“The foundation of t’shuva should always be established on the goal of improving the future. In the beginning of the t’shuva process, correcting the past should not be seen as an impeding prerequisite. If a person would immediately start by redressing the past, he would encounter many obstacles, and the paths of t’shuva, and the coming closer to God, would seem to be too difficult. However, if a person truly endeavors to refine his future deeds, Divine assistance is promised, even in correcting transgressions of the past” (Ibid, 13:9).
Since it is easier to commit oneself to a more positive life in the future, this is the place to start. For instance, a person decides that from now on he will not say anything bad about people. This future-oriented t’shuva is easier to pinpoint and work on. Someone can even make a list of goals and refer to it every day to help him keep on his course. This way, consistent progress will be made and feelings of frustration will become less and less acute.
It is much harder to figure out how you are going to mend wrongdoings which you have done in the past. First of all, a person may not remember all of his sins. For example, it is hard to remember all of the bad things one might have said about people. Or if he cheated a lot of people in business deals, how can he find everyone in order to make amends? A situation like this can cause a person to give up in despair.
Rabbi Kook’s advice is to set out correcting the transgressions of the past which are within the person’s reach to correct. This will set into motion a snowball of t’shuva whose inner force will lead him to correct matters more and more difficult, until he succeeds in redressing all wrongs.
In summary, stage one is the consolation in knowing that the thought of t’shuva is already t’shuva. Stage two is developing a firmer base in the Torah. Stage three is the resolve not to sin in the future. Stage four, the resolve to gradually address the wrongs of the past, beginning with the matters that are easiest to mend.
Ironically, the commandments of the Torah, the very pathways to freedom, are often seen as barriers to t’shuva. People who are seeking horizons of ideal justice and universal peace can feel constricted by the Torah’s demands. They feel frustrated by the nitty-gritty details of the law. They erroneously believe that t’shuva is a retreat from the world, a journey toward spiritual isolation and pure contemplation, away from the complex moral dilemmas of everyday life. These people maintain that since the world is corrupt, and since they yearn to be moral, they will avoid all contact with worldly matters. Thus, the commandments of the Torah, with their focus on perfecting practical life, are seen as barriers to their goals.
We have mentioned that a strategy of worldly separation may be a helpful early phase of t’shuva, but it is not the end of the journey. In fact it ends in spiritual limbo, leaving a person isolated on a mountaintop, neither in heaven, nor down on earth. Rabbi Kook writes that there is a far superior strategy. This is the study of the “Hoshen Mishpat,” the civil laws which govern man’s dealings with his fellow man, laws involving money, property, contracts and the like. A Jew should become versed in all of its details in order to know precisely the principles of Divine justice on earth. For instance, Rabbi Kook writes:
“It is especially important to do t’shuva regarding transgressions against other people, especially regarding theft, which hinders the elevation of the will. A person must be stringent in this and trust in God’s assistance to attain the state of purity where he will reject anything associated with unjust gain and oppression” (Ibid, 18:4).
Learning the laws of the “Hoshen Mishpat” will guard a person from uncertainty and error, and offer clear guidelines in the day-to-day dealings of life. In addition to this study, and to the regular study of the Torah’s many branches, Rabbi Kook teaches that special attention must be given to heightening moral sensitivities, and to the contemplation of exalted spiritual concepts, so that the soul will long for Divine justice in every aspect of life. This will bring the light of t’shuva to all facets of social interaction. In this manner, a person not only betters himself, he also improves the world.