The Myth of the Plateau

Originally published Dec 26, 2005

What do you do when you start running out of mitzvot to take on? Do you just become more machmir on everything you’re already doing? Is it wrong to stop in a comfort zone and just stay there? What happens when you lose that good feeling you get every time you daven, and you stop feeling like Hashem cares about every mitzvah you do?

I don’t know if it would be accurate to call it a “plateau.” As Newton’s first law states, a body in motion stays in motion, and I think this applies to religious growth as well. But where does all this newfound spiritual energy go when you hit a dead end?

I’d call this the point where one backslides, where one can easily go off the derech. It’s when we realize that Orthodox Jews are human, too, and not some group of super-perfect beings whose every action is in line with Hashem’s Will. It’s probably the most dangerous time in one’s teshuva process.

If when you reach that plateau, which is really just a much slower incline, you’re happy religiously and stay that way the rest of your life, Baruch Hashem. I often imagine that’s how FFBs live life, never having to question their practices, and always feeling secure in their beliefs. Then there’s the rest of the BT world, who have to figure out what they need to do in order to continue on their spiritual journey.

And then a bigger question- is there just one point of decline, one hard struggle that you go through and then you learn how do deal with those times of religious dissatisfaction? Or do you keep on encountering them, again and again, when you least expect it? And then what?

As I’m writing this, I realize that I am not sounding very encouraging. Maybe it’s because I’m at one of those points right now, and I’ve been there for the past year. So I can’t say how long they last, or that people get over them (but they must, because pretty much every BT I’ve ever met has seemed inexplicably happy all the time) or that there’s a strategy for getting through them.

But I can say that you’re not alone, and you’re not a bad Jew, and you’re allowed to have periods of doubt. I can say that growth isn’t linear (and for those who think it is, watch out) and that everyone has their ups and downs. It’s kind of like a graph of the stock exchange. Your amount of faith or devotion may vary from year to year (or day to day) but overall it’s a trend upwards. Just don’t forget that Hashem cares about you, wants you to come closer to Him, and will help you when you need it the most.

19 comments on “The Myth of the Plateau

  1. Someone once told me that every Neshomah comes down to Earth with two suitcases.

    Suitcase Number One when unpacked contains all of a person’s unique talents, intelligence, ability, wealth, brains: all of the gifts which HKBH has bestowed upon this individual.

    Suitcase Number Two when unpacked contains all of the various problems which that person is destined to endure in life: divorce, childlessness, handicaps, disease, infirmity, poverty.

    The test for every Neshomah is to use the contents of the first suitcase to meet the challenges of the second suitcase. That’s life.

    The Torah, including the commentaries of Chazal, is our instruction guide to successfully accomplishing this lifelong job.

  2. I think that the term growth can be a misnomer simply because it ignores the fact that there are different paths in Avodas HaShem, all of which are within the Mesorah, but where some advocates of some paths would argue that “my way or the highway” precludes you from choosing a path that you are emotionally and hashkafically comfortable with.

  3. @Scott – That is the literally meaning of FFB, frum from birth. However, most FFBs are not actually frum from birth. Everyone messes up (even if only for a short amount of time), and then when they do teshuvah, they become BT. But if they do teshuvah meyahavah (out of a sense of love for Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu “Ve-ahav’ta”), then all of their misdeeds turn into merits (cf. Gemara Yoma), which transforms them into a BT once again, and retroactively FFB. Ergo, all BTs who become BT meyahavah are in fact FFB.

    However, being a BT myself, I really don’t like using labels such as BT and FFB. They are divisive and should really belong only on clothing. For more information, read this essay – and you can help us to end the madness by taking the ETM challenge –

  4. Life is fully of ups and downs. There’s always room for growth. Even if you have accepted all the mitzvos, do you do them all accurately, and with relish? Do you have perfectly refined middos?

    If you don’t dedicate yourself to growth in some area, you won’t plateau, you’ll immediately start rolling backwards down the hill.

    That’s why HaShem sends you challenges along the way–because each one is an opportunity to grow.

  5. “I often imagine that’s how FFBs live life, never having to question their practices, and always feeling secure in their beliefs.”

    wow, that was pretty harshly condescending…

  6. “I often imagine that’s how FFBs live life, never having to question their practices, and always feeling secure in their beliefs.”

    Why do we put FFBs on a pedastal like this?

    This post was written in 2005, but even then, as today, thousands of FFBs are running full- speed to Discovery Seminars and similar programs!

  7. Shalom Rachael,

    I’m very grateful for your post. It’s just what I needed. I just got home from a chasuneh and I’m whupped, so I will e-mail you tomorrow.

    Thank you!

  8. Leah-

    To tell you the truth, I don’t think that I ever overcame my doubts.

    From what I’ve seen in myself and others, when you start taking things on, its kind of a momentum that builds and then you start doing more and more.

