In my previous essay, I wrote about the shanda of families turning away from their children when they became OTD children, Off the Derech. While acknowledging how hurtful and confusing it is to have children who leave the path, I wrote that the only way for them to find a way back to the path is through parental love and understanding.
Easy to write. Very difficult to employ in our lives. Even parents who love their children as only parents can, found themselves incapable of seeing their children with the same eyes of love as they had previously seen their children. In a very real sense, they had ceased to be as children and were more like strangers. And, as we know, despite precepts to the contrary, it is easier to despise the stranger than someone dear.
The reactions to my essay and position occupied the full emotional spectrum. Some parents could simply not conceive of allowing an OTD child to remain in their home. “How? How?” they wanted to know. “How do I allow such a son, eating McDonald’s treif! How can I allow such a son to stay in my home?” Others worried about the “infectious” potential of such a child. “What about the impact on my other children?” And still others simply could not find it within themselves to see their OTD child as their child. “You expect me to love this… this… this creature? Once, he was my son. No more. I hate him.”
Some parents dismissed the exhortation to love the OTD child as nothing more than “pop psychology” itself evidence of the forces in the world that drew their children off the path. The level of anger and vitriol that met my essay was astonishing and, I think, suggests the power of the position I shared.
It is easy to blame. It is easy to paint the world in simple black and white. “I’m right. She’s wrong.” Of course it is “wrong” to be OTD. Doesn’t the fact that we refer to these children as Off the Derech say as much? The pressing issue, perhaps even greater than why they became OTD is, How do we get them back on the derech? How do we salvage these beautiful children so they are not in greater danger and their lives are not thrown away?
I understand the pain, frustration and anger of the parents, even the small minority of parents whose feelings become so self-destructive and all-consuming that they would rather say Kaddish for their child. I understand. But I do not agree.
Rabbi Moshe Grylak used three of his insightful Mishpacha “Point of View” columns to try and understand how frum parents could ever allow daughters to end up on streets, either after they’d run away or by being thrown out of homes. Where, on the cold and dangerous streets, can they find sanctuary? Abandoned to such a world, how will they find their way back? He noted that there are tzadikim out there. Few, but some. There is Rabbi Yair Nahari who established Beit Naomi to give these lost girls shelter. To provide safety, love and purpose for them. But Rabbi Grylak was not interested in the tzadik to praise him, but to learn from him. “How could all this even happen?” he wanted to know. How could parents, regardless of the bad blood and resentment between them and their daughter, be indifferent to the horrors facing their daughter wandering the streets alone and unprotected, with nothing to eat, no place to sleep and such easy prey to all sorts of evil?
Rav Nahari who, chas v’chalilah, would never dream of judging such parents, noted that the situation becomes so horrible that they feel they simply cannot live under the same roof as their daughter. “They feel such terrible shame,” he explained. “They have suffered because of their daughter.” They feel betrayed and humiliated – personally and publicly. They hear the whispers of others. They feel the judgment. They are being blamed…
“A person betrayed is capable of anything,” Rav Nahari noted. “All he feels is the wrong done to him, not the humanity of the person who has wronged him.”
Rabbi Grylak told Rabbi Nahari of what he recently heard about Rav Shteinman. A number of important rabbanim came to protest that he did not object to a Nahal Haredi army unit for young men who were already OTD and on the streets. “Rav Shteinman asked one of these rabbanim if anyone had come to him yet to ask him to daven that their son should die. ‘This week, 15 fathers came to me with this request regarding their sons who had gone completely off the derech.’ That’s how far shame and betrayal can go! So that a parent tosses out his child like useless garbage!
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik z’l explains that Avraham was commanded to sacrifice Yitzchak only after his name was changed from Avram. What is the significance of a mere hei to the name? How does that help us understand the Akeda? In fact, the Rav taught, that hei is the lesson of the Akeida. Prior to the name change, parenthood was a natural state. The drive to reproduce is instinctual to all creatures, man, animal, even insect. Animals, like man, even care for and nurture their offspring. The addition of the hei proclaimed to the world that there is now a new kind of father in the world – a teaching father, whose role and mission is not merely the physical well-being of his child but also its spiritual and psychological well-being.
Torah considers children as God’s greatest gift. When given such a gift, there are certain expectations. The child does not belong to his or her family simply by sharing a family name, or because of the catered bris, or a layette delivered with great fanfare from Bloomingdales. Yes, parents are given the child. But in loving and raising their child, they must “reacquire” the child.
Like Avraham, all parents have to show they are worthy of the gift.
