Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

When we moved into our home fourteen years ago, there was a beautiful path comprised of slabs of bluestone, from our front door to the driveway. Over time, some stones became loose, and the cement started to crack. It made us nervous every time guests walked up the path, especially elderly guests.

After much discussion and weighing of options, we finally had a new path installed a few weeks ago. The old path was ripped up and replaced with good old concrete. The new path is not as aesthetically appealing as the old one, but it looks quaint and neat. Most importantly, it is safer and more convenient.

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There is a lot of worthy discussion about the painful phenomenon of kids who are “off the derech.” It’s important to note that it’s referred to as the derech, the road. Although roads provide us with a route to our destination, it is only the means, not the destination. In addition, not everyone needs to follow the same derech to get to the ultimate destination.

During an address delivered at the recent Torah Umesorah convention, Rabbi Gershon Miller poignantly noted that if we made our derech wider, fewer children would go off it.

My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that we must be very careful that our chinuch system never resembles a Sodom bed. It is well known (Sanhedrin 109b) that in Sodom every visitor to the city was forced to lie down in the Sodom bed. If the person was too tall the Sodomites would cut off his legs, and if he was too short, they would stretch his body. The objective of the cruel procedure was to ensure that everyone be exactly the same.

If we try to force our children (and adults) to follow a narrow and rigid one-size-fits-all derech, then we are guilty of creating a metaphorical Sodom bed as well.

It is often those who are off the beaten path and drum to their own beat who have the most creativity and ambition. But their uniqueness and free-spiritedness can be unnerving to us because we don’t know how to react to or foster their talents. We may unwittingly (or wittingly) squelch that uniqueness in trying to make such children conform to a narrower derech. Aside from emotional damage to the child, this will cause his potential contribution to be lost.

The pasuk (Mishlei 3:6) states “In all your ways know Him, and He will straighten your paths.” Rav Tzadok HaKohain (Tzidkas Hatzaddik 179) explains that derech refers to the smoothly paved road, while orach (paths) refer to the paths that aren’t paved and have more difficult terrain. The pasuk states that if we seek to be close to Hashem, not only will He help us find the direct road, but even paths we trotted in the past that led us in the wrong direction will be transformed into straight roads.

Sometimes the path to success isn’t a road at all; everyone has to chart their own derech based on their strengths and ambitions. The Jewish people, and the world in general, vitally need all types of talents and ideas – even, or especially – those less conventional.

When a child struggles in school, whether academically, socially or behaviorally, it is vital to build the child up in other ways. Rick Lavoie, a seasoned educator, notes that school is a child’s job in the sense that he/she spends every day for years going there. How would an adult going to work every morning feeling like a failure handle it?! Encouraging their interests and hobbies and maintaining a positive relationship with the child outside school and its issues is integral.

Rabbi Gershon Miller also noted that even when we use various ideas and modalities to address the unique needs of our out-of-the-box children, we feel it is bidieved, a plan B. No one can feel truly positive about himself when he feels he is living a plan B. When Shlomo HaMelech wrote that education must be al pi darko, based on the child’s way, he didn’t mean that such an approach is bidieved.

What matters most is the yiud, the destination, not the derech. Sometimes the derech must be widened, but other times it may be necessary to forge a new derech. Either way, it must be safe and embracing, a way to help the traveler get to the destination without sinking into self-doubt, unworthiness or being unwanted.

I remember seeing a slogan, perhaps from El Al, “imcha b’chol haderech – with you the entire way.” That’s a beautiful mantra for parents and educators to have. If somehow, we can convey to our youths that we are with them along the way, whatever that way entails, they will have the confidence to remain on the derech or to create a healthy new derech.

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Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, is a popular speaker and author as well as a rebbe in Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, NJ. He has recently begun seeing clients in private practice as part of the Rockland CBT group. For appointments and speaking engagements, contact 914-295-0115 or stamtorah@gmail.com. Archives of his writings can be found at www.stamtorah.info.