By Eliezer Ohr*
Teshuva (lit: return), aka repentance, is an incredibly powerful concept, requiring us to look at the effect of our negative actions and calling us to return and make things right. From my experience, the concept of return applies not only within the context of our relationship with Hashem, but also within the constellation of all the relationships in our lives. Every relationship is affected by our actions, both positive and negative, and all of those relationship requiring repair when we choose the wrong path. This is what I have learned first-hand from experience with teshuva.
Growing up in an observant home, I went to yeshiva after finishing school. I studied accountancy part-time and eventually took a position at a Torah institution located in a small town in America. I was to be the bursar. All went well and, over time, my family grew. In the financial crisis of 2008, my wife was retrenched and the school froze all salaries. What could I do? I davened to our Father in Heaven that everything would be okay. We were in a very difficult position and eventually, out of utter desperation, I took a “loan” from the institution, without anyone else knowing. I sincerely thought that I could and would pay it back. But things did not improve and I could not repay the “loan”. I had to come clean. As a result of what I did, I was forced to resign, but thankfully avoided any sort of criminal prosecution. I was absolutely humiliated. I lost my integrity and even had to move to another town. As a result of the deal I made, I would never be able to work in that field again, which meant I needed to find a new career and start over at the bottom. The stress was unimaginable.
Rebuilding my relationship with Hashem
It was a very difficult time. I sincerely regretted what I had done. I spent hours weeping, confessing, and trying to make good. Many of the seforim (books) by our Sages on the topic of teshuva speak about how we need to rebuild our relationship with Hashem because, when we sin, we distance ourselves from Him. The returning that I needed to do, however, was a bit different. I was angry with Hashem – very, very angry. It was a confusing and intolerable feeling and certainly not an acceptable thing to admit openly, but I was angry with Him. The reason the anger left me confused was because I obviously was the one who had made the choices I did. I had free will, but, at the same time, I had also cried to Hashem for so long before I could see no other way of coping. I was broken by our desperate financial situation and had asked Him for help for so long without any response. Where was He? I was familiar with all of the philosophy around prayer, that sometimes Hashem just says no, but this broke me. Where was our Father when I needed him? I tried to pretend I didn’t feel anger, but I did. At the same time, I could not stop believing in either Him or His Torah, both of which were and are incontrovertible facts to me. Nonetheless, to not feel angry was very difficult. How could I reconcile this anger with the need to take responsibility? It wasn’t Hashem’s fault; it was my own!
The word that stuck in my mind was teshuva – returning, rebuilding that relationship. I needed to find an area in my life where I could see Hashem’s presence, no matter how small and subjective, and build from there.
The strangest thing happened, we survived financially. There were many people in the Jewish community, people that we knew from across the country, who assisted us, and we managed to make it through. My bitachon (trust in Hashem) grew as it had never done before. All through yeshiva, and even when I was working, I had thought that I had bitachon. I ‘preached’ it, but, in all honesty, I had never really been tested. Did I really trust in Hashem? Two years after this episode, when my wife and I looked back and tried to work out how we had survived financially, it was difficult to make sense of it all. There were so many unusual occurrences that, when grouped all together, seemed like an open miracle. Even though we were never entirely sure where our sustenance would come from, within just a few months, we had learned to trust that it would come, regardless of our being able to foresee its source ahead of time. I had never ever felt that kind of trust in Hashem before and didn’t even believe that one could. So my bitachon became strong, while my love remained weak. This was the beginning of my teshuva, of my rebuilding my relationship with Hashem using my bitachon as a vehicle for reconnecting with Him. I am happy that I can say now that my love for Hashem has continued to grow as we survive and grow, day by day, week by week, month by month.
Rebuilding my relationship with myself
Rav Wolbe, z”l, one of the great Torah teachers of the modern age, writes that knowing oneself is the foundation of all of our growth. I thought that I knew myself. I believed I could and would never do what I eventually did do. I knew Torah. I knew halacha. I knew the dangers of being caught doing something illegal and immoral. I knew all of these things and I believed that what Rav Wolbe meant was that if one knew oneself, one was distanced from making mistakes. I was wrong. Since that time, I have tried to understand what I was actually thinking at the time I made the money transfer, what was going through my mind? I have found it an impossible question to answer. I started wondering what it meant for a person to know himself. I believe now that self-knowledge does not mean that one will not sin, it’s about knowing when to cry out for help if one does sin.
An additional difficulty in “returning” to myself, in rebuilding an inner connection, was further complicated by the diagnosis of a personality disorder. A string of negative experiences were suddenly placed in perspective, and, with the help of hindsight, everything indicated that I had suffered from this personality disorder for many years. What was I to do with this new information? I was afraid that I would slip into rationalising that my choices were not really mine, arguing which was it: the disorder that had pushed me or my own free choice? My fear was that, if I didn’t accept that it was my own choice, how could I ever truly feel remorse for what I had done and do proper teshuva. This dilemma haunted me for months.
