An introduction to Rav Kook's concept of teshuva

Rav Kook's definition of teshuva is on a totally different plane than the one used in our daily discourse.

Rabbi Avraham Y. Sylvetsky ,

Rav A. Sylvetsky and students
Rav A. Sylvetsky and students
צילום: בניהו חורב

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), Israel's first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, was the farseeing Gadol Hador who gave the idea of establishing a Jewish state for the Jewish nation its theological underpinning and its practical interpretation in terms of what he termed Torah of Eretz Yisrael. (The following is an abridged version of a zoom lecture presented on an OU webinar.)

Rav Kook's concept of teshuva, as expounded in his work Orot Hateshuva, is an integral part of his unique way of looking at the collective entity of the Jewish people and the world

It involves many levels of thought and is totally different from our usual use of the word. One article can never do it justice, and can barely be considered an introduction, but we will try to touch upon a basic principle which is found throughout Rav Kook's writings and is particularly apparent in his writings on teshuva: The world's spiritual evolutionary process.

In a letter known as the Igeret Teshuva (letter 268) to Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap, rabbi of Jerusalem's Shaarei Chesed neighborhood, Rav Kook wrote:

"If someone comes to present new ideas on teshuva today and does not recognize that we are in the era of haketz hameguleh, the era when the end of times is beginning to be revealed, and does not see the light of salvation rising, he cannot, he will not, be able to attain the truth of Torah."

In other words, in order to present new ideas about teshuva, it is essential to recognize and understand current reality – from the time of the return to Zion onward - in its proper framework.

These words at first seem impossible to understand. First of all, if we look at the various problems of his - and our - period, it does not seem that they have a connection with the 'rising light of salvation' – and second, the Rambam wrote that the mitzvot will not be changed, so how could Rav Kook imply that teshuva has changed in the generation of national renewal, of national redemption?

However, Rav Kook meant something else entirely.

  • Rav Kook sees redemption and salvation themselves as part of the inyan of teshuva, the goal of teshuva. We ordinarily use the word teshuva to denote the response to a specific sin, but for Rav Kook that concept is to be found in the word 'vidduy'- confession - as defined in the Rambam (who does not employ the word teshuva as one of the 613 mitzvot, but writes vidduy as the mitzva)

  • Teshuva, in Rav Kook's ethos is the world's attempt to return, literally, to Hashem. Creation created a distance between that which was created and its Creator. It is that distance that gave rise to the innate desire of all of Creation to return to its original state, to being part of Hashem, making teshuva an integral part of creation.

This idea is alluded to in many sources. For example, the Ramchal in Daat Tevunot explains that the difference between the two Hebrew verbs used for creation, yetsira and bria, is that yetsira is ex nihilo, yesh mi-ayin, while bria means the absence of what already exists. For the creation of light recalled in our morning prayers, for example, we use a verb derived from the root bria, and for darkness, which is the absence of light, we say a word derived from the root yetsira (yotser or u-vorai choshech.)

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In that case, we have to ask why the whole of creation is called bria in Hebrew, "Breishit bara Elokim." It should say "Breishit yatsar Elokim because Creation is ex nihilo, is it not?

The answer is that in relation to Hashem, all of Creation is bria, Creation is the absence of Hashem, who filled all space but "limited" His infinity to allow for the universe to exist.

So then, what is teshuva?

From the instant Hashem created the world, a phenomenon that I call the "elastic effect" (at least that is how I explain it to my students in yeshiva!) came into being. The more you stretch a piece of elastic or pull at a rubber band, the more you feel it straining to go back to where it came from, to its original state. One end of the elastic is moving farther away, but at the same time it is pulling back.

According to Rav Kook, that pull to go back is the real inyan, idea, of teshuva.Teshuva is an innate characteristic of creation itself, imprinted in creation by definition, filling all of creation with the continuous instinctive desire to pull back to the Source, to return to its original state.

Chazal revealed this definition of teshuva to us in Tana Devei Eliahu when they state that teshuva kadma laolam, teshuva existed before the universe. If it were connected to specific sins, that would make no sense, but teshuva actually did precede sin. It is not connected to sin. it is primordial

The Ramban does not include teshuva in his list of the mitzvoth, and in the introduction to Sefer Hamitzvot, explains that general mitzvot do not appear on his list.

For example Kedoshim tiheyu – 'you shall be holy' is not listed. because it is in fact a general mitzva and encompasses the whole Torah – and after learning Rav Kook's concept of teshuva, we can say that since teshuva encompasses all of creation, it, too, cannot be on the list.

In conclusion, mitzvot have not changed,chas vechalila, going back to our first question, It is just that what most people call teshuva is vidduy, a specific mitzva, in Rav Kook's thought, while teshuva is a totally different concept.

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If we look carefully at the world with Rav Kook's concept of teshuva in mind, we find that from the minute of its creation, the world is undergoing a kind of spiritual evolutionary process, moving little by little towards Redemption, geula, which will be the state of being subsumed, encompassed in Hashem.

Let us try to understand that. First of all, it is not a superficial statement. Spiritual evolution does not mean looking around and expecting everything to be perfect, expecting no setbacks, it is not an all or nothing issue.

In fact, the return can take place in two ways:

If we discover the path of return to Hashem and point ourselves in that direction, then it will be a faster process and the world will reach its goal, as Hashem intended. That path is called "achishena" ( Isaiah 60) – "I will expedite it," referring to Redemption.

But if we are not aware of the process of the world's developing, of innate teshuva to Hashem, we will not discover the path nor point ourselves in the right direction, and then the world's teshuva will come by way of great suffering. Then the Redemption will occur at its preordained time, "be'ita" (Isaiah 60) and not earlier, not "achishena."

