When I was a teenager, growing up in a beachfront suburb of secular Tel Aviv, there was no taunt more effective than accusing someone of possessing the potential to one day become a ba’al teshuva.
The term, referring to unobservant Jews who adopt the strictures of Orthodoxy, represented, to us tanned and ignorant teenagers, some cosmic hazard that resided far beyond the reach of our drug-addled universe. We fierce fornicators, we ravers and surfers, just couldn’t fathom how anyone might abandon our raucous ranks, put on the black hat and coat, and forgo life’s profane pleasures, the pursuit of which was as close as most of us had ever gotten to the purpose-driven life.
And yet, abandon us they did, a dozen of them at least, off to ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Bnei Berak or Jerusalem, off to a different life that seemed to suck them away like a dark vortex. The most traumatic departure was that of an older friend, a hazel-eyed chap two years my senior. After learning that he had become religious, we came to think of his past attributes as tombstones for a life he would never again have, tucked away in some yeshiva on a dusty hill somewhere in the south. No more basketball. No more weed. No more trips to the Kinneret with some girl he’d met only the week before, skinny-dipping before slipping into the same sleeping bag, wet with sweat and sex and wild with hope. Instead, our friend was studying Torah, which, to us, meant that he was drying out the flower of his free will between the pages of an ancient and largely irrelevant book.
I thought about my ba’al teshuva friend years later, when I myself began giving Judaism some serious thought, and was amazed and a touch horrified that, back then, I saw his spiritual odyssey as nothing but a long day’s journey into night. I was 19, and religion’s emotional and intellectual depths were invisible to me, like pockets of cool water lying still beneath a thin layer of ice. All I could see were the negations, the denials, the unbearable yoke of religious adherence. Mercifully, that has since changed, and the transformation from valiant son of the Enlightenment to keeper of the faith now represents not surrender but a path along which one is free to travel as far and as stridently as one pleases.
Such, I believe, is the spirit of this week’s haftorah. “This people I formed for Myself,” says Isaiah, channeling the voice of God. “They shall recite My praise. But you did not call Me, O Jacob, for you wearied of Me, O Israel. You did not bring Me the lambs of your burnt offerings, nor did you honor Me with your sacrifices; neither did I overwork you with meal-offerings nor did I weary you with frankincense. Neither did you purchase cane for Me with money, nor have you sated Me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened Me with your sins; you have wearied Me with your iniquities. I, yea I, erase your transgressions for My sake, and your sins I will not remember.”
It’s a beautifully haunting passage, because at no time does it mention that staple of Western thought, causality. The people sin grievously, yet God gracefully forgives. Isaiah uses no conjunction, no grammatical hook to connect the two sentences together. He simply states: You wearied me with iniquities; I erase your transgressions. Seemingly, no action is required on the part of us humans. Forgiveness comes gratis, compliments of the Almighty.
That, of course, is not the point of prophesy. Isaiah, like his fellow holy orators, speaks in the hope of propelling the people toward purity. He demands repentance, rebirth. But the passage is illuminating nonetheless, suggesting that in Judaism, unlike its sister monotheistic religions, salvation doesn’t necessarily depend on prior action. Salvation comes first; what you choose to do with it is the whole point.
Where does that leave us? How do we go about living when we’ve already been forgiven for our sins? Strangely, that might make our spiritual load even heavier. The burden of proof is always on us. Ours is not a system of penalties and rewards; ours is an endless run toward a goal no human being can ever achieve, namely being entirely worthy of God’s compassion. But that doesn’t mean we should ever stop running. Somewhere along the way, we become righteous.
Each one of us, then, is a little bit of a ba’al teshuva. We may not, like my childhood friend, exchange Madonna for Maimonides, but whether consciously or not, we never forget the true nature of our relationship with God. He, we know, doesn’t need our sacrifices. He, we’ve read, has already forgiven us our worst behavior. In charity, in ritual, in kindness, we all repay the favor.