    Unfortunately, this becomes a problem as your snowball of growing practices hits a peak that it cannot ascend, and starts plummeting downward…

    I think 2 steps forward, 3 steps back might be a good idea. Because when the momentum stops, the amount you have taken on will influence the amount of despair and frustration you feel as all the mitzvot become more and more challenging. The more you have trouble doing, the worse you feel. The higher your standards are, the higher the probability of disappointment is.

    In which case, I would say take a break on some things if it will help your over all growth. For women it’s easier to find leniences in davening in terms of how much we have to say, and you can cut back until it becomes more managable and you can start to rebuild again. Little steps are good.

    And every so often you need to stop and acclimate (as you do when you climb a mountain in order that you get used to the low levels of oxygen.)

    But take everything I say with a grain of salt.

    If you want to e-mail me, I can tell you where I am a year from now, because I’m not sure whether or not it would be so appropriate as a comment on my post (though I guess that’s really up to the maintainers.) My e-mail is:

    Good luck.

    ~Rachel Adler

  9. Dear Rachel,

    Bumping this excellent discussion forward. I wanted to ask you how things were going now, a year-plus later?

    I totally understand the “plateauing.” I’m what I think of as a perfectionist. If I don’t do it perfectly, I have a compulsion to start over or throw in the towel. In that way, if I’m “not in the mood” to daven, I’ll find something else to do and procrastinate until it’s too late.

    And it’s hard sometimes to fight the yetzer hara that makes me do that. It is my weak bechira point.

    There are times when I go through a long spate of perfect “attendance,” davening, tehillim, perek shirah, other daily brachos I add to my menu… I’ll completely revamp or plan my day to accommodate it at all, so much so that I’ve found a corner and davened in public view when I’m stuck at a work conference and can’t find a private space to daven.

    Why are there some days/weeks/months where we can be so dedicated, and then just — lapse?

    How did you overcome your feelings of doubt? Any ideas out there for me?

    Is it true that this is all like a “crab walk,” advancement by going sideways back and forth while you gradually climb … or the two steps forward three steps back syndrome?

    I know in my first few years, it seemed so easy. I probably was too afraid to slip even once for fear of falling all the way back. Now it’s too easy to stay home from shul on Shabbos, or skip a shacharis.

    I guess the higher you climb, the harder it gets (kind of like altitude sickness). Hashem’s mid-term exams for us?

  10. “What do you do when you start running out of mitzvot to take on? Do you just become more machmir on everything you’re already doing?”

    I’m sure Rachel hopes that no one takes her opening questions in the wrong way, since, after all, it is impossible to run out of mitzvot. The answer to the second question is, of course, yes, “be more machmir”! I’m positive Rachel would advocate being more machmir on ahavas Hashem, ahavas Yisrael, chessed projects, learning, kavannah, etc.

    Now, if only I can listen to my own advice!

  11. Excellent post. I can relate to this. As the first commentor said, this happens to everyone, not just BTs — it’s true for those of us who remain quite Jewishly lefty, too! :-)

  12. Rachel,

    I meant to say that we shouldn’t limit kedushah to dfavening, learning, shabbos, etc. We should instill kedusha in to our everyday lives.

    Does that make sense?

  13. To Ruth:
    I agree with your statement “And often, unfortunately, it takes suffering to trigger that growth.” The problem is, though, that although suffering triggers growth, it also has the potential to send you off the derech. It’s a dangerous thing.

    To everyone:
    Ok, I admit that I made a generalization about feeling that FFBs don’t struggle as much as BTs do. I’m sure there are tons of FFBs who have trouble with their spirituality. I’m friends with many. I guess I was more trying to draw a comparison to how I think other people feel and to how I feel.

    You know those people who daven and look like they have lots of kavanah? The ones who are always smiling and happy, who have everything going for them, who have a loving family they grew up in that supported them in their Judaism? Maybe it all is just a facade for some of them, but I think that at least some Jews, FFBs or BTs, feel inside the same way that they project to the outside world. I don’t look down on those people. I’m sure they grow. But it seems, at least from an outsider perspective that their growth is linnear. It seems so easy for them. They never suffer. They never have to doubt G-d. I’m jealous of them.

    I once had a friend tell me on her Shabbat Kallah that she thought I was an inspiration, for all the learning I do, and how dedicated I am to my Judaism. I can’t tell you how much of a phony I felt then. Maybe I’m one of those people who projects the kavanah.

    I’m not sure that becoming haskafically liberal is necessarily a bad thing. Being lenient doesn’t mean not following halacha in every case. I think it provides room to grow. And like some other posts said, when people first become frum, they are trying to counteract certain tendencies by going completely in the opposite direction, like a nazir does, but the ideal is to reach some sort of medium.

    Of course, struggling with belief in G-d [I’m using belief here as trust in G-d, not questioning G-d’s existence] is a whole different issue. I think I’ll write about that at some point.

    David- how does growing in the mundane influence one’s spiritual growth?

  14. I feel that it is a yesod that we have to keep on growing in our service to hashem. By learing, by going to shiurim, by davening b’tzibur, by trying dirrent things like hibodedus (speaking medication, speaking to hashem in your own words), by reading, by exercising, by eating right, by waking up every day and saying its a new day, by moving to a new city or new community. Whatever it takes we have to do it.

