of Kfar Chabad – an in-demand speaker, author of the iconic Family Purity – A Guide To Marital Fulfillment, other halacha and Chassidic philosophy books, a prison chaplaincy memoir, and even the “Two Kings”children’s books series– received a telephone call from a kindergarten teacher in an Orthodox neighborhood in New York. Excited and out of a sense of gratitude, she wanted to tell him about the educational revolution the books had created in the kindergartens she runs. She described how, as in any educational institution where young children learn, there are good days and there are also difficult days when the children don’t behave as they should.
On one of these “not so good” days, she felt that the children were getting out of control. She stopped their activities and read to them a “Two Kings” book which she had discovered only a few days earlier. After she finished reading them the story, she turned to the class and asked how they felt. One of the cleverer children stood up and said: “Teacher, the bad king was in control of the kindergarten today. We have to start listening to the good king…”
According to the teacher, this book has initiated a huge change in her kindergarten atmosphere. Discussions now revolve around the children’s desire to listen to the good king within them.
Rabbi Jacobs often receives such reactions. Thus far, the “Two Kings” series has three volumes, with a fourth well underway.
We recently met with Rabbi Jacobs to hear about his decision to place an emphasis on publishing children’s books. We asked how a rabbi, authorized to issuehalachic rulings on questions in family purity, had chosen to add this new course of action? Why did he choose specifically the Two Kings concept? How does the material influence the children?
RABBI MENDEL’S INFLUENCE
First of all, how did you decide to begin writing children’s books?
I started creating this series a few years back. That was in very close partnership with a wonderful publishing house, Israel Bookshop Publications. They do an incredible job. In the last two years, the existing volumes were translated from English into Hebrew.
The seeds were first sown forty years ago. I was a student in Tomchei T’mimim in Kfar Chabad. I heard Reb Mendel Futerfas speaking enthusiastically about learning Tanya by heart. He constantly recalled that this was one of the things that strengthened him during his exile in Siberia, where he had no t’fillin, no kosher food, or anything else of a Jewish nature.
For several years after my wedding, I was constantly asked to perform karate demonstrations before groups of children, in school and camp settings. That was a tool for outreach, to bring children closer to religion. Of course I broke cement blocks. But, I also used the opportunity to introduce the Chassidic message of “Two Kings” struggling with one another. Karate demos and this inner struggle we all have were a natural combination.
At some point I began presenting my karate demonstrations by putting on a play. I acted as the good king. One of the organizers dressed up in the costume of the bad king. The play was hugely popular. Years passed since then. I put this work aside in favor of my responsibilities as the Chabad campus rabbi of Tel Aviv University, an Israeli prison officer, a Major, and chaplain and later as an author of books on practical Talmudic law.
However, in recent years, as part of my work with the adult community, I realized the tremendous importance of providing a proper education at an early age as a preventive measure against future problems. I therefore decided to create children’s books as an inspiration from the karate demonstrations of earlier years.
Tell us about the challenges you faced in creating children’s books. Surely it’s something quite different from writing books on practical Talmudic law…
Work on the first book was difficult and complex. Writing for children is no simple task. There is a need for considerable thought on every detail. You must make everything very clear in both content and graphically. Over a lengthy period, we searched for a talented artist who would understand how to express the message I wanted to convey. I finally came… to India, where I found someone who could do the job perfectly. Simultaneously, I invested much thought and detailed work in the book’s storyline and the choice of the proper words and sentence structure, making certain that the child could read and easily understand the message.
THE PROBLEM IS NOT THE CHILD, BUT HIS INCLINATION
Why did you choose specifically this subject? Tanya and other Chassidic texts are filled with various topics that are perhaps closer to a child’s world.
This subject is a central theme in Tanya. It winds its way through many chapters. The first chapter of Tanya concludes with Rabbi Chaim Vital’s statement that every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, has two souls, as is written, “The souls which I have made.” The second chapter speaks about the G-dly soul. The third chapter details its ten powers; the fourth chapter describes its three garments. The sixth chapter discusses the powers and garments of the ‘animal,’ vitalizing soul. Critically, the ninth chapter details where each soul is located in the person, what they want and particularly the war constantly going on between them. It was clear to me that this subject had educational potential.
Have you succeeded in bringing this message to a level that children will understand and connect with?
Children, especially nowadays, live in a highly imaginary world. I tell them a story that can easily happen to each of them, a story that relates to them. He understands that such a scenario could happen to him and he needs to react in the best way possible as he reads it in the book, and not as he might think to act otherwise.
I have a good friend, a successful businessman, who helped publish the first book. He called me one day very excited to tell me that the previous day he had told the story to his children. He reiterated what I already knew: the book’s great quality is not dealing with reward or punishment, cosmetic solutions to conflicts between parents and children or among children themselves. These books deal with the inner essence, not the external matter. It gives the child a sense of self-awareness and puts him in his proper place. This is the Alter Rebbe’s message in Tanya –you’re not the problem, it’s your inclination, it’s something inside you. Reading these enchanting books provides children with the understanding to act properly in all circumstances, not just in one specific instance or another.
