Baal Teshuvas: This Is YOUR Journey

The always-smart Rabbi Doniel Katz suggested that I share the first chapter of the eBook I just wrote, “10 Survival Tips For Baal Teshuvas”, for those who aren’t as familiar with my writing.  I think he’s right, and I’d love to share it with you all.  So without further ado, here it is.  Chapter 1: This Is YOUR Journey.

Let’s be clear: as you grow in your acceptance of Judaism, there will be more and more people who will be invested in you. Rabbis, community members, teachers, random folks, etc. Each one of these people, more likely than not, cares deeply for you. And they want the best for you.

But no matter what, every person, no matter how deep, how special, how intelligent, cannot help but look at the world through their own lens.

And so, as you evolve, you will find that this same care can also be dangerous.

Why?

Because if you allow yourself to be too guided or too controlled, then you may very well lose your sense of self.

And (while it may seem counter-intuitive to a baal teshuva) keeping your sense of self is absolutely essential to your growth.

Because if you cannot keep that self-awareness that got you to the point of choosing to be a baal teshuva, despite what the world told you, you won’t be able to discern who to take advice from, where to learn from, when you need to change the derech that you’ve taken, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about being arrogant or ignoring the mentors around you. This isn’t about injecting Judaism with your own imagination.

No. This is about embracing that you are unique, and that the only way you can grow genuinely as a baal teshuva is to embrace that uniqueness. No one else can understand what you’re going through. Not your parents, not your rabbis, not your friends, and not even me! Imagine that.

Only you know when you’re ready to start zooming forward or to start slowing down. Or whether it’s time to change yeshivas. Or whether you should keep pursuing your dream of writing that script.

There will inevitably be times in your journey where you will take a path others, including the people who got you to where you are, may not have chosen for you. If they are mature and quality people, they will understand. If they don’t understand, perhaps it’s a good thing you’re moving on.

Either way, always remember: this journey is your journey. You are the one who has chosen to take it. You are the one that continues to choose it. And you are the one who ultimately guides where it will go.

Trust the people around you to help you. But never forget to think for yourself. You are more capable of this than you may realize.

  • I disagree with your fundamental claim that a beginner necessarily knows how to make important decisions on his or her own. Beginners may be wrong in zooming forward, and they may be wrong in slowing down. They may be wrong in changing Yeshivos. I have known various beginners who have regretted all the above.

    Also, others who have had similar experiences, or even guided many who have gone through similar experiences, can know exactly what the beginners are going through and guide them according to what’s truly best for them, which may well conflict with their inner intuition and gut feeling about what’s best for them. In fact, the mentors may well know better than the beginner what’s going on inside him or her, because the BT lacks wisdom, judgment, common sense, and discernment–like most young people.

    Put differently: We’re typically guided by our Nefesh HaBehamis (Tanya ch. 29). Who says we know what right for us? We’re naturally very biased. That’s why a mentor/asei lecha rav/mashpia is crucial and indispensable, for everyone–beginner, intermediate, or advanced. And if you’re ignoring your mentor, then either you need a new mentor you truly respect, or you need a dose of humility.

    Torah teaches that one should always increase in holiness, and certainly never decline. If someone was given a derech that connects him or her with a much higher level of holiness, and he or she chooses not to stay with it and to suffice with a mediocre level, or even one much less than he could attain if he truly desired to come close to Hashem, then a teacher should “understand” that that person succumbed to his inner weakness, or perhaps lacked the strength of character to maintain the devotion necessary to follow that derech.

    Instead of clinging to his former, G-dless way of thinking and “thinking for himself,” a beginner needs to shed all the worldly preconceptions of his previous life, embracing truth even before he has understood it (see here), and then striving to internalize it on its terms, not his own.

    • This is one tip out of 10. There are more within the book that deal with the larger difficulties of not knowing where to go and who to talk to.

      But a baal teshuva needs to learn to trust themselves. If they are letting go of all self-will when they go through the process, that’s not buttel, it’s disappearing. A person needs to both be guided and also know themselves intimately.