If you look over the stories of Jews returning to their roots today, you see people who were stunningly successful in the secular world, then transferred all those skills and much of their success, and that same personality to their newly adapted frum lifestyle.
Sure, there were road bumps along the way as they struggled to fit everything together. And these female BTs often describe their anger issues, in addition. So they're not perfect, but while their success is something I admire and enjoy reading about, it's not something that my personality can necessarily relate to.
Now don't get me wrong; I like hearing about these people. Their stories are interesting and their journeys are inspiring. I buy their books and I think everyone should.
But speaking for myself, I didn't have my act together before keeping Shabbos, and neither was I particularly cool or special or successful, so a part of me longed to read about someone who made the leap of middot instead of the leap of switching careers (which again, IS inspiring, but just doesn't relate to my personal journey.)
For example, a young woman once told me that her husband had been voted "Most Obnoxious" by his 12th-grade high school class. "But I don't find him obnoxious at all!" she said as testimony that middot-teshuvah is actually possible.
But we don't really hear about middot-teshuvah so much.
Understandably, people can't really talk about teshuvah of the personality (rather than teshuvah of action, i.e. "Before I didn't keep Shabbat, but now I do" or "Before I was the top CEO of a successful cheeseburger chain, but now I am the head of a successful kiruv organization") because discussing how bad you were before is so much more negative and invasive.
After all, do you really want people to know about the inane couch potato or the vulgar gamer or the wild crass party girl you were prior to connecting to Torah and mitzvot? And should you reveal that part of your past? (Usually not.)
Yet along comes Rav Bender with his special way of seeing people and his unique way of talking about people and events.
Yes, even people who are initially brazen, crass, insensitive, low-class, and even cold-blooded murderers can do real deep-down teshuvah.
(You'll also see Breslov's method of not pushing people away and allowing spiritual progress to take its course -- even if it's a very slow course. While the original Breslovers didn't go out of their way to interact with or welcome particularly dysfunctional people, neither did they reject them regardless of how distasteful and disturbing their behavior may be.)
Just a quick description of the rabbis mentioned in the following stories:
Rebbe Nosson (Natan) Sternhartz (1780-1844) was the prime disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and the main transcriber of Rebbe Nachman's words. A very big tzaddik in his own right, Rebbe Nosson succeeded in shaping Breslov into the irrepressible & inspiring force it is today, despite the severe poverty and opposition he suffered in his time.
Rav Avraham ben Rav Nachman Chazan (1849-1917), the son of the humble tzaddik Rav Nachman Chazan of Tultchin, was always known for his devotions, like departing to the woods immediately after Shabbat with a stack of books and a sack of bread to spend the week learning Torah and talking to Hashem. He later became one of the Breslov leaders in Uman and made aliyah to Yerushalayim in 1894. He authored Biur Halikutim, a detailed analysis of the lessons of the original Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. His transcription of his father's stories and divrei Torah form the foundation for Breslov classics like Kochavei Ohr and Sichot V'Sipurim.
From Shabbos Transgressor to Shabbos Lover
In Rebbe Nosson's shul, the congregants also tried to throw out the Deitchel, but Rebbe Nosson refused to allow it by saying:
"Please do not disturb him. Pay attention and listen: Even though he is a dreadful Jewish sinner, why did he nonetheless come to us? He did not come for nothing...it appears that something draws him specifically to our shul...please, leave him alone..."
[Vol. II, pg. 306]
Though appalled at raising the symbol of Shabbos-transgression during Shabbos Mussaf itself, the congregants obeyed Rebbe Nosson and did not push the Deitchel away.
Eventually, the Deitchel did astounding teshuvah. He became a devoted Bresolver chassid to the point that Rebbe Nosson commented that they will boast of him before the Kisei Hakavod -- the Throne of Glory.
What would have been with the Deitchel had Rebbe Nosson allowed him to be thrown out?
From Rough to Refined
But during the winter, he set his fixed place right next to the only heater.
Next to this heater, the meat seller indulged in such offensive, vulgar chatter that it prevented decent people like Rav Bender from being anywhere near the heater.
And seeing as the impoverished people of that time didn't always have enough coal to heat their homes (Rav Bender recalls needing to buy hot water for grushim due to such poverty) and seeing as tzaddikim like Rav Bender were immersing themselves in icy mikvehs and talking to Hashem outside in the snow, the shul heater was vital for their physical well-being.
Yet did the callous fellow notice or care? Nope!
Some of the congregants wanted this boor forcibly removed from the shul.
But Rav Avraham (ben Rav Nachman) Chazan pleaded with his well-meaning fellows:
"He came to us -- do not disturb him... In spite of everything, he feels obliged to come to us. Don't do anything to harm him..."
[Vol II, pg 308]
Yet eventually, this meat seller immigrated to America and his children there wrote the following letter to the Breslov community back in Uman:
What has happened to our father in America?
He has turned into a chassid in the full meaning of the word ... He used to challenge the chassidim at his shul:
"This is how you pray? I knew people who REALLY prayed!"
"This is how you behave? I saw how the avdei Hashem in Uman behaved..."
[Vol II, pg 308]
But when he found himself in a place with chassidim whom he felt weren't up to the standards of the chassidim he knew in the Breslov shul in Uman, he couldn't tolerate it.
And that spurred him to create within himself that which he could no longer find outside himself.
This formerly crass Jew transformed himself so thoroughly that he earned a good reputation among the God-fearing Jews in America.
Holding Back with Your Left & Drawing in with Your Right
But neither did the Breslovers push them away.
You're not supposed to associate with people who consistently engage in forbidden behavior -- but if something in their neshamah is pulling them toward aspects of kedushah, then who are you to push them away?
These rabbis displayed profound wisdom.
They saw where these people were holding in the here and now -- yet they also understood who these people actually were and could be: Jews with pure holy souls yearning for expression.
So we learn from this that you can see the reality of the situation, but also see the potential.
There is Truly Always Hope
For example, you can be a jerk and keep the mitzvot, but if you're a jerk, you're still going to really mess up with prohibitions like not taking revenge, not answering an insult with an insult, not engaging in leitzanut (mocking & jeering), not speaking lashon hara, not holding a grudge, not giving way to anger, and many other such fundamental commandments.
If you're a jerk, you may not even be able to properly identify forbidden behavior; you might think it's justifiable or even necessary. For example, you may not be able to identify leitznut for what it is or lashon hara for what it is.
So it's inspiring to see the above examples of people who really lacked deretz eretz, who suffered from serious brazenness, coarseness, narcissism, and callousness -- yet still managed to do real teshuvah anyway.
May we all merit to do complete teshuvah from a place of love.
Related Stories of Middot-Teshuvah:
The True Story of How a Murderer Did Teshuvah
From Wise-Cracking Businessman to Soul-Stirring Holy Man