Jews who have become religious, ba’ale t’shuva, describe t’shuva as the most joyous experience in their lives. Very often, a gleam of happiness shines in their eyes. Their speech is filled with an excited ring, as if they have discovered a secret treasure. Even people who have tasted all of life’s secular pleasures insist that the experience of t’shuva is the world’s greatest joy.
What is the reason for this? What is the source of this joy? Rabbi Kook writes:
T’shuva is the healthiest feeling possible. A healthy soul in a healthy body must necessarily bring about the great joy of t’shuva, and the soul consequently feels the greatest natural pleasure (Orot HaT’shuva, 5:1).
First, it is important to note the connection which Rabbi Kook makes between t’shuva and health. As we previously learned in our blog about the Olympics, a healthy body is an important foundation of t’shuva. Contrary to the picture of the penitent as a gloomy, frail, bent-over recluse who shuns the world, the true baal t’shuva is healthy, happy, robust, and bursting with life.
When a person rids himself of bad habits, like overeating and cigarette smoking, his health is improved. Without these harming elements, he is stronger and more vibrant. So too, when one rids oneself of bad moral habits and base character traits, his spiritual health is improved. Without these negative influences, his soul is free to receive the flow of Divine energy and light which fills the universe. When he is both physically and spiritually healthy, his capability to experience the Divine is greatly enhanced. It is this “meeting with God” that brings the influx of joy that every baal t’shuva feels. When the unhealthy walls which had separated him from God are eliminated from his life, he stands ready for life’s greatest discovery — the discovery that God and the spiritual world are real. Suddenly, God’s love and kindness surround him. All his sins are forgiven. Instead of darkness, there is light all around him and a pool of endless love.
Rabbi Kook writes:
In measure with every ugly thing which a person eliminates from his soul when he inwardly longs for the light of t’shuva, he immediately discovers worlds filled with exalted illumination inside his soul. Every transgression removed is like the removal of a blindfold from the eye, and an entire horizon of vision is revealed, the light of unending expanses of heaven and earth, and all that they contain (Ibid, 5:2).
The new spiritual horizons which the baal t’shuva discovers give him a feeling of freedom, as if he were soaring through air. This new-found freedom comes when the walls blocking God’s light have been razed. The baal t’shuva is freed from the bad habits and passions which had enslaved him in the past. He escapes from a web of wrongdoing. The lack of godliness which had pervaded his actions, his thoughts, and his being, is erased. Freed from his darkness, he can experience the wonders of God.
The steadfast will to always remain with the same beliefs to support the vanities of transgression into which a person has fallen, whether in deeds or in thoughts, is a sickness caused by an oppressive slavery that does not allow t’shuva’s light of freedom to shine in its full strength. For it is t’shuva which aspires to the original, true freedom — Divine freedom, which is free of all bondage (Ibid, 5:5).
Once again, we may be startled. People often think that in discovering God, one is restricting one’s freedom, not expanding it. If one recognizes his Creator, he also has to recognize His laws. For a person who thinks this way, religion is perceived as a yoke of responsibility and bondage. But Rabbi Kook tells us the opposite. The discovery of God is the ultimate freedom. Finally, a person is liberated from beliefs that he held on to in order to justify his errant lifestyle. Finally, he is freed from cycles of behavior which he could not control. Like a criminal who decides to go straight, he can now put his life in line with God’s will for the world. This is the greatest freedom!
Often people are afraid to set out on a course of t’shuva because they associate repentance with pain. While pain is a part of the t’shuva process, the hardships of t’shuva are quickly erased by the joy which the baal t’shuva discovers.
T’shuva does not come to make life bitter, but to make it more pleasant. The happy satisfaction with life that comes with t’shuva is derived from the waves of bitterness which cling to a person during the initial stages of t’shuva. However, this is the highest, creative valor, to recognize and understand that pleasantness evolves out of bitterness, life out of the clutches of death, eternal pleasures out of sickness and pain. As this everlasting knowledge grows and becomes more clear in the mind, in the emotions, in the person’s physical and spiritual natures, the person becomes a new being. With a courageous spirit, he transmits a new life force to all of his surroundings. He spreads the good news to all of his generation, and to all generations to be, that there is joy for the righteous, and that a joyous salvation is certain to come. ‘The humble also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poorest among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel (Ibid, 16:6).
We will explore the connection between t’shuva and pain in more detail in further blogs. Here, it is important to note that the pain a person feels when he confronts his sins and his unholy past, is only a temporary phase of t’shuva. It resembles the pain of surgery, when a disease must be cut out of the body. The uprooting of sin brings healing and joy in its wake, but the initial amputation is painful. It is difficult to give up the familiar, even if it be an evil habit. When a person understands this and opens himself up to change, he comes to be filled with a courageous new spirit and joy. His sins are forgiven. His life is renewed, and the world seems to be renewed with him. Immediately, he wants to share his good fortune with everyone. He tells his parents with a gleam in his eyes, as if he has met the right girl. With unbounded enthusiasm, he phones his brother long distance to turn him on to the great secret which he has discovered. He is so hopped up on t’shuva, he wants the whole world to know. “Hey everybody, listen to me. You want to be happy? You want to be high? Get with it. Don’t do drugs. Do t’shuva!”