There is a famous story about the student from Ohr Somayach who went to the
tish of the old Gerer Rebbe. He introduced himself to the Rebbe, saying,
“I’m learning at Ohr Somayach—but I’m not a ba’al teshuvah.” The Rebbe
looked him straight in the eye and said, “Why not?” His point, of course, was
that everybody should be a ba’al teshuvah. We say in davening slach
lanu, hashivainu avinu l’sorasecha. These words are for everybody. We all
have to do teshuvah for things we’ve done wrong; we all have room for
improvement in our lives. It’s a mistake, therefore, to designate only one
segment of the population as ba’alei teshuvah.
People who have changed their entire lifestyle to be better
Jews naturally appreciate Yiddishkeit a lot more. Ba’alei teshuvah are full of
excitement about Shabbos, kashrus, in a way that those who have been brought up
observantly often lack. It is said that each of the avos reached his level
independently of his parents’ attainments. Even without the advantage of growing
up in the household of Avraham Avinu, Yitzchak and Yaakov would have reached
their own levels of spiritual greatness. Most people are not like that. Their
standard of religiosity is determined by education and habit. They are what they
are because that’s what they and their parents have always been.
A ba’al teshuvah has to think about what he’s doing.
Why am I doing it? Am I doing it right? He does not have the luxury (and is
spared the curse) of a lifetime of mindless mimicry. For the same reason, he’s
not accustomed to certain aveiros of which f.f.b.’s are guilty. He can’t
justify his behavior by saying, “Well, that’s the way we always did it!”
I once saw a guy on Shabbos park a block away from the
shul and then walk the last block. At the time I pretended that I didn’t see
him, but during the week I approached him and said, “Listen, you may think
there’s a mitzvah to walk to shul on Shabbos, but there’s a
prohibition to drive, and it makes no difference where you park.”
“Rabbi,” he replied, “you don’t understand. That’s where my
father parked, that’s where my grandfather parked. It’s a family tradition.”
That’s why we say in viduy: anachnu v’avoseinu chatanu
(we and our fathers have sinned). Nobody’s perfect, and therefore it’s possible
that what your parents and teachers did was wrong. Now is the time to change and
do it right. They certainly wouldn’t want you to continue doing it wrong on
their account. On the contrary.
In Shmoneh Esrei, we conclude the blessing of Avos
with Magen Avraham only, making no mention of Yitzchak and Yaakov. I
heard in the name of Rabbi Shimon Shkop the following explanation: There were
different periods in Jewish history, periods in which people had to come to
Yiddishkeit on their own. The parents had strayed from Torah, and the children
came back. Then there were situations where the kids had fathers who were
frum, but not grandfathers. Like Yitzchak, whose father was frum, but
not his grandfather. On the other hand, both Yaakov’s parents and grandparents
were frum. So one might think that when history reaches its climax, all
these types of Jews will be represented.
Rabbi Shimon Shkop said otherwise: Before Moshiach comes,
things are going to be so difficult that if you’re not an Avraham, if you don’t
come to it on your own, no matter what kind of family background you have, the
temptations and doubts will be so great that you won’t be able to survive.
Yichus alone will not be enough. Everybody has to be an Avraham Avinu. In
this generation, the societal influences are so pernicious, everybody is
vulnerable. Each person has to find the strength within himself to withstand
those influences. Everybody has to be a ba’al teshuvah these days. We all
need the Magen Avraham.
In the final analysis, of course, ba’alei teshuvah
have a lot in common with the frum from birth. We say every day, “Elokai
neshama she’nasata bi, tehora hi.” The neshama we are all given is
tahor (pure). Even if the background in which one was raised turned him away
from G-d, that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t conceived in purity. We don’t believe
in original sin. And in the Artscroll siddur, this blessing doesn’t have an
asterisk next to it, to indicate that only ba’alei teshuvah should say
it. Furthermore, each one of us is descended from Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.
That’s pretty good yichus.