Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu SafranThe writer is an educator, author and lecturer. His most recent book is “Mediations at Sixty: One Person, Under God, Indivisible,” published by KTAV Publishing House. He is the author of “Kos Eliyahu – Insights into the Haggadah and Pesach” which has been translated into Hebrew and published by Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem.
The Netivots Shalom teaches that in Mitzrayim, Hashem purposefully waited through our generations of slavery for us to finally arrive at our lowest possible spiritual and physical condition before referring to us as, “My firstborn son.” Why? He waited in order to prove to us for all time that He does not love us based on our behavior or our status; rather so we would know that we are inherently His beloved children. Therefore, His love for us is unconditional and indestructible, regardless of our debasement or situation.
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Your son, whom you so proudly carried to his bris, is always your son.
Your daughter, light of your life from the moment you first held her, is always your daughter.
A parent’s love for his or her child must be unqualified, as God’s is for His people. And yet… too often we are so brutally quick to judge our own children; and too often through the eyes of others, not even our own!
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Imagine for a moment, cherubim. Imagine them with child-like countenances. Where might you find such airy, holy creatures? In the holiest city in the world! In Jerusalem herself. And not just in the holiest city but in the holiest place in the holiest of cities, upon the Temple Mount, the kodesh kodashim, the Holy of Holies. The very ground there vibrates with the awesomeness of its holiness. For it is at this spot that God, the Master of the Universe, speaks to Moshe from above the Aron. His voice emanates from between the two cherubim, from between the countenances of babes.
Not from between the countenance of two elders, or sages or tzadikim. But two babes. Why? To teach us that to hear and receive God’s awesome messages we must maintain a pure, child-like innocence and enthusiasm, one free of preconceived notions and prejudices. We must embrace a child’s delight in learning and experience.
But do we? Sadly, no. The years make us jaded. “What is it that I can learn? I have experienced life!” We know the “slings and arrows” of our years, and they have wounded us, made us cautious, skeptical and hurtful. But such an attitude is anathema to all that is spiritual and pure. Doesn’t Hosea teach us that God loves klal Yisrael simply because we are loveable like a young child? “For Israel is a young lad and I love him.”
How hard it is for us – as the years turn our supple minds and bodies brittle – to maintain that innocence and delight! The challenge is even greater for those who are parents, for they experience the most searing of challenges and hurts from the very ones dearest to them – their children. Flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood! How they can turn us inside out! Our very own children who “have turned their backs on us and all that is sacred and precious to us.”
We see it too often. We hear of it constantly. We shed such tears as we witness it or experience it! We cry and suffer with our friends. Relationships between husband and wife suffer. Families ache. Why? Because children “fall away.” They become lost children. Such good children! From such good frum, heimishe, yeshivishe, chasidishe, chardei homes. How did they become “at risk”? How did they become OTD (off the derech)? How did these children, raised in such loving, observant homes, come to turn their backs on a Torah-centered life?
We will return to the how, but for now we must examine how we react when our children become angry, rebellious, and critical. How do we respond when our children “throw off” the garb of our community and wear torn jeans, or clothing that is not anything but true to tzniut? Or they pierce their ears or noses! We yell. We demand. We punish. We even banish, removing the “culprit” from our homes – from their homes – and, in the process, create a cycle of ever greater rejection, greater distance, greater anger.
So many good, decent, observant parents emotionally torn to shreds as their dear children become strangers before their very eyes! They banish these “strangers” for a thousand understandable reasons – because their own hearts ache, to protect their other children, because they worry what others might think… And why wouldn’t they? How can observant parents come to terms with a child of their own rejecting Torah, Shabbos, kashrut and all that is good and sacred.
They ask themselves, they ask God, “Didn’t we give our child the best of everything spiritually, financially, socially? How can you do this to us?” Their answer is deep silence.
What can the answer be when such a situation continues to spiral from bad to worse? The child rebels. The parent punishes, driving the child to greater rebellion which leads to greater punishment which inevitably leads to…
Is there another, better way?
