"Off the derech" means, literally, off the path. It is a common adage in observant circles to describe people who were once observant but had since taken a different path. It is so common that it has its own acronym in our acronym crazed days, OTD. It is not intended as negatively as the phrase "off the reservation," it is more of a statement of fact. But if there is a moral judgement in it, it is certainly not positive.
Those of you who know me, know that I can’t stand pigeonholing and labeling. We are all knit of the same cloth. Some of us are observant, some of us are very observant, and some of us are crazy observant. But we are not inherently different. We don’t each get our own label. We are all on a derech.
Yet, the fact remains that "off the derech" is a popular phrase that has taken root. It exists and there is no wishing it out of existence. So rather than fight it, my approach is to make it holy. The question is how?
Pesach Sheni, the second Passover, is a Jewish holiday. I am sure that during your school years you missed an exam date or two for one reason or another. If the exam was important, you probably asked for a makeup date. That makeup date was not built into the calendar for those who chose to miss the exam. It was something you had to negotiate with the instructor.
Judaism, however, built a makeup date for Passover directly into the holiday. The first time that Jews brought the Paschal Lamb in the desert, there were several Jews who were unable to bring the offering because they were in a state of ritual impurity. They complained and asked for a makeup date. Moses consulted G-d, who responded by adding an official makeup date for Passover into the Jewish calendar. Thirty days after Passover, on the fourteenth of the month of Iyar, Jews who missed the first Passover could bring the second one.
This second chance was extended to those who were either present but impure or pure but at a distance. Those who were pure and present, had little excuse for not using the first date and were denied the second chance. In the words of the Torah, “The person who is pure and on the derech, he was not.”
See what I did there? I used the word derech. The way the Torah means it, it refers literally to the road. He was pure, and he was not on the road—at a distance. However, since the passage uses the same word as the phrase OTD—off the derech, we have an opportunity for insight. So, let’s take a closer look.
He was pure and not on the derech? The Torah could have said, he was pure and present. Why did the Torah say pure and not on the derech? Perhaps the message is precisely the point I made earlier. Where we are on the derech matters less than whether we are pure. If we have a Jewish soul, a pintele yid, no matter where we are, on the derech or off, we are pure. We are holy. And we will find our way back.
The Lubavitcher rebbe reportedly said that where a Jew is on the ladder of Judaism matters less than whether they are climbing up or down. A person can be pure even if on the derech he is not. The very fact that they are pure tells us that they belong; they are members of the tribe. They may be off the derech but just sit back and watch. You will observe their purity, their passion, and their holiness. You will see the beauty in their soul and one day you will see them racing back to the derech. Racing to the top.
Who Should I Appoint?
A rabbi once invited his student to accept a prestigious rabbinic position. The student balked and said he was not worthy. The Rabbi replied, who should receive this position, someone who thinks he is worthy?
This story provides us with an even deeper insight to the phrase off the derech. Let’s take another look at the passage. “A man who is pure and on the derech? He is not.” See what I did there? Accentuation is everything. When you read the passage with a question mark instead of a comma, it tells an entirely different story. A man who says that he is pure and on the derech, well just know that he is not. There is no such thing.
Anyone who thinks of himself as on the derech is on his way off the derech. The only way to stay on the derech is to feel like you are off and need to get back on. The moment you feel you are secure, you grow complacent. Truly pious people don’t tolerate complacency. They don’t allow themselves to be content.
Before the soul descends into the body, G-d administers an oath that says, “be righteous and don’t be wicked. However, even if the entire world tells you that you are righteous, consider yourself as if you are wicked.” It doesn’t mean that we must despair of ever being righteous. It means that we should always strive to grow and never say, I have arrived.
The Torah tells us that the heavens are above, and the earth is below. Why does the Torah state the obvious? To tell us that in earthly matters we must look to those who are below and be content with what we have. In heavenly matters we must look to those who are above and feel like we don’t have enough.
Reb Saadya Gaon, tenth century leader of world Jewry, was the dean of the great Babylonian Talmudic academy. He would famously repent every day. Even in his old age, he would say that he had advanced so much today that looking back, yesterday was off the derech and he needed to repent.
Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil lived in thirteenth century France. He wrote Sefer mitzvot katan in which he codified the mitzvot. The fifteenth Mitzvah on his list of six-hundred-and-thirteen is, “never consider yourself righteous.” The moment you think you are pure and on the derech, know that such an animal does not exist. Even our patriarchs looked to their every imperfection and used it as a justification to redouble their efforts.
King David wrote, “Open for me the gates of righteousness so I can enter through them to thank G-d.” The Baal Shem Tov explained that despite King David’s supreme piety, he felt that he had not even begun to scratch the surface of his potential; he was not even on the derech yet. He was on the outside begging for the gates to be opened so he could begin his journey.
Indeed, the truly righteous define themselves as "off the derech." Despite all their previous efforts, they have not even begun to step on to the derech yet. Their entire journey is ahead of them. Those who define themselves as the person referenced in this passage—pure and on the derech—are doomed. They are not entitled to a second chance because they will never recognize that they need it. They will feel accomplished and perfect and never realize that there is more to their journey. They will stop climbing, stop journeying, and before long, they will truly be "off the derech."
The upshot is this. If you can’t beat the label, embrace it. If you can’t get people to stop labeling Jews, then change the label into something positive. It is a compliment to say that someone is "off the derech." Because the moment they are "off the derech," they are honest, wholesome, and pure. Such people want a second chance, they want to continue their journey of growth.
Count me in! Sign me up!
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LikuteiAmarim, chapter 1 based on Talmud, Niddah, p. 30b.
Deuteronomy 4:39. This explanation is commonly cited.
Noam Elimelech, LikuteiShoshanim onPsalms 118:19
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.