The Small, Soft Sound of Teshuvah

By Rabbi Meir Goldberg

It seems that recently, there has been something different in the air. There is an openness among young people, whether they be frum, secular, or even not Jewish, for something authentic, real and meaningful.

The spiritual yearning of today is very different from what we were used to in the 1970s. The teshuvah movement of yesteryear, much like the noise and “raash gadol” of the malachim in Yechezkel’s vision, was characterized by the tumultuous mass movement of spiritual seekers. They often connected with charismatic leaders who could transform their world. The prototype baal teshuvah characterized by MBD’s “Just One Shabbos” was at the “Western Wall on Friday night, his first time ever there, strapped into his knapsack with his long and curly hair.” A backpacker, traveling the world, looking for existential meaning and life’s answers. Sometimes, those charismatic figures who inspired these searching youth were people of spiritual greatness, deeply imbued with Torah, yet they could connect with anyone.

Rav Shlomo Freifeld, who founded and led Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv, was able to converse with gedolei Yisroel, but also went out to his porch on Shabbos in the summer of 1969 to say good Shabbos to wayward Jews stuck in traffic, headed up to the Woodstock festival.

Rav Noach Weinberg was a man of massive Torah breadth and depth, who started a mass movement of young disconnected Jews and inspired them to save the world.

Many others used music, storytelling, spirituality and more to inspire their audiences. The phenomenon was new, exciting and mesmerizing to the frum community. A mass teshuvah movement of such magnitude hadn’t occurred since the times of Ezra, or perhaps King Yoshiyahu. So, the assumption that many still have is that teshuvah today would take a similar form to what we saw then.

But today’s young people are different. They do search for meaning and depth, but not in unconventional places or with charismatic spiritualists. They do so while enduring a roller coaster of highs and lows, aliyos and yeridos, moments of deep inspiration mixed with a lot of self doubt.

We see this phenomenon everywhere. Of the 50,000-plus Jews who traveled to Uman this past Rosh Hashanah, many were Breslover chassidim. Yet many, maybe most, were not. I was discussing the phenomena with a neighbor of mine, who once remarked to me that his annual pilgrimage to Uman gives him a spiritual lift for six months. He told me of the passionate davening, the zemiros and the ruach. He recounted that after his five-hour Rosh Hashanah vosikin minyan finished, the next minyan started. Incredulously, I inquired as to why these people at the second minyan would get up so late on Rosh Hashanah morning. He responded, “Many of these people wouldn’t go to shul at home or would otherwise hang out in the back. This Uman experience is their connection.”

And while many of us may be disturbed by the concerts and extra-curricular activity that some are engaged in during the week of Rosh Hashanah in Uman, in fact the spiritual kick provided to so many struggling souls indicates this deep, conflicted yearning for something more. And wasn’t this a major focus of Rav Nachman’s teachings, that even if one has fallen so low, they should focus on a nekudah tovah, a point of spiritual success, from which to grow? It is no wonder that one of the fastest growing movements of active followers in the Jewish world might be Breslov.

These days, there are few charismatic mekarvim on campus. In fact, charisma is viewed with deep suspicion among today’s kiruv rabbis. And while there are semi-annual articles announcing the end of kiruv, there continues to be over 300 North American students who go to yeshiva each year, with more than 600 who become shomer Shabbos and tens of thousands involved in regular kiruv/Torah programming and serious growth. And while the majority of them will not become frum, they often come to us and say, “I grew up with almost nothing Jewish. I need to know more.” I hear this on a regular basis, especially from students with parents who came from the former Soviet Union. How many students with Italian fathers and Jewish mothers are learning Torah on a regular basis?

This inner turmoil, the deep yearning for growth and simultaneous disappointment of inner failure, the quest for Torah greatness mixed with the base pursuit of gashmiyus, seems to be the signature of much of today’s Jewish life.

In frum communities, we see many young people who must wage a daily battle not to get sucked into the vortex of technology and the internet, yet still cling desperately to the desire to reach great heights in Torah. Many of the wealthy and fashionable, who would not settle for second best when it came to their homes, clothes or cars, still seek a ben Torah and top learner for a son-in-law. Torah communities that boast some of the finest shopping and eateries at the same time might possess the greatest collections of talmidei chachomim in the world, many of whom don’t stand out at all, but would be highly respected had they chosen to live anywhere else. Many of these talmidei chachomim and their families are moser nefesh for Torah living with little gashmiyus.

