Beit Midrash

  • The Art of T'shuva
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Chapter Five

T'shuva Makes The World Go round


Rabbi David Samson

2 min read
The Gemara teaches that tshuva existed before the world was created. In a similar vein, Rabbi Kook writes that the spirit of tshuva hovers over the world and gives it its basic form and the motivation to develop. It is tshuva which gives the world its direction and its inner energy to constantly progress. The desire to refine the world and to embellish it with beauty and splendor all derive from the spirit of tshuva.

Tshuva is the Divine, spiritual force in the universe which is constantly propelling all of existence toward perfection. It is the voice of G-d calling, Return to Me, you children of men. Due to the separation from G-d through transgressions, improper living, or through the act of Creation itself, there is a constant drive in all things to return to a harmony with their Maker.Rabbi Kook writes that, It is impossible to express this awesomely deep idea. The force of tshuva, like gravity in the physical world, is built into the inner fabric of life. It stands as the impetus behind all human history, all world development, all endeavor toward social improvement. It is the force which inspires all cultural, artistic, and scientific advancement.Similarly, the yearning of mankind for universal justice and moral perfection is a product of the encompassing, ever-present power of tshuva.

On a personal level, when a man sells his house in the country because he wants to improve the quality of his life, he is involved in tshuva. When a family has a fun and relaxing vacation, they are being motivated by forces of tshuva. Though there may be underlying factors of profit and self-interest when a pharmaceutical company produces a new drug, they too are involved in tshuva, if their product truly helps to benefit the world.

Tshuva derives from the yearning of all existence to be better, purer, more fortified and elevated than it is. Hidden within this desire is a life-force capable of overcoming that which limits and weakens existence. The personal tshuva of an individual, and even more so of the community, draws its strength from this source of life which is constantly active with never-ending vigor.

In his writings, Rabbi Kook illuminates the phenomenon oftshuva in an entirely new fashion. Here we encounter the notion of tshuva, not as personal penitence alone, but as an ever-active force in the world which constantly works to unite all things with G-d.

The currents of specific and general tshuva flood along.They resemble waves of flames on the surface of the sun, which break free and ascend in a never-ending struggle, granting life to numerous worlds and numberless creatures. It is impossible to grasp the multitude of colors of this great sun that lights all worlds, the sun of tshuva, because of their abundance unadventurous speed, because they emanate from the Source of life itself....

In his poetic style, Rabbi Kook describes tshuva like a sun which sends out constant flames of warming light to the world.Just as G-d has created the sun as life's principle energy source,so too is tshuva the spiritual energy source of existence.Tshuva does not only operate when a person decides to mend his erring ways; tshuva exists all of the time. It exists both within man and all around him, as a personal tshuva, and as a tshuva which comes from Above. Like gravity, or the wind,or the rays of the sun, tshuva is ever present. It is a constant force always at work, bringing the world to completion. One day the force may hit Jonathan; the next day Miriam; one day soon it will uplift the Jewish people as a whole. Its waves flow by us in a continuous stream. Minute by minute, the song oftshuva calls out to us to hurry and join in the flow.

Now that we recognize that tshuva is an independent force which G-d has implanted into the fabric of Creation, we mus task, what does it do?

Throughout his writings on tshuva, Rabbi Kook has to clothe his profound understandings in a wardrobe of metaphors to express the workings of tshuva.

The individual and the collective soul, the world soul, the soul of all worlds of Creation, roars like a mighty lioness in agony for complete perfection, for the ideal existence; and we experience the pain, and it purges us like salt sweetens meat, the pain sweetens our bitterness.

Rabbi Kook emphasizes that the soul grows toward perfection. The soul has a built-in motor that guides it toward perfection. The perfection it seeks is the union with G-d. This is what King David is expressing when he says, Of Thee my heart has said, Seek My Presence. Thy Presence, Hashem, I will seek. One unites with G-d when one has a knowledge of G-d and performs His will. G-ds will is housed in this world in the Torah and its commandments.

What empowers the soul to seek out its Maker? What gives it fuel for the quest? The power of tshuva.

Through the force of tshuva all things return to G-d. By the existence of tshuvas power which prevails in all worlds,all things are returned and reconnected to the realm of Divine perfection. Through concepts of tshuva, understandings oftshuva, and feelings of tshuva, all thoughts, ideas, understandings, desires, and emotions are transformed and return to their essential character in line with Divine holiness.

