The Art of T’shuva
by Rabbi David Samson and Tzvi Fishman [Based on the book “Orot HaT’shuva” by HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook.]
This is how Rabbi Kook begins his book “Lights on T’shuva” –
“For some time now, I have been struggling with an inner battle. A powerful force is impelling me to speak on the subject of t’shuva. All of my thoughts are concentrated on this. The greatest part of the Torah and life is devoted to the matter of t’shuva. All of the hopes of the individual and the community are founded upon it. T’shuva is a Divine commandment which is both the easiest, since the thought of t’shuva is considered t’shuva in itself (Kiddushin 49B), and on the other hand, it is the most difficult commandment, since its essence has not yet been fully revealed in the world and in life.”
He continues: “I find myself constantly thinking and wanting to speak exclusively about t’shuva. Much has been written on the subject of t’shuva in the Torah, the Prophets, and in the writings of our Sages, but for our generation, the matters are still obscure and require clarification…. My inner essence compels me to speak about t’shuva. And yet I am taken aback by my thoughts. Am I worthy enough to speak about t’shuva? However, no shortcoming in the world can discourage me from fulfilling my inner claim. I am driven to speak about t’shuva….”
The book “Art of T’shuva” is a reader-friendly commentary on selected essays from Rabbi’s Kook pivitol treatise on the phenomenon of T’shuva. Rabbi David Samson was a longtime student of HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook and is one of Israel’s foremost educators, a veteran teacher at the Mercaz HaRav High School Yeshiva, and founder and director of 5 high schools for “youth at risk” in Israel. His co-writer, Tzvi Fishman, a baal t’shuva who made aliyah from Hollywood, is a graduate of the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has authored some 20 books on a variety of Jewish themes.
Rabbi Kook writes:
“With each passing day, powered by the lofty light of t’shuva, the penitent’s feeling becomes more secure, clearer, more enlightened with the radiance of sharpened intellect, and more clarified according to the foundations of Torah. His demeanor becomes brighter, his anger subsides, the light of grace shines on him. He becomes filled with strength; his eyes are filled with a holy fire; his heart is completely immersed in springs of pleasure; holiness and purity envelop him. A boundless loves fills all of his spirit; his soul thirsts for G-d, and this very thirst satiates all of his being. The holy spirit rings before him like a bell, and he is informed that all of his willful transgressions, the known and the unknown, have been erased; that he has been reborn as a new being; that all of the world and all of Creation are reborn with him; that all of existence calls out in song, and that the joy of G-d infuses all. Great is t’shuva for it brings healing to the world, and even one individual who repents is forgiven, and the whole world is forgiven with him.”
The following is an abridged version of the book “The Art of T’shuva” based on Rabbi Kook’s teachings. Happy t’shuva!
THE AGE OF ANXIETY
It is no secret that there is great darkness, confusion, and pain in the world. Bookstores are filled with self-help books on how to be happy. Layman’s guides to psychology line shelf after shelf. Our generation has been called “the age of anxiety.” People often live out their lives plagued with depression, sickness, a sense of non-fulfillment and constant unrest. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and humanists have become the prophets of the moment, proposing dozens of theories to explain man’s existential dilemmas. Whether it is because we suffer from an Oedipus complex, or from a primal anxiety at having been separated from the womb, from sexual repression, or from the trauma of death, mankind is beset with neuroses. Vials of valium and an assortment of anti-depressants and “uppers” can be found in the medicine cabinets of the very best homes. Not to mention the twenty-four-hour bombardment of work, television, computer games, Facebook, Internet surfing, and drugs which people use to blot out the never-ending angst that they feel.
Rabbi Kook understands all of this darkness and anguish. He sees its source not in external causes, not in the traumas of childhood, nor in the pressures to conform to behavioral norms. He looks beyond social, cultural, psychological, sexual, and family dynamics to shed spiritual light on the world’s confusion and pain. In his book, “Orot HaT’shuva,” Rabbi Kook writes:
“What is the cause of melancholy? The answer is the over-abundance of evil deeds, evil character traits, and evil beliefs on the soul. The souls deep sensitivity feels the bitterness which these cause, and it draws back, frightened and depressed.”
“All depression stems from sin, and t’shuva comes to light the soul and transforms the depression to joy. The source of the general pain in the world derives from the overall moral pollution of the universe, resulting from the sins of nations and individual man.”
“Every sin causes a special anxiety on the spirit, which can only be erased by t’shuva. According to the depth of the t’shuva, the anxiety itself is transformed into inner security and courage. The outer manifestation of anxiety which is caused by transgression can be discerned in the lines of the face, in a person’s movements, in the voice, in behavior, and one’s handwriting, in the manner of speaking and one’s language, and above all, in writing, in the development of ideas and their presentation.”
The melancholy and anxiety haunting mankind is not a result of the “trauma of birth,” but of a spiritual separation much deeper — the separation from G-d.
“I see how transgressions act as a barrier against the brilliant Divine light which shines on every soul, and they darken and cast a shadow upon the soul.”
The remedy is t’shuva — for the individual, the community, and for the world. Rabbi Kook teaches that to discover true inner joy, every person, and all of Creation, must return to the Source of existence and forge a living connection to G-d.
The paperbacks on personal improvement, psychology, and self-help which line bookstore shelves, contain many useful insights and tips. After all, man is influenced by a wide gamut of factors dating back even before his conception, through his time in the womb, his childhood years, and spanning the many life passages each of us face. Rabbi Kook reveals that in addition to all of the fashionable theories and cures, on a far deeper level, there is a spiritual phenomenon of wondrous beauty, like a butterfly enclosed in a cocoon, waiting to soar free. This is the light and healing wonder of t’shuva.
T’SHUVA MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND
The Gemara teaches that t’shuva existed before the world was created. In a similar vein, Rabbi Kook writes that the spirit of t’shuva hovers over the world and gives it its basic form and the motivation to develop. It is t’shuva which gives the world its direction and its inner energy to constantly progress. The desire to refine the world and to embellish it with beauty and splendor all derive from the spirit of t’shuva.
T’shuva is the Divine, spiritual force in the universe which is constantly propelling all of existence toward perfection. It is the voice of God calling, “Return to Me, you children of men.” Due to the “separation” from God through transgressions, improper living, or through the act of Creation itself, there is a constant drive in all things to return to a harmony with their Maker. Rabbi Kook writes that, “It is impossible to express this awesomely deep idea.” The force of t’shuva, like gravity in the physical world, is built into the inner fabric of life. It stands as the impetus behind all human history, all world development, all endeavor toward social improvement. It is the force which inspires all cultural, artistic, and scientific advancement. Similarly, the yearning of mankind for universal justice and moral perfection is a product of the encompassing, ever-present power of t’shuva.
On a personal level, when a man sells his house in the country because he wants to improve the quality of his life, he is involved in t’shuva. When a family has a fun and relaxing vacation, they are being motivated by forces of t’shuva. Though there may be underlying factors of profit and self-interest when a pharmaceutical company produces a new drug, they too are involved in t’shuva, if their product truly helps to benefit the world.
“T’shuva derives from the yearning of all existence to be better, purer, more fortified and elevated than it is. Hidden within this desire is a life-force capable of overcoming that which limits and weakens existence. The personal t’shuva of an individual, and even more so of the community, draws its strength from this source of life which is constantly active with never-ending vigor.”
In his writings, Rabbi Kook illuminates the phenomenon of t’shuva in an entirely new fashion. Here we encounter the notion of t’shuva, not as personal penitence alone, but as an ever-active force in the world which constantly works to unite all things with God.
“The currents of specific and general t’shuva flood along. They resemble waves of flames on the surface of the sun, which break free and ascend in a never-ending struggle, granting life to numerous worlds and numberless creatures. It is impossible to grasp the multitude of colors of this great sun that lights all worlds, the sun of t’shuva, because of their abundance and wondrous speed, because they emanate from the Source of life itself….”
In his poetic style, Rabbi Kook describes t’shuva like a sun which sends out constant flames of warming light to the world. Just as G-d has created the sun as life’s principle energy source, so too is t’shuva the spiritual energy source of existence. T’shuva does not only operate when a person decides to mend his erring ways – t’shuva exists all of the time. It exists both within man and all around him, as a personal t’shuva, and as a t’shuva which comes from Above. Like gravity, or the wind, or the rays of the sun, t’shuva is ever present. It is a constant force always at work, bringing the world to completion. One day the force may hit Jonathan; the next day Miriam; one day soon it will uplift the Jewish people as a whole. Its waves flow by us in a continuous stream. Minute by minute, the song of t’shuva calls out to us to hurry and join in the flow.
Now that we recognize that t’shuva is an independent force which G-d has implanted into the fabric of Creation, we must ask, what does it do?
Throughout his writings on t’shuva, Rabbi Kook has to clothe his profound understandings in a wardrobe of metaphors to express the workings of t’shuva.
“The individual and the collective soul, the world soul, the soul of all worlds of Creation, roars like a mighty lioness in agony for complete perfection, for the ideal existence; and we experience the pain, and it purges us like salt sweetens meat, the pain sweetens our bitterness.”
Rabbi Kook emphasizes that the soul has a built-in motor that guides it toward perfection. The perfection it seeks is the union with God. This is what King David is expressing when he says, “Of Thee my heart has said, Seek My Presence. Thy Presence, Hashem, I will seek.”
One unites with God when one has a knowledge of God and performs His will. God’s will is housed in this world in the Torah and its commandments. Thus, the reunion with God, for the individual, and for the Jewish People in its ideal national format, means a return to the Torah, in the place where the Torah is meant to be kept – the Land of Israel.
What empowers the soul to seek out its Maker? What gives it fuel for the quest? The power of t’shuva. Rabbi Kook explains:
“Through the force of t’shuva all things return to God. By the existence of t’shuva’s power which prevails in all worlds, all things are returned and reconnected to the realm of Divine perfection. Through concepts of t’shuva, understandings of t’shuva, and feelings of t’shuva, all thoughts, ideas, understandings, desires, and emotions are transformed and return to their essential character in line with Divine holiness.”
Before continuing, it may be beneficial to say a few words about the concept of returning to G-d. What does this mean? Where have we gone that we need to return? This is a very profound question, and only the beginnings of an answer will be given here. The soul, in its essence, belongs to the world of souls. When it is placed in this world, in a physical body, it naturally longs to go home. For the soul, going home is being reunited with God. One of the great innovations of Judaism is the teaching that this reunion is not limited to the return of the soul to Heaven after the death of the body. Unlike other religions, Judaism teaches that the soul can find union with God in this world. This union is brought about when a Jew performs the Torah’s commandments.
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden describes man’s existential plight. In effect, the sum of world history is mankind’s journey to return to the Garden. Not only man, but the world itself wants to return to its original state. This yearning is one of the most powerful forces of Creation. Thus the world “roars like a mighty lioness” to return to its original, ideal closeness to God.
Once we understand that the goal of existence is to be reunited with God, and that the force of t’shuva is at work all of the time, we can understand that the t’shuva of the individual over specific sins, and the encompassing t’shuva of the world longing for perfection, all stem from the same essential drive.
“General t’shuva, which is the uplifting of the world to perfection; and specific t’shuva, which relates to the particular personality of each individual, including the smallest items needing improvement in all of their details… they are both of one essence. So too, all of the cultural reforms which lift the world out of moral decay, along with social and economic advancements, and the mending of all transgression… all of them comprise a single entity, and are not detached one from the other.”
The perfection of all of the different people and ideologies in the world really represents one giant unified t’shuva. To understand this deep idea, it may help to momentarily substitute another word for t’shuva when we speak about the t’shuva of culture, society, and ultimately of the world. Instead of the word t’shuva, let’s use the word geula, or redemption. To Rabbi Kook, t’shuva and redemption share the same direction and goal — to bring healing to a suffering world. Redemption is the ever-active historical process which brings the Nation of Israel and the world to perfection and completion. The zenith of redemption is reached at the End of Days with the arrival of Mashiach and Israel’s great material and spiritual Renaissance. When this great day arrives, the Kingdom of God will be established throughout the world; Israel will be recognized as His truly chosen people; the nations will flock to Jerusalem to learn the laws of the God of Jacob; and Divine truth and justice will reign supreme. In this glorious future, prophecy will be reestablished in Israel, and life itself will experience the zenith of t’shuva when the dead are resurrected from their graves.
Using the concept of redemption to illuminate our understanding of world perfection, we can better appreciate Rabbi Kook’s great vision of t’shuva.
“With each second, in the depths of life, a new illumination of supreme t’shuva shines ever forth, just as a new glowing light constantly sparkles through all realms of existence and replenishes them…. The fruit of the highest forms of moral and practical culture, blossom and grow in the flow of this light. In truth, the light of the whole world and its renewal in all of its forms, in every time and age, depends on t’shuva. This is especially true regarding the light of Mashiach, the salvation of Israel, the rebirth of the Jewish Nation and its Land, language, and literature — all of them stem from the source of t’shuva, and all will emerge from the depths to the exalted reaches of the highest t’shuva.”
T’shuva and redemption are parallel processes, reaching the same destination. The main difference between them is one of style and not of substance. For example, redemption has a broad historical, international base with political consequences. Though there are differences between them, these two phenomena are closely intertwined, so that when Rabbi Kook speaks about the t’shuva of the entire world, he is speaking about its overall moral, material, and spiritual redemption.
As we shall see, it is the Nation of Israel, in its return to its original Torah life in the Land of Israel, which is destined to lead all of mankind back to God.
Rabbi Kook explains that t’shuva comes about in two distinct formats, either suddenly, or in a gradual, slowly developing fashion. Both of these pathways to t’shuva are readily found in the baal t’shuva world. Some people will tell you how their lives suddenly changed overnight. Others describe their experience as a long, challenging process which unfolded over years. Many factors influence the way in which t’shuva appears, including personality, background, and environment. Health problems, whether physical or psychological, can inspire a person toward t’shuva. Personal tragedy — a death in the family, or the loss of one’s job, can trigger sudden revelations of t’shuva. For others, a seemingly chance encounter with a religious Jew, a Sabbath experience, or a visit to the Kotel in Jerusalem, have all been known to set the stirrings of t’shuva in motion. Even dramatic current events, like catastrophes or wars can influence awakenings of t’shuva.
What stands out in Rabbi Kook’s teaching is that the potential for t’shuva is ever-present. Like light from the sun, the waves of t’shuva constantly envelop the earth. Its spiritual force empowers mankind, silently working to bring the world back to God. Some people jump on the t’shuva train in one bold leap. Others climb aboard in a much slower fashion. But the train itself is always in motion.
Concerning sudden t’shuva, Rabbi Kook writes:
“Sudden t’shuva results from a spiritual bolt of illumination which enters the soul. All at once, the person recognizes the ugliness and evil of sin, and he is transformed into a new being. Already, he feels within himself a total change for the good. This type of t’shuva derives from a certain unique inner power of the soul, from some great spiritual influence whose ways are best sought in the depths of life’s mysteries.”
Sudden t’shuva appears when a person suddenly decides that his entire way of living needs to be changed. Revolted by the impurity of his ways, he abruptly sets out on a purer, healthier course. All at once, he feels that everything in his life must be transformed. A sudden burst of great light reveals the sordidness of his existence, and he understands that an entire life overhaul is in order — new habits, new friends, new interests, new goals. Seemingly overnight, he is a new person. Of course, the sudden break from his old ways is not cut and dry. A person cannot change his whole existence at once. The process may take a day or a decade. But the decision which triggers this great transformation occurs in a moment of profound revelation and cleansing. A sudden, cathartic illumination lights up his being, and he is changed.
A discussion in the Gemara alludes to this type of split-second t’shuva (Kiddushin 49B). There is a law that if a man marries a woman on the basis of some condition, the marriage is legal only if the condition is met. If a man were to say, “You will be my lawfully-wedded wife on the condition that I will give you one-hundred dollars,” if he gives her the money, they are married. If he does not give her the money, then the marriage does not take place. What happens if a man were to marry a woman on the condition that he is a completely righteous person? Suppose that the man is a known evildoer. If he makes his righteousness the basis for the marriage, is the marriage considered proper and legal?
Jewish law states that the woman is “safek mekudeshet,” meaning that she is married out of doubt. Yet if we know that the man is evil, how can this be? After all, the marriage was based on the condition that he be as righteous as a tzaddik. It should follow that since the condition was not kept, the woman is not married. The Gemara explains: “We are cautious for maybe he had a contemplation of t’shuva.”
We learn from this that repentance can be a split-second decision. One can become a penitent in a second, through the thought of t’shuva alone. This is what Rabbi Kook is alluding to when he speaks about sudden t’shuva. Very often people are afraid to embark on a course of repentance because they believe it involves years of suffering and difficult change. Here we learn the opposite. T’shuva is easy!
The Talmud teaches that in the End of Days, God is going to do away with man’s evil inclination (Sukkah 52A). Seeing this, both the righteous and evildoers react by weeping. The righteous cry when the evil inclination is shown to be as large as a mountain. The knowledge that they had to spend their lives overcoming such a formidable foe brings them to tears. The wicked cry when it is revealed to them that the evil inclination was in reality an insignificant opponent. It could have been conquered by a split-second of t’shuva, but that opportunity is now forever lost. We learn from this that the seeming darkness of sin can be swiftly erased by the great light and wonder of t’shuva.
Here are some examples of sudden t’shuva. A person one day decides, “That’s it. I am going on a diet starting today. I want to be healthy.” He strides into the kitchen and throws out all of the candies, ice creams, sodas, and chocolates. Cans of food loaded with colorings and chemical preservatives go flying into the trash. He joins a health club, moves to a place where the air is clean, and starts each new day with a jog before dawn.
Or the baal t’shuva suddenly decides that he is fed up with the wheeling and dealing; he is weary with the struggle to get around the law; he is ashamed for the income he has failed to report; he is disgusted with his infidelities and lies. “That’s it,” he declares. “No more. From now on, I am going to be an honest, moral person.”
Alternately, a brilliant, sudden flash of t’shuva can leave a person disgusted with the false patterns of behavior, ideologies, and false religions which he is following. As if awakening from a nightmare, he takes a deep breath, suddenly driven to align his life with the Divine truth of existence. His flash of sudden light inspires him to say, “Wow, have I been wasting my life! What a fool I have been! And I thought I was being smart! That’s it. The past is forgotten. From now on, I am getting my life together with Torah!”
In contrast, gradual t’shuva differs from sudden t’shuva in its less dramatic, more step-by-step form. Often, when we speak about baale t’shuva, we are referring to people whose lives have been changed overnight. Gradual t’shuva, on the other hand, is something which often appears in a person who generally lives his life in a healthy, positive fashion. When he falls into error or sin, his recovery is more gradual, without the overwhelming illumination that comes to a person whose life has been saturated by darkness. Rabbi Kook writes:
“There is also a gradual type of t’shuva. The change from the depths of sin to goodness is not inspired by a brilliant flash of light in one’s inner self, but by the feeling that one’s ways and lifestyle, one’s desires, and thought processes must be improved. When a person follows this path, he gradually straightens his ways, mends his character traits, improves his deeds, and teaches himself how to correct his life more and more, until he reaches the high level of refinement and perfection” (Orot HaT’shuva, Ch.2).
An already moral person who feels he is still far away from the goal he longs to reach, will set off on a gradual climb toward t’shuva. For him, the process of return does not revolutionize his life all at once. Rather, his perfection demands a step-by-step course of improvement. Indeed, for the average person, the best way to climb a great mountain is by taking a lot of little steps.
When this type of person goes on a diet, he does not rush into the kitchen and throw out all of the unhealthy foods all at once. Knowing that it will take time and a great deal of willpower to wean himself away from the sweets that he loves, he resolves to be fat-free within another six months. Every day, he tries to eat one donut less. He sits down and draws up a chart, starting with one push-up and working, day-by-day, to fifty. He does not suddenly revamp his whole life. Rather, he changes it a little at a time. In this manner, he can set his life on a healthier course without dramatically altering his current comforts and habits.
Gradual t’shuva also applies in the realm of moral perfection. Character traits are not easy to alter. If one proceeds too fast by jumping to the opposite extreme, he can cause himself harm. For instance, if a greedy person decides that he has to be generous and gives all of his money to charity at once, he will not have anything left for himself. Similarly, while anger is an extremely negative trait, it is also not healthy to be unemotional and indifferent. At first, a leap to the other extreme might be helpful in effecting a change, but then the penitent should gradually work his way back to the middle (Rambam, Laws of Knowledge, 2:2). The Gaon of Vilna recommends that in turning a negative trait into a positive one, it is wise to set a gradual course toward reaching the middle ground between the extremes. Because the change comes about slowly, a strong foundation is built. New behavior patterns formed in this fashion are likely to survive the challenges and frustrations which people face every day. In contrast, something which comes quickly, like sudden t’shuva, might, in some cases, also disappear quickly as well.
In regard to religious belief, gradual t’shuva often appears when a person strives to merge his life with the Divine Plan for existence. Generally, a bond and commitment to religion evolves slowly. After all, accepting the yoke of the Torah’s commandments is not a simple matter. Not only must one’s lifestyle be altered, but the list of do’s and don’ts seems overwhelming. Of course, this is the view of the uninitiated, as seen from the outside. Once a person steps inside the world of Judaism, what seemed frightening in the beginning becomes a fountain of great delight. Nonetheless, the path out of darkness to the light of the Torah is usually a slow, step-by-step journey, as opposed to the rocket ship of sudden t’shuva. First a person comes to feel respect for the Jewish religion. He comes to appreciate the great wisdom and beauty of Jewish tradition. He realizes that Judaism has shaped the Jewish Nation, protected it throughout the generations, and given it its character. But at this early stage, he is not yet ready to embrace all of the precepts of Judaism and make them a part of his life.
Then, the more a person experiences Judaism and is stirred by its spirit, the more he cherishes it. Feeling the great warmth of Jewish tradition, he begins to relate to it like a long-lost friend. Motivated by the positive feelings which he now experiences upon each encounter with Judaism, he begins to study its teachings in depth. His knowledge of Judaism increases. More and more, he finds himself stimulated by the Divine genius he discovers within it. Delving into its depths, he finds beauty and joy in all of the commandments.
Finally, convinced of the Torah’s Divine origin and truth, he begins to practice all of its teachings. He runs to perform the mitzvot with zest and enthusiasm. Nothing else in the world affords him such contentment and happiness.
The question can be asked, which of the two paths of t’shuva brings greater enlightenment — sudden or gradual. Rabbi Kook answers:
“The higher t’shuva results from a lightning-like flash of goodness, of the Divine good which dwells in all worlds, of the light of He who is the life of the worlds. The noble soul of all existence is pictured before us in all of its splendor and holiness to the extent that the heart can absorb. Is it not true that everything is so good and upright, and that the uprightness and goodness that is within us, does it not come from our being in harmony with everything? How can we be severed from the wholeness of existence, a strange fragment, scattered into nothingness like dust? From this recognition, which is truly a Divine recognition, comes t’shuva out of love, in the life of the individual and in the life of mankind as a whole.”
The Path to Happiness
T’shuva can happen suddenly, in a burst of illumination which wondrously transforms life’s darkness to light, or it can evolve over time, gradually returning the body, psyche, and soul to the true Divine path of existence.
Rabbi Kook explains that t’shuva appears in two different penitential forms: t’shuva over a specific sin or sins; and a general, all-encompassing t’shuva which completely transforms a person’s whole being and life.
If general t’shuva can be compared to a complete car overhaul, where the entire motor is removed and replaced, then specific t’shuva is like a tune-up of engine parts, a spark plug here, a cable there, new brake fluid, oil and anti-freeze.
Specific t’shuva is commonly referred to as penitence. It is the t’shuva familiar to everyone, whereby a person sins, feels guilty, and decides to redress his wrongdoing. Rabbi Kook believes in the basic goodness of man. In his natural, moral, pristine state, man is a happy, healthy creature. When a man sins, his natural state is altered, and the difference causes him pain. Sin causes a distortion. It creates a barrier between man and his natural pure essence and source. Most essentially, sin damages man’s connection to God. The feeling which results, whether we call it anxiety, pain, darkness, guilt, sickness, or remorse, impels the sinner to correct his wrongdoing, in order to return to the proper course of living. The sorrow which stems from transgression acts as an atonement, and the sinner is cleansed. Returned to his original state of wellbeing, the melancholy and darkness of sin is replaced by the joy and light of the renewed connection to goodness and God.
“There is a type of t’shuva which focuses on a specific sin, or many specific sins. The individual confronts his wrongdoing directly, regrets it, and feels sorry that he was ensnared in the trap of transgression. Then his soul climbs and ascends until he is freed from sinful bondage. He feels in his midst a holy freedom which brings comfort to his weary soul. His healing proceeds; the glimmers of light of a merciful sun, shining with Divine forgiveness, send him their rays, and, together with his broken heart and feelings of depression, a feeling of inner happiness graces his life….”
There are times in everyone’s life when a person decides to change a particular habit, to improve a trait, or to right some outstanding wrong. He is not looking to change his whole life. Generally he is content, but he senses a need to remedy a specific failing. If a person realizes that he is stingy, he may decide that he wants to be more charitable. Or he may feel a pressing need to return a tennis racket which he stole. In the same light, a religious person may realize that his prayers lack enthusiasm and proper concentration. So he sets out to pray with more fervor. In these cases, his t’shuva deals with a specific life problem which he sets out to correct.
A person whose soul is sensitive to moral wrongdoing will feel remorse for his sins. The remorse weighs down on him, and he longs to break free from its shackles. The longing to redress his wrongdoing works like a force to shatter the darkness, opening a window of light. This light of t’shuva is a stream of Divine mercy. It is as if God reaches out and accepts the penitent’s remorse. The sin is forgiven. The path back to God has been cleared. Instead of darkness and gloom, happiness envelops the soul.
“He experiences this (happiness) at the same time that his heart remains shattered, and his spirit feels lowly and sad. In fact, this melancholy feeling suits him in his situation, adding to his inner spiritual gladness and his sense of true wholeness. He feels himself coming closer to the Source of life, to the living God, who had been so distant from him a short time before. His longing spirit jubilantly remembers its former inner pain, and, filled with emotions of gratitude, it raises its voice in song and praise: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all of His goodness; He forgives all thy iniquities, heals all thy diseases; redeems thy life from the pit; adorns thee with love and compassion; and satiates thy old age with good, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord performs righteousness and judgment for all who are oppressed’” (Tehillim, 103: 2-6. Orot HaT’shuva, 3).
The person who sins and feels remorse senses its cleansing power. He recognizes his pain as an atonement, and this brings him relief. Almost miraculously, the clouds of his transgression are lifted, and the light of t’shuva fills his being with joy. He senses that it is G-d who has freed him, and his heart abounds with gratitude and song.
In describing the inner workings of t’shuva, Rabbi Kook does not enumerate the many halachic laws of repentance which can be found in other books. For instance, the Rambam’s Laws of T’shuva sets forth the steps a person must take in redressing transgression. Among the many details, a penitent must confess his sin, feel remorse, abandon his wrongdoing, amend his ways, and never commit the transgression again (Rambam, Laws of T’shuva, 2:2). Rabbi Kook presumes that his reader has a knowledge of these laws. His goal is to illuminate the overall phenomenon and importance of t’shuva in the life of the individual, the Jewish Nation, and the world.
Summing up his analysis of specific t’shuva, Rabbi Kook describes a journey from darkness to light:
“How downtrodden was the soul when the burden of sin, its darkness, vulgarity, and horrible suffering lay upon it. How lowly and oppressed the soul was, even if external riches and honor fell in its portion. What good is there in wealth if life’s inner substance is poor and stale? How joyful the soul is now with the inner conviction that its iniquity has been forgiven, that God’s nearness is living and glowing inside it, that its inner burden has been lightened, that its debt (of atonement) has already been paid, and that it is no longer anguished by inner turmoil and oppression. The soul is filled with rest and rightful tranquility. ‘Return to thy rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with thee’” (Tehillim, 116:7).
Interestingly, the process of anguish, depression, catharsis, and joy which Rabbi Kook describes parallels the psychiatric journey, or the quest for happiness in our time. Vast numbers of people are depressed and unhappy. The world’s pleasures can only bring them a few fleeting moments of delight. Their lives are plagued by darkness, anxiety, and inner despair. Modern psychiatry, and all of the popular books on the subject, offer a gamut of explanations, solutions, treatments, and cures. They too promise psychic release and joy. But all too often, after some initial relief, the patient is back on the couch, or back in the bookstore searching for the newest bestseller.
In Rabbi Kook’s explanation of specific t’shuva and general t’shuva, what strikes us is his understanding of human psychology. While psychiatrists offer many theories about man’s existential dilemma and angst, Rabbi Kook reveals that the real cause of humanity’s malaise stems from mankind’s severance from God. The solution, he teaches, is t’shuva.
As we study Rabbi Kook’s explanation of general t’shuva, how remarkably it sounds like a description of the anxiety and spiritual darkness of our age:
“There is another type of feeling of t’shuva — a vague, general t’shuva. Past sin or sins do not weigh on a person’s heart. Rather he has a general feeling of profound inner depression, that he is filled with sin, that God’s light does not shine on him, that there is nothing noble in his being. He senses that his heart is sealed, and that his personality and traits are not on the straight and desirable path that is worthy of gracing a pure soul with a wholesome life. He feels that his intellectual insights are primitive, and that his emotions are mixed with darkness and lusts which awake within him a spiritual repulsion. He is ashamed of himself; he knows that God is not within him; and this is his greatest anguish, his most frightening sin. He is embittered with himself; he can find no escape from his snare which involves no specific wrongdoing – rather it is as if his entire being is imprisoned in dungeon locks.
“From out of this psychic bitterness, t’shuva comes as a healing plaster from an expert physician. The feeling of t’shuva — with a deep insight into its working and its deep foundation in the recesses of the soul, in the hidden realms of nature, in all the chambers of Torah, faith and tradition — with all of its power, comes and streams into his soul. A mighty confidence in its healing, the encompassing rebirth which t’shuva affords to all who cling to it, surrounds the person with a spirit of grace and mercy.”
This description of depression, darkness, inner shame and despair is an exact description of modern man’s psychic condition. Whether it is termed psychological neurosis by Sigmund Freud, primal angst by Carl Jung, anxiety by Rollo May, or feeling not-OK by Thomas Harris, the symptoms are the same.
Thus, when Joe Cohen walks gloomily into a bookstore looking for a paperback bestseller on how to be happy, he should also look for a book on t’shuva. Before phoning a shrink, he should have a good, long talk with a rabbi.
In emphasizing that t’shuva is the cure for mankind’s anxiety and depression, we do not intend to negate the contributions of psychology and its related fields. Psychology has its place. For instance, an insecure youth will experience a feeling of liberation when he realizes that his parents are smothering him. The feelings of repressed anger which were causing him depression now can be dealt with. Similarly, when a man in couples-therapy realizes that he feels in competition with his wife because of unresolved childhood hang-ups with his brother, he will feel liberated to embark on a healthier marriage. However, while childhood traumas influence behavior and cause great confusion and pain, when they are finally uncovered and resolved, the catharsis which results is only a step along the way. Until an individual erases all of the “neuroses” or barriers which separate him from God, he will remain estranged from his self, imprisoned in darkness, living either like an unfeeling zombie, or in depression and pain. Psychology and its branches can give him a start, but ultimately, the only real cure is t’shuva.
“With each passing day, powered by this lofty general t’shuva, his feeling becomes more secure, clearer, more enlightened with the light of intellect, and more clarified according to the foundations of Torah. His demeanor becomes brighter, his anger subsides, the light of grace shines on him. He becomes filled with strength; his eyes are filled with a holy fire; his heart is completely immersed in springs of pleasure; holiness and purity envelop him. A boundless loves fills all of his spirit; his soul thirsts for God, and this very thirst satiates all of his being. The holy spirit rings before him like a bell, and he is informed that all of his willful transgressions, the known and the unknown, have been erased; that he has been reborn as a new being; that all of the world and all of Creation are reborn with him; that all of existence calls out in song, and that the joy of God infuses all. Great is t’shuva for it brings healing to the world. When even one individual who repents is forgiven, the whole world is forgiven with him” (Yoma 86B. Orot HaTshuva, 3).
Thus, general overall t’shuva does not come to mend anything specific. It occurs when a person feels lost, surrounded by darkness, and cut off from God. In this drastic state, a total revamping is needed. The rotted foundations of this person’s lifestyle must be uprooted, and a new Divine foundation be built in its place. But where does one start? First by longing. By longing for God. This leads to prayer, a calling out for God from the darkness. Indeed, the search for a holier life will bring a person to discover two life-saving essentials of t’shuva — prayer and Torah. Prayer is man’s ladder to God. By expressing man’s longing for his Maker, prayer builds a bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. Once a connection has been made, man can begin to hear the “voice” of God calling back. God communicates with man through the Torah. The Torah is God’s will for the world, His plan for our lives. Discovering Torah, man discovers true light. Finally, he knows what to do. He knows how to act. With the guidelines of Torah, he learns to distinguish between good and evil, between pure and impure. In the past, his life was guided by his own ethical sense and desires, without ever knowing what was truly moral and just. Suddenly the darkness and uncertainty are gone. Anxiety vanishes. In the light of the Torah, his soul finds instant rest, secure that it has found the right path. Once again united with the Divine song of existence, he brings himself, and the whole world, closer to God.
T’SHUVA BRINGS HEALING TO THE WORLD
As we previously learned, mankind is always involved in t’shuva. The fact that there are many non-religious people today should not be held as a contradiction. T’shuva must be looked at in an encompassing perspective that spans all generations.
A story about Rabbi Kook may help illustrate this. One day, he was walking by the Old City in Jerusalem with Rabbi Chaim Zonnenfeld, one of the leading rabbis of the Ultra-Orthodox community.
“Look how awful our situation is,” the Rabbi observed. “See how many secular Jews there our in the city. Just a few generations ago, their father’s fathers were all Orthodox Jews.”
“One must look at Am Yisrael in a wider perspective,” Rabbi Kook answered. “Do you see this valley over here, the Valley of Hinom? This was once a site for human sacrifice. Today, even the crassest secularist will not offer his child as a human sacrifice for any pagan ideal. When you look at today’s situation in the span of all history, things do not seem so bad. On the contrary, you can see that there has been great progress.”
The Rambam, at the end of the Laws of Kings, refers to this same development process of redemption which encompasses all things in life. He asks the question — if Christianity is a false religion, why did God grant it so much dominion? In the time of the Rambam, Christianity and Islam ruled over the world. The Jews suffered miserably under both. The Rambam’s answer is based on a sweeping historical perspective which finds a certain value in Christianity, even though the Rambam himself classifies Christianity as idol worship (Laws of Idol Worship, 9:4, uncensored edition). On the one hand, he emphatically condemns Christianity, and on the other hand he maintains that Christianity has a positive role in the development of world history. How are we to reconcile this contradiction?
The Rambam writes that Christianity serves as a facilitator to elevate mankind from the darkness of paganism toward the recognition of monotheism. In effect, it is a stepping stone enabling mankind to make the leap from idol worship to the worship of God. The belief in an invisible God does not come easily to the masses. Christianity, weaned mankind away from the belief in many gods to a belief in a “three-leaf clover” of a father, a son, and a holy ghost. Once the world is accustomed to this idea, though it is still idol worship, the concept of one supreme God is not so removed. Furthermore, the Rambam writes that Christianity’s focus on the messiah prepares the world for the day when the true Jewish messiah will come. Today, because of Christianity’s influence, all the world, from the Eskimos to the Zulus, have heard about the messiah, so that when he arrives, he will have a lot less explaining to do. “Oh, it’s you,” mankind will say on the heralded day. Though they will be surprised to find out that it’s not Jezeus, they’ll say all the same, “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Thus, when world history is looked at in an encompassing perspective, even Christianity, with all of its many negative factors, can be seen to play a positive role in mankind’s constant march toward t’shuva.
When we understand this historic, all-encompassing perspective, we can see that a world movement like Christianity, despite all of its evil, can influence the course of human history toward a higher ideal. But how does one man’s t’shuva bring redemption closer? How does a person’s remorse over having stolen some money bring healing to the cosmos as a whole?
The answer is that we are to look on each individual, not as a unit separated from the rest of the world, but as being integrally united with all of Creation. Rabbi Kook writes:
“The nature of the world and of every individual creature, the entire sweep of human history and the life of every person, and his deeds, must be viewed from one all-encompassing perspective, as one unity made up of many parts…” (Orot HaT’shuva, 4:4).
A man is not a fragmented being disconnected from the past and the future. He is part of the continuity of generations. He is a part of his national history and a sweeping world drama. In the same way that he is a product of his past, he is also the seed of the future. When a man sees himself in this wider perspective, the t’shuva he does for personal sins is magnified by his connection to all generations. Thus, his personal t’shuva is uplifted by the general t’shuva of the world, which strengthens his own drive to do good. This merging of an individual’s t’shuva with the mighty stream of the universal will for goodness is the source of the great joy which t’shuva always brings.
“T’shuva comes forth from the profoundest depths, from the vast depths where the individual is not a separate entity, but rather a continuation of the greatness which pervades universal existence. The yearning for t’shuva (on a personal level) is connected to the world’s yearning for t’shuva at its most exalted source. And since the great current of the flow of life’s yearning is directed toward doing good, immediately many streams flow through all of existence to reveal goodness and to bring benefit to all” (Ibid, 6:1).
For example, as a wheel axis spins, the spokes and the whole wheel spins with it. So too, a person who steals should not look at his theft as his own personal dilemma, he should see his stealing as something that damages the moral environment around him, and this adds evil to the society where he lives, and this increases the evil in the world. When he starts returning the money he took, he adds goodness to the world and brings all of existence closer to moral perfection. Like a stone thrown into a pool, his individual t’shuva sends waves of t’shuva rippling through all realms of life, from his family and immediate surroundings, to his community, his nation, and the world. Because his soul is attached to the soul of the world, in purifying his soul, he helps purify all realms of being.