Hashem does not demand an Akeida from each of us, but He surely demands that, first and foremost, we love our children without rationalization, reservation, or pre-condition. Our love cannot be conditional on our children being “healthy” or “intelligent” or frum or on not being OTD.
Being a biological “parent” is not enough. We must also be abba’s and ema’s. Daddies and mommies. We must be loving, caring, listening and attuned. Avraham was commanded to take his son, his only son, the one he loved to the mountain. There must be love, otherwise, he is not your son!
If you do not love your children, you can pretend to be frum and ehrlich, you may wear your frume begadim and ask the Gadol HaDor Rav Shteinman to daven “that your son should die.” But then you are the one OTD!
Frustration, yes. Anguish, absolutely. Fear, undoubtedly. But, hate? Never!
Does the parent of a child with Down Syndrome throw that child to the curbside? Does the parent whose child is sickened with cancer say, “This is not the child I wanted” and turn his back on him? Don’t you think those parents feel fear, and confusion, and helplessness as well?
A child in need does not give you the right to abandon them. It only gives you the right to love him or her more!
Sarah Chana Radcliffe wrote a profoundly insightful “Reflections – Passing Judgment” – column in which she crystalized this point. She asks, “What about the man who ‘dresses the part’?” The man who returns from shul and poisons his household with anger, insults, and verbal abuse. All forbidden in the Torah. “If he pierces his children’s hearts with his impulsive, harsh criticisms or threatens his wife with divorce in front of them when he is particularly frustrated, is he off the derech?”
What about the parents whose children never meet their “standards”, who can never do enough around the house, who can never help enough? Or parents who “know it all” and so do not need to listen? Especially when their teen is trying to speak of the abuse taking place right under the parents’ roof only to be met with further verbal abuse because it “just can’t be”.
Are these homes of Torah, mitzvoth, hidurim and chumros? Where is the Akeida in these homes? As the tzadik Rav Asher Freund zt’l frequently told me, Vos hoben mir fun das gantzen learnen? What is the result from all of this learning? Where is the love? If children cannot find love at home, they seek whatever approximates it elsewhere!
When a broken-hearted father cried to the tzadik Reb Yankel’e of Pshevorsk zt’l, “I’m losing my son. It’s hopeless!”
“Do you give him love?” Reb Yankele asked.
“Do you give him money?”
“More than I can afford. And how does he repay me, He brings a shikse home last Shabbos! What can I do?”
“Give him more love and more money,” the tzadik advised.
After a time, the father returned and reported to Reb Yankele z’l, that when his son returned, he told his father, “All I was looking for was my father’s love.”
We all want the best for our children – and we want our children to “be the best” for all sorts of reasons, good, bad and indifferent. But we must love the child God has given us. You must be able to see the child before you and understand why they are behaving as they are; you must be able to see the piercing ache in their souls. They need you to understand.
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Rabbi Mordechai Kaminetzky recently shared a powerful story in his Ami column. Rav Aryeh Levin zt’l was standing outside his yeshiva, watching as the students were on a short break. His son, Rav Chaim, a teacher in the yeshiva, was standing next to him. The father turned to the son and asked, “What do you see, my son?”
“Children playing,” the son answered.
“Tell me about them.”
“Well,” the son responded, “Dovid is standing near the door of the school with his hands in his pockets; he is probably no athlete. Moishe is playing wildly; he is probably undisciplined. Yankel is running around in a strange manner; I guess he is not coordinated. But all in all they are just a bunch of children playing.”
Rav Aryeh sighed, “No, my son. You don’t know how to watch the children. Dovid is near the door with his hands in his pocket because he has no sweater. His parents can’t afford winter clothes for him. Moishe is wild because his rebbe yelled at him and he is frustrated. And Yankel is running strangely because his shoe soles are ripped and his parents can’t afford to fix them.
“In order to be a rebbe, you must pay attention, know each boy’s needs and make sure to fulfill them.”
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To be a parent is to be a very special rebbe. You must know each of your child’s needs and be sure to fulfill them, the greatest need being to be loved.
Resources for Parents
Rabbi Moshe Bak (Innocent Heart) (888) 506 7162
Avi Fishoff (TwistedParenting@gmail.com)
Mrs. Ruchama Clapman (Mask) 718 758 0400
These people can connect you with others who can help you.
If you have an OTD child, don’t retreat into your hurt and confusion. Reach out to those who invest all the love, understanding and sensitivity humanely possible to enlighten hurting parents how to “get their kids back.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.