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.