Conversing about Judaism involves a lot of labels. We use titles to define our perceptions of our respective places in the Jewish tapestry. Single words represent entire sets of behaviors and belief systems. In the last twelve years I have changed how I eat, dress, carry myself, pray, think and view my place in the universe. I am refining these practices on a daily basis. I learn more about who I want to be all the time.

Or, you could just say that I became chassidic.

There is so much involved in my journey from who I was twelve years ago to whom I am still becomingThe language we use to describe the change of lifestyle to a Torah-observant path from a non-observant one is very distinct and absolute. We ask questions like, “When did you become religious?” We make statements like, “I am a baal teshuvah,” which is a pretty bold thing to say. I am a master of repentance. But at what point in the journey do we get to adopt the title? I have yet to meet a person who ate pepperoni pizza on Monday, and Tuesday morning woke up with the morning prayer Modeh Ani and ate only the strictest rabbinically approved food henceforth. To go from one to the other is a long, often arduous route, fraught with emotional struggle and intense intellectual exertion. To make it seem like an event, as opposed to the intricate, protracted process that it truly is, is to sell “making teshuvah” short.

There is so much involved in my journey from who I was twelve years ago to whom I am still becoming. It would be unjust for me to not bend the ear of anyone who asked when or how I became religious. It is a story that deserves to be told, not just for its own virtue, but because people should know that the path to a Torah-observant life is not straight, and it is not finite.

I grew up in a household that believed fervently in G‑d, but not in the observance of the commandments. I attended a synagogue that believed in the strength of the Jewish community and turned a hopeful, if doubtful, eye to Heaven. I went to a Jewish day school that taught Torah as literature and Jewish law as optional. I went to sleepaway camp that served G‑d with joy and served chicken with cheese.

As an adolescent, I stood reviewing my experiences, and the strength of my soul prevailed. I internalized my family’s faith, my synagogue’s sense of unity, my school’s scholarship, and my camp’s joy. As my soul assembled the pieces into a working practice, my personality mitigated the progress of my path. Through high school and college, I adopted elements of Jewish practice that “worked for me.” I found keeping kosher to be important in my connection to G‑d. Jewish community leadership made me feel empowered. As I learned more about the intricacies of Jewish practice, I discovered an irony—I was increasing in my service to G‑d by serving my own desires.

Herein lay the greatest challenge: to continue to serve G‑d with joy, but to truly serve G‑d. I would find that increasing in the observance of the commandments was not the true work in returning to a Torah-true lifestyle. Yes, there will always be practical challenges to dressing according to the laws of modesty, to covering my hair, or to keeping a strict standard of keeping kosher. The work is to do these things not because I feel drawn to do as G‑d wants me to; the work is to do these things simply because G‑d has commanded me to do them. My mission is to keep that in mind, and draw joy from the performance of these commandments because they are commandments, not because of any tangible or emotional fulfillment they may bring to my life. The fulfillment will come because I am a person of faith living a faithful life.

Two of the categories into which the commandments are divided are mishpatim—laws that make practical sense, and chukim—laws that do not make practical sense. We observe the chukim because G‑d told us to. It was not until 2003, my third year in college, that I truly recognized the relevance of the concept of chukim in my life. I had been on a meandering path of returning to a Torah-true lifestyle, that of teshuvah, for over five years. The milestones on that path were ones of personal meaning, elements that I had adopted because they fit into my concept of spiritual practice. My own personal mishpatim. When I started going to Chabad in college and had regular exposure to people living a life of devotion to G‑d, I realized that the practice of Judaism was not just about me. It was a sharp contrast to the popular culture that surrounded me, assuring me that the right of final judgment belonged to me, that the ultimate arbitrator of ethical and moral truth was the individual.

I realized that the practice of Judaism was not just about meIt was at that point that I made the visible leap from “enthusiastic Jew” to “chassid.” By the time I got married in 2004, I was ready to cover my hair with a wig. My religious beliefs were an obvious part of who I was and who I chose to be every morning. I thanked G‑d every morning for returning my soul to me, and pursued a day that would make Him proud. How I dressed, what I ate, how I spent my time, and how I thought and perceived the world were all conscious decisions that could bring me either closer to or farther from my Creator. I wish that I could say that in every instance I chose closeness to G‑d.

There are a multitude of reasons to choose the path of least resistance. It can be difficult to find time to say Psalms or learn. The right kosher symbol can be elusive, and the practical reasons are nothing compared to the excuses. “I prayed with super intensity in the morning prayers; I can phone in the afternoon ones.” Of course, there is the most popular, “What has G‑d done for me lately?”

I found myself putting a twist on that reason after my daughter died. Two and a half years ago, while we were mourning and sitting shiva, I believed (and still do) that G‑d had trusted me to keep my faith in the face of a miserable loss. I explained to others that faith in G‑d does not mean aligning His will with your own, but exactly the opposite. Faith in G‑d means cleaving to Him regardless of what He wants for my life. I felt like the Almighty’s biggest cheerleader. Here I was, bereft of my baby girl and still extolling the life of devotion. Certainly that earned me faith points, right? There are days that I have prayed with the purest intentions, internalizing the personal connection I feel with G‑d because of the trust He put in me. There are also times that I have turned my face to Heaven and said, “I gave You my daughter, do you really need my prayers too?” Faith is believing that yes, He does. Yes, I do.

As my intellect catches up to my heart and soul, I have begun to understand the fluctuations in my relationship with G‑d. The path to a Torah-observant life is neither direct nor measurable. It winds, it dips and rises, and it can be obscured by mirage. Through all its permutations, though, I have committed to keep my feet on this path that I am both following and building. I cannot expect my practice to be perfect at any point. The foundation of my journey is to realize that perfection is found only in G‑d. My only hope of coming close to that perfection is to observe the commandments to the best of my ability. It is a daunting task—G‑d is demanding, but He is also forgiving. As He relies on me to do my best, I can rely on Him to forgive me when I fall short.