Cheeseburgers and T'shuva
In some of our previous blogs about t’shuva, we have mentioned the bitterness and pain that accompanies the early stages of the process. When people begin to enter the realm of t’shuva, they start to experience a fear, an uncertainty, an inner anguish and pain. While this unpleasant aspect of t’shuva is quickly overshadowed and forgotten in the baal t’shuva’s pursuant great joy, it is a necessary step in the process. Recognizing its value and purging effect can help the penitent weather the stormy seas he must travel. The knowledge that the sun is shining just behind the clouds can give him the strength to continue. In the same way that a woman soon forgets the agonies of childbirth in the happiness of being a mother, the baal t’shuva quickly forgets the “labor pains” of t’shuva in the great joy of his rebirth. Rabbi Kook writes:
“T’shuva does not come to embitter life, but rather to make it more pleasant. The joy of life which comes from t’shuva evolves from the waves of bitterness which the soul wrestles with in the beginning of the t’shuva process. However, this marks the higher, creative valor which knows that sweetness stems from bitterness, life from death, eternal delight from infirmity and pain” (Orot HaT’shuva, 16:6).
When you first swallow aspirin tablets, there is a small taste of bitterness in the mouth. So too, in the initial stages of t’shuva, the first explorations of one’s inner world can cause uncomfortable feelings. However, as one continues on the path of inner cleansing, one discovers a great happiness in knowing that he is doing exactly what he was created to do — to get closer to G-d.
The process is not that at first you are sad and then you are happy. Rabbi Kook teaches that you are happy from being sad. It is the bitterness itself that causes the joy. One’s suffering makes one realize that the t’shuva is sincere.
Some people are overwhelmed by the mountain of sin which seems to confront them as they begin to set their lives in order. How can they deal with so many transgressions? How can they ever make the drastic changes needed to live a holy, ethical life? Rabbi Kook reassures us that this feeling of nervousness is a very good sign. It is a sign that the person has already broken free of his previous material perspective and is ready to consider a more spiritual life.
In the same way, Rabbi Kook tell us that if you are hurting inside, that is a sign of spiritual health. It’s a sign that your inner self recognizes that it does not belong to an environment of sin. Feeling pain over the sins of the past is an important part of the t’shuva process. It goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to a life of good deeds in the future.
The pain and anxiety associated with the first thoughts of t’shuva evolve, in part, from the need to separate from former ways. Just as an operation to remove a cancerous tumor from the body is accompanied by pain, so too is t’shuva. However, the pain is a sign that a healing process is underway. An amputation hurts, but sometimes it is needed to save a person’s life. Before the operation, the patient is wary. His leg may be gangrene, but it still is his leg. What will he be like without it? Will he be the same man? How will he function?
These are all natural, legitimate, and very distressing questions. The unknown can be scary. So too, when a person has become used to a part of his psyche, even if it be some negative trait which is detrimental to his inner well-being, it is not easy to escape from its clutches. Already it has become a citizen of his soul. Breaking away from the past and being open to change is not a simple task. Great inner courage is needed. Often, it can only be done with the help of a teacher or guide. In effect, in unveiling the step-by-step process of t’shuva, Rabbi Kook is giving us a map to assist us on the way.
“The pain experienced upon the initial thought of t’shuva derives from the severance from evil dispositions which cannot be corrected while they are organically attached to the person and damaging all of his being. T’shuva uproots the evil aspects of the spirit and returns it to its original essence. Every separation causes pain, like the amputation of a diseased organ for medical purposes. However, it is through these deep inner afflictions that a person is freed from the dark bondage of his sins and base inclinations, and from all of their bitter influences” (Ibid, 8:1).
An example will help us understand the pain that is associated with loss. The lover of cheeseburgers who realizes that he has to give up his favorite food to comply with the Jewish dietary laws will feel a sense of great stress. He lives on cheeseburgers. He loves cheeseburgers. All of his free time is centered around cheeseburgers. At his early stage of t’shuva, before he has encountered the ecstasy of discovering G-d and Torah, his sense of spiritual delight is not so keenly developed that he can easily do away with the material pleasure which cheeseburger-eating provides. Thus the very thought that cheeseburgers will no longer be a part of his life causes him pain.
While the example of an amputation helps us understand the pain of separation, a distinction between amputation and t’shuva must be made. Amputation removes all of the malignant limb, whereas t’shuva removes only the cancer. The cut of t’shuva is clean. No good cells are lost. After the incision is made, and a person decides to free himself from all of the negative aspects surrounding his soul, after he makes the cut, no organ is missing. Just the opposite occurs. He has gained in the process. Cut loose from the shackles of sin, he discovers incredible new energy and strength in cleaving to G-d.
