You Are What You Think
Dear Friends, the clock is ticking down to Rosh HaShanah. You can hear the shofars blasting all over the world. T’shuva may seem like a towering mountain too high to climb, but it’s really not as hard as you think.
Rabbi Kook teaches that even contemplations of t’shuva have significant value. To understand this, we must look at life with a different orientation than we normally do. Usually, we are pragmatists. We judge the value of things by the influence they have on ourselves and the world. For instance, ten dollars is worth more than five dollars because it can buy more. A doctorate is better than a bachelor’s degree because it can lead to a better paying and more prestigious job.
There are things, however, that have an absolute value, regardless of their tangible impact in this world. Truth is an example. Holiness is another. To this list, Rabbi Kook adds good thoughts. Contemplations of t’shuva, even if they do not lead to a resulting change in behavior, bring benefit to the individual and the world.
This is similar to the question in the Talmud — which is greater, Torah study or good deeds? The answer is Torah study because it leads to good deeds. You might think that if the ultimate goal is the deeds, then they would be more important. But our Sages tell us that the thought processes which lead to the deeds are of primary concern. Being immersed in Torah has an absolute value in itself. Thus, Rabbi Kook writes:
“The thought of t’shuva transforms all transgressions and the darkness they cause, along with their spiritual bitterness and stains, into visions of joy and comfort, for it is through these contemplations that a person is filled with a deep feeling of hatred for evil, and the love of goodness is increased within him with a powerful force” (Orot HaT’shuva, 7:1).
T’shuva can be dissected into two different realms. There is the nitty-gritty t’shuva of mending an actual deed, and there is the thought process which precedes the action. The value of these thoughts is not to be measured according to the activities which they inspire. For instance, a person may decide that he wants to be righteous. But when the person tries to translate this thought into action, he finds himself overwhelmed. To be righteous, he has to get up early in the morning to pray. He has to stop doing a host of forbidden deeds. He has to watch what he says, and watch what he eats. Before he even begins, his will is broken. Though his wish to do t’shuva was sincere, he couldn’t find the inner strength to actualize his thoughts into deeds.
Rabbi Kook says that all is not lost. This person’s original idea to do t’shuva stemmed from the deepest recesses of the soul, where it was inspired by the spiritual waves of t’shuva which encircle the world. Thus he has already been touched by t’shuva’s cleansing streams. In effect, he has boarded the boat. Though his will power may be weak at the moment, his soul is longing for God.
“Through the contemplations of t’shuva, a person hears the voice of God calling him from the Torah and from the heart, from the world and all it contains. The will for good is fortified within him. The body itself, which causes transgression, becomes more and more purified until the thought of t’shuva pervades it” (Ibid, 7:5).
In the beginning of his t’shuva journey, a person must realize the absolute value of his initial inspiration. He has to find a new way of judging the value of things, not always looking for concrete benefits or results. When a person undertakes t’shuva, his thoughts weigh as much as his deeds. T’shuva is not just a process of do’s and don’ts, but rather a conscious and subconscious overhaul of an individual’s thought processes and emotions. Already by thinking about t’shuva one is engaged in it. As the saying goes: you are what you think.
“Even the thought of t’shuva brings great healing. However, the soul can only find full freedom when this potential t’shuva is actualized. Nonetheless, since the contemplation is bound up with the longing for t’shuva, there is no cause for dismay. God will certainly provide all of the means necessary for complete repentance, which brightens all darkness with its light... ‘A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise’” (Ibid. Tehillim, 51;19).
When we recognize the value of our thoughts, we discover a very encouraging concept. One needn’t despair when confronted by the often difficult changes which t’shuva demands. This is especially true in the initial stages before a person’s increasing love for G-d makes all difficulties and sacrifices seem small. Even if a person cannot immediately redress all of his wrongdoings, he should know that there is a great value in just wanting to be good. One can take comfort that he wants to be a better person. With God’s help, he will also be able to actualize his yearnings. But in the meantime, just thinking good thoughts is already strengthening his inner self and the world.
