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Parshas Ki Seitzei (5773)

Teshuva: Coming Home

You may not know this about me, but I can never go back to Las Vegas.

The reason why I can never go back to Las Vegas is because of the simple fact that I have never been to Las Vegas, and you just can’t go back to a place which you have never been!

This begs the following question:

We know that the month of Elul which we are presently in is the time when we are meant to do teshuvah (most often translated as “repentance”) for all our deeds from the past year in preparation for our upcoming “day in court” on Rosh Hashanah.

Now most people will tell you that to “repent” means to change one’s ways and become a “different” and “better” person. In fact, the online dictionary writes that one meaning of repentance is “to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one's life for the better”.

In this case, the dictionary just so happens to be wrong (so don’t believe everything you read on the Internet!). The word teshuvah does not mean to change and become different but actually the exact opposite. It comes from the root word ‘shav’, which means to return and to come back.

In other words, each and every one of us has a pure neshamah (soul) at the core of our being which is the essence of we are, and which can never become tainted by our sins.

As we say in the Shacharis (Morning) prayers every day, “Elokai, Neshamah she’nasata bee, tehorah hee – My G-d, the Neshamah (Soul) that you placed inside me is pure”. The soul is pure even today after I sinned, because there is a part of me which remains uncorrupted by sin, and which, given the choice, would never have made the wrong decision.

Our job as we do teshuvah is not to change and become something different than we are but to return and come back to our essence, and to remind ourselves that all those layers of sin and indifference that we picked up during the past year don’t truly represent who we are. When we understand this basic core truth about ourselves, it enables us to do a complete teshuvah and to free ourselves of those sins by regretting them and by distancing ourselves from them, as they no longer define our essence.

This explains how we can “come back” when we do teshuvah, as we are returning and coming back to ourselves and to the pure and untainted neshamah that we have inside us.

The real question that needs to be answered is how to explain the so-called “Baal Teshuvah movement”. The Baal Teshuvah movement is a description of the return of secular Jews to religious Judaism. The term baal teshuvah is from the Talmud, literally meaning "master of repentance".

It began during the mid-twentieth century, when large numbers of previously highly assimilated Jews chose to move in the direction of practicing Judaism and Torah observance. This movement has continued unabated until the present time and has been noted by scholars who have written articles and books about its significance to modern Jewish history.

The Baal Teshuvah movement has taken place wherever Jews live and in many different places under all sorts of varying circumstances. It is one of the most startling phenomena of Jewish life in the past 20 years. New York magazine reports: “The people making this sweeping change in their life grew up in a secular world. They went to good colleges and got excellent jobs. They didn't become Orthodox because they were afraid, or because they needed a militaristic set of commands for living their lives. They chose Orthodoxy because it satisfied their need for intellectual stimulation and emotional security.”

Now if teshuvah means to return and to come back, we need to ask ourselves why are those who grew up totally secular and who now embrace religious Judaism called “Baal Teshuvah”? After all, you just can’t go back to a place which you have never been! So what exactly are all these Jews returning to?

I believe the following true story – told by the famous Mohel, speaker and author Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn and written in his book Reflections of The Maggid (Artscroll Mesorah Publications) – will give us the answer:

In secular terms, Joe Wallis, or Yossi as he was known to his Israeli friends, was a model success story. Born in Israel, he moved abroad with his parents to New York, before his bar mitzvah, where he grew up in a rough and tumble neighborhood in the Bronx. He graduated from City College at the top of the class. He married and returned with his wife to Israel in order to serve in the Israeli army. He rose to the rank of captain, and had nearly completed his obligatory service when the Yom Kippur War broke out in October, 1973. Years later, he was a successful business man in Eretz Yisroel, but he still felt empty.

One day, as Joe was about to leave his office, he received a telephone call from his wife, asking him to pick up supper on his way home. Joe left his office at 5:30 and made his way to the Misadah HaPil (The Elephant's Restaurant) in Tel Aviv, known for its basar lavan (pork) and pita. It was a hot steamy day and the line to get into this trendy eatery was out the door. Joe figured out just how many portions he would need for his children, who devoured this kind of treat. It was going to be a humid evening, he thought to himself, as he began feeling impatient, uncomfortable and a little out of place...

Joe's mind began wandering in the pork restaurant and he suddenly he recalled a story that had taken place decades earlier. He had heard the story numerous times in the family, but now the story loomed larger than ever before. The story was about his maternal grandfather, Shraga Feivel Winkler. He came from Feldesh, a small town outside Debreczyn, Hungary, and was known as the most pious man in his town. He was a melamed (teacher of children) who was revered and respected by all who knew him. In 1944, Reb Shraga Feivel was taken from his home by the German S.S. and interned in a slave labor camp outside Hungary. He could not contact his family members, and had no idea of their whereabouts.

