The Nesivos Shalom teaches that in Egypt, 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.”
He did so in order to prove to us for all time that He does not love us based on our behavior or our status and so that we would know we are inherently His beloved children. His love for us is unconditional and indestructible, regardless of our debasement or situation.
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, we are too often so brutally quick to judge our own children – and too often through the eyes of others, not even our own.
Picture the cherubim. Imagine them with their childlike countenances. Where might you find such creatures? In the holiest city in the world – Jerusalem itself. And not just in the holiest city but in the holiest place in that holiest of cities, upon the Temple Mount, the kodesh kodashim, the Holy of Holies. The spot where God speaks to Moshe from above the aron, His voice emanating not from between the countenance of two elders or sages or tzaddikim but from between the two cherubim, from between the countenances of two babes.
To teach us that to hear and receive God’s awesome messages we must maintain a pure childlike 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, we do not. The passing years have wounded us, made us jaded, 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 because we are loveable like a young child? “For Israel is a young lad and I love him” (Hosea 11:1).
How hard it is, as the years turn our once-supple minds and bodies brittle, for us 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. 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 tears as we witness it or experience it. We cry and suffer with our friends. Relationships between husband and wife suffer. Families ache. All because children “fall away.” They become lost children. And from good frum, heimishe homes.
How did they become “at risk”? How did they go off the derech? How did these children, raised in 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 our reaction when our children become angry, rebellious, and critical. We yell. We demand. We punish. We even remove the “culprit” from our homes – from their homes – and, in the process, create a cycle of ever greater rejection, ever greater distance, ever greater anger.
So many good, decent, observant parents are 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, because they wish 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 everything else 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 that leads to greater punishment that inevitably leads to…
Is there another way, a better way?
* * * * *
The Talmud (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, says Reish Lakish (Yoma 54b), when the destruction of the Temple came and our enemies entered the Holy of Holies, they saw the cherubim embracing like man and wife and brought them out to the street to mock the Jews, ridiculing them for their perceived impropriety.
The question arises: How could it be that the cherubim remained so obviously loving in the midst of such unspeakable destruction and tragedy? Are we not taught that “When Yisrael did the will of God, the cherubim faced one another, but when they didn’t the cherubim faced the wall”?
The answer is that God loves His children 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 a seemingly endless exile.
God has unconditional love for His kinderlach.
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 Yisrael is exiled, the Shechinah goes with them. God does not abandon His children and permit them to go into exile unaccompanied.
In our pain and darkness, God is with us. He needs to be with us until that day when He will accompany us on our return. But until that day when we are fully ready to be redeemed, He remains with us, painful as that wait may be for Him to endure. And 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 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 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. Each of us is, by nature, always and forever connected to Hashem.
* * * * *
So how should a parent react when he or she feels betrayed, hurt, and frustrated by the behavior of his or her off–the-derech child? God Himself has shown us how: with 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 the churban and our exile. Didn’t God descend to the 49th and lowest level of defilement 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 off-the-derech child done worse than our forefathers? 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 to take the first step?
That first step is so simple – and so hard. It requires us to ask why our child has 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 that “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 a young person rebels in this way, it is because his or her neshamah is in pain. What might the trauma be? Too often it is betrayal or abuse on the part of a trusted and respected adult.
Impossible, you think? If you believe 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 of MASK (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, which serves only to deepen the pain.
Our off-the-derech 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. In the same manner, do not allow shame or frustration to keep you from helping your off-the-derech 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 being 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 child. Not only is it too easy, it’s wrong.
We need to have the courage to ask why – and then confront the ugly truth of the answer. No doubt it is shocking, painful, frightening. 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 percent of all off-the-derech children have experienced some form of abuse.
If there is to be a focus of our hurt, anger and retribution, it should be on the reality of this statistic. The scandal 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 sake and the sake of our children. Only then can we accompany them back to where they belong, with us in our homes, living a Torah life.
When you determine you will face the truth with your child, that child will know it. As God’s presence has 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 goes off the derech? Love him. Comfort her. And if that does not seem to work? Love him more. Comfort her more. And find out what happened.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of Communications and Marketing.
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