Remembering Where You Came From And Where You Are Going

Several weeks ago, on Shabbos, my 6 year old son said, “Abba, I’m bored. What did you do for fun when you were my age on Shabbos”? I wasn’t sure what to say.

To answer my son truthfully, when I was 6 years old, I had no clue what Shabbos was. I wasn’t exposed to a true Shabbos until I attended an NCSY shabbaton in 8th grade. My son’s question made me think back to what it was like for me when I started my Teshuva journey. Like everyone, I had challenges and struggles along the way towards my current level of observance. I started keeping Shabbos right before I entered 11th grade. As the only frum teenager in my city, I kept Shabbos pretty much by myself until I graduated high school and went on to yeshiva.

My son’s question really got to me. If he associated Shabbos with being bored, then in some way, I felt it was a reflection on my own personal level of yiddishkeit. Had my life as a frum Jew become mundane? My wife and I have given our children what we hope is a nurturing home full of Torah and Mitzvos. We want our kids to have positive memories of growing up frum, not the opposite. This is one of those things that I, as a BT, feared…becoming like “everyone else” whose Mitzvah observance is on cruse control.

To properly answer my son, I had to think back to why I became frum and how excited I was for any exposure to Torah-true Judaism. I’ve spent close to 19 years of my life as a Baal Teshuva. My child’s innocent question reminded me of my accomplishments in Mitzvah observance and limud Torah. I reflected on where I came from, what I had learned, the ups and the downs, and why I chose a frum lifestyle.

Even more importantly, though, I thought about where I needed to be going. With several years of learning in Yeshiva behind me, I could probably help him with homework for a few more years, but then what? What happens when my son knows Hebrew, Chumash, and Mishna better than myself? These questions alone have motivated me to learn more Torah regularly. I continuously look for opportunities to grow and people to learn from. I have a long way to go in my Avodas Hashem.

How fitting that my son’s conversation with me took place a few weeks before Shavous, the holiday when we celebrate receiving the Torah. It’s kind of the “Baal Teshuva Yom Tov”. In a way we are much like our spiritual grandfathers and grandmothers who left Egypt. It wasn’t an easy journey for them, or for us, towards ultimately accepting the Torah. And the best part of Shavous is that Hashem gives us an opportunity to accept his precious Torah once again.

In the end I simply told my son, “I grew up without knowing how special Shabbos really is to Hashem. You are very lucky to go to a great day school, where you will learn Torah for many years. Baruch Hashem, you have friends to play with, parks to play in, and a family who loves spending every Shabbos with you. You are so fortunate to have a Shabbos Kodesh every week. Let’s both try to remember that”.

14 comments on “Remembering Where You Came From And Where You Are Going

  1. I too heard Rabbi Shaya Cohen speak and he was very inspiring. I think in many ways we BTs can be more inspiring to our children than FFB parents. We lived with and without Shabbos and the like and saw that life is indeed more beautiful and fulfilling with a Torah perspective. Your answer to your child was simple and to the point – just what he needed to hear and understand.

    Kol HaKavod!

  2. We used to read, visit relatives, go to the park, get together with friends, pirchei..

    Your response to your son was very poignant and thoughtful.

  3. Thanks, Steve. It is important. I started taking my son, 6, to at 7:30 Shabbos morning minyan for the past month. He enjoys spending the time in the morning with me. When I come home, I either spend time at home with my daughter,3, or take her for a walk.
    Even growing up conservative/traditional, and going to shul, there was always “someplace to go or something to do” on Saturday afternoon. Shabbos has such a beautiful built in structure for family time.

    I just heard Rabbi Shaya Cohen (Priority 1) speak in Chicago. He topic was “Positive Parenting”. He said over and over that as important as it is to learn before you kids get up in the morning, or after they go to sleep, you have to sit and learn with your children. Let you kids know that they have a relationship with their parents, Hashem, the Torah. Baruch Hashem, we have Shavuos for the next two days.

  4. On either long Friday nights or Shabbos afternoons, one has plenty of time for leisurely meals with Zmiros, Divrei Torah and to learn with each child and the family during or after the meal. If your kids see that you value that time in that manner, that IMO is a very powerful message that they pick up at even a relatively young age.

  5. I know what I do when my son is bored on Shabbos, we walk down the block to Zevi & Neil’s place! (also neighbors)

    Great post Neil! Your kids have so much yiddishe chain, I think they’re doing just fine! Keep it up!

  6. Wow, real meaningful comments!! Thanks to all who have taken time to read my post.

    Mark- For sure “Living Inspired” (Rabbi Tatz) is something I read annually.

    Martin- Thanks! Remembering that the world is in a constant state of creation is a great way to keep mitzvos fresh.

    OOT-Maybe you shoud post something on your blog about “Men or Women: Who has it easier when it comes to blending in as a BT?” Playgroups and activities are for sure key elements to a successful Shabbos for kids.

    Zevi: Thanks

    Bob: If you believe you can damage, believe you can fix :) While socially more difficult for kids to grow up in smaller communities, I’ve found they have a stronger sense of themselves when it comes to not waivering in halachah, midos, and a Torah-True perspective.