As the War was coming to an end and the camps were about to be liberated, German soldiers wanted to humiliate as many Jews as they could before they were freed. They decided to make an example of Reb Shraga Feivel, whom they sneeringly called "the rabbi of the camp." The German soldiers summoned Jews from all the barracks and ordered them to form a wide circle. Reb Shraga Feivel was brought to the middle of the circle. One could already see clouds of smoke rising from the Allied tanks and trucks that were making their way to the camps. "In a few hours you will all be free." a German officer announced. "You will be reunited with your families - or whatever is left of them. But you, rabbi," he said, pointing to Reb Shraga Feivel, "you must first pass this test. I have a piece of pig's meat in my hand. If you want to live and see your family again, you must eat this in front of everyone." The German roared, as he drew his pistol, "Otherwise you will be our last victim."

Reb Shraga Feivel had starved himself throughout his stay in the camps rather than eat anything that was not kosher. He existed on water, dirty fruits and vegetables, and anything else he knew was kosher. He had not eaten meat in years, not even soup that may have had pieces of non-kosher meat in it. Reb Shraga Feivel's fellow prisoners stood by nervously as he was confronted with his life-and-death decision. Some could not bear to watch his ordeal and looked down at the ground. "I will not eat this meat!" he announced defiantly. The sudden crack of gunfire ruptured the air, as Reb Shraga Feivel was killed in cold blood.

Now, in the hot humid evening outside the pork restaurant, Reb Shraga Feivel's grandson closed his eyes, ruminating over the events of that late afternoon, decades ago in that slave labor camp where his grandfather was gunned down. Joe thought to himself, "I am standing in a long line waiting to buy pork - meat that my grandfather gave up his life for. Had he eaten just one piece of that pork, he would have been reunited with his family that he hadn't seen in over a year. I have my family. I have anything I desire - and I am waiting on line for this? Either I am not normal or he was not normal." And then he thought, "I cannot believe that my grandfather was not normal. I must find out why he would do something that seems to me to be crazy!"

He left the line and bought supper at another store. He came home a perplexed and troubled man. After supper, Yossi had a long talk with his wife. They talked about their purpose in life, their future - and the emptiness that gnawed at their souls. They wanted a solution, but where could they find it?

A few days later, Yossi heard about a seminar called Arachim (Values) that was being given by two scientists. Dr. Sholom Srebrenik and Mr. Tzvi Inbal. The academic credentials of the men giving the seminar were impeccable. Joe, who had a scientific bent, decided to attend. For four days he listened, questioned, absorbed, discussed, evaluated, deliberated and reflected. At the end of the seminar he was convinced. His previous life was over. Yossi Wallis became a new man, determined that others would see what he saw, feel what he felt, and understand what he now understood.

He asked Dr. Srebrenik, "How can you not be getting this message out to thousands of people? What you have said here is literally incredible." "It's a matter of money," replied Dr. Srebrenik sadly. "If we had the money we could get the message out." "I will take care of it," Yossi said with firm confidence.

And take care of it he did. Overnight he became Arachim's General Director, a title he holds until this day. Today Arachim seminars are given throughout the world. Over the last twenty years it has become one of the most effective kiruv (outreach) organizations in Israel and the Diaspora.

Just as Yossi Wallis learned in the story, so, too, do each and every one of us need to know our roots, and who we come from.

You see, it is an historical fact that before the advent of Reform Judaism in the early 1800’s, there were only two types of Jews – those who kept the Torah and all its 613 commandments and those who didn’t – and the huge majority of Jews kept the Torah and were Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant). Sure, there were break-off movements and sects throughout our history like the Sadducees and the Karaites who did not follow all the Torah’s commandments, but they were the exception, not the rule.

And it is virtually guaranteed that if you’re a Jew alive today, your great-grandparents, and for sure your great-great-grandparents were Shomer Shabbos and pretty much followed the Torah and all its commandments to the best of their ability – much like Yossi Wallis’s grandfather, Reb Shraga Feivel Winkler, in Rabbi Krohn’s story. So that whatever mitzvos and Jewish traditions that we might come to observe during our lives – whether or not we grew up observing them - are not “new” and “foreign” to us at all. They are what we come from. And when we start to observe them ourselves, we are simply returning to what our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents did before us all the way back to Mount Sinai over 3300 years ago.

When those who are among us begin to embrace an observant lifestyle as newly-minted Baalei Teshuvah, let us remember that they are not “flipping out”, “becoming religious fanatics”, “changing midstream”, etc. etc. etc. – they are just coming home.

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