The Biggest Problem Facing Baale’ Teshuvah

Let’s begin with “Boruch HASHEM! There is a world of goodness that each of us has to be grateful for…There is not a “but” or “however” on the other side of that declaration. It is pure and simple, not a party line, not an invitation for “cynicism”, which I always suspect comes from the word “sina” hatred, or for railing against anyone else. I’ve gotten into the habit of asking my wife when I call home, “Is anything alright?” Asking, “Is everything alright” may be akin to the dust of loshon hora or the dust of complaining. It invites us to focus only on problems as problems.

With all that having been said there’s a consoling factor when we realize that others share the same challenges daily. If snow fell on my house alone I could wonder why I have been singled out for tragedy. When others get it too and are forced to shovel…it is “shovel l’kol nefesh” equal for all and a partial relief from the burden of carrying pain alone.

I don’t know if I’ll ever overcome even after decades of being at it, the sense that I’m missing something. It’s kind of like when Israeli friends tell a joke and I’m following some of the Hebrew and then the punch-line comes and everyone laughs but me. The same thing can happen in Yiddish. It’s not the language thing either. Maybe I can attribute it to that gnawing fear I used have as a child going to school that if ever I was absent even for a day then whatever I didn’t know or could get easily I suspected that it must have been taught on that day I missed. All the learning took place on that day!

Call it an inferiority complex or fear of being caught feeling foolish by colleagues or even your kids but the cloud of never knowing what you don’t know lingers long after Shabbos and Learning are firm fixtures in our lives. I was one of those guys that when I said, “Shalom Aleichem” and someone said to me “Aleichem Shalom”, I thought they were correcting me! Maybe it’s just my singular inferiority or maybe I’m not the only one. After a while, like the “long distance runner” you get used to the loneliness and discomfort because the up side is so great.

Twenty something years later it’s amazing to me how this fear, nausea, and anxiety can still rear it head in social or shul settings. For example, the fear of being discovered by mispronouncing words or not quite getting a tune while davening for the amud. My kids correct my pronunciation till this very day. I thought I had a good ear and I happily repeat the corrected word and they shake their heads and say no…this way! I don’t hear the difference! I wonder what else I might be saying that gives me away and people just don’t say. Yeah we gotta live and function but it’s always there and probably always will be…What d’ya think?

Label Lam

11 comments on “The Biggest Problem Facing Baale’ Teshuvah

  1. Hey, I’ve heard several stories – and seen first hand – of young FFB children being convinced that “Ani Ma’amin” was “I need Mommy”. It’s all in the expectations.

    And in a community where many people are 2nd generation BTs, I’ve been told a few time by someone new, “No way! You aren’t an FFB?”

    Not sure if that’s a compliment or what. . .

  2. 4jkb4ia – Sorry, I’ll be working (hopefully!) by then. But I’ll still be a block away, if he needs meals etc.

    BTA – You’re 100% correct. I remember thinking how strange certain things were at many different places in Israel (and my in-laws in Monsey, even! [he’s Spanish Sephardi]), but they thought I was equally as strange.

  3. Gershon of Shmeers in St. Louis does this–asks “was anything OK?” on the receipts.
    Ezzie, Moshe Franklin of St. Louis is coming to Lander in the spring.

  4. It seems like Ezzie and BTA have finally found common ground betweent BTs and FFBs–they both think the other is strange!

    Problem here is that we’re painting with a very broad brush. There are well adjusted, functioning, integrated Baalei Teshuvah out there and –yes BTA– there are charedi rabbanim out there who, to use your words, “get it” (the trick is finding them!).

    I was once set up for shabbos lunch at a house in yerushalayim. I was already pretty much shomer shabbos (whatever that means)but still on the way to a fuller commitment to yiddishkeit. There were probably 20 other guests there and I remember looking at these two French guys with long hair, earrings, jeans and polysilk white yarmulkes thinking that they were strange. The French guys clearly thought our Haredi hosts were akin to aliens and the hosts were probably wondering about me “What’s up with this guy?” To top it off, the whole outside world thinks we are all nuts. Common ground at last.

  5. Ezz:
    I noticed during [our discussion about science/reality] that he didn’t [have his logical faculties] quite “right”, and that he must be a [chareidi Jew]. I felt bad for a second that I identified him that way, but it’s just the way it is sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with it – there will always be a difference in familiarity between those who [haven’t been exposed to basic science and reality] their whole lives and those who have.”

    I seriously feel like I’m speaking with the equivalent of an indian chief or the equivalent when I speak with a chareidi Rabbi. There are so many things they just don’t “get.”

    I think that’s why the gedolim these days with their science aversion, pose such a challenge in emunah. If these guys could be so off in their estimation of reality, then how can we trust them with life’s most important questions?

  6. Interesting… I recall a couple of months ago having a few guests over. One asked if I knew a new student in my yeshiva/college, and mentioned he was a BT. I immediately realized who he was, because the night before he sat across from me. Though I hadn’t really spoken to him more than introducing myself, I noticed during davening that he didn’t pronounce things quite “right”, and that he must be a BT. I felt bad for a second that I identified him that way, but it’s just the way it is sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with it – there will always be a difference in familiarity between those who’ve been doing things their whole lives and those who have not.

  7. While not a “BT” in the classic sense of the term, I remember how i started feeling intimidated and unsure of myself once i saw how much my friends who went to learn in Israel after high school, or who now are in rabbinical school, know than i do. Now i’m a highschool limudey qodesh teacher and i still feel like just stam a layman.

  8. Wow, if that’s how YOU feel Rabbi Lam, I’m really in trouble. Seriously, I think this type of fear is typical of newcomers to anything. I remember my brother-in-law telling me how when he first moved to the States from Brazil, he was so concerned that people would know he was an immigrant. He spent hours practicing how to say Thank you so that he could go buy a new coat. When he finally had it down pat, he paid for the coat and proffered his well practiced “Thank You”. When the cashier replied “Your Welcome” he was crestfallen. Thinking that she meant “You’re welcome to our country” he walked away dejectedly wondering “How did she know?” Cute story but the point is that we often think that we are doing things wrong when the other guy doesn’t even pick up on it. By the way Rabbi Lam, I’ve heard you speak many times, your ponounciation is getting much better, at least that’s what my kids tell me!

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  1. […] I’m concerned that someone might be left with the false impression that I think that the biggest problem facing Balale’ Teshuva is that we most often don’t get the punch lines for Yiddish jokes. It’s a little deeper than that. I can remember as a Yeshiva student singing with the other guys on Friday Night over and over again the refrain, “Libi Libi U’ B’sari” and not knowing what the words meant and imagining they mean, “Leiby (that’s me) I’m sorry!” I never told a soul about it! I just laughed and sometimes cried with those silly thoughts. Till today when my boys sing this same Zemer, even though I know what the words mean, I still occasionally flash back and chuckle quietly in a place no one would ever know. Silly! Huh? When the more than occasional speaker would shout out the words, “Yiras Shemaim”, I thought about it whimsically, “A Year in Shemaim” and still do! […]