. . . Regarding our son, I request that you watch over him in all areas, both material and spiritual. Nowadays especially, one must be very vigilant. It is of primary importance that he be guarded from the close company of youth who have shaken off the fear of G‑d and the acceptance of His yoke, and who are vacuous and reckless. Such children might engender within him, G‑d forbid, negative character traits and unsavory thoughts—by their conversations on such subjects that the youth of some years ago had no knowledge of whatsoever. This requires meticulous supervision, being that it is an extra­ordi­nar­ily important principle. These children often have booklets or novelettes, written in Yiddish, which one friend shares with the other. Some of this material can lead the reader to alien notions about Torah, mitzvot and prayer; this, in turn, cools his ardor for all these and other such matters.1 Due to the rampant sinfulness nowadays, children also have a share in this. (May the Almighty have compassion on the remnant of the Jewish people, and may our Righteous Redeemer arrive speedily in our days.)

To this end, I ask you to supervise him with a keen eye, exceedingly well, in every detail, to ensure that he have absolutely no association with such children; that he daven and say his blessings daily; that he recite the blessings (before and after [eating or drinking]), and over mitzvot, such as the blessing over tzitzit, the ritual hand-washing, and the like. Over all such matters—it is impossible to itemize everything—I ask you to closely supervise him.

It is of primary importance to me that G‑d help my son to become a G‑d fearing person and a chassid. It is written, “Educate a child in accordance to his way, so that even when he grows old he will not depart from it.”2 Rashi explains,3 “According to what the child is taught, and the matters in which he is educated—if directed to good . . . even when he grows older, he will not depart from it.” The Metzudot Dovid comments:4

One should begin to train the young child in the service of G‑d according to the way of his understanding, [whether his understanding be] a little or a lot; once he is trained in the service of G‑d, then even when he grows older, he will not depart from it. For he will set his heart to understanding the propriety of that deed [i.e., the service of G‑d].

The underlying idea here appears to be in agreement with what is written in the introduction to Chovot Halevavot, namely, that kabbalah 5 [tradition] precedes intellectual discernment, i.e., intellectual inquiry into G‑dliness. First one must inculcate in a child’s heart, on the basis of tradition and faith, the matter of G‑d’s existence, His Unity, and other such principles, without recourse to rational proofs and corroboration. Once these principles are implanted very firmly in a person’s heart, then it is commendable for him to study in depth that which can be comprehended intellectually; to bring rational proofs substantiating and confirming their truth.6 This appears to be the meaning here,7 and in Chovot Halevavot, that one must accustom a child to the ingenuous service of G‑d and the actual performance of mitzvot, as explained above. A child should believe with an artless faith in the G‑d of Israel, that He is One and that there is no other; that He created the world out of naught and absolute nothingness, and conducts it in accordance with His will, His goodness and His kindness. In all these and similar matters, one must train and educate a child, without rationalizations or explanations. Then, when he grows old, and his intelligence is strong and capable of pondering these matters, and he is able to confirm their truth with proofs and logical arguments—he will not depart from it. Rather, his belief in G‑d and his observance of the mitzvot will be fortified.

All of this, though, is feasible only if a child is trained at the outset in the belief in G‑d and the observance of mitzvot on the basis of kabbalah. (Kabbalah in the context of our discussion does not refer to the esoteric discipline of Kabbalah, but rather to what he “receives” from his forebears or mentors—not to what he derives from his own reasoning. This is clear.) Later, he will comprehend the veracity of the matter, since this [earlier education] will act as a focal point around which his intelligence and comprehension will rotate.

Lacking this focal point, one will never be able to arrive at the truth. For such a person can easily postulate outrageous notions that are contrary to common sense and the conclu­sions of straightforward thinking. But since nothing restricts nor constrains him, who can possibly contradict him? Moreover, since nothing compels him to do so, he will not probe too deeply with his thinking; he will be satisfied with the arbitrary conclusions based on his first superficial reflections. With my own eyes, I have seen this happen.

Hence, this aforementioned pivotal point protects a person from spurious thinking, guides him to the path of truth, and brings his cognitive abilities from latency to actuality. As the author of Chovot Halevavot writes in his introduction: “There is wisdom that lies concealed in the hearts of the wise [like a hidden treasure]. If left concealed, one will not grasp it. But when revealed, none will fail to realize its veracity.”8 All this is achieved through the [above discussed] focal point.

Furthermore, even if he fails to comprehend the principle and does not fathom its truth, his belief in G‑d and his performance of the mitzvot will remain unshaken, if he has been so educated and trained from his youth. For realizing that his intelligence is still too feeble to fathom the subject’s profundity, he will not rely upon his own understanding. His strong belief in One G‑d, His Unity, and so on, will not waver—Heaven forbid—since he has been trained in this belief, and it has been well rooted in his heart.

