When we moved into our home 14 years ago, there was a beautiful path comprised of slabs of bluestone, from our front door to the driveway. Over time, some stones became loose, and the concrete started to crack. It made us nervous every time guests walked up the path, especially elderly guests.
After much discussion and weighing of options, we finally had a new path installed a few weeks ago. The old path was ripped up and replaced with good old concrete.
In addition, we added a path from the road to our front door. Until now, during the winter and after rainstorms, the ground would become slippery and muddy. The new path is not as aesthetically appealing as the old one, but it looks quaint and neat. Most importantly, it is safer and more convenient.
There is a lot of worthy discussion about the painful phenomena of kids who are OTD – Off The Derech. There is debate about why it happens, what our reaction should be, and how we can prevent it.
It’s important to note that it’s referred to as the “derech,” the road. Although roads are very important, providing us with a route to our destination, it is only the means, not the destination. In addition, not everyone needs to follow the same derech to get to the ultimate destination.
During an address delivered at the recent Torah Umesorah Convention, Rabbi Gershon Miller poignantly noted that if we made our derech wider, fewer children would go off the derech.
We are at times guilty of having a very rigid definition of success. My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, dolefully notes that we must be very careful that our chinuch system should never resemble a Sodom bed. It is well known (Sanhedrin 109b) that in Sodom every visitor to the city was forced to lie down in the Sodom bed. If the person was too tall, the Sodomites would cut off his legs; and if he was too short, they would stretch his body. The objective of the cruel procedure was to ensure that everyone would be exactly the same.
If we try to force our children (and adults) to follow a narrow and rigid one-size-fits-all derech, then we are guilty of creating a metaphorical Sodom bed, as well.
It is often those who are off the beaten path and drum to their own beat that have the most creativity and ambition. But their uniqueness and free-spiritedness can be unnerving to us, because we don’t know how to react to or foster those talents. We may unwittingly (or wittingly) squelch that uniqueness in trying to make such children conform to a narrower derech. Aside from the emotional damage to the child, it will cause the loss of his potential contribution, squelched in the name of theocratic uniformity.
The pasuk (Mishlei 3:6) states: “In all your ways know Him, and He will straighten your paths.” Rav Tzadok HaKohen (Tzidkas HaTzadik 179) explains that derech refers to the smoothly paved road, while orach (path) refers to the side path that isn’t paved and has more difficult terrain. The pasuk states that if we seek to be close to Hashem, not only will He help us find the direct road, but even paths we trotted in the past, which led us in the wrong direction, will be transformed into straight roads.
There is no one derech to becoming close to Hashem. In fact, sometimes the path to success isn’t a road at all. Everyone has to chart his own derech, based on his own strengths and ambitions. The Jewish people – and the world generally – vitally need all types of talents and ideas, even – or especially – of the less conventional.
When a child struggles in school, whether academically, socially, or behaviorally, it is vital to try to build the child in other ways. Rick Lavoie, a seasoned educator, notes that school is a child’s job, in the sense that he or she spends every day for years going there. How would an adult, going to work every morning and feeling like a failure, handle it?! Developing other hobbies and maintaining a positive relationship with the child outside of school (and school issues) is integral.
Rabbi Gershon Miller also noted that even when we employ other ideas and modalities to address the unique needs of our out-of-the-box children, we feel it is “b’dieved,” a Plan B. No one can feel truly positive about himself when he feels he is living a Plan B. When Shlomo HaMelech wrote that education must be al pi darko, based on the child’s way, he didn’t mean that such an approach is b’dieved.
At the end of the day, what matters most is the derech – the destination – not the derech. Sometimes the derech must be widened, but other times it may be necessary to forge a new derech. Either way, the derech must be safe and embracing, a way to help the traveler get to the destination, without sinking in the muddy mire of self-doubt, unworthiness, or feeling unwanted.
I remember seeing a slogan, perhaps from El Al: “Imcha b’chol ha’derech – with you the entire way.” That’s a beautiful mantra for parents and educators to have. If, somehow, we can convey to our youth that we are completely with them along the way, whatever that way entails, they will have the confidence to remain on the derech or to create a healthy, new derech.