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 the 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!” 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, RETURN FROM YOUREVIL 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 disco. “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 God’s mercy will shine. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise” (Tehillim, 51:19).
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).
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 in our previous blog, the study of Torah strengthens the will to do t’shuva and refines character traits and modes of behavior. As the saying goes, “Where there is a will, there’s a way.”
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. Rabbi Kook writes:
“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 God, 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” (Ibid, 13:9).
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. Or if he cheated a lot of people in business deals, how can he 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.
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 God’s assistance to attain the state of purity where he will reject anything associated with unjust gain and oppression” (Ibid, 18:4).
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. 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. 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 ones 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.
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. 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 God’s help, he will be able to mend all that needs to be mended.
Millions of people all over the world are searching for a greater 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 God’s light appears in the world….” (Ibid, 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 God. 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 God 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.
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 God is noble, but in letting his longings push him to starve his body, he is in fact sinning against himself.
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 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. Just as one has to be kind to others, one has to be kind to oneself. 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.
The main thing is not to despair. As long as a person’s will remains firm, God 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 God, His mercy and lofty salvation will rescue him from his darkness. God will answer his yearnings and bring him to the higher deliverance for which he so longs.
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 God, in declaring His praises, in bringing the joy and knowledge of God 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 God, he helps bring the whole world to completion.
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 author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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