Rav Kook on Teshuvah
by Rabbi David Zaslow
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was the Chief Rabbi of what would later become the nation of Israel until his death in 1935. A brilliant scholar and mystic, Rav Kook struggled valiantly to bring together religious and secular Jews who were returning to the Holy Land from all parts of the world. Rav Kook removes from penitence all negative connotations and makes it something desirous to experience. He does not use metaphor to decorate language, but to reveal deep spiritual truths and principles based on the Torah. His words and teachings are exquisite:
The currents of penitence rush along. They are like the streams of flame on the surface of the sun, which in an unceasing struggle to break out and ascend endow life to countless worlds and numberless creatures. One is powerless to absorb the multitude of varying colors that emanate from this great sun that shines on all the worlds, the sun of penitence. They are so many, they come with such a mighty sweep, with such wondrous speed. They come from the Source of Life itself…the individual and collective soul, the world soul, each soul…cries out like a fierce lioness in anguish for total perfection, for an ideal form of existence, and we feel the pain, and it purges us….
The Rebbe makes us want to repent and return to God as he describes how natural the process of teshuvah really is, rather than something to be avoided:
At once the person senses negativity and…he/she is converted into a new being. Already he experiences…a complete transformation for the better….The higher expression of penitence comes about as a result of a flash of illumination of the All-Good, the Divine…Who abides in eternity. The universal soul, the spiritual essence, is revealed to us in all its majesty and holiness, to the extent that the human heart can absorb it.
Rav Kook is so careful to emphasize that the act of penitence is not just some chore to accomplish during the Days of Awe, but actually has the most beneficial impact on the body. He makes the Hebraic link between soul, mind, and body when he writes,
Penitence is the healthiest feeling of the person. A healthy soul in a healthy body must necessarily bring about the great happiness afforded by penitents, and the soul experiences therein the greatest natural delight. The elimination of damaging elements has beneficent and invigorating effects on the body when it is in a state of health….How we need penitence, how vital it is to illumine the horizon of life! The spiritual channels are closed because of man’s sin…Not only personal sin weighs the soul down, but even more so, the sin of society.
Finally, the desire to return and to permit God to transform our lives may come after years of practice, self-discipline, therapy, and spiritual practice – or it may come in a flash.
Sudden penitence comes about as a result of a certain spiritual flash that enters the soul. At once the person senses evil and the ugliness of sin and he is converted into a new being; already he experiences inside himself a complete transformation for the better…the higher expression of penitence comes about as a result of a flash of illumination of the All-good, the Divine, delight of Him who abides in eternity. The universal soul, the spiritual essence, is revealed to us in all its majesty and holiness, to the extent that the human heart can absorb it.
May we all have the courage to improve and enhance the good that is within us during the Days of Awe and every day of the year. May we each recognize the spark of God that is the soul itself. May we wake up tomorrow morning and really recognize our true selves, our godly selves.