As we enter Elul, the month of teshuva before the high holy days, I am placed in a very strange position. Becoming a Ba’alot Teshuva since last Elul has marked maybe the most rapidly changing year I can remember. I have discovered a side of myself I am incredibly proud of, a side of myself which has begun to do as the name Ba’al Teshuva implies, practicing and understanding the way which teshuva, or atonement, impacts my life.
To start, I have to define the term Ba’al Teshuva, which literally means Master of Return. We are usually from a secular Jewish background, and to return our souls to HaShem we become more religious as we grow. This word carries a lot of weight depending on who hears it. The secular world considers ba’alei teshuva as having become religious extremists, while parts of the orthodox world see us as not Jewish enough because we had to return. We are a strangely amorphous population, a group of wildly different backgrounds and opinions and forms of practice. What we all have in common, though, is that we all have the moment in our lives that flipped the switch for us and made us decide that becoming religious was right for us. My moment was this time last year, my first trip to the kotel, and my first shomer shabbat.
Since them, I have marked my past year in mitzvot. I began davening daily and kept my first shabbat, stopped wearing pants in January, and became shomer negiah during March. As I reflect, it has been the Elul of my past 20 years: this month feels almost as if it’s a cause for celebration. It is said that during Elul “The King comes into the field”, an in, the HaShem comes down to Earth in order for us to right our wrongs through the process of teshuva. As I began to sit down and journal about the ways which I have let HaShem down and what I should do to move forward, I was caught up in the fact that HaShem also wants us to stop and realize what we have done right.
This past year I have watched and participated as Jewish activism took a sharp turn towards hope, lead by some incredibly courageous Gen Z students who are tired of the anger and fear which comes with being Jewish on campuses. I have found myself spiritually, I have watched myself grow, I have become unapologetic about my zionism; and these are things I am incredibly proud of. In order to properly do teshuva, we have to understand that each year is two steps forward and one step back. HaShem recognizes our strength as well as our weakness.
Entering this new year of Judaism, I have set forth the goal that every calendar should be marked in mitzvot, even if you’re not into the idea of becoming religious. The beauty of the Jewish calendar is that we grow each time we repeat it. You and I are not the same souls we were last Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, and we are not supposed to be. To be doing teshuva is to move forward through return. We are all Ba’alei Teshuva in a way: no matter what, the calendar always returns us to Elul every summer. We are always growing. And in that, I wish that we all lead into another year marked in mitzvot.