Reimagining Repentance

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In his breathtaking work Orot HaTeshuva, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt”l wonders aloud whether he is suited to pen a new treatise on the topic of repentance.[1] After all, he writes, the subject matter has been richly treated by a multitude of sages. Rav Kook counters that he has no choice. He feels compelled to share his own understanding for a new generation in need of hearing teshuva taught in a language and perspective uniquely suited for them.

Almost one hundred years later our generation is indebted to Rav Kook for pouring his immense spiritual and intellectual energy into each and every word of this precious volume.

Rav Kook’s Teshuva:

והתשובה הראשית…היא שישוב האדם אל עצמו, אל שרש נשמתו (אורות התשובה טו:י)

“The primary role of Teshuva…is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul.” (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10)

Teshuva should not be translated as ‘repentance’, a word which conjures up a negative sense of feeling sorry and broken for our misdeeds or moral shortcomings. Teshuva for Rav Kook is empowering and invigorating. Teshuva is a return to our true selves – bringing ourselves back to center. “Teshuva is, in essence, an effort to return to one’s original status, to the source of life and higher being in their fullness…” (Orot HaTeshuva 12:8)

Rav Kook lovingly prods us to focus on the positive. There is no denying the work we need to do to overcome our impatience, our stinginess, laziness, ingratitude or whatever aspect of our character is handicapping our lives and our growth. However, when we take a step up on the spiritual ladder we feel the immense satisfaction in reaching more of our potential.

התשובה באה משאיפת המציאות כלה להיות יותר טובה ומזככת, יותר חסינה ומעלה ממה שהיא

“Teshuva is inspired by the yearning of all existence to be better, purer, more vigorous and on a higher plane than it is.” (Orot HaTeshuva 6:1)

Rav Kook understands the process of return as a natural process. Sin is nothing but a deviation from man’s true nature.

התשובה היא ההרגשה היותר בריאה של הנפש (אורות התשובה ה:א)

“Teshuva is the healthiest feeling of a person.” (Orot HaTeshuva 5:1)

Teshuva is not undertaken despite nature or in opposition to it, but rather is facilitated by virtue of nature and because of it.

A verse from Tehillim bears out this fresh approach of  Rav Kook:

אור זרוע לצדיק ולישרי לב שמחה

“Light is sown for the righteous (tzadik), and joy for the upright (yashar) of heart.” (Psalms 97:11)

We generally assume that the term tzadik describes a person who attains the highest place in religious devotion and yet the verse suggests that the yashar attains an even higher level. The Talmud (Taanit 15a) confirms that this verse teaches that the yashar is more elevated. Who then is the tzaddik and who is the yashar? Rav Kook answers that the tzaddik is identified as one who overcomes his inclinations and subdues his yetzer hara to do God’s will. The yashar, on the other hand, aligns his will with God’s will. The yashar does not feel tension. He cleaves to God. His inner world harmonizes with the will of the Divine.[2]

It is remarkably fitting that we commence the Kol Nidre prayer on the holy night of Yom Kippur reciting specifically this verse of אור זרוע לצדיק ולישרי לב שמחה aloud several times. This practice may be understood as an opportunity for self reflection or as a meditation. Rav Kook’s breakthrough teaching suggests that when we turn to God in teshuva the focal point is not on conquering one’s desires and evil impulses. Rather, our hearts aspire to attain a teshuva that is suffused with simcha, tranquility and joy.

When To Do Teshuva?

Rav Kook was careful to emphasize that the act of teshuva is not a chore we undertake only during the High Holidays but it is a continuous endeavor. Strikingly, Rav Kook suggests that teshuva is especially propitious while Shabbat is entering.

בערב שבת קדש צריכים לעסק בתשובה על כל העבר בימות החל

“On the eve of Shabbat one should engage in Teshuva for all that transpired during the previous week…”  (Orot Hateshuva 14:33)

For Rav Kook, erev Shabbat is an opportune time for teshuva because it is a time that we begin to cleanse ourselves of the various distractions which interfere with enabling ourselves to align with our inner selves and link in to our true aspirations and dreams. The arrival of Shabbat awakens us to our higher selves and our truest yearnings. As Rav Kook says, “When a person forgets the nature of his essential soul, when he distracts himself from looking at the core of his inner life, then everything becomes confused…” (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10). Shabbat gives us a new perspective on our week.

This insight from Rav Kook is reminiscent of a wonderful chassidic story which relates the unique practice, every Friday afternoon, of Reb Elimelech of Lizensk. As the sun would begin to set the Rebbe would enter the kitchen and ask each member the kitchen staff for forgiveness if he had not been sufficiently sensitive to them over the past week. The Rebbe would then go and gather his family members, his wife, his children, and with tears in his eyes he would ask them for forgiveness. With this deed the Rebbe would a bring back a wholeness that was lost during the week.

As we stand before the start of a new year it is incumbent upon us to aspire to a path of teshuva that brings healing and renewed strength; the type of teshuva lovingly taught by Rav Kook,  which brings us into harmony with ourselves, our families, our community, and with God.

[1] The first edition of Orot HaTeshuva appeared in 1925. Many consider this to be Rav Kook’s most popular work.

[2] Olat Reiyah Volume 2, p.17 The following teaching in Pirkei Avot (2:4) captures this sentiment in three words: “Aseh Retzono Ke’retzoncha,” Make His will your will. It is the yashar who experiences simcha  – u’liyishrie lev simcha.