A Talk For Yom Kippur 5773

I have long been bothered by the Rambam’s treatment of תשובה in his Mishnah Torah.  Rambam tells us (הלכות תשובה) that “there is a positive commandment and that is when a sinner turns away from his sin before Hashem and confesses.”  In the successive chapters, of which there are a total of ten, Rambam does flesh out the idea of teshuvah in a thorough and broad manner; but his original definition remains the foundation – the individual acting in response to previous misdeeds, and in response to the need to be a person drawing closer to God.  To be sure, the final words in Hilchot T’shuvah (י:ו) focus on the positive drive of love of God; but they still rest on the shoulders of the individual.  Says our master, the Rambam: “it is known and clear that love of the Holy Blessed One is only bound in a person’s heart when he is suitably obsessed (distracted) by it; and he abandons everything else in the world other than this, as the Torah commands ‘with all your heart and with all your soul’.  One must use his mind to know Him, and in proportion to his knowledge will come his love for God.  If little, then little; and if much, then much.  Therefore a person must dedicate himself to understand and learn by way of the wisdoms and insights that inform him regarding his Creator according to the ability that a person has to understand and to grasp this, as we have already indicated in Hilchot Y’sodei HaTorah.”  Rambam began Hilchot T’shuvah with a sinner regretting and turning away from his sin; and ended these halachot with the goal of all the Torah, which is to grow in love of God.  All along the way, the discussion is couched in individual terms.  At the end, talk of love of God alludes to a vaster scale if we think of it.  God is infinite, and the possibility of love of God is infinite.  If teshuvah is to culminate in a complete devotion and love of God, than we must think of that on an endless scale.  Rambam wanted the presentation to be concrete enough to be practical, but alluded at the end to the far greater scale really involved.

Truly, the scope of the Torah is greater than any one individual man or woman, greater than a community, or even an entire generation.  In fact, I would say that the scope of Torah is greater even than humanity.  And the notion of T’shuvah is as great as all of Creation, all of existence; as I hope to at least partially explain.  I think Rambam spoke in such an individual focus largely because he was writing specific guidance and instruction, halachot, regarding a defined mitzvah.  The individual scale is the scale on which we can apply these laws, and that is how he wrote them.  But I would like to try and expand our perspective, and look at t’shuvah on a grander scale.

If I’m not mistaken, we spent over two years learning Rav Kook’s אורות התשובה in here in the beit midrash.  Rav Kook teaches us of a vision of t’shuvah that encompasses all of creation, and spans all of history.  The individual and his or her t’shuvah are a critical part of this; but the total reality of t’shuvah embraces all that exists on every plane of existence.

If our idea of t’shuvah is limited to the individual, then many things go unexplained.  An individual sins as a digression, an aberration.  Just as the sin is unplanned, unscheduled, or unexpected; so, too, the need for a response of t’shuvah to set it right is also something unplanned.  In other words, sin is temporary and unreliable; and so, in a sense, the t’shuvah of an individual for that sin is temporary and unreliable.  But if sin is incidental, and t’shuvah in response is incidental – how, then did the Torah and all the prophets promise a future t’shuvah.  A prophetic promise cannot be made about something that isn’t reliably anticipated.

Let us clarify this a bit further.  The life of any individual is given to the influence of changing circumstances.  By comparison, the course of history – the life of a society or humanity – is more prone to move inexorably onward with fewer detours or deflections.  The larger the scale we speak about, the less the variation.  We all know this from the basic statistics or research courses we likely took in college.  The larger the sample, the more reliable the statistics; the more dependable the trend.  As we look at smaller samples and individual units, the variation from the statistical curve is more likely.

If we only understand t’shuvah as a response to an aberration called individual sin; then only t’shuvah as an individual phenomenon makes sense.  But the Torah and all the prophets spoke about t’shuvah in the history of Israel and humanity.  On that scale, the notion of sin and particular response doesn’t fit so easily.  What were the prophets referring to?  A prophetic promise doesn’t fit an incidental notion.  A prophetic promise implies a foundation, a fundamental value that is meant to be – not an accident.  For the Torah and all the later prophets to promise t’shuvah of Israel and humanity, t’shuvah must be a part of the design of history and Creation.  T’shuvah must be something that Hashem designed or intended in the very moment of Creation.  And so our sages tell us that ‘t’shuvah preceded the Creation’.  The very idea and necessity of t’shuvah is an integral part of how the universe works.  On this scale, t’shuvah cannot be predicated upon sin; it must be something else.

That something else is the very nature of creation, and its connection with the Creator.  Rav Kook talks about how when an idea descends into the world, it actually does descend.  The idea is diminished.  We all understand how the ideal in the mind becomes somehow inevitably compromised as it is actualized in the material world.  Ideal motivates and brings about realization; but realization never lives completely up to the ideal.  It can’t.  The very act of defining and delineating in concrete terms constrains and limits in a way that wasn’t there as long as there was only the abstract idea.  This is even more so for the Divine idea.

The Divine idea is part of the reality of God.  This is אחד, a oneness where language fails because we describe things like ‘God’, ‘mind’, ‘idea’, ‘creating’ as discrete terms.  The idea of creating is one with the Divine reality of Hashem’s existence; independent of any influence, compulsion, or constraint.  But when the idea is realized, transformed into creation of a material existence, the idea becomes constrained.  It falls from the freedom of Godly reality to the mundane confines of definition and actualization.  Here is where t’shuvah comes into the picture.  T’shuva, from the verb לשוב/to return, is the aspiration and movement to return to the perfection and freedom of the Divine idea.  This concept fits the notion of t’shuvah much better than just the individual repentance and penitence we earlier mentioned.  The individual’s t’shuvah is part and parcel of this ‘teshuvah of the universe’; and in a sense is subsumed to it.  Here, all of creation seeks to return to the perfection of the Divine idea.  Since the realization of material creation would certainly necessitate a compromise of that perfection, the very notion of t’shuvah was inherent even in the idea of creation.  T’shuvah, our sages teach us, preceded creation. Because of course there will always be a desire to return to the missing Divine freedom from constraint, the perfection of the Godly idea.  That aspiration is inherent in creation.  T’shuvah is the beating heart of the universe, of all of existence.

