Beit Midrash

  • The Art of T'shuva
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Chapter Two

Three Stages OF T'shuva


Rabbi David Samson

Av 5768
Rabbi Kook begins his exploration of tshuva by describing its three basic phases. He tells us that a person seeking happiness in life should have:

1) a healthy body and mind
2) a healthy orientation to religious belief
3) an idealistic aspiration to be in line with G-ds plan for the universe.

We discover tshuva in three different spheres: tshuva related to nature; tshuva related to faith; and tshuva related to intellect.

The concept of tshuva, which goes beyond a mere religious mending of ones ways to encompass the perfection of all of Creation, begins with the simple advice to be healthy. We mentioned that tshuva is essentially a return to ones roots. To do this, a person must first return to his natural physical being, to his natural physical self. To reach inner peace and harmony with the world, an individual must first have a healthy body.

In our days, where health-food stores and sports clubs abound, this simple teaching is known to almost everyone. A healthy body is the basis of all creative endeavor. What is new,however, is that Rabbi Kook sees this as part of the process oftshuva. Being in good shape is an important factor not only in attaining personal well-being, but also in forging a connection to G-d.

Physical tshuva encompasses all of the transgressions against the laws of nature, and against the laws of morality and Torah which relate to the laws of nature. In the end, every bad habit must cause illness and pain. Because of this, the individual and the community suffer greatly. After a person realizes that his own improper behavior is responsible for his life's physical decline, he thinks to correct the situation, to return to the laws of life, to adhere to the laws of nature, of morality, and of Torah,so that he may return to live revitalized by all of life's vigor.

A person is healthy when all of his metabolism is functioning in the proper natural balance. A person in tune with his bodys correct internal workings is able to be correctly aligned with the world. While this sounds like some Eastern mystical teaching, it is simply good advice. To hook up with the spiritual channels connecting heaven and earth, a person must first be in a healthy physical state. For instance, one of the basic requirements of prophecy is a strong, healthy body. Physical and spiritual health go together. The Rambam, who worked as a physician when he was not studying Torah, has systematically detailed in his writings the rules of healthy living, stressing the importance of exercise, proper diet, and bodily care as a prerequisite to keeping the Torah.

Today, everyone seems to have a battery of doctors. People cannot seem to do without an assortment of pills. Medical clinics are filled up months in advance. Yet the natural state of a man is to be healthy. Physical ailment, lethargy, and being overweight are all signs that the body is in need of repair. Sometimes the remedy is medicine. Sometimes a proper diet. Sometimes rest and relaxation are the cure.

Rabbi Kooks call to a state of natural well-being has been partly answered in our generation. Today, there is a vast world industry in being natural. We have natural foods, natural organic vegetables and fruits, natural whole wheat bread, natural herbal teas and medicines, natural clothes, natural childbirth, and an assortment of back-to-nature lifestyles. In the past, it was writ tenon food labels which ingredients were included. Now it is often written which ingredients are NOT INCLUDED: no preservatives,no additives, no salt, no carbohydrates, no artificial coloring, and the like.

In line with this return-to-Eden existence, Rabbi Kook teaches that when a person corrects an unhealthy habit, he or she is doing tshuva. It turns out that gyms and health clubs from California to Miami are filled with people doing tshuva. If you are riding an exercise bike to get back into shape, you are coming closer to G-d. Tennis players are doing tshuva. In Las Vegas,even though the morals of the health-conscious people in aerobics classes may be bent out of shape, they too are engaged in the beginnings of tshuva.

Accordingly, if a person stops smoking, he is engaging in repentance. If a fat person goes on a diet, he is embarked on a course of personal perfection and tikun. When a teenager who is addicted to Pepsi begins to drink fruit juice instead, he is returning to a healthier state. In place of caffeine, his blood will be carrying vitamins throughout all of his system. In the language of the Rambam, this person is replacing a food which merely tastes good, for one that is beneficial to the human metabolism. As he explains, a person should always eat what is healthy and not merely foods that give his taste buds a lift. Interestingly, the Rambams guide to healthy living, written generations ago, reads like the newest best-seller on the market.

It is important to note that while physical well being is a basic rule of good living, the injunction to be healthy is a principle of Torah. We are called upon to carefully guard your life. This is a warning to avoid needless danger and to watch over our health. Inflicting any kind of physical damage on oneself(like excessive cigarette smoking) is forbidden. The Rambam explains: Having a whole and healthy body is part and parcel of serving G-d, for it is impossible to have understanding and wisdom in the matter of knowing the Creator if a man is ill.Therefore one must avoid things which damage the body and to habituate oneself with things promoting health.

Toward the end of the book Orot HaTshuva, Rabbi Kook teaches that tshuva is bound up with personal strength and valor. Man was created to be a strong, active creature. This is true not only for athletes, but for spiritually enlightened people as well. The holy men of the Torah possessed not only great personal attributes and wisdom, but also great physical prowess.Though Yaacov spent all of his youth studying Torah, he could lift up a huge boulder when needed. The little shepherd boy David was able to overcome lions and bears. And the holy spirit (Ruach HaKodesh) which marked Samsons life was not only wisdom, but incredible physical brawn.

