The Torah's Guide to Going Off the Derech

No, this title is not click bait. It might seems strange, but in a few moments, I'm going to present you with the Torah's step-by-step guide to abandoning Torah and Mitzvos and denying the existence of Hashem.

If this appears bizarre, rest assured that I'm not trying to convince you to go off the Derech. However, understanding the process might give us some insight into how to strengthen ourselves and our families, and how to help those who are struggling with their connection to Yiddishkeit.

Before we begin, it's worth examining our intuitions and experiences.

How does the journey away from Hashem begin? If we ask people who are “off the Derech” what drove them there, we might hear a wide array of responses. Anything and everything – from tragic stories of loss or abuse as children, to series of bullying and negative experiences in school. From teens we might hear about social pressures or the yetzer hara that just couldn't be overcome. Perhaps an insincere or hurtful encounter in Yeshiva? Adults might share the challenges of earning a living or stories of heartbreak and failed relationships.

In many of these cases, the road to coming back often begins with an honest, nonjudgmental invitation. Many of those who have left observant Judaism are not antagonistic, and they are open to reengagement. It might be a long process, but with time, love, empathy and validation, the doors to return are certainly still open.

But what about those who are hardened and bitter; those who are angry with Hashem and His Torah? How does one become so intolerant of Yiddishkeit?

If we were to ask them this question, invariably, these Jews will explain that they have qualms of a more painful and philosophical nature. We might hear a litany of questions about the nature of Hashem, divine (in)justice, morality and corrupt rabbinic authority.

These are the Jews who are not open to sharing a Shabbos meal, discussing the Parsha or supporting Torah causes, because they view all of Torah as inherently broken, fault or manipulative.

As the debates and demonstrations in the past few weeks in Israel indicate, there are Jews who not simply irreligious, they are decidedly anti-religious.

But despite all of the complex reasoning that a Jew might offer to explain their personal hostility towards Yiddishkeit, there is a far simpler story: They have followed the step-by-step guide to going off the Derech. It's explicit in the Pesukim of our Parsha.

How to Leave Yiddishkeit

This Shabbos, the Torah describes the actions and processes that Klal Yisrael will need to adhere to in order to achieve lives of happiness, success and Avodas Hashem:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit...

The pesukim continue to enumerate the blessings of healthy families, a secure homeland and meaningful relationships with Hashem.

But the Torah (ויקרא כו:יא) also describes the opposite:

And if you do not listen to Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant...

The ramifications of such a life are details in a series of curses and punishment.

But this description of transgressions is far lengthier and far more detailed than the positive pesukim above, prompting Chazal to analyze each of these steps. Rashi (כו:טו), quoting the Sifra notes that there are seven steps here. (Rashi's comments are italicized.)

  1. ואם לא תשמעו לי – And if you do not listen to Me : to study the Torah diligently...

  2. ולא תעשו – and do not observe all these commandments – Because you will not learn you will not practice the commandments.

  3. אם בחקתי תמאסו – מואס באחרים העושים. – if you reject My laws: mocking those who practice them.

  4. משפטיי תגעל נפשכם – שונא החכמים. – and despise My rules: This hating the Sages.

  5. לבלתי עשות – מונע את אחרים מעשות. – so that you do not observe: preventing others from practicing them.

  6. את כל מצותי – כופר שלא צויתים, לכך נאמר: את כל מצותי, ולא נאמר: את כל המצות. – all My commandments: Denying the Divine origin of the commandments, asserting that Hashem has not commanded them.

  7. להפרכם את בריתי – כופר בעיקר. – and you break My covenant: denying the great principle of the existence of God.

Rashi then concludes by explaining the connections between each of these stages:

Heresy begins humbly, with a lack of education. If you don't know your way around Jewish life, you can't and don't participate. You feel left out, unable to enjoy the social, cultural and spiritual connection that Torah offer. This pain invites questions to those around you: “Why do you do these ridiculous, archaic things?” You will then question the motives and authority of the Rabbis who promote and enable this system. Slowly, as an outsider, you see it as your mission to prevent others from falling prey to this “religious nonsense”, ultimately resolving that none of it can by true.

By presenting this “curriculum” Chazal are essentially teaching us that denial of Hashem does not cause non-observance. Quite the opposite: Atheism is an intellectual justification for a life devoid of Torah, Mitzvos, community and relationships.

But it is equally important to understand that along the way there are powerful and painful emotions of worthlessness, loneliness, confusion, hostility, animosity and scorn. It is this set of negative experiences and emotions which coalesce together, driving a person to the intellectual conclusions of heresy.

How to Come Back

The Medrash (ויקרא רבה ל״ה:ב) notes that in order to merit the Brachos of the Torah, we need to be in fulfillment of all of the requirements of the Parsha – לִכְשֶׁתְּקַיְּמוּ כָּל הַתְּנָאִים הַלָּלוּ שֶׁהִתְנֵיתִי עִמָּכֶם.

Rabbi Raphael Moshe Boleh in his Sefer Chayei Olam (ע׳ פח) writes that the same must be true of the punishments and curses as well. Only a person who is in fulfillment of such total hostility to everything Jewish is liable for the curses of the Parsha. This is to say, even a Jew who is totally non-observant, but respects Talmidei Chachamim (thus missing stage four, for example) will not suffer the pain of foreign conquest and exile.

It's an incredible insight: Every Jew is redeemable so long as they learn something or do something, however small. Every Jew can be rescued by breaking out from even a minuscule part of this cycle.

This truth presents an opportunity for all who are able to help. Can we find a cause in Torah and Mitzvos to which this Jew might feel drawn? Can we find a way to connect them to a Talmid Chacham or to a Tzaddik? Can we find the space inside our own hearts and minds to love even this Jew, so that they are inspired by our mitzvos?

Quite literally, any tiny point of connection qualifies.

Our Most Effective Defense

This week, yet again, Eretz Yisrael is facing the deadly threat of rockets from murderous terrorists who are trying to destroy our lives, our country and our homeland. Tragically, this is no surprise.

But there is something we can do to help. Thousands of years of Jewish history has shown us that national unity is our greatest weapon of defense. This too is a Pasuk in our Parsha:

וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ ... וְחֶרֶב לֹא־תַעֲבֹר בְּאַרְצְכֶם I will grant peace in the land... and no sword shall cross your land.

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh defines “peace” as:

שלא יהיה להם פירוד הלבבות – that our hearts should not be divided.

Such unity is the precursor to וְחֶרֶב לֹא־תַעֲבֹר בְּאַרְצְכֶם – no sword shall cross your land.

In the past few weeks and months, many of us have witnessed and even participated in some of the hateful rhetoric and vitriol sweeping across observant and non-observant communities in the fierce battles for judicial and political power. The debates are important, but the hatred is poison.

As Bnei Torah, it is our obligation is to act with Ahavas Yisrael, even to those who are far from Torah and Mitzvos. Or perhaps, especially to those who appear most distant. The Torah gave us the tools to notice people going off the Derech so that we might be able to step in and help each other.

As we enter the final weeks of Sefiras HaOmer, Hashem should help us to fix the failures of the students of Rebbe Akiva. He should help us to cultivate the capacity of treating each other with respect and dignity, so that we can all merit receiving the Torah this Shavuos.