Thus, Rabbi Kook writes that it is impossible to quantify the importance of practical t’shuva, and the correcting of one’s behavior in accordance with the Torah, which raises the soul of the individual and the soul of the community to higher and higher levels. Every step along the way contains myriads of ideals and horizons of light.
This understanding led our Sages to say that “Great is t’shuva, for it brings healing to the world,” (Yoma 86A) and “even one individual who repents is forgiven and the whole world is forgiven with him” (Ibid 86B).
“The more we contemplate to what extent the smallest details of existence, the spiritual and the material, are microcosms containing the general principles, and understand that every small detail bears imprints of greatness in the depths of its being, we will no longer wonder about the secret of t’shuva which so deeply penetrates man’s soul, encompassing him from the beginning of his thoughts and beliefs to the most exacting details of his deeds and character” (Orot HaT’shuva, 11:4).
When a man understands that his personal t’shuva advances the process of Redemption of the world, his motivation to mend his own life is enhanced. His own personal t’shuva expands beyond his life’s limited boundaries and brings benefit to all of mankind. No longer dwelling on escaping his own personal darkness, he altruistically yearns to bring greater illumination to the world. This is the zenith of t’shuva.
THE WORLD’S GREATEST JOY
Jews who have become religious, baale t’shuva, describe t’shuva as the most joyous experience in their lives. Very often, a gleam of happiness shines in their eyes. Their speech is filled with an excited ring, as if they have discovered a secret treasure. Even people who have tasted all of life’s secular pleasures insist that the experience of t’shuva is the world’s greatest joy.
What is the reason for this? What is the source of this joy? Rabbi Kook writes:
“T’shuva is the healthiest feeling possible. A healthy soul in a healthy body must necessarily bring about the great joy of t’shuva, and the soul consequently feels the greatest natural pleasure” (Orot HaT’shuva, 5:1).
First, it is important to note the connection which Rabbi Kook makes between t’shuva and health. As we previously learned, a healthy body is an important foundation of t’shuva. Contrary to the picture of the penitent as a gloomy, frail, bent-over recluse who shuns the world, the true baal t’shuva is healthy, happy, robust, and bursting with life.
When a person rids himself of bad habits, like overeating and cigarette smoking, his health is improved. Without these harming elements, he is stronger and more vibrant. So too, when one rids oneself of bad moral habits and base character traits, his spiritual health is improved. Without these negative influences, his soul is free to receive the flow of Divine energy and light which fills the universe. When he is both physically and spiritually healthy, his capability to experience the Divine is greatly enhanced. It is this “meeting with God” that brings the influx of joy that every baal t’shuva feels. When the unhealthy walls which had separated him from God are eliminated from his life, he stands ready for life’s greatest discovery — the discovery that God and the spiritual world are real. Suddenly, God’s love and kindness surround him. All his sins are forgiven. Instead of darkness, there is light all around him and a pool of endless love. Rabbi Kook writes:
“In measure with every ugly thing which a person eliminates from his soul when he inwardly longs for the light of t’shuva, he immediately discovers worlds filled with exalted illumination inside his soul. Every transgression removed is like the removal of a blinding thorn from the eye, and an entire horizon of vision is revealed, the light of unending expanses of heaven and earth, and all that they contain” (Ibid, 5:2).
The new spiritual horizons which the baal t’shuva discovers give him a feeling of freedom, as if he were soaring through air. This new-found freedom comes when the walls blocking God’s light have been razed. The baal t’shuva is freed from the bad habits and passions which had enslaved him in the past. He escapes from a web of wrongdoing. The lack of godliness which had pervaded his actions, his thoughts, and his being, is erased. Freed from his darkness, he can experience the wonders of God.
“The steadfast will to always remain with the same beliefs to support the vanities of transgression into which a person has fallen, whether in deeds or in thoughts, is a sickness caused by an oppressive slavery that does not allow t’shuva’s light of freedom to shine in its full strength. For it is t’shuva which aspires to the original, true freedom — Divine freedom, which is free of all bondage” (Ibid, 5:5).
Once again, we may be startled. People often think that in discovering God, one is restricting one’s freedom, not expanding it. If one recognizes his Creator, he also has to recognize His laws. For a person who thinks this way, religion is perceived as a yoke of responsibility and bondage. But Rabbi Kook tells us the opposite. The discovery of God is the ultimate freedom. Finally, a person is liberated from beliefs that he held on to in order to justify his errant lifestyle. Finally, he is freed from cycles of behavior which he could not control. Like a criminal who decides to go straight, he can now put his life in line with God’s will for the world. This is the greatest freedom!
Often people are afraid to set out on a course of t’shuva because they associate repentance with pain. While pain is a part of the t’shuva process, the hardships of t’shuva are quickly erased by the joy which the baal t’shuva discovers.
“T’shuva does not come to make life bitter, but to make it more pleasant. The happy satisfaction with life that comes with t’shuva is derived from the waves of bitterness which cling to a person during the initial stages of t’shuva. However, this is the highest, creative valor, to recognize and understand that pleasantness evolves out of bitterness, life out of the clutches of death, eternal pleasures out of sickness and pain. As this everlasting knowledge grows and becomes clearer in the mind, in the emotions, in the person’s physical and spiritual natures, the person becomes a new being. With a courageous spirit, he transmits a new life force to all of his surroundings. He spreads the good news to all of his generation, and to all generations to be, that there is joy for the righteous, and that a joyous salvation is certain to come. ‘The humble also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poorest among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel” (Ibid, 16:6).
We will explore the connection between t’shuva and pain in more detail in further essays. Here, it is important to note that the pain a person feels when he confronts his sins and his unholy past is only a temporary phase of t’shuva. It resembles the pain of surgery, when a disease must be cut out of the body. The uprooting of sin brings healing and joy in its wake, but the initial amputation is painful. It is difficult to give up the familiar, even if it be an evil habit. When a person understands this and opens himself up to change, he comes to be filled with a courageous new spirit and joy. His sins are forgiven. His life is renewed, and the world seems to be renewed with him. Immediately, he wants to share his good fortune with everyone. He tells his parents with a gleam in his eyes, as if he has met the right girl. With unbounded enthusiasm, he phones his brother long distance to turn him on to the great secret which he has discovered. He is so hopped up on t’shuva, he wants the whole world to know. “Hey everybody, listen to me. You want to be happy? You want to be high? Get with it. Don’t do drugs. Do t’shuva!”
THE HEROES OF T’SHUVA
If there was a guaranteed deal that by shelling out 15 dollars, you would get 15 million dollars in return, would you do it? Of course you would. Well, that’s exactly what T’shuva is.
We learned that the joy of t’shuva comes from removing the barriers of transgression and melancholy which separate a person from God. Another reason why the joy of t’shuva is so great is because the happiness of t’shuva is felt in the soul. Until a person discovers t’shuva, he experiences the pleasures of the world on the physical, emotional, or intellectual levels alone. He enjoys good foods, stimulating books, new clothes and the like. But a man has a deeper, spiritual level of being, his soul, which derives no satisfaction from earthly pleasures.
“To what is this analogous? To the case of a city dweller who marries a princess. If he brought her all that the world possessed, it would mean nothing to her, by virtue of her being a king’s daughter. So it is with the soul. If it were brought all the delights of the world, they would be nothing to it, in view of its pertaining to the higher elements” (Mesillat Yesharim, Ch.1).
When a person does t’shuva, he opens his soul to a river of spiritual delight. The joy he discovers is like nothing which he has ever experienced. Not only are his senses affected, t’shuva touches his soul. Just as his soul is deeper than his other levels of being, the happiness he discovers is deeper. Just as his soul is eternal, his joy is eternal. Unlike the transitory pleasures of the physical world, the joy of t’shuva is everlasting. A jacuzzi feels good, but when it is over, the pleasure soon fades away. But in the heavenly jacuzzi of t’shuva, you don’t just get wet — you get cleansed and transformed. Thus, Rabbi Kook writes:
“When the light of t’shuva appears and the desire for goodness beats purely in the heart, a channel of happiness and joy is opened, and the soul is nurtured from a river of delights” (Orot HaT’shuva, 14:6).
This river of delight is the river of t’shuva. Rabbi Kook’s use of this expression is not metaphorical alone. In the spiritual world, there actually exists a river of t’shuva. (For the Kabbalists among you, it’s the wellsprings of Binah flowing to us through the now t’shuva-unclogged river of the Yesod). This is the constant flow of t’shuva which, though invisible, is always present and active. It is our channel to true joy and happiness because it is our channel to God. Nothing in the world can compare to its pleasures. Rabbi Kook explains:
“Great and exalted is the pleasure of t’shuva. The searing flame of the pain caused by sin purifies the will and refines the character of a person to an exalted, sparkling purity until the great joy of the life of t’shuva is opened for him. T’shuva raises the person higher and higher through its stages of bitterness, pleasantness, grieving, and joy. Nothing purges and purifies a person, raises him to the stature of being truly a man, like the profound process of t’shuva. In the place where the baale t’shuva stand, even the completely righteous cannot stand” (Berachot 34B. Orot HaT’shuva, 13:11).
The real hero is not the Hollywood tough guy. It isn’t the man who smokes Marlboro cigarettes. It isn’t the corporate president who owns a Lear jet and three yachts. The true man is the person involved in t’shuva. Rabbi Kook teaches, “The more a person delves into the essence of t’shuva, he will find in it the source of heroism” (Ibid, 12:2). This is similar to the teaching of our Sages, “Who is a hero? He who conquers his evil inclination” (Avot, 4:1). He is the person who is always seeking to better himself; the person who is always trying to come closer to God. He is the person who is open to self-assessment and change; the person who has the courage to confront his soul’s inner pain and to transform its bitterness into joy.
“T’shuva elevates a person above all of the baseness of the world. Notwithstanding, it does not alienate the person from the world. Rather, the baal t’shuva elevates life and the world with him” (Orot HaT’shuva, 12:1).
Sometimes, people have a misunderstanding of t’shuva. They think that t’shuva comes to separate a person from the world. While some baale t’shuva make a point of isolating themselves completely from secular society, this is not the ideal. During the early stages of t’shuva, a person should certainly avoid situations which are antithetical to his newfound goals, in order to rebuild his life on purer foundations, but a baal t’shuva is not a recluse. He should not cut himself off from the world. The opposite. By participating in the life around him, he elevates, not only himself, but also the world. After returning to God, he must return to the world. By doing so, he returns holiness to its proper place, and makes God’s Presence sovereign in the world. Rabbi Kook writes: “Tzaddikim should be natural people, and every aspect of their bodies and beings should be characterized by life and health. Then, through their spiritual greatness, they can elevate all of the world, and all things will rise up with them” (Arpelei Tohar, pf.16).
God created the heavens for the angels. Our lives are to be lived down on earth. It is our task to bring healing and perfection to this world, not to the next. When the powerful life-force which went into sin is redirected toward good, life is uplifted. A baal t’shuva who returns to a former situation in which he sinned, and now conducts himself in a righteous, holy manner, affects a great tikun. The Rambam writes: “For instance, if a man had sinful relations with a woman, and after a time was alone with her, his passion for her persisting, and his physical powers unabated, while he continued to live in the same district where he had sinned, and yet he refrains and does not transgress, he is a baal t’shuva” (Laws of T’shuva, 2:1). He is like a gunslinger who mends his ways and comes back to town to do away with the bad guys. Because of his t’shuva, Dodge City is a better, safer, more wholesome place.
“The inner forces which led him to sin are transformed. The powerful desire which smashes all borders and brought the person to sin, itself becomes a great, exalted life-force which acts to bring goodness and blessing. The greatness of life which emanates from the highest holy source constantly hovers over t’shuva and its heroes, for they are the champions of life, who call for its perfection. They demand the victory of good over evil, and the return to life’s true goodness and happiness, to the true, exalted freedom, which suits the man who ascends to his spiritual source and essential Divine image” (Orot HaT’shuva, 12:1).
It is time to take t’shuva out of the closet. The true champions of life are not the basketball players, not the Hollywood stars, not even the Prime Ministers and Presidents. The real heroes are the masters of t’shuva. They are the Supermen who battle the forces of darkness in order to fill the world with goodness and blessing. Teenagers! Tear down your wall posters of wrestlers and rock stars! The people to be admired are the masters of t’shuva! You can be one too!
THOUGHTS MAKE THE MAN
T’shuva may seem like a towering mountain too high to climb, but it’s really not as hard as you think.
Rabbi Kook teaches that even contemplations of t’shuva have significant value. To understand this, we must look at life with a different orientation than we normally do. Usually, we are pragmatists. We judge the value of things by the influence they have on ourselves and the world. For instance, ten dollars is worth more than five dollars because it can buy more. A doctorate is better than a bachelor’s degree because it can lead to a better paying and more prestigious job.
There are things, however, that have an absolute value, regardless of their tangible impact in this world. Truth is an example. Holiness is another. To this list, Rabbi Kook adds good thoughts. Contemplations of t’shuva, even if they do not lead to a resulting change in behavior, bring benefit to the individual and the world.
This is similar to the question in the Talmud — which is greater, Torah study or good deeds? The answer is Torah study because it leads to good deeds. You might think that if the ultimate goal is the deeds, then they would be more important. But our Sages tell us that the thought processes which lead to the deeds are of primary concern. Being immersed in Torah has an absolute value in itself. Thus, Rabbi Kook writes:
“The thought of t’shuva transforms all transgressions and the darkness they cause, along with their spiritual bitterness and stains, into visions of joy and comfort, for it is through these contemplations that a person is filled with a deep feeling of hatred for evil, and the love of goodness is increased within him with a powerful force” (Orot HaT’shuva, 7:1).
T’shuva can be dissected into two different realms. There is the nitty-gritty t’shuva of mending an actual deed, and there is the thought process which precedes the action. The value of these thoughts is not to be measured according to the activities which they inspire. For instance, a person may decide that he wants to be righteous. But when the person tries to translate this thought into action, he finds himself overwhelmed. To be righteous, he has to get up early in the morning to pray. He has to stop doing a host of forbidden deeds. He has to watch what he says, and watch what he eats. Before he even begins, his will is broken. Though his wish to do t’shuva was sincere, he couldn’t find the inner strength to actualize his thoughts into deeds.
Rabbi Kook says that all is not lost. This person’s original idea to do t’shuva stemmed from the deepest recesses of the soul, where it was inspired by the spiritual waves of t’shuva which encircle the world. Thus he has already been touched by t’shuva’s cleansing streams. In effect, he has boarded the boat. Though his will power may be weak at the moment, his soul is longing for God.
“Through the contemplations of t’shuva, a person hears the voice of God calling him from the Torah and from the heart, from the world and all it contains. The will for good is fortified within him. The body itself, which causes transgression, becomes more and more purified until the thought of t’shuva pervades it” (Ibid, 7:5).
In the beginning of his t’shuva journey, a person must realize the absolute value of his initial inspiration. He has to find a new way of judging the value of things, not always looking for concrete benefits or results. When a person undertakes t’shuva, his thoughts weigh as much as his deeds. T’shuva is not just a process of do’s and don’ts, but rather a conscious and subconscious overhaul of an individual’s thought processes and emotions. Already by thinking about t’shuva one is engaged in it. As the saying goes: you are what you think.
“Even the thought of t’shuva brings great healing. However, the soul can only find full freedom when this potential t’shuva is actualized. Nonetheless, since the contemplation is bound up with the longing for t’shuva, there is no cause for dismay. God will certainly provide all of the means necessary for complete repentance, which brightens all darkness with its light… ‘A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise’” (Ibid. Tehillim, 51;19).
When we recognize the value of our thoughts, we discover a very encouraging concept. One needn’t despair when confronted by the often difficult changes which t’shuva demands. This is especially true in the initial stages before a person’s increasing love for G-d makes all difficulties and sacrifices seem small. Even if a person cannot immediately redress all of his wrongdoings, he should know that there is a great value in just wanting to be good. One can take comfort that he wants to be a better person. With God’s help, he will also be able to actualize his yearnings. But in the meantime, just thinking good thoughts is already strengthening his inner self and the world.
This is also why t’shuva can come in a second. Just the thought of t’shuva is t’shuva itself (Kiddushin 49B). Thoughts of t’shuva are themselves uplifting. The actual mending of activities is only a second stage. This knowledge can give a person the strength to continue through difficult times. Rabbi Kook writes:
“To the extent that someone is aware of his transgressions, the light of t’shuva shines lucidly on his soul. Even if at the moment, he lacks the steadfastness to repent in his heart and will, the light of t’shuva hovers over him and works to renew his inner self. The barriers to t’shuva weaken in strength, and the blemishes they cause are diminished to the degree that the person recognizes them and longs to erase them. Because of this, the light of t’shuva starts to shine on him, and the holiness of the transcendental joy fills his soul. Gates which were closed open before him, and in the end, he will achieve the exalted rung where all obstacles will be leveled. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain” (. Yisheyahu, 40:4. Orot HaT’shuva, 15:7).
A few examples may help illustrate this idea. Individual t’shuva includes rectifying transgressions and improving character traits. Let’s suppose that Joseph has stolen a laptop computer from Reuven who lives two thousand miles away. At the moment, even though Joseph wants to return the computer, he is unable to make the trip. This is a barrier to t’shuva. Or in a case where Reuven lives just across the street, it may be that Joseph is too embarrassed to admit his theft. Until he strengthens his will to do t’shuva, musters his inner courage, and swallows his pride, Joseph’s t’shuva will be delayed. Regarding character traits, let’s say that Joseph is an angry person. He is angry at his parents, at his wife and children, he is angry at his boss and at the neighbor down the street. It may take a considerable amount of introspection, and a serious course of Torah study, before he can transform his anger into love. But even if this barrier should seem insurmountable to him, he should take comfort in knowing that once the process of t’shuva has started, God’s help is ever near.
“When a person truly longs for t’shuva, he may be prevented by many barriers, such as unclear beliefs, physical weakness, or the inability to correct wrongs which he has inflicted on other people. The barrier may be considerable, and the person will feel remorse because he understands the weighty obligation to perfect his ways, in the most complete manner possible. However, since his longing for t’shuva is firm, even if he cannot immediately overcome all of the obstacles, he must know that the desire for t’shuva itself engenders purity and holiness, and not be put off by barriers which stand in his way. He should endeavor to seize every spiritual ascent available to him, in line with the holiness of his soul and its holy desire” (Ibid, 17:2).
In dealing with his anger, it may be that Joseph lacks the determination or courage to have a heart-to-heart talk with his boss. Or perhaps, he is afraid of losing his job. So let him begin with his parents or wife. With each step he takes, he will find greater courage for the stages ahead. And if his Pandora’s Box of anger is too threatening for him to open at all, let him turn to redress other matters more in his reach, with the faith that a more complete t’shuva will come.
