A Rabbi and mentor of mine once remarked to me that “the Book of Tanya is wasted on Chabad.” Tanya is a philosophical treatise on some of the most important and fundamental principles of Chassidus. It was written by the renown founder of Chabad Chassidus, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, more colloquially known as the Alter Rebbe. Though the study of Tanya is generally attributed to those who follow Chabad Chassidus, 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 expounding of just one interesting selection from Tanya.1
At the start of the second section of the book, “The Gate of Unity and Belief,” the Alter Rebbe spends a number of paragraphs in introduction; however brief, it is clear that from just these few pages in Tanya, wellsprings of information and profundity burst forth. The Alter Rebbe begins:
חנוך לנער על פי דרכו, גם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה” הנה, מדכתיב על פי דרכו, משמע שאינה דרך האמת לאמיתו, ואם כן, מאי מעליותא שגם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה?
“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
Not that it needs my approbation, but this is solid advice from King Solomon. In education, we mustn’t skip steps and expect from a child that which he or she is not yet capable of. Instead, we must educate each child according to his or her own current level of ability and personality. We 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 considering we are to educate only according to a child’s current abilities, this must mean, a priori, that we do not teach children the Absolute Truth.
Of course, “Absolute Truth” and “truth” are not the same thing. While there are often different truths in different situations, there is only ever one Absolute Truth.3 In order to properly educate a person, however, it is almost always wise not to begin with the harsh, Absolute Truth. In educating somebody about Shabbos, for instance, we would best begin with the aspects of Shabbos that are most beautiful and inspirational. Only much later will this person recognize that what he was originally taught might not have been completely true, and that Shabbos is in reality as much about laws, strict prohibitions, and capital punishment as it is about inspiration and rejuvenation. Similarly, one does not begin an introductory course to Judaism with the laws of the eradication of Amaleik. Early in a person’s education, only certain, usually positive, aspects of the truth will resonate as actually being true. The Absolute Truth, of course, is that Judaism is not all roses — but when one wants to represent Judaism to an newcomer, one would obviously do well not to begin with the harsher laws.
In such situations, the partial truth we tell is indeed considered to be at a certain level true, but it is not the Absolute Truth as such. Rather, we are educating “according to his way,” in keeping with the advice of King Solomon.
Considering that this is all true, the Alter Rebbe points out a rather glaring problem. The verse states that we should be educating a child only according to his current meager abilities — and not according to the Absolute Truth — in the hopes that when he grows old he will not deviate from his ways. Why would we want to do this, though? Why would we 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 we not want a person to deviate from his or her childish ways? This is the Alter Rebbe’s incredibly sharp question. Before he answers it, though, the Alter Rebbe takes a moment to lay out what it means to serve God in the first place (and thus what it is that we should even be educating our children towards):
It is well-known that Fear (or Awe) and Love are the roots and foundations of the service of G‑d. Fear is the root and basis of “Refrain from evil,” and Love [is the root and basis] of “and do good” and the observance of all the positive commandments of the Torah and the Rabbis, as will be explained in their proper place.
Let us take a moment to clarify the Alter Rebbe’s statements here. Logically, things could just as easily be seen as just the opposite of how he has laid them out. That is to say, when we are in fear of someone, we do whatever he or she tells us to do; when we love someone, we want to refrain from ever doing anything that might in any way hurt this person. What does it mean, then, to say specifically and instead that love is the root of the positive/active commandments, and fear is the root of the negative prohibitions?
To understand this, we must first know that the Hebrew words “יראה” and “אהבה” really refer to 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, all-encompassing. Everything looks positively beautiful and radiant; all is well. When in 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. 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 means, and conjures up images of, contracting, constricting, cringing, and drawing back into oneself.4 Fear is the emotional manifestation of the psychological reality of contraction. Love is the expansive personality, whereas fear is the contractive personality.
Love, expansion, or creation unchecked, however, would result in sheer chaos. All creation, all expansiveness, must, a prioi, 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. God’s creation of the world was expansive, but it was also necessarily limited and constricted in order to produce the world that we now know. This power of God to limit His creation is the root and source of our power to limit ourselves as well.
When we speak of the root of the positive commandments being “love,” we mean that their purpose is to construct, create, connect, and expand. One uses his expansive Self to draw closer to the Eternal, to bridge the gap between Man and God. When we speak of the root of the negative commandments being “fear,” on the other hand, we mean that their purpose is to constrict ourselves and our actions. After all, refraining from a sin does not create anything; it simply makes sure that there are no “blockages in the pipes,” if you will. In Kabbalistic thought, negative commandments exist to prevent any possible “blockage” in our ability to make the connection to the Eternal. All negative commandments serve to restrict our behavior and actions in order to protect us; they are all various ways of constricting our actions.
These metaphysical and mystical concepts is what the Alter Rebbe is referencing above.5 He now turns to explain what it means to love God, and how we can all best accomplish this:
Concerning the love [of G‑d] it is written at the end of the Parsha of Ekev , "Which I command you to do it, to love G‑d…” 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 G‑d. 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 G‑d] will flare and blaze with a flame which ascends of its own accord, and will rejoice and exult in G‑d its Maker and will delight in Him with wondrous bliss.
