HELPING BA’ALEI TESHUVA BE THEMSELVES Rabbi Ben Tzion Kokis
The gemora tells us a revealing event which took place in the early stages of Rebbe Akiva's growth. "Rebbe Akiva said: 'At the beginning of my study, I once chanced upon a "mais mitzva" (abandoned corpse) by the roadside. I strained for four parsaos to bring the body to a cemetery. When I came to my teachers and told them, they said to me, "Akiva! Every step you took was like spilling innocent blood, because a mais mitzva should be buried in the place where the body lies." At that time, I resolved never to leave my teachers' side."
This reaction of Rebbe Akiva to his well-intentioned error is probably familiar to all of us, but especially to the ba'al teshuva. How often the halacha runs counter to what our intuistion would have dictated, and how easy it is to make an assumption about the right way to do things, only to discover that the halacha says otherwise.
This is one of the most crucial, yet painful, stages in a ba'al teshuva's development: the realization that in the world of Torah he cannot follow his own hunches in deciding what is right and what is wrong. The average ba'al/ba'alas teshuva grew up in a culture where there were no, or precious few, moral absolutes. Very often, society places pleasure and gratification as the only criteria for choices in life. Even when a sense of moral correctness is sought, the main standard of judgement is the dictates of his own conscience: are you being true to your own sense of justice and decency? Suddenly, having made a commitment to a life of Torah, things are no longer so simple. He may very likely find that compared to the past, he is having a much harder time making decisions, because he no longer can think only in terms of what he thinks is appropriate, but rather what is really right, through the eyes of the Torah.
Even questions which would seem to call for a purely subjective evaluation are not left up to the inclinations and preferences of the individual. Defining beauty, for instance, becomes a complex proposition when a lulav or esrog is concerned; the Torah's requirement of "hadar" is not left up to one's aesthetic instincts. On occasion, the opposite is true: the esrog which you may consider "pretty" may be barely kosher by the Halacha's standards, while the real "m'hudar" could be less than dazzling in everyday terms. The more one becomes conditioned to the world of halacha, it would seem, the less valid individual preferences become.
Succeeding in this transition is a milestone in one's integration of Torah, and perhaps could even be viewed as the watershed event in the whole process of teshuva. However, this success is often accompanied by the seeds of a serious problem, which, if not acknowledged and dealt with, can have a negative effect on one's entire life. There are areas in life in which it is absolutely crucial that one be very much in touch with his own feelings, and those feelings must be taken seriously. Too often the ability to trust one's own instincts is a casualty of the transition of teshuva, with the result that even in personal issues the healthy input of internal judgement is not part of the decision-making process.
Consider the (true) story of S----, a woman in her early thirties whom this writer had occasion to meet. She is a highly intelligent, strong-minded person, who was very proud of her skills and accomplishments as a special-ed teacher. She had taught successfully in an inner-city public school, a fact which spoke volumes about the strength of character which lay beneath her otherwise mild demeanor. She was also the mother of an infant, and had been recently divorced, after a marriage of ...less than a month. S-----described how her advisors had urged her to marry a particular young man, also a ba'al teshuva, although she had very little feeling for him as a person. Several years her junior, he was a nice enough person, but just did not have the character and maturity which a woman like S---- expected from a husband.
After a tense few weeks, it became clear to their advisors that there really was no hope for the marriage, and a divorce was arranged. What I found astonishing was not the divorce; rather, the decision to get married in the first place was incomprehensible. How could such an intelligent and independent woman have allowed herself to enter a lifelong relationship with someone toward whom she felt so little? When I posed this question to S----, she replied that there had been pressure to get married- she wasn't getting any younger, of course- and individuals whose opinion she respected reassured her that everything would be OK, afterwards it will be different, etc., etc. So, although deep down she had misgivings about her decision, her strength of personality was able to squelch those doubts, and she went ahead with the marriage.
This may be an extreme example. It is clear, however, that such decisions do not occur in a vacuum. They only occur if one has previously relinquished a degree of personal judgement, and developed a distrust of his or her own instincts. This phenomenon may all too often accompany the transition of a young man or woman into a life of Torah, and it is specifically the most sincere and idealistic personalities who are susceptible to falling into this pattern.
Considerable care is therefore required on the part of those who are involved in this area of chinuch. Tremendous sensitivity must be used in order to ensure that the growth of a ben- or bas-Torah not come at the cost of a diminishing of a personality. A clear distinction must be made between yielding one's judgement in halachic matters, and maintaining a secure sense of identity in personal decisions. And, as was suggested above, the problem is not that the individual is a "weak" personality. Rather, it may be a side effect of the process of teshuva itself.
Conflicts similar to the shidduch situation described above may arise in other areas. Let us examine several more common examples of this phenomenon.
The question of spending significant time in yeshiva and kollel, or becoming involved in the world of parnoso, confronts every ben-Torah to some degree. But the guidance given to a ba'al- or ba'alas teshuva in this regard must take into account that this individual is a product of cultural and educational influences which, for better or for worse, played a great role in forming his personality and attitudes. Both external and internal factors influence a person to define accomplishment in secular terms. Externally, the values of one's family and friends create certain expectations; even more importantly, an individual learns to gauge his own fulfillment, and accordingly to feel self-worth, in terms of career goals and material success.
When the Hashgochoh provides a young adult with the opportunity to be exposed to Torah, there is a tendency to view the previous years as being irrelevant to the "new" person who is developing in the yeshiva. But in reality, while an individual sincerely admires and identifies with the emes and gadlus of the Torah, and the rabbeim and senior chaverim who have become his role models, this does not mean that he has become a totally new person in the span of a few months. One cannot just slip on a set of attitudes like a new suit of clothes. There are many underlying issues of self-esteem which must also be dealt with, specifically because he is a ba'al teshuva, before a total transformation has taken place. Therefore, there are bound to be a different set of considerations when advising a ba'al teshuva in this regard.