“One must strengthen one’s faith in the power of t’shuva, and feel secure that in the thought of t’shuva alone, one perfects himself and the world. After every thought of t’shuva, a person will certainly feel happier and more at peace than he had in the past. This applies even more if one is determined to do t’shuva, and if he has made a commitment to Torah, its wisdom, and to the fear of God. The highest joy comes when the love of God pulses through his being. He must comfort himself and console his outcast soul, and strengthen himself in every way he can, for the word of God assures, ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.’ (Yisheyahu, 66:13)
“If he discovers sins he committed against others, and his strength is too feeble to correct them, one should not despair at all, thinking that t’shuva cannot help. For the sins which he has committed against God and repented over, they have already been forgiven. Thus, it should be viewed that the sins which are lacking atonement are outweighed by the t’shuva he was able to do. Still, he must be very careful not to transgress against anyone, and he must strive with great wisdom and courage to address all of the wrongs from the past, ‘Deliver thyself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, and like a bird from the hand of the fowler’ (Mishle, 6:5). However, let depression not overcome him because of the things he was unable to redress. Let him rather strengthen himself in the fortress of Torah, and in the service of God, with all of his heart, in happiness, reverence, and love” (Orot HaT’shuva, 7:6).
Even though a person has not yet been able to rectify every wrong against his fellow man, every thought of t’shuva has inestimable value. “Even the minutest measure of t’shuva awakens in the soul, and in the world, a great measure of holiness” (Ibid, 14:4).
The difficulty in mending the transgressions of the past should never bring a person to despair. For even if the thought of t’shuva is still undeveloped, even if one’s desire to do good contains a mixture of unrefined motives, Rabbi Kook assures us that its basic inner holiness is worth all of the wealth in the world.
DON’T WORRY! BE HAPPY!
Amongst the many eye-opening revelations on t’shuva in Rabbi Kook’s writings, one concept is especially staggering in its profundity. Usually, we think that a process is completed when it reaches its end. We experience a feeling of satisfaction when we finish a project. An underlying tension often accompanies our work until it is accomplished. This is because the final goal is considered more important than the means.
Most people feel the same way about t’shuva. Until the process of t’shuva is complete, they feel unhappy, anxious, overwhelmed with the wrongdoings which they have been unable to redress. Rabbi Kook tells us that this perspective is wrong. When it comes to t’shuva, the goal is not the most important thing. It is the means which counts. What matters the most is the striving for perfection, for the striving for perfection is perfection itself. He writes:
“If not for the contemplation of t’shuva, and the comfort and security which come with it, a person would be unable to find rest, and spiritual life could not develop in the world. Man’s moral sense demands justice, goodness, and perfection. Yet how very distant is moral perfection from man’s actualization, and how feeble he is in directing his behavior toward the pure ideal of absolute justice. How can he aspire to that which is beyond his reach? For this, t’shuva comes as a part of man’s nature. It is t’shuva which perfects him. If a man is constantly prone to transgress, and to have difficulties in maintaining just and moral ideals, this does not blemish his perfection, since the principle foundation of his perfection is the constant longing and desire for perfection. This yearning is the foundation of t’shuva, which constantly orchestrates man’s path in life and truly perfects him” (Orot Ha’Tshuva, 5:6. The Art of T’shuva, Ch.5).
Dear reader, please note: if you are not yet a tzaddik, you need not be depressed. Success in t’shuva is not measured by the final score at the end of the game. It is measured by the playing. The striving for good is goodness itself. The striving for atonement is atonement. The striving for perfection is what perfects, in and of itself.
King Solomon teaches that no man is free of sin: “For there is not a just man on earth that does good and never sins” (Kohelet, 7:20). Transgression is part of the fabric of life. Since we are a part of this world, we too are subject to “system failure” or sin. Even the righteous occasionally succumb to temptation. Thus, until the days of Mashiach, an ideal, sinless existence is out of man’s reach.
An illustration may help make this concept clearer. On Yom Kippur, we are like angels. We don’t eat, we don’t drink. All day long we pray for atonement from all of our sins. At the end of the day, with the final blast of the shofar, we are cleansed. But in the very next moment, as we pray the evening service, we once again ask God to forgive us. Forgive us for what? The whole day we have acted like angels. Our sins were whitened as snow. In the few seconds between the end of Yom Kippur and the evening prayer, what sin did we do? Maybe at the beginning of the evening prayer, exhausted by the fast, we didn’t concentrate on our words. Maybe our prayers on Yom Kippur were half-hearted, as if repeating last year’s cassette. Maybe, we forgot to ask forgiveness for some of our sins.
The point is that the process of t’shuva never ends. Perfection in deeds is out of human reach. Thus, when a goal is unattainable, it is the striving to reach the goal that counts. Regarding t’shuva, it is the constant striving for t’shuva which purifies, enlightens, elevates, and perfects. So relax all you seekers of t’shuva. Even if you haven’t yet atoned for all of your sins, Don’t worry! Be Happy! As long as you are sincerely trying, this is what really counts.
BE HAPPY NOW!
As we explained in the previous chapter, people tend to place more value on the final achievement of a goal, rather than on the endeavor itself. For instance, many people focus on getting their salaries at the end of the week, rather than on their actual work. How happy they feel when the work week is over and they have their paychecks in hand! For them, their work is merely a means toward receiving their money. This phenomenon is known to cause anxiety and even depression on the job. It can even lead to accidents, when a worker, daydreaming about the future, stops paying attention to what he is doing.
When G-d curses Eve, the snake, and Adam, in the story of Creation, the earth is cursed with them, as it says, “The earth shall be cursed on your account” (Bereshit, 3:17). The Midrash asks why? Rabbi Yehuda Bar Shalom answers that the earth transgressed God’s command that the ground should give forth fruit trees which are fruit — not only was the fruit to be edible, the bark of the tree was supposed to be edible too, with the same taste as the fruit. The earth, however, brought forth trees which produced only edible fruit. The bark itself was tasteless (Bereshit Rabbah, 5:9).
Rabbi Kook writes:
“At the beginning of Creation, the taste of the tree was supposed to have the same taste as the fruit. All of the means which are needed to sustain any lofty, all-encompassing spiritual goal, should rightly be experienced in the soul with the same exalted pleasantness which we feel when we picture the goal itself. However, the laws of nature, along with the instability of human life, and the heaviness of the spirit when it is enclosed in a physical body, caused that only the taste of the fruit — the actualization of the final, original, ideal goal — is experienced as pleasant and sweet. The trees which produce the fruit, though they be indispensable in the growth of the fruit, have become hard, solid matter, losing their taste. This is the sin of the earth, for which it was cursed along with Adam. But every blemish is destined to be perfected. Thus we are assured, without doubt, that the time will come when the world will return to its original state, when the taste of the tree will be the same as the taste of the fruit. For the earth will return from its sin, and the necessities of practical life will no longer restrict the pleasantness of the ideal light, which is supported and brought into being by these preliminary, practical means” (Orot HaTshuva, 6:7).
How is the gulf between means and the goal, between the imperfect and the ideal, to be bridged? Through t’shuva. What will cause all of the details of human endeavor and the final building to merge in pleasant harmony? T’shuva. The light of t’shuva penetrates all of the details of life, all of the stages of mending and repair, and fills them all with the taste of the final ideal.
The discrepancy in taste between the fruit of the tree and the bark represents a vast, cosmic concept. Originally, God intended that everything in the world would be perceived in the same deep, inner light. According to the intended plan, people would have experienced every moment with the same joy as the final goal. They would have understood that the means are as important as the ideal, that all of the incompleteness and detailed work which go into achieving something are a part of the whole. With the sin of the earth, mankind lost the ability to appreciate the small things in life. People talk about the ideal future, about world peace, about universal equality, saving the environment, and the like, but the housekeeper’s boycott against ozone- destroying aerosol cans is seen as something less grand. On the contrary, what joy and sense of accomplishment she should feel knowing that she is making the world a better place!
With t’shuva, the means become as vital as the goal. T’shuva penetrates all of the details of life and uplifts them to God. Everything is seen as important and necessary in the refinement and perfection of the existence. T’shuva enters every sphere of life, illuminating all things with the light of the future ideal, giving inspiration to all of man’s work.
Rabbi Kook writes that the inner foundation of life is built upon t’shuva. Material existence, he explains, is based on a step-by-step descent from Divine spiritual spheres to the worldly. Thus there is a Divine spark in everything. This spark is like the DNA of existence. When a person is involved in any detailed spark of existence, it is as if he were involved with the entire world itself:
“When we understand to what extent the tiniest details of life, the spiritual and the physical, contain, in microcosm, all of the general laws, and that every small detail has shadows of greatness in the depths of its essence, we will no longer wonder at the secret of t’shuva which penetrates man’s spirit so deeply, from the beginnings of his thoughts and beliefs, to the smallest details of his character and deeds” (Ibid, 11:4).
When we understand that every fragment is a microcosm of the whole, and that each and every person is like a world in miniature, than how truly powerful is man! How influential is his each and every deed! For example, if a person stops speaking badly about other people, he not only improves himself, he improves his community. Because, he is connected to all of the cosmos, he improves all the universe. The smallest detail of t’shuva heals man and all of existence with it! His cries for salvation echo through every realm of existence and reach the Divine throne itself. “Out of the depths, I have called to You, O Lord” (Tehillim, 130:1). Man’s every gesture of t’shuva is filled with meaning, connecting the lowest regions to the most exalted heights, the smallest details to the grandest schemes. He is the sun around which all of life orbits. His thoughts, speech, and action literally influence what will be in the world.
CHEESEBURGERS AND T’SHUVA
In some of our previous chapters about t’shuva, we have mentioned the bitterness and pain that accompanies the early stages of the process. When people begin to enter the realm of t’shuva, they start to experience a fear, an uncertainty, an inner anguish and pain. While this unpleasant aspect of t’shuva is quickly overshadowed and forgotten in the baal t’shuva’s pursuant great joy, it is a necessary step in the process. Recognizing its value and purging effect can help the penitent weather the stormy seas he must travel. The knowledge that the sun is shining just behind the clouds can give him the strength to continue. In the same way that a woman soon forgets the agonies of childbirth in the happiness of being a mother, the baal t’shuva quickly forgets the “labor pains” of t’shuva in the great joy of his rebirth. Rabbi Kook writes:
“T’shuva does not come to embitter life, but rather to make it more pleasant. The joy of life which comes from t’shuva evolves from the waves of bitterness which the soul wrestles with in the beginning of the t’shuva process. However, this marks the higher, creative valor which knows that sweetness stems from bitterness, life from death, eternal delight from infirmity and pain” (Orot HaT’shuva, 16:6).
When you first swallow aspirin tablets, there is a small taste of bitterness in the mouth. So too, in the initial stages of t’shuva, the first explorations of one’s inner world can cause uncomfortable feelings. However, as one continues on the path of inner cleansing, one discovers a great happiness in knowing that he is doing exactly what he was created to do — to get closer to G-d.
The process is not that at first you are sad and then you are happy. Rabbi Kook teaches that you are happy from being sad. It is the bitterness itself that causes the joy. One’s suffering makes one realize that the t’shuva is sincere.
Some people are overwhelmed by the mountain of sin which seems to confront them as they begin to set their lives in order. How can they deal with so many transgressions? How can they ever make the drastic changes needed to live a holy, ethical life? Rabbi Kook reassures us that this feeling of nervousness is a very good sign. It is a sign that the person has already broken free of his previous material perspective and is ready to consider a more spiritual life.
In the same way, Rabbi Kook tell us that if you are hurting inside, that is a sign of spiritual health. It’s a sign that your inner self recognizes that it does not belong to an environment of sin. Feeling pain over the sins of the past is an important part of the t’shuva process. It goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to a life of good deeds in the future.
The pain and anxiety associated with the first thoughts of t’shuva evolve, in part, from the need to separate from former ways. Just as an operation to remove a cancerous tumor from the body is accompanied by pain, so too is t’shuva. However, the pain is a sign that a healing process is underway. An amputation hurts, but sometimes it is needed to save a person’s life. Before the operation, the patient is wary. His leg may be gangrene, but it still is his leg. What will he be like without it? Will he be the same man? How will he function?
These are all natural, legitimate, and very distressing questions. The unknown can be scary. So too, when a person has become used to a part of his psyche, even if it be some negative trait which is detrimental to his inner well-being, it is not easy to escape from its clutches. Already it has become a citizen of his soul. Breaking away from the past and being open to change is not a simple task. Great inner courage is needed. Often, it can only be done with the help of a teacher or guide. In effect, in unveiling the step-by-step process of t’shuva, Rabbi Kook is giving us a map to assist us on the way.
“The pain experienced upon the initial thought of t’shuva derives from the severance from evil dispositions which cannot be corrected while they are organically attached to the person and damaging all of his being. T’shuva uproots the evil aspects of the spirit and returns it to its original essence. Every separation causes pain, like the amputation of a diseased organ for medical purposes. However, it is through these deep inner afflictions that a person is freed from the dark bondage of his sins and base inclinations, and from all of their bitter influences” (Ibid, 8:1).
An example will help us understand the pain that is associated with loss. The lover of cheeseburgers who realizes that he has to give up his favorite food to comply with the Jewish dietary laws will feel a sense of great stress. He lives on cheeseburgers. He loves cheeseburgers. All of his free time is centered around cheeseburgers. At his early stage of t’shuva, before he has encountered the ecstasy of discovering G-d and Torah, his sense of spiritual delight is not so keenly developed that he can easily do away with the material pleasure which cheeseburger-eating provides. Thus the very thought that cheeseburgers will no longer be a part of his life causes him pain.
While the example of an amputation helps us understand the pain of separation, a distinction between amputation and t’shuva must be made. Amputation removes all of the malignant limb, whereas t’shuva removes only the cancer. The cut of t’shuva is clean. No good cells are lost. After the incision is made, and a person decides to free himself from all of the negative aspects surrounding his soul, after he makes the cut, no organ is missing. Just the opposite occurs. He has gained in the process. Cut loose from the shackles of sin, he discovers incredible new energy and strength in cleaving to G-d.
Thus, when a person approaches t’shuva, the very first stage involves saying good-bye to some of his old emotional and psychological buddies, and this naturally causes remorse.
In addition to the pain caused by fears of separation and change, when a person begins a process of honest introspection into his spiritual life, a great fear of retribution arises. Confronting the darkness of his life, he is terrified of the blinding light at the end of the tunnel. He feels naked, sullen with sin, guilty, and deserving of punishment. Frightened, he often turns away. Terrified of the ghosts that he has discovered, he slams down the lid of the chest. He continues in his old ways, unchanged. Even though his sins are hurting him inside, the familiar pain, he decides, is more comfortable than the retribution he deserves. Yet if he had only gone forward, he would have discovered that the great light which frightened him was not the fire of Hades, but rather the warming flame of G-d’s transcendental kindness, which is always waiting to embrace the returnee with the gift of His love.
In analyzing the angst associated with t’shuva, Rabbi Kook reveals that this pain does not stem from the prospect of retribution, as the person believes, but rather from the pain of the soul itself.
“The great pains which fill the psyche at the thought of t’shuva, even though it sometimes seems that they are caused by the fear of retribution, are in truth, the sufferings of the soul because it is infested with sin, a state of being which is contrary to its pure, spiritual essence. It is these sufferings themselves, however, which cleanse the soul. The person who inwardly recognizes the treasure of goodness contained in these pains, accepts them with absolute love and peace of mind. In this way, he is elevated to many new heights; the Torah he learns stays with him; and his character is perfected. The effects of his sins on his soul are not only erased, but actually transformed into harbingers of good, radiating with a spiritual splendor” (Ibid, 8:2).
Thus the fear and pain which people initially encounter when they set out on the journey of t’shuva stems from several different causes, one deeper than the next. First, there is the fear of change and with having to part with old ways. Then there is a deeper fear of G-d’s punishment. However, Rabbi Kook explains that this fear of hell is really a projection. It is not the pain of purgatory which is felt, but rather the pain of sin itself. Sin is anathema to the soul. It is not an inherent part of man’s constitution. The soul is revolted by sin. It cries out in anguish. Unable to cope with his spiritual pain, man projects his inner turmoil onto something else, something outside of his life, onto little red devils and the torments of hell. This helps him to live with himself, to cover up the teeming spider nest inside him and say, “I’m really OK. It is God and His nasty devils who have the problem.”
Delving one step deeper, Rabbi Kook explains that the pain of sin results from the disharmony it causes between the soul and the essential goodness of life and the universe. Because an individual’s soul is attached to the soul of all existence, when a person falls into the darkness of sin, his soul is cut off from the positive Divine plan for the world and it experiences the pain of exile.
“Every transgression torments the heart because it severs the unity between the individual and all of existence… The basis of the pain which he feels does not stem from the specific transgression itself, but from the deeper essence of the sin which has alienated the soul from the natural order of life, which radiates with a Divine moral light that fills all of the world with unity and higher purpose” (Ibid, 8:3).
Rabbi Kook tells us that the true underlying pain of sin does not come from, for example, feeling remorse over having stolen, but from the alienation from God which the sin causes. An individual’s sins cut him off from the symphony of Creation. While the world is progressing forward on a developmental path of elevation and perfection, his sins are taking him backward. All of society, culture, medicine, and general human endeavor are going forward, improving, becoming more moral, and he is enmeshed in sin. It’s a little like an avid Internet surfer who has the whole world at his fingertips, but who is addicted to viewing porn. It may be that the individual is unaware of this spiritual imbalance, but his soul feels rent asunder. It senses its disharmony, disunity, and disconnection from life’s ongoing yearning for justice and goodness. Severed from the inner, spiritual dimension of life, a person suffers anxiety, anguish, and loneliness, in the many forms they take, including depression, neuroses, and disease. Though he may surround himself with hundreds of people, though he occupy himself day and night with business, family, and pleasure, he is a secretly tormented soul, a revolver ready to go off.
The remedy, Rabbi Kook teaches, is t’shuva. Only t’shuva can reconnect the sinner with God. Only t’shuva can restore the harmony between a man’s soul and the world. Only t’shuva can wipe away the sins which prevent a man from being a positive contributor to life.
MEN IN BLACK
Should an individual choose a life of sin, G-d forbid, rather than a life of t’shuva, a terrible darkness envelopes his soul, and his thoughts, aspirations, and character become seeped in evil. These people are the wicked of the world who see the world in the dark colors which mirror their soul. These are the cynics who find fault in everything, the irreverent who complain against G-d.
Lacking the will to escape his dungeon of sin, cut off from the world’s future of goodness, the wicked cower behind defensive masks of scorn. They are like the sour notes of a symphony, the coughs in the theater, the laughter in the balcony, the Nietzches and Nazis of the world, who condemn the ideals which they cannot obtain. Too weak to escape the clutches of sin, they become its proponents.
The fear that accompanies the awakenings of t’shuva is what keeps people imprisoned in darkness. It is a fear that grips whole nations. Rather than acknowledge that their cultures are based on falsehood and evil, entire civilizations cling to their delusions and myths. Instead of embracing the light of G-d, the world pays mere lip service, hiding behind one brand of paganism or another.
WE CAN ALL BE RIGHTEOUS!
