Like many Jews of a certain era, I was reared on stories of the trepidations of the Yamim Noraim – how entire towns in Europe would be terrroized, how people would walk around in apprehension of the approaching Yom Hadin, how every Jew would spend copious amounts of time reckoning with his or her flaws and foibles, how the Baalei Mussar pounded into their adherents the anguish awaiting the unrepentant sinner and his community. I do not doubt the veracity of those accounts but I can state that I do not see it anymore. It is not only that times have changed.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in different ways are both construed as festive days – Rosh Hashana as indicated by Nechemia (8:10) and Yom Kippur as the happiest day of the year (Masechet Taanit 26b). Rav Kook’s primary thesis in Orot Hateshuvah was that repentance is supposed to be joyous, not just the outcome of forgiveness but the entire process of repentance. For sure, this was a new idea, and dissented from the more doleful approach of the Baalei Musar. To Rav Kook’s mind, the teshuvah of joy spoke more closely to the hearts of a modern generation. If repentance is not joyful, something is wrong. How so?
Although repentance is a joyous experience in conception, sin or grappling with sin are not. That is why we omit tachanun on any happy occasion, for it doesn’t mention teshuvah at all but rather the wages of sin. “Merciful and Compassionate One, I sinned before you…Do not chastise me in Your anger…my couch melts because of my tears” (Cf. Tehillim, Chapter 6). There is not a word about repentance, only about the damage wrought by sin. Rav Kook wrote: (Orot Hateshuvah 14:7): “All sadness comes as a result of sin, and repentance illuminates the soul and transforms sadness into happiness.”
If happiness is the natural state of the being living in line with its essential nature, then sadness (meaning frustration, discontent, or unhappiness) can only beset a person because of too many actions, thoughts, or traits that are bad for the soul. When the light of repentance emerges, “the pipelines of pleasure and joy are opened.” To encapsulate this in one famous phrase (Orot Hateshuvah 15:6): “Repentance does not come to make one’s life bitter, but to make it sweeter, more pleasant, more true to itself.”
What is the source of this joy? Repentance is the act of renewal or re-creation. We become different people. We always love what is new, so changing one’s name, deeds, and even locale is all part of the joy of the soul in becoming a new creature. If we don’t actually change our names – and maybe we should! – we can feel born again by changing our deeds, habits, location, and routine and especially when it has us in a spiritual rut, celebrating complacency, mediocrity or worse.
For perfect repentance the soul has to maintain two contradictory forces: trepidation and anguish over sin, and confidence and joy over the good, for it is impossible that man should not find some good, even much good, in himself. But even the anguish is productive, a sign that man is healthy, that he knows something is wrong and needs rectification. That is a good thing.
Rav Kook (Ein Aya, Maaser Sheni) wrote that we always have to keep in mind the magnitude of our obligations to God – to do good, to be good and holy, and to perfect our character. But even though we know we are not perfect, and we are to act humbly and contritely before G-d, “nonetheless these feelings of inferiority should not predominate so that it tramples on his serenity of soul, and robs him of his joy and happiness in life.”
That is the joy of repentance. It is not just the outcome that we are now “beloved, cherished, close to and a friend of God” (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 7:6) but in the process itself. It requires that we not just to focus on sin but to contemplate what we have done well.
Perhaps the joy of teshuvah can be internalized only when we realize that repentance is not just a return to God but is really a return to our true selves, to our souls before they were tarnished, to our personalities before the world of falsehood started to contort them. At the heart of that repentance is the recognition that we have tremendous powers and capabilities.
Reb Tzadok even wrote (Tzidkat Hatzadik 154) that just like a person has to believe in God, so too he has to believe in himself, to feel that he matters to God and does not toil or live in vain. We have to believe in our spiritual personalities. Even though we might (might?) sin and become repugnant, we still have the potential to become exalted and escape the shackles of our limitations.
So, too, