As Yom Kippur approaches, many are faced with angst or apathy, contemplating what will become of them on the holy day and the year that follows. Unfortunately, trapped in the complex of religious reward and punishment, we miss the mark of Yom Kippur’s essence.
In his sefer, Orot Hateshuvah, Rav Kook asks, “Why do we fall? Because we do not realize how easy repentance is.” (14:4)
At first glance, I found such an idea troubling; how could Rav Kook believe that repentance is “easy?” Changing oneself is an incredibly difficult process that requires a great deal of struggle and discipline—can this truly be easy? I believe his thought is well-founded and contains a greater depth.
Firstly, the word “repentance” is commonly associated with Christianity, simply the concept of apologizing for one’s actions and committing not to repeat it. In Judaism, however, we use the word teshuva, the root of which is shuv, translated as “return.”
Before we can analyze Rav Kook’s idea, we must understand the essence of teshuva.
Teshuva is not merely pounding our chests in repetition, pronouncing our faults and errors throughout the year, meagerly committing not to repeat said mistakes. Teshuva is returning. The question arises: “If I have always been gossiping and speaking Lashon HaRah, how could struggling to accomplish that be considered returning? Should it not be considered like a new advancement?”
There is a deep, Kabbalistic idea that, at our core, we are souls, divine expressions of Hashem. We are not Hashem, but we are inherently connected through an unbreakable bond. Rabbi David Aaron explains the beautiful analogy that if Hashem were the sun, we would be divine rays of His light. Our existence calls upon us to instill goodness into the world.
That being said, we can now garner a better understanding of teshuva. Choosing to adopt a new habit of kindness, say, giving charity or sharing a cheery greeting to the doorman, is not like acquiring something new, rather it is reclaiming our identity. It is becoming self-aware.
Our truest self is one that seeks to do good in the world, repairing and perfecting every shortcoming that exists. Some would contend that the natural form of a person is more animalistic and barbaric, but we have merely learned to tame that. Judaism, however, explains that we are divinely connected and rooted with Hashem, souls seeking to recover our truest selves in this world.
Teshuva is how we do that; we work to retrieve our purest will and remind ourselves of who we truly are: divine expressions with divine missions. We want ourselves to be better and live that reality.
Now, I think we can see Rav Kook’s idea in a new light. Why do we fall, make the wrong choices, and do the wrong things? Because we do not realize the nature of teshuva; we do not realize that teshuva is not simply saying sorry and promising to do better, rather it is stripping away the facades we wear every day and returning to who we truly are.
As Yom Kippur nears closer, we must recognize that we are inherently divine rays of Hashem’s endless light, and we are fundamentally good and godly. We must improve ourselves by returning to who we really are; we must become self-aware. This is the essence of teshuva.