Existential pain is not only experienced by those far from G-d, but also by the righteous. A tzaddik who dedicates his whole life to fostering goodness, can also fall out of harmony with existence. Because his soul is so sensitive to evil, he reacts to every small transgression with grief and despair. Perhaps his intention in doing a good deed was not on the proper level. Perhaps he failed to maintain concentration throughout all of his prayers. To the extent that he fails to be pure in all of his actions, emotions, and thoughts, his soul experiences and calls out for t’shuva. He longs to be closer to G-d, to be reunited with the harmony of existence.
Rabbi Kook explains that the pain of the righteous person stems not only from his own personal shortcomings. Even if he were to be sinless, he would still feel the pain of the universal soul as it longs for a higher connection to G-d. Because of the unity of all existence, as long as the world is darkened with sin, the tzaddik suffers too. He feels the absence of Divine light in the world and the pain of the exiled Shekhina. He carries the pain of the world in his soul, and he expresses, with all of his being, all of his organs, all of his strength, the world’s longing for G-d. Because he embodies the sufferings of the world, when he is forgiven, the world is forgiven with him.
Rabbi Kook has further good news. We all can be righteous!
“Every person who deeply feels the remorse of t’shuva and the inner turmoil to redress his wrongdoings, both those which he can readily mend, and those which he hopes to address, with G-d’s help, in the future — he should include himself with the righteous whose thoughts of t’shuva renew the entire world with a new light.”
NO NEED FOR DESPAIR
Rabbi Kook’s level after level exploration into the psychology of sin does not end in despair, but in peace and salvation. Rabbi Kook explains that the despair a person feels when he confronts his sins is itself a source of hope. The fact that a person is in a state of pain and despair means that he senses his alienation from the positive forces of life. He realizes that sin is not the ideal. This means that the light of morality and holiness in his soul still flickers. In his innermost heart, he still longs for goodness. All is not lost. The important thing is not to fall prey to despair, and to remember that a great happiness is on the way.
“When an individual contemplates embarking on a course of total t’shuva, of mending all of his feelings and deeds, even if this is only a thought, he must not be discouraged by the feelings of fear which arise when he faces his many sins, which now seem so pronounced. This is only natural, for as long as a person is seized by the baser side of his nature, and by the dark, negative traits which surround him, he does not feel the weight of his sins so strongly. Occasionally, he feels nothing and fancies himself a tzaddik. But since his moral sense is awakening, the light of his soul immediately is revealed and it probes all of his being and exposes all of his wrongs. Then his heart shudders with great fear over his lowliness and lack of perfection. But it is exactly at this instant that he should feel that this awareness, and the worry it causes, are the best signs, forecasting a complete salvation through self-perfection, and he should strengthen himself through this recognition in the L-rd his G_d.”
While pain is a necessary part of the t’shuva process, a person must be very careful not to let the pain of sin turn into depression to the extent that it weakens the will for t’shuva. Otherwise, Rabbi Kook warns, depression may spread like a cancer throughout the body and soul. One must always keep in mind the purging effects of spiritual pain and remember that the light of atonement is already working to return the soul to its natural state of joy. Even the physical and psychic pains that often cause a person to be more introspective, whether it be disease, the loss of a loved one, or a setback in business, these too can be the springboards of t’shuva.
DEPRESSION — THE SOURCE OF JOY
Ironically, depression prepares the way for the joy which the baal t’shuva discovers. To understand this deep concept, we have to understand that it is the sense of G-d’s majestic perfection which causes sin to be so intolerable. When a person is aware that his sadness over his sins results from the Divine light working on his soul — this recognition brings unparalleled joy and satisfaction. He feels that G-d is with him! He senses G-d’s presence! This is the spiritual happiness which accompanies the feeling of depression in the heart of the baal t’shuva. Thus the pain and melancholy which a person experiences because of his sins is, in fact, the wonderful sign that G-d has already turned toward him to bring him healing and joy.
Rabbi Kook discusses another source of the pain of t’shuva. When the light of t’shuva embraces a person, he is enveloped by a spirit of holiness and purity. His soul fills with a passionate love of G-d, and he longs for a life of honesty and moral upliftment. However, at the same time that this “born again” feeling radiates through his being, he is still trapped in the pathways of sin, and he doesn’t know how to escape from his darkness and embark on a new way of life. This frustration causes pain. Yet, the very fact that a person experiences this anguish is itself the gateway to happiness.
“The will to be good, this, in itself, is a Divine wind from Gan Eden, which blows on the soul and fills it with infinite joy, to the extent that the hellish flames of deep anguish are transformed into rivers of delight.”
A TOTAL BAAL T’SHUVA
The appellation baal t’shuva, or master of t’shuva, suggests a person who has successfully reached the end of the process and mastered all of its facets. Rabbi Kook, however, tells us that this is not the case at all. If a person is broken and shattered with remorse because of his sins, he is a master of t’shuva already.
“If a person has such a low estimation of himself that the great bitterness in his soul, his fallen moral state, and his sins, prevent him from studying Torah and observing the commandments, from engaging in work, and interacting with people with a calm, healthy happiness, then he must believe in his heart that in feeling such depression over his sins, he is certainly, at that very moment, a total baal t’shuva. Accordingly, he has already elevated his being, and he can set his mind at rest and return to being happy and cheerful, occupying himself with goodness in a peaceful and joyous disposition, for G-d is good and just.”
One of the main aspects of t’shuva is remorse. Rabbi Kook compares remorse to a flame. On the one hand, fire destroys what it contacts, while on the other hand, it gives off light and warmth. In a similar manner, the pain of remorse purges away the sins of the past, while stirring a person to a healthier, more constructive life in the future. Just as a brushfire is used to clear a field of thorns to make way for new planting, remorse clears the slate of our lives, and prepares the foundation for new growth and new life — a life filled with goodness and Torah.
“The flame of remorse, when it appears in a sensitive soul through the torchlight of t’shuva, is a holy fire, a fire filled with light and warmth, filled with life. When it falls on a pure spirit, on a soul alive and illuminated with the light of grace and intelligence endowed with holy knowledge, then it is transformed into a vibrant and powerful force, an active force which cleanses and purifies, which increases courage and strength, forges pathways, and grants new spiritual power to all spheres of existence. It brings with it a new awakening filled with new life. The person becomes a new creation, refined and made pure, with a vision toward the heights, toward the loftiest horizons of knowledge and understanding, which, in turn, inspires a longing for t’shuva.
“Rays of light will come to him from the light of Mashiach, from the root of the Torah and all of the commandments, from all of the good deeds and all of the character traits, to illuminate his dark paths and his barren ways. And together with his own building, he will build an edifice for the world, and many will walk by his light, which at first was lit for himself — a light for one and for a multitude of people, And thou shalt be called, the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in.”
THE TRUE HEROES
Simply put, to the initiate, the pain that comes with t’shuva is scary. While many people look at the baal t’shuva as an insecure person who has run away from the challenges of life, the very opposite is true. The baal t’shuva is the man of courage. He is the true hero. He is the one prepared to set out on the greatest journey in life. He begins by saving himself and ends up by saving the world.
THE KEY TO SUCCESS
It is no secret that western society is success oriented. Everyone wants to be a success, whether it be a successful basketball player, a successful lawyer, a successful doctor, a successful housewife… the list goes on and on. Success is championed as one of life’s greatest values. Everyone loves success stories. Everyone envies successful people. From the earliest ages, children are taught to admire success. Parents push their kids to be successful. The drive to succeed is reinforced in schools. The competition is fierce to get into top colleges, because they are seen as the doors to success. Working your way up the ladder of success is the mainstay of capitalism. Accordingly, bookstores are filled with guides on how to succeed.
All of this means that the poor soul who does not succeed is a loser. In western society, if you are not a success, you are probably very unhappy. Your self-image is bound to be low. The successful people are the winners, and you are nothing more than a bum.
Rabbi Kook has good news. If you are a loser, all is not lost. You too can be a winner. You too can succeed. How? Through t’shuva.
That’s right. The key to success is t’shuva. For when life is looked at through spiritual glasses, the most important thing is neither money, nor honor, nor power, nor fame. The most important thing is being a good person. True success lies in simply striving to be good. For real achievement is measured by what is important to G-d, not by what society flaunts. In G-d’s eyes, a woman can be successful without looking like Barbie. A man can be a success without having five or six credit cards and a six-figure salary. The real man, the real success, is the man of t’shuva, the man of Torah.
THE WILL TO BE GOOD
Rabbi Kook discusses this startling idea in his writings on “ratzon.” The Hebrew word ratzon is usually translated as will, or willpower, but the word has a deep connotation which requires some further explanation.
“The will which is forged by t’shuva is the will which is imbedded in the depths of life, and not the lesser will that concerns itself with the superficial and external facets of life. This (deeper) will is the most fundamental force in the foundation of life, and this is the genuine character of the soul” (Orot HaT’shuva 9:1).
This fundamental force is the desire to get closer to G-d. This is the deepest expression of the will. For instance, the desire to eat ice cream is a relatively superficial desire, an offshoot of the desire to eat. On a deeper level, the desire to eat is an expression of the will to survive. While not every man has a desire to eat ice cream, every man does have a will to survive. This will, the will to live, is a deeper phase of ratzon, and something less dependent upon a man’s free choice. This can be seen in an old, dying person. Though racked with sufferings, he still clutches onto life with his last ounce of strength. Even if he lapses into a coma, the will to live in his soul continues to function.
On an even deeper level, buried in the will to live is man’s deepest, most basic will — the will to get close to G-d. The will to be connected to G-d finds expression in the will to do good and in the longing for goodness. Just as G-d is good, we should be good. Just as G-d is giving, we should be giving. Man is the only creature who possesses a free will. Our task is to align our will with the will of our Creator (Avot 2:4). For the Jewish people, living a life of goodness means living a life filled with Torah, which is G-d’s will for the Jews. This is our true happiness, as it says, The statutes of the L-rd are right, rejoicing the heart (Tehillim 19:9).
The Torah represents the Divine good, as expressed in a code of behavior on earth. One can readily understand that a person gets closer to G-d by doing what He ordains. When a man attaches his will to G-d’s, his will is uplifted toward a higher ideal. He doesn’t merely want to make a good living, come home, open a beer, and watch TV. His life is more idealistically oriented. He tends to think less of himself and he longs to help everyone he can.
In a similar light, sin acts as a barrier between man and his Maker. When a person defies G-d’s will, he distances himself from G-d. He falls out of harmony with existence, because all of existence is doing G-d’s will. The sun rises every day just as G-d has decreed. Rains fall, flowers grow, birds chirp, all in har mony with G-d’s will. Only man has the freedom to turn his will against G-d.
If a person’s will to do good slips off the right path, he quickly comes to transgress.11 Rabbi Kook explains that every sin weakens the will to do good. With a weakened moral desire, a man can fall into the clutches of sin completely, G-d forbid.
This severence from G-d can only be cured by t’shuva. It is through t’shuva that man recognizes the value of goodness. This recognition strengthens the will to do good. The more a person learns about the goodness of G-d, and the more he learns Torah, the more he wants to come closer to G-d. Concurrently, when he prays to come closer to G-d, his will for goodness is fortified. Standing before his Maker in prayer, he nullifies his will before G-d’s will. Attached once again to the Divine “superwill” for the world, he finds the inner resources and power to turn his evil inclination toward the good. In this manner, his sins are transformed into merits.
THE EVER-RAGING BATTLE
The constant spiritual battle between the evil inclination and the good inclination is a part of the inner fabric of life. As the book Mesillat Yesharim makes clear, all of this world is a testing ground (Ch.1). Will a man follow his will to do good, or will he be led astray after sin? The hero, the winner, is the man who clings to G-d in all of his doings. This is success. The Ramchal writes:
“The Holy One Blessed be He has put man in a place where the factors which draw him further from the Blessed One are many. These are the earthy desires which, if he is pulled after them, cause him to be drawn further from and to depart from the true good. It is seen, then, that man is veritably placed in the midst of a raging battle… If he is valorous, and victorious on all sides, he will be the “whole man,” who will succeed in uniting with his Creator, and he will leave the corridor to enter the palace, to glow in the light of life. To the extent that he has subdued his evil inclination and his desires, and withdrawn from those factors which draw him further from the good, and exerted himself to become united with it, to that extent he will attain and rejoice in the light of life.
“If you look more deeply into the matter, you will see that the world was created for man’s use. In truth, man is the center of a great balance. For if he is pulled after the world and is drawn further from his Creator, he is damaged, and he damages the world with him. And if he rules over himself and unites himself with his Creator, and uses the world only to aid him in the service of his Creator, he is uplifted and the world itself is uplifted with him” (Mesillat Yesharim, Ch.1).
A WORLD UPSIDE DOWN
Success, we see, is achieved in life when one channels his will towards goodness. What makes this simple teaching so startling? Precisely because it stands in conflict with all of modern western culture. Today, who are the “successful people”? The movie stars and rock stars, the millionaires, the famous artists, the political leaders, the sports heroes. These are society’s champions. These are the role models whom young people emulate. They are considered successful because they have successfully pursued and attained honor, power, money and fame — values which Judaism places at the negative side of the scale of character traits. Our Sages teach that we should flee from honor and pride. Our prophets tell us that it is not the powerful and egotistical who shall inherit the earth, but the humble and righteous (Tehillim 37:11). The Midrash teaches that someone who seeks fame will lose it, and that the pursuit of wealth brings misery in its wake. In other words, chances are that the faces we see in this world on the cover of People Magazine are not the faces which we are going to see in Heaven in the world to come.
Modern western culture encourages man to channel his will toward the more negative aspects of life. Society’s passions and pulls are so powerful that a person soon loses sight of what’s good, and begins to glorify and worship the bad. The push toward success is so great, everything becomes permissible in the fight to achieve it. Vice becomes an acceptable norm. The will for goodness, man’s most basic desire, is shackled in sin. Only the power of t’shuva can save it.
Rabbi Kook writes:
“The constant focus of a person’s thoughts on t’shuva builds a person’s character on a noble foundation. He constantly fills himself with a sensitive spirit, which places him on the spiritual foundation of life and existence.
“When t’shuva constantly fills the heart, it reinforces in the person the great value of a spiritual life, and reinforces in him the great foundation that a good will is everything. All of the talents in the world are merely to implement the person’s will to do good, which becomes stamped into his being through the light of constant t’shuva. A great influx of G-d’s spirit falls constantly over him, and a holy will increases in him, far surpassing the aspirations of ordinary men. He comes to recognize the positive value of true success the will for goodness, which is solely dependent on the person himself, and not on any external condition” (Orot HaT’shuva 9:1).
Thus it is t’shuva which strengthens a person’s longing for goodness. It is t’shuva which gives him the spiritual light to break free from the darkness of sin. It is t’shuva which revitalizes and restores his good will. When the spiritual world opens before him, he realizes that talents are not ends in themselves, but the means in serving G-d. One realizes that the goal is not just to be a good singer, but to sing the praises of G-d. The goal is not just to be a good writer, but to use one’s talent as a writer to bring people closer to G-d. The greatness of one’s talent is not the measure of success, but rather the direction it takes. Nor is public reknown always the yardstick. Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” lived a life of one good deed after another, but outside of Israel, he was hardly known at all. Who in G-d’s eyes do you think was a greater success, Rabbi Aryeh Levin or Frank Sinatra, who was known all over the world? The answer is obvious when we judge our lives by Jewish standards, and not by the standards of western culture.
Rabbi Kook teaches that by attaching oneself to G-d’s will for the world, he brings his life into harmony with the positive flow of existence.
“This success is the greatest happiness, greater than all other treasures. Only this success brings joy to the whole world and all of existence. For a good will which is always active in the soul transforms all of life toward goodness.”
Thus we learn that the striving to be a good person is the key to success and true happiness — to a happiness centered in G-d. A happiness which a man acquires, not only in this world, but also in the world to come, where money, and honor, and fame don’t really matter at all. As the expression goes — you can’t take it with you.
Interestingly, Rabbi Kooks says that when a person’s will is purified through t’shuva, the happiness and goodness he discovers is not limited to himself, but rather, the happiness and goodness released from the bondage of sin fills the whole world.
“T’shuva elevates a person above all of the baseness which exists in the world, but it does not estrange him from the world. To the contrary, he elevates the world and life with him. The forces which caused him to sin are purified in him. The pow_ erful will which pierces all boundaries and caused him to sin is transformed into a positive force that brings great good and blessing. The nobility of life, stemming from the yearning for the realm of the holy, surrounds the heroes of t’shuva. They are the elite of existence, who call out for its perfection, for the victory over obstacles, for the return to true goodness and joy. They call out for the return to the exalted heights of true freedom, which befit a person who rises heavenward in accordance with his spiritual source and his foundation in G-d’s image” (Orot HaT’shuva 12:1).
T’SHUVA AND TORAH
We will learn in subsequent chapters that the national t’shuva of the Jewish people is inspired by the nation’s return to the Land of Israel, and to our national spiritual treasure, the Torah. In this chapter, we shall focus, not on the comprehensive t’shuva of the nation, but rather on the symbiotic relationship between an individual’s t’shuva and Torah.
YOU CAN’T HAVE ONE WITHOUT THE OTHER
First, we must understand that Torah is not external, factual knowledge like the knowledge of science, mathematics, or lin_ guistics. Torah is an inwardly-directed knowledge which has the power to influence and change a person, to refine a person’s sensitivities and to connect him to the holy, spiritual foundations of life. The study of Torah is not a quantitative amassing of information and theories like other knowledges. It is a qualitative experience demanding both moral and intellectual involvement, and a desire to make Torah ideals an essential part of one’s character. When a person learns Torah and discovers the exalted harmony and goodness of Creation, his will is affected, stimulating yearnings for G-d. Because his will for goodness is enhanced, his desire for t’shuva is strengthened as well (Oreot HaTorah, 6:1, by Rabbi Kook).
The Talmud teaches that G-d created the evil inclination and the Torah as its cure (Kiddushin 30B). Rabbi Kook explains this as meaning that the will cannot be perfected except through the purifying influence of the Torah. The Torah strengthens the will and directs it towards holiness.
The more an individual learns Torah, especially the deeper wisdom of Torah, the more knowledgeable he becomes about his true spiritual nature and about the nature of his will. He comes to recognize that the entire world is Divinely inspired to attain a purer connection to G-d. This higher contemplation brings him to a higher level of t’shuva.
“True, complete t’shuva demands lofty horizons of perception, in order to be raised to the resplendent world which abounds in holiness and truth. This can only be done by being immersed in the secrets of life found in Divine wisdom and the depths of the Torah. This necessitates physical cleansing and the purification of one’s traits as aids, so that the clouds of lust will not darken the intellect’s clarity. But the study of Torah must precede everything else, especially the study of the higher, supernal Torah, for it alone can shatter all of the iron barriers which separate the individual and the community from G-d” Orot HaT’shuva 10:1).
