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.