Elucidating a Selection from Tanya: What it Means to Educate a Child ‘According to His Way’

Tanya is a philosophical treatise on some of the most important and fundamental principles of Hassidut. It was written by the founder of Habad Hassidut, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe (or ‘elder teacher’). Though the study of Tanya is generally attributed to those who follow Habad Hassidism, the profound truth and deep philosophical discourse contained within Tanya is equally relevant to all Jews. There is a tremendous amount to be gained by all from this book, as evidenced by an analytical reading and exposition of just one interesting selection from Tanya[1].

At the start of the second section of Tanya, entitled “The Gate of Unity and Belief,” the Alter Rebbe spends a number of paragraphs in introduction; however brief they may be, it is clear that from just these few pages in Tanya, wellsprings of information and profundity burst forth. The Alter Rebbe begins:

“Educate the child according to his way, even when he will be old he will not deviate from it [Proverbs 22:6].” Since it is written “According to his way,” it is understood that it is not the path of Absolute Truth, hence of what merit is it that “Even when he will be old he will not depart from it?”[2]

When it comes to education, writes the Alter Rebbe, one mustn’t skip steps and expect from a child that of which he or she is not yet capable. Instead, one must educate each child according to his or her own current level of ability and individual personality. One should teach only that which will be most likely to resonate with each particular child, at each particular stage of his or her education. The Alter Rebbe first poignantly notes, though, that if one is obligated to educate only according to a child’s current abilities, this must mean that one does not teach a child the ‘Absolute Truth’.

What does the Alter Rebbe mean by ‘Absolute Truth’? First, it is critical to distinguish between ‘Absolute Truth’ and ‘truth’, as they are not the same. While there are often different aspects of truths in different situations, there is only ever one Absolute Truth. Halakhic rulings are one such important example of this phenomenon. At times, stringencies are waved in certain situations due to extenuating circumstances, but the result is a Halakhic truth all the same. In order to properly educate a person, however, it is unwise to be harsh regarding the whole, Absolute Truth. If a teacher was educating a student about Shabbat, for instance, he or she would best begin by highlighting the aspects of Shabbat that are most beautiful and inspirational. Later, the student will come to recognize that what he was originally taught might not have been the entire picture. Indeed, such a person will see that along with the inspiration and rejuvenation he may have initially experienced, Shabbat also includes laws and strict prohibitions. Similarly, one would be unwise to begin an introductory course to Judaism with the commandment to eradicate the Amalekites, as such a precept necessitates a nuanced understanding of Jewish Philosophy. Instead such a course would be more effective if it began with more obviously pleasant aspects of the truth that would more likely be accepted as such. The Absolute Truth is that Judaism is not a simple religion, but one that involves deep and sometimes difficult concepts. In such situations that involve teaching children or newcomers, the partial truth one tells is indeed considered to be at a certain level true, but it is not the Absolute Truth. Still it is preferable to begin with this more partial truth in order to reach a person on his or her level. In line with this understanding, one should hold to the advice of King Solomon and educate “according to his way.”

Considering the above, the Alter Rebbe points out a rather glaring problem: The verse states that one should educate a child only according to his current, limited abilities — and not according to the Absolute Truth — in the hopes that when he grows old he will not deviate from his ways. But why would one want someone to forever remain at the level of ability and understanding he or she possessed as a child — a level and understanding that is not the Absolute Truth? Why would one not want a person to deviate from his or her childish ways? Before he answers this question the Alter Rebbe takes a moment to lay out what it means to serve God in the first place, and thus what one should even be striving towards in the education of children:

It is well-known that Fear (or Awe) and Love are the roots and foundations of the service of God. Fear is the root and basis of “Refrain from evil,” and Love [is the root and basis] of “and do good” [Psalms 34:15] and the observance of all the positive commandments of the Torah and the Rabbis, as will be explained in their proper place.

Logically, this dichotomy between Fear and Love could easily have been seen in the opposite way. When one is in fear of someone, one would do whatever the feared person would command.  Similarly, when one loves someone, one would want to refrain from ever doing anything that might in any way hurt that person. What does it mean, then, to say instead that love specifically is the root of the positive commandments, and fear is the root of the negative prohibitions? To understand this, we must first know that the Hebrew words ‘yirah’ and ‘ahava’ really refer to concepts far beyond their usual simple translations of ‘fear’ or ‘love’ respectively. In truth, such terms do not refer merely to an expression of an emotion, but to a psychological reality within a person.

