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.”