T’shuva and Torah go hand-in-hand. Like bees and honey, you can’t have one without the other. The more a person studies Torah, the more inspired he is to do t’shuva. Similarly, to the extent that a person purifies himself through t’shuva, his study of Torah is blessed and made more clear (Orot HaTorah 6:5).
A person who is satisfied with a routine performance of the Torah’s commandments can get by with a minimum of t’shuva, but to enter into the deep, secret wellsprings of Torah, a person must be pure of all unholy influences. To reach this state of cleanliness, a great deal of t’shuva is required. The depth of a person’s t’shuva enables him to understand greater degrees of Torah, for the ability to understand Torah does not solely depend on one’s intellectual skills in clinically analyzing a passage of Talmud — the essence of Torah is when the person has internalized its profound moral concepts into his being, so much so that he yearns for them with all of his might. Only when a person has reached this level, when his will is so refined that it longs only for goodness, can he properly understand the deep secrets of Torah. For this reason, people who profess to learn Kaballah without doing t’shuva are not really learning at all. They study the formulas of mysticism, but the import of the teachings does not enter their hearts, for G-d only unravels the secrets of Torah to one who has prepared his soul to receive them.
“It is obvious that it is impossible to learn the secrets of Torah without t’shuva. For in these great matters, the will and the intellect are united. When one understands these subjects with a mighty will for the good, one yearns for them and devises many general and specific strategies to obtain them. However, when sins form a barrier, the will is damaged, and since one cannot rise to the highest, innermost level of the will… wisdom cannot grow in him, and the channels of understanding the secrets of Torah are blocked (Orot HaT’shuva 10:8).
Simply put, if you want to understand the inner workings of existence, you have to clean up your act. Just like you cannot purify yourself in a ritual bath while holding on to a dead mouse, you cannot learn the secrets of Torah while you are living in sin.
Recently, the media has reported a boom in the learning of Kaballah. Movie stars in Hollywood, stockbrokers on Wall Street, and students in college are flocking to Kaballah clubs. While the efficacy of this learning is questionable so long as the would-be mystics remain ensconced in their usual lifestyles, the reason behind their spiritual searching is important to note:
“Therefore, in the last generations, in which the darkness of lust has so greatly increased, and the strength of the body has weakened, until it is impossible to stand firm against the material onslaught, it is imperative to illuminate the darkness with the mystical secrets of Torah, which know no boundaries, and which elevate (seekers) on wings of lofty freedom to the highest ascents, and which spread the transcendental joy of the beauty of holiness to depressed and spiritually darkened souls” (Rabbi Kook’s “Orot HaKodesh,” Part 1, Pg. 92. Mosad HaRav Kook Publishers).
THE SECRET OF THE SECRETS
When speaking about the secrets of Torah, Rabbi Kook is not suggesting that everyone learn the Kaballistic formulas found in layman’s books on Kaballah. He is not talking about learning the mystical meanings of the sefirot, the divine emanations, nor about yichudim, and the like. While all of these matters are required learning for those special Torah scholars who have reached states of extraordinary purity, we normal people are to focus on how these formulas appear in the world, in the life of the individual, and in the life of the nation of Israel as it rises out of exile to Redemption. In effect, Rabbi Kook’s writings illuminate the deeper understandings of the Torah as they are manifesting themselves today, without employing the technical language of the Kaballah, with all of its metaphors and abstractions.
JOE THE STOCKBROKER
We have mentioned that a person who desires to learn Torah without the willingness to abandon a life of sin will not benefit by the Torah’s healing power. In the light of Rabbi Kook’s teachings, let’s follow a young stockbroker, Joe, to a class in Jewish mysticism, and see what is taking place in his soul.
First of all, though Joe might have been a top student at Princeton, his intellectual faculty has been distorted by sin. He may be a whiz in math, but his moral intelligence is dull. Because of the essential unity of existence, his spiritual darkness also darkens the light of the mind. On the most basic level, he does not know the difference between right and wrong. Sure, he knows that murder is evil, but other sins, including serious transgressions like stealing and adultery, do not seem so bad. In many instances, moral wrongdoings do not seem like sins at all (Orot HaT’shuva 10:5).
Rabbi Kook explains that the dulling of Joe’s intelligence is due, not only to his own sins, but to the polluted and errant values of the society to which he belongs. These distorted mores are caused by the general sins of the community. Though the word of G-d is always present, in Torah, in religion, in tradition, and in the exquisite orderings of heaven and earth, the immoral norms of society act as a barrier, blocking the Heavenly light. Because Joe has become detached from Divine ideals as a result of his sins and the sins of society, he has become prey to the darker forces of life and to his weaker self. He lacks the moral fortitude to hold himself back from sin. It is only through the purification of t’shuva that his will for goodness can be strengthened and his clarity of thought restored.
When Joe attends a class in Torah and confronts its sparkling light, if he is a true seeker who truly desires a higher enlightenment, he will sense his inner darkness and reach out for the deliverance that only t’shuva can bring. Though there be wrongdoings which he cannot address at the moment, whether through spiritual weakness or practical impediments, the Torah that he continues to learn will bring clarity to his thinking and fortify his will, providing him with the moral resolve which he lacks.
As he elevates himself to a higher perception of life, his sins will rise up before him to hold back his t’shuva. For instance, if he committed adultery with a married woman, he may ask himself how can he ever confess his wrongdoing and face up to his wife, and to the betrayed husband. If he fails to redress this transgression, it will stand in his way like a wall, blocking out the spiritual light for which he longs. To the extent that he puts his t’shuva into action, his thoughts will be straightened, his perceptions blessed, and his life will be filled with joy.
If Joe has read Rabbi Kook writings on t’shuva, he has a sign letting him know if his path of t’shuva is on the right track. If he feels a joy in the learning of Torah, if he is able to clearly grasp its deep, mystical concepts, then his t’shuva is real. With each sin that is corrected, additional vistas of learning open before him. The most supreme enlightenment comes when he realizes in all of his being that cleaving to G-d is the greatest joy in life (Orot HaT’shuva 10:4) Reaching this level, he will experience a profound humbleness, for, “How can any person feel an egotistical pride when he stands before the Source of all perfection, before the infinite light that transcends all blessings and praises?” (Ibid).
When Joe, the stockbroker, realizes that t’shuva makes the world go round, and not the New York Stock Exchange, he has truly become a baal t’shuva.
PRAYER FROM THE HEART
It is impossible to speak about the relationship between t’shuva and Torah without mentioning the vital importance of prayer. Often, in the light of the Torah, when confronted by one’s wrongdoings and moral impurity, one longs for a farreaching t’shuva which is clearly beyond one’s immediate grasp. At times, this great leap forward cannot be actualized until it is accompanied by heartfelt prayer. It is prayer which opens the stream of Divine assistance which is needed to overcome weakness and fear, hurdle over chasms of darkness, and redress every transgression of the past, so that ever-new perceptions can be grasped. King David was a master of t’shuva and a master of prayer. To this day, his Psalms are our ladders to G-d.
To summarize, the more you learn Torah, the more t’shuva you will be inspired to do — and the more t’shuva you do, the more Torah you are able to learn.
BARRIERS TO T’SHUVA
After analyzing the many different facets of t’shuva, Rabbi Kook explains what happens to a person who sets out on a path of return. The first thing we should know is that there are many barriers to t’shuva. To begin with, when someone is not accustomed to sounds of holiness, his ears are blocked to t’shuva’s constant call.
Life’s inner moral demand calls out to man, “Turn back from your sins!” (Orot HaT’shuva 13:8). Sometimes this inner moral compunction begins as a soft echo barely audible in the conscience. Was it a voice? Did I hear someone calling? Little by little, it gains in volume and insistency until it thunders, SON OF MAN, RE TURN FROM YOUR EVIL WAYS!
Occasionally this voice calls out so loudly, it rings in a person’s ear wherever he goes. It won’t give him rest. “RETURN!” it calls out in the discoteque. “RETURN!” it calls out at the beach.
“Leave me alone!” the hounded soul cries out. No longer can he pretend not to listen. No longer can he remain in the chains of crass material existence with all of its vices and pulls.
At this point, Rabbi Kook says, a person must rise to a higher spiritual level in order to find inner peace. He must summon inner courage to face this spiritual crisis. Sometimes, however, the moral demands of t’shuva seem so great, a person despairs of ever being able to escape the clutches of sin. His transgressions, like thorns, pin him down on every side. Outside forces seem to control him. He sees no possible way of making amends.
Once again, Rabbi Kook offers hope by telling us that it is precisely from this point of despair that G-d’s mercy will shine (ibid). A broken and contrite heart, O G-d, Thou will not despise (Tehillim 51:19).
WHERE THERE IS A WILL, THERE IS A WAY
Sometimes when a person has a passionate desire to do t’shuva, he longs to perfect everything all at once. Discovering a world of greater morality, he immediately wants to actualize it in life. A sudden spiritual illumination has raised him out of his darkness, and he wants all of his actions, thoughts, and character traits to be immediately on the same holy level. With all that needs to be corrected, he does not know where to begin. It is easier to contemplate a state of absolute morality than to achieve it in everyday life. The more t’shuva he does, the more he feels the gap between where he is and where he should be. Without a firm foundation in the realm of the holy, he can easily grow discouraged and lose his resolve to become a more moral person. As a result, people who begin learning about Judaism, and about their inner spiritual world, often put on the brakes in fear of experiencing further letdown in not being able to reach their ideals.
“If a person wants all of his inner sensitivities and powers to be instantly renewed in line with the spiritual elevation which he has discovered, and expects all of his immoral ways to be immediately straightened and perfected — he will lack inner stability, and he will not be able to fortify his will to follow the path to true perfection” (Orot HaT’shuva 13:6; 13:10).
The solution, Rabbi Kook says, is to do t’shuva in stages. First of all, one should console oneself with the knowledge that the very thought of t’shuva, the very desire to perfect the wrongs of one’s life, is t’shuva itself. This very understanding brings great inner correction in its wake. With this recognition, a person can feel more relaxed, feeling certain that the t’shuva process is already underway.
Next, a person must intensify the illumination of holiness within him. This is to be found in the study of Torah. As we have learned, the study of Torah strengthens the will to do t’shuva and refines character traits and modes of behavior.
After the will for t’shuva has been firmly established, the person is ready for the details of t’shuva. This stage has two aspects: t’shuva over behavior in the future, and t’shuva over transgressions in the past. Once again, the Torah provides the guidance and light. The Torah translates the ideal moral standards which the person has discovered into the details of day-to-day living.
FOCUS ON THE FUTURE
“The foundation of t’shuva should always be established on the goal of improving the future. In the beginning of the t’shuva process, correcting the past should not be seen as an impeding prerequisite. If a person would immediately start by redressing the past, he would encounter many obstacles, and the paths of t’shuva, and the coming closer to G-d, would seem to be too difficult. However, if a person truly endeavors to refine his future deeds, Divine assistance is promised, even in correcting transgressions of the past” (Orot HaT’shuva 13:9b).
Since it is easier to commit oneself to a more positive life in the future, this is the place to start. For instance, a person decides that from now on he will not say anything bad about people. This future-oriented t’shuva is easier to pinpoint and work on. Someone can even make a list of goals and refer to it every day to help him keep on his course. This way, consistent progress will be made and feelings of frustration will become less and less acute.
It is much harder to figure out how you are going to mend wrongdoings which you have done in the past. First of all, a person may not remember all of his sins. For example, it is hard to remember all of the bad things one might have said about people. It is even harder to remember to whom they were said. How can a person find everyone in order to make amends? A situation like this can cause a person to give up in despair.
Rabbi Kook’s advice is to set out correcting the transgressions of the past which are within the person’s reach to correct. This will set into motion a snowball of t’shuva whose inner force will lead him to correct matters more and more difficult, until he succeeds in redressing all wrongs.
In summary, stage one is the consolation in knowing that the thought of t’shuva is already t’shuva. Stage two is developing a firmer base in the Torah. Stage three is the resolve not to sin in the future. Stage four, the resolve to gradually address the wrongs of the past, beginning with the matters that are easiest to mend.
NITTY GRITTY T’SHUVA
Ironically, the commandments of the Torah, the very pathways to freedom, are often seen as barriers to t’shuva. People who are seeking horizons of ideal justice and universal peace can feel constricted by the Torah’s demands. They feel frustrated by the nitty-gritty details of the law. They erroneously believe that t’shuva is a retreat from the world, a journey toward spiritual isolation and pure contemplation, away from the complex moral dilemmas of everyday life. These people maintain that since the world is corrupt, and since they yearn to be moral, they will avoid all contact with worldly matters. Thus, the commandments of the Torah, with their focus on perfecting practical life, are seen as barriers to their goals.
We have mentioned that a strategy of worldly separation may be a helpful early phase of t’shuva, but it is not the end of the journey. In fact it ends in spiritual limbo, leaving a person isolated on a mountaintop, neither in heaven, nor down on earth. Rabbi Kook writes that there is a far superior strategy. This is the study of the Hoshen Mishpat, the civil laws which govern man’s dealings with his fellow man, laws involving money, property, contracts and the like. A Jew should become versed in all of its details in order to know precisely the principles of Divine justice on earth. For instance, Rabbi Kook writes:
“It is especially important to do t’shuva regarding transgressions against other people, especially regarding theft, which hinders the elevation of the will. A person must be stringent in this and trust in G-d’s assistance to attain the state of purity where he will reject anything associated with unjust gain and oppression” (Orot HaT’shuva 8:14).
Learning the laws of the Hoshen Mishpat will guard a person from uncertainty and error, and offer clear guidelines in the day-to-day dealings of life. In addition to this study, and to the regular study of the Torah’s many branches, Rabbi Kook teaches that special attention must be given to heightening moral sensitivities, and to the contemplation of exalted spiritual concepts, so that the soul will long for Divine justice in every aspect of life. This will bring the light of t’shuva to all facets of social interaction.14 In this manner, a person not only betters himself, he also improves the world.
Thus, it is not the Torah which is a barrier to t’shuva, but rather the false ideas which people have about spirituality. Spirituality is not something intended for monasteries and isolated mountain peaks, but for everyday life in society, in the supermarket, in the bank, in the courtroom, and in the house. The t’shuva ideal is not to turn into a monk. One isn’t to say, because I am influenced by people, I will avoid them; because I am influenced by food, I will not eat; because I am influenced by women, I will be celibate (Rambam, Laws of T’shuva 3:11). One isn’t to reject life, but to uplift it. Our task is to hallow even the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day existence. It is easy to turn one’s back on life, to walk out the door, to stick out your tongue at your past and say, “Goodbye world, I’m headed off for the mountains!” The higher t’shuva is down-to-earth t’shuva; deed by deed, person by person, food by food. T’shuva comes to sanctify life, not to abandon it to despair.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Even if a person feels that transgressions from his past are blocking his will to repent, Rabbi Kook says the show must go on — t’shuva must go forward (Orot HaT’shuva 13:5) T’shuva must never stop. T’shuva has no end. Life must be filled with t’shuva.
Occasionally, the thought of mending each and every sin is just too overwhelming for a person to deal with. Who has the energy? Who has the strength? Who can muster the humility it takes to apologize to everyone he has slighted? The magnitude of the endeavor before him can even lead a person to say, why bother, t’shuva won’t help.
Let no weakness stand in the way. T’shuva must continue. It must overcome all obstacles. Even if there are matters which seem impossible to correct, let a man always find joy in every bit of t’shuva that comes to his grasp. The merit of fixing the things that he can will stand by him, helping him to overcome more difficult barriers. Finally, Rabbi Kook assures us, with G-d’s help, he will be able to mend all that needs to be mended (Orot HaT’shuva 13:9; 9a).
BARRIERS OF SIN
Millions of people all over the world are searching for a deeper understanding and connection to G-d. What makes finding Him so difficult? Why is it so hard to fathom the depths of Divinity? Rabbi Kook explains that the difficulties are due to people’s sins and unrefined traits, which weaken a person’s will for perfection and goodness.
“In order to remove every barrier between the general Divine good and the individual who yearns for it, it is necessary to separate oneself from every moral blemish, in the widest sense, including the cleansing of all of one’s character traits and the purifying of intellectual endeavors, for it is through these that G-d’s light appears in the world….” (Orot HaT’shuva 13:2).
Bad character attributes, whether they be jealousy, anger, cynicism, pride, stinginess, laziness, and the like, together with whatever sins a person might have, all block his connection to G-d. They darken the intellect with spiritual pollution, and clog the channels of holiness which connect this world with the Divine. If a person feels that a closeness to G-d is eluding him, though he try and try to please Him, self-introspection is needed to discover what negative traits and sins are preventing further progress.
In the initial phase of t’shuva, we focus our microscopes on our general behavior, without turning up the light. We have to deal with the glaring wrongdoings first, before we can begin to see which fine tunings are still in need of adjustment. Then, as we become more sensitive to the holy and spiritual, we have to do t’shuva on our original t’shuva. The more we purify ourselves, the clearer our moral and spiritual vision becomes, and we discover that there is still plenty more t’shuva to do.
TAMING THE BEAST
Sometimes, in a person’s longing to cleanse himself completely, he may decide that since his sins stem from his material yearnings, he will wage war on his physical life and become an ascetic who barely eats. This person’s intentions are certainly praiseworthy. His passionate desire for inspiration and connection to G-d is noble, but in letting his longings push him to starve his body, he is in fact sinning against himself (Nazir 3A).
Precisely because t’shuva is the most exciting sensation in the world, a person must be careful to control the great powers it unleashes. The turned-on t’shuva “junkie” who wakes up in the morning looking to shoot holiness into his veins is faced with a problem. He wants too much, too fast. If in his frustration, he blames his body and its lusts, he can start to wage war on himself. He tries to uproot all of his feelings and passions, including healthy drives like eating and sleeping. But the body resists. It still wants to eat, to sleep, to have normal, marital relations. As long as a person continues to breathe, the monster called the body will not go away.
When this aggressive strategy fails, the person can fall into despair. His longing to fly straight up to heaven has been thwarted. Instead of feeling rejected, however, he should realize that the body and soul need to rise up the spiritual ladder together. Patience is needed. With all of his spiritual and physical baggage, he sets out on the trip. Little by little, he will prod the beast, poke here and there, steering it, training it, making it obey his commands.
A person comes to learn that as sensual and materialistic as one’s body can be, it also has rights. Just as it is forbidden to hurt another person, it is forbidden to hurt oneself (Rambam, Laws of Damages 5:1). Just as one has to be kind to others, one has to be kind to oneself (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3). A baal t’shuva who accepts upon himself extra stringencies has to take counsel with himself to know when the border has been crossed.
For instance, a person may feel that fasting can help him weaken his material lusts. Not wanting to exhaust himself completely, he may decide that instead of fasting a whole day, it is healthier to fast during the day, but to eat at night. In this manner, a person may learn to rule over his lusts without draining his body and willpower completely. If this regimen also proves too punishing, then the person must have compassion on himself and try to find another strategy to cleanse himself of his lusts (Orot HaT’shuva 13:7).