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The Talmud in Yoma [54a] quotes Rav Katina depicting the scene when the Jews came to Jerusalem for the three regalim, “… the Kohanim would pull back the curtain in the Temple and show them the Cherubim hugging and embracing one another [one had masculine features, the other, feminine]. The priests would then say, ‘See how beloved you are before the Almighty, like the love of the male and female.’”
But when Churban and destruction of the Temple came, Reish Lakish continues in the Talmud Yoma [54b] and the enemies invaded and entered the Holy of Holies, behold, they saw the cherubim embracing like man and wife, and they brought out the cherubim out to the street and mocked the Jews, debasing them and ridiculing them for their perceived impropriety.
The question arises, How could it be that the cherubim remain so obviously loving in the midst of such unspeakable destruction and tragedy? Were we not taught that “when Yisroel did the will of God, the cherubim faced one another, but when they didn’t the cherubim faced the wall.”
Talmud Yoma [54b] speaks of Churban and yet the cherubim faced one another. How could this be? The answer is that God loves His children even in the midst of Churban, even in the midst of unbearable destruction. The Nesivos Shalom explains that the very thing our oppressors perceived as unseemly is actually the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for the Jewish people. God wanted to show that He loves, cherishes and cares for His children, the Jewish people, forever. This is true even when they are at their lowest. And it is this knowledge, that God will never forsake us, that gives us the strength to endure all the trials and tribulations of what felt to be an endless exile.
God has unconditional love for His kinderlach.
So too, the Zohar relates that when the Jewish people were exiled from their land, God said to the entire Heavenly host, “What are you doing here? My children are going into exile and you are remaining in the Heavens? All of you, get up and descend to Bavel, and I will descend with you.” Chazal declare, Wherever Yisroel is exiled, the Shechina goes with them. God does not abandon His children to go into exile unaccompanied. God goes with us.
In our pain and darkness, God is with us. He needs to be with us until that day when He will accompany us to our return. But, until that day when we are fully ready to be redeemed, He remains with us, painful as that may be for Him to endure. And of course it is painful. We are, after all, His children. No matter how lost we are, He will not turn away from us.
The Navi says: Shuvu banim shovavim –“Return you wayward children.” He does not say, “Return you wayward ones. But wayward children. God is saying to us, “You are always MY children. No matter how wayward, no matter how low you sink. You are mine.”
It is here that we fully understand the meaning of the loving embrace of the cherubim that so befuddled our enemies. Even they know that no matter what, God loves us, His people, forever.
The Talmud cites the verse that speaks of God as the One, “Who dwells among them even in their impurity.” Rav Tzadok of Lublin explains that we are still called “the portion of Hashem” even if we are mired in shmutz and defilement. Every Jew is, by nature, always and forever connected to Hashem. This is the Divine Presence that never leaves his innermost self.
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Is there another, better way for the parent who feels betrayed, hurt and frustrated by the behavior of his or her OTD child? Yes! And that way is the one that God has shown us. It is love and acceptance. Even as a child descends to the most shameful muck, you must love him, just as God loves us, no matter how far we fall.
God shows absolute and unconditional love and acceptance, even in the midst of our greatest defilement, a defilement that led to Churban and destruction. Didn’t God descend to the lowest level of muck, the 49th level, to salvage us from Mitzrayim? Where would we be now if God had simply abandoned us because He didn’t want to be seen in such muck?
If God can do it, shouldn’t we? Has any OTD child done worse than our forefathers? Has their shumtz surpassed the impurity of past generations? If God accompanied His children in the depths of their despair during the generations of galus shouldn’t we walk that extra mile for the sake of our children?
But how? How to take that first step?
The first step is so simple… and so hard. It requires us to ask, Why? Why has our child fallen? The reason the question is so hard is that we have to be fully prepared to hear the answer. And there is an answer to the question. Do not think for a moment that one day a child wakes up and thinks, “Shabbos is no longer beautiful!” Your wonderful child does not simple conclude, “Hey, treif is better than kosher!”
