Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rav Kook on Teshuvah: Healthy, Natural and Guaranteed

As noted here, I've been learning Rav Kook's Orot haTeshuvah in Elul.

Drawing on sources from Tanach, Gemara and Kabbalah, Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook taught that teshuvah is more than a mechanical, three-step method of admitting, correcting and abandoning our sins. As Rav Kook described it, Teshuvah is a glittering thread woven into the fabric of the universe, a natural longing for righteousness, and an engine inexorably moving all of Creation toward the original Divine vision of perfection.

Here are several key passages from Orot haTeshuvah, Rav Kook’s landmark work describing the nature of Teshuvah. The translation is almost linear; the original Hebrew is available at

Teshuvah is guaranteed
The world is guaranteed to come to full repentance. The world is not static; it continues to develop. True, complete development must bring about total physical and spiritual health, which will bring with it the light of the life of teshuvah. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:3)

Teshuvah comes from the longing of the entire universe to become better and more pure, stronger and more elevated than its current state. At the core of this drive is a life-force that triumphs over the limited, weak character of natural existence. The repentance of an individual, and certainly of the community, draws its strength from this life-force, which flows unceasingly, at full strength. (Orot haTeshuvah 6:1)

Teshuvah always resides in the heart; even at the moment of sin, the impulse for teshuvah is hidden in the soul, radiating influence which will be revealed later, with the arrival of the regret that calls for teshuvah. Teshuvah resides in the depths of existential life, for it preceded the universe, and before sin arrives its teshuvah is already prepared. Therefore, nothing in this universe is as certain as teshuvah, and, ultimately, all will be repaired. (Orot haTeshuvah 6:2)

Teshuvah is a natural product of health and maturity:

The desire for teshuvah is a person’s most healthy spiritual desire. A healthy soul in a healthy body is compelled to achieve the great bliss of teshuvah, experiencing in it the greatest natural pleasure.

A properly functioning body removes harmful materials, thereby improving and healing the body. One who is spiritually and physically healthy will remove evil deeds and the evil, corrupt impressions they produce, every evil thought, and the distance from Divine influence which founds all evil, crudeness and ugliness. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:1)

Teshuvah is a process of developing our potential:

A person’s life is perfected by developing his inherent character. However, one’s still-undeveloped character lacks insight, and so sin is guaranteed along this path of development. “There is no righteous person in the land who will commit good and not sin. [Kohelet 7:20]” On the other hand, eliminating one’s natural character in order to prevent sin is itself the greatest sin, [regarding which the Torah says of the nazir in Bamidbar 6:11,] “He shall atone for his sin against life.”

Therefore, Teshuvah repairs one’s corruption and restores the world and this person’s life to its root, specifically by helping the inherent character to develop. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:6)

The potential for Teshuvah is always present:

Even if a person consistently stumbles, damaging his righteousness and ethical behavior, this does not damage his fundamental perfection. A person’s fundamental perfection is found in his longing and desire to achieve perfection, a desire which is the foundation of teshuvah, and which continually governs his path in life. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:5)

The rewards of Teshuvah:
With every aspect of ugliness banished from a person’s soul upon his internal commitment to teshuvah, whole worlds are revealed, in celestial clarity, in the midst of his soul. Removal of sin is like removal of a blinder from above an eye, such that the full field of vision is now revealed, a light from the breadth of heaven, earth and all they contain. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:2)


  1. Learning HaRav's Orot hateshuva changed my life. When I was 16 by chance (?), I found a chapter of OHT in a digest of modern Jewish philosophy. For the first time I read something about Judaism that I really connected with. I felt that the Rav was talking directly to me, telling me that not only was teshuva possible but that it was a part of me and that the alienation and confusion that I felt was an expression of my inner self trying to find it's way to get closer to the KBH and his Torah. It made me realize that the most important part of my identity was the fact that I was a partr of the Jewish people and that my real place was in Eretz Yisrael.Years later I studied OHT along with other works of R' Kook. He has been the major influence of my life.

  2. R'YBS has something similar on the Rambam and the guarantee with the punchline that faith in klal Yisrael is an ikkar - I never really fully understood the guaranteed part vis-a-vis bchirah chofshit (although on a national level it makes sense that HKB"H promised we would never be wiped out, so there are limits on national bechira at least-but how does that work with the composition of the individual bechiras)

    BTW, how ironic that I could've written an almost mirror image comment to R'DT just substituting The Rav (R'YBS) and lonely man of faith (but my b-i-l and I have noted that we need to be careful in mixed company of simply saying "The Rav" :-))
    Joel Rich

  3. What beautiful passages! I'll have a few short points:
    1) I'm having trouble with R. Kook's claim that the universe is naturally pulled teshuvah throughout its historical development. Not every desire to change is good. Is it really accurate to say that mankind is always progressing? Is the development of Nazism, Communism, Islamic fundamentalism, etc. merely an example of stumbling on the way to teshuvah?! Would R. Kook had said the same thing had he lived after the Holocaust as he had said beforehand?
    2)"A person’s fundamental perfection is found in his longing and desire to achieve perfection." How profound! People expect rabbis and role-models to never slip up, creating unrealistic expectations, needless disillusionment(when they do), and an unwillingness to admit those rabbis/role models do make mistakes and were not "perfect" from when they were young. Some people regard any suggestion of even the slightest indiscretion on a person's part to mean that he is no longer due respect. In my case, unrealistic "gadol" stories actually decrease my respect for the teller and - I am ashamed to admit, - sometimes even for the "gadol" involved - at least momentarily - since my skepticism then wrongly extends towards his general good reputation, which is often well-deserved on its own terms. On the other hand, I have the greatest respect for people whom I know have become good and ethical by struggling with their own issues and admitting that [gasp!] being good and ethical takes work!

  4. David-
    Yes, I certainly can see how Orot haTeshuvah would have that effect!

    An interesting question. I suppose the answer is that just as bechirah is influenced by so many other factors, so it is influenced by the native drive for teshuvah.

    1. A valid point. A friend of mine is a scholar of German philosophy, and he has termed Rav Kook a romanticist in the 19th century German tradition. I tend to agree.

    2. Indeed!

  5. I often describe Orot HaTeshuvah as Rav Kook's poetry of teshuvah. The sefer is often lyrical. It is deep, and high, and inspirational. Mostly culled from his notebooks, it seems to be his personal diary about the longing for, reaching for, and promise of closeness to God.

    But it is not instructional, or practical in most passages.

    For an insight into the practice of refining and directing oneself on the path of closeness to God, I often recommend Mussar Avicha. This complements Orot HaTeshuvah nicely, is not especially difficult; though no less deep. Mussar Avicha is more instructional, and help lay the foundations for the experience Rav Kook describes in Orot HaTeshuvah.

  6. Thanks, R' Mordechai. I'll have to go for Mussar Avicha next...