G-D TO THE RESCUE
The main thing is not to despair. As long as a person’s will remains firm, G-d will help him on his way. He must come to recognize that the ultimate solution to his problems does not rest with himself, for a person by himself cannot correct all of his failings. He has to know that in the end, the charity of G-d, His mercy and lofty salvation will rescue him from his darkness. G-d will answer his yearnings and bring him to the higher deliverance for which he so longs.25
THE ART OF T’SHUVA
Rabbi Kook adds one final point which is important to stress. Many people reject the idea of t’shuva because they believe that they will have to give up their personalities, talents, and uniqueness in order to conform to a rigid religious standard. Rabbi Kook says that just the opposite is needed. The baal t’shuva must follow his own special path, not someone else’s. Without fear, he must expand his unique intellectual and imaginative talents in the freedom of his soul, in line with his own individuality. T’shuva does not restrict life — it enhances it. The musician need not give up his music; the writer need not abandon his pen; the singer need not refrain from singing; the businessman need not give up his business. The opposite is true. The baal t’shuva must use his talents, without hesitation or fear, in serving G-d, in declaring His praises, in bringing the joy and knowledge of G-d to the world. Then his t’shuva will be complete. Not only in mending his deeds and improving his ways, but by sanctifying his unique individuality and talents to G-d, he helps bring the whole world to completion.
ISRAEL AND THE WORLD
FIRST IN T’SHUVA
We have learned that the force of t’shuva is perpetually at work, propelling all of life toward perfection. While the enlightenment of mankind is a gradually developing process, the day is soon coming when the wonder of t’shuva will capture all imaginations and hearts.
In this saga of universal redemption, where do the Jewish people fit in? What role do they play? Just as one might expect, Am Yisrael is to be the leader, blazing the trail for all other peoples to follow.
“The Jewish people, because of their enhanced spiritual nature, will be the first nation in the world to do t’shuva. The special spirit of t’shuva will initially be revealed in this portion of humanity. Israel is propelled from within to be united with G-d’s light in the world, which is free of transgression and wrongdoing. Every falling away (from its connection to G-d) blemishes the wholeness of its inner perfection, yet in the end, its powerful life-force will triumph over the deviation, and it will return to complete health. This complete health will start to invigorate (the nation) with great strength and the light of t’shuva will shine within her first. Afterward, Israel will be the special channel to spread life’s inner yearning for t’shuva to all of the world, to lighten the world’s darkness and elevate its stature” (Orot HaT’shuva 5:8). Orot HaTechiya 72).
As we mentioned, Israel’s enhanced spiritual nature lies in its unique holiness and connection to G-d.
“For thou art a holy people to the L-rd thy G-d; the L-rd thy G-d has chosen thee to be a special people to Himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth” (Devarim 7:6).
The nation of Israel has an exalted inner content which radiates G-d’s blessing to the world (HaKuzari 2:36. Orot pg. 138). This segula, or unique Divine connection, encompasses all of the Jewish people. It is our national soul. Blemishes caused by sin are always external to the soul of the nation, leaving no permanent scar (Maharal, Nezach Yisrael Ch.11. Orot pg. 36).
Israel’s deep, inner yearning to be connected to G-d, tri_ umphs in the end, banishing all darkness. We are not speaking about a spiritual awakening of scattered individuals. THE WHOLE NATION RETURNS TO HASHEM. True to the prophecy of Moses, the whole nation will return to live by the Torah (Devarim 30:8). Politicians and soldiers, artists and farmers, teachers and judges will have one common purpose — to sanctify life’s every endeavor. Israel will return to being itself — A kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Shemot 19:6).
The revelation of Israel’s holiness will bring more light to the world than the sun (Isaiah 24:23). Mankind will be blinded and stunned. All people will proclaim:
“Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is so great that has G-d so near to them… and what nation is so great that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all of this Torah?” (Devarim 4:6-8).
This awakened, holy nation will demand a new life order, the correction of all wrong, the uprooting of all evil, rescue for the downtrodden, equality for all people, food for all children, salvation from a life of paganism and sin.
Inspired by the holy nation of Israel, mankind will abandon its vain and misguided paths, and a mighty spirit of t’shuva will be ignited throughout the world. Nations will flock to Israel to learn the ways of the Jews.
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the L-rd’s House shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all the nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the L-rd, to the House of the G-d of Yaacov; and He will teach us His ways, and we will walk in His paths, for out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the L-rd from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2-4).
AN END TO WORLD DARKNESS
An example of Israel’s future influence on the nations will help make this utopian scenario more clear. Rabbi Kook writes that t’shuva is ever-present in the inner fabric of existence because it was brought into being before the creation of the world. Before sin had occurred, a remedy for it had already been prepared (Orot HaT’shuva 6:2).
This understanding is in dramatic contrast to Christianity’s doctrine of original sin. From a Christian point of view, man, by definition, is a sinner. He is damned from birth, born into purgatory, and can only be saved in the life to come. This teaching dooms mankind from the start and lays the foundation for the moral decadence and corruption rampant throughout the Christian world. Just as a gloom and darkness fills Christianity’s famous cathedrals and Notre Dames, the doctrine of original sin has hung a suffocating cloud of guilt and repression over human existence (See the book “War and Peace” by Rabbi David Samson and Tzvi Fishman, Ch.5)
In contrast, Judaism teaches that original sin is not original. T’shuva came first. Before sin appeared in the world, a remedy had already been prepared. This means that a man is born, not into a prison of sin, but into a condition of t’shuva, into a world of hope, of improvement, and progress. Man is not doomed to despair. Should he fall, t’shuva is there to raise him and to restore his connection to G-d.
This is one of the lights that Israel will bring to the nations. The light of t’shuva. The example of Israel will offer hope for the world, salvation from Christian doctrines of purgatory, and a truly, purifying, living connection to G-d here on earth.
We have learned that the t’shuva of the Jewish people is certain. Furthermore, it is the t’shuva of Israel which will lead the world to universal perfection. But how will this great t’shuva come about? What causes the scattered, exiled Jewish nation to return to the glorious days of our past? Rabbi Kook cites two interrelated paths: first, the nation’s return to the Land of Israel, and secondly, our mass return to Torah.
We have learned that t’shuva encompasses far more than personal repentance. Its ever-streaming waves effect the world in its entirety, lifting it toward perfection. Furthermore, we have learned that it is the nation of Israel who will lead the world to redemption, marching in front of the parade of nations with its shofars blaring away.
This is all well and good. But what will bring the Jewish people to t’shuva? What will awaken the Divine voice in its soul? What causes the scattered, exiled Jewish nation to return, as we beseech G-d in our prayers, to the glorious days of our past? (Lamentations 5:21.)
Rabbi Kook writes that the rebirth of the Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael is the foundation for the ultimate t’shuva, both for the nation of Israel, and for the whole world. (Orot HaT’shuva 17:1].
THE HOLY LAND
To understand this concept fully, one must understand the incomparable holiness of Eretz Yisrael and its importance to the nation of Israel. While it is beyond the scope of this book to explore this subject in depth (See the book “Lights on Orot, Eretz Yisrael” by Rabbi David Samson and Tzvi Fishman. Also, “Torat Eretz Yisrael,” Ch. 3-15). we will mention a few of the things which point to the unique connection between the Jewish people and their Land.
The Jewish people possess true national vitality only in the Land of Israel (Isaiah 42:5). Outside of the Land, Jews can excel as individuals in all fields of endeavor; there can be great Torah scholars, but the light of G-d cannot appear in a national format. Only in the Land of Israel can the Jews be a KINGDOM of priests and a holy NATION Shemot 19:6). The Zohar emphasizes that the Jews can be a nation only in Israel, and not outside of it (Zohar, Vayikra 93B). Prophecies of redemption all involve the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the Land(Ezekiel 37:21-22). The Jewish people’s unique prophetic talent is dependent on being in the Land of Israel(Moed Katan 25A. Kuzari 1:95, 2:8-24) The Temple can only be rebuilt on Har HaBayit, and the full revelation of G-d’s Presence is exclusive to Eretz Yisrael, as the prophet teaches, “For Torah will go forth from Zion, and the word of the L-rd from Jerusalem” Isaiah 2:3).
In a letter, Rabbi Kook writes:
“The source of the moral baseness which continues to darken the world stems from the lack of recognition regarding the value and wisdom of the Land of Israel. Thus the sin of the Spies (BaMidbar 13:1-25; Devarim 1:21-39) who spoke derogatorily about the pleasant Land, remains uncorrected. To rectify this, the Land’s praise, splendor, holiness, and honor must be declared to all of the world”(Letters, Vol 1, pgs 112-113).
While Rabbi Kook emphasizes that the t’shuva of the Jewish People and a return to the Torah go hand-in-hand (“Lights on T’shuva,” Ch. 18) he indicates that a preliminary stage of national revival will bring this spiritual awakening to pass. First, the Jewish People must return to Zion to rebuild their homeland. Once the physical body that houses the nation is built, then the revitalized Jewish soul will yearn for spiritual completion as well, and our people will gradually flock back to the Torah.
We shall try to explain this in a simple manner. We have mentioned that the concept of t’shuva means to return. Suppose a man is expelled from his house by thieves. The wrongdoing will only be corrected when the owner returns to repossess his house.
For the world to reach perfection, G-d decreed that the Jewish People must live a life of Torah in Israel. G-d’s first commandment to Abraham is to go to the Land of Israel in order to serve G-d in the most complete way (Bereshit 12:1; Kuzari 2:14). Afterwards G-d commands Moshe to bring the Jews out from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael. Over and over in the Book of Devarim, the Torah repeats that the Jewish people are to live their unique Torah life in Israel. When the holy Jewish Nation lives a holy life of Torah in the Holy Land, the vessel is formed to bring the light of G-d to the world. The Nation of Israel becomes an international beacon, an example and light to all of the nations in the world (Isaiah 42:6).
At the time of the Second Temple, when we failed to uphold the high moral standard demanded of us by the Torah, we were punished and exiled from the Land. G-d’s worldly vessel was shattered. Israel was conquered, Jerusalem was razed, the Land was laid waste. G-d’s chosen people were scattered and debased. Like the Jews, G-d’s Presence went into exile (Megilla 29A). His light in the world became hidden. In effect, mankind was cut off from G-d. Thus to rectify this tragedy and return the world to G-d, the Jewish people must return to their previous stature, including a national life in Israel, the only place in the world where the Torah can be observed in all of its wholeness because of the many commandments unique to the Land (Sifre, Ekev 11:18; See Rashi, Devarim 11:18. Ramban, Vayikra 18:25).
On a deeper level, the Zohar teaches that the nation of Israel, Torah, and G-d are one (Zohar, Vayikra 73A). Each Jew has a bit of the Shekhinah, or the Presence of G-d, within him. When a Jew returns to the Land of Israel, he is, in effect, bringing G-d back with him (Rashi, Devarim 30:3). This is the Kabbalistic concept of “raising up the buried sparks of holiness from the klipot” (Musar Avika, “Midot HaRiyah” by Rabbo Kook, pgs 120-122. “Innerspace,” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, pg. 82). Since the soul of a Jew is infused with the light of the Shekhinah, when the Jewish people return en-masse to Israel, the light of G-d in the world returns with them.
A visual illustration will help us envision what Rabbi Kook is seeing when he looks at the awakened Zionist movement. It is a global vision, spanning all human history. To raise ourselves to a more encompassing perspective, imagine being in a satellite orbiting the earth. Down below, scattered all over the globe, are tiny, little lights. These lights are the Jews, scattered all over the world. Slowly, lights begin to travel to a certain point on the globe — the Land of Israel. More and more lights begin to congregate there. From all over the world, the scattered lights start to unite in Israel. Lights that do not make the journey begin to flicker and disappear. Soon, a great beacon of light is formed in Israel, sending out rays of light to all of the world. These rays are the lights of t’shuva, summoning mankind back to G-d.
ZIONISM AND NATIONAL T’SHUVA
Rabbi Kook teaches that even in the return of the non-religious Zionists to Israel there is a profound holy core. The inner source of their desire to return is the Divine Ideal itself. With time, it will surely be awakened. This great transformation may take fifty years. It may take one hundred. We need to remember that after nearly two-thousand years in exile, a few generations is like the blink of an eye. The important thing to know is that the t’shuva of the nation is sure to come (Rambam, Laws of T’shuva 17:2).
“The awakened yearning of the Jewish People as a whole to return to their Land, to their roots, to their spirit and way of life — truthfully, there is the light of t’shuva in this” (Orot HaT’shuva 17:2).
The book of Ezekiel includes an overview of Jewish history which traces Israel’s exile among the gentile nations, and her ultimate return to the Land of Israel and Torah. Only after the nation’s physical revival in Israel do the Jewish people undergo the period of spiritual cleansing which leads them back to Torah:
“For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all countries, and I will bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle pure water upon you, and you shall be clean; from all of your uncleanlinesses, and from all of your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart will I also give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit in you, and cause you to follow My statutes, and you shall keep My judgments and do them. And you shall dwell in the Land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be My people, and I shall be your G-d” (Ezekiel 36:24-28).
The return to our true national identity, and the spiritual revolution which follows, encompasses all aspects of Jewish life. This great return, while still in its nascent stages, is something we have witnessed in our century. First, out of the graveyards of exile, came a new hope and zest for life, as if our scattered, dry bones were rising to rebirth. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the Jewish Nation was reborn in Israel. The Hebrew language was restored. After two-thousand years of wandering, the Jews returned to being an independent nation in their own Land. An incredible, new awakening of Jewish valor and physical prowess, epitomized by the Israel Defense Forces, startled the world. The ingathering of exiles from the four corners of the earth led to the building of a dynamic, progressive society. Yeshivas were opened all over the country. Today, Israel is unquestionably the Torah center of the world. All of these things are aspects of t’shuva, of a nation returning to its roots. As Rabbi Kook writes:
“Without question, the light of Mashiach and the salvation of Israel, the rebirth of the nation and the Land, the revival of its language and literature — all stem from the source of t’shuva, and out of the depths to the heights of the highest t’shuva, everything will be brought” (Orot HaT’shuva 4:11).
The return of a scattered people to its Land is no simple matter. Because of the magnitude of the undertaking, there are numerous problems. Nonetheless, Rabbi Kook assures us that our inner longing for G-d will overcome all of the barriers. Even the brazen secularism, which seems so contrary to the Nation’s holiest goals, will become a powerful vessel bursting with Torah. He writes:
“Out of the profane, holiness will also come forth, and out of wanton freedom, the beloved yoke (of Torah) will blossom. Golden chains will be woven and arise out of secular poetry, and a brilliant light of t’shuva will shine from secular literature. This will be the supreme wonder of the vision of redemption. Let the bud sprout, let the flower blossom, let the fruit ripen, and the whole world will know that the Spirit of G-d is speaking within the Nation of Israel in its every expression. All of this will climax in a t’shuva which will bring healing and redemption to the world” (Orot HaT’shuva 17:3).
FIRST THE BODY THEN THE SPIRIT
Indeed, the revival of the Jewish people in Israel is a wonder that is impossible to explain in any mundane fashion. Clearly, there are powerful inner forces at work as we return to our homeland and slowly turn away from alien cultures and creeds. Increasingly sensitized to our own national longings, we realize that gentile lands cannot be called home. The process takes time. The Nation is not transformed overnight. But gradually, the curse of galut is erased. From being a scattered people, the Jewish nation returns to have its own sovereign state. G-d’s blessing is revealed in all facets of the nation’s existence; military success, economic prosperity, scientific achievement, the resettlement of the nation’s ancient cities and holy sites — all leading to a great national t’shuva, the renewal of prophecy, and, of course, the return of the Divine Presence to the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, in fulfillment of our prayers.
Rabbi Kook explains that the secular, physical rebuilding must necessarily precede the spiritual building. The Talmud teaches that the Beit HaMikdash was first constructed in a normal, profane manner, and only after its completion was its sanctity declared (Me’ilah 14A) First, Adam was created from the dust of the earth, and then the soul was placed within him. So too, a Jewish youth only becomes responsible to keep the Torah at the age of thirteen after his body and mind have developed in strength. This is the pattern of spiritual building; first comes the physical vessel, and then its inner content. First the ark is constructed, and then the Tablets are placed within (Shemot 38:22, Rashi).
It must be remembered that the Zionist movement did not begin with Herzl, but rather with the giants of Torah, the Baal Shem Tov and the Gaon of Vilna, more than a hundred years earlier. He sent his students to settle Eretz Yisrael, teaching that the active resettlement of the Land was the path to bring the long-awaited redemption (“Kol HaTor” Rabbi Hillel of Sklov, on the teachings of HaGra). Other great Rabbis, Rav Tzvi Hirsh Kalisher, Rav Eliyahu Guttmacher, and Rav Shmuel Mohliver were the actual builders of the early Zionist groups like the “Lovers of Zion” (See the book, “Torat Eretz Yisrael” Ch.9). As the movement spread, its message attracted many non-religious Jews as well. Rabbi Kook explains that the newcomers embraced the call to Zion in a way which fit their own understandings, national aspirations, and dreams. While this temporarily lowered the loftiness of the message, it insured the necessary first stage of physical rebuilding. Rabbi Kook writes:
“Occasionally, a concept falls from its loftiness and its original pureness after it has been grounded in life when unrefined people become associated with it, darkening its illumination. The descent is only temporary because an idea which embraces spiritual goodness cannot be transformed into evil. The descent is passing, and it is also a bridge to an approaching ascent” (Orot HaT’shuva 12:12).
The original, pure, lofty idea of Zionism, as handed down by our Sages, is that the revival of the Jewish Nation in Israel is the earthly foundation for the revelation of the Kingdom of G-d in the world (Rashbam, Shemot, 15:18). For the secular Zionists, the return to Israel become something else. For some, the Land of Israel was merely a refuge from the persecutions of the gentiles. For others, it was a place to build a utopian socialist society. Because of their large numbers, the influence of the secular Zionists was widespread. Additionally, Rabbi Kook explains, the secular Jews were more suited to the task of settling the barren, swamp-ridden land. The religious Jews of the time lived in a spiritual world, having little contact with earthly matters. The physical sides of their natures were neglected and weak. The secular Jews, on the other hand, had an abundance of physical energy and prowess, along with the subsequent “will and desire to work and achieve, to carry out one’s goal through physical force and concrete endeavor” (Orot HaT’shuva 12:13).
When a holy idea needs to be grounded in reality, it necessarily descends from its exalted elevation. When this happens, people of lesser spiritual sensitivities seize the idea and profane its true intent. Because greater numbers of people can grasp the idea in its minimized form, its followers increase, bringing more strength and vigor to its practical implementation. This trend continues until powerful spiritual figures arise (Orot HaT’shuva 4:5) girded with the strength of Divine righteousness. They grasp the idea in its original purity and hold it aloft, rescuing it from the depths where it had plunged, stripped of its holiness and spiritual splendor. As a result of this new infusion of light, the original idea is resurrected in all of its majesty and power. All who embrace it are elevated with its ascent. Even those who attached themselves to the idea in its fallen state are raised up, and they are inspired to a powerful, lofty t’shuva.