  7. The idea in this post really hit home. it’s something i’ve been struggling with a while. About a year ago, i went through a really hard time. Over the space of a few weeks it reached the point where i knew beyond a doubt that firstly, i could not solve my problem on my own, and secondly, there was no one who i could turn to for help. Although i guess i always knew (and still know) that Hashem is the only One who can influence/change things – it was during those few months that i really almost tangibly felt it. And then, when Hashem did answer me, I can’t describe the feeling of gratitude and of KNOWING that – you davened, you asked, and Hashem “personally” answered. (Even if i do actually get things now that daven for, it doesn’t feel like that anymore.)

    Of course, since then, the feeling of connection gradually lessened and it’s funny because (in a totally non-related conversation with someone) i heard the idea of Yetzias Mitrayim as a spiritual high being followed by the “work” of Sefiras Haomer.(as mentioned in the article link above) so i’ve often thought of that, but still, it’s hard. i just have the feeling that, as the months go on, even when i try, i’m moving further and further away from that strong awareness of hashem as a tangible reality in the world.

    Things that have helped have been, firstly, realizing (as mentioned above) that the previous high came without me deciding to change myself. It was the circumstances. So now, when there are no circumstances to push me, any good thoughts/actions are worth that much more.
    Secondly, Tanya really addresses these issues and can help someone move beyond the “cruise control” (even a very “frum” cruise control!)
    Hatzlacha to Neil and to everyone wishing to reach higher levels in Avodas Hashem.

  8. Long Shabbos afternoons are when Jews, young or old, in small communities with few Jewish neighbors on their block really feel their isolation. This isolation may be part of why so many such communities are seeing their young people move away to larger, more concentrated communities here or in Israel.

    Such small communities need to think up doable Shabbos afternoon programming, so people will look forward to Shabbos afternoon and not hope to sleep it away.

  9. Neil,

    1. If he’s bored… send him upstairs. (we’re neighbors)

    2. Seriously, One of the things about myself (I’m an FFB) that I’ve learned since you moved in is that I don’t always explain things so well to my kids. I forget that they are only kids and do not have the experience that I have. I see the way you expalin things to your kids in such a way that they can appreciate it now and you will see peiros in the future. So, in other words, keep doing what your doing and don’t get discouraged.

  10. This is a great post. The statememnt you made about learning really resonates with me. Although my husband is FFB and will be able to learn with our son and daughter as they get older, I am very nervous that I won’t be able to help them. I am trying to start learning more regularly, especially the basics (Rashi, fluency in Hebrew) so I will be there to help with homework for at least the first few years. It must be even more stressful for a male baal teshuva, since I am not expected to be able to help with Mishna, etc.

    As for being bored on Shabbos, I think the key there is to make sure there are other kids around to play with. On long Shabboses kids do get bored, but if they have friends around, Shabbos becomes much more exciting. Afternoon groups are key for boys and girls as they get to be school age.

  11. I was reading something in “Praying With Fire” (reading it for the 2nd go-round) today that said something about a kid who puts on Tefillin for the first time as a kid, then, 2 years later, is still putting it on (Baruch Hashem!), but, alas, not with the same enthusiasm. The trick is not to let it get old. I know it can be hard, but we should all try to do each and every mitzvah as if we are doing it for the 1st time. This should apply to FFB’s and BT’s alike. Another way to look at it, if you don’t think you can act like it’s the 1st time, is to reflect upon what a privilege it is to be doing a mitzvah, any mitzvah!

  12. Rabbi Tatz has a great article on Inspiration and Disappointment
    (or Why a Good Time Never Lasts)
    which gives some great insight into the phenomena you describe.

    Here is an excerpt.

    “A third application is to be found in the ba’al teshuva world (ba’al teshuva describes a person who has discovered a Torah-oriented way of life after living a more secular lifestyle). Many ba’alei teshuva experience an unexpected and disturbing letdown. Often the pathway is as follows. A young person discovers Torah, becomes inspired by a Torah teacher, and begins to study. Every Torah experience, whether in learning or in contact with the Orthodox world, is spectacular. Every text studied is alive with significance, every Shabbos experience is high, and there is a phase of euphoria. Somehow though, subtly, this changes and growth has to be sought. Learning may be very difficult. Often the difficulties seem to far outweigh the breakthroughs. Many are tempted not to persevere in learning. Of course this is exactly the way it must be, real growth in learning comes when real effort is generated. Just as physical muscle is built only against strenuous resistance, so too spiritual and personality growth is built only against equivalent resistance. A person who understands this secret can begin to enjoy the phase of work; a maturity of understanding makes clear that the first phase was artificial, it is the second phase which yields real development.”

  13. Neil,


    I observed Shabbos growing up (most of the time), but, not to the level that I do now, so I know what you are talking about. You should never feel as if you have stopped growing spiritually…there is always so much more to learn, to experience, in being a Frum Jew.

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