A CHILD’S OPTIMISTIC HORIZON
It’s difficult to convey abstract chassidic concepts to children. How do you go about preparing your educational material?
The work is divided into two parts. First there is choosing a plot which can be expressed using the two kings format. The next step is writing a story in a clear, concise, and easily understood manner. It demands creating a story plot that will grab the child’s imagination. Using the two kings is the key, children are enchanted by the two kings characters. Using them, we demonstrate small victories for both the good inclination and the bad inclination. This is a kind of ‘ping-pong’ between the two sides, showing how things do not always go so smoothly, until the ultimate victory of the good inclination.
After completing the writing and editing comes the drawings. We invest huge amounts of time in this. We see from many of the Rebbe’s letters that the bad king should not be depicted as threatening or frightening, rather more like someone mischievous that the child can connect with. As chassidim we know that the bad king isn’t essentially bad. He really wants us to act properly and not listen to him. The bad king himself is sent only to test us, but doesn’t really want us to listen to him. This runs contrary to other Orthodox approaches, which highlight evil with black and gloomy colors. If you look at pictures appearing in other religious children’s literature, everything seems to follow that line.
As someone who was not raised in a religious household, how much does the child’s understanding that he possesses two souls help him behave appropriately?
Without a doubt this concept is nothing less than an educational revolution. A child who understands that he has two souls will always check what he is doing and to which king he’s listening.
This also leaves room for optimism. If I do something bad, it is not that “I” am bad, rather I’m currently listening to the bad inclination. The secular educational world constantly emphasizes that there is no such thing as a child who’s essentially bad. Rather, there can be a child who has gotten into bad habits, or learned to act badly. This attitude is traceable to the Alter Rebbe.
I remember on many occasions after doing a presentation we would hear children describe how the story affected the way they would thereafter deal with anger. The very fact that a child understands that he has two inclinations, one to do bad and one to do good, helps him or her to want to improve self-control.
Think for a moment about a child unfamiliar with the concept of “two kings.” From his standpoint, he has only one soul. By nature, all children, including this one, grow up to be self-centered and egotistical. “Someone hit me? I hit back. Someone takes something from me? I take something back. Someone annoys me? I complain.” As he grows older, he carries this basic premise into his married and family life.
The main thing I want to create with this series is a change in outlook at a very early age before circumstances get more difficult to handle.
STRENGTHENING THE CHILD’S SELF-IMAGE
We’ve gotten a general understanding of this project. Tell us in simpler and more practical terms how it all works. How does this change come about?
First, when we’re talking about the education of “the two kings,” it isn’t limited to two kings only. It refers to everything discussed in Chassidus in general, and especially in Tanya. We are not just talking about two kings, two souls fighting one another – and nothing more. There is more detail to the story than just that. There are the garments of the soul – thought, speech, action, and even the inner powers of the soul.
When we use the two kings parable on a level of education suitable for small children, they do not understand more nuanced factors. For young children, it is enough to bring the example of the good king and the bad king engaged in combat. However, to project this approach for older children, requires learning the entire subject and dramatizing the story with specifics brought in Chassidus.
I will bring a few examples of the influence these messages have upon children. First, the very acceptance of this concept empowers the child. Knowing that he has two kings inside elevates him to a much loftier reality. Without this concept, he is merely someone filled with emotions— sometimes angry and vengeful, other times loving and forgiving. Without a true sense of awareness and inner perception of “the two kings,” he is not dissimilar to an animal under the control of his physical urgings. The moment a child understands that he has two kings inside, we immediately see a change.
The message conveyed is that you have two kings inside you, not that you aretwo kings. Chassidus assigns the person’s “me” existence to his intellectual soul. This basic awareness is healthy, because it detaches him from his inner emotions and inclinations. It also imbues him with increased self-control. A child realizing, “I have two kings,” effectively understands that he is above these two kings. Hedecides and determines matters for them.
Secondly, the concept of “the two kings” shields the child from a negative self-image. When a child who has not been educated according to these principles falls short or errs, he is pervaded with the feeling that he is bad, he is a failure, etc. Such self-images can be dangerous. Negative self-images fuel future bad behavior.
The two kings concept also prevents an inflated ego. Even when a child behaves properly, he does not get “puffed up.” She understands that the good king won this time. She also understands that she must continue to watch herself in the future. The bad king remains strong. Any lack of alertness on the child’s part could possibly enable the bad king to take control over the small city.
These are only some advantages – a small fraction of what the Alter Rebbe has given us through the concept of “the two kings.” There are many more.
Visual elements are very effective with children. Children have vivid imaginations. When we tell a child that he has an internal good king and a bad king, he cannot always internalize this. It is an abstract concept. On the other hand, when a child sees a picture in a book or a “puppet” in a stage presentation, the concept takes on a sense of realism.
The two kings also give parents and teachers a powerful educational tool. Instead of correcting bad behavior by saying, “You’re a bad boy!” which only infuriates, they’d say something like, “Your bad king was pretty strong today.”
