Through a Mussar Lens: Spiritual Ascendance through Teshuvah
My new book, With Heart in Mind, will be published this month. I mention this not in the interests of self-promotion (though I will be very happy to know that you bought a copy and benefited from it) but because a central focus of that book relates to the theme we are exploring in this issue of Yashar— teshuvah.
The book opens by pointing out something that I believe to be entirely true, though it is not what people tend to see or experience in their encounters with the Jewish world, which is that:
The central concern of Judaism is that you and I accomplish a personal spiritual transformation in our lifetimes. That core intention can be lost in the welter of rituals, festivals, liturgy and other performative aspects of the tradition. It becomes even less visible when buried under the weight of buildings, institutions, campaigns and political struggles that are, for some, the face if not the totality of the Jewish world. But the fact remains that at its core, the driving concern of Judaism is personal spiritual transformation.
That’s what I focus on in the book, in a practical way. What I point to as proof for this assertion are Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, holy days that are fast approaching again this year, once more bringing teshuvah into the spotlight. “Yes, there are hundreds of pages of prescribed prayers and many other ritual acts, but the central focus for these two days (as well as the 10 days that fall between them) is a personal stock-taking of the things one did or said in the previous year followed by steps to repair any damage, to set the stage for different behavior in the year to come. The Jerusalem Talmud puts it clearly, ‘God said, “Since you all came for judgment before me on Rosh Hashana and you left [the judgment] in peace, I consider it as if you were created as a new being.”’
Imagine that! If you do teshuvah, it is as if you were starting your life all over again. What would it look like and feel like to be the new you that the Talmud says is the result of doing teshuvah? All the scars that you have picked up along this journey would be healed. You’d be relieved of the burdens you carry from the past, and no doubt that would put a new bounce in your step. Relationships will be repaired and restored. Most important from the standpoint of all the standard sources on teshuvah is that you would have taken steps to return to a close relationship with God, as implied by the literal definition of the word teshuvah (“return”).
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel (and a product of a Mussar yeshiva), however, adds that we gain something else from doing 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 )
This is not how the outcome of the inner cleansing that is teshuvah is usually described and that is because Rav Kook is not just giving us the usual abstract concepts like “return to God” but rather is struggling to express in words the actual experience from within that a person who has done teshuvah can expect.
This is a difficult thing to grasp because what Rav Kook is describing is the experience of rising to a higher spiritual level. A little later in the book, he says, “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” (5:6). That is what Mussar is all about—helping you and me to develop our inherent character to a higher level. The work we do to overcome our impatience, stinginess, laziness, ingratitude or whatever aspect of our character is handicapping our lives and our growth (what I call a person’s personal spiritual curriculum) results in a step up the spiritual ladder. It is the experience of standing on that new and higher rung that Rav Kook is trying to capture and convey.
It takes awareness and practice to make real change in the traits that feature on one’s personal spiritual curriculum, but that is exactly what the process of teshuvah is meant to accomplish. Anyone who spends Yom Kippur standing in synagogue remorsefully beating his breast but does not undertake the work required to develop his character will, I regret to inform you, likely be beating the same breast about the same failing just around the same time next year.
The process of teshuvah is real only if it results in a rewiring of your inner life in the places where you are challenged to grow. Do that—complete the teshuvah—and you become a new person with new eyes. I know from my own experience what Rav Kook is describing because I have experienced that step up to a higher level on the ladder where “whole worlds are revealed, in celestial clarity, in the midst of his soul.” As the Rambam put it so well, every one of the inner traits that is tending to the extreme drops a veil over our eyes and our hearts. When we do the work to transform that trait, our limited vision gives way to a wider view. Things that have been there all along are seen in clear outline for the first time. We perceive new worlds right here in the midst of the world we still inhabit.
The fact that it is difficult to describe the changes that come about in inner experience when a person does their personal spiritual work and purifies and elevates their soul does not make it any less true. The higher you go up a mountain, the more clearly you see the features of the land below. Those features were always there, though you were unable to see them from lower vantage points. The higher you climb, the more you are able to see.
One last piece of guidance from Rav Kook. As long as we are alive, there is room to grow and ascend, which means that at every point in our lives, our vision is limited to some extent and therefore we are prone to stumble. This situation could make us despair because no matter how much we come to see the world more clearly, we still do things that call us back to doing teshuvah. We are still far from the peak. Rav Kook reassures us:
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 wholeness, a desire which is the foundation of teshuvah, and which continually governs his path in life. (5:5)
Rav Kook urges us not to focus on our accomplishments, nor on how much more climbing remains to be done, but on the inner urge we feel to make that ascent. Foster that urge, and we are sure to reap the benefits of teshuvah.
(translations of Rav Kook by Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner)
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