A friend of mine was discussing the changes he's made in his lifestyle over the last 10 years. Hailing from a family where the traditions of Judaism were an afterthought at best, he has gradually adopted a number of observances into his life.
With the encouragement of rabbis and other mentors, he now puts on tefillin once a week, buys only kosher meat and is a semi-regular synagogue attendee. He and his wife have just enrolled their children in after-school Hebrew lessons.
"I've come a long way from where I started," he observed to me, "but I'll never be a ba'al teshuvah"(the term used to describe those who choose to lead a Torah observant life although they weren't raised that way).
Possibly it was rude of me, but I couldn't help laughing at him.
"What do you think you are now?" I said.
When you say the words baal teshuvah, people instantly think of a full-on returnee to yiddishkeit; a card-carrying black-hatter, who's made a total commitment to an Orthodox way of life.
But the word does not necessarily mean that. Teshuvah is the process of returning to one's roots and reconnecting to G‑d. For some people this takes an hour, others may stretch their journey over a lifetime.
We are all expected to be baalei teshuvah. Every time you make a subtle change for the better, or even contemplate reordering your priorities to make more room for Judaism, you've just done teshuvah.
The fifth rebbe of Ger, Grand Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter (1898 – 1992), was once speaking to a teacher in a yeshiva for newly-observant young men. The man was detailing the pedagogical methods used in the institution and the radical changes that many of its graduates had made in their personal lives. Then he realized that he might have inadvertently given a mistaken impression of his own background.
"Don't get me wrong, Rebbe," he said. "Though I work with them, I myself am not a baal teshuvah."
The rebbe responded, "Why on earth not?"
Indeed, why not? Even someone born to a family where full mitzva observance was the norm must aspire to "do teshuvah." Why am I not a ba'al teshuvah? Why have I not been inspired lately to change for the better?
Even the most famous and respected rabbis in the world declare three times a day during prayer; bring us back, our Father to your Torah and let us return to you with complete teshuvah, and (hopefully) they mean it.
In the traditional way of thinking there are no 'segments' in Judaism—the religious and the irreligious, with people occasionally moving between camps—there are just Jews. Sure there are various levels of observance and belief, but it is hoped that every Jew is moving along a continuum, approaching ever closer to G‑d.
The theme of this time of year is change. Gradual change. Constant change. Permanent change. Change for its own sake and change for G‑d's sake. Where was I last year? Where am I now? Where will I be tomorrow?
Even someone who has made a journey towards complete observance can't afford to sit back and bask in the distinction of being known as a ba'al teshuvah, but is expected to undergo a constant process of reinvention. The highest praise in Judaism is to be called a ba'al teshuvah and that's a goal to which we must all continually aspire.
Over the last decade, the man I feel proud to call my friend has made changes to his lifestyle and way of thinking that put many of us to shame. He may not currently contemplate making further changes, and indeed he may stay at his current level of involvement for years to come, yet he, like all of us, is on a lifelong journey towards G‑d, and his accomplishments to date are priceless.
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