When in a state of love, a person’s mood is expansive, creative, and all-encompassing. Everything looks positively beautiful and radiant and all is well. In such a state of love, the self becomes very large and encompasses everything and everyone around it. Thus, when it is said both colloquially and in countless Kabbalistic works, that God created the world in love, it means that He expressed His desire to create, expand, and encompass.[3] This psychological mode of expressiveness manifests itself through the human emotion that we call ‘love’. When we speak of fear, on the other hand, we speak of the psychological reality that is the opposite of love. Fear is synonymous with the idea of contracting, constricting, cringing, and drawing back into oneself.[4] Fear is the emotional manifestation of the psychological reality of contraction. Love can then be said to be the expansive personality, whereas fear is the contractive personality.

Unchecked, love, expansion, or creation would result in sheer chaos. All creation, all expansiveness, must be limited or constricted at a certain point. Without constriction, any and all creation would be chaos. An infinite, unrestricted amount of wood, for instance, would be meaningless, but a precise and restricted amount of wood could enable the the creation of a table or a chair.

When the Alter Rebbe speaks of the root of the positive commandments being ‘love’, he means that their purpose is to construct, create, connect, and expand. One uses one’s expansive self to draw closer to the Eternal, to bridge the gap between Man and God. When referring to the root of the negative commandments as ‘fear’, on the other hand, this means that their purpose is constriction of self and action: refraining from a sin does not create anything new, but rather ensures that there are no blockages in the spiritual pipes, so to speak. In Kabbalistic thought, negative commandments exist to prevent any possible ‘blockage’ in one’s ability to establish and maintain spiritual connection with the Eternal. All negative commandments serve to restrict our behavior and actions in order to protect us; they are all various ways of constricting action.

After dealing with the above concepts, the Alter Rebbe now turns to explain what it means to love God, and how one can best accomplish this:

Concerning the love [of God] it is written at the end of the Parashah of Eikev, “Which I command you to do it, to love God…” [Deuteronomy 10:12]. It is necessary to understand how an expression of doing can be applied to love, which is in the heart. The explanation, however, is that there are two kinds of love of God. One is the natural yearning of the soul to its Creator. When the rational soul prevails over the grossness [of the physical body], subdues and subjugates it, then [the love of God] will flare and blaze with a flame which ascends of its own accord, and will rejoice and exult in God its Maker and will delight in Him with wondrous bliss.

The Alter Rebbe first questions what it means to “do” love relative to God. Why does this verse use the terminology of ‘do’ in reference to love? After all, one would assume that love of God (or anyone, or anything for that matter) is not something one does, but something one feels. To approach this question, the Alter Rebbe first explains that there are two different kinds of love of God. The first, and highest level of love of God is such that all of a person’s knowledge of God becomes real, and all else falls away as a nuisance in the face of the Absolute Truth. To illustrate this point by example: For many, waking up to pray is an annoyance, and the act of sleeping is what is experienced as real. True love of God is the reverse of this. The only way to achieve this true love of God is to train oneself to such a point that the infinite becomes the only thing that is real, and all tangible reality becomes inconsequential in the face of the Eternal. This level of love is the recognition that everything in the physical world is but another expression of God. For example, when looking at a tree a person can merely see a plant, or he can appreciate the poetry, wisdom, and beauty of the Divine in nature. Seeing only a tree is easy because it only requires one to see only that which is presently tangible, while understanding that a tree is also actually an infinite and conceptual reality is far too difficult for most to truly process.

According to Tanya, true avodat Hashem (service of God) means taking that which is initially abstract and making it a tangible reality and taking that which is initially tangible and considering it as merely the medium and vehicle for the expression of the Absolute Truth. This idea is also expressed by the apocryphal story of a certain Hassidic rebbe who remarked, “We see a wall and are told it is the devar Hashem (the word of God). In truth, we should see the devar Hashem and be told it is a wall.” To be able to achieve this is to be able to truly love God. In the view of the Alter Rebbe, the increased performance of commandments and the service of God will then follow naturally from an increased love of God. Thus, Tanya here is teaching that one should largely focus on a true love for God, and the rest will come.