I had to refine my thinking. I could eventually see that the disorder from which I suffer and the poor decision that I made were not connected. Certainly I felt, subjectively, that this was something that should mitigate how I looked at myself for the future, but it did not diminish my free will at all, I was not incapacitated in any way and I needed to take responsibility. It slowly became easier to cope and, eventually, I could place my own choices in perspective. I never had a problem forgiving myself. I realised that I could do teshuva and that no one is irredeemable.
Rebuilding my relationship with my family
My wife, thank G-d for her, chose to forgive and support me. She literally held our family together. But having a large family, with varying aged children, posed some challenges. We decided to be as open as possible with our children, albeit without going into great detail. I told them what I had done and shared with them my process of teshuva. I told them that I would answer any questions that they might have. And so I did. I asked my wife and children for forgiveness for the shame and embarrassment that I had caused them. Once again, there was a remarkable development. Although I no longer had a job, I now had more time to spend with my family. Working for a small Torah institution takes up a lot of a person’s time. I was always working late and, as a result, often fatigued. I spent very little time with my wife and children. I now realised that my own family had been quietly suffering. During the time that I spent looking for a job, I was at home a lot. The family laughed together, cried together, and we did teshuva together – we reconnected with each other. Amazingly, these new connections somehow have made it possible for me to be a part of their inner worlds in a way and to a degree that I ever was able to before. This journey, this teshuva, has turned out to be something positive not only for me, but I believe for them as well.
Rebuilding my relationship with my friends
I lost almost no friends as a result of what I had done. People that I connected with regularly, and to whom I considered myself close, mostly stood by me. I am not entirely sure why and often wonder how they were able to support me, but they did. In fact, there was often an even more surprising effect: people that I had helped in some way, often without even realizing it, stepped forward to offer us assistance, financial, emotional, or even with just a silent acceptance.
Not everyone was so forgiving. Many people unfortunately needed to make sure that not only did justice happen, in the form of losing my job, etc., but that it was apparent. Often, when I walked into shul, I was made to feel as if I needed to metaphorically “bow down” and allow myself to be “beaten”. There were people who refused to wish good Shabbos to me, or to sit next to me, or to speak with me, and a tremendous amount of loshen hora was spoken about me. In the beginning it was very painful, but I came to understand and accept that this too was part of the teshuva process – those individuals were actually helping me in my teshuva process
Being a Ba’al Teshuva
The Orthodox community in America has placed great focus and resources on baalei teshuva (the term frequently used for those who grew up irreligious and decided to embrace Torah observance), which is a pleasure to witness, thousands of unaffiliated Jews reconnecting with their beautiful heritage. I have found it fascinating, however, on my journey of teshuva to see which Jews are accepted as baalei teshuva by the “frum” community. The community is welcoming and is comfortable to accept those who are deficient in their observance of the mitzvos between man and G-d. In other words, if someone is an atheist, or not Shabbos observant, or doesn’t keep kosher, he is welcomed into the community and tremendous energy is expended trying to encourage the person to greater observance – and, if the person decides to join the Torah community, he is welcomed with open arms.
The community (ironically, even ba’alei tehsuva themselves), however, is not as comfortable welcoming baalei teshuva who are or were considered “frum” previously, but who sinned in the area of mitzvos between man and man. For whatever reason, someone who has done teshuva for stealing is not easy for the community to accept – despite the fact that there are so many beautiful statements of our Sages that cover the acceptance one should have for the baal teshuva, and such statements make no distinction between whether the mitzvos that one has failed at were between him and G-d or between him and man!
I often ask myself why it is like this. Perhaps, it is because one can never be sure if someone in such a situation has really done teshuva, ever he can ever truly be trusted again? But, does that mean that such a person will never be accepted as a true baal teshuva? Or, perhaps, it is simply distasteful for “frum” Jews to accept that even observant people are not perfect and are able to stumble in these areas.
Yom Kippur, a personal reflection
Looking back, I often think about how I experienced Yom Kippur before this experience. I would go through all the al cheits (the declarations that we make for various sins while simultaneously striking our fist against our chest): not making brochos; not learning enough Torah; not davening with enough devotion; perhaps I had shouted at my wife or was rude to my neighbour; and I would klap away (ie strike) at my chest. I realize now that I rarely felt broken. I rarely felt that I was truly distant from Hashem. My first Yom Kippur after my life fell apart was an experience that I have never felt before. I truly felt distant from Hashem even though I knew that it was a time period when He is close to us. I spent hours crying out to Hashem, pouring out my heart, and expressing my anger. Incredibly, the hole in my heart was slowly repaired. I felt teshuva; I felt that I was returning to Hashem.
The brocha that I now give to my children just prior to the start of Yom Kippur is that they will not go through what I did – ever. That should they feel the way that I did before I chose so destructively, they will get help from those who love them. But, that they should also go on a journey of returning to Hashem in every way they can.
*The author’s name has been changed to protect his and his family’s identity