  15. Anon:

    You make an excellent point regarding the varying degrees of struggle between a yeshiva environment and a work-a-day life.

    I sometimes think that we tend to lose focus of the fact that there are growth opportunities in what we often consider the more mundane areas of life. When hitting spiritual stagnation (for lack of a better word) or even backsliding as a result of just being overwhelmed, I find it important to take a broader definition of growth to include things such as greater particularity with our employer’s time (that one’s easy for me since I’m self-employed), working on patience in parenting, spousal relationships,family relationships, etc. Not only are these important areas of growth as a person and as a Jew but they often help us overcome the occasional spiritual malaise.

  16. Rachel,
    My dad is a ger (convert) and my mom is a baalas tshivah, and I grew up FFB. When I compare my own Jewish growth to my parents the similarities far outweight the differences.

    When I was in the yeshiva system its easy to focus on the growth aspects. Ever since I married, started working, had a daughter, had a puppy…the ability to focus on the growth has become near impossible. And I even think I am building rationalizations to maintain it…my own hashkafa has become more liberal and lenient, which might not be a bad thing, but I can’t know for sure because it could be tied to my lack of sensitivity to yiddishkeit now. Granted, outside of yeshiva I see what the real world is like and realize that although we need to maintain our standards we have to realize that its not the home court advantage as it was in a yeshiva setting…

    My question is are there others that also feel that maybe they are becoming more “liberally Jewish” on principle to mask the underlying sense of spiritual decline and compromising?

  17. Rachel:

    Excellent post!

    As with many spiritual issues facing Ba’alei Teshuva, (as opposed to many of the pragmatic ones that are more limited to BT’s) this challenge of reaching plateaus is one we all face — FFB’s and BT’s alike. In fact, i propose that those FFB’s who do not go through these phases are simply not growing sufficiently and are victims of being ‘spiritually spoiled.’

    Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, Dean of Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu in LA wrote an excellent article on this (I’ll try to find the link). He is a brilliant educator and, in my opinion, one of the leading experts on contemporary long-term baalei teshuvah matters. Here is the relevant passage:

    This tends to be the phenomenon reported by scores of baalei teshuva. At the beginning of their return to observance, the beauty and correctness of Torah is clear, and the spiritual living is easy. However, as a person grows, the honeymoon wanes and reality strikes. Our inspired baal teshuva soon discovers that Torah living comes with a wife or husband with his or her own needs, numerous kids who do not always listen, yeshiva tuition, and shul dues. It is then that he or she must remember the chessed of their youth, and continue forward under their own steam, actualizing through din what was given before through chessed. For example, anyone can be frum at someone else’s Shabbos table. Creating one’s own table, even though Shabbos keeps coming at the end of long and tiring weeks, is the sign that the teshuva process is real and complete. The Sefas Emmes explains that this is the reason that one of the paths to bringing moshiach is for all of the Jewish people to keep two Shabbasos. The first is the “learning” Shabbos, which is a gift from HaShem via parents or caring friends. The purpose of the second is to see if we learned enough from the first Shabbos to now create one of our own.

    I would also note that this slow-and-steady progression is a sign of healthy growth — for ourselves and those we want to ‘bring along for the ride. Please feel free to read a dvar Torah i recently wrote on this subject. Here is the link.

    Yakov Horowitz

  18. BS”D

    You’re absolutely right that growth is not linear. A few years back, I went through a depression, too. I was stuck in an apartment I hated, very far from Stoliner shul, and worse, I felt like my writing and my being a good Jewish mother were two forces at war with each other. Though I didn’t go off the derech, I didn’t perform mitzvos with the same zeal as I used to, and that made things worse. I had been such a climbing baalas teshuva for so many years; how could I of all people fall this way?

    Ultimately I concluded that I was caught in a vicious cycle, so I ought to just embrace the mitzvos again. I likened myself to one of Korach’s followers staring at the pit. There it was gaping before me, and it was my choice whether to walk away or jump in. So I walked away. My family and I went away for a Shabbos, which was a wonderful experience, and mitzvah goreres mitzvah. Right when we came home, someone asked me to do a chesed, which I agreed to do. Baruch Hashem, it’s been uphill ever since, though yes, we all do encounter bumps on the road.

  19. What you are describing applies to everyone, not just BTs. It takes a lot of work to keep on growing. And often, unfortunately, it takes suffering to trigger that growth. But we have to keep at it, even though we will often fail, even though we will fall short of our goals. And if we do so, we will succeed, not always, but at least some of the time.

    I’m an FFB myself and my challenges may be different from yours. My doubts may not be the same as yours, but there are doubts. I may question some practices. I may not be totally secure. My kavana in davening may not be as intense as it used to be. I may miss the closeness to Hashem that I used to feel. But it’s just a test. I have to work at it. And if I keep it up, I probably can regain the intensity of prayer I am missing and the closeness to Hashem.

    So don’t give up. Keep at it. You’ll get there.

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