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….