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!
The Talmud teaches that in the End of Days, God is going to do away with man’s evil inclination (Sukkah 52A). Seeing this, both the righteous and evildoers react by weeping. The righteous cry when the evil inclination is shown to be as large as a mountain. The knowledge that they had to spend their lives overcoming such a formidable foe brings them to tears. The wicked cry when it is revealed to them that the evil inclination was in reality an insignificant opponent. It could have been conquered by a split-second of t’shuva, but that opportunity is now forever lost. We learn from this that the seeming darkness of sin can be swiftly erased by the great light and wonder of t’shuva.
Here are some examples of sudden t’shuva. A person one day decides, “That’s it. I am going on a diet starting today. I want to be healthy.” He strides into the kitchen and throws out all of the candies, ice creams, sodas, and chocolates. Cans of food loaded with colorings and chemical preservatives go flying into the trash. He joins a health club, moves to a place where the air is clean, and starts each new day with a jog before dawn.
Or the baal t’shuva suddenly decides that he is fed up with the wheeling and dealing; he is weary with the struggle to get around the law; he is ashamed for the income he has failed to report; he is disgusted with his infidelities and lies. “That’s it,” he declares. “No more. From now on, I am going to be an honest, moral person.”
Alternately, a brilliant, sudden flash of t’shuva can leave a person disgusted with the false patterns of behavior, ideologies, and false religions which he is following. As if awakening from a nightmare, he takes a deep breath, suddenly driven to align his life with the Divine truth of existence. His flash of sudden light inspires him to say, “Wow, have I been wasting my life! What a fool I have been! And I thought I was being smart! That’s it. The past is forgotten. From now on, I am getting my life together with Torah!”
In contrast, gradual t’shuva differs from sudden t’shuva in its less dramatic, more step-by-step form. Often, when we speak about baale t’shuva, we are referring to people whose lives have been changed overnight. Gradual t’shuva, on the other hand, is something which often appears in a person who generally lives his life in a healthy, positive fashion. When he falls into error or sin, his recovery is more gradual, without the overwhelming illumination that comes to a person whose life has been saturated by darkness. Rabbi Kook writes:
“There is also a gradual type of t’shuva. The change from the depths of sin to goodness is not inspired by a brilliant flash of light in one’s inner self, but by the feeling that one’s ways and lifestyle, one’s desires, and thought processes must be improved. When a person follows this path, he gradually straightens his ways, mends his character traits, improves his deeds, and teaches himself how to correct his life more and more, until he reaches the high level of refinement and perfection” (Orot HaT’shuva, Ch.2).
An already moral person who feels he is still far away from the goal he longs to reach, will set off on a gradual climb toward t’shuva. For him, the process of return does not revolutionize his life all at once. Rather, his perfection demands a step-by-step course of improvement. Indeed, for the average person, the best way to climb a great mountain is by taking a lot of little steps.
When this type of person goes on a diet, he does not rush into the kitchen and throw out all of the unhealthy foods all at once. Knowing that it will take time and a great deal of willpower to wean himself away from the sweets that he loves, he resolves to be fat-free within another six months. Every day, he tries to eat one donut less. He sits down and draws up a chart, starting with one push-up and working, day-by-day, to fifty. He does not suddenly revamp his whole life. Rather, he changes it a little at a time. In this manner, he can set his life on a healthier course without dramatically altering his current comforts and habits.
Gradual t’shuva also applies in the realm of moral perfection. Character traits are not easy to alter. If one proceeds too fast by jumping to the opposite extreme, he can cause himself harm. For instance, if a greedy person decides that he has to be generous and gives all of his money to charity at once, he will not have anything left for himself. Similarly, while anger is an extremely negative trait, it is also not healthy to be unemotional and indifferent. At first, a leap to the other extreme might be helpful in effecting a change, but then the penitent should gradually work his way back to the middle (Rambam, Laws of Knowledge, 2:2). The Gaon of Vilna recommends that in turning a negative trait into a positive one, it is wise to set a gradual course toward reaching the middle ground between the extremes. Because the change comes about slowly, a strong foundation is built. New behavior patterns formed in this fashion are likely to survive the challenges and frustrations which people face every day. In contrast, something which comes quickly, like sudden t’shuva, might, in some cases, also disappear quickly as well.
In regard to religious belief, gradual t’shuva often appears when a person strives to merge his life with the Divine Plan for existence. Generally, a bond and commitment to religion evolves slowly. After all, accepting the yoke of the Torah’s commandments is not a simple matter. Not only must one’s lifestyle be altered, but the list of do’s and don’ts seems overwhelming. Of course, this is the view of the uninitiated, as seen from the outside. Once a person steps inside the world of Judaism, what seemed frightening in the beginning becomes a fountain of great delight. Nonetheless, the path out of darkness to the light of the Torah is usually a slow, step-by-step journey, as opposed to the rocket ship of sudden t’shuva. First a person comes to feel respect for the Jewish religion. He comes to appreciate the great wisdom and beauty of Jewish tradition. He realizes that Judaism has shaped the Jewish Nation, protected it throughout the generations, and given it its character. But at this early stage, he is not yet ready to embrace all of the precepts of Judaism and make them a part of his life.
Then, the more a person experiences Judaism and is stirred by its spirit, the more he cherishes it. Feeling the great warmth of Jewish tradition, he begins to relate to it like a long-lost friend. Motivated by the positive feelings which he now experiences upon each encounter with Judaism, he begins to study its teachings in depth. His knowledge of Judaism increases. More and more, he finds himself stimulated by the Divine genius he discovers within it. Delving into its depths, he finds beauty and joy in all of the commandments.
Finally, convinced of the Torah’s Divine origin and truth, he begins to practice all of its teachings. He runs to perform the mitzvot with zest and enthusiasm. Nothing else in the world affords him such contentment and happiness.
The question can be asked, which of the two paths of t’shuva brings greater enlightenment — sudden or gradual. Rabbi Kook answers:
“The higher t’shuva results from a lightning-like flash of goodness, of the Divine good which dwells in all worlds, of the light of He who is the life of the worlds. The noble soul of all existence is pictured before us in all of its splendor and holiness to the extent that the heart can absorb. Is it not true that everything is so good and upright, and that the uprightness and goodness that is within us, does it not come from our being in harmony with everything? How can we be severed from the wholeness of existence, a strange fragment, scattered into nothingness like dust? From this recognition, which is truly a Divine recognition, comes t’shuva out of love, in the life of the individual and in the life of mankind as a whole.”
To be continued….Tzvi Fishman
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. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" will be available soon as a DVD.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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