Is it a Fair Goal to Expect a Baal Teshuva to Strive for a Level of Greatness?

Is it a fair goal to expect a baal teshuva to strive for a level of Greatness?

Is that realistic?

Or should we be content thinking, “we know what we know, which is a heckuva lot more than the average Jew and it’s a world different (if not two!) than how I myself used to be, and I am content with the fact that I am radically different than how I was growing up.”

Or should the approach be, now that you are a frummeh Yid, you carry all the obligations of a regular frum Yid and that means working toward greatness in mitzvah performance and greater levels of middos tovos.

From a guest contributor

72 comments on “Is it a Fair Goal to Expect a Baal Teshuva to Strive for a Level of Greatness?

  1. To Shira #70: Just make it as easy on yourself as possible.

    Don’t worry about cleaning closets before Pesach. Concentrate on the important stuff, namely getting the kitchen ready. Any stray crumbs that might possibly have wound up in the closets will be nullified by the “bitul” formula.

    As far as bug checking goes, buy a bottle of one of those “vegetable wash” solutions, such as Sterily or whatever the stuff is called. Follow the instructions on the bottle, swish your veggies and berries through, wash off as directed.

    Like Pirkei Avos says, “Get yourself a friend, acquire yourself a Rav.” Find another frum woman with toddlers and a sense of humor. Find a Rav who is kindly, practical and wise. Then you can burn up the phone lines and get feasible answers to your everyday questions. Good luck!

  2. Shalom hevra, I’m coming very late to the party, and haven’t time to stay just now. I really wanted to question a few earlier comments. I’ll have to come back to do that.

    For now, Shira, just to broaden your perspective in Toronto (once called ‘the most developed Jewish city outside of Israel’) I would like to suggest very much that you meet two acquaintances of mine up there.

    The first is Rav Mordechai Torczyner, head of the fairly new Yeshiva University beit midrash. He is an amazing and unassuming talmid hacham, and was a very successful community rav, and young enough to be my son! If you’d like a taste of his personality and broad range of interests, check out his blog – The Rebbetzin’s Husband.

    The other ‘characters’ are Zac and Suzanne Kaye. Zac is the executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto. The Kayes are lovely individuals, very successful Jewish educators who don’t fit into anyone’s box.

    My sense from afar is you might really enjoy and benefit from meeting both of this families. Please tell them all that I send my respects.

    I hope I haven’t stepped out of line with my suggestions. I’ll have to come back for my questions about earlier comments.

  3. Practical advice for Passover (I have toddlers… should I clean out the closets then?).

    I don’t get the advice for bug checking. No way can I afford to buy prewashed packaged salad, and no way am I giving up fresh berries (or asparagas either)! I can’t understand it at all. I rinse things in running water, and I look them over from a normal distance and if I see a speck that is really small, I don’t do go looking closer to see what it is. Sometimes I want to just take off my glasses too ;) I wonder who they chose for checking in old times… the one with the best, or worst eye sight.

  4. To Shira #68: That’s why it’s really helpful to have a spiritual mentor (rabbi or other frum couple to talk to) who is sensible and practical and whom you feel comfortable with. A lot of what seems impossible for a normal person to accomplish is actually not so bad in real life.

    I have also found the bug-checking instructions to be “way over the top,” so to speak. And I love salad. So avoid the entire problem and buy the prewashed prechecked bags of salad from Dole and Fresh Express and the other brands with the Star K imprints and stickers. As far as strawberries go, most of the other frum women I know have given up and simply use frozen strawberries with hashgacha (Fairmont plus some haimishe brand, Bodek or Eden). I don’t know what the wedding caterers do in order to prepare those gorgeous fruit displays that feature fresh berries on top.

    Pesach drives everyone crazy, and once again it’s important to separate what’s feasible from what’s unnecessary. No, I don’t scrub toys, no I don’t kasher my drinking glasses for Pesach, no I don’t pour ammonia over the corners of chometzdike baking pans that are being packed away, no I don’t bother cleaning out the bottoms of clothes closets that have never held any food (I no longer have wandering toddlers with cookie crumbs), no I don’t check inside books because we have strict rules about not putting sefarim near any food during the year.

    Talk to a WOMAN who is “normal” and who has done Pesach cleaning to the extent of what is required and not what’s beyond. I personally concentrate on the Big Three: Stove, Sink and Refrigerator. Think INSERTS and LINERS. Sink Insert, Refrigerator Liners, Oven Insert, Shelf Liners, Countertop Liners. Clean, line and insert.

    As much as possible have separate for Pesach instead of kashering, it’s too complicated. Dishes, pots, pans, bowls, silverware, drinking glasses, wine cups, knives, graters, blenders, mixers, microwave ovens, dishwashers, handtowels, tablecloths, mitts, potholders, peelers – just pack away the chometzdike, line the shelves, take out the Pesachdike. Try to make it as easy on yourself as possible!

    I would say Shira that you should concentrate on doing the MINIMUM required to be a frum Jew, then take on more if you feel capable and if you honestly want or need to do more. Your trusted spiritual mentor (hopefully somebody who has a sense of humor too) should be able to help you distinguish between genuine frumkeit and total mishegas.

    Good luck!

  5. I will try to look up the couple you mention.

    I’ve seen “Trembling Before God” and also read the book written by the gay Rabbi who was in that film. Both seemed to come up with more questions, and dissatisfaction, than answers.

    So, these conversations go on in the comments sections of this blog? I’ll have to keep reading then.

    In answer to D (Post 62), thank you for your insight. I did attend 2 days in that Neve Program, but found it wasn’t a great fit for me at the time. I don’t think the hashgafah of that Neve program would suit me. Its great that you had a wonderful experience there.

    I read a blog entry here the other day about how we should not go crazy cleaning for Pesach, and then it went to list all the things that need to be done, and some things that are commonly done that don’t need to be cleaned…. and the list of what does need to be done was incredibly long and daunting, and seemingly impossible, to me. It went way beyond what we were told by the Rabbi here. I can’t imagine an article talking about how our homes are larger, but we don’t have maids, and then list so many things to clean out, or put away and sell.

    I also can’t wrap my head around checking for bugs. I read instructions on Star-K (I think it was them) about checking strawberries… it seems I probably need a university degree in order to know how to make a kosher salad! I don’t need practical advice… I know how to soak things, and check things, I just can’t imagine how ancient people in Israel, without eyeglasses, and without abundant running water, were really able to do this.

