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The Secret of Happiness

By Tzvi Fishman
8/14/2007, 12:00 AM

Dear Reader, if you are looking to be happy, creative, in harmony with the Almighty G-d and with His universe, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook has the answer — t’shuva.

For Rabbi Kook, t’shuva is a concept much deeper than the common understanding of repentance. It is much more than penitence over sins and the remorse a person feels when he strays from the pathways of goodness and truth. While t’shuva includes these factors, Rabbi Kook teaches that the phenomenon of t’shuva spreads out over all universe, bringing harmony and perfection to all of existence.

Harmony with the Universe

Since Elul is the month of t’shuva, and with the New Year just a few weeks away, many of our upcoming blogs will be focusing on the phenomenon of t’shuva, with the hope of helping our readers to replace their old, worn out t’shuva tapes with a sparkling new, heartfelt cassette.    


While t’shuva is normally translated as penitence or repentance, the root of the Hebrew word t’shuva means “return.” T’shuva is a return to the source, to one’s roots, to one’s deepest inner self. Rabbi Kook writes:

“When one forgets the essence of one’s soul; when one distracts his mind from seeing the true nature of his own inner life, everything becomes doubtful and confused. The principal t’shuva, which immediately lights up the darkness, is for a person to return to himself, to the root of his soul. Then he will immediately return to G-d, to the Soul of all souls. And he will continue to stride higher and higher in holiness and purity. This is true for an individual, a nation, for all of mankind, and for the perfection of all existence....” (Orot HaT’shuva, 15:10).

One can readily understand that to reach fulfillment and happiness, a person must be his true self. In modern times, this basic understanding has been corrupted into a “do your own thing” attitude. Rabbi Kook is advocating a deeper, inner search, far beyond the surface passions and emotions which often lead people to express their every desire and lust. Rabbi Kook understands that the individual, and all of existence, has a deeper, spiritual source.

Throughout history, man has been searching to discover the driving force of life. To a capitalist, money makes the world go around. To a romanticist, love is what impassions mankind. Freudians claim that man’s unconscious desires and sexual libido are to blame. Peering into a microscope, a modern physicist declares that atoms and neutrons cause the world to spin. For biologists, the uniting power resides in strands of DNA.

What makes the world go around?

When Rabbi Kook gazes into the inner workings of the soul, the soul of the individual, and the soul of the world, he sees that the force behind all existence is t’shuva.


It is no secret that there is great darkness, confusion, and pain in the world. Bookstores are filled with self-help books on how to be happy. Layman’s guides to psychology line shelf after shelf. Our generation has been called “the age of anxiety.” People often live out their lives plagued with depression, sickness, a sense of dissatisfaction and constant unrest. Psychiatrists and psychologists have become the prophets of the moment, proposing dozens of theories to explain man’s existential dilemmas. Whether it is because we suffer from an Oedipus complex, or from a primal anxiety at having been separated from the womb, from sexual repression, or from the trauma of death, mankind is beset with neuroses. Vials of valium and an assortment of anti-depressants and “uppers” can be found in the medicine cabinets of the very best homes. Not to mention the twenty-four-hour bombardment of work, television, computer games, Internet pornography, discos, and drugs which people use to blot out the never ending angst that they feel.

Mother's Little Helpers

The psychologist, Erich Fromm, in his book, “Psychoanalysis and Religion,” describes an interesting photograph which captures the average man’s pain:

“It is proclaimed by many voices that our way of life makes us happy. But how many people of these times are happy? It is interesting to remember a casual shot in Life magazine some time ago of a group of people waiting on a street corner for the green light. What was so remarkable and shocking about this picture was that these people who all looked stunned and frightened had not witnessed a dreadful accident but, as the text had to explain, were merely average citizens going about their business.”

Fromm continues and states: “We pretend that our life is based on a solid foundation and ignore the shadows of uneasiness, anxiety and confusion which never leave us.”

Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. He doesn't seem like such a happy fellow himself, does he? 

Rabbi Kook understands man's unhappiness in a different light. Its source not in external causes, not in the traumas of child hood, nor in the pressures to conform to behavioral norms. Rabbi Kook gazes beyond social, cultural, psychological, sexual, and family dynamics to shed spiritual light on the world’s confusion and pain.

“What is the cause of melancholy?” he asks. “The answer is the over abundance of evil deeds, evil character traits, and evil beliefs on the soul. The soul’s deep sensitivity feels the bitterness which these cause, and it draws back, frightened and depressed” (Orot HaT’shuva, 14:6).

“All depression stems from sin, and t’shuva comes to light the soul and transforms the depression to joy” (Ibid, 14:7).

If Rabbi Kook were to have studied the Life magazine photograph of the tense, unhappy people on the street corner who were waiting to cross the street, he would have suggested a far deeper reason for their anxiety than any psychologist could pro pose. A deeper reason, and a novel cure:

“Every sin causes a special anxiety on the spirit, which can only be erased by t’shuva. According to the depth of the t’shuva, the anxiety itself is transformed into inner security and courage. The outer manifestation of anxiety which is caused by transgression can be discerned in the lines of the face, in a person’s movements, in the voice, in behavior, and one’s handwriting, in the manner of speaking and one’s language, and above all, in writing, in the development of ideas and their presentation” (Ibid, 8:3).

The melancholy and anxiety haunting mankind is not a result of the “separation from the womb,” but of a separation much deeper — the separation from G-d. Rabbi Kook writes:

“I see how transgressions act as a barrier against the brilliant Divine light which shines on every soul, and they darken and cast a shadow upon the soul” (Ibid, 7:5).

Thus, the cause of depression is transgression and the resulting estrangement it causes from G-d. The remedy is t’shuva — for the individual, the community, and for the world. Rabbi Kook teaches that to discover true inner joy, every person, and all of Creation, must return to the Source of existence and forge a living connection to the Creator.

This month of Elul, may we all merit to return in complete t’shuva, Amen. Chodesh tov!

[This blog has been excerpted from the book, “The Art of T’shuva,” an in-depth study of the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook on the subject of t’shuva, written by Rabbi David Samson and your insignificant Arutz 7 blogger.]