It’s as if we have gone back to the first day of creation, when the darkness and light were “mishtamshim b’irvuvia,” serving together in confusion.

There is no noisy spiritual quest, just a “small, thin sound” of the devar Hashem urging us to come closer to Him. If you stop for a moment and listen closely, you will hear it wherever you go.

Hinei yomim ba’im ne’um Hashem, vehishlachti ra’av ba’aretz. Lo ra’av lalechem velo tzamah lamayim ki im lishmoa es divrei Hashem…

Rabbi Meir Goldberg is the Director of Meor Rutgers Jewish Xperience. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman.

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20 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Today’s attitude was also present during that “raash” — among another set of young Jews not caught up in the hoopla or the fast track. We often go too far in trying to label or characterize entire generations. Enough “anomalies” here and there add up to something significant.

  2. Shades of Gray says:

    “There is no noisy spiritual quest, just a “small, thin sound” of the devar Hashem urging us to come closer to Him.”

    R. Avroham Edelstein of Ner Lelef /Olami wrote an article in the Spring, 2017 Jewish Action(” Excelling in Faith”) in which he made the same point:

    “In the aftermath of the Mount Carmel story, after Eliyahu asks to die, God tells him that He is not to be found in the raging fire or in the mighty wind, but rather in the soft voice. There are people—entire generations—who will not find God through dramatic proofs and loud noises declaring the truth of the Torah. But they will respond to the still, quiet voice of kiruv, of the loving mechanech (teacher) and of the exemplary parent. We are most likely to become passionately observant through our connection with others who model this behavior than because of any intellectual exercise. Here is the great, open secret of kiruv rechokim: people become frum through other people, people they admire, trust and like. It is a secret that the wise of the Orthodox world have adopted as a basic principle of chinuch (education).”

  3. Facts says:

    “Of the 50,000-plus Jews who traveled to Uman this past Rosh Hashanah” – The actual figure, beyond the hype, is quite a bit less than that, a bit less than 27,000, according to very detailed Uman City Council statistics (, as well as the Kyiv Post (

    That seems to indicate that the number of Rosh Hashanah visitors may have actually already declined from post-Soviet era highs..

  4. dr. bill says:

    My only in-depth exposure to the world of BT/Geirim comes from Partners in Torah and the BT a Haredi rabbi to whom I am close sent my way, given his extensive exposure to modern bible scholars, something I can deal with positively.

    beyond that, the work of kiruv organizations promoting the likes of “bible codes” is yesterday’s (bad) news. despite changes, that element of the supernatural buried in our traditions, which does not sit well with me to say the least, continues. About two ago I was sent a u-tube claiming hazals knowledge of the average lunation correct to six decimal places demonstrates the ancient Divine knowledge in our Mesorah. To say the least, I was outraged by two factors (despite being aware of the positions of Rav Saadyah, Rambam and Ramban):

    First, that fact was also known to various scientists of Talmudic times; the basis of their knowledge can be explained rather easily.
    Second, we know know that number to 8 decimal places, which if I believed the kiruv organization, would lead me to conclude that current scientific knowledge exceeds that of God.

    If the assessment of the current generation is correct, which it seems to be, it is high-time obsolete and harmful methods are abandoned.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Gimmicks get attention but it soon develops into negative attention. People respect a straight approach from sincere and informed Jews who really care about individuals and can relate to their personal situations. There are mystical elements within normative Judaism, but many require prior education to understand properly.

      • dr. bill says:

        I would express your comment a bit differently; there are multiple streams within normative Judaism, some of whom have incorporated mystical elements. For normative rationalistic streams, mysticism is rarely embraced. To the Rav ztl, the halakhic man is quite different from the mystical/religious man.

      • Not so fast, before you dismiss mysticism. See the Ramo OC 274:1 who cites kabbalah as the source of a particular halacha. Did I mention that the Beis Yosef loc.cit. does the same thing? In terms of the amudei halacha, that’s what we call two for two. Not a bad record

      • dr. bill says:

        Rabbi, as prof. Katz has shown quite conclusively, kabbalistic practices in earlier times were reflective of important, though not necessarily majority held, halakhic positions. the same cannot be said of post-Lurianic Kabala. I should have been more clear. Your cited example OC274.1 is more custom than law anyway, originated in earlier times, and not followed by certain segments who always cut top to bottom, slicing both hallahs.

        it is also the case that certain Lurianic customs have received widespread acceptance and are exceptions that do not create a general rule. Even I love Kabbalat Shabbos despite its origins, especially in the Great Synagogue.

