Taking the Next Step in Teshuva

By Micheal Sedley

Elul is upon us and collectively the Observant community is getting into Tshuva Mode.

Beyond BT poses an interesting question which I think applies to many people who are Ba’al Tshuva, or have moved in the level of observance over a period of years:

When I first became a BT, Teshuva was so easy. Over the course of 2 years, I was keeping Shabbos, Kosher, Davening regularly and performing all the seasonal mitzvos.

After 8 years it has become a lot harder to do Teshuva, even at this time of year. When I look over the last year, the changes are much smaller and were much more difficult to make.

Have other people experienced this change in Teshuva?

Are there a different set of tactics and goals at this later stage?

Is there anything special about the Teshuva of a BT at this point or am I now fighting the same battles that a FFB faces?

“Former Teshuva Master”

I think in a nutshell the problem is that the focus of one’s tshuva must change, and the new focus is often more difficult.

Many people going through a transition towards more observance have a list of things that they know deep down they should be doing but aren’t yet. This list may even be subconscious, but come Rosh Hashana time it’s relatively easy to find the item on the top of the list and commit oneself. If last year I didn’t daven, than this year I’ll start davening. If I’m already davening, maybe I’ll increase the Tfilllot I say each day, or attend minyan each day, or be more careful with kashrut, or Brachot, or some other easy-to-identify Halachic obligation.

This type of Tshuva is relatively easy, and it’s a wonderful feeling to look back over the past year and say “two years ago I ate traif, last year I stopped eating non-kosher meat, this year I’ll be 100% kosher”.

The problem is that eventually you find that you’re living a complete halachic lifestyle – there is nothing quick and easy on the top of the list. Sure you could improve your kavana during davenng or cut down on Bitul Zman or Lashon Harah, but these things are hard to quantify, they aren’t the sort of thing that you can put a check mark next to on your list. I think that this is one of the reasons that suddenly a “Former Teshuva Master” can find it very difficult to have a meaningful Elul.

To make matters even more difficult, this question is seldom addressed directly. In Yeshiva whenever there was a talk on Tshuva they always used a simple example like “lets say someone wants a cheeseburger and stops himself, that’s tshuva” – the problem is that most tshuva is not so easy to qualify, and besides I’ve never had a cheeseburger in my life, and don’t have a particular ta’ava for one, so the metaphor really doesn’t talk to me.

Anyway, the article from Beyond BT got me thinking, and I tried to put together a list of things that I really can work on. I probably wont achieve all of these improvements this Elul, it is possible that I wont achieve any of them, but at least if I have a list it’ll be a place to start on this year’s tshuva adventure.

These items are just off the top of my head, if you have suggestions, feel free to leave a comment. Bli Neder over the next 40 days (until Yom Kippur) I’ll review this list, maybe modify it, maybe just think about it, but hopefully this will help give me some direction to move in during Elul, and maybe – just maybe, after Yom Kippur I’ll have at least one measurable improvement in my life.

* I’ll make a conscious effort to appreciate my wife more, especially her non-stop effort to keep the household running smoothly. I’ll identify additional ways that I can help around the house and show additional support for my wife both physically and emotionally.

* I’ll make a conscious effort to spend more time with each of my kids. They all need time with their father on a daily basis and I’ll try to make sure that spending time with them is part of my daily or weekly routine. This could include learning Gemara with my oldest, or practicing reading with the girls (each at their own level), or maybe riding a bike or playing a board game with them – each of them.

* I’ll work on anger, especially with my kids. It is very easy to loose patience with your own kids, but I’ll try to never raise my voice to them and to treat them at least as well as I would the kids of a neighbor (I can’t imagine myself yelling at someone else’s kids).

* I’ll try to use all my time as constructively as possible. When I’m working I should be 100% at work, when I’m with the kids I should be 100% with the kids, when I’m in a shiur I should be 100% at the shiur.

* I’ll slow down with my Brachot, especially Birkat Hamazon. Does mumbling and skipping words in Birkat Hamazon really show my appreciation for the food that I just ate? Is it really so difficult to make sure that I say ALL of the words?

* I’ll try to start off my day by being ON TIME for shul – how difficult should it be to get to shul a few minutes before it starts to put on Tfillin, recite Korbanot, and maybe even look at Parsha Shavua?

Have a great Elul!

Originally posted in August 2008 here.

4 comments on “Taking the Next Step in Teshuva

  1. @Bob Miller: Excellent point. I believe you should consider: what thoughts exactly do you want? What emotion (and how much) should go with them?

    Thank you Aryeh! The podcasts should be working now, as well as the form to sign up by email.

  2. Anything done enough times can become rote, an afterthought, or maybe not even a thought. The challenge to Jews already going through the right motions is to grow in awareness of what these mean.

  3. Ideas are great, but what is your plan for following through?
    Here are a few steps to making changes stick:

    What EXACTLY do you want to accomplish? If “I’ll make a conscious effort to appreciate my wife more” what are some CONCRETE ways you will be doing that? Will you say “Honey, thank you for making another delicious meal” after each dinner or something similar? Often it is hard to follow through because we don’t know exactly what we want to do.

    If you are trying to change an attitude, what would your thoughts, words, or actions be? If I wanted to not be angry with my kids, what would I WANT to think when something happened? Saying enthusiastically “Gam zeh litovah!” might be one. What do you WANT to replace the anger with?

    And I find that sof-sof, the hardest part is REMEMBERING to do them. Make a list of the changes you are working on / want to make and look at them, preferably, every morning and every night just before sleeping (along with Shema? It certainly fits the theme) so that you are constantly thinking about it, at least subconsciously.

    And finally, don’t feel bad about messing up. Feel GOOD for NOTICING that you have an opportunity to improve. Decide what you will do differently next time. Our brain often takes shortcuts to respond to things, so program it in now what you want that shortcut to be.

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