Something happened to push him or her off the derech.
And do not be satisfied with mumbled generalities or shrugs of the shoulder. There is a reason… find it! It requires a trauma to transform a good, caring child filled with yiddishkeit into a stranger wandering the streets.
This transformation was not a choice! It was thrust upon the child. When your child rebels in this way, it is because their neshama is in pain. What might the trauma be? Too often, it is a betrayal or abuse on the part of a trusted and respected adult.
Impossible, you think? If you believe it is so impossible, that such abuse could never happen “in my community” seek out the wisdom of Rabbi Moshe Bak (Innocent Heart at 888 506 7162 ) or Mrs. Ruchama Clapman (Mask at 718 758-0400) or reach out to Avi Fishoff (TwistedParenting@gmail.com) and learn not only that such abuse is possible but, in many cases, probable. And learn from them that there is a way to get your child back.
Your child has not turned away from you and Torah “just because.” There is a reason for his or her pain. Find out what it is so that healing can begin. Do not push your child away. That serves only to deepen his or her pain.
Our OTD children need our love and understanding, not our retribution.
Think! If your child suffered, God forbid, from cancer, would you allow your own shame or frustration to keep you from doing everything in your power to help your child? Of course not. Do not allow shame or frustration to keep you from helping your OTD child!
The road back is paved with love, understanding, hugs and honest communication. The Krule Rebbe explains, “If someone slips on an icy road and breaks a leg, he needs months of physical therapy until he can walk again… Why is this boy different? He has been broken, shattered. It will take months and months, often even longer, until he can walk on his own two feet again.”
We cannot go on sad but accepting as we lose our smartest, sweetest children, children from beautiful homes filled with warmth and yiddishkeit. It is too easy to simply “blame” the OTD child. Not only is it too easy, it is wrong!
We need to have the courage to ask why and confront the ugly truth of the answer. No doubt it is shocking, painful, frightening. It is a shreck. But until we do this, until we diagnose the problem, there can be no healing. Our experts tell us in no uncertain terms that fully 80% of all OTD children have experienced some form of abuse. If there should be a focus of our hurt, anger and retribution, it is the reality of this statistic. The shonda is that such a thing happens in our community, not that the children affected by it react with their own anger, pain and shame. And rebellion.
Let us reject our own shame and face this terrible reality, for our sakes and the sakes of our children. Only then, can we accompany our dear children back to where they belong, with us in our homes, living a Torah life.
Have no doubt, when you determine that you will face the truth with your child, they will know it. As Chani Juravel wrote in Binah magazine, describing such a parent who finally “saw the world through her child’s eyes” …sometime later, she found herself straightening and gently knocking on the door while mouthing Tuly’s name. And then, for the first time in what felt many years, she sat on her son’s bed and reached for his hand. Still sleepy and dazed, he let her take it. Malky licked her lips and began speaking softly.
‘Tuly, I want to ask your forgiveness.’
Her son looked confounded.
‘I realize that for the past few years, I’ve focused most on how much I’ve been hurting. I’ve been so angry at you. Tuly, I was focused on how your behavior destroyed our image, how much pain we have suffered. So I’m sorry, Tuly. I’m sorry that with all that being my focus, I wasn’t focused on what I should have been thinking and feeling most. I should have been thinking about the pain your neshamah is in, at how hard this must be for you. I shouldn’t have made it all about me.’
That afternoon was a turning point for Malky. And it was a turning point for Tuly, too. It was the first day in three years that he put on tefillin.’
As God’s presence comforted the Children of Israel throughout the darkness of our exile, so too will your presence comfort your child.
What to do if your child “rebels”? What to do if your child becomes an OTD child? Love him. Comfort her. And if that does not seem to work? Love him more. Comfort her more. Find out what happened.
Rabbi Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org