From the book “The Art of T’shuva” on the teachings of Rabbi Kook.
by Rabbi David Samson and Tzvi Fishman
The Path to Happiness
Rabbi Kook teaches that t’shuva encompasses man’s physical being, his moral life, religious life, and his highest, most ideal intellectual endeavor. T’shuva is man’s path to wellbeing, to physical and emotional health, as well as his path to the deep self-discovery which connects him to God.
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.
Rabbi Kook explains just how the healing takes place:
“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.