The Alter Rebbe concludes his explanation of the first type of love of God as follows:

Those who merit this state of “Ahavah Rabbah” [great love] are the ones who are called Tzadikim [the righteous] as it is written, “Rejoice in God, ye Tzadikim” [Psalms 32:11]. Yet, not everyone is privileged to attain this state, for it requires a very great refinement of one’s physical grossness, and in addition a great deal of Torah and good deeds in order to merit a lofty Neshamah [upper soul], which is above the level of Ruach [spirit] and Nefesh [soul]…

To the Alter Rebbe, the definition of a tzadik has nothing to do with garb or length of beard. In his view, a tzadik is a person who achieves the aforementioned level of recognition and love of God.[5] It is a long road to such a love of God, and most will probably never reach the final destination. Due to this, the Alter Rebbe explains that there exists also a second type of love of God:

The second is a love which every man can attain when he will engage in profound contemplation in the depths of his heart on matters that arouse the love of God which is in the heart of every Jew.

The other way to come to a love of God, explains the Alter Rebbe, is to both be a focused thinker, and to process that which you study in the “depths of your heart.” A person’s study must also include psychological involvement. Merely learning Hassidic thought, for instance, and feeling positive in the moment is not enough and will never truly change or improve a person. The Alter Rebbe is here stating that one needs to allow the truths he or she learns to actually penetrate the psyche and become perceptions of reality. This is only possible if a person is a serious thinker. Presuming this to be the case, one can achieve the second type of love of God by coming to the following recognition about Him:

Be it in a general way, that He is our very life, and just as one loves his soul and his life, so he will love God when he will meditate and reflect in his heart that God is his true soul and actual life, as the Zohar comments on the verse, “[You are] my soul, I desire You;” [Isaiah 26:9];  or in a particular way, when he will understand and comprehend the greatness of the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, in detail, to the extent that his intellect can grasp and even beyond. Then he will contemplate God’s great and wondrous love to us to descend to Egypt, the “Obscenity of the earth,” to bring our souls out of the “iron crucible” …to bring us close to Him and to bind us to His very Name, and He and His Name are One. That is to say, He elevated us from the nadir of degradation and defilement to the acme of holiness and to His infinite greatness, may He be blessed. Then, “As in water, face reflects face,” [Proverbs 27:19] love will be aroused in the heart of everyone who contemplates and meditates upon this matter in the depths of his heart — to love God with an intense love and to cleave unto Him, heart and soul…

The second form of love of God derives from recognizing God’s place in the life of a Jew. The Alter Rebbe provides two avenues to reach just such a recognition. The first path is love of self, which can exemplify a love of God. The deepest sense of Self one has is God. The very fact that life exists — indeed, the very fact that there is existence at all — is owed wholly and solely to God. A person’s very soul and life-force is God; the deepest and most elemental aspect of Man is Divinity. Thus, in a very real sense, love of the Self is love of God. This is, of course, only true once a person has eliminated all the superfluous and fake reasons for self-love — but if one has accomplished this, and recognizes the Godliness within him, what remains is a love of the Self that is in fact a love of God. The second path involves the recognition of God’s love as evidenced by Jewish history. In this avenue one must contemplate all that God has done for the Jewish nation throughout history. If one can see God in history, then one can subsequently come to a love of God. Indeed, why else would God do all that He has done for the Jewish people if not for love? Once a person recognizes God’s love for the Jewish people, he or she will be naturally aroused to a love for God, just as in the simile of the verse which the Alter Rebbe quotes, “As in water, face reflects face.” As basic human psychology dictates, we are usually inclined to love those who love us.

The Alter Rebbe then returns to explain how it can be true that there is a commandment to feel a love for God:

Thus, there can be applied to this second type of love an expression of charge and command, namely, to devote one’s heart and mind to matters which stimulate love. However, an expression of command and charge is not at all applicable to the first kind of love, which is a flame that ascends of its own accord. Furthermore, it is the reward of the Tzadikim to savor of the nature of the World to Come in this world. That is the meaning of the verse, “I will give you the priesthood as a service of gift,” [Numbers 18:7], as will be explained in its proper place.

What this all means, then, is that the love of God is a natural outgrowth of certain actions. This is why we are commanded to “do” it. The commandment is to meditate on and contemplate those truths that will then naturally bring a person to a love of God. When we contemplate the truth and reality of the world, and our place within it, we will naturally be stirred towards a love of God. While the highest level of love of God is unlikely to be attained by most, we are recommended by the Alter Rebbe to come to a love of God via the two meditations just mentioned: the general recognition that God and the self are one, and the more specific recognition of all that God has done for the Jewish people out of love.

