15 Kislev 5781 / Tuesday, December 01, 2020 | Torah Reading: Vayishlach
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Baal-Teshuva Moments

Don’t let the Evil Inclination tell you that you’re a worthless impostor because you weren’t born religious; no FFB tzaddik ever had to throw out whole closets of clothes…


There we sat, my neighbor and I, on two small chairs meant for three year old girls, at a table whose height met similar size requirements. We were there to fill out our daughters' kindergarten applications for the following school year. Actually, she was writing while I pretended to know what I was doing, trying to not appear absolutely incompetent to the teacher who was 'proctoring' the application process. I filled in the blanks requiring numbers, and held it up proudly for my neighbor to see. I can read Hebrew (with vowels, of course) but writing was a feat I had yet to accomplish. I waited for her to finish her application so she could help me with mine. After filling out the requisite standard information, we hit a few snags.

“Seminary?” she asked, pen poised and ready to write the name of some wonderful institution of frum academia that I should have attended. Now, for all those unfamiliar with the kindergarten application process for girls in this particular school system—well, the last time I felt the same type of nervousness was when I applied to college. In other words, I feared that if my daughter didn't get into the right kindergarten it could affect not only her self-esteem and future acceptances into elementary and high school, but it could impact her shidduch prospects as well!
I looked around carefully (don't want to attract any attention from the 'proctoring morah' over there). “What am I supposed to write?!” I whispered anxiously. I mean, I was at a University in Indiana for a year, and went to the Hillel house—does that count?
“Just put chutz la aretz - overseas,” I told her. She looked at me, and bless her, she wrote something in the space where in reality, there was nothing at all! I never went to seminary, for my husband and I only became religious after our marriage, while he was at law school.
“Your husband's Yeshiva,” she prompted. I rolled my eyes. “I don't know!” I waved my hands in exasperation. He only has, like, ten degrees--(he got the majors and I got all the minors—and I really needed to get this minor into kindergarten)! And although my husband's Yeshiva education may have been of the more informal variety, I think of all the learning and vast knowledge he has accumulated over the years, without a Yeshiva marquee to testify to his efforts.
“I don't know,” I said for the second time. After a few other questions, the process was finished, and I was completely wrung out. We said goodbye to the gannenet, wished her goodbye in the best Israeli accent I could muster, and we stepped out into the cool night.
Once again, without warning, my past caught me off guard, and that old feeling of inadequacy began creeping in. Seminary? Ha! Yeshiva? For the umpteenth time in my life I wondered—HaShem, how did I--we-- get here, to this small preschool in the Holy Land? The chances were so slim—and yet, He still made it happen. These moments, these “baal teshuva moments” always appear when I least expect them. They try to undermine all the good I've accomplished thus far in my religious observance, leaving in their stead disheartening thoughts about how much farther I have yet to go.
I remember heading out somewhere to do an errand, and passing the apartment where our boys were sitting, waiting for our Rav to learn. They sat looking into their seforim, faces aglow, swaying in that way that boys born into a frum life tend to do, chanting words that are as familiar to them as an 80's rock song is to their mother—and I thought—I am an impostor! How can it be that I have boys with long peyos, Baruch HaShem, sitting here learning,in an apartment overlooking the Judean hills?! How is it possible? For all the knowledge I've gained , for all the strides I've made, my yetzer hara still tries to trip me as it yells, “Impostor!”
 As I sit in the taxi, a religious woman with wig and all, I want to tell the bareheaded driver, “You hear that song on the radio, that secular song from 1986? I know it all! Every single word!” Of course, I don't say anything—but it's at times like these that my yetzer yells, “Impostor!” When my children ask a question—when they sit doing homework, delving into Navi, the Prophets, and I can't help them—when a simple question in Hebrew grammar arises, and I simply can't answer—that's when the yetzer points its gnarly finger--”Impostor!” I listen to my kids speaking Hebrew to one another, feeling like a foreigner in my own home—and all I can do is shake my head in wonderment, marveling at HaShem's sense of humor, feeling like—an impostor.
In my high school yearbook, there was a list of “the most likely to succeed”--the 'most likely' to this and 'the most likely' to that. Being that it was a public high school, there was no “least likely to be religious”. But if there had been, I would have been voted hands down. But that just proves how limited is human vision, and how limitless is HaShem. For He literally took me, and lovingly guided me to my present life, for which I am forever grateful. He knew, more than I , my potential, and he made sure that He gave me every opportunity—and an incredible one at that. For when I feel the seeds of doubt begin to sprout, I have to remember that there is Someone who believes in me, more than I believe in myself.
It is in these moments of self incertitude that I recall the words of a certain Rabbi who once gave a class in our home. He said that a Baal Teshuva is re created. To a certain extent, the person before—it's almost as if they no longer exist! Complete spiritual makeover! And of course, there's my all time favorite quote: where a baal teshuva stands, a tzaddik cannot even stand! A tzaddik never had to stop eating lobster. A tzaddik never stopped listening to the Rolling Stones. A tzaddik never had to throw out entire closets full of clothes, or entire sets of dishes. Not to mention that a tzaddik most likely never had to contend with disgruntled family members and friends due to a drastic change of lifestyle. We were faced with a choice—and we chose truth! We could have said no, taken the easy way out—we could have sent our kids to public school,saved the money on tuition, and taken a vacation to Disney--but no! We chose truth. Purity. We chose a life rich with meaning, and shed the skin of our past . At times, there are little reminders that crop up, hinting of bygone eras bless fully ended. But I am slowly learning that my past should be the impetus that propels me to a better future and growth,and that of our children—a future of holiness, in complete synchronization between the soul, and our physical existence.
For isn't this what the new year is about? New beginnings? Looking back at our past, making amends, and making resolutions for a better year? Each year HaShem blesses us with a new chance to begin anew. It is only because of our finite understanding that we fail to comprehend the bracha and opportunity that are the gifts of every new day. A chance to begin anew, a chance to be a 'new' person, free of the spiritual shackles that bound us yesterday.
So no—I am not an impostor! I am a Jew, trying to make her way in a world fraught with spiritual and physical challenge. As a Jew, this is my birthright. I, like every other Jew, have a mission to fulfill. At times, the Yetzer will throw grenades of self doubt in my path. It is my job to field them and keep going, and pay them nary a heed—and instead, I should look towards my Creator, Who is cheering me on at every impasse, and at every roadblock, ensuring a safe crossing, with His help, to a brand new tomorrow.

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