Beit Midrash

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Our Generation's "Teshuva From Love"

Why will this special Messianic generation, of all generations, be in such a sorry spiritual and material state? Logically when Israel improves its ways, they will be worthy of Redemption – so why will it actually be a period of spiritual crisis and other troubles?


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

Elul 5 5781
Our Sages have taught us that in the generation of the Footsteps of the Messiah, there will be great spiritual and physical tribulations. The Gemara states:

"… In the generation of Messiah ben David, Torah scholars decrease, the others are in sorrow, and one difficult decree follows another… Study houses will be for prostitution, the Galilee will be destroyed… the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog, and truth will be lacking… youths will mock their elders, a daughter will stand up to her father, and a daughter-in-law will stand up to her mother-in-law…there will be no reproof… They will despair of the Redemption. (Tr. Sanhedrin p. 97)

Why will this special Messianic generation, of all generations, be in such a sorry spiritual and material state? Logically it would seem that when Israel improves its ways, repents, and rids itself of the sins that caused the Exile, they will be worthy of Redemption – so why did the Sages say that this will actually be a period of spiritual crisis and other troubles?

The Maharal of Prague asks this question, and explains that this is the way of the world: Before something great comes upon the world, the previous situation must be canceled out – and the greater the renewal is to be, the greater must be the destruction of the previous status. The Maharal's point can be clearly understood when considering the construction of a new building: The old one must be destroyed and removed before the new one can be built in its place. The Redemption brings a new light, a new Torah greatness – and must therefore necessarily be preceded by a spiritual crisis.

Rav Kook adds another dimension to this concept. He says that we must differentiate between external reality and inner reality. Externally speaking, there is no question that the Exile and the destruction of the Jewish presence in the Holy Land led to a terrible situation, in which the curse of each day is greater than the one before it, and the deterioration appears never-ending. But this is just externally; when we look inward, we see that the world is actually improving and reaching higher and higher states. [Ed. note: These include advancements in medicine, ethical standards, the culture of war, and many other aspects of modern life.] That is, when the Sages spoke of the "deterioration of the generations" and "spiritual tribulations," this is just when we look from the outside. But when we look inward at the essence, the world is improving.

Rav Kook's source is the Tikkunei Zohar (#60) of the Kabbalah, which refers to the Gemara's question about why some righteous people suffer in this world while some evil people prosper. The Zohar tells us that the former includes those whose outside is bad but whose soul is good; these are "tzaddikim who suffer." Whereas one who is good and nice on the outside, but bad on the inside, he is "an evil person who prospers." And "good on the inside but with negative externals" – this describes the Messiah who may arrive not with pomp and circumstance, but as a "poor man riding on a donkey."

The Zohar thus says that the generation of the Messiah is poor and relegated to a donkey, and further, that the Footsteps of the Messiah generation is good on the inside even though its outside covering is bad.

Rav Kook further explains this concept in one his most famous letters, Letter 555 (equal in gematriya to the word Takanah, which means "rectification"). He writes about his/our generation that it is "good on the inside, bad on the outside." He notes that a donkey has two external signs of impurity – it both does not chew its cud and does not have a split hoof – while a pig and camel only have one impure sign each. Thus, a donkey is more externally impure than even a pig – yet still, on its inside it has sanctity, in that its firstborn is holy until it is redeemed. Rav Kook continues that in this generation of the Footsteps of the Messiah, Jews who appear externally to be sinners and non-believers, actually exhibit a special Jewish sanctity on the inside; they will be spiritually cured even though they currently display great darkness and decay.

Rav Chaim Vital wrote that he once asked his rabbi and teacher, the Arizal, "How can you tell me that my soul is so great, when in fact the smallest of those who lived in the early generations was a tremendous tzaddik to whose ankles I can't even reach. He told me that greatness of soul is not dependent on one's deeds, but only upon the times and the generation, and that a simple act in this generation is equal to many great mitzvot of later generations – because in these later times, the "outer shell" gets stronger and stronger. He said that if I lived in the earlier generations, my deeds and wisdom would have been greater than some of the righteous people of those times…"

We thus see that the souls of the later generations are greater than those who lived earlier.

The Arizal also taught that every generation of the Exile has its unique mission to rectify a particular fault. The first Exile was meant to fix the head, and the final Exile follows the rectification of all the other organs; only the legs will need to be fixed. And when nothing other than the heels need be rectified, the external forces that fight and negate sanctity become stronger, and it becomes harder and harder to identify that which is sacred and good – until finally, "all death will be swallowed up for eternity" (Isaiah 25).

We see that Rav Kook's approach is well-grounded in the inner sources (Kabalah) of our Torah. Only great and inward-looking souls are able to see and perceive in this manner. As Rav Kook writes in the Takanah letter about the Amoraic Sage Rav Yosef, who praised his own humility: "And even though it appears that Rav Yosef is being boastful by doing so, he actually had a sublimely special soul, and talked about himself with true and complete sanctity and humbleness, akin to that of the Master of Prophets, Moshe Rabbeinu."

From these teachings of Rav Kook, we learn to recognize and understand our generation, that of the Footsteps of Messiah – the generation of the arrival of the Son of David. This is a generation that is good inside, despite how it looks from the outside. And the value of a good deed today is amazingly great, and every thought of repentance that is thought today has tremendous significance. This is a generation of "teshuva me'ahava," repentance that stems from love, and everyone who does real teshuva nowadays, his sins become genuine merits [as is explained elsewhere in depth].

It is hard to believe that this is the case, but we have shown above how it is well-grounded. This is a generation in which our entire nationhood is revealed. In the Land of Israel, the nation is sprouting nationally, and therefore every act of an individual is no longer only an isolated deed, but is rather connected with the full manifestation of the nation, which helps it take upon greater value. As Rav Kook explains in Meorot HaR'ayah: "Teshuva in our days is always on a sublime level – it is teshuva from love, where the sins become merits; sins cannot do the damage they did in earlier generations because the world is now so strongly grounded, and because of the abundance of mercy and kindness that shine down upon it now…"

It is with this noble and lofty outlook that we gaze upon this generation and upon teshuva. And this is how we begin the month of Elul, the month of repentance, as we approach the Days of Awe one month from now. May we be comforted from all our troubles and merit a complete salvation, speedily in our days!
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