Transforming by Altering
by Rabbi Yosef Siegel
There are two common acronyms that are used in the Orthodox world. They are FFB and BT. An FFB stands for “Frum From Birth” or a person who grew up observant. A BT stands for a “Ba’al Teshuvah” or a person who has returned to his or her roots of Orthodox Judaism. For those of us who are BT’s, myself included, the change didn’t just occur in one day. It’s not like I was in the ice cream store eating my ice cream and just said to myself, “Gee, I think I’m going to become an observant Jew today”. I officially declared myself to be a Ba’al Teshuvah the beginning of my sophomore year of college while attending Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. However, the initial stage of that journey began during the beginning of my senior year of high school. What happened during the beginning of my senior year that changed my life forever? Before I tell you about that, I must share a little background of my Jewish life growing up.
I grew up in the town of Hewlett, which is located in the southwestern part of Long Island, New York. Hewlett is part of the area commonly known as the Five Towns (Hewlett, Woodmere, Cedarhurst, Lawrence, Inwood). Levels of Jewish observance were very diverse with significant representations of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism. Even though we weren’t very traditional in practice, my family belonged to a right-wing Conservative Synagogue (no female rabbis, only men being called up to the Torah, etc.…). I referred to myself as a “five day a year Jew”. We went to services on both days of Rosh Hashanah, fasted and went to services on Yom Kippur, and had two Passover Seders (though we never got back to the Haggadah after the meal). Oh and I almost forgot to mention Hebrew school which took place from 4:00-6:00 twice a week after public school and 9:00-11:00 on Sundays. For most of us, Hebrew school fell under the violation of our Constitutional Rights that ban Cruel and Unusual Punishment. However, unlike most of my classmates, I had an unexplainable excitement about Judaism and the authenticity of the Torah and that everything in the Torah was true and was the word of G-d. My parents remember me as a five-year-old child telling them that one day I would have a kosher home. Despite my enthusiasm for Judaism, my observance of rituals remained basically the same five days throughout my first 17 years of life (with the exception of tefillin, but that’s a story for another time). With this introduction completed, I can now share with you how the change in my life began.
It is commonly stated that G-d prepares the remedy before the malady. The malady here is having an undernourished soul. As is in most public schools, football games were either played on Friday night or during the day on Saturday, which is not conducive to the Sabbath observant individual. During the summer before my senior year, I got bad vibes from my football coach as to how much playing time I would actually be getting. Being a person that doesn’t believe in quitting once having started something, I decided not to play varsity football my senior year (Hint hint: Shabbos mornings are free). Rosh Hashanah arrived in the middle of September that year. Unlike most of my peers, I stayed inside the sanctuary to listen to the Rabbi’s sermon. There was one thing that he said that truly caught my attention. He said, “Don’t let this coming year be the same as last year. Do something new. Add one thing to your life as a Jew. I turned to my father and suggested to him that we start going to services Saturday morning. He agreed, and thus started our year of changing one thing in our lives as Jews.
The ten days beginning on Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Yom Kippur are commonly known as the “Days of Repentance”. Many people are mistaken when they think that the key to repenting is having a feeling of remorse over one’s past deeds. The key to repentance is to change one’s ways in order that one doesn’t keep on doing actions that he feels and/or should feel remorseful about. But what is the definition of change? I found two appropriate definitions and both are critical for our journey in Judaism. The first definition is to transform, to make radically different. The second is to alter, to make different in some particular way. Both definitions seem to be at odds of one another. What I came to learn was that in order to transform, I had to alter my life one particular at a time. I like to think of repentance like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Yes, for us we see a complete transformation from one extreme to the other. What we don’t see is the 14-30 day process that goes on in the cocoon. When I decided to become observant, I was looking to become transformed. I wanted to change from one extreme to another. And I had the unrealistic expectation that it would happen very quickly. At times, my “lack” of progress frustrated me, in the end, slowed me down even more. I wish I would have kept in mind the powerful lesson that I learned from the Rabbi on Rosh Hashanah all those years ago; to concentrate on changing one thing at a time. The simplicity of his statement should be a breath of fresh air for all of us that want to transform our lives. It is very doable. Transformation comes from altering one’s life a little at a time. So during these auspicious days, let us reflect on our lives and think about where we would like to be. Let us choose a few things to focus on for this year that will help us in eventually becoming that transformed person we would like to be.