  6. I think there’s also a timing problem here. Once August and Elul arrive, all of a sudden people are going to be focusing on the inyanim of personal growth, teshuvah, striving to do better, etc. Rabbonim will be giving droshos about getting ready for the Yamim Noraim and we as a community will be polishing up our New Year’s Resolutions in time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Destroying chometz isn’t the worry of Teves and improving one’s performance of mitzvos isn’t the concern of Tammuz. I’m sure that if this thread continues into October we’ll see a lot of extremely valuable comments on this issue. As it says in Mishlei, “Everything in its season.”

  7. To Shira #60 and #61: I’m happy that you live in a vibrant frum community like Toronto, with a liberal rabbi whom you feel you could learn from, even if only up to a certain point.

    In the Greater Toronto area, there is a wonderful couple named Rabbi Howard and Rivka Finkelstein, from Nepean, Ontario. I know Rivka from waaaaay back, when we were both single BT’s living in Brooklyn, New York. They are great people to talk to and would not push any kinds of agendas on you. Tell Rivka Finkelstein that Judy Resnick sent you, and you’ll get a royal welcome (I hope!).

    As far as Judaism being accepting of people who are gay or who do not want children, that’s an extremely difficult subject. Orthodox Judaism has always encouraged early marriage and big families. Our religion is fundamentally very child-centered, marriage-centered and family-values-centered. One of the first mitzvos in the Torah is “Pru Urvu,” be fruitful and multiply.

    I would recommend the excellent documentary, “Trembling Before G-d,” which discusses Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality and presents the viewpoints of a number of well-known Orthodox Jewish rabbis on the topic.

    You can show kindness and dignity to homosexuals and lesbians as people, but their lifestyle is not acceptable to Orthodox Judaism; this is not bigotry or homophobia, but a rejection of certain practices as being antithetical to the Torah. The guidance of a rabbi or a spiritual mentor whom you trust would be particularly helpful in this area.

    Regretfully, I don’t know of other forums for BT’s and Gairim other than this one. I’m sure that the various commenters will come up with some very good ideas for you to consider.

  8. Oy. This isn’t a question of הלכה, but of “what do YOU think?”, so I’ll say this in my own name, from my own experience, and not involve and/or miss-state the views of one-or-more Gedolim.

    In the same way that we’re taught to give צדקה (but not על חשבון the needs of one’s family), so too, we should continue to learn, and do, and evolve –מעלין בקודש ולא מורדין (but not על חשבון one’s family).

    Study the פרשת השבוע with מפורשים (and make sure to give-over a good baalabatish, mussardike drosh at your table on Shabbos (and sing זמירות!). Attend a weekly shiur in הלכה למעשה (with emphasis on הלכות שבת וחגים) and then go over the shiur and the מקורות with a חברותה (one who’s either better than you, or not). Try your darndest to daven שחרית עם מנין during the week, and always on שבתות וחגים.

    Most of all, let your children know (through your words and actions) that יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ.

  9. P.S. again to Shira. Many FFB women also don’t daven every day, including many chassidishe women. Don’t feel bad!

  10. P.S. Shira, I hope I made it clear that your question and Rebbetzin Heller’s MP3 answer would be public, but anonymous.

  11. Shira,

    Religion and spirituality should be a journey, not a guilt trip. And if, as they say, religion is the opiate of the masses – it shouldn’t be a “bad trip” either! (I just made that one up LOL!)

    To paraphrase Rabbi Kelemen, Judaism is a relationship with Hashem, and the Torah is His love letter to us. To paraphrase Rabbi Kelemen again, after we leave this world we are not judged by how “high” a level we attained, but by how much we grew from our starting point to our finishing point.

    I know you mentioned that you have a family, but if you can get away I highly recommend going to Neve Yerushalayim for their 3 week summer program (www.nevey.org). I spent a year there and it has fueled my Judaism for life, and it was an incredibly fun year of JOY and growth (not pain and growth!). No teacher or staff member there EVER told me to do or not to do anything. They teach the halachos in class, but they don’t tell anyone what to do. The fellow students do have expectations they place on each other through peer pressure, but these expectations are pretty low (don’t use the light switches on Shabbos, etc.) At Neve, you can choose to have up to two hours a day of free tutoring for your Hebrew skills, in addition to daily classes with the most INCREDIBLE teachers (Rabbi Kelemen, Rebbetzin Heller, Rabbi Orlofsky, etc.). The great thing about Neve is that you can form relationships with the staff that are amazing. I recommend if you go to meet the head of the school, Rabbi Chalkowski. He is a tzaddik!

    If you are unable to take the time to attend Neve, which is way understandable since you have a family, then you can access many of these teachers through their online shiurim. Here are my favorite resources:

    (1) http://www.naaleh.com Hundreds upon hundreds of free hours of shiurim from many speakers, including Rebbetzin Heller. I highly recommend you listen to her “Rebbetzin’s Perspective” question and answer series. People ask anything and everything, uncensored, and she responds. At this time, she is also accepting questions for her next Q & A session – you can write to her what you wrote to us if you wish at contact@naaleh.com and she will answer in a video MP3 Q&A.)

    (2) http://www.simpletoremember.com Plenty of free lectures by Rabbi Kelemen and Rabbi Orlofsky.

    (3) http://www.aishaudio.com More Rabbi Kelemen and Rebbetzin Heller, plus other speakers you might like as well. Some are free.

    Plenty of baalei teshuvah daven in English, and plenty of BT women hardly daven at all (just birkas hashachar and shema). I’m not recommending this necessarily, but I’m trying to show you how little pressure there SHOULD be. At Neve they always taught us the bottom line, meaning we don’t need to do more, but more is great. And according to many opinions a woman does not have to daven every day more than just the morning blessings and shema, which you CAN say in English.

    I’m sorry you had a bad experience. But keep working on yourself and your relationship with HASHEM – not the kiruv Rabbis or anyone’s expectations, etc. Best of luck!

  12. Is there a forum for BT’s to have these discussions? Or just the comments of these posts?

  13. Thank you Judy. I doubt we’ll be moving out there, but I appreciate the offer. We live in Toronto, which is a fairly wide-ranging community as well. I don’t think I am able to really understand the very fine differences in communities. In Israel, it seemed much more blatantly obvious what kind community one belonged to. I really liked the daati leumi’s way of observing, but I wasn’t so emphatically zionistic. We’ve found a shul here that is orthodox, but the congregation is a large mix of people and it works well. The Rabbi is pretty liberal, and has helped us so far, but I think there is a limit to how far we will be able to go with him. I wish the Rabbi’s I knew in Israel lived here instead, I guess.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how it seems like only people who fit into standard gender roles are really the ones who are going to return to Judaism. I’m sad that Judaism doesn’t have a place for people who don’t fit that way – who don’t want children, or who are gay, etc. It makes me sad… I feel hypocritical buying into something that excludes people I love.

