Rabbi Kook explains that t’shuva comes about in two distinct formats, either suddenly, or in a gradual, slowly developing fashion. Both of these pathways to t’shuva are readily found in the baal t’shuva world. Some people will tell you how their lives suddenly changed overnight. Others describe their experience as a long, challenging process which unfolded over years. Many factors influence the way in which t’shuva appears, including personality, background, and environment. Health problems, whether physical or psychological, can inspire a person toward t’shuva. Personal tragedy — a death in the family, or the loss of one’s job, can trigger sudden revelations of t’shuva. For others, a seemingly chance encounter with a religious Jew, a Sabbath experience, or a visit to the Kotel in Jerusalem, have all been known to set the stirrings of t’shuva in motion. Even dramatic current events, like catastrophes or wars can influence awakenings of t’shuva.
What stands out in Rabbi Kook’s teaching is that the potential for t’shuva is ever-present. Like light from the sun, the waves of t’shuva constantly envelop the earth. Its spiritual force empowers mankind, silently working to bring the world back to God. Some people jump on the t’shuva train in one bold leap. Others climb aboard in a much slower fashion. But the train itself is always in motion.
Concerning sudden t’shuva, Rabbi Kook writes:
“Sudden t’shuva results from a spiritual bolt of illumination which enters the soul. All at once, the person recognizes the ugliness and evil of sin, and he is transformed into a new being. Already, he feels within himself a total change for the good. This type of t’shuva derives from a certain unique inner power of the soul, from some great spiritual influence whose ways are best sought in the depths of life’s mysteries.”
Sudden t’shuva appears when a person suddenly decides that his entire way of living needs to be changed. Revolted by the impurity of his ways, he abruptly sets out on a purer, healthier course. All at once, he feels that everything in his life must be transformed. A sudden burst of great light reveals the sordidness of his existence, and he understands that an entire life overhaul is in order — new habits, new friends, new interests, new goals. Seemingly overnight, he is a new person. Of course, the sudden break from his old ways is not cut and dry. A person cannot change his whole existence at once. The process may take a day or a decade. But the decision which triggers this great transformation occurs in a moment of profound revelation and cleansing. A sudden, cathartic illumination lights up his being, and he is changed.
A discussion in the Gemara alludes to this type of split-second t’shuva (Kiddushin 49B). There is a law that if a man marries a woman on the basis of some condition, the marriage is legal only if the condition is met. If a man were to say, “You will be my lawfully-wedded wife on the condition that I will give you one-hundred dollars,” if he gives her the money, they are married. If he does not give her the money, then the marriage does not take place. What happens if a man were to marry a woman on the condition that he is a completely righteous person? Suppose that the man is a known evildoer. If he makes his righteousness the basis for the marriage, is the marriage considered proper and legal?
Jewish law states that the woman is “safek mekudeshet,” meaning that she is married out of doubt. Yet if we know that the man is evil, how can this be? After all, the marriage was based on the condition that he be as righteous as a tzaddik. It should follow that since the condition was not kept, the woman is not married. The Gemara explains: “We are cautious for maybe he had a contemplation of t’shuva.”
We learn from this that repentance can be a split-second decision. One can become a penitent in a second, through the thought of t’shuva alone. This is what Rabbi Kook is alluding to when he speaks about sudden t’shuva. Very often people are afraid to embark on a course of repentance because they believe it involves years of suffering and difficult change. Here we learn the opposite. T’shuva is easy!