Rav Shimon Starelitz, who wrote an interesting summary of Rav Kook’s ideas, put it this way (my translation):

“According to this view, teshuvah isn’t incidental or individual; rather it is the main motivator or motor for the great machine of life.  It preceded the world because without it there is no way to continue the life of all of creation.  Within the consolidation and materialization of the highest spirit which builds life through the compartmentalization of a specific, particular existence – we find already placed the potential of teshuvah to change that existence to something more exalted and noble than it is now.  Within all realization (of the Divine idea) we find folded the teshuvah of freedom from that reality; and so all the worlds advance and develop and ascend.”

This is more than mere regret and repentance.  This is the aspiration to be ever more Godly, and ever more close to Hashem.  This is greater than the individual whose teshuvah is so precious and necessary precisely because the true aspiration unites that individual with the Godly longing and aspiration of all the universe in all its manifestations.

It should be clear from the vision presented in the Torah that Man, created to resemble the Creator Himself, is a powerful agent within the universe.  Adam is so in tune with the Divine will that he can identify the essence of the creatures around him, and name them accordingly (בראשית ב:יט).  On a negative note, when man’s great spiritual potential is corrupted and misused it can bring about great destruction, as in the time of Noah (בראשית ו:ה-ז)  Just as we described with the greater creation in general, so Man also is created with the inherent necessity and aspiration for teshuvah.  Man is created in the image of God, but as he functions in the material world that Divine idea is constrained and diminished.  Man’s need and aspiration for teshuvah, to restore the Divine image, is like the need of all Creation for teshuvah.  Man’s pursuit of teshuvah drives, too, the teshuvah of all the universe.  The notion of tikkun olam in the kabbalah refers to the effect that every human action has on the perceived cosmos and also on all the higher realms of Creation.  The Ramhal characterizes this (דרך ה  א:ה:ד) by saying,

נתן לו כח להיות מניע לעולם עצמו ולבריותיו כפי מה שיבחר בחפצו, that Hashem gave Man the ability to move the universe and its creatures according to what he will choose.  Man’s inherent need and aspiration for teshuvah  resembles and couples with the inherent need for teshuvah in the universe, and herein lies part of the secret of our ability to influence the workings of even the highest spiritual realms in Creation.

It is possible for us to not believe or not realize that our salvation and that of the entire Creation depends on us.  The gemara (ע”ז יז) tells us of Rabi Elazar ben Durdia, who reportedly consorted with every promiscuous woman possible.  He once heard of an exceptionally expensive prostitute and went through great efforts to get to her.  While with her he had an epiphany regarding the depravity and hopelessness of his situation.  He went out and asked for the hills to pray for mercy for him.  He asked the sky and earth to pray for mercy for him.  He asked the sun and moon to pray for mercy for him.  He asked the stars and constellations to pray for mercy for him.  He saw that all that was to no avail, and recognized that his salvation depended on himself.  He placed his head between his knees, bellowing in his existential agony and regret – and died.  A heavenly voice announced – ‘Rabi Elazar ben Durdia is welcomed into the world to come.’  Upon hearing this, the holy Rabi Yehuda Hanasi cried and said, ‘there are those who attain the world to come in a moment.

Let’s look at the elements of this narrative.  Elazar ben Durdia expends great effort to pursue his goal of licentious behavior.  He is thoroughly distracted with this and spares no expense or effort.  Yet, when he regrets what he has become and sees this must change, he initially misunderstands where to place the responsibility.  He knew well enough to show intiative when he wanted to indulge in his obsession; but when it comes time to do teshuvah he wants to deflect the responsibility.  His turning to all the elements of creation to pray for him is a way of saying that he wants to blame his plight on external, environmental influences.  And he wants mercy, not the hard work of teshuvah.  But he does see eventually that really the responsibility for teshuvah is solely his; and his honest recognition of his plight and responsibility is so shocking it kills him.  But with that, he also achieves a place in the world to come, which is a more precious goal than all the pleasures and indulgences on this world.

It is indeed possible to misplace the responsibility for who we are and what we do.  It is indeed possible to think that we are driven by external factors, influencing us to think, and feel, and do the things we do.  But eventually we must see that it all comes down to our choices, and nothing else.  Eventually we must see that Hashem has created and empowered us in such a way that even the realities of the world to come, the next world seemingly beyond this material existence – it all still comes down to what we choose and do here.  That is the power of teshuvah, and tikun olam that Hashem has created within us.

Teshuvah is the driving force of all Creation, and the driving force in each individual’s life.  If we ever let go of the idea of teshuvah, we become static and stuck – and that itself is a state of sin.  Only through our constant learning, refining, striving, perfecting can we express the energy of teshuvah within us and the universe.  Only through full advantage of the power of teshuvah that is so necessary and fundamental within us, can we move ourselves and all of Creation to greater closeness to Hashem and His will for us and all the universe.

Based on the summary essay by Rav Shimon Starelitz at the end of the Rav Drukman edition of Orot Hateshuvah.