T'shuva and the Baal Teshuva - are they related?




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T'shuva – what is it?

By Avi Lazerson

Teshuva, the Hebrew word signifying 'return' or 'repentance,' has long been identified with a modern phenomenon called by many simply the 'baal teshuva' movement. The 'baal teshuva' is a term used today to identify a person who came from an irreligious background and found his way into the orthodox religious fold. As an example there are many 'baal teshuva' yeshivot that cater to people with no background in religious or orthodox life styles who are seeking to educate themselves in the basic tenets of Judaism.

Yet the concept of teshuva was not always the way it is understand today, something relegated to those ignorant of orthodox Jewish ritual who seek to expand their knowledge and into fit into the substratum society of the orthodox. Teshuva had a different meaning in earlier times and there is an importance in our understanding of what that was.

The original concept of was based on after sinning, a repentant must admit his sin, be repentant and take upon himself abandon this sin to in the future. A person who did this, and succeeded was called a 'baal teshuva' – meaning master of return. Those people who today are called 'baal teshuva' do not fit into this concept of teshuva in the manner in which it was original based.

Originally, a sinner was one who willingly transgressed the divine law of G-d. Since today's 'baal teshuva' are completely ignorant to the point of not even knowing that their actions constituted a sin, then their actions do not have the same gravity as some one who was educated in Jewish law and tradition and purposefully sinned. As a point of comparison, if both a person who possesses a thorough Jewish education and one who is ignorant of even the basic tenets of Judaism both commit a sin, as an example both ate pork, the gravity of sin depends on two points. First, was the person aware that it was forbidden to eat pork, meaning not only that he knew that orthodox Jews do not eat pork, but that G-d Himself forbids it; or if he had actually heard that it was forbidden but did he think that it was an old rule that today with the advent of refrigeration there is really no reason not to eat it? Secondly, was it done as a rebellious action against G-d or just because he was hungry and it looked so very tasty that he could not hold himself back.

That they both ate the pork, we can see clearly in our example, but the understanding the prohibition and motivation behind the eating are important factors. There is a world of difference between a person who does not realize that this is indeed a sin to a person who knows it is a sin, yet in spite of this knowledge, sins. The level of rebellion against the Almighty is an important factor in determining the severity of sin.

It is indeed unfortunate that the ignorant person who transgresses out of lack of knowledge is referred to as a 'baal teshuva'. In reality the concept of 'baal teshuva' should be reserved for the knowledgeable Jewish educated person who after he sins, takes his sin to heart and repents with a broken heart and returns to his Maker asking in sincerity for forgiveness. As stated above, we would call him a 'baal teshuva', not the ignoramus who begins to learn about Judaism!

Although the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the traditional time for self examination, reflection and personal accounting which bring one into awareness of sin and from this point continue into 'teshuva'; nevertheless, any time that a person who has sinned expresses his regret over his action, accepts responsibility for his action and refrains from repeating this sinful action, he can be considered a proper 'baal teshuva'.

Calling those people who come from a non observant and secular background and feel the need to join in the orthodox life style 'baal teshuva' is a disservice to all. Instead of knowledgeable people striving to become a 'baal teshuva', which was a title of distinction, instead it is reserved only for those who come from no backgrounds! This causes a wrong in the midst of reasonably educated people who think that being a 'baal teshuva' is not for them, they are knowledgeable about Judaism, what is teshuva and certainly becoming a 'baal teshuva' have to do with them!

* * * * *

Part of proper teshuva begins with admission or confession of the sin, (in Hebrew viduie). When a person sins, the first step is that he must acknowledge the sin. In the case above, he would mean that he must acknowledge that he ate pork and that this was wrong. To stand in front of the Almighty to request forgiveness and at the same time not acknowledge wrongdoing is ludicrous. Identifying the sin clearly is necessary first step. If a person who has lived a life of sinning comes to repent, it is not required that he list all of his sins, since the list would be too long and burdensome. In cases like this, he would not be expected to remember them all, he could just admit that he sinned and it would be enough. But a person who did a particular sin that he knows of should enumerate it and this should be done in private not in front of other people, as a person who is embarrassed from his action would do.

The second step is called in Hebrew charata meaning regret. Just to say that he sinned and to enumerate the sins is meaningless, unless the sinner exhibits true heartfelt regret. It is the heart and the emotions that have the power to cause his regret to be acceptable in front of G-d, for whilst a human judge can not see if a criminal is sincere in his regret over a crime, G-d can see what is in our hearts.

The third part is the sincere acceptance for the future that the person will no longer slip and sin. This is the true test of a 'baal teshuva'. When he is back in the same environment, with the same conditions as when he sinned, will he succumb to his original desire? As in the case above, he knew pork was forbidden but wanted to taste it. Having succumbs to his desires, and then repented, he now finds himself in the same situation, if he refrains, then he has earned the title of a 'baal teshuva'.

All of us have our weak points, whether it is food, drink, sex, or other Jewish law violations, such as Shabbat or Yom Tov.

It matters not whether we are highly intellectual individuals or simple people, whether we are respectable and honorable members of the Jewish community or plain Jews, the concept of teshuva applies to all, each individual on his particular various level. What they all have in common is that we are all individually answerable to G-d. He, in His great compassion, desires not the punishment of the evil doer, but that the evil doer should abandon his desire and return to G-d with a complete heart.


from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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