EVEN IN WILLIAMSBURG
Tell us about some responses you have received since publishing these books.
The responses have been amazing. The best evidence is that the books have been disappearing from the bookstores. We are printing more editions. I know about many kindergarten and grade school teachers who use these books in their educational programs. I recently returned from the States, where I did a round of speeches. During my flight, I went through several pictures from my book that were on my laptop computer. An orthodox woman was standing near me. When she noticed the pictures, she asked about my connection to them. When I told her that I was the author of an illustrative book series using these pictures, she jumped in her place.
It turned out that she is a kindergarten teacher in an Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn. She told me that educational institutions in various Chassidic communities in Borough Park and Williamsburg translated these books into Yiddish and use them. I was very happy to hear that. That’s the entire point of all this work. In addition, I receive many letters from people in various Jewish school programs, religious and secular. It gives me enormous motivation to keep moving forward and expanding.
THE STORY AND ITS MESSAGE – THROUGH VISUAL PRESENTATION
I understand that you recently went further than just printing books – putting together a high-level visual presentation on the subject.
After several years personally playing a role in these plays, I have now given way to someone far better than me. Up until a few years ago I was the Tel Aviv University Chabad campus rabbi. Then, we were privileged to bring several young men in the theatre program to Lubavitch. I remain close with all of them, in particular Rabbi Dori Yitzchak, who finished a BA in theater and works as a professional actor. Once, we were sitting and chatting together and we decided to form a partnership. I would provide the message, the scenery, and the storyline. He would present it on stage. We paid a lot of money to purchase appropriate puppets and other props for the play. To date, Rabbi Dori has performed in front of thousands of children from all sectors. The children love him and his professional one-man play. He’s a great hit.
In conclusion, we would like to hear about your future plans.
First, I’m speaking much more than I had in the past, and will continue to increase. In the scope of this project, we will be publishing more and more books in the Two Kings series. I also hope to train more Chabad theatre performers to make similar shows in different locations throughout Israel, and elsewhere. We are now focusing on the central part of the country, and want to find actors for the northern and southern regions as well.
We are presently in the midst of a particularly tense period with our Arab neighbors. The Rebbe spoke on countless occasions about the power of children – “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings You have established strength against Your adversaries, in order to put an end to enemy and avenger.” I’m well aware of the enormous affect these plays have on Israeli children, who experience these performances or read these books. These are literally the days of Moshiach, and I see my work as spreading the wellsprings of Chassidus in every respect. More details on my speaking can be seen at RabbiJacobs.com; for this project see: TwoKings.online.
Here are a couple of practical examples
using the concept of “the two kings”:
We don’t want our child to eat sweets before meals, but he wants to very much.
Parent: Son, you are not allowed to eat sweets before the meal.
Child: But I want to.
Parent: No! You’ll wait, because I said so.
Child: (angrily) But I want to!
Parent: You listen to me: Eat the meal, and only afterward I’ll give you a sweet.
Child: (starts to cry): But I want it now!
Parent: What are you? A baby?!
Most parents are too familiar with this dialogue. Now, let’s see how the conversation goes with an understanding of the concept of “the two kings”:
Parent: You are not allowed to eat sweets before the meal.
Child: But I want to.
Parent: I know that you want to.
The child waits.
Parent: I have an idea. Let’s see who’s stronger.
The child waits.
Parent: Let’s see if the bad king can wait a little. Who will be the winner – the good king or the bad king. Let’s eat the meal that Mommy prepared and I’ll give you a sweet afterwards.
The child agrees. He doesn’t feel that he’s giving in at all. Instead, he feels empowered and more mature. He has beaten his bad inclination.
Our younger son annoys his older brother, who then wants to hit him.
Mother: You’re not allowed to hit your brother.
Child: (angrily) He’s annoying me.
Mother: Stop it! What are you? A baby?! If you hit him, you’re a baby just like he is.
Child: (more angrily) But he annoys me all day long!
Mother: (yelling) I don’t care! He’s a little boy, you’re much older. You’re not allowed to fight back! If you hit him, I’ll punish you.
This exchange, too, is one familiar to many parents. Let’s see how the dialogue goes based on an understanding of the concept of “the two kings”:
Mother: You’re not allowed to hit your brother.
Child: (angrily) He’s annoying me.
Mother: Think about who is whispering to you to hit your brother back – the good king or the bad king?
The child ponders for a few moments.
NOTE: This is a critical stage in the exchange, for while the mother’s aggressive reaction in the first scenario aroused the child’s anger, the mother’s question this time gives him a chance to think. This detaches him from any feeling of revenge, even momentarily.
Mother: Who’s whispering to you to hit him? The good king or the bad king?
Child: The bad king…
Mother: What does the good king want? Let’s see who’s stronger in you – the good king or the bad king.
The child pauses, again.
Mother: And if you listen to the good king, I’ll reward you with something sweet to eat.
In this example, the child doesn’t feel compromised. He feels big and that he has the positive satisfaction of having listened to the good king.