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Be’er Heitev: Combatting the OTD Phenomenon

September 8, 2015

There is a fascination in our community and the world beyond wit Jews who have gone “Off the Derech.” There is a a long list of memoirs written by formerly frum people who have left that community. There are organizations dedicated to helping people transition out of the frum community.

[Recently, a blog post by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman, Why Are Young People Leaving Religion? Insights from an Evangelical Sociologist ( made the rounds. ]

The stories of Jews who are “OTD” fascinate because on the one hand they offer insiders’ insight into otherwise sheltered and closed off communities. At the same time, they strike a chord with us, as I’m sure many of us have family members and/or friends who are “Off the Derech.” For many, one of the biggest fears we face is that our children will go OTD.

Though not the same “’off the derech genre” a recent column in the New York Times called “The Sabbath” by Oliver Sacks ( – one of the last pieces he published before dying last week, struck a chord.

Sacks describes his upbringing in an Orthodox home in London. Sacks began to slowly drift away from Jewish practice and observance after his Bar Mitzvah. But, he writes: “there was no particular point of rupture until I was 18. It was then that my father, inquiring into my sexual feelings, compelled me to admit that I liked boys.
“I haven’t done anything,” I said, “it’s just a feeling — but don’t tell Ma, she won’t be able to take it.” He did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”… The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.

For the rest of the article Sacks weaves together his life journey until he is reunited with his cousin Robert John Aumann, known by his Hebrew name Yisrael, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics at Aumann’s family Shabbos table in Jerusalem.  Though feeling much anxiety, all of Sacks’ fears were put to rest when he and his lover Billy were welcomed at Robert John’s Shabbos table.

“The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?”

It is so sad.

I believe that our parsha, Ki Tavo, provides some guidance in how we can proactively deal with the problem.

The parsha describes what will happen when B’nei Yisrael enter the land of Israel. We find instructions on what B’nei Yisrael are to do on their first day of entering into the land.

דברים פרק כז:א-ג

וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הָעָם לֵאמֹר שָׁמֹר אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם: וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר תַּעַבְרוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וַהֲקֵמֹתָ לְךָ אֲבָנִים גְּדֹלוֹת וְשַׂדְתָּ אֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד: וְכָתַבְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶן אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בְּעָבְרֶךָ לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר תָּבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֶיךָ לָךְ:

Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying: observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon the all the words of the Torah when you cross over in order to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord the God of your fathers promised you.

B’nei Yisrael are instructed to erect a massive monument made of stone on which is to be written כל דברי התורה הזאת – all the words of this Torah.

Later, we are instructed:

וכתבת על האבנים את כל דברי התורה הזאת באר היטב

And on those stones you shall inscribe every word of the Torah most distinctly.

What is the meaning of this phrase באר היטב “most distinctly” or more literally “well explained”?

The classical commentaries offer a range of explanations.

  • Rashi – quoting the Gemara Sotah 32a: says be’er heitev means בשבעים לשון in 70 language
  • Ibn Ezra says it refers to הכתיבה the writing
  • Rav Sa’adia Gaon, quoted by Ibn Ezra says it means מספר המצות – the tally of the Mitzvot
  • Ramban – שהיתה כל התורה כתובה בהן מבראשית עד לעיני כל ישראל בתאגיה וזיוניה – the crowns and flourishes that adorn the letters of the Torah.

I believe that each of these explanations complement each other and help us to understand what it means to be individuals and a community committed to Torah, and how our community can keep more of our members “in the fold.” Our lives of Torah must be embodied with באר היטב.Let me explain:

Rashi – who says it means שבעים לשון (70 languages). Torah must be accessible. We must do all we can to assure that there are no barriers to anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of Torah or who wants to be become more involved in Jewish life. The Torah that we teach must be clear and understandable. Torah is not only for those who have been privileged with extensive Jewish educations. The Torah speaks to everyone.
The same is true of our community. Our community must be one that is accessible and welcoming of everyone.

Ibn Ezra – who thinks that Be’er Heitev means the writing. The writing signifies how we present Torah to others. If we were to imagine the original monument, in all likelihood the other nations did not understand what the words meant. But if something is written clearly and beautifully, it is still attractive to those who don’t understand it. The insistence the Torah be of nice writing means for us that we must present Judaism and our Jewish lifestyles as attractive to others.

Rav Sa’adia Gaon– מנין המצות. For Rav Sa’adia Gaon the concern is about knowing what to do, having a plan of action. We too must have an action plan – to know what it is that Hashem wants of us and to have a plan of how we will achieve our goals and embody the Torah values which we espouse.

Ramban – the crowns and flourishes. For me, this represents a sense of mystery and awe. While it is true that Torah must be accessible, it should also maintain a sense of mystery – a sense that there is always more to learn and more to know. We must learn Torah and live Torah with a sense of humility. We can never think that we have mastered Torah or learned all there is to know. Let us commit ourselves this year to living a life of Torah characterized as באר היטב.

These are the elements and characteristics of a Torah community and of individuals committed to Torah. This is what our community should look like, and it is because Oliver Sacks and so many others did not experience a community devoted to באר היטב that they left traditional Judaism.   To be honest, each of them, and everyone else who leaves the Jewish tradition is influenced by an infinitely complex combination of factors. Still, one gets the sense that if more communities, individuals and families would embrace this approach to the Torah and yidishkeit, we would not be experiencing an OTD crisis.

Let us commit ourselves this year to living a life of Torah characterized as באר היטב.


From → Parsha

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