  14. “Or should the approach be, now that you are a frummeh Yid, you carry all the obligations of a regular frum Yid and that means working toward greatness in mitzvah performance and greater levels of middos tovos.”

    I don’t know, is this really the goal of most FFBs? Do they really work towards greatness? Maybe it’s just where I live, but I have found that while there are the rare few gems who truly work on themselves and strive to grow, most FFB’s feel that frum is frum, and they already are, so what’s there to work on? Maybe they’ll say shmiras halashon, but that’s about it.

    Yes, many FFB’s say things like “we should always strive higher” and “we should all be baalei teshuva every day” and others nod in agreement, and I do think they mean it on some level, but actually working towards it? No, very few.

    L’havdil, it’s like American culture with regard to working out 5 times a week for 30 minutes. We all say we “should” do it and we admire those who do, but most of us don’t do it and don’t seriously plan to do it.

    I find it’s mostly baalei teshuvah who feel that a Jew’s spiritual work is never done and a person has to always be growing. Sadly, there are baalei teshuvah who think that once you’re frum enough, your goal switches to blending in as perfectly as possible and being accepted as “normal.” This is also a problem, because while blending in is nice, it’s not our ultimate goal in life either. But by and large I find that most strivers and growers are baalei teshuvah today.

  15. To Shira #52: Our Bayswater community is a nice mix of Orthodox Jews: yeshivish, modern, Zionist, Sephardi, Lubavitch, centrist, Chasidic, FFB, BT, etc. There is a great deal of achdus and people are very non-judgemental. Of course I am not saying that you have to pick up and move out here (although if you did, I and others would welcome you wholeheartedly). It would be really great for you to be part of this kind of mixed Orthodox community, you could find understanding practical role models and mentors among the Rebbetzins and ordinary baalebustas out here.

    You are involved in the sublime mitzvah of raising a Jewish family, therefore you are exempt from most time-bound mitzvot. Davening you are in good company with other busy mothers if you grab a few minutes to talk to Gd in your own way, say a little prayer in any language in between diapering and getting kids out to school and carpooling and cooking supper and supervising homework and the ten thousand things mothers have to do every day. Mothering your kids comes first before anything else.

    As far as being part of a community for guidance and inspiration – welcome to the 21st century, Shira, this it – the cyber-community of Baalei-Teshuvah and Gairim (wish it had been around in 1974 when I was “returning” to Jewish observance and desperately needed a support group). We’re here to help and encourage you every step of the way!

    As far as watching television and listening to popular music, many Orthodox Jews across the spectrum (except maybe the far right) do this, as well as going to movies and renting videos and DVDs. This doesn’t make you a sinner. Possibly you should refrain from the very worst music and the most blatant movies, but I bet you do so anyway out of sheer distaste. I know that when my oldest daughter got married, my future son-in-law was described as, “black hat, but goes to movies,” which I thought summed up well where we held also on the spectrum of religiosity.

    I think you could still be an Orthodox Jew and not give up the best parts of the outside culture. Maybe some rabbis would prefer that you do everything to the utmost, but if you really can’t then do what is most important (Shabbos, Kashrus, Chinuch Bonim and Niddah) and then take on what you can out of the rest. There has been much more Kosher entertainment out there in the past few years for the Orthodox Jewish community, better music plus stage productions and even movies geared to our culture.

    Shira you are a fantastic person doing many valuable things, we need you and we miss you, so please come back to frumkeit, as much as you are able to do – Beyond BT and its cyber community will support you every step of the way!!!

  16. Just reading these comments answers the original post. You’ve all reached greatness, may you continue to go M”Chayil el Chayil – from strength to strength.

  17. Shira-I highly reccomend Dr Lisa Aiken’s “The Baal Teshuvah Survival Guide” which offers many approaches to many of the questions that your query re Tefilah is just one of with regards to Halachic, Hashkafic, psychological and sociological issues that BTs and their families face.

  18. I am not a rabbi but at least I look like one! You need to find a rav with a worldly mentality. I am from the more right-wind part of the Orthodox world (at least by American standards).

    I do have some experience guiding baalei t’shuvah and would be very happy to try to help you, but you would be best off with a mentor who lives a lifestyle that is close to what you want to grow into. Why don’t you speak to Mark and Dave (the blog administrators) and see if they can connect you with a mentor in your area?

    Another approach is to just start keeping shabbos again and do nothing else for a while, not even consulting with a mentor if you feel that will create internal conflict. Just enjoy keeping shabbos, and basics of kashrus until it feels really comfortable and natural. And then in 10 months or 10 years, look to take on more. A person that keeps kashrus, shabbos and tharas hamishpacha is a frum Jew, connected with historic Klal Yisroel and entitled to look forward to all the benefits with G-d’s help, of all observant Jews. This is regardless of what they wear, where they live etc.

    I wish you much success and happiness. Please get my email address from the administrators if there is anything that I can help you with. (I only check email during the work day). We live in Baltimore if you ever want to come with your family for a shabbos (we might need to sleep you at neighbors).

  19. Michoel,

    I had Rav’s guiding me. There was the Rabbi of NCSY, and the Rabbi’s of Aish HaTorah. I asked questions. I learned regularly. I didn’t think I knew better than them.

    — “My rav is telling me that in my circumstance, it is ok for me to just says birchas hashachar and shema in English, but “I know” that he really thinks I should be doing much more”. —

    That wasn’t exactly the mentality. It was that Rabbi’s would say something like “This is what a person can do minimally if they are not at X level, and Y is the ideal that they should do.” No one ever said to me “Just say Shema and Birkat HaShachar”. They said, “Here is a paper with a list of the essential pared down version of davening for when you don’t have enough time to do it all. Its okay to daven in English, but its better to daven in Hebrew.” What should I have taken from that? The ‘pared down’ list included a lot more than what you said. If that is the info given out in a class, for baal teshuvas, then I assumed that was what I was supposed to do. It didn’t occur to me to ask for less.

    Are you a Rabbi? What kind of community do you lead/belong to?

    I’m curious if there is a hashgafah/group which encourages members to live in the world, take part in popular culture, and judge for themselves when something is inappropriate. I found that leaving behind all my previous teenage interests, as inappropriate, wasn’t healthy for me. Now I’m older, with a family and different interests. But I don’t want to have to feel guilty or like its not okay to watch television or listen to popular music.

  20. I never really understood why gedolim biographies make some people depressed. I think it’s great to know what the ideal is, even if we may never get there. It gives us a sense of direction of how to act in certain situations and how to think about life. We need these “road signs” to climb ever so slowly in the right direction. Ever so slowly.
    It’s always internal pressure which throws off a new BT, and a sense that “others are watching and judging me” when really, most…yes, I say most of the time (probably more), they’re not. It’s NOT all or nothing!

