Should an individual choose a life of sin, God 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 God.
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 Nietzsches 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 God, the world pays mere lip service, hiding behind one brand of paganism or another.
Existential pain is not only experienced by those far from God, 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 God, 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 God. 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 Shekhinah. 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 God. 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 God’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” (Orot HaT’shuva, 8:6).
Rabbi Kook’s level after level exploration into the psychology of sin does not end in despair, but in peace and salvation. He 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 Lord his God (Ibid, 8:16).
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 malignancy throughout the body and soul. One must always keep in mind the purging affects 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.
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 God’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 God is with him! He senses God’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 God 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 God, and he longs for a life of honesty and moral uplifting. 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 (Ibid, 16:3).
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 God is good and just (Ibid, 14:23).
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 shall be called, the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in.” (Ibid, 13:12).
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.
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press
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