Teshuvah That Builds, Not Breaks

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Years ago, as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp, I watched a teenage camper leave a shiur in tears after hearing a well-meaning speaker describe the need to do teshuvah for mitzvot. The speaker challenged the campers, “Were your mitzvot performed with all their details correctly? Did you have the correct intentions in mind?” That we all have sins is a given, but did you realize your ‘good’ deeds were not even good enough? Overwhelmed by the vision of a heavenly scale weighed down by both averot and sub-par mitzvot towards a guilty verdict, the camper picked herself up mid-shiur and left in despair. Following her out, I offered the crying teen tissues, a snack, and an invitation to study Rav Kook’s view of teshuvah.

In his teachings about teshuvah, Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook zt”l (1865-1935), the halakhist and poetic Jewish thinker, draws on kabbalistic notions to expand teshuvah beyond the narrow confines in which it is normally understood. Classic texts on teshuvah from the medieval period, such as Sha`arei Teshuvah of Rabbenu Yonah Gerondi, focus on specific acts that require repentance, such as a commandment that was violated or neglected. Their wording is harsh, and the penitent is meant to return to Hashem through feelings of failure and smallness. The Hasidei Ashkenaz, led by Rabbi Yehudah he‑Hassid, author of the Sefer Hasidim, and his student Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, went so far as to recommend self-mortifications intended to counter any pleasure engendered by the sin. Elements of these approaches continue to resonate, reinforced by the teachings of certain schools of the Mussar movement, and for many the tough-love approach to teshuvah works. Still others may leave the process of teshuvah altogether, feeling they will never be good enough. Rav Kook’s writings demonstrate a keen awareness of the thin line between guilt and giving up.

Rav Kook seeks to build rather than break individuals through the teshuvah process, by strengthening their innate will to do good. In kabbalistic thought, Hashem created the world from the will to perform kindness and is thus referred to as the Ra’ava de-Ra’avin, the Will of all Wills. An individual’s will, or ratzon, stems from Hashem and fundamentally desires to do the right thing. Indeed, the philosopher Immanuel Kant considered the only perfect good to be good will. For Rav Kook, isolating and encouraging one’s will to do good is the key element of a return to Hashem and righteousness. The soul, he notes, longs to be close to Hashem and sin creates a separation. The sinner is then pained with a feeling of general uneasiness, a spiritual ache, caused by sinful actions. Actions that do not align with one’s truest will, the will to act rightly, to live up to the potential imbued within, and to be a part of the process of elevating and perfecting the world, pain the soul. Teshuvah that seeks to avoid punishment is a lowly form of teshuvah because it does not get to the root of the pain, to close the chasm between Man and Hashem created by sin. Elevated teshuvah, traditionally referred to as teshuvah me-ahavah, is motivated by a longing to reconnect and achieved by realigning one’s actions with one’s will.

How does will, ratzon, relate to teshuvah? Rav Kook focuses on the thought process of change, which begins with identifying the positive ratzon buried within every act. In private contemplation, individuals should clarify in their minds both the positive and negative elements of their actions, with care to recognize the good, so as not to be overcome with remorse. Rav Kook stresses that remorse must be limited to the negative aspects alone that one identifies. Feeling like a failure is the enemy of teshuvah. After separating the two in one’s mind, Rav Kook encourages delving further into one’s flaws and identifying goodness hidden within them. Perhaps one was short tempered, but that short temper was due to hunger, and hunger came about from skipping meals, and skipping meals was the result of being busy at work, where the person was well-meaningly helping others and sacrificed the need to stop and eat. Rav Kook begs the penitent to vigorously seek the kernel of goodness buried in each negative act. This thought exercise is the first step towards real change. It correctly identifies the root of misdeeds and simultaneously strengthens the will to do good.

As we judge ourselves in preparation for the judgment of Rosh HaShanah, it is worthwhile to try the teshuvah process taught by Rav Kook. In contrast to teshuvah processes that leave people feeling belittled, Rav Kook contends that recognizing our innate desire to do the right thing and strengthening that desire is the greatest force of change possible. Based on the Talmud, Rav Kook explains that when the sinner finds the goodness within and even within the sin, the sin becomes a merit! Through clarifying the root of our sins, we can reidentify the innate goodness within ourselves and rededicate our will to do the right thing. In doing so, our sins will become the vehicle through which we are drawn closer to Hashem. With the merit of our mitzvot and our missteps, elevated and redeemed through the process of teshuvah, the scales will be”H tilt in our favor.