      • Mmmmm…Look again. The only source that I am aware of for cutting the top loaf (rather than the bottom, as specified by both Beis Yosef and Ramo) is [DRUM ROLL] the very Lurianic Ari z”l himself!!! (See Kaf HaChaim)

      • dr. bill says:

        Rabbi, i think they (my fabrente Litvak friends) just follow the natural sequence of first cutting what is on top and cutting through both challahs. The Ari as a source may cause their custom to go by the wayside. 🙂 But, I will ask them. I admit to being ignorant of these sorts of practices.

    • Yossi says:

      Question for Dr Bill-you seem the type to know the answer to this, and I’ve been trying to figure it out.

      Do you know if it was a belief amongst the ancients that the world was suspended on nothing? (תולה ארץ על בלימה)

      Also, the Midrash that mentions millions of stars- was that a belief in those days? While I agree that showing Chazal’s possible knowledge of science can cause more harm than good, I’m curious if there were places that they expressed a reality that was against the approach of their day but that science later agreed with.

      • dr. bill says:

        Sorry, but how the ancients accounted for the regularity of the heavenly bodies and what was the mechanism behind their orbits is unknown to me.

        The number of stars was thought to be very, very large, but I do not know about millions. Hazal’s comparisons between the berakhot comparing us to sand and the stars are varied. I believe that both Shmuel, based on the Gemara’s claim and Rambam, known in the world as perhaps the greatest astronomer of his age, knew a great deal more than almost all who followed them. Interpretation of their statements are an area I have studied extensively.

    • Kiruv Rabbis today almost never use proofs classes or such evidence as you quote, as means to bring people closer. I have a blog with evidence of the Divinity of the Torah. But I rarely show it to students.
      We focus on teaching Torah in depth, showing students the beauty of Shabbos and we try to show them genuine sincerity and care.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        R Goldberg wrote in relevant part:

        “We focus on teaching Torah in depth, showing students the beauty of Shabbos and we try to show them genuine sincerity and care.”
        The above , as opposed to proofs have always been far more effective means of kiruv

  5. MK says:

    Someone once mentioned to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky that a certain well known kabbalist lived on a different plane. He would , for example, daven Shacharis at night etc.
    Rav Yaakov’s response?
    The Beis Yosef was also a kabbalist, and he wrote the Shulchan Aruch!”

  6. Shades of Gray says:

    “The Small, Soft Sound of Teshuvah” relates to the value of subtlety. In 1916, R. Yosef Bloch  gave a shiur in the Telz yeshiva explaining  why the Pesach Seder prefers subtle, rather than overt symbolisms, as translated by R. Moshe Grylak(Mishpacha 4/5/17):

     “According to our own imagination would it not seem more effective more rousing if every town held a big banquet for the entire community with songs and speeches in honor of the day? It would be even more rousing if they put on a show depicting Yetzias Mitzrayim and in these times we could even use the latest technology to make the show quite spectacular and to show Yetzias Mitzrayim with total realism. This way we would recall the whole story better and we would be more stirred and aroused than we are by eating maror leaning to the left and so on” (Rav Yosef Yehudah Bloch Shiurei Daas vol. I Nishmas HaTorah). 

    “Contrary to what people usually think it could be that the desired effect is achieved precisely through acts like these which don’t excite us but only leave subtle impressions which then reach the subtler fibers of a person’s soul and awaken them.

    “For when we do things that affect us in more visible ways although at the time they may seem to make a big impression on a person and stir him greatly the truth is that they don’t really have that much influence. This is precisely because although they make a strong superficial impression that flashiness stirs a person’s lesser faculties but because the impression is so extensive on the superficial level it never reaches and really penetrates the higher subtler faculties.”

     This is the link to R. Grylak’s Mishpacha article discussing R. Bloch and to the Hebrew Shiurei Daas(p. 55-56).  

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    Dr. Bill every so often you mention that you were an advisor in NCSYs still quite active Central East Region and in Chicago as well. You never met any BTs as an advisor?

  8. Steven Brizel says:

    Dr Bill ever meet anyone who attended YUs then storied JSS ? More than a few textually literate BTs who are full fledged members who are prominent members of any MO and a few Charedi communities went to JSS

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    Dr Bill see how RYBS described those who Chasisdim davened in Shtiebel who tried to prolong Maariv in Motzaei Shabbos etc despite their poor economic state hardly the view of a kalte Litvak

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