“The Art of T’shuva,” Part 6
Shut the latches of the spaceship. Fasten your seat belts. Get ready for another magic mystery tour through the galaxies of t’shuva, as illuminated for us in the writings of Rabbi Kook. If you were wise, you’d order the book today, so you can hurry up and do as much t’shuva as you can before the High Holy Days, when the Holy One Blessed Be He takes out the Big Microscope in the sky.
As we previously learned, mankind is always involved in t’shuva. The fact that there are many non-religious people today should not be held as a contradiction. T’shuva must be looked at in an encompassing perspective that spans all generations.
A story about Rabbi Kook may help illustrate this. One day, he was walking by the Old City in Jerusalem with Rabbi Chaim Zonnenfeld, one of the leading rabbis of the Ultra-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 father’s 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 God 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 Rambam’s 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 (Laws of Idol Worship, 9:4, uncensored edition). On the one hand, he emphatically 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 God. The belief in an invisible God does not come easily to the masses. Christianity, weaned mankind away from the belief in many gods to a belief in a “three-leaf clover” 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 God is 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 Christianity’s influence, all the world, from the Eskimos to the Zulus, have heard about the messiah, so that when he arrives, he will have a lot less explaining to do. “Oh, it’s you,” mankind will say on the heralded day. Though they will be surprised to find out that it’s not Jezeus, they’ll say all the same, “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 mankind’s constant march toward t’shuva.
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 man’s t’shuva bring redemption closer? How does a person’s remorse over having stolen some money bring healing to the cosmos as a whole?
The answer is that we are 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. Rabbi Kook writes:
“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...” (Orot HaT’shuva, 4:4).
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 t’shuva he does for personal sins is magnified by his connection to all generations. Thus, his personal t’shuva is uplifted by the general t’shuva of the world, which strengthens his own drive to do good. This merging of an individual’s t’shuva with the mighty stream of the universal will for goodness is the source of the great joy which t’shuva always brings.
“T’shuva 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 t’shuva (on a personal level) is connected to the world’s yearning for t’shuva at its most exalted source. And since the great current of the flow of life’s yearning is directed toward doing good, immediately many streams flow through all of existence to reveal goodness and to bring benefit to all” (Ibid, 6:1).
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 t’shuva sends waves of t’shuva 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 t’shuva, and the correcting of one’s 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 t’shuva, for it brings healing to the world,” (Yoma 86A) and “even one individual who repents is forgiven and the whole world is forgiven with him” (Ibid 86B).
“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 t’shuva which so deeply penetrates man’s soul, encompassing him from the beginning of his thoughts and beliefs to the most exacting details of his deeds and character” (Orot HaT’shuva, 11:4).
When a man understands that his personal t’shuva advances the redemptional process of the world, his motivation to mend his own life is enhanced. His own personal t’shuva 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 t’shuva.