Who Will Save Your Children From Going Off the Derech?

#KiSeitzei #תשפא

In a few days time, many of our children will file into their new classroom. They'll meet their new teachers, Rabbeim and Morot. Syllabi will be distributed, schedules will be negotiated. Learning will recommence, and along with it, all of our academic anxieties will return in full force.

But for those of us engaged in Chinuch, there is a concern far deeper than grades, skills or classroom participation. We want our talmidim to emerge from this year with greater connection to Hashem and His Torah, to Mitzvos and Yiddishkeit, Eretz Yisrael and The Jewish People.

This goal is daunting and cannot be taking for granted. But it cannot be dismissed as too overwhelming to tackle. I often think about my own classmates – the guys that finished high school along side me. I invite you to do the same. Ask yourself: which of my friends are still committed, connected and passionate about their Yiddiskeit? Are there any upsets? Any surprises?

Undoubtably, things didn't work out for some of the kids in your grade. Just like they didn't all work out so well for the kids in my grade. I have friends that haven't put on Tefillin in years. Friends that are unquestionably “off the Derech”.

This is not a point we should be willing to concede. There is much work to be done. But when things don't go well, naturally, parents will blame schools and schools will blame parents. Eventually, a few years later, everyone will blame the children themselves. But those children most often tell a different and far more specific story.

For every kid that “goes off the Derech” there were pivotal moments that drove them to that point: A dismissive comment from a Rebbe, emotional neglect from a parent, or a teacher that didn't value them. (This is without mentioning the truly devastating effects of abuse, trauma and substance abuse.)

Most often, however, the exit begins slowly, with child's behavior manifesting as disrespectful and disengaged. At this stage, they are still testing the waters – their trajectory still in flux. But these experiments are usually met with more frustration. These uninspired and unmotivated kids will gradually become drawn to excitement outside of the classroom. This, in turn, inspires greater resentment on the part of parents and teachers, until it becomes difficult to discern how to unravel the complex web of emotions, behaviors and causes.

At some point, adults throw their hands in the air. Therapists are hired, and we all begin to daven for miracles, and that the summer or the “year in Israel” will save them.

Is there a better way? I think there might be.

Rav Hirsch notes that all the secrets of Chinuch are hidden in the Parsha of Ben Sorer U'Morer – the saga of the rebellious son.

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and does not listen to them when they discipline him; then his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He does not obey our voice. He is a glutton and a drunkard.'

“Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”

The Ibn Ezra, master of P'shat notes:

והנה זה אפיקורוס, כי לא יבקש חיי העולם הזה כי אם להתענג בכל מיני מאכל ומשתה. This child is a heretic, he has no desire for this world other than to enjoy food and drink.

For the Ibn Ezra, this boy is executed for of his perverse values and unruly behavior. By all standards, he is a menace to society. The meforshim and Baalei Mussar explain the immense value of understanding this P'shat. Parents should be wary of allowing their children to engage in negative behavior. And children should ensure that they are dutiful and respectful of their parents. Any deviation could lead down a road of relentless pain and destruction.

But Chazal contend that becoming a Ben Sorer U'Moreh is almost impossible: the conditions are so difficult to produce that it could never happen. The Talmud learns a series of Drashos to explain that his parents must be the same height (familial stature). Their voices must sound the same (they should speak with unity). They should be in excellent physical heath and they must both agree to take their son to the Beis Din for judgement.

How often did such a perfect storm manifest? This is a matter of debate (סנהדרין עא):

Rabbi Shimon says: And is it simply due to the fact that the boy ate a piece of meat and drank a jug of Italian wine that his father and his mother shall take him out to stone him?! Rather, there has never been a stubborn and rebellious son and there will never be one in the future. If so, why, then, was the passage relating to a stubborn and rebellious son written in the Torah? So that you may expound upon new understandings of the Torah and receive reward for your learning.

Rabbi Yonatan says: This is not so! I saw one. I was once in a place where a stubborn and rebellious son was condemned to death, and I sat on his grave.

Much ink has been spilled explaining this peculiar discussion. It appears that Rabbi Shimon is questioning the legitimacy of the Torah's law! Moreover, how does Rabbi Shimon know that there will never be a Ben Sorer U'Moreh? And if he is correct, how could Rabbi Yonatan testify to witnessing it?!

To understand this, we need to understand the relationship between P'shat and Drash here. The simple explanation of the Pasuk (p'shat) dictates that we judge the rebellious son based on his behavior. Doing so will lead his parents and society to determine that he is irredeemable; a lost cause. But Rabbi Shimon declares that it doesn't have to be that way. We can peer deeply into the text and into the life of this boy and discover an additional level of understanding (Drash) to the Torah's law. This Drash teaches us that there is no such a thing as a completely wicked and broken child. Why does the Torah tell us these laws? דרוש וקבל שכר – if you expound upon new understandings, you will find the reward. This is a lesson for life, not just this Parsha: Don't settle for a superficial explanation.

What is the the lesson of Rabbi Shimon's drash? He explains: The adults in this child's life must be healthy, happy, talented parents and educators such that there can be no other explanation for this his rebellion. Effectively, Rabbi Shimon is challenging us: I'll accept that this kid is a Ben Sorer U'Moreh if you can prove to me that every other part of his life was perfect. Barring that, we should look at his behavior as influenced by the negativity around him and declare him innocent of his crimes. At the very least, a holistic understanding of the this boy and his story will lead to more nuanced attributions for his behavior. (Or as Rashi states: ואיכא להפוכי בזכותיה – if at all possible, we must find merit in his actions.)

Rabbi Yonatan tragically counters: “I have seen it happen that parents and schools, teachers and Rabbeim could not find it inside of themselves to find a Drasha to explain a kids life and issues. I've been to those funerals. I've cried by those graves.”

This challenge is the paradigmatic Avoda of all relationships, of parenting, education and Elul. If we are only willing to look at people on the level of P'shat, then it is easy to label people as wrong, evil, destructive and unworthy. But Chazal are telling us that there are drashos to find the good in everyone and everything. With this perspective every Jew is precious and every Jew is worth it. No one is irredeemable.

Hashem should help us to דרוש וקבל שכר – to see the world through the eyes of Rabbi Shimon so that we might learn to live in Hashem's world of Drash as well.