RAV KOOK ON ELUL: TSHUVA-RETURNING TO OUR TRUE BEING
“When one forgets the essence of one’s own soul, when one distracts their mind from attending to the substantive content of their own inner life, everything becomes confused and uncertain. The primary role of tshuva…is for the person to return to their true selves, to the root of their soul.” (Orot HaTshuva 15:10)
Tshuva can be translated as ‘return, penitence, repentance’.
The Torah’s calendar now takes us into a profound time in which tshuva is central to the experience.
We recently began Elul, the sixth month of the year which precedes Tishrei,the seventh month. This is important preparation for the High Holy Days -Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur and the joyous Festival of Succot.
This month is equivalent to the sixth day of the week in which we prepare for the blissful immersion into Shabbat. Similarly now, we are encouraged to use this month as a cleansing process so that we can be our fullest selves in the presence of the Divine (and each other) during Tishrei (and always).
Elul was of particular significance in Rav Kook’s life and practice. He was born on the 16th of Elul in 1865. He arrived in Jerusalem on the 3rd of Elul in 1919 to begin serving as the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. He passed away exactly 16 years later on the 3rd of Elul in 1935.
One of the main foundations of his life and thought is the reality and importance of tshuva for our personal, national and universal being. In 1925 his most well known book- Orot HaTshuva/The Lights of Return was published.
He explained in the introduction:
“I feel prodded by a mighty force to speak about tshuva and all my thoughts are focused on this theme alone.”
The book is a 17 chapter tour de force in spiritual literature.
It has been widely read and continues to be in the ‘religious Zionist’ movement which Rav Kook, his son and students birthed in Israel. Many religious IDF soldiers carry a pocket size copy of it with them at all times. Rav Kook himself reviewed it closely every Elul as part of his preparation and tshuva process.
It is thus most appropriate at this time to read some excerpts from this masterpiece. I will continue to use the word tshuva rather than the less adequate English translations.
“Physical tshuva is related to all transgressions against the laws of nature, and those laws of morality and Torah that are linked to the laws of nature. Every act of wrongdoing must in the end engender illness and pain, and the individual as well as society is exposed to much suffering as a result of this.
After it becomes clear that the person, as a result of misbehavior, is responsible for their distress, they begin to give thought to correcting their condition, to return to the laws of life and observe the laws of nature, morality and the Torah.” (Chapter 1)
It seems planetarily we are paying for our transgressions against the physical laws of life and nature.
Rav Kook continues to explain the different levels of tshuva:
“The higher expression of tshuva comes about as a flash of illumination of the all-good, the divine, the light of the One 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.
Indeed, is not all of existence so good and so noble, and is not the good and the nobility within ourselves but an expression of our relatedness to the all? How can we allow ourselves to become severed from the all, a strange fragment, detached like tiny grains of sand that are of no value?” (Chapter 2)
Here Rav Kook places tshuva in a cosmic context.
It is the return of the human to living in harmony with the cosmic principles and realities. The integration of the personal and the cosmic is a foundation of his (and the Torah’s) perspective. We see this highlighted in the following pieces:
“The individual and the collective soul, the world soul, the soul of all realms of being 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.” (4:1)
“The highest sensibility in the soul of the people of Israel is the quest for universality. The people aspire for this by the very essence of its being, and this affects all existence. The desire for tshuva in its highest form is rooted in this hidden longing.” (5:6)
“The soul of the people of Israel expresses itself in the striving for absolute justice, which, to be effectuated must include the realization of all moral virtues.” (5:7)
The ultimate goal of the impulse of tshuva is to bring about a world of ‘absolute justice…the realization of all moral virtues.’ Nothing less. It is the full manifestation of our highest ideals in reality.
It is an expression of the highest freedom:
“Tshuva is the aspiration for the true original freedom, which is the divine freedom, wherein there is no enslavement of any kind.” (5:5)
This is a powerful force in action:
“The desire for tshuva is related to the universal will, to its highest source. From the moment the mighty stream for the universal will for life turns toward the good, many forces within the whole of existence are stirred to disclose the good and to bestow good to all…
Tshuva is inspired by the yearning all existence to be better, purer, more vigorous and on a higher plane than it is. Within this yearning is a hidden life-force for overcoming every factor that limits and weakens existence.” (6:1)
Rav Kook places tshuva in the context of the expulsion and return to the Garden of Eden:
“At the inception of creation it was intended that the tree have the same taste as the fruit. (Genesis Rabbah:5:9)
All the supportive actions that sustain any general worthwhile spiritual goal should by right be experienced in the soul with the same feeling of elation and thought as the goal itself is experienced…But earthly existence, the instability of life, the weariness of the spirit when confined in a corporate frame, brought it about that only the fruition of the final step, which embodies the primary ideal, is experienced in its pleasure and splendor. The trees that bear the fruit, with all their necessity for the growth of the fruit have become coarse matter and have lost their taste. This is the failing of the ‘earth’ because of which it was cursed when Adam was also cursed for his sin.
But every defect is destined to be mended. Thus we are assured that they day will come when creation will return to its original state, when the taste of the tree will be the same as the taste of the fruit.” (6:7)
‘The day will come when the taste of the tree will be the same as the taste of the fruit.’ No more separation between means and ends. We will be living back in the Garden of Eden experience.
What does mean for each of us individually?
In Chapter 15 of Orot HaTshuva we find this remarkable passage:
“When one forgets the essence of one’s own soul, when distracts their mind from attending to the substantive content of their own inner life, everything becomes confused and uncertain. The primary role of tshuva…is for the person to return to to their true selves, to the root of their soul. Then we will at once return to G-d, to the Soul of all souls.
Then we will progress continually, higher and higher, in holiness and in purity. This is true whether we consider the individual, a whole people, or the whole of humanity or whether we consider the mending of all existence, which always becomes damaged when it forgets itself.
If one should envision that they sought to return to G-d without setting themselves in order, this would be a deceptive tshuva, through which G-d’s name will be taken in vain.
It is only through the great truth of returning to oneself that the person, and the people, the world and all the worlds, the whole of existence, will return to their Creator to be illuminated by the light of life.” (15:10)
The primary role of tshuva is for each of us to return to our true selves. For the creation to reach its fulfillment and for each of us to achieve our own fulfillment it is necessary to be who we truly are. What a blessing and gift, an indication of the love of the Creator for the created.
Each one of us is a unique spark of Divine Light.
In being our true selves, in harmony with our inner and outer beings, we are illuminating the Divine within us and shining it forth into the world.
May all humankind shine brightly.
Prepared by Rabbi Itzchak Evan-Shayish (Marmorstein), www.haorot.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Please help us share the lights of Rav Kook ZT”L