Rabbi Kook teaches that t’shuva encompasses man’s physical being, his moral life, religious life, and his highest, most ideal intellectual endeavor. T’shuva is man’s path to wellbeing, to physical and emotional health, as well as his path to the deep self-discovery which connects him to God.
T’shuva can happen suddenly, in a burst of illumination which wondrously transforms life’s darkness to light, or it can evolve over time, gradually returning the body, psyche, and soul to the true Divine path of existence.
Rabbi Kook explains that t’shuva appears in two different penitential forms: t’shuva over a specific sin or sins; and a general, all-encompassing t’shuva which completely transforms a person’s whole being and life.
If general t’shuva can be compared to a complete car overhaul, where the entire motor is removed and replaced, then specific t’shuva is like a tune-up of engine parts, a spark plug here, a cable there, new brake fluid, oil and anti-freeze.
Specific t’shuva is commonly referred to as penitence. It is the t’shuva familiar to everyone, whereby a person sins, feels guilty, and decides to redress his wrongdoing. Rabbi Kook believes in the basic goodness of man. In his natural, moral, pristine state, man is a happy, healthy creature. When a man sins, his natural state is altered, and the difference causes him pain. Sin causes a distortion. It creates a barrier between man and his natural pure essence and source. Most essentially, sin damages man’s connection to God.
The feeling which results, whether we call it anxiety, pain, darkness, guilt, sickness, or remorse, impels the sinner to correct his wrongdoing, in order to return to the proper course of living. The sorrow which stems from transgression acts as an atonement, and the sinner is cleansed. Returned to his original state of wellbeing, the melancholy and darkness of sin is replaced by the joy and light of the renewed connection to goodness and God.
“There is a type of t’shuva which focuses on a specific sin, or many specific sins. The individual confronts his wrongdoing directly, regrets it, and feels sorry that he was ensnared in the trap of transgression. Then his soul climbs and ascends until he is freed from sinful bondage. He feels in his midst a holy freedom which brings comfort to his weary soul. His healing proceeds; the glimmers of light of a merciful sun, shining with Divine forgiveness, send him their rays, and, together with his broken heart and feelings of depression, a feeling of inner happiness graces his life…” (Orot HaT’shuva, 3).
There are times in everyone’s life when a person decides to change a particular habit, to improve a trait, or to right some outstanding wrong. He is not looking to change his whole life. Generally he is content, but he senses a need to remedy a specific failing. If a person realizes that he is stingy, he may decide that he wants to be more charitable. Or he may feel a pressing need to return a tennis racket which he stole. In the same light, a religious person may realize that his prayers lack enthusiasm and proper concentration. So he sets out to pray with more fervor. In these cases, his t’shuva deals with a specific life problem which he sets out to correct.
A person whose soul is sensitive to moral wrongdoing will feel remorse for his sins. The remorse weighs down on him, and he longs to break free from its shackles. The longing to redress his wrongdoing works like a force to shatter the darkness, opening a window of light. This light of t’shuva is a stream of Divine mercy. It is as if God reaches out and accepts the penitent’s remorse. The sin is forgiven. The path back to God has been cleared. Instead of darkness and gloom, happiness envelops the soul.
“He experiences this (happiness) at the same time that his heart remains shattered, and his spirit feels lowly and sad. In fact, this melancholy feeling suits him in his situation, adding to his inner spiritual gladness and his sense of true wholeness. He feels himself coming closer to the Source of life, to the living God, who had been so distant from him a short time before. His longing spirit jubilantly remembers its former inner pain, and, filled with emotions of gratitude, it raises its voice in song and praise: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all of His goodness; He forgives all thy iniquities, heals all thy diseases; redeems thy life from the pit; adorns thee with love and compassion; and satiates thy old age with good, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord performs righteousness and judgment for all who are oppressed’” (Tehillim, 103: 2-6. Orot HaT’shuva, 3).
The person who sins and feels remorse senses its cleansing power. He recognizes his pain as an atonement, and this brings him relief. Almost miraculously, the clouds of his transgression are lifted, and the light of t’shuva fills his being with joy. He senses that it is G-d who has freed him, and his heart abounds with gratitude and song.