Rabbi Kook writes that a person must do tshuva for physical weaknesses and their consequences. For instance, a person who is overweight and easily tired may lack the energy to perform the commandments with the proper enthusiasm, or he may feel too weak to resist bodily temptations. His fatigue may interfere with his Torah learning and prayer. In G-ds service, a strong body and a strong mind go hand-in-hand.

Rabbi Kook explains that a weakening of the will is due in large measure to a lack of physical energy and strength. When a persons willpower is weak, he can fall into many bad habits.As part of his overall mending, he must improve his physical health, as well as his moral and spiritual worlds.

Interestingly, Rabbi Kook was condemned by certain ultra-Orthodox groups who belonged to the Old Settlement in Jerusalem when he extolled the virtues of exercise and a healthy physique. In his classic work, Orot, Rabbi Kook writes that the exercise of young Jews in Eretz Yisrael, in order to strengthen their bodies to become mighty sons to the nation, adds overall strength to the Jewish people, which enables the righteous to bring more Divine light into the world.

When young people engage in sport to strengthen their physical capabilities and morale for the sake of increasing the overall strength of the nation..., this holy endeavor raises the Divine Presence ever higher, just as it is exalted by the songs and praises sung by David, King of Israel, in the Book of Psalms....

Upon hearing this comparison between sport and the Psalms of King David, the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem vehemently attacked Rabbi Kook. They were afraid that any praise of the secular Zionists could lead to a crumbling of barriers between the holy and the profane. In addition to that very real concern, their negative attitude toward physical strength can be seen as having evolved from the miserable state of the Jew in the ghetto. In the Galut, Diaspora Jews were helpless against the oppression of the gentiles. A philosophy developed whereby a Jew was supposed to look solely to G-d for salvation and rescue. The Jews were so outnumbered, how could they fight? Physical prowess was meaningless. A Jew had to rely solely on Torah and prayer. While that might have been true in the Diaspora, with the return of the Jewish people to Israel, physical strength became a necessity if the Jews were to successfully settle the land and defend Jewish settlements against hostile neighbors.

In the generation of national revival, as the Jewish nation returns to its homeland, a new type of religious Jew must appear to take up the challenge. Rabbi Kook writes in Orot.

Our physical demand is great. We need a healthy body.Through our intense preoccupation with spirituality, we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected bodily health and strength. We forgot that we have holy flesh, no less than our holy spirit. We abandoned practical life, and negated our physical senses, and that which is connected to the tangible physical reality, out of a fallen fear, due to a lack of faith in the holiness of the land....

In fact, it is the revival of the nations physical strength which brings about a renewed spiritual strengthening.

All of our tshuva will only succeed if it will be, along with its spiritual splendor, also a physical tshuva which produces healthy blood, healthy flesh, firm, mighty bodies, and a flaming spirit spreading over powerful muscles. Through the power of the sanctified flesh, the weakened soul will shine forth like the deads physical resurrection.

Jews, religious or not religious, are not to be nebechs or weaklings whom everyone can push around. We need not be ashamed of our bodies. We must be strong to learn Gemara ,and strong to build the Land.

In other words, if Jews do not start planting fruit trees in Israel, then the harvest of fruit, the surest sign of redemption, is not going to happen. Rabbi Kook saw that the physical resettlement of Zion, even by secular Jews, was a great act oftshuva, of returning the nation to its roots.

Thus our first step on the journey of tshuva is physical health, both for the individual and for the nation. And truly, allover the world, people are jogging their way back to G-d. Once their bodies are in shape, the next step is to change the music in their Walkman headphones to a holier sounding tape.

The second category of natural tshuva has to do with the psychic and moral state of man. Rabbi Kook writes:

A more inner stage of natural tshuva applies to the psychological and spiritual state. This is commonly known as pangs of conscience. Man has a natural inclination to pursue a path of righteousness. When he strays from the way and falls into sin, if his spiritual sense has not been totally corrupted, this sense of morality will cause unease in his heart, and he will suffer pain. He will hurry to return and correct what has been perverted, to the point where he feels that the transgression has been erased.

This second aspect of natural tshuva forms the basis of a great deal of Western literature. Mans struggle with the warring sides of his inner nature has provided fertile ground for writers such as Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Hugo, Dickens, Shakespeare, Balzac, Hardy, and Joyce. Kant, the philosopher, maintained that mankind has a natural tendency toward morality. Psychologist shave written innumerable treatises on the subject of moral conscience. To all of them, it was clear that conscience played a key role in mans inner psyche.

By nature, people are generally good. They enjoy helping others and doing good deeds. When a person does bad things,he usually suffers remorse. Rabbi Kook says that this tendency of man drives him to be a better person. When the many powerful forces of life cause a person to stray from the paths of righteousness and goodness, the person will want to cease his lowly behavior and return to a loftier plane. Bothered by the inner voice of his conscience, he longs to rectify his wrongdoing.This call parallels his body's demand to be healthy. Both the body and soul have built-in alarm systems which sound a warning when a person strays too far from the dictates of proper living. As long as this inner sensitivity is still intact, the mechanism of tshuva promises recovery and rebirth. Inspired by the call to return to a life of physical and moral health, a person can be freed from the malaise of the past. Recommitted to a path of healthy, righteous living, he discovers the happiness he had lost.

