Derech is Hebrew for path or way. In the Jewish world there is a phrase that you are likely familiar with, on the derech or off the derech. Those who are on the path toward increasing their Torah observance, are described as on the derech”—on the way and making inroads. Those who are on the opposite journey—raised in an observant household and straying from this path—are described as off the derech.
Breaking with the path on which we were raised is a painful experience. No one does it just because. It is a life changing decision with internal and lasting impact. The fallout of such decisions can be real. Whether you are moving toward the derech or away from the derech, you are likely to be met with judgementalism, criticism, and even abandonment.
Some families are more open minded and continue to embrace loved ones who have strayed from their path. But others are less understanding. Some feel that their child’s rejection of their path, is a rejection of them. While this is sometimes the case, it is often not true. Sometimes children choose to change their derech for reasons completely unrelated to their parents. They might yearn for something different. They might be looking for something deeper. They might be seeking something richer.
You might assume I am talking about those who leave their family’s way to join the derech of Torah. But I am not. It is often the case that children move away from Torah observance because they are seeking a deeper relationship with G-d.
Huh? What does that even mean? Well, let me explain.
Thirsty for More
Our sages taught that Moses was a shepherd before G-d chose him to be the leader of the Jewish people. As a shepherd, he once noticed a sheep fleeing the flock and he chased after it. When he found it drinking at a brook, he murmured lovingly, “I didn’t realize you fled because you were thirsty. Had I known, I would have served you water” and he carried it back. Seeing this, G-d chose Moses to lead His children.
Many think that G-d was impressed with Moses’ concern for the individual needs of a lone sheep. The Lubavitcher Rebbe argued that it goes deeper. G-d was impressed with Moses’ empathy—his ability to understand the fleeing sheep. Moses didn’t assume the sheep fled because it was rebellious or seeking greener pastures. Moses understood that the sheep fled because it was thirsty.
A Jewish leader must be able to hear the cry of a fleeing sheep. Children who grow up on the derech, and choose to flee, are not off the derech. That is a terrible description. On the contrary. They are thirsty for a better, deeper derech. They don’t know where to seek it, but they are not running away. They are running towards.
Some religious households are scrupulous in their observance, but their discipline lacks passion. Their children are dissatisfied with their parents’ ritualistic observance and are thirsty for spirituality. They flee their parents’ home—where they are headed, they know not—but they don’t spurn. They are driven by thirst. Their parents need not feel rejected. They didn’t fail to instill in them a love for Torah. They were spectacularly successful. Their children love G-d so much that they seek a better and deeper connection.
In the 1960’s when America underwent its cultural revolution, many Jewish leaders saw the youth (many of whom were Jewish) as undisciplined and rebellious. But some saw deeper. They noted that the youth were tired of the mundane conventions of suburban life—of chasing the American dream—and were thirsty for more. Something deeper. Something to nourish their souls.
The dream of the house with the white picket fence failed to satisfy these thirsty souls, so they fled society’s conventions. But they were not running away; they were running towards. They rebelled because they were hungry for more. More meaning. More depth.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe had his finger on the pulse of these youth when he said that we can quench their thirst by teaching them Torah. The international network of Chabad Houses began in the 1960’s on college campuses and has since grown into a global phenomenon. These thirsty rebels sparked a worldwide movement. They were not off the derech. They were on a much deeper derech.
The Second Chance
The Torah tells us that Jews who were either impure or at a distance from Jerusalem during Passover, were entitled to bring the pascal lamb one month later, on Pesach Sheni. However, “the person who was pure and not at a distance” was not entitled to the second Passover. The Torah does not actually employ the words, “at a distance.” Instead the Torah says, “a person who was pure and not on the derech”—not traveling on the road. This language opens the door to an alternate but profound message.
Pesach Sheni is a second chance. It represents the idea that no matter how far we stray, we can always return. However, those who see themselves as pure and not on the derech (to a deeper relationship with G-d), because they are content with the relationship that they have, miss out on Pesach Sheni—on second chances. Since they don’t see that they are lacking, they don’t seek to deepen their relationship with G-d.
Only a person who is on the derech—as we have rendered this word—on the path to a deeper relationship with G-d—can recognize that they seek more. They will flee the dry Judaism that doesn’t slake their thirst and seek a second chance—a Pesach Sheni. They will emerge as stronger and deeper Jews.
It is not easy to see the best in others, when we are convinced that we are on the right path. It is only when we see our own fallacies that we can appreciate them in others. So long as we think that we are on the perfect derech, we castigate all who stray from our path, as off the derech. Once we see ourselves as waffling, we can see that everyone is on a derech of sorts—some deeper, others shallower.
Some have, therefore, reworked the message in this passage by reading it quite literally. The passage reads like this. “The person who is pure and on the derech was not.” On the surface it doesn’t make a big difference if the Torah says, “was not on the derech” or “on the derech was not.” But if you dig a little deeper, a shocking translation emerges.
You think you are pure and on the derech? WAS NOT. And never will be. Every single person must seek. If you are content because you think are pure and on the right derech, know that you have missed something. There is some deeper secret that you have yet to discover; a greater depth that you have yet to plumb. There is no such thing as perfection. The human condition is not perfect. Humans are seekers.
When we see that in ourselves, we can recognize it others. We stop labeling those who stray from our path as off the derech, straying from perfection, but on the derech—on the path to a deeper, richer, better, and more spiritual relationship with G-d. They know not yet, where to seek it, but that is our role. We must follow them to the brook, recognize why they went, and, like Moses, lovingly show them the way.