A generation that discovers Hashem's Will-- the Divine Will that beats in its heart and soul, will be the generation where all the mitzvot are fulfilled the correct way. This, however, is a work in progress with ups and downs.

What about our times? Let us try to understand Rav Kook's thoughts on that question.

In the generations of Redemption, the period in which we all can see the miracles of our return to Eretz Yisrael, as prophesied -for example, the country becoming fruitful again, the ingathering of the exiles, (Ezekiel 36) - there is a unique and special process of return to Hashem.

On the one hand, things look terrible on the surface. Most of the Jewish people have abandoned Torah and mitzvot. It's difficult to see the process of the inner return to Hashem in the day-to-day world.

But on the other hand, if we look beneath the surface, if we compare the distant past to the last two centuries, we see that there is spiritual evolution, an attempt to find the right path.

Those searching have not yet found the path, but entire generations are really in a state of quest, a state of upheaval, beginning with the rise of Zionism, which was an emotional, ideological desire to return to the land of Eretz Yisrael.

Secular chalutzim were willing to die for the holy land, for Eretz Yisrael. What moved them? They did not connect to religious observance. Their love for the land came from the Tanach, because the Jewish people had an emotional connection to the Tanach.

Rav Kook wrote a great work called Maamar Hador, which translates as The Essay of the Present Generation, written for this idealistic self sacrificing youth, those early Zionists. It opens our eyes and reveals how he saw that those of his generation who wanted to return to Zion were actually really searching for Hashem's way without knowing how to put it in words, without knowing the direction to take

That is why he travelled to the kibbutzim, danced with them, encouraged them, while also talking to them about basic mitzvot like Shabbat (Journey of the Rabbis, 1913).

Over the years,he predicted, those emotions would gradually die down, melt away– and we see it today. In the early days of the state, even Ben Gurion agreed that Shabbat had to be different in a Jewish State, that marriage, divorce, conversion must preserve the Jews as a people, everyone felt strongly that Jerusalem was indivisible, the Temple Mount should be in our hands – but as time passed, those emotions, not backed by a real connection to Torah and the reasons for mitzvot, are in dispute.

But, again, this is also part of the process of Redemption, in Rav Kook's ethos. It is not the first possibility, that of knowing the way to Hashem's Will, of achishena. Instead, It is the geula that comes from a gradual spiritual evolution, beita, and when that emotional connection disintegrates, it becomes possible to find the real connection to Torah. That is a challenge we must meet, and in Israel there is a broad and real quest for deep answers, for understanding the meaning of our being here.

Another insight in Rav Kook's words in Maamar Hador, is that if we look carefully we see that the nonbelievers in this generation, as opposed to others in history, don’t abandon the Torah because of weakness, laziness, or the feeling that they are not strong enough to observe the Torah. It is also not because they feel the Torah wants too much of them – but exactly the opposite.

Today's non observant generation sees itself as better than the Torah, the Torah is "unenlightened" or not liberal or progressive enough. These young people think they are truly ethical and that only they worry about justice. Today they champion women's rights, fight for those with other lifestyles, the weak, the persecuted minorities, etc. They aspire to reach the moral high ground and feel they are fighting for justice, for absolute equality.

In that case, extrapolating from what Rav Kook says about his generation, they are on the way but have lost their compass, are misdirected, and we have to find the way to bring them back by showing that when what they want is truly just and right – it is to be found in the Torah on a level – a divine level -- which is greater than they can imagine or hope for, which they cannot always see at first or understand in a human's short life span,. and that sometimes the benefits are societal, national, long term.

This is a tremendous challenge for us.

Rav Kook stated that in our times, the connection to mitzvot and the moral and ethical understanding of mitzvot can come only from the study of Emunah, the innermost part of the Torah, and from analyzing the reasons for each mitzva.

From an in-depth observation of reality, Rav Kook reveals that the teshuva of a generation touches three planes:

-The first is the search for values of truth, but it can be sidetracked and get off course.

- The second is a desire to return to nationhood, the desire to establish a state in the Land of Israel as a people, as we have witnessed in our time

-The third is a return to nature, to revealing Hashem there, in the tangible, the physical, the earth, a truly high level, difficult to attain, something that can only happen in Eretz Yisrael: Here we are both Mamlechet Kohanim and Goy Kadosh

How does the threefold teshuva of the nation lead to geula? The Rambam brings the halakha that the Jewish people are not redeemed without teshuva

אין ישראל נגאלין אלא בתשובה

But what does that signify? That galut will be forever and continue and if G-d forbid, we don't each do teshuva there will be no geula?

In Hilchot Mlachim Chapter 11, halakha daled, he says that "The Mashiach is the one who will force all of Israel to go in the paths of Torah."

In other words, Mashiach doesn't only come because every individual did teshuva, but can come as a response to the nation's return – and the Meshech Chochma explains the phrase "veshavta ad Hashem" to be a return to the klal, to being not just a people, but a nation.

As we enter the new year, can see the three things Rav Kook deemed necessary unfold before us: We are a nation, We are in our land, We are connected to it, Our young people – no matter how misdirected - are striving to improve the world.

We are on the path of teshuva as a klal, striving, even if unconsciously, to return to the Source. To being part of Hashem's manifestation in the world, to bring Redemption closer.

Shana Tova.

Rabbi Avraham Yisrael Sylvetsky teaches at Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and heads the Kollel Iyun at the yeshiva. He is the author of the book Nachon Yihye Har Beit Hashem, a halakhic study of the issue of ascending the Temple Mount today.



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