“This process will surely come about. The light of G-d, which is buried away in the fundamental point of Zion, and which is now concealed by clouds, will surely appear. From the lowly valley, it will raise up G-d’s Temple and Kingdom and all of its branches. All those who cling to it, the near and the distant, will be uplifted with it, for a true revival and an everlasting salvation” (Orot HaT’shuva 12:12).
At the turn of this century, as the Zionist movement grew in influence and attracted more and more followers, many religious Jews rose up in protest. In their eyes, the movement to resettle the Land of Israel was brazenly secular, even defiant of Torah. While Rabbi Kook exhorted the pioneers to return to a sanctified life of Torah (Orot, Orot Yisrael 4:3. Letters, Vol.1, pg183) he saw the inner source and positive side of their courageous endeavor. The return of the Nation to Israel was in itself a great, holy act. Simply because they were Jews, in the depths of their proud Jewish souls, the Zionists also shared the yearning for a full Jewish life (Orot, Eretz Yisrael 8). Their scorn of the commandments was a blemish that was destined to heal.
Rabbi Kook’s deep spiritual insight did not blind him to the unholy lifestyles of the secular pioneers. However, he knew that the holy essence of Am Yisrael guaranteed that the nation would return to its roots. Long before the establishment of the State of Israel, Rabbi Kook described this process in almost prophetic terms:
“We recognize that a spiritual rebellion will come to pass in Eretz Yisrael amongst the people of Israel in the beginnings of the Nation’s revival. The material comfort which will be attained by a percentage of the Nation, convincing them that they have already completely reached their goal, will constrict the soul, and days will come which will seem to be devoid of all spirit and meaning. The aspirations for lofty and holy ideals will cease, and the spirit of the nation will plunge and sink low until a storm of rebellion will appear, and people will come to see clearly that the power of Israel lies in its eternal holiness, in the light of G-d and His Torah, in the yearning for spiritual light which is the ultimate valor, triumphing over all of the worlds and all of their powers” (Orot, pg. 84).
In another essay, Rabbi Kook writes:
“Our Nation will be built and reestablished; all of its foundations will return to their full might, through the reactivating, strengthening, perfection, and spreading of its faith, its Divine inner holiness, and its reverence of G-d. All of the Nation’s builders will come to recognize this truth. Then with a mighty, valorous voice, they will call out to themselves and to their brethren, ‘Let us come and return to the L-rd.’ And this will be a true return. It will be a t’shuva filled with valor, a t’shuva which will give strength and vigor to all of the Nation’s spiritual and physical aspects, to all of the endeavors needed for the building and perfection of the people, inspiring it to rebirth and to stability. The Nation’s eyes will be opened, its soul will be cleansed, its light will shine, its wings will spread, a reborn Nation will arise, a great, awesome, and numerous people, filled with the light of G-d and the majesty of nationhood. Behold, the people shall rise up like a great lion, and like a young lion, it shall lift itself up” (BaMidbar 23:24. Orot HaT’shuva 15:11).
LAST STOP — JERUSALEM
It can be seen that the return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel is a necessary stage in the t’shuva of the Nation. It follows that a Jew who becomes a baal t’shuva in Chicago has only returned a part of the way home. While his personal character and behavior have been purified by the light of the Torah, he has traveled only half of the journey (See the Kuzari 5:23; 5:58). The “t’shuva train” is continuing on to Israel. The final stop is Jerusalem. Every Jew needs to bring his little light home to the Holy Land where it can join the great flame. He has to raise up his private, individual life, to the higher life of the Clal, to merge his personal goals with the goals of the Nation “The first fundamental step of t’shuva is to attach oneself with the soul of the Nation” (Orot HaT’shuva 4:7) To rectify the blemish caused by galut, he has to stop being in exile and join the ingathered. He has to actualize the words of his prayers, “And gather us together from the four corners of the earth” (Shemona Esrei Prayer).
Rabbi Kook emphasizes that the true t’shuva of the Jewish People is in our return to Eretz Yisrael .
TORAH, TORAH, TORAH
Phase two in the t’shuva of Israel is the nation’s return to the Torah. During the reign of King Solomon, the nation of Israel was at its prime. We lived in peace in our own homeland. A Jewish government ruled over the country from the majestic city of Jerusalem. All of the people gathered for the Festivals at the Temple three times a year. Jewish law went forth from the Sanhedrin. Prophets communicated the word of the L-rd to the nation. A powerful Jewish army guarded the country’s borders. Torah was studied in great academies of learning. Hebrew was spoken on the street. The leaders of foreign nations flocked to Jerusalem to pay tribute to the Jews.
When Israel was exiled, however, everything was lost. The country was conquered by enemies. Jerusalem was razed, the Temple destroyed. Prophecy ceased. Jews wandered from country to country. They began speaking strange languages. Instead of being honored by the gentiles, the Jews were disgraced. They became an oppressed minority in other peoples’ lands. And while Jews continued to learn Torah throughout their exile, its light was considerably waned (Chagiga 5B) In the face of persecution and assimilation, Judaism lost its once great stature.
As we mentioned in the previous chapter, with the commencement of the Zionist movement, the Jewish people began to return to what had been lost. Jews began to return to their Homeland. They began to return to their very own Hebrew language. A Jewish government returned to Jerusalem. The city was rebuilt. Once again, Jews were sovereign in their homeland. Jewish soldiers once again guarded its borders. Once again, foreign rulers came to pay tribute to the leaders of Israel. The nation was resurrected to life. The physical, national body of Israel’s statehood was restored with a newfound Jewish valor and strength. But without the Temple, without the Sanhedrin and prophecy, without the pilgrimages to Jerusalem three times a year, and without a national dedication to Torah, the return is still incomplete. Nonetheless, Rabbi Kook assures us, within the yearning to return to the Land is a deeper, hidden yearning to return to the Torah as well.
“Within the inner heart, in its pure and holy chambers, the Israeli flame increases, demanding the strong, brave, constant connection of life to all of the mitzvot of G_d…. And in the hearts of all the empty (Jews), and in the hearts of all of the sinners of Israel, the fire burns and blazes in the most inward depths, and in the nation in its entirety, all of the desire for freedom, and all of the yearning for life, for the community and for the individual, all of the hope for redemption, only from the source of this inner spring of life do they flow in order to live Israeli life in its fullest, without contradiction or limitation” (Orot, Eretz Yisrael, 8).
Under the secular-looking Zionist State is a flaming, raging, engulfing fireball of t’shuva. The Jewish soul is yearning for religion. Like a man dying of thirst in the desert, the voice of the nation cries out, “Torah, Torah, Torah.” Ironically, it is precisely the spiritual wilderness which brings the great thirst.
“T’shuva will come (to the Jewish nation) in several directions. One of the causes will be the deep sorrow felt over the humiliation inflicted upon the great spiritual treasure which our forefathers bequeathed to us, and which possesses immeasurable power and glory” (Orot HaT’shuva 4:9)
Israel’s great spiritual treasure is the Torah, the commandments, the holidays, Jewish customs, traditions, prayer, and the vast sea of Talmudic learning.
“This mighty spirit spans over all generations. Its source is the most exalted Divine Source of life. When one looks to it, one finds everything, all beauty and splendor” (Ibid).
A story is told about a poor man from a poor village who was told in a dream to seek out a treasure buried under a certain bridge in a faraway town. The poor man made the long journey and located the bridge. As he was searching around, a policeman accosted him and demanded to know what he was doing. When the poor man explained, the policeman confided that he too had had a similar foolish dream, in which a treasure was to be found in a ceratin faraway village under the shack of a poor man. When the policeman cited the poor man’s name and village, the poor man realized that the treasure was buried under his very own house! He had to journey to the bridge to discover the secret. Sure enough, when the poor man hurried back home, he un covered the treasure under the floor of his storeroom (Told by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov).
In much the same manner, the Jewish people have lost sight of the treasure of their ancestral past. Seduced by the gentile cultures around us, we have very often ignored our own pure, holy spring, for pools of polluted water.
This cultural assimilation has occurred throughout our dispersion. Even in the Holy Land, the symbols, influences, and values of Western society abound. The immigrants returning to Israel brought back, not only their pure Jewish souls, but also a lot of foreign baggage. Socialism, communism, atheism, capitalism, bohemianism, materialism, and secularism are only some of the travel stickers we have collected along our journey. One day, Rabbi Kook assures us, a feeling of shame will cause us to return to our original love, the Torah.
“The darkness of heresy caused our people to detach themselves from this rich meadow (our Israelite heritage) and to stumble in foreign pastures which have absolutely no life nor vitalizing substance for us. The pain of this great anguish will burst awesomely forth, clearing the way for sensibility and reason to know what positive elements might be retrieved from all the false paths which led us astray. The soul’s inner longing for holiness will be freed. It will break out of its prison, and with a powerful thirst, every awakened spirit will begin to drink deeply from the original, exalted life source” (Orot HaT’shuva 4:9).
With a return to the Torah, the Jewish people erase all of the foreign concepts and values which have tainted Jewish identity and culture during our long exile in gentile lands, and replace them with a library of holy Torah tapes and texts. Rather than being divided between two separate worlds, a Jew at home and a German or Frenchman on the street, we return to our unique Jewish wholeness. We come to hear clearly the voice of our souls calling us back to our G-d. Embracing our holiness, we long for a life of Torah, a life of moral purity, a life cleansed from sin. With each Torah verse that we learn, with each Mishna, with each page of Gemara, we give revitalizing Jewish nourishment to our long-neglected souls.
BACK TO THE BOOK OF BOOKS
To accomplish such a vast, national t’shuva, Rabbi Kook writes that a broad system of popular Torah education is needed. After having abandoned our unique Jewish treasure for so many years, we have a lot of relearning to do. In fact, many Jews returning to Judaism have to start at the very beginning by learning the alef bet.
“From a moral point-of-view, the innate fear of transgression is the healthiest human disposition. This quality stands out in the Jewish people, in its natural aversion to any sin or wrongdoing in opposition to the Torah and the commandments, which are the inheritance of the community of Jacob. This disposition will only return to the Jewish people through national program of Torah learning, both in producing outstanding Torah scholars, and in establishing fixed times of daily learning for the masses. It is impossible for the Jewish people to return to their natural life, in all of its breadth and stature, if it will not also return to its spiritual nature, in all of its fullness, including the all-important fear of sin which, when healthy, brings remorse and t’shuva in its wake. With the strengthening of the nation’s vitality in all of its facets, its restless confusion will cease, and its national institutions will all return to their natural moral focus, so unique and deep-seated in Israel, to differentiate with a hair-splitting exactness between the forbidden and the permitted. Then all the detailed laws of the Torah and the Sages will be recognized as the necessary foundation for an independent Jewish life, without which a vital national existence is impossible” (Orot HaT’shuva 6:3).
As we shall learn, the holiness of the Jewish nation is expressed in our yearning for absolute morality, goodness, and universal justice. To accomplish this on a national level, in day-to-day life, high-sounding platitudes are not enough. To be a holy nation, holiness must be grounded in every aspect of life. Morality must shine in all spheres of endeavor. Only in this manner can all of life be sanctified and uplifted. How can this be achieved? Only by Israel’s commitment to all of the Divine laws of Sinai. It is the detailed commandments, in all of their exact measure and precision, which embody G-d’s will for the world. Only the Divine law of the Torah can provide the foundation for a pure Jewish life, by establishing guidelines for every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat, to the type of clothes we wear, to our dealings in business, our personal behavior, and our national priorities and goals.
SECRETS OF TORAH
However, a simple learning of Torah is not enough to return us completely to our roots. After a two-thousand year exile, we have to undergo a profound, inner transformation in order to truly become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. A change in external behavior is not enough. When we return to our roots, the transformation must affect our personalities, our thought processes, and our innermost aspirations.
“To strengthen these foundations, we need to endear the hearts of our people to the light of the true, inner Torah, the secrets of Torah, which, because of their influence on students who had not been properly prepared, brought about their rejection and scorn. It is, however, from this life-giving light… that the world’s lasting salvation will sprout. The appearance of this ex alted, benevolent light will revitalize both the nation and the individual, to raise the fallen tabernacle of David and to remove the shame of the people of G-d from all of the earth” (Orot HaT’shuva 4:9).
Rabbi Kook is careful to warn that only a Torah student with the proper background of learning can safely delve into the deep waters of Kabbalah. Nonetheless, it is precisely the mystical side of Torah which gives Israel the high-octane fuel it needs to sustain the long and difficult task of national rebuilding (see the Intoduction of HaRav Chaim Vital to “Etz HaChaim”). Rabbi Kook himself was a master of Kabbalah. The profound insights found throughout all of his writings, his towering love for all of mankind, and his understanding of the unity of all creation, stem in great measure from this source. His teachings reveal how the inner formulations of Torah are at work in our time, bringing the national t’shuva of Israel ever-and-ever closer. By illuminating the inner blueprint of existence which is secretly active, guiding all things toward completion, Rabbi Kook helps us to set our lives on the ultimate course of perfection and joy.
“True complete t’shuva necessitates exalted horizons of meditation, an ascent to the supernal realm which is filled with truth and holiness. One can attain this only through the study of the inner dimensions of Torah and Divine wisdom dealing with the mystical understanding of the world. This demands physical and moral purity, so that the darkness of lusts will not pollute the lucidness of the intellect. But the study of Torah must precede all other disciplines, especially the study of the transcendental Torah, for only it can break down all of the iron-like, material barriers separating the individual and the community from their Father in heaven” (Orot HaT’shuva 10:1).
Ours is a very material generation. Living in a capitalistic, consumer-oriented society, we are bombarded by material messages. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, we are trained to want more money, nicer clothes, a bigger house, a newer car. This obsession with the material world can block out spiritual light completely. Only an intense inner purification, and a connection to transcendental realms, can free us from the physical lusts which block our connection to G-d. Thus t’shuva and the secrets of Torah go hand-in-hand, each one lighting the path for the other.
In another essay, Rabbi Kook explains why the mystical understandings of Torah are vital to Israel’s rise toward national rebirth (Orot HaT’shuva 4:10). The Talmud states that preceding the Mashiach there will be great chutzpah in the world (Sotah 49B) This chutzpah is an insolence directed against Judaism. It is a brazenness which seeks to negate everything holy and Divine. Before the truth of the Torah is finally revealed, there will be a great darkness. Torah scholars will be held in contempt. The teachings of Judaism will be scorned. This comes about because, as the time of Mashiach draws near, the world is ready to embrace a universal vision of unity, where all particulars are recognized as part of the whole. In contrast, the Torah is seen as a code of primitive details, something specifically Jewish, bounded on all sides with restrictions, with no connection to the wide world and its seemingly infinite horizons.
For example, a universal yearning for unity can be seen in the great popularity of Internet. From his home computer, a person can now be connected to all of the world. He is no longer just a name in a phonebook, but an active player in a complex, international game. Thanks to advances in communications, he has the knowledge of the world at his fingertips. On his private, home screen, or on his smartphone, he can see from one end of the globe to the other. And people all over the world can also find out about him.
While the world is striving toward cosmic oneness, the Torah, to the uninitiated, seems to be preoccupied with unimportant details, with keeping kosher and not letting women wear pants. This viewpoint occurs when the Torah is looked at in a myopic fashion, precept by precept, law after law, with the focus on an individual’s behavior. However, to an experienced “surfer” in the great sea of Torah, what expanses of unity and wholeness lie under each individual command! What endless horizons and waves! What mind-expanding revelations of oneness, not only of this world, but of all the spiritual worlds which constitute and surround all of existence! In the Torah, one can find all of life’s secrets.
“If people studied the Torah in this light, to broaden their spiritual ken, in order to understand the connection between the details of life and the universal, spiritual realms of existence, then t’shuva would come, and the perfection of the world would follow in its wake…. We must employ a higher healing, to add strength to our spiritual talents, to understand in a clear, straightforward, down-to-earth manner, the connection between the teachings and commandments of the Torah, and the highest, most universal ideas. Then the power of the spiritual life will be renewed in the world, in practice and theory, and a movement of general t’shuva will begin to blossom and bloom” (Orot HaT’shuva 4:10).
TORAH OF REDEMPTION
We have mentioned that t’shuva and redemption run along two parallel, overlapping paths. Since Torah is so integral to t’shuva, it is not surprising to discover that it is precisely the secrets of Torah which pave the way for the redemption of Israel (See “Even Shlema” 11:3 by the Gra). The opposite is also true. Rabbi Kook writes that it is precisely the dry, superficial learning of Torah which causes the nation to become habituated, and even comfortable, with life in foreign lands.
“By being alienated from the recognition of the secrets of Torah, the Kedusha of Eretz Yisrael is understood in a confused, unfocused fashion. By alienating oneself from the secrets of G-d, the highest treasures of the deep Divine life become extraneous, secondary matters which do not enter the depths of the soul, and as a result, the most potent force of the individual’s and the nation’s soul will be missing, and the exile is found to be pleasant in its own accord. For to someone who only comprehends the superficial level, nothing basic will be lacking in the absence of the Land of Israel, the Jewish Kingdom, and all of the facets of the nation in its built form.
“For him, the foundation of yearning for salvation is like a side branch that cannot be united with the deep understanding of Judaism, and this itself testifies to the poverty of insight which is found in this juiceless perspective.
“We are not rejecting any form of study or contemplation which is founded on truthfulness, on sensitivity of thought, or on the fear of Heaven, in whatever form it takes; but only rejecting the specific aspect of this perspective which seeks to negate the secrets of Torah and their great influence on the spirit of the na tion — for this is a tragedy which we are obligated to fight against with counsel and wisdom, with holiness and valor” (Orot, Eretz Yisrael, 1)
Basically, Rabbi Kook is saying that it is not enough for a Jew to study only about the commandments which effect his personal everyday life. He must also learn about the more encompassing concepts of Judaism like the role of the nation of Israel in perfecting the world, the meaning of Eretz Yisrael to the nation, the centrality of Jerusalem to Judaism, the importance of prophecy, the Temple, and the deeper understandings of the ingathering of the exiles. If he does not immerse himself in these studies, then he will not miss their absence, and he will be content with his life of exile in foreign lands (see Orot, Eretz Yisrael 1-2).
Elsewhere in the book Orot, Rabbi Kook writes:
“The secrets of Torah bring the redemption and return Israel to its Land, because the Torah of truth in its mighty inner logic demands the complete soul of the nation. Through this inner Torah, the nation begins to feel the pain of exile and to realize the absolute impossibility for its character to fulfill its potential as long as it is oppressed on foreign soil. As long as the light of the supernal Torah is sealed and bound, the inner need to return to Zion will not stir itself with deep faith” (Orot, pg. 95).
Thus we learn that a national return to Torah and to the Land of Israel are necessary for the complete t’shuva of both the individual Jew and the nation. Living a religious life in the Diaspora is not to be taken as the end of the journey. It is the combination of a life of Torah in Eretz Yisrael which brings the Jewish people to perfection, and which returns the light of G-d to the world (HaKuzari 5:23) As Rabbi Kook writes, “The Judaism of Eretz Yisrael is the salvation itself” (Orot, Eretz Yisrael 1).