Before continuing, it may be beneficial to say a few words about the concept of returning to G-d. What does this mean?Where have we gone that we need to return? This is a very profound question, and only the beginnings of an answer will be given here. The soul, in its essence, belongs to the world of souls. When it is placed in this world, in a physical body, it naturally longs to go home. For the soul, going home is being reunited with G-d. One of the great innovations of Judaism is the teaching that this reunion is not limited to the return of the soul to Heaven after the death of the body. Unlike other religions, Judaism teaches that the soul can find union with G-din this world. This union is brought about when a Jew performs the Torahs commandments.

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden describes mans existential plight. In effect, the sum of world history is man kinds journey to return to the Garden. Not only man, but the world itself wants to return to its original state.This yearning is one of the most powerful forces of Creation.Thus the world roars like a mighty lioness to return to its original, ideal closeness to G-d.

Once we understand that the goal of existence is to be reunited with G-d, and that the force of tshuva is at work all of the time, we can understand that the tshuva of the individual over specific sins, and the encompassing tshuva of the world longing for perfection, all stem from the same essential drive.

General tshuva, which is the uplifting of the world to perfection; and specific tshuva, which relates to the particular personality of each individual, including the smallest items needing improvement in all of their details... they are both of one essence. So too, all of the cultural reforms which lift the world out of moral decay, along with social and economic advancements,and the mending of all transgression... all of them comprise a single entity, and are not detached one from the other.

The perfection of all of the different people and ideologies in the world really represents one giant unified tshuva. To understand this deep idea, it may help to momentarily substitute another word for tshuva when we speak about the tshuva of culture, society, and ultimately of the world. Instead of the word tshuva, lets use the word geula, or redemption. To Rabbi Kook, tshuva and redemption share the same direction and goal to bring healing to a suffering world. Redemption is the ever-active historical process which brings the nation of Israel and the world to perfection and completion. The zenith of redemption is reached at the End of Days with the arrival of Mashiach and Israels great material and spiritual Renaissance.When this great day arrives, the Kingdom of G-d will be established throughout the world; Israel will be recognized as His truly chosen people; the nations will flock to Jerusalem to learn the laws of the G-d of Jacob; and truth and justice will reign supreme. In this glorious future, prophecy will be reestablished in Israel, and life itself will experience the zenith of tshuva when the dead are resurrected from their graves.

Using the concept of redemption to illuminate our understanding of world perfection, we can better appreciate Rabbi Kooks great vision of tshuva.

With each second, in the depths of life, a new illumination of supreme tshuva shines ever forth, just as a new glowing light constantly sparkles through all realms of existence and replenishes them.... The fruit of the highest forms of moral and practical culture, blossom and grow in the flow of this light. In truth, the light of the whole world and its renewal in all of its forms, in every time and age, depends on tshuva. This is especially true regarding the light of Mashiach, the salvation of Israel, the rebirth of the Jewish nation and its Land, language,and literature all of them stem from the source of tshuva,and all will emerge from the depths to the exalted reaches of the highest tshuva.

Tshuva and redemption are parallel processes, reaching the same destination. The main difference between them is one of style and not of substance. For example, redemption has a broad historical, international base with political consequences.Though there are differences between them, these two phenomona are closely intertwined, so that when Rabbi Kook speaks about the tshuva of the entire world, he is speaking about its overall moral, material, and spiritual redemption.

As we learned, mankind is always involved in tshuva. The fact that there are many non-religious people today should not be held up as a contradiction. Tshuva must be looked at in an undivided perspective that spans all generations.

A story about Rabbi Kook may help illustrate this. One day,Rabbi Kook was walking by the Old City in Jerusalem with Rabbi Chaim Zonnenfeld, one of the leading rabbis of the Orthodox community.

Look how awful our situation is, the rabbi observed. See how many secular Jews there our in the city. Just a few generations ago, their fathers fathers were all Orthodox Jews.

One must look at Am Yisrael in a wider perspective,Rabbi Kook answered. Do you see this valley over here, the Valley of Hinom? This was once a site for human sacrifice. Today, even the crassest secularist will not offer his child as a human sacrifice for any pagan ideal. When you look at today's situation in the span of all history, things do not seem so bad. On the contrary, you can see that there has been great progress.

The Rambam, at the end of the Laws of Kings, refers to this same development process of redemption which encompasses all things in life. He asks the question if Christianity is a false religion, why did G-d grant it so much dominion? In the time of the Rambam, Christianity and Islam ruled over the world. The Jews suffered miserably under both. The Rambams answer is based on a sweeping historical perspective which finds a certain value in Christianity even though the Rambam himself classifies Christianity as idol worship. On the one hand, he unequivically condemns Christianity, and on the other hand he maintains that Christianity has a positive role in the development of world history. How are we to reconcile this contradiction?