  21. Shira,
    If you had a normal Rav guiding you at the time, you would not have had these problems. Aseh l’cha rav v’histalek min hasafek (I think that’s the right lashon). Or, sometimes, BTs have a rav that is a fine, normal person, but the BT insists that they know better. “My rav is telling me that in my circumstance, it is ok for me to just says birchas hashachar and shema in English, but “I know” that he really thinks I should be doing much more”.

    I don’t know if this describes you or not, and I certainly don’t intend to rub salt in your wounds, but a person needs to think for themselves. You need to ask “does Hashem really want me to feel so bad about my avodas Hashem?” And if the (obvious) answer is no, you need to make adjustments. BTs cannot just give over the responsibility for their emotional health to others, make all sorts of assumptions, and then blame them for it.

    Shira, please try again with real guidance. I would be glad, together with my wife, to whatever we can to help you.

  22. “As far as the issue of frustration , etc. the Mishnah in Avos tells us that while we cannot complete all of the work that we are assigned in Avodas HaShem, we are never excused from a lack of effort.”

    But how does one measure lack of effort? For example, davening. When I was davening daily, or trying, I was fighting the teenage battle to get up early enough to daven, eat a breakfast, get ready, and go to school. I ended up choosing davening or eating. Racked with guilt over not davening, or racked with hunger over not eating. What choice should I have made? If I didn’t daven, would I have been showing a lack of effort? *I’m referring to an already minimal amount of davening, given my level of Hebrew reading at the time*

  23. Please see Igros Moshe Even Haezer Chelek Daled, siman yud daled where the inyan of a bas nida is discussed at length.

  24. As far as the issue of frustration , etc. the Mishnah in Avos tells us that while we cannot complete all of the work that we are assigned in Avodas HaShem, we are never excused from a lack of effort.

  25. Michoel’s explanation of my comment should resolve any questions with respect to any ambiguity of the same.

  26. Steve is tyching the Rambam as saying that we should emulate Moshe Rabbenu in the fulfillment of our potential. Just as Moshe fulfilled HIS potential, so too, we should fulfill out potential. We just need to be honest with ourselves

  27. Steve:

    You wrote (in the name of Rambam):

    “…each of us, according to our capabilities, efforts and talents, has the ability in our own lives to emulate…Moshe Rabbeinu”

    But, by pointing this out, I believe that you make the argument circular, in that it brings us right back to the question at hand.

    To “emulate” means “to try to equal or excel.” If each of us has the ability to equal or excel Moshe Rabbeinu in his gadlus, then the bar is set ultra-high. If, according to Rambam, success in our lives as Jews means being able to emulate Moshe Rabbeinu, then I don’t see how the Rambam helps us out of our conundrum at all. For the struggling BT (or FFB for that matter) (as pointed out by Judy, Shira et. al.) may become so overwhelmed by the task at hand, that they burn out in the effort to achieve, what they believe for themselves, is impossible.

  28. I think that there is no conflict between the Rambam in Hilcos Teshuvah 5:2 and the well known story of R Zushyiya. If you read the Rambam carefully, it is clear that the Rambam is saying that each of us, according to our capabilities, efforts and talents, has the ability in our own lives to emulate either Moshe Rabbeinu or R”L Yeravam Ben Navat. I think that is exactly the point of R Zushiya.

  29. I think that the ikkar time of BT growth (especially for men) is after marriage. It is just impossible for most men to be fully normal without a wife, and attempting intense growth at that time, is fraught with danger. The “greatness” that one can potentially strive for when married is a much more internal and real greatness that has no downside. Perhaps you can find a few very bright, motivated BTs that can finish a bunch of mesectos in Ohr Sameach etc. And for everyone that succeeds, you’ll find 5 that are getting all depressed and disorientated while trying. But the greatness of a married person is shviras hamidos, and becoming a mentch in the fullest sense. There is no downside in learning to not argue with your wife, or becoming more responsible. And of course, intense learning should be a major part of post-chuppah growth, once one is grounded and meeting their other obligations.

  30. This is a very complicated topic. I would say that so far as a bt can be internally motivated and as oblivious to societal expectations as possible, they should strive, strive and strive some more. But for us (Klal Yisroel) we should be very gentle and allow people to pace themselves. Not to condescend, but to help the bt be realistic and also compensate for the well known phenomena of BT over-intensity and self-criticism.

  31. I agree with Mark Frankel-striving in one’s level of Avodas HaShem should be a goal of both FFBs and BTs. With respect to BTS, why not strive and emulate the acomplishments of either R Akiva or Resh Lakish?

  32. Yakov wrote,

    To Shua’s earlier concern about baalei teshuva being a ben nida, this bothered me as well years ago, until I was told that Reb Moshe zl said t[…]even if there was a blemish, it was certainly made botul by the fact that this person is now an odom kosher because he has come closer to Torah.

    Where exactly is this written? I’m guessing you don’t know, but just heard that from someone, correct?

  33. Yakov, I think you might have been missing some of Shua’s points especially his comparison of great Jews in the US vs EY.

    In your email which was posted practically verbatim, you never mentioned Gedolim or whether BTs should expect to be Gedolim. We probably would have reworded a question like that to make it relevant to the average great Jew that reads BBT.

    I think we would all agree, that we need to be inspired by the acts of others, but we need to focus on our acts and realize that the same action done by two different people is not the same acts.

  34. I have enjoyed the debate between Mark and Shua. Having been the author of the question, I lean a bit more to Shua in the following respect: Granted, most of us will not be roshei yeshiva. And I am quite fine with that. My issue here is that NONE of us should think that *just because* we are baalei teshuva means we cannot emulate them. For instance, I am constantly inspired by the sensitivity of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zl. The level of considerateness he had as well as all the Chochmas HaTorah is something I hope that I might be able to live up to.

    Yiddishe Mama has it completely right- greatness is definitely defined as reaching our full potential and rising above any natural impediments and showing we could excel despite those obstacles.

    To Shua’s earlier concern about baalei teshuva being a ben nida, this bothered me as well years ago, until I was told that Reb Moshe zl said this was not an issue because even if there was a blemish, it was certainly made botul by the fact that this person is now an odom kosher because he has come closer to Torah.

    To Shira- I feel for your struggle and the sentiments you expressed. The real goal for all of us in this is to remember we must cultivate a relationship with Hashem. To know that He loves us and that we can talk to him like we would a favorite zeyde. Everything else we do is an outgrowth of that love. All the minhagim, outer expressions, debates, etc. are all branches that stem from us working on loving and talking to Hashem as Our Creator who loves us.

