“For some time I have been struggling with an inner conflict, and a mighty force impels me to speak about teshuvah (penitence). All my thoughts are focused on this theme alone. Teshuvah holds a primary place in Torah and in life; all the hopes of the individual and of society depend on it.”
So begins Rav Kook’s introduction to “Orot HaTeshuvah” (Lights of Penitence), probably his most popular work, first published in 1925. The compact, succinct book was beloved by its author, and he himself studied it during the month of Elul after the morning prayers. One student related that he heard Rav Kook say, ‘I worked extensively on “Orot HaTeshuvah”. Whoever studies it properly will find light in every word.’ He also declared, ‘”Orot HaTeshuvah” must be studied without end.’
What is so special about the book’s outlook on teshuvah?
Teshuvah — Returning to Life
“Orot HaTeshuvah” illuminates the concepts of sin, punishment, and penitence. Sin primarily harms the sinner by cutting him off from the roots of his existence, from the light of his soul. This estrangement is sin’s worst punishment. Teshuvah, on the other hand, redeems the sinner from his darkness. It rejuvenates him, returning him to his previous state of life and joy.
The word teshuvah literally means ‘return’. It is not a flight from the world or daily life; rather, “Precisely amidst genuine, pure teshuvah, we must return to the world and to life” (Orot HaTeshuvah 14:30).
Already in his introduction, Rav Kook hinted that he saw teshuvah as an underlying force affecting all aspects of life, not only the realm of the sacred. “Teshuvah holds a primary place in Torah and in life.”
Additionally, Rav Kook posited that this powerful force is not limited to the failings and triumphs of the individual. It also applies to failures and successes in the life of the nation and of the entire universe. “All the hopes of the individual and of society depend on it.”
National and Spiritual Revival
Rav Kook firmly believed that a secular national revival, the entire program of building the land and the nation, could not occur without a revival in holiness, with its sublime manifestations in both personal and public life.
But what path would lead the generation of rebirth to the gates of teshuvah? The routine approach and run-of-the-mill outlook were doomed to failure. The people of such an idealistic generation, brimming with life, vigor, and creativity, could not be reached with a severe demeanor and punctilious demands of small, everyday deeds — demands that they would consider a source of weakness of soul and feebleness of spirit.
No, the generation would have to be awakened with an optimistic spirit of greatness and courage. Rav Kook taught that “Teshuvah comes not to embitter life, but to make it pleasant” (ibid. 15:6) “Teshuvah is essentially a return to origins, to the source of supernal life and existence in their completeness” (ibid. 12:8).
In an article written in HaYesod in 1934, he explained:
“Teshuvah is the great key to redemption. Many things inhibit teshuvah, but the major obstacle, particularly to collective “teshuvah”, is the misconception of teshuvah as atrophy of the soul, as the enfeebling and debilitation of life. This false image also impairs the teshuvah of the individual; but more than anything, it hinders collective teshuvah, the teshuvah of the nation.
“We must disclose the secret that the genuine ‘teshuvah’ of the entire nation of Israel is a mighty, powerful vision that provides reserves of might and strength, that imbues all of our spiritual and pragmatic values with a lofty spirit of vigorous, surging creative power in the might of the Rock of Israel. This living teshuvah flows not from isolated, fragmented souls, but from the treasury of the nation’s collective soul, from “Knesset Yisrael”, which unites all of its farflung limbs … Thus, the complete soul of Israel is prepared to return to its former strength as in days of old.”
(adapted from Celebration of the Soul, pp, 26, 28-9; Mo’adei HaRe’iyah pp. 52, 55)