According to Rabbi Kook, the second element of natural tshuva is just being a good person.

These two components of natural tshuva are not strictly religious concepts. They are not even exclusively Jewish. They are universal. We see them expressed in many shapes and forms whether under the headline of physical fitness, finding oneself,discovering self-confidence, or attaining true happiness. However, it is important to note that they are all a part of the phenomenon of tshuva.

After natural tshuva has elevated a person by putting the person in harmony with the inner demands of his body and soul, religious tshuva appears. This is the tshuva which most people identify as repentance. Here, the person decides that he is not only going to be physically and morally healthy he also longs to find favor with G-d. The directions and rules for this type of tshuva are prescribed at length in the Torah and scholarly commentaries. Here, religious tradition is needed.Without the commandments and details of Jewish law to guide him, a person would never know how to serve G-d. Someone who tries to please G-d according to his own understanding and whims is serving his imagination, not G-d. He is like a fool who sneaks into a pharmacy and starts handing out capsules and pills, neither knowing the proper medicines, nor their proper amounts. In the end, rather than healing people, he makes them sicker. Only by following G-ds commandments as set down in the Torah can a person hope to make a life-giving connection to G-d. For this, he needs specific directions the tenets of Judaism.

After the natural stage of tshuva comes (tshuva inspired by religious) belief. This phase of tshuva stems from religion and tradition, which deal extensively with tshuva. The Torah promises forgiveness for those who return from their wrongdoing. The transgressions of the individual and the community are erased through tshuva. The prophets extol the virtues of tshuva. In general, the entire value of the Torahs admonitions is built on tshuva inspired by religious belief....

It is important to emphasize that Rabbi Kook sees the different phases of tshuva as going together. Religious tshuva is not to come at the expense of proper physical and psychological health. A person is not to be outwardly religious yet morally corrupt or physically weak. Each stage has to be based on the stage before it. First a person should be physically healthy. Then he should have a healthy state of mind. He should feel motivated to do good things and to remedy ethical shortcomings.Once he is healthy and on a positive moral track, then he can get involved in religiosity. In doing so, he upraises his personal moral code to a higher, holier level by embracing a set of ethics which are prescribed not by the designs of his heart, but by the word of G-d as set forth in the Torah.

Now we come to the final and most exalted stage oftshuva. This phase also does not stand on its own, but follows after earlier stages. Once a person has a healthy body and mind,once he has formed an attachment to the Torah and is performing the commandments, he is ready for what Rabbi Kook calls tshuva sichlit. The literal translation, intellectual tshuva or tshuva through reason, does not express the craving for Divine Oneness which this concept implies. This sublime phase is more closely related to tshuva from ahava, from love. It is an all-encompassing return, motivated, not only by physical or spiritual wrongdoing, or by the influence of religion, whether out of fear of punishment, or through the uplifting effect of the commandments, but rather by a clear recognition which rises to expression after the natural and religious stages of tshuva have exerted their influence the understanding that the entire world is G-ds.

This phase of tshuva, which includes the earlier ones, is filled with boundless joy. It transforms all past trangressions into meritorious deeds. From every act of wrongdoing it derives lofty teachings. From every humiliation, it produces glorious ascents.

For example, a person who spent a lifetime lying, may decide that he wants to mend his ways. He may reach that decision because he feels an inner moral disgust. Or his decision may be formulated after learning that lying is against the laws of the Torah, and that the day of punishment awaits. However,if he gives up lying because he wants to be in harmony with the overall positive direction of existence, in line with the truth of Creation, then his tshuva is tshuva from love. It derives from the lofty understanding that mans highest purpose lies in pleasing his Maker. Realizing that the entire world is being cast into imbalance by the falsehoods he utters, he seeks to mend what he has damaged. He seeks to reunite with the Universal Good. His soul longs to be at one with all of Creation. He is not motivated by a fear of punishment, nor by the desire for reward, but by a far higher inspiration the recognition that G-ds will is directed toward absolute goodness and truth. In the illuminating light of tshuva, he understands that the world is constantly aspiring to reach a supernal level of existence. Every minute the universe is progressing toward a redemptive, messianic ideal which he yearns to experience. He resolves to correct his wrongdoing, because he realizes that lying is antagonistic toworld development and perfection. He wants to merge with the flow of life and synchronize his actions to the waves of Divine current and Divine spiritual energy which infuse all of existence.This is tshuva out of love which is not based on anything but an absolute love and devotion to G-d. Inspired by the radiance of G-ds goodness, he determines to change all of his negative,egotistical acts into positive, transcendental ideals.

This last level of tshuva not only atones for transgressions,but the transgressions themselves become transformed into meritorious deeds. All of the actions which brought him to this level of love, even his sins, now take on a positive light. For it was precisely his past wrongdoings which aroused his thoughts of repentance and helped him return with a purifying,burning desire to achieve oneness with G-d.

This is the tshuva to which everyone aspires, the tshuva which is determined to come, and which will certainly arrive.
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