  35. By the way, I didn’t mean to trivialize this important topic by quoting popular cliches and stories. My junior high school teachers found it far more effective to sing a catchy song about how students should “Be All You Can Be” rather than to deliver a long boring lecture to us about working up to our potential.

    Storytellers such as the Maggid of Mezritch or Rabbi Nachman of Breslov or our own modern day authors find in the vehicle of the story an effective way of getting a point across. I find that I personally remember stories and slogans far better than the exhortations in the classic Mussar works. Certainly guidance for life is not found in a cliche, and glib tweets will never replace carefully worded responses. However, the authors of the Haggadah found it quite powerful to include songs and stories in the Seder for Pesach night, wanting to motivate participants in a manner that a dry straightforward narrative could not have done.

  36. Thank G-d people are seeing many different aspects to this question.

    The contributor asks is it a “Fair Goal” and in his email he said the question came up in a discussion with and old friend from his Yeshiva.

    So the context is not one of judging or other people’s expectation, but what expectations should an introspective Jew set for himself or herself.

    The Mussar and Chassidic seforim make clear that striving for perfection/greatness/closeness to Hashem is a goal of every Jew.

    It is also quite clear that the striving is not sufficient but we have to take actions to achieve this goal and these actions fall into the realms of mitzvos, middos improvement and learning Torah.

    Even if we accept these two premises the most difficult part of the equation in my opinion is the time frame we accept. How fast “should we”, “can we”, “must we” go?

    For the new BT, the current conventional wisdom is take it slow.

    But the question of pace never ends and we always need to evaluate where we are and what are our fair and reasonable goals for the near future.

    We also need to understand that the pace will be constantly changing, both faster and slower through out our entire life as our circumstances change.

    In my opinion if you are constantly striving to become a better Jew in the “man and G-d” realm, “man and man” realm and “man and himself” realm and you are taking real steps towards becoming better, regardless of the pace, then you are a great Jew.

    Note: man is used in the general sense above and refers to woman also.

  37. Let’s say we want to be true ovdei HaShem. Maybe that’s gadlus, or maybe that’s just our job, a pretty exalted job.

  38. To Shira #25 and #26: As for creating a secure foundation first before taking on more Mitzvot, it helps enormously to have a trustworthy spiritual mentor. This could be a local frum family for role models for practical living, or a recommended rabbi who cares enough to offer sensible solutions to everyday problems. Obviously you didn’t have this resource, and that only multiplied the difficulties you faced as a Baalas-Teshuvah trying to take on a frum lifestyle without proper guidance.

    The Hebrew phrase is “tinok shenishbu,” captured child. It was originally applied to the Cantonists, Jewish men who had been kidnapped as young boys into the Czar’s army for twenty-five years and who emerged without any knowledge of basic Judaism. Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal applied this phrase to nonreligious American Jews who had never been given any Jewish education or exposed to any Jewish observance. Rav Feinstein argued that American Jews, as “tinokos shenishbu” captured children, were raised totally ignorant of their Jewish heritage and therefore not to be treated in halacha in the same manner as willful violators.

    I personally don’t negatively judge those women who choose not to cover their hair or to wear pants. I think to myself, “Maybe she spent many years devotedly caring for her ill father and mother. Maybe her level of Kivud Av v’Eim is solid diamonds, who am I to say anything to this Tzadekes?” Or if I see an old Jewish woman being mechallel Shabbos, I think to myself that maybe she’s a Holocaust survivor who saved the lives of dozens of Jews by her courage. I try not to judge other people by their outward appearance. If we talk about a “level of greatness,” well maybe the other person has really achieved it, how do I know where that person is holding? G-d only knows.

  39. Who can judge someones level of greatness? Where a B.T. stands a Tzaddik cannot. Is that not greatness? As long as a Yid has a desire to cleave to Hashem he’s achieving his greatness .
    Every person was sent down to this world for their specific neshomas purpose, We’re not all meant to be R. Aron Kotler etc, we’re meant to stive to fulfil our purpose in this world.
    To me that’s greatness..

  40. To Shua Cohen #24: Getting the question right is the first step toward getting the answer.

    The question is, “Is it a Fair Goal to Expect a Baal Teshuva to STRIVE for a Level of Greatness?”

    I believe that the key word is not “Fair” and not “Expect” but “Strive.”

    “Strive” defined as “making an effort.”

    It would be more “UNFAIR” if there were different expectations for Baalei Teshuva and Frums From Birth. “FAIR” means treating a BT or a Ger Tzedek exactly like any other Frum Jew. If I expect Naomi from Bais Yaakov to STRIVE for greater Kavanah in her davening, it is only FAIR to expect Nancy the Baalas-Teshuvah to STRIVE for greater Kavanah in her davening. FAIR in this context means treating the same.

    The key word is STRIVE. I don’t expect Nancy the Baalas-Teshuvah to achieve perfection, just as I don’t expect Naomi from Bais Yaakov to achieve perfection. I do expect Nancy the BT to make efforts toward self improvement in whatever areas she’s lacking, because she already proved she’s capable of doing that by taking the giant first step toward frumkeit and Jewish observance.

    The argument could be made that FAIR is really UNFAIR in the sense that we BTs and Gerim are handicapped as compared to FFB’s and so it is actually UNFAIR to have the same expectations of us as FFBs.

    It is NOT FAIR to expect a guy on crutches to run the Boston Marathon in 2-1/2 hours. It is ENTIRELY FAIR to expect him, if he makes the voluntary choice to enter the race, to put forth his best effort to complete the entire 26-plus miles, even if it takes him ten times as long as the winner. It is a FAIR goal to EXPECT the guy on crutches to STRIVE for finishing the marathon.

    And if he gives up at the ten-mile mark, collapsing from exhaustion, saying it’s just too much for him, the point is that he did make the effort, we didn’t expect more of him other than that he would STRIVE to do his best, whether that was half a mile, ten miles or the whole thing.

    Shira chose to enter the race, so to speak. She made the choice to take on Torah and Mitzvos. She knew it would be a struggle. It is only FAIR to EXPECT her to put in her best effort, to STRIVE for a Level of Greatness, however we and she would define “level of greatness.” For some Baalei-Teshuvah, just learning how to read Hebrew is a great achievement. More was expected of
    Shira because she was intelligent and capable of doing more. Were the expectations too great? Obviously yes. So set the bar a little lower (nothing shameful in that), rachet down the expectations, and strive again. If a student can’t do better than 62 percent on an exam no matter how much he tries, then set the pass rate at 55 rather than 65 so he’s not branded as a forever failure.

