According to the Israel Bureau of Statistics more than 200,000 people consider themselves “baalei teshuva”, Jews who have returned to observing Judaism. This is a large group of people that came from many different backgrounds. Many went through the difficult process of re-identifying themselves but there is still a common denominator between all of these people. We will bring 7 lessons that are worthwhile remembering throughout your journey.
A baal teshuva first sets out on his path with a feeling that he has a mission. We may are in different worlds and though it seems that we speak the same language, the difference is vast. One is a world of faith in G-d, as opposed to a world of convenience and personal success. With time, a world culture of teshuva was created but the two worlds remain vastly different. We alone as baalei teshuva who were in both worlds, know how great the differences are. Each side is convinced he knows all about the other but that information is based on preconceptions and stereotypes and not reality. This causes that there really isn’t any dialogue between both worlds. Conversations between these groups show how much they are ignorant of the other and how much knowledge must be introduced before any meaningful dialogue can take place. Perhaps this could be our job to be the bridge that connects and understands and enables connection between both worlds.
The concept ‘coming back in teshuva’ (Chozrim beteshuva) doesn’t really describe us well because it sounds like there is one clear type of return and we’ve found it. Finding the truth and having a relationship with G-d is both dynamic and elusive and specifically what brought us forward was that we asked and keep on asking, not satisfied with any “religiously established beliefs”. We didn’t come on this path because of family obligations or economic or social considerations. Quite the opposite, we constantly examine ourselves and relentlessly seek out the truth, delving and searching. Woe is to he who feels he has the truth in his pocket! Returning with Questions (Chozrim b’she’elah- a term for someone leaving the fold) is a more apt description of us as we always ask and ask. Too bad the term chozrim besheelah was already taken! Fortunate is he who doesn’t stop searching and end his sentences with an exclamation point; rather he continues to search for the truth and ends his sentences with a question mark.
Missile Launching Center
When launching a spacecraft or satellite to outer space the challenge is to overcome the pull of earth’s gravity. The launching needs enormous amounts of energy to send the rocket off with amazing speed. Baalei teshuva in the beginning of their journey must fight against mighty forces pulling at them; they may be rational or irrational, conscious or subconscious forces that rise inside them. They too must be extreme in the beginning, it’s a necessary stage. The trick is to know that it’s only a temporary stage and once the rocket reaches its height it must cut the motors or be lost or burned up. The stage of fire and great force are only at the launch time and not when it reaches orbit altitude. Likewise a baal teshuva must use his fire and might in the beginning to break away from the pull of his old lifestyle. Then he must use the light of the Torah in a safe manner not to burn himself or cause a short circuit but to integrate into life including marriage, relationships, and child rearing and taking care of livelihood: In short, to integrate the Torah with life.
Sprint or Marathon?
In the early stages of return the “many lights” of spirituality and sublime pleasure cause us to exert all of our effort to run and to break previous contacts. True knowledge is to know you’re not running a sprint where you expend all of your strength for a short duration. We’re running a marathon where you need to make a long term plan. You cannot overlook trivialities like the vanities of this world. What we build now is the first floor of a multi-story building so make sure the first floor is sound, on a strong base of family, livelihood, a network of friends, sufficient sleep and nutrition. All of man’s needs have their place and permitted manner to acquire them, but if you just run full speed ahead you’ll find you ran out of strength.
The Religious Evil Inclination
Not every sacrifice to sanctify G-d’s name comes from the desire to do good. There’s a whole chapter in the Torah about the “Maapilim” the forceful climbers that displayed sacrifice that wasn’t what G-d wanted. (Numbers 14, 39-45) The evil inclination with his cleverness tries to get us to fall not through regular base desires but rather in the opposite direction to more devout mitzvah performance. The Chafetz Chaim says; “he turns himself to the right strengthening a person to keep a certain desirable trait to an exaggerated degree and more than he is naturally capable of, in order to catch him and sway him away from that trait all together. For example in Torah learning; when the evil inclination sees this man desires to learn Torah, he won’t fight that desire rather he’ll intensify it to the point he’ll learn day and night and neglect himself and run himself into the ground. In that way the evil inclination will get this man to cease all Torah learning. This is true in all other holy traits. But the truth is that the way of the Torah is the middle path, as the Rambam says in the laws of traits (Deot),” concludes the Chafetz Chaim explaining, that is why the evil inclination is like a fly that sits on the entrance to both sides of our heart, to get us either by preventing doing mitzvoth or by exaggerating doing them. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov also talks of the evil inclination that dresses in mitzvoth. (Likutei Moharan, Torah 1 and Likutei Halachot, Terumot and Maasrot 3)
A Boxing Match
This is also a phenomena found in beginner baalei teshuva. Because of their great desire to learn and make up for lost knowledge, they sometimes jump above their level and have a tendency to spar as in a boxing match with other baalei teshuva to show how devout, religious or righteous they are. This is an understandable behavior of baalei teshuva in early stages and a new baal teshuva needs to find ways to stop his boxing matches and to start encouraging others and see the good in others, because that’s really our job!
When a builder builds a wall he takes out a level to see if it is coming out straight. When a person is doing spiritual building how can he see if it’s coming out straight and balanced? G-d doesn’t really send e mails or feedback so how do you know? Our holy books write that there is a way to know: through his domestic harmony getting along with his wife, and through educating his children. Generally speaking, if his house is running pleasantly and with happiness, he is in the right direction. Someone whose domestic situation is in upheaval at home, what he says is rejected or the Shabbat table ends with explosions should know these are signs something went crooked. It is natural that there will be challenges and trials, but don’t settle for this situation and seek guidance on how to succeed straightening it out and going back to the true path.