This month, we will be dedicating our blogs to the subject of t‘shuva, as illuminated in the writings of Rabbi Kook. So you can look forward to daily light bulbs of inspiration and self-improvement, taken from our commentary, The Art of T’shuva, which I had the privilege of writing with Rabbi David Samson. It very well may be the most exciting and worthwhile voyage you ever experience.
Dear Reader — if you are looking to be happy, creative, in harmony with God and with the universe, Rabbi Kook has the answer — t’shuva.
For Rabbi Kook, t’shuva is a concept much deeper than the common understanding of repentance. It is much more than penitence over sins and the remorse a person must feel when he strays from the pathways of goodness and truth. While t’shuva includes these factors, the phenomenon of t’shuva spreads out over all the universe, bringing harmony and perfection to all of existence.
Return to the Source
While t’shuva is normally translated as penitence or repentance, the root of the Hebrew word t’shuva means “return.” T’shuva is a return to the source, to one’s roots, to one’s deepest inner self. Rabbi Kook writes:
“When one forgets the essence of one’s soul; when one distracts his mind from seeing the true nature of his own inner life, everything becomes doubtful and confused. The principal t’shuva, which immediately lights up the darkness, is for a person to return to himself, to the root of his soul. Then he will immediately return to God, to the Soul of all souls. And he will continue to stride higher and higher in holiness and purity. This is true for an individual, a nation, for all of mankind, and for the perfection of all existence….”
Anything which is a return to the pure, original, natural state, whether it be physical, moral, or spiritual, is a part of t’shuva. As Rabbi Kook develops his ideas about t’shuva, he speaks not only about the individual, but about the Jewish nation as a whole. T’shuva encompasses the nation of Israel, and more. All of humanity is destined for perfection and upliftment. Rabbi Kook even writes about the t’shuva of the heavens and earth — when the bark of a tree will be as edible as its fruit, and when the moon will return to its original size, as big and bright as the sun. In effect, t’shuva is the force which pushes all physical and spiritual worlds towards completion.
One can readily understand that to reach fulfillment and happiness, a person must be his true self. In modern times, this basic understanding has been corrupted into a “do your own thing” attitude. Rabbi Kook is advocating a deeper, inner search, far beyond the surface passions and emotions which often lead people to express their every desire and lust. Rabbi Kook understands that the individual, and all of existence, has a deeper, spiritual source. In the depths of this ever-pure realm, our true essence lies. A person who makes the inward journey of t’shuva comes to encounter his soul and the Creator who gave it. As Rabbi Kook writes:
“It is only through the great truth of returning to oneself that the individual, the nation, the world, all of the worlds, and all of existence, will return to its Maker, to be illuminated by the light of life.”
Throughout history, man has been searching to discover the driving force of life. To a capitalist, money makes the world go around. To a romanticist, love is what impassions mankind. Freudians claim that man’s unconscious desires and libido are to blame. Peering into a microscope, a modern physicist declares that atoms and neutrons cause the world to spin. For biologists, the uniting power resides in strands of DNA. When Rabbi Kook gazes into the inner workings of the soul, the soul of the individual, and the soul of the world, he sees that the force behind all existence is t’shuva.
The Age of Anxiety
It is no secret that there is great darkness, confusion, and pain in the world. Bookstores are filled with self-help books on how to be happy. Layman’s guides to psychology line shelf after shelf. Our generation has been called “the age of anxiety.” People often live out their lives plagued with depression, sickness, a sense of unfulfillment and constant unrest. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and humanists like Freud, Jung, Adler, Horney, Fromm, May, Erikson, Dr. Dryer, and dozens of others have become the prophets of the moment, proposing dozens of theories to explain man’s existential dilemmas. Whether it is because we suffer from an Oedipus complex, or from a primal anxiety at having been separated from the womb, from sexual repression, or from the trauma of death, mankind is beset with neuroses. Vials of valium and an assortment of anti-depressants and “uppers” can be found in the medicine cabinets of the very best homes. Not to mention the twenty-four-hour bombardment of work, television, computer games, discos, and drugs which people use to blot out the never-ending angst that they feel.
The psychologist, Erich Fromm, in his book, Psychoanalysis and Religion describes an interesting photograph which captures the average man’s pain:
“It is proclaimed by many voices that our way of life makes us happy. But how many people of these times are happy? It is interesting to remember a casual shot in Life magazine some time ago of a group of people waiting on a street corner for the green light. What was so remarkable and shocking about this picture was that these people who all looked stunned and frightened had not witnessed a dreadful accident but, as the text had to explain, were merely average citizens going about their business.”
Fromm continues and states: “We pretend that our life is based on a solid foundation and ignore the shadows of uneasiness, anxiety and confusion which never leave us.”
Rabbi Kook understands all of this darkness and anguish. He sees its source not in external causes, not in the traumas of childhood, nor in the pressures to conform to behavioral norms. He looks beyond social, cultural, psychological, sexual, and family dynamics to shed spiritual light on the world’s confusion and pain.
“What is the cause of melancholy? The answer is the over-abundance of evil deeds, evil character traits, and evil beliefs on the soul. The soul’s deep sensitivity feels the bitterness which these cause, and it draws back, frightened and depressed.”
“All depression stems from sin, and t’shuva comes to light the soul and transforms the depression to joy. The source of the general pain in the world derives from the overall moral pollution of the universe, resulting from the sins of nations and individual man.”
If Rabbi Kook were to have studied the Life magazine photograph of the tense, unhappy people on the street corner who were waiting to cross the street, he would have suggested a far deeper reason for their anxiety than any psychologist could propose. A deeper reason, and a novel cure:
“Every sin causes a special anxiety on the spirit, which can only be erased by t’shuva. According to the depth of the t’shuva, the anxiety itself is transformed into inner security and courage. The outer manifestation of anxiety which is caused by transgression can be discerned in the lines of the face, in a person’s movements, in the voice, in behavior, and one’s handwriting, in the manner of speaking and one’s language, and above all, in writing, in the development of ideas and their presentation.”
The melancholy and anxiety haunting mankind is not a result of the “trauma of birth,” but of a spiritual separation much deeper — the separation from God.
“I see how transgressions act as a barrier against the brilliant Divine light which shines on every soul, and they darken and cast a shadow upon the soul.”
The remedy is t’shuva — for the individual, the community, and for the world. Rabbi Kook teaches that to discover true inner joy, every person, and all of Creation, must return to the Source of existence and forge a living connection to God.
The paperbacks on personal improvement, psychology, and self-help which line bookstore shelves, contain many useful insights and tips. After all, man is influenced by a wide gamut of factors dating back even before his conception, through his time in the womb, his childhood years, and spanning the many life passages each of us face. Rabbi Kook reveals that in addition to all of the fashionable theories and cures, on a far deeper level, there is a spiritual phenomenon of wondrous beauty, like a butterfly enclosed in a cacoon, waiting to soar free. This is the light and healing wonder of t’shuva.
(To be continued)
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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