    Individuals with certain disabilities can get extra time to take standardized tests such as the LSAT. This is deemed FAIR because it allows the challenged person to compete on an equal playing field with the unchallenged person. If it is a struggle for the dyslexic candidate to read and decipher the questions, it is a struggle that the dyslexic voluntarily accepted upon himself, to sit for the Law School Admissions Test rather than to simply give up on ever going to law school.

    Maybe Shira could have or should have found fun on Purim and beauty on Yom Kippur. If she only experienced struggles and pain, the standards were set too high and the expectations were unfair. If the passing mark is set at 99 percent then everyone who is not perfect is going to fail. That’s not fair to anyone.

  41. Despite the pretense that the frum lifestyle is a happier and more satisfying one, there is plenty of reason to suspect that many in the Orthodox world consider it appropriate for the baal teshuvah to be miserable.

  42. Shua, Post 24

    So, I should have refreshed my page before I posted because what you wrote in 24 is exactly what I thought you had missed in your other post.

    “This is the tension upon which the original question is predicated. Look at the title again:
    “Is it a FAIR Goal to EXPECT a Baal Teshuva to Strive for a Level of Greatness?” (capitalization for emphasis) Is it possible that, in certain circumstances, that which is “expected” (i.e. the obligation to observe halachah) is, nevertheless, NOT FAIR? That’s the question…I personally don’t have an answer to it…but I also don’t see that anyone has seriously addressed it on this thread.”

    It is not fair. I recently read, and I can’t remember where and its driving me crazy, an idea that Baal Teshuva is a gross misnomer, and that technically BT’s fall into the category of some kidnapped to a foreign culture (someone will have to supply the hebrew words for that). And what this book said was that the rules for someone who was kidnapped, upon their return, were different. That they shouldn’t be pressured to conform, that they should only be shown the lovely beautiful side of mitzvot, that because they were raised with a completely different set of standards for living, they aren’t expected to be able to follow halacha to the dot. Or something like that. I never came across that idea when I was BT. It would have been useful.

  43. Shua, in #19

    I think you are wrong. I didn’t at all understand your connection between why some leave and some stay frum.

    You say that no double standard is allowed, but in fact I think you are wrong. I think I’ve learned since I left that plenty of people live by a different standard, FFB or BT… It isn’t so black and white. When you are FFB, a lot of the standard you live by is minhag directed, and you aren’t wondering what you are doing wrong… so questions of halacha don’t come up on a daily basis. For a BT, questions of what to do are at every turn. How to know which minhags to follow? How to even know what Rabbi to choose, when you don’t fully yet understand what ‘hashgafa’ means? If you walk into outreach syngagogue X, but you seem like you’d fit in somewhere else better, they don’t say that, you might never know there are different flavours of Judaism to choose from. Day-to-day living can be like a minefield. And someone should come out and say or write to BT’s that it is okay to NOT do as much as they need to NOT do, until it feels right and good to them. There is tons of encouragement to move up, not so much encouragement to create a secure foundation first. No one of authority questioned my intentions in become frum… they only acted impressed at my actions.

    If a person then achieves great things, reaches high heights, follows every mitzvah exactly, ties their shoe-laces in the right order every morning – GREAT! But to say that mitzvot apply equally? Being BT is such a personal journey… everyone would agree that people take on mitzvot at their own pace, so at what point do you tell a person, “You seem to be fully frum now – go take on all these other mitzvot.” It takes some people their whole lifetime to take on whatever mitzvot they manage… and all I can take from that is that G!d didn’t expect them to do more, he expected them to do what they did do. I’ve stopped looking at the women who dress tznius for shul and then in pants and T’s for the week and thinking that they are either dishonest, or not moving UP in their frumkiet. I see now that they are doing what they can, and they don’t need to feel (and don’t seem) guilty for their actions. If they never get further up, if that is the level they stop at (and who says they’ve stopped, I can’t see most other mitzvot visually, right?) then that is what G!d wanted from them.

    As for your cliches. You are right, they don’t help with real world struggles. And actually, they can do real damage to the many perfectionists who might become baal teshuva. Why quote them if you think they are not useful? It sounded to me like you do think they are right. That “no pain, no gain” is a good way to approach becoming BT. “reach for the stars” is reaching too high. The only one that is healthy is “be all that you can be”, as long as you remember that the yardstick of who you can be is yourself, not other FFB and long-time BTs around you.

  44. “People have fun climbing mountains.”

    Judy, tell that to Shira (at comment no. 16) who wrote: “I felt I could never catch up, no matter how much I studied and practiced. There was a limit to how much I could tolerate davening, or learning, or anything. It stifled me to try to live up to the ’standards’ of what I was told was halacha.”

    Did Shira’s experience sound like “fun?” Did it sound “beautiful” to you? If fun and beauty was your experience with Yiddishkeit then you were blessed. But Shira’s comment exposed a darker side filled with much pain. For her, like many others, the question: “can I succeed in the struggle for greatness?” never becomes relevant. It’s rather a question of: can I succeed in the struggle to hold onto my new found Yiddishkeit, when that connection is challenged by the influences of secular society on one hand, and the overwhelming expectations in the Torah world to achieve “greatness” on the other?

    This is the tension upon which the original question is predicated. Look at the title again:
    “Is it a FAIR Goal to EXPECT a Baal Teshuva to Strive for a Level of Greatness?” (capitalization for emphasis) Is it possible that, in certain circumstances, that which is “expected” (i.e. the obligation to observe halachah) is, nevertheless, NOT FAIR? That’s the question…I personally don’t have an answer to it…but I also don’t see that anyone has seriously addressed it on this thread.

  45. The endpoints of greatness to look towards for Torah Jews are similiar, however the velocity and the path will be different for every person.

    It’s more important where you’re headed than where you are holding.

  46. To Shua Cohen #19: My late father A”H used to repeat that saying in Yiddish, “Shvert tzu zein a Yid,” “It’s hard to be a Jew,” (I apologize if I got the Yiddish transliteration wrong).

    I would reply to him, “Daddy, no. Sheina zein a Yid,” “It’s beautiful to be a Jew.”

    People have fun climbing mountains. So yes, we do have “real world struggles” to get through. With the help of G-d and our fellow Jews, hopefully we will be able to overcome our personal obstacles in life.

  47. To Shira #16: It’s not too late! Come back!

    To Shua Cohen #15: We seem to be destined to fight on every thread. I suppose that is not too bad given that we do so in a civilized respectful manner without mudslinging or ad hominem attacks. Your opinion is that it is impossible for anyone, FFB or BT, to reach true Torah Greatness in America. (I hope I have not misstated your position. If I have, I apologize).

