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What Does It Truly Mean To Be A Baal Teshuva?

The term “baal teshuva” roughly translates, from Hebrew, to “master of repentance.” The term refers to a goal, not our actual state, rather, the asymptote we are drifting towards.

Colloquially, it refers to someone who is newly religious. Whether they were raised totally secular, or significantly less religious than they are, or whether they were like me and born into a modern orthodox family that got progressively less religious as time went on, the term can be applied to them.

But what many don’t understand, especially those who are still secular and those who are “frum from birth”, is that being a Baal Teshuva is about the journey, not the destination, because it is clear to us that the destination is asymptotic.

For me it is a struggle. As much as I believe the Torah to be good and true, I don’t think I can follow everything, and I don’t really want to take on mitzvot that don’t hold meaning to me yet. I’ve been advised that the best way about it is taking it one day at a time and seeing it as a spiritual journey with no clear destination, with the goal of being the best person I can be, and living a life that reflects, embodies, and radiates Jewish values.

What people don’t see is that we sometimes “relapse.” Those who are frum from birth probably didn’t grow up eating and enjoying treif. They probably didn’t develop their sense of style using non-tsnius (immodest) clothes and looks. In fact, when we do teshuva, many of us feel that we are losing a part of ourselves, and sometimes even that we are losing ourselves.

I have a red dress that I am in love with. It covers my elbows and collarbone, but sits several inches above the knee. It is red and made of a material with a very intricate and unique pattern that I have been unable to replicate when I tried to make it into a gown. Yesterday, I had a secular friend’s wedding, and in a moment of impulsivity, I wore it.

When I was single I struggled to keep Shabbos. Sometimes I felt I would go crazy if I didn’t watch a movie when I was alone in my apartment for 25 hours straight, in my secular neighborhood.

A few weeks ago I really missed cheeseburgers, so in a moment of impulsivity, I had one.

And that’s okay. It’s all okay.  It’s a journey. There are always going to be setbacks. It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. But sometimes even these aveiros bring you closer to HaShem.

When I wore that dress, I felt naked immediately, exposed. I ignored that feeling and had a great time at the wedding anyway, but it caused me to feel a need to downplay my flashiness and reflect the tsnius in my behaviour instead. This exercise was an important one, because it allowed me to feel what it is like to be tsnius internally, even if it was to compensate for not being tsnius externally. For the rest of the week I wore the most tsnius clothes I could find because I felt I had to compensate somehow, to do teshuva, to repent. Not because I felt I had committed a grave sin (I hadn’t). Rather, because I had gotten used to dressing modestly for so long that showing that much leg gave me this feeling of nakedness that I felt a need to neutralize.

When I had the cheeseburger, I felt sick. In fact, it started out as a bacon cheeseburger but I couldn’t even look at the bacon without wanting to throw up, so I gave it to my friend. It felt wrong to me. That sort of visceral aversion was needed to discourage me from eating a cheeseburger again. I will remember how the last one made me feel.

Sometimes teshuva is like an elastic band. You need to pull it a little bit one way to send you careening the other way. Sometimes, especially in the early stages, a “break” can solidify your faith and feeling that teshuva was the right path. Sometimes doing what you aren’t supposed to do is needed to truly understand what you should be doing, viscerally, from a place deep in your neshama.

Anyone who thinks being a baal teshuva means waking up one day frum and that’s it, has probably never actually done teshuva. Unless you’re a freak of nature, taking it all on at once is a surefire way to burn out and throw in the towel.

The best you can do is to support baalei teshuva on their journey. Invite them to shiurim, for shabbos, to holidays. Lead by example by showing (not telling, unless asked) about how meaningful various mitzvot are to you. Don’t pressure them to take on mitzvot they aren’t ready to, and definitely don’t shame them for wearing a t shirt. Baalei teshuva will have questions, so feel free to answer them instead of making suggestions that might come across as judgmental. Remember, everyone does teshuva at their own pace, and that’s okay.

Don’t assume that what’s on the outside will necessarily reflect what’s on the inside. Just because a baal teshuva may not appear tsnius doesn’t mean they aren’t doing teshuva in other ways. Some of the most spiritual, connected, wonderful people simply don’t find tsnius meaningful to them and therefore don’t follow it. They may even keep kosher and shabbos and taharas mispacha, you really can’t judge them by looking at them.

The best you can do is embrace us on our journey to become better people. Remember that while other mitzvot can be learned entirely from learning Torah, derech eretz can only be learned by example.

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About the author

Nechama Moshava

Alexandra Markus is a graduate student and medical researcher living and working in Jerusalem. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, singing, baking, and traveling.

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