This is also why t’shuva can come in a second. Just the thought of t’shuva is t’shuva itself (Kiddushin 49B). Thoughts of t’shuva are themselves uplifting. The actual mending of activities is only a second stage. This knowledge can give a person the strength to continue through difficult times. Rabbi Kook writes:
“To the extent that someone is aware of his transgressions, the light of t’shuva shines lucidly on his soul. Even if at the moment, he lacks the steadfastness to repent in his heart and will, the light of t’shuva hovers over him and works to renew his inner self. The barriers to t’shuva weaken in strength, and the blemishes they cause are diminished to the degree that the person recognizes them and longs to erase them. Because of this, the light of t’shuva starts to shine on him, and the holiness of the transcendental joy fills his soul. Gates which were closed open before him, and in the end, he will achieve the exalted rung where all obstacles will be leveled. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain” (. Yisheyahu, 40:4. Orot HaT’shuva, 15:7).
A few examples may help illustrate this idea. Individual t’shuva includes rectifying transgressions and improving character traits. Let’s suppose that Joseph has stolen a laptop computer from Reuven who lives two thousand miles away. At the moment, even though Joseph wants to return the computer, he is unable to make the trip. This is a barrier to t’shuva. Or in a case where Reuven lives just across the street, it may be that Joseph is too embarrassed to admit his theft. Until he strengthens his will to do t’shuva, musters his inner courage, and swallows his pride, Joseph’s t’shuva will be delayed. Regarding character traits, let’s say that Joseph is an angry person. He is angry at his parents, at his wife and children, he is angry at his boss and at the neighbor down the street. It may take a considerable amount of introspection, and a serious course of Torah study, before he can transform his anger into love. But even if this barrier should seem insurmountable to him, he should take comfort in knowing that once the process of t’shuva has started, God’s help is ever near.
“When a person truly longs for t’shuva, he may be prevented by many barriers, such as unclear beliefs, physical weakness, or the inability to correct wrongs which he has inflicted on other people. The barrier may be considerable, and the person will feel remorse because he understands the weighty obligation to perfect his ways, in the most complete manner possible. However, since his longing for t’shuva is firm, even if he cannot immediately overcome all of the obstacles, he must know that the desire for t’shuva itself engenders purity and holiness, and not be put off by barriers which stand in his way. He should endeavor to seize every spiritual ascent available to him, in line with the holiness of his soul and its holy desire” (Ibid, 17:2).
In dealing with his anger, it may be that Joseph lacks the determination or courage to have a heart-to-heart talk with his boss. Or perhaps, he is afraid of losing his job. So let him begin with his parents or wife. With each step he takes, he will find greater courage for the stages ahead. And if his Pandora’s Box of anger is too threatening for him to open at all, let him turn to redress other matters more in his reach, with the faith that a more complete t’shuva will come.
“One must strengthen one’s faith in the power of t’shuva, and feel secure that in the thought of t’shuva alone, one perfects himself and the world. After every thought of t’shuva, a person will certainly feel happier and more at peace than he had in the past. This applies even more if one is determined to do t’shuva, and if he has made a commitment to Torah, its wisdom, and to the fear of God. The highest joy comes when the love of God pulses through his being. He must comfort himself and console his outcast soul, and strengthen himself in every way he can, for the word of God assures, ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.’ (Yisheyahu, 66:13)
“If he discovers sins he committed against others, and his strength is too feeble to correct them, one should not despair at all, thinking that t’shuva cannot help. For the sins which he has committed against God and repented over, they have already been forgiven. Thus, it should be viewed that the sins which are lacking atonement are outweighed by the t’shuva he was able to do. Still, he must be very careful not to transgress against anyone, and he must strive with great wisdom and courage to address all of the wrongs from the past, ‘Deliver thyself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, and like a bird from the hand of the fowler’ (Mishle, 6:5). However, let depression not overcome him because of the things he was unable to redress. Let him rather strengthen himself in the fortress of Torah, and in the service of God, with all of his heart, in happiness, reverence, and love” (Orot HaT’shuva, 7:6).
Even though a person has not yet been able to rectify every wrong against his fellow man, every thought of t’shuva has inestimable value. “Even the minutest measure of t’shuva awakens in the soul, and in the world, a great measure of holiness” (Ibid, 14:4).
The difficulty in mending the transgressions of the past should never bring a person to despair. For even if the thought of t’shuva is still undeveloped, even if one’s desire to do good contains a mixture of unrefined motives, Rabbi Kook assures us that its basic inner holiness is worth all of the wealth in the world.