After explaining that the critical foundation for true avodat Hashem is in fact a love of God, together with what this really means and how best to achieve it, the Alter Rebbe finally returns to his initial question of what King Solomon meant when he seemed to suggest that we should educate children such that they never deviate from their youthful ways. To do so, he first explains a famous verse:

Now, those who are familiar with the esoteric meaning of Scripture know [the explanation of] the verse, “For a Tzadik falls seven times and rises up again.”[6] [Proverbs 24:16].  Especially since man is called “mobile” and not “static,” he must ascend from level to level and not remain forever at one plateau. Between one level and the next, before he can reach the higher one, he is in a state of decline from the previous level.

Between two levels, or two stages of growth, before a person finally attains the stability of the new level, a person loses the stability he or she possessed at the previous level; however, this is the way of growth and striving to a higher stage of personal development. In order for the tzadik to develop all stages of righteousness, he must fall before reaching the next stage. One must let go of the comfort and certainty of the present in order to reach towards a greater, yet unknown, future.

The Alter Rebbe further explains what it means to “fall” in the process of personal growth:

Yet, it is written, “Though he falls, he shall not be utterly cast down” [Psalms 37:24]. It is considered a decline only in comparison with his former state, and not, God forbid, in comparison with all other men, for he is still above them in his service [of God], inasmuch as there remains in it an impression of his former state.

A person does not lose everything he achieved previously as he transitions to a new stage of life. Rather, all that is lost is the prior sense of comfort, certainty, and stability. When one “falls” in the process of growth, it is not a real “fall” in the sense that there is still that which was acquired and is carried over from the previous stages. The knowledge and experience of the past is surely brought along into the future. The only thing that is lost between stages of life is that sense of stability and comfort. This may explain why personal growth and life transitions can often be difficult.

In order to successfully grow, and make it through the discomfort of growth, without losing one’s way, a person needs a healthy and strong foundation — a foundation that remains no matter what. When a person falls as he grows, he will then fall not into nothingness, but instead onto the foundation established during his childhood. With this, he will then be able to remain steadfast in his growth, and push up and off the steady ground of the foundation upon which he fell. Without such a foundation as a safety net for the inevitable “falls” that accompany each stage of life, true growth would be at best dangerous, and at worst impossible.

The Alter Rebbe concludes by explaining what it means that a child should never deviate from the education of his youth:

The root of his service, however, is from the love of God to which he has been educated and trained from his youth before he reached the level of Tzadik. This, then, is the meaning of “Even when he will be old…” And the first thing which arouses Love and Fear, and their foundation, is the pure and faithful belief in His Unity and Oneness, may He be blessed and exalted.

We must educate children “according to their ways” in a pure faith in God’s Unity and Oneness as a foundation towards a true love of God. This is what King Solomon means in the verse quoted at the very start of this essay: “Educate the child according to his way, even when he will be old he will not deviate from it.” The Alter Rebbe sees in this verse a powerful and profound message for life, education, and growth as a human: growth creates instability; it causes pain and discomfort. While most find the storms of instability that accompany growth too difficult to bear, we must not allow our children to likewise succumb. The Alter Rebbe teaches that the principle education of a child must be towards the Love and Fear of God via the instillation of a pure belief in God’s Unity and a recognition of His Oneness. Then, as the child grows and strives towards the highest levels of love of God, and towards the ever-elusive Absolute Truth, he or she will always be able to fall back on and build upon this solid childhood foundation— a foundation from which we hope he or she will never deviate.


[1] Much of the elaboration and analysis in this essay is based off a series of lectures on Hinukh Katan (education of minors) delivered by R. Mendel Blachman in 2007. While this essay was reviewed by R. Blachman, any and all possible errors herein ought to be attributed solely to this author.

[2] All excerpts from the Tanya are taken from English translations of the work found on Habad.org,  Habad.org/library/tanya/tanya_cdo/aid/1029163/jewish/Introduction.htm

[3] See “A World of Love” by Aryeh Kaplan and, for Kabbalistic sources, the “The Purpose of Creation” by Nisson Dovid Dubov, both on Habad.org.

[4] This idea is very relevant to the fundamental Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum, i.e. the contraction of the Divine.

[5] Throughout Tanya, a tzadik (righteous person) is similarly defined as one who does not even struggle to overcome the inclination to sin, but rather naturally does good. The beinoni (average person) is one who struggles but prevails, while the rasha (wicked person) is one who struggles, gives in, and never does teshuvah, (repentance).

[6] This is to say, all that the Alter Rebbe is about to explain is true at the level of sod (secret meaning), not peshat (literal meaning).