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A Glimpse Into My Teshuvah Story

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Summer 2011

After a few weeks at Neve, a seminary in Jerusalem, I know what I have to do. The afternoon classes are optional and everyone does their own thing. Today, as lunch is winding down, I make my exit.

I get up from the circle of women eating schnitzel and salad, talking and laughing outside on the grass. I walk down the narrow path to my room in Building 4. Though it is hot, there is a slight breeze. I enter the code and immediately feel the A/C upon entering the building. A girl passes me on the staircase, but other than that the building is empty. The natural light in the staircase dissipates as I enter our hallway. The walls are covered with inspirational signs and a chores rotation.

I unlock my door and lock it behind me. Cynthia, my roommate, and I each have a twin bed, with a desk and chair in between. Our closets are metal janitor closets. The white walls are pretty bare, and the room itself isn’t so aesthetically pleasing, but it does the job. The best part is that my bed is next to a window that overlooks the Jerusalem hills. Around sunset or at night I love to sit and just look outside and breathe it all in.

I am not here to do that today. I put my bag and notebook down. I stand in front of the dresser facing east, where we are supposed to face when we pray. I take a deep breath. Now what, I think. Talk to God. How do I do this? Just try.

“Hi God,” I begin. “It’s me, Jenna.” I feel so stupid. Of course God knows who I am. He knows what I am trying to do. I feel ridiculous standing in front of the janitor closet. I force myself to continue, because despite how crazy I feel, I know I want this.

“I don’t really know where to start.” Exhale. There is so much.

I am trying to do teshuva, repentance. The idea of repentance recalls the scene from the comedic film Superstar, where Mary Katherine Gallagher, played by Molly Shannon, confesses in church. Sitting in her confession box, she says, “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.”

“Go ahead, tell me your sins, my child,” the father answers in a solemn tone.

Unlike the Roman Catholics depicted in Superstar, Jews believe that we are inherently pure. One of my teachers, Rebbetzin Heller, explained that our souls are like a flame and our “sins” are like layers of garments wrapped around our souls. Our souls do not ever become tainted in their essence, she assured us. Our light may be dimmed, but it is never extinguished.

I remember her words from class. “First, admit that you did something wrong.” Gulp. Most people who do teshuva did one or two things wrong. I am trying to unload a lifetime of wrongs.

I proceed to list everything I can remember that I have done wrong. The countless times I ate non-kosher food. One layer off. Being disrespectful to my parents. Another layer off. Driving on Shabbat. Another. Speaking gossip. Another. I include everything, but I focus on the times I “missed the mark” after I learned what the mark was. Before that, I really didn’t know any better. Everyone ate non-kosher growing up. Everyone drove on Shabbat. Everyone wore shorts and skirts above the knees. We didn’t think about these things.

“Second, really regret what you did.”

I realize that I don’t really regret most of the things I did. All the salads I ate at the Whole Foods salad bar that were not checked properly under Jewish law? I enjoyed those salads. They were healthy and convenient when I was in finals. My pants? I love wearing pants. It feels like me. I go on like this. Finally I stop myself. If I don’t regret the things I did, why do I feel a deep sense of pain and regret?

Because I regret that I did things that God didn’t want me to do.

I had just learned that God wants a relationship with us, that when we love someone, we do what he wants to make him happy. It is the same with God. It hurt me that I was doing things that God didn’t want, that I was hurting Him, so to speak.

“God,” I whisper, “I regret that what I did went against Your will and put distance between us.” Now, that is an honest statement. I make myself sit in this regret for a while. I rock back and forth and tears come to my eyes. I want a fresh start, I keep thinking. I want a fresh start.

“Next, make a plan not to repeat what you did.”

Initial panic sets in again. I can’t never wear pants again. I can’t promise that I will never eat non-kosher food again.

“God, I can’t promise that I will not do these things again. But I will never do them again with the same light-heartedness. I will know the implications of my actions. I want to keep your Torah properly, but I need time to get there in a healthy way. Please be patient with me.” As I hear myself say these words, I immediately feel calmer and surrounded by love. I also know that I have crossed over some sort of threshold and my life will never be the same.

“Last, ask for forgiveness.”

“God, please forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.” I am pleading now. “I am so sorry. I didn’t know any better. I know now. I love you, please.” I am swaying back and forth, my lips are wet, and I can taste my tears. I feel like God is hugging me and saying, “It’s OK. I know. Don’t worry.”

As I open my eyes, I expect everything around me to look different. The janitor closet stares me in the face. The beds, half made, haven’t changed. The blank walls mutely bear witness to what just occurred. It is me who has changed.

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