The Alter Rebbe first wonders what it means to “do” love in reference to God. Why does this verse use the terminology of “do” in reference to love? After all, love of God (or anyone, or anything for that matter) is not something you do, but something you feel.
To explain this, 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 most, waking up to pray is the annoyance, and sleeping is what is real. If we are honest, most religious experience for most people follows this same pattern. 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 but an annoyance in the face of the Eternal. This level of love is the recognition that everything in this world is but another expression of God. One can see the poetry, wisdom, and beauty of the Divine, or a person can merely see, for instance, a tree. Seeing only a tree is easy because it only requires one to see 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 avodas HaShem is taking that which at the moment is abstract and making it a tangible reality, and taking that which at the moment is tangible and rendering it 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. For the Alter Rebbe, the increased performance of mitzvos and the service of God will then follow naturally from an increased love of God. Thus, Tanya teaches 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:
Those who merit this state of Ahavah Rabbah (“great” love) are the ones who are called Tzaddikim as it is written, “Rejoice in G‑d, ye Tzaddikim.” 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 which is above the level of Ruach and Nefesh, as explained in Reishit Chochmah Shaar HaAhavah.
To the Alter Rebbe, the definition of a tzadik has nothing to do with garb nor length of bear, but is rather a person who achieves the aforementioned level of recognition and love of God.6 It is a long road to such a love of God, and a road that most will never reach the end of. 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 G‑d 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 a real psychological involvement. Merely learning Chassidus, for instance, and feeling positive in the moment is not enough. This 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 G‑d when he will meditate and reflect in his heart that G‑d is his true soul and actual life, as the Zohar comments on the verse, “[You are] my soul, I desire You;” 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 G‑d’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,” which is the sitrah achrah may the All-Merciful spare us, 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,” love will be aroused in the heart of everyone who contemplates and meditates upon this matter in the depths of his heart — to love G‑d with an intense love and to cleave unto Him, heart and soul, as was explained at length in its place…
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 avenue: The deepest sense of Self one has is God. This is a reality that is not often contemplated. Nevertheless, 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, simpler avenue: Remembering all that God has done for the Jewish nation throughout history. Any person who is capable of seeing God in history can easily come to a love of God. Why else would God do all that He has for the Jewish people other than love? Once we recognize God’s love for us, we will be naturally aroused to a love for God. Like the verse the Alter Rebbe quotes states: "As in water, face reflects face.” As basic psychology dictates, we are naturally 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 Tzaddikim 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,” 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 which will 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 avodas HaShem is a love of God, together with what this really means and how best to achieve it, the Alter Rebbe now 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 meaning7 of Scripture know [the explanation of] the verse, “For a Tzaddik falls seven times and rises up again.” 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. Even the valedictorian senior in highschool loses his sense of stability, ineluctably, as he enters a freshman into an elite college. This is the way of things in order to grow and reach 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 now 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.” It is considered a decline only in comparison with his former state, and not, G‑d forbid, in comparison with all other men, for he is still above them in his service [of G‑d], inasmuch as there remains in it an impression of his former state.
One does not lose everything he or she achieved previously as he or she 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. The very definition of growth, though, is the loss of comfort. This is why real personal growth and life transitions are often so difficult.
In order to successfully grow, and make it through the discomfort of said 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, as it were. 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 now 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 G‑d to which he has been educated and trained from his youth before he reached the level of Tzaddik. 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. The Alter Rebbe sees in this verse a powerful, important, and profound message for life, education, and growth as a human: Growth creates instability; it causes pain and discomfort, by definition. While most find the storms of instability that accompany real growth too difficult to weather, 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.
A different version of this essay also appeared in Kol HaMevaser Issue 9.4.
1. Much of the elaboration and analysis in this essay is based off a series of lectures on Chinuch 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. Hebrew text from Sefaria.org. English translation, fittingly, from Chabad.org, with minor emendations.↩
3. Halachic rulings are one such important example of this phenomena. At times, stringencies are waved in certain situations due to extenuating circumstances, but the result is the Halachic truth all the same.↩
4. This idea is very relevant to the fundamental Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum, the contraction of the Divine.↩
5. This idea is also discussed, just to give one example, by Ramban in relation to a Gemara in Yevamos that wonders which would override the other in a conflict between a positive and negative commandment. The Gemara concludes that, as a general rule, a positive commandment would overrule a negative commandment. A mixture of wool and flax is prohibited under the laws of shatnez, for instance, but we allow this prohibition to be violated in order to properly fulfill the positive commandment of techeiles. The Gemara assumes that the value of the positive commandment overwhelms the negative commandment, and so we violate the prohibition. Ramban wonders why this is so. Indeed, things seem to be just the opposite! The Halacha clearly states (S”A OC 656:1) that one must spend only 20% of his assets in order to fulfill a given positive commandment, but must spend every last penny he has in order to avoid transgressing a prohibition. Ramban concludes by stating that since positive commandments are rooted in love, and negative commandments are rooted in fear, if and when we must make a priority call between the two, it is more important to engage in an act of love than an act of fear.↩
6. Throughout Tanya, a tzadik is similarly defined as one who does not even struggle to overcome the inclination to sin, but rather naturally does good. The beinoni is one who struggles but prevails, while the rasha is one who struggles and gives in (and never does teshuvah).↩
7. This is to say, all that the Alter Rebbe is about to explain is true at the level of sod, not pshat.↩