And Heaven forbid, Heaven forbid, to study speculative philosophy before the belief in G‑d and His Torah, the observance of His mitzvot, and His service, have been firmly implanted in his heart. (There is no need, however, to study natural philosophy at all. One’s service to G‑d does not require this study, and it can only harm, not help, as I will discuss later, G‑d willing.)

Now that our previous holy mentors and teachers, the previous Rebbes of blessed memory, have bequeathed to us the “words of the Living G‑d”—Chassidus, the study of philosophy is completely unnecessary. Everything is included in Chassidus, “for it contains all,”9 as I will discuss later, G‑d willing.

Certainly no one will suspect me of boasting [in what I will presently write concerning myself], G‑d forbid; for aside from the fact that it has never been my nature to be boastful or haughty, at such times all one’s thoughts are focused, understandably, in one direction. My accounts are opened before me, and I am fully aware of my own lowly worth. May G‑d grant me the merit that this [awareness] reach the quintessence of my heart, [so that] I will return completely to Him with true remorse10 for past deeds [of mine which have been deficient], and with resolution [to improve myself] in the future, ‘turning away from evil and doing good’11 in actuality.

Therefore what I now write is only to express the matter honestly: Never in my life have I studied philosophy, not even from those works authored by our towering sages who were truly great tzaddikim. (On occasion, I have referenced something; but even then I merely examined the relevant portion, carefully avoiding anything else. And if I didn’t understand what was written, I would pursue it no further, for I knew full well that it was superfluous.) I spent my days occupied solely with Chassidus, diligently studying the words of our saintly forebears, both extensively and intensively. I devoted my mind and heart to understanding Chassidus thoroughly.

Now, thank G‑d, I can stand among the ranks of the intelligentsia, being able to logically prove many theological matters. I have also composed many discourses clarifying concepts concerning faith in G‑d, His blessed Unity, creation ex nihilo, etc. I am also capable of demonstrating conclusively to any rational person (assuming that he possesses no biases) the Divine origin of the Torah. My only source [for such proofs] is the words of Chassidus,12 bequeathed to us by our holy forebears, of which I have learnt not even one tenth. I praise and thank G‑d for His past [goodness], and I entreat Him to enable me to continue to be occupied in His Torah. And most importantly, [I pray] that this should effect an improvement in my “service of the heart,” viz., prayer, and in my fulfillment of His mitzvot.

From the above we can see that training and education in the divine service, the fulfillment of mitzvot, and the development of proper character traits such as mercy, decency and ethics should be initiated from early youth. This includes showing proper respect to all¾each according to his rank, and similarly with regard to other ethical matters, interpersonal as well as spiritual. Then, when he is old, he will not depart from it; rather a person will grow stronger and more adept in his practice.

Rabbenu Bachya13 enumerates three categories of people whom we are commanded to rebuke, one of which is youth. He writes:

While a lad is yet young and of pliable character, it is necessary to rebuke him, to create reins with which to guide him, and to draw him under the control of his “good inclination.” Such an approach will also prepare him to listen to counsel, to accept discipline and to heed the words of the Torah which are all moral reproof. Accordingly, the verse states,14 “...and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.” Abandoning a child to guide his own nature and behavior will cause problems later, when he reaches intellectual maturity. For then he will hesitate to modify his behavior, be it good or bad, and may in fact never change it, as the verse says,15 “Educate a child....” For with age, the modification of a person’s nature becomes increasingly more difficult.... Therefore, it is fitting for a young child to heed rebuke, and thereby acquire for his soul an abundance of goodness and great merit....16

The point of all the above is that one must train a youth in the divine service, and habituate him to heed and to follow rebuke and the words of the Torah.

Education is an obligation incumbent upon any person desiring to promote his own welfare and that of his child, as I will explain later. The Alter Rebbe writes:17

...for it is a Rabbinical commandment [for a father] to educate his sons and daughters concerning the positive precepts upon their reaching the age of education. How much more so is it obligatory for him to admonish and deter them from transgressing prohibitive commandments.... The actual age of education is determined [on an individual basis] according to each child’s perceptiveness and knowledge in the pertinent area. For example, a child who understands the basic notion of Shabbat is enjoined to hear kiddush and havdalah.... This criterion applies to positive precepts of both the Torah and of the Sages.18 Concerning prohibitive commandments, both of the Torah and of the Sages, a child’s education begins once he realizes that some action or food is forbidden....19

Therefore, I request that you supervise my son with a watchful eye, training and educating him in the service of G‑d, so that even when he grows old, he will not turn from it. In His abundant and gratuitous kindness, may the blessed G‑d extend my days and years, so that I may guide him in His service, to be G‑d fearing and pious. For this I continually beseech and pray to the Almighty. Knowing the innermost depths of my heart, may G‑d help me in the merit of my forebears that my son be G‑d fearing and pious, conducting himself in consonance with the will of our venerable forebears.