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July 8, 2015 / 21 Tammuz, 5775
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Rocket Ship of T’shuva

Sudden t’shuva is different. It seems to come about all at once with superhuman energy and willpower.
Rocket Launch: The Art of T'shuva

We have learned that t’shuva is the force which makes the world go round. Just as gravity keeps us here on earth, t’shuva keeps us longing for the heavens. For the individual, the source of this force lies in his or her willpower. The will is the battery of t’shuva. For a person to be healthy, happy, and in harmony with the universe, his will must be freed from the bondage of sin and directed toward goodness and God.

We are not accustomed to thinking in terms of the will. In school we learn about many different subjects, we learn about different professions, we learn how to get along in the world. But we don’t learn very much about being good. Rabbi Kook, however, teaches that education should focus not on professional training alone, but on finding ways to direct all of man’s endeavors, both material and spiritual, toward the world’s general aspiration for goodness. He writes:

Pure honesty demands that all of the labor of science should be directed toward the fundamental ideal of enhancing man’s will with the ultimate goodness fitting to it, to refine the will, to strengthen it, to sanctify it, to purify it, to habituate it through educational channels to always strive for what is lofty and noble (Orot HaT’shuva, 15:2).

When, however, mankind strays from the proper course, and instead of striving to elevate the will, leaves it wallowing in its baseness, wanting only to satisfy the will’s lower passions, then humanity plunges into darkness, degeneracy, and idolatry.

Out of its depths, (mankind) will cry out to the God of truth and return to the holy goal of making the foundation of every activity the uplifting of the will…. This is the entire basis of t’shuva, the elevation of the will, transforming it to good, to rise up from darkness to light, from a valley of tribulation to a gateway of hope (Ibid).

Previously, we saw that t’shuva can come about gradually, or in a sudden powerful flash. Gradual t’shuva resembles any developmental, step-by-step process whereby one thing leads to another in a natural fashion like the growth of a tree, which progresses from the seed to the fruit in a slow, predictable process.

Sudden t’shuva is different. It seems to come about all at once with superhuman energy and willpower. Where does this great thrust of life energy come from? If we had spiritual glasses to analyze the process, what catalysts and forces would we see?

The longing for goodness that makes up a person’s willpower has a resiliency like that of a spring. Sin causes the will for goodness to be contracted, like a spring which is being stepped on. The further a person is caught up in sin, the tighter the spring is compressed. When a person frees himself from the shackles of sin, he is freeing his willpower to return to cleaving to God. Since his willpower was in such a constricted state, when it is released, it explodes with a super momentum and force, far greater than the force of gradual t’shuva. The sudden baal t’shuva has a magnificent outburst of will which propels him into a frenzy of spiritual endeavor. From the depth of his darkness, he discovers an incredible light, an incredible good_ ness. All at once, BOOM, he is turned on by God. His prayer, his Torah study, his good deeds are all filled with a fiery intensity and fervor for universal good.

It is this revitalized energy which makes the newly religious seem “born again.” This occurs because his willpower has been rescued and recharged. This accounts for the teaching that a tzaddik cannot reach the level of a baal t’shuva (Berachot 34B), for a tzaddik is motivated by the normal, step-by-step will to do good, and not by the explosive, shot-out-of-a-cannon passion of the baal t’shuva.

Because of its great power, Rabbi Kook warns that t’shuva, if misused, can become a lethal weapon. Like a surgical knife, t’shuva can be the key to new healthy life, or to self-destruction.

blockquote>When one contracts the will, when one represses the life-force through an inner course of abstaining from life’s pleasures out of the desire to avoid all transgression, a contraction of the will for goodness also occurs. The power of the moral side of life is also lessened. A man engaged in purifying his life suffers a weakness like that of a sick person who was cured by electric shock therapy, which wiped out the disease, but also weakened his healthy life-force (Orot HaT’shuva, 9:10).

The first stages of t’shuva effect a person’s willpower in a negative fashion. Usually, the baal t’shuva consciously restricts his worldly desires. All feelings which border on lust are rejected, along with every strong passion, including many positive ones such as feelings of happiness, warmth, and love. Fearing sin, he may decide to limit all of his physical needs, since everything that he is accustomed to doing seems wrong. He becomes passive, lethargic and weak.

Of course, when the will has become addicted to unhealthy passions, it must be restricted to tame its hungry roar. But when a person cuts down on his life-force by slamming on the brakes, not only his bad habits come to a stop, he also neutralizes the good. This happens because the will, or the life-force, is one. A person does not have both a good will and a bad will, as is commonly thought. A person’s will can be directed towards good or towards bad, but it itself is one. Thus when the will is restricted, all of its aspects are restricted at the same time.

When someone is involved in t’shuva, he has to be careful to separate both the good from the bad, and the bad from the good. He has to wield the scalpel of t’shuva like a fine surgeon who removes the malignancy without removing any healthy tissue. Moreover, he has to identify the good which has become imbedded in the bad, and to strengthen it to the same extent that he is now repelled by evil. In this manner, by rescuing his longing for goodness from its dungeon of sin, his t’shuva will actually transform his former transgressions into virtues.

Rabbi Kook describes this first stage “engine shutdown” as a low level of t’shuva, in that it weakens a person’s will and inhibits his character. But the lethargy, apparent depression, and lack of vitality which are caused by the fear of sin, soon are replaced by active, positive forces when a person enters the next phase of t’shuva. He writes:

There is a shortcoming in the lower t’shuva, in that it weakens a person’s will and inhibits his character. However, this shortcoming is corrected when the thought of t’shuva reaches maturity, and it is united with the exalted t’shuva which comes, not to weaken the will and to break a person’s character, but rather to strengthen his will and the value of his personality. In this manner, his sins are transformed into merit. “When the wicked man turns from his wickedness, and does what is lawful and right, he shall live in those things” (Orot HaT’shuva, 9:7. Ezekiel, 33:19).

When the baal t’shuva feels more secure with his purer lifestyle, he begins to release his will and direct it toward the good. Reconnected to the force of goodness which powers the universe, his spirit and personality are bolstered. Like a starship put into “warp-drive,” he seems to accelerate into a whole new dimension of space. The brazenness, or “chutzpah,” that he once had for sin is transformed into a brazenness for holiness.

We can understand the great power involved in this transformation when we recognize that sinning, which is going against God’s will for the world, demands a lot of chutzpah. In this higher level of t’shuva, when a person frees his willpower from sin, by rejecting the sin and preserving the willpower, he uses the same high-powered chutzpah to form a bolder connection with God. He heads full blast for holiness, not settling for anything else, letting nothing stand in his way, smashing through all barriers, obstacles, and resistance. His boldness propels him to ever-new levels.

This is one of the ways how sin itself helps a person do t’shuva. The willpower which previously led him to sin, is now used to worship God. Because he harnesses this extra “sin power” to reach Divine cleaving, he can reach greater heights than if he hadn’t sinned at all.

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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Tzvi Fishman, author of the Jewish Press blog Felafel on Rye and author of more than a dozen books.
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