The Path Towards Truth is One You Often Tread Alone

Like everyone, I have my faults. I spoke a bit of lashon hara last week. I squabbled with my husband because our overdraft is plumbing the depths of our bank account; and I skipped bentching on shabbos because it was just us for lunch and I couldn’t be bothered.

But ultimately, I believe that I am accountable for all of these ‘little’ things, and that on Yom Kippur, if I don’t properly hold myself to account, then G-d will do it for me in a myriad of wonderfully aggravating ways.

Yom Kippur Teshuva and Baal Teshuva Teshuva are similar inasmuch as they are both ultimately a search for truth, and an attempt to get past all the little lies and flattery we feed ourselves to see who we really are, and whether we are really living up to the covenant agreed by our forefathers.

But I find Yom Kippur Teshuva is harder. It’s harder because when you are a BT you get very used to swimming against the stream. Becoming a BT is a constant battle against the people who think you’ve turned into a religious fanatic, and the people who you think are giving religion a bad name by acting like a religious fanatics. You get used to it; perhaps a part of you even relishes the fight – because you are fighting for a just cause.

And when you know that pursuing the truth in the secular world is often a lonely calling, it doesn’t bother you so much to be doing it alone.

But come Yom Kippur, I’m aching to go to shul and to feel like part of a wider community, asking Hashem to have mercy on us as individuals, as a kehilla and here in Israel, as a country, too.

But it’s just so hard. It’s hard because in many shuls, even where everyone is outwardly observant, there is a palpably complacent sense that ‘G-d will understand’. And, ‘I’m really a good person’. G-d is educated, you see. He knows that we all have busy lives, and that we both need to work long hours in order to pay for the house and the two cars and the expensive High Holiday tableware.

He appreciates that after a long day at the office, we are too tired to visit a sick friend, take a meal to a newborn’s mother or watch our neighbour’s kid for a couple of hours.

But I often wonder if the value system that we judge ourselves by is the one that Hashem himself uses. Sure, we say vidui and we bash our chests, but how many of us actually take a moment to really internalize what we are saying? We do lie, steal and cheat. We do embarrass other people and act insensitively. We are selfish and lazy – and these things apply to pretty much anyone you’ll meet in any shul in the world. And let’s not even get started on the fraudsters and adulterers.

Yet most of us act as if the millions of things we do wrong a year are petty infractions that G-d will wink at come Yom Kippur.

I was recently at a shiur where we were discussing the power of prayer. One of the participants told us that she doesn’t believe it makes any difference, but she still does it as a form of therapy.

In our secret souls, I’m sure that many of us would agree with her. Yom Kippur is not so much about making amends to G-d, as much as about making ourselves feel better.

And that’s why I find Yom Kippur Teshuva harder than becoming a Baal Teshuva. Every year, I wish that my neighbours in shul and I were on the same page, and that we all honestly believed that we had done some serious sinning that we needed to atone for, and that our prayers really matter.

And every year, I realize that most of us are just going through the motions. I’ve realized that even in a shul full of observant people, the path towards truth is still one you often tread alone.

Originally published on Sep 27, 2006.

22 comments on “The Path Towards Truth is One You Often Tread Alone

  1. I’m not so eager to identify with an article I haven’t read yet. It then stands or falls based on its content.

  2. I did see, that, Bob, but many readers are seeing it for the first time, such as I am. I am not concerned about the author, who I assume can take care of herself, as much as the inner voice of readers such as myself who are so eager to identify with the thoughts of the writer.

  3. Ron, this article is a re-posted golden oldie from 2006, so the author may have reconsidered in the meantime.

  4. “What you mean ‘we,’ Kemosabe?”

    This is a troubling essay. The author’s message seems to be, “Why can’t all these people stop interfering with my serious teshuva?” It both blames others for the author’s own self-described failure at spiritual improvement and, axiomatically, condemns those others as less sincere, serious and, well, righteous than the author.

    Hard to think of what is more likely to get in the way of one’s own growth more than looking around you and thinking you’re, well, better than everyone else in the room. I’d recommend the Igeres Haramban.

  5. The concept of forgiveness for sin seems to extend beyond Yom Kippur to other processes. I believe I read somewhere (I’m always saying that, by the way, when I can’t recall the source) that one who makes a successful Shidduch gets his/her sins forgiven. To those who violate the dictum of, “Don’t ask Kashos on a Mayseh,” let me state that I don’t know what happens if the shidduch later breaks off, whether one’s sins come back or not.

    A pregnant woman at the end of a high-risk pregnancy may wind up spending Yom Kippur in bed the whole day to complete the fast. Someone said in that case the only prayer she may be able to manage is, “G-d help me to get through the last couple of hours.” Do we say that’s poor quality davening?

  6. I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of attempting to judge fellow daveners when we should be judging ourselves.

    In any case, outward appearances say little about what people have gone through or are thinking. The quiet person who is not demonstrative at all can be having a very serious, deep communication with HaShem.

