I remember going to a class many years ago and hearing the teacher announce, “today we’re going to talk about hiskashrus.”
“His kashrus?” I thought to myself. “Whose kashrus? We’re learning about keeping kosher?”
I spent most of the class in clueless frustration until I asked someone what the word meant. Hiskashrus, pronounced pretty much like “his kashrus,” was not about anyone’s diet, but about “connecting,” as in connecting to the Rebbe.
Good to know, especially since connecting to a leader is a basic precept of Torah Judaism, as old as Moses at Sinai.
Then there was the time when our son, Izzy, got engaged to Devorah Masinter from South Africa. Both sets of parents met for the first time in New York and we were marveling at the miracle of how matches are made.
With absolute certainty, Rabbi Masinter pronounced, “It’s all s’yata d’shmaya.”
I agreed completely, having absolutely no idea what s’yata d’shmaya was.
(It turns out that s’yata d’shmaya is “help from heaven,” which, fortunately, I agree with wholeheartedly, regarding pretty much everything in life.)
I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that it’s been a long journey to get comfortable with myself as a ba’al teshuvah, a returnee to Jewish observance. (For the record, a female returnee is a ba’alas teshuvah, and really, a ba’al teshuvah is someone who lived it, left it, and then returned to it, but for lack of a better definition, people who choose to become frum, observant, are known in the plural as ba’alei teshuvah.)
See how much there is to learn? And that’s just the language.
But if you consider the Talmudic saying that, “a pleasure that one has all the time is not a pleasure,” I appreciate my observance more than someone whose life was never any other way. I know what it feels like to think that I’m the center of the universe but with no idea what I’m supposed to do about that. (By the way, I still think I’m still the center of the universe, but it’s G-d’s universe, and He makes it very clear what I’m supposed to do about that.)
It’s interesting that the world promotes the benefits of “coming out” in many aspects of life, yet as Jews, many of us live with unresolved issues as to what being Jewish means. Is it a choice? A matter of behavior or belief? A condition?
I can only say that, for me, it has been a wonderfully liberating process to bring out what Torah says is at the core, the etzem, of my soul and every Jew’s soul: a part of G-d Himself. Alive, Eternal, and True. (Okay, so you can add one more, Demanding, but would you expect anything less from Alive, Eternal and True?)
Not everything we’re created with inwardly should necessarily be expressed outwardly, but surely our essential G-dliness should be. Accessing that part of myself has been a huge but gratifying journey of self-transcendence, one that continues to involve healing and forgiveness.
The “whole Torah on one foot” is ahavas yisroel, the love of a fellow Jew, but I can only love the Jew in others as much as I love the Jew in me.
Part of doing that meant embracing my ba’al teshuvah status. I’ve had to overcome my embarrassment that people use terms I don’t know, that I’m not sure when to stand and when to sit in shul, that it takes me longer than most people to say the blessing after the meal on Shabbos.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Because I had to push myself through the ignorance, through the embarrassment, in a lifelong effort to harmonize my past and present, spiritual and physical, I celebrate every time I reach another milestone of making my inner self “transparent” with my outer self.
I force myself to answer, “Boruch Hashem” or “thank G-d” to everyone who asks me how I am, no matter who they are. Even if I will never see these people again, I want to proclaim to the world that I am thankful to be G-d’s creation.
It’s a responsibility, a challenge, and a joy, and I embrace it with pride.