The first time I had an epiphany about my lamentable state of being, I didn’t become closer to G-d. I just knew I had to change — drastically. This moment occurred when I was about to graduate from high school, and I became painfully aware that I had developed two distinct personas, one I shared publicly and one I reserved for my friends. I was a “phony.”
How did I let that happen? Feeling totally degraded, I made it my life goal to discover the “real” me, a person who valued authentic behavior above all else.
I stayed true to that goal for the next ten or so years. What I remember most about this period is how justified I felt letting people know I didn’t like them. I had no compunctions about speaking badly about people either. I had to be true to myself (I do remember the moment when someone told me that people are generally wary of those who speak negatively about others; I protested that I didn’t speak badly about my “friends,” but I never forgot her admonishment).
Then came two Jewish epiphanies. The first was at a UJA cabinet retreat in 1986, when I realized that I needed to learn what it really meant to be Jewish, and the second was at a Chabad Shabbaton in 1987, when I understood that I had unknowingly rejected Torah Judaism because I had never been taught. Because both experiences involve G-d, I often refer to them as part of my teshuvah, return to G-d. But that’s not correct. A ba’al teshuvah is someone who was taught Torah, rejected it, and returned to it.
I didn’t reject anything. Which means I’m not a ba’al teshuvah, a returnee (I’m not even a ba’alas teshuvah, a female returnee). The only time I was ever taught Torah was in utero. I don’t remember the details, of course, but that’s where our Sages say that every Jew learns the whole Torah. This spiritual phenomenon predisposes us to be close to G-d no matter what happens after we’re born (If you don’t remember the experience, it’s because an angel taps your face between your nose and your upper lip just before birth, which not only causes you to forget everything, but also gives that part of your face that fingerprint-like indentation).
We all have our reasons for being far from G-d, which is why He built teshuvah into creation. How else could we stop ourselves from continuing to distance ourselves from Him if we didn’t know that we can return to Him no matter what? Teshuvah is the reason why G-d created Yom Kippur. And ultimately, it’s one of the best catalysts to bring Moshiach (The good news is that even if our teshuvah is simply a sincere regret over our misdeeds and a determination to do better, our teshuvah is considered complete).
Bringing Moshiach was certainly the catalyst for me to become more passionate about my spirituality after the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. There was no sobbing when I realized my observance of mitzvos lacked enthusiasm. I just knew I needed to change — again. This was another radical one. For my life to be spiritually driven, I needed to extricate myself from my interest in the materialism that had somehow entrapped me.
I’ve done several “mini” teshuvahs since then: I’ve become aware that I feel better when I care less about what food I eat (unless it’s Shabbos) and more about how I pray (our kids are out of the house, the excuses are gone). My litmus test for all my endeavors is my ahavas yisroel, my unconditional love for a fellow Jew. I know I’ve made strides in the way I relate to other Jews, but I’ve still got a way to go. I’ll keep trying to get there though, because that’s the “real” me. And every little teshuvah brings me closer to myself, the way I was before I forgot it all.