  7. I also remember the song “Dust in the Wind”.
    But, since it totally leaves out the eternal aspect of human beings, it expresses the wrong message altogether.

  8. Charnie..I beg to differ. “Repent one day before you die. But Rebee, does a person know on which day they will die?”


    Forget the hourglass. As bloggers of a certain age and musical preference must remember “all WE are is dust in the wind”!

    Rabenu Yonah writes “v’lo timtza ikhur ha’Tshuva zulosee b’amei Ha’Aretz”.

    On a slightly more light-hearted note I once saw a bumper sticker that read “Do T’shuva now! Avoid the Elul rush”

  9. Yes, by a landslide. As Neilah comes to a close, the proverbial sand dial running out, there will be a panic swelling throughout me. What if I didn’t do as good a job as I could have, what if I forgot something crucial?

    OTH, becoming a BT was a leisurely process, A “do it at my own pace” growth process.

    No such luxury with YK.

  10. Fern-

    G-d is described in the Torah as “One who will not take a bribe”.

    The Talmud explains that he will not be bribed by a mitzvah performed. IOW don’t think that you can make up for a sin by “giving” G-d a Mitzvah. As surely as we will be rewarded for every Mitzvah we perform, unless we do T’shuva, we will be damaged by every sin we commit.

    The human weakness for imagining that sins can be assuaged by Mitzvahs is particularly evident when using the ill-gotten wages of sin to do a Mitzvah. According to Nachmanides this is why the Torah prohibited payments for prostitution (flour, oil, birds or livestock) to be sacrificed as offerings in the Temple.

    Honore de Balzac wrote that “Behind every great fortune there is a (great) crime.” I’m not sure that I agree with him but I think it’s reasonable that behind some great philanthropy lies a guilty conscience. Tsedoka during this time of the year is meant to complement T’shuva but never to replace it.

  11. “But I often wonder if the value system that we judge ourselves by is the one that Hashem himself uses.”

    It is certainly not. But it can sometimes be that we judge ourselves and others more harshly than Hashem does. And judging others favorably is a great segulah for him to judge us favorably.

  12. “But I often wonder if the value system that we judge ourselves by is the one that Hashem himself uses.”

    This is a really profound statement about the relationship between humans and G-d. We excuse so much bad behavior because we assume that G-d is judging us the way we judge ourselves, that we are “allowed” to do something we know is wrong because of the goodness in our heart, or some other good deed we have done.

    It’s sort of like when you are on a diet and you eat a really healthy dinner so you allow yourself a “sinful” dessert. But I don’t think that’s how we’re supposed to view the relationship between good deeds and bad deeds. We’re not supposed to “allow” ourselves to do something wrong just because we think we have a bunch of good things balancing out that one bad thing. We’re supposed to act like our scales are perfectly balanced and if we do one bad thing, we’ll tip the scales in the favor of bad, but if we do one more good thing, we can tip our scale in the favor of good.

  13. It’s a good post revealing some of the issues of Yom Kippur that everyone faces, FFB and BT.

    I’m not sure it’s a fair to compare YK to becoming a BT. They are very different quantitativly and qualitatively.

    Becoming a BT is a gradual process usually taking years, really a lifetime. YK is one day. Imagine if you had to do all the “Teshuva” you did in getting to where you are as a BT in one day! That’s a tall order.

    General a BT becomes frum at his own pace again over a long period of time. No matter how slow the davening is in shul you still only have 25 hours to complete the process. More or less the pace is set for you.

    The BT can write his own script. We decide what to observe, how to observe it, and when. On YK the script is pretty all spelled out their for you in the Machzor, again with very little variation.

    Even though we are called Baalei Teshuva. The Teshuva we do is very different than that of Yom Kippur. Being a BT is very prospective, we are moving forward, taking on new mitzvos. It’s exciting and energizing. Yes we’re sorry we used to drive to the mall on Shabbos, but that’s secondary. There’s great excitment in becoming Shomer Shabbat and learning all of the new things we need to accomplish it.

    My point is, don’t knock yourself out over it. You are right it is much easier to become a BT than to deal with teshuva on YK. Find something of the day to focus on and work on that. I personally find the piyutim in the davening unispiring. I focus very strongly on the Vidui as laid out in the back of the Artscroll Machzor. I litterally spend hours going through their real-world examples of the al chaits. That works for me, you need to find what works for you. But like becoming a BT don’t expect YK to happen overnight. I would guess that most people need more than a lifetime to get it right.

    Gmar Chasima Tova

  14. I think that, even though the “script” for the services is your Machzor, you have to make it as though you are having a personal talk with Hashem, which, in effect, you are! You should try to go into shul with that mindset, and just stick to that. I’m not saying it’s easy, but if you remember that fact, you will get “into it”.


  15. The lack of distractions on Yom Kippur (eating, drinking, working, driving, phone calls, etc.) have always helped me so much with focus and concentration, which is not normally one of my greatest strengths. It is a kind of spiritual hyperfocus. I wish I could maintain that feeling at other times.

