Where I now work, there is a small kitchen where workers can have lunch. We take our lunch breaks at different times, and I usually take mine at the same time as an unassuming young man named Benny Green, a 25-year-old who works in the company’s stockroom.
In conversation, he asked me if I am a ba’alat teshuvah. I answered in the affirmative. He then said that he was a ba’al teshuvah.
“At what age did you do teshuvah?” I asked.
“Thirteen,” he said. “At the end of seventh grade.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Thirteen is kind of young to do teshuvah,” I commented. “I mean, it’s hard by yourself.” He agreed but said that his parents were okay with his decision, and even sent him to a religious school upon request.
“It started with your bar mitzvah?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, recalling that his mother always knew he would become religious because he told her so when he was just four years old.
Certain children, from a young age, display sensitivity to religion whether or not they are raised in religious homes. Benny’s mother attributes it to zechut avot. Her father, the grandfather he never merited to know, had been an illui at the Chochmei Lublin Yeshiva in Lithuania before the war. After the Holocaust, he came to Israel and left some of his faith behind.
Benny started attending shul Friday nights while learning for his bar mitzvah.
“It felt good,” he said. He was happy to be there. “There was this old man, Naftali; I think he must have been 90 years old. There wasn’t a place on his face that wasn’t wrinkled, but it’s his fingers that I remember. He used to show me the place in the siddur. I remember always watching his hands.”
Naftali, who has long since been collecting his reward for turning Benny on to prayer, not only influenced a young bar mitzvah boy but all of Benny’s family eventually followed in his footsteps and are now at least partially observant.
That’s the first part of the story. Benny took me aside a few weeks after our conversation and told me the rest of it.
His grandfather had left a diary. Benny’s cousin recently found it and was perusing it when he came across an interesting entry. It seems that his grandfather had transferred Benny’s mother from a religious school to a secular one that was closer to home. That was a decision, he wrote, that he regretted his entire life. He described it as his worst mistake and hoped that he would one day be able to make a tikkun. The cousin, intrigued, asked Benny when he had switched schools. Benny told him that it was around the time of his bar mitzvah, at the end of seventh grade. His cousin told him that it was at that age when his grandfather transferred his mother to her new school.
“But there’s more,” Benny told me. The reason his mother had wanted to change schools was because of social problems related to being overweight. Benny had wanted to change schools for the same reason.
Apparently Benny’s grandfather wasn’t as much at peace with his decision as his family had thought.
Today, Benny’s mother is quite thin (and has been for years) and Benny has managed to shed the unwanted pounds that caused him discomfort as an adolescent in a secular school.
And Benny’s mother and brothers have followed in his footsteps – and are now religious.
Benny’s grandfather never did personally get to see his tikkun; instead he got it with the help of another grandfatherly figure – literally pointing the way.
The symmetry of Divine Providence never ceases to amaze me.