The Rambam writes that Christianity serves as a facilitator to elevate mankind from the darkness of paganism toward the recognition of monotheism. In effect, it is a stepping stone enabling mankind to make the leap from idol worship to the worship of G-d. The belief in an invisible G-d does not come easily to the masses. Christianity, weaned mankind away from the belief in many gods to a belief in a triumvirate of a father, a son,and a holy ghost. Once the world is accustomed to this idea,though it is still idol worship, the concept of one supreme G-dis not so removed. Furthermore, the Rambam writes that Christianity's focus on the messiah prepares the world for the day when the true Jewish messiah will come. Today, because of Christianitys influence, all of the world, from Eskimos to Zulus,have heard about the messiah, so that when he arrives, he will have a lot less explaining to do. Oh, its you, mankind will say on the heralded day. We've been waiting for you.

Thus, when world history is looked at in an encompassing perspective, even Christianity, with all of its many negative factors can be seen to play a positive role in man kinds constant march toward tshuva.

When we understand this historic, all-encompassing perspective, we can see that a world movement like Christianity,despite all of its evil, can influence the course of human history toward a higher ideal. But how does one mans tshuva bring redemption closer? How does a persons remorse over having stolen some money bring healing to the cosmos as a whole?

The answer is that one is to look on each individual, not as a unit separated from the rest of the world, but as being integrally united with all of Creation.

The nature of the world and of every individual creature,the entire sweep of human history and the life of every person,and his deeds, must be viewed from one all-encompassing perspective, as one unity made up of many parts....

A man is not a fragmented being disconnected from the past and the future. He is part of the continuity of generations.He is a part of his national history and a sweeping world drama.In the same way that he is a product of his past, he is also the seed of the future. When a man sees himself in this wider perspective, the tshuva he does for personal sins is magnified by his connection to all generations. Thus, his personal tshuva is uplifted by the general tshuva of the world, which strengthens his own drive to do good. This merging of an individuals tshuva with the mighty stream of the universal will for goodness is the source of the great joy which tshuva always brings.

Tshuva comes forth from the profoundest depths, from the vast depths where the individual is not a separate entity,but rather a continuation of the greatness which pervades universal existence. The yearning for tshuva (on a personal level)is connected to the worlds yearning for tshuva at its most exalted source. And since the great current of the flow of lifes yearning is directed toward doing good, immediately many streams flow through all of existence to reveal goodness and to bring benefit to all.

For example, as a wheel axis spins, the spokes and the whole wheel spins with it. So too, a person who steals should not look at his theft as his own personal dilemma, he should see his stealing as something that damages the moral environment around him, and this adds evil to the society where he lives, and this increases the evil in the world. When he starts returning the money he took, he adds goodness to the world and brings all of existence closer to moral perfection. Like a stone thrown into a pool, his individual tshuva sends waves of tshuva rippling through all realms of life, from his family and immediate surroundings, to his community, his nation, and the world. Because his soul is attached to the soul of the world, in purifying his soul, he helps purify all realms of being.

Thus, Rabbi Kook writes that it is impossible to quantify the importance of practical tshuva, the correcting of ones behavior in accordance with the Torah, which raises the soul of the individual and the soul of the community to higher and higher levels. Every step along the way contains myriads of ideals and horizons of light.

This understanding led our Sages to say that Great is tshuva,for it brings healing to the world, and even one individual who repents is forgiven and the whole world is forgiven with him.

The more we contemplate to what extent the smallest details of existence, the spiritual and the material, are microcosms containing the general principles, and understand that every small detail bears imprints of greatness in the depths of its being we will no longer wonder about the secret of tshuva which so deeply penetrates mans soul, encompassing him from the beginning of his thoughts and beliefs to the most exacting details of his deeds and character.... When we will know more about the qualitative value of man and his spirit, and about the character which his imprint gives to existence, we will immediately perceive the glowing relationship between the great cosmic tshuva, in all of its breadth, depth, and loftiness, and thetshuva of man, the individual and the community, around which all of the stratagems of practical and spiritual life revolve. When a man understands that his personal tshuva advances the redemption process of the world, his motivation to mend his own life is enhanced. His own personal tshuva expands beyond his life's limited boundaries and brings benefit to all of mankind. No longer dwelling on escaping his own personal darkness, he altruistically yearns to bring greater illumination to the world. This is the zenith of tshuva.
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