    I believe that we will be seeing more and more American-born Gedolim who manage to achieve greatness despite the deleterious effects of the outside culture. HoRav Avrohom Blumenkrantz of Far Rockaway, who was niftar several years ago, devoted himself to the Klal, especially to chinuch bnos, Hilchos Niddah and Hilchos Pesach. HoRav Avigdor Miller of Brooklyn wound up through his tapes and books influencing Jews as far away as Australia. The Lakewood Yeshiva has produced numerous yungeleit who have spread Torah to many communities across the world.

    There’s no reason why a BT, even in America, cannot achieve these levels of greatness, if he (or she) strives to always do better in Torah and Mitzvos.

    You were seeking a serious practical answer rather than lovely stories and aphorisms (I had a couple more stories on this topic but I’ll refrain in deference to your comment). Basically greatness is built a little at a time. If learning all of Shas is completing 2711 Blatt, then a man should start now and hopefully one day have all of Shas. If Daf Yomi is too challenging then do one amud a day and finish in fifteen years rather than seven and a half years. If Shas is too challenging altogether then learn Chumash with Rashi or Mishnayos. Each to his own ability.

    A lifetime of doing Chesed and Mitzvos is built every day by twenty-four hours of avodah. Start lending small amounts without interest to fellow Jews, get others to join, and suddenly there’s a Free Loan Fund helping out the needy. Start distributing a few Shabbos packages to families lacking food supplies, and suddenly there’s an organization which makes sure no Jew goes hungry. G-d did a great kindness to us by creating the circumstances that turned us into BT’s and Gairim, so let us show appreciation for that great kindness by spreading some of our own.

  48. Mark is right. “Greatness” is a fairly meaningless term without consensus as to its meaning. To say, “can a ba’al teshuva ever reach the level of an Aharon Kotler, Yaakov Kamenetsky or Moshe Feinstein? Of a Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman or Mordechai Gifter?” means that “greatness” is defined as being a leading Rosh Yeshiva.

    This cannot be the definition of “greatness.” Surely a person who will never be a Rosh Yeshiva or a talmid chachom may achieve what Shamayim reckons as “greatness” in ways we can hardly comprehend, as many here have said. The Sages have taught us, yesh koneh olamo b’sha’a achas, “There are those who acquire their World [i.e., their World to Come”] in a single instant,” a definitive moment in their lives that makes all the difference based on who they are and how they got there.

    If, on the other hand, the question is, “Can a BT ever achieve the same kind of greatness of an Aharon Kotler, Yaakov Kamenetsky or Moshe Feinstein,” the answer is, No. With apologies to Rabbi Akiva, who was not a “BT.”

  49. I don’t quite understand your point, Mark. A Jew, is a Jew is a Jew. Whether FFB or BT, the reality is that the Torah is binding upon as all, equally (excluding, of course, self-imposed, individual chumras). That one’s life experience may mediate positively or negatively on our obligation is, technically, irrelevant. Our challenges may be different…but the expectations are the same: being m’kabel taryag mitzvot.

    In my previous comment I named the people who (at least in my experience) were presented as the exemplars of what EVERY frum Jew could/should aspire to, one’s status as an FFB or BT being irrelevant. The questioner, I believe, is asking: is this a reasonable expectation?(

    In this regard, I never for one moment believed that, as a ba’al teshuva, I had a different scale (than an FFB) by which to be judged. As Shira noted, the pressure (self-induced or otherwise) was to live up to the identical Torah standards that we perceived FFB’s had been endowed with by nurture, and which we, as ba’alei teshuva, only came later to in life. No double standard allowed. In Shira’s case, she could not see herself achieving those standards, and so did not remain frum. Others remain frum and… what? Achieve great things…take guilty pleasure reverting to pre-BT behaviors on occasion…are racked with guilt when we go off the derech to one degree or another? Your choice. But the bottom line is (and I reiterate): “reach for the stars,” “be all you can be,” “no pain, no gain” clichés often don’t help much with these real world struggles, steeped as they are in the expectations of the Torah.

    “It’s Hard to be a Jew” is an ancient Yiddish saying, later taken for the title of a play by Sholom Aleichem. The play was a comedy…but the reality of the title is not very funny at all.

  50. As far as the original question, I think a BT should strive for the same levels of greatness as a FFB.

    Agree. The same LEVELS of greatness might not be achieved in the same ways. FFBs have different religious challenges than baalai tshuva.

  51. Shua, the questioner was definitely not asking whether a ba’al teshuva can reach the level of an Aharon Kotler, Yaakov Kamenetsky or Moshe Feinstein? He was asking the question as it is relevant to the average BT like you and me.

  52. I think there is some danger in defining what a ba’al teshuva should be trying to attain. As a baal teshuva, I always felt some pressure to live up to what an FFB person can just do by rote. And I felt I could never catch up, no matter how much I studied and practiced. There was a limit to how much I could tolerate davening, or learning, or anything. It stifled me to try to live up to the ‘standards’ of what I was told was halacha. I didn’t think that someone like me should be asking for heters, I didn’t think that maybe the expectation for ba’al teshuvas should be lower in some respects. But if someone had come up to me back then and said “hey! take it slow, don’t do that mitzvah, you don’t seem so happy living this way, slow down for a bit,’ if someone had validated my feelings of inadequacy I might have stayed frum.

  53. I fear that everyone here is answering a serious, practical question, with lovely stories and aphorisms.

    Restating the question (as I understand it): can a ba’al teshuva ever reach the level of an Aharon Kotler, Yaakov Kamenetsky or Moshe Feinstein? Of a Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman or Mordechai Gifter? (I am deliberately choosing American gedolim, for although their learning was forged in Europe, they were exposed to the American experience).

    One might look around and ask: has any FFB born in America actually approached their level of gadlus? Is it possible for an FFB — let alone a ba’al teshuva — to escape the inevitable influence of our surrounding culture so that their Torah remains COMPLETELY pure?

    “Greatness,” is of course, a relative term. But I understood the Guest Contributor to be looking for more than “reach for the stars” clichés. Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but I have heard opinions to the effect that (notwithstanding the yerida of the generations), true Gadlus is incapable of emerging in America.

  54. I think you covered everything.
    I would only add, after “…if you think your great – you’re not,” but you can strive for greatness.

  55. As far as the original question, I think a BT should strive for the same levels of greatness as a FFB.

    But what is greatness?

    In davening it might include getting there on time and davening with increasing levels of kavana, understanding and thankfulness.

    In chesed it might include dedicating a portion of your time regularly to chesed activities and always looking for ways you can help.

    In other Bein Adam L’Chaveiro it might include being careful in Loshon Hora and Onoas Devorim.

    In other mitzvos it might include understanding the reasons for mitzvos and performing them in a correct manner with kavanna.

    In mussar it might include, constantly being involved with re-reading some sefer and focusing on particular middos.