It must be borne in mind that the challenges which he will face will be very different than those facing other b'nei Torah, and less emotional support is available to him, as compared to "conventional" yeshiva or Bais Yaakov students. The latter grew up in a social and educational system which was structured to encourage and facilitate dedication to Torah and mitzvos, and sacrifices made for that cause are generally supported by family and friends. It is so painfully different for the ba'al and ba'alas teshuva!
Several years ago a young man approached me a few days before his wedding. He was close to tears. He had been under tremendous pressure to take care of numerous arrangements for his chasuna, since his family were not able/willing to be involved. He was paying for a good part of his own wedding. In addition, the plans for his oyfruf were being complicated by his family’s insistence that they would just drive in on Shabbos, since they didn’t feel comfortable staying with strangers who had offered hospitality. But this was not what had caused his distress. A kollel member who had in fact been very helpful to the choson as he progressed in his Torah learning, and whom this bochur held in the utmost esteem, had scolded him sharply for being so distracted from his learning in the days before his chasuna...”Your kallah will lose her respect for you!” was the message that he had heard, from someone whose opinion meant an awful lot to him.
How unfair it was to criticize this sincere young man, who was doing his best to make his own chasuna, by applying standards that would only apply to a bochur whose parents are taking care of all the arrangements!
Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that ba'alei teshuva shouldn't dedicate themselves to learning Torah in a serious way. But it does mean that decisions should be made carefully, with full awareness of the specific needs and capabilities of this individual. Many times, peer pressure or a tendency to conform to conventional norms, rather than measured guidance, seem to be prime factors in making major decisions, and nisyonos which could have been avoided are instead created. The obligation of "aytza tova" would certainly dictate that a mechanech should look to the long-range benefit and health of his or her talmidim.
It is crucial to note that this is the counsel which gedolim have taught. Take the following incident, for example, as related to this writer by the rosh yeshiva of one of the major yeshivos for ba'alei teshuva in Yerushalayim.
A talmid of the yeshiva had been studying in a prestigious European university, and had a few months to go before earning a Master's degree, which would virtually guarantee him a teaching position of his choice. However, having become enthusiastically involved in learning, he saw no point in completing his studies, since at this point he felt no desire to ever re-enter the academic world. The rabbeim of his yeshiva expressed misgivings at this course of action, and suggested that he invest the few months of study to finish his degree, and then continue learning, so that his options will be open in case the need will arise at some future date to seek a teaching position. (It is important to note that his field of study was not problematic from a Halachic standpoint.)
The talmid said that he appreciated his rabbeim's concern, but it was clear to him that he had no desire to be a college professor, so he had no reason to stop learning. His Rosh Yeshiva then suggested that they discuss the issue with Moran HoRav Shach, shlit"a, and the bochur quickly agreed, confident that he would find total sympathy for his position, since Rav Shach's stand on the primacy of learning over all else is well known. Much to the surprise of the talmid, however, the advice of Rav Shach was to finish his degree, and then devote himself totally to growth in Torah.
What is noteworthy is that this advice was based on a consideration of the unique issues which face ba'alei teshuva, and would not be applied across the board to the conventional yeshiva talmid.
A similar situation exists with connection to something which is taken for granted in the Torah world: that as a young man or woman enter adulthood, it is natural and desirable that they plan on marrying and raising a family. This is no longer a given in the general society, and in many cases, ba'alei/ba'alos tehuva were educated to look with disdain at this way of life. A mechanech cannot underestimate the influence of "yuppieism" and Women's Lib on the attitudes of his students, and thoughtful attention must be paid to the underlying issues of sharing and responsibility that are so crucial in establishing a successful home. The stamina and understanding that are so necessary for building a strong relationship and raising children, do not suddenly form out of thin air when a young man or woman becomes committed to Torah and mitzvos.
The question must always be asked: Is this individual emotionally ready for marriage? Or is he or she responding only on a mental, hashkofoh level to what seems to be the “expected” thing to do in the Torah community? Again, sensitivity to the personal dimension of chinuch is indispensable, and will do much to avoid later complications and anguish.
An exceptional young man had become religious, and was learning most of the day in an established Yeshiva for ba'alei teshuva, while running a family business for part of the day. He started the shidduchim process, and for approximately a year was meeting young women, with no success. After a while, one of his rabbeim began to wonder: This young man seems to have everything going for him. He's very intelligent, sensitive, has a good livelihood, a warm personality; why isn't he connecting with the young women whom he's meeting? The rebbe had an insight, and asked the bochur, "Tell me something. If you hadn't become religious a few years ago, would you also be dating now with intent to get married?"
The young man thought for a moment, and said, "No, I wouldn't."
"Why not?" the rebbe asked. The young man told him that several years before, he had ended a serious relationship, and had been hurt very much by the break-up. He didn't feel emotionally ready yet for this level of commitment. "That's understandable," the rebbe replied, "but if so, how can you be involved in shidduchim now?"
The answer was, that this is what you're "supposed" to do when you're frum! But it was not yet where the young man was in his personal development. Once this point was recognized, he dealt with the issue, and was engaged a few months later, and is building a beautiful home.
We have attempted to describe a few areas in which the integration of the ba'al/ ba'alas teshuva into the world of Torah requires special sensitivity. The common denominator is that young men and women must be taken seriously as people- both by their teachers and by themselves- to ensure their healthy and mature integration into the fabric of Klal Yisroel.
Rabbi Ben Tzion Kokis is the Mashgiach in Ohr Sameach Monsey and Rav of Congregation Zichron Mordechai in South Monsey.
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