    As far as shuls go, I’m sure it helps, it must, just the power of Jews together on any given task is always a powerful driving force. However, even in my living room if I must be there on Yom Kippur taking care of precious children, we can, if we try, focus on the words, contemplate the meaning of what is happening, arouse ourselves to tears and more.

  16. If we see an apparent defect in others, we should consider all possible defects of the same general type in ourselves. This is the type of reflection the Baal Shem Tov proposed for someone who saw a sin committed.

  17. “and I skipped bentching on shabbos because it was just us for lunch and I couldn’t be bothered”

    You should not have published this. Aveiros sheh-bain Odom L’Mokom (transgressions that are offenses to G-d alone rather than interpersonal) should only be confessed to HaShem directly.

    SB- I am trying to study the Machzor this year in preparation for the HH and I think that I’ve found one aspect in which Yom Kippur T’shuva is easier than generic T’shuva.

    The Rambam rules in Laws of Repentance 1:1:
    “What is the correct formula for confessing? He should say as follows: “O HaShem, I have sinned, been perverse and been willfully negligent against you and done/failed to do _________and I have thought better of it and am ashamed of what I’ve done. I will never do so again”. This is the essence of confession. The more one confesses and expands upon the confession the more commendable they are.”

    Scanning the machzor I find that the viduy that we ACTUALLY say makes no mention whatsoever of remorse, shame or resolution never to repeat the sin. (Although it does a rather thorough job of quantitative and stretched out lists of sins). The YK viduy is merely a long list of “I have done X, Y, Z.” Why don’t we have to verbalize the other heartfelt components of T’shuva on YK? Maybe the seeds of an understanding the (apparent) less than sincere T’shuva that Katrin has observed in many Shuls lies in the answer to this question.

  18. The t’shuvah of Yom Kippur is highly personal and private. The t’shuvah of becoming frum is a mixture of private and public. Struggles that are public naturally inspire a certain amount of drive and resilience. Private struggles, such as the deeply internal t’shuvah of Yom Kippur, need a more subtle and self-produced resilience to have meaningful results.

    The main things is to try and not notice what others seem to be doing in this area. If one notices a lack of (apparent) sincerity in others, one can actually use that as a kind of impetus to energize oneself. To paraphrase a relevant Torah concept: When everyone else is failing to do what Hashem expects of them, and one individual stands up and does it, he or she will be much more greatly rewarded than they would had everyone been doing the right thing.

  19. One other point-The Machzor, both for RH and YK, has a clear distinction between teshuvah and vidui from an individual and communal POV. RYBS emphasized in his drashos that the individual basically admits and verbalizes his shortcomings because he has no excuses at all. It is a very stark proceeding. Yet, he must do so because if one does not verbalize a feeling, it is worthless ( “Dvarim shebelev ainam dvarim”). The community sings certain portions of the Vidui and introduces the vidui with a piyut that tells us and HaShem that we are still His People and that we have a unique relationship with HaShem, as a people, which will never be severed.Perhaps, the answer to the question posed here is that while we all have individual shortcomings, as a people , these shortcomings can never R’L sever our relationship with HaShem.

  20. I think that that we should realize that (1) YK requires preparation in terms of going thru the Machzor or at least the key parts of it to have some understanding of the essential components of the davening from Kol Nidre thru Mussaf to Neilah and(2) davening in an atmosphere where the tefilos are viewed seriously, as opposed to therapy or a fashion show. No less than R Wolbe ZTL suggested that one has some fulfillment of the mitzvah even if one does not reach all of the 24 levels suggested by R Yonah. OTOH, we think that “teshuvah, tefillah and tzedaka” are three separate components of our Avodah. RYBS viewed tefilah and tzedaka as the critical components of Teshuvah.

  21. It’s not easy, and maybe it’s not even possible, to really know what’s on other people’s minds or in thsir hearts (except if they tell us directly or through their overheard conversation).

    BT’s should resist the urge to judge fellow daveners.

  22. I agree with you 100%. That is why it is so important to find the right shul where others wish to make that connection to Hashem, instead of just being there as a form of therapy, or simply because “that’s what Jews do”.

    Thankfully, I have found a shul where on Roch Hashanah I felt the kavannah of the others so intensely that my eyes were actually able to water up during the beginning of the repitition. Instead of me just wishing it would hurry up & end already (like so many other Jews ), it was awesome to see so many others wanting to make that same connection I did.
    I was able to get into “the zone”, and am truly appreciative to Hashem for leading me to such a place.

    So yes, it is a struggle for most BTs to fit into “traditional” shuls when all we want to do is connect and talk to Hakodosh Boruch Hu one on one, when everyone else is too busy talking about mundane secular matters, or when they can have that cigarette once Shabbos ends.

    Keep strong, and keep searching. Find the right shul, the right Rabbi & the right Jews:-)


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