    In learning it might include increase the amount of knowledge you have in halacha, Chumash, Tanach, Mishna and Gemora. It might also include continually increasing your in-depth learning in Gemora including being able to understand a Tosfos, Achronim and Roshei Hashivos.

    This is just a quick brain dump of Torah greatness, but there is the reality that we can always improve, so greatness might be something that is always in sight but never actually achievable. In other words, if you think your great – you’re not.

  56. The Rambam writes explicitly in Hilchos Tshuva 5:2

    ב אל יעבור במחשבתך דבר זה שאומרים טיפשי האומות ורוב גולמי בני ישראל, שהקדוש ברוך הוא גוזר על האדם מתחילת ברייתו להיות צדיק או רשע. אין הדבר כן, אלא כל אדם ואדם ראוי להיות צדיק כמשה רבנו או רשע כירובעם, או חכם או סכל, או רחמן או אכזרי

    And don’t consider the idea which stupid people of the nations and the majority of Israel claim, that the Holy One Blessed is He decrees on everyone from birth whether he will be righteous or wicked. This is not the case! Rather, each and every person has the potential to be righteous like Moshe Rabbeinu or wicked like Yeruvam, wise or foolish, merciful or cruel…

    So the story about R. Zusha is exactly wrong! — we will indeed be asked why we weren’t a Moshe Rabbeinu, since everyone has the ability to be one. And therefore we should all strive for greatness, since the Rambam assures us, as a halacha l’maaseh, that it is within out reach.

  57. “Is it a fair goal to expect a baal teshuva to strive for a level of Greatness?”

    R Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, the Alter of Slabodka, is quoted saying:
    “Man is the crown of creation. His soul is
    hewn from Hashem’s Throne of Glory, and has unlimited potential. When man is aware of his lofty stature, new vistas open before him, and his ambition to achieve greatness in Torah intensifies. Yeshiva students must not be content with mediocrity. They must strive for perfection.”

    I think this applies for both all Jews, regardless of background.

    Rav Yitzchak Hutner (a student in the Alter’s yeshiva, Knesses Yisrael) explains, based on the Midrash Rabba, that after man was created on the sixth day, it says in Beraishis 1:31: And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good, and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.

    Not just “good” but “very good.” The word “meod” seem to imply that something is beyond measurement. For example, most cars can only go to a predetermined top speed. The size of a house is based on the number of square feet in a lot and also how much money one uses to build the house. A computer is capable of holding only have so much memory (although that seems to change every other week). Rav Hutner said that people are not like this. We can grow beyond what we even imagine. When it comes to a person, our potential for greatness is limitless. It’s “meod”.

  58. Be all we can be, all we can be.

    How do we know all we can be?

    Again, another story that probably everyone else knows better than I do. There was a Rav who wrote a Famous Sefer that was a commentary on Shas (and I apologize for not remembering the name of the Rav or the Famous Sefer). The Rav made a Seudas Mitzvah to celebrate the publication of Famous Sefer. At the Seudas Mitzvah, the Rav commented that his father had been a businessman, not a rav, and that it had been expected that he would become a businessman like his father. “Suppose I had become a businessman,” the Rav said. “After 120 years I would go to the World of Truth, and they would have asked me, ‘Why didn’t you write Famous Sefer?’ I would have said, “Me? Write a sefer on Shas? I’m only a businessman? How could I have written this sefer?’ Yet you see I was able to write that sefer on Shas because I did write it. So nobody really knows what the limits are on his true inner potential for greatness.”

  59. I think a big part of the question is how do we define greatness.

    And if we define greatness down, do we risk under-motivating ourselves and others?

  60. FYI, As the story was presented by the Klausenburger Rebbe, Reb Zusia referred to his own brother, the Noam Elimelech of Lizhensk, and not to Moshe Rabbeinu or others.

  61. I’m reminded of the famous story about Reb Zushe, which you all know but I’ll repeat anyway. Reb Zushe said, “After 120 years, when I come to the Next World, they won’t ask me, ‘Zushe, why weren’t you equal to Moshe Rabbeinu?’ They’re going to ask me, ‘Zushe, why weren’t you equal to Zushe?’ In other words, why didn’t you become all that you could have become?”

    Back in my public secular junior high school, which I attended from 1967 to 1970, there was a musical production actually put on by the faculty for us students. What has stuck in my mind for more than 40 years was one song from that production, “Be All You Can Be, All You Can Be.” The faculty members were telling us students, in a humorous but direct way, that we should try to accomplish all that we could, to use an overused phrase, live up to our potential.

    I’ll close with one last cliche, again from the pop culture and not really from the frum velt, there’s a saying that’s made it to inspirational posters. The saying goes: “Life is G-d’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to G-d.” I don’t think that saying is so far off from our Orthodox Jewish outlook.

  62. We should all be sure that we are growing, we don’t need (and shouldn’t have) a final goal. Two reasons:

    1) It becomes daunting

    2) What do we do when we get there?

    Having said that, I am reminded of something that an older Satmar gentleman said to my wife and I when he was stayed with us for Shabbos and heard us fretting about various Jewish goals and obligations. “Just be a normal Jew!!” he said in a accented booming voice. My wife and I often repeat that to one another when we get crazy over some detail or another :).

  63. This is a fascinating question. Perhaps, only very special people can “wipe-out” their life’s experiences prior to becoming a ba’al teshuva and be “born again” (pardon the phrase) so-to-speak.

    But for most of us, while we can change our philosophies of living from non-Torah to Torah oriented…I think that our prior life experiences will always be a part of who we are and therefore mediate how much is possible for us to achieve. [At the same time, I realize that this may just be an excuse. Quick example: A friend of mine just returned from a family chasunah in Columbus, Ohio. This brought to mind The Association’s song, “Goodbye Columbus,” from the movie of the same name. Well, for 99 cents, I downloaded the song from Amazon.com and have been listening and joyfully reliving a moment from 1969. I hardly imagine that an adom gadol would approve ;-)].

    I’ve also had to live with another conundrum. We all know the seriousness of the aveirah of cohabiting with a niddah, and the repercussion — karais — for the individuals involved. But there are also repercussions for the children of such unions — a p’gam, as it were, attached to their neshamas.

    Well, most ba’alei teshuva are, indeed, children of such unions. I once asked my Rebbe about this some thirty years ago and I remember that he was somewhat nonplussed by the question. There has to be some negative ramification for us, but I’ve had no satisfactory answer as to just how the circumstances of our conceptions might actually play out in our lives. (And it’s certainly not something that we can do teshuva for, now, is it?)

  64. We know that some BT’s really have become great Jews. However, I’d say the focus should be on maximizing one’s potential. If greatness results, that’s great.

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