Thus, when a person approaches t’shuva, the very first stage involves saying good-bye to some of his old emotional and psychological buddies, and this naturally causes remorse.
In addition to the pain caused by fears of separation and change, when a person begins a process of honest introspection into his spiritual life, a great fear of retribution arises. Confronting the darkness of his life, he is terrified of the blinding light at the end of the tunnel. He feels naked, sullen with sin, guilty, and deserving of punishment. Frightened, he often turns away. Terrified of the ghosts that he has discovered, he slams down the lid of the chest. He continues in his old ways, unchanged. Even though his sins are hurting him inside, the familiar pain, he decides, is more comfortable than the retribution he deserves. Yet if he had only gone forward, he would have discovered that the great light which frightened him was not the fire of Hades, but rather the warming flame of G-d’s transcendental kindness, which is always waiting to embrace the returnee with the gift of His love.
In analyzing the angst associated with t’shuva, Rabbi Kook reveals that this pain does not stem from the prospect of retribution, as the person believes, but rather from the pain of the soul itself.
“The great pains which fill the psyche at the thought of t’shuva, even though it sometimes seems that they are caused by the fear of retribution, are in truth, the sufferings of the soul because it is infested with sin, a state of being which is contrary to its pure, spiritual essence. It is these sufferings themselves, however, which cleanse the soul. The person who inwardly recognizes the treasure of goodness contained in these pains, accepts them with absolute love and peace of mind. In this way, he is elevated to many new heights; the Torah he learns stays with him; and his character is perfected. The effects of his sins on his soul are not only erased, but actually transformed into harbingers of good, radiating with a spiritual splendor” (Ibid, 8:2).
Thus the fear and pain which people initially encounter when they set out on the journey of t’shuva stems from several different causes, one deeper than the next. First, there is the fear of change and with having to part with old ways. Then there is a deeper fear of G-d’s punishment. However, Rabbi Kook explains that this fear of hell is really a projection. It is not the pain of purgatory which is felt, but rather the pain of sin itself. Sin is anathema to the soul. It is not an inherent part of man’s constitution. The soul is revolted by sin. It cries out in anguish. Unable to cope with his spiritual pain, man projects his inner turmoil onto something else, something outside of his life, onto little red devils and the torments of hell. This helps him to live with himself, to cover up the teeming spider nest inside him and say, “I’m really OK. It is God and His nasty devils who have the problem.”
Delving one step deeper, Rabbi Kook explains that the pain of sin results from the disharmony it causes between the soul and the essential goodness of life and the universe. Because an individual’s soul is attached to the soul of all existence, when a person falls into the darkness of sin, his soul is cut off from the positive Divine plan for the world and it experiences the pain of exile.
“Every transgression torments the heart because it severs the unity between the individual and all of existence... The basis of the pain which he feels does not stem from the specific transgression itself, but from the deeper essence of the sin which has alienated the soul from the natural order of life, which radiates with a Divine moral light that fills all of the world with unity and higher purpose” (Ibid, 8:3).
Rabbi Kook tells us that the true underlying pain of sin does not come from, for example, feeling remorse over having stolen, but from the alienation from God which the sin causes. An individual’s sins cut him off from the symphony of Creation. While the world is progressing forward on a developmental path of elevation and perfection, his sins are taking him backward. All of society, culture, medicine, and general human endeavor are going forward, improving, becoming more moral, and he is enmeshed in sin. It’s a little like an avid Internet surfer who has the whole world at his fingertips, but who is addicted to viewing porn. It may be that the individual is unaware of this spiritual imbalance, but his soul feels rent asunder. It senses its disharmony, disunity, and disconnection from life’s ongoing yearning for justice and goodness. Severed from the inner, spiritual dimension of life, a person suffers anxiety, anguish, and loneliness, in the many forms they take, including depression, neuroses, and disease. Though he may surround himself with hundreds of people, though he occupy himself day and night with business, family, and pleasure, he is a secretly tormented soul, a revolver ready to go off.
The remedy, Rabbi Kook teaches, is t’shuva. Only t’shuva can reconnect the sinner with God. Only t’shuva can restore the harmony between a man’s soul and the world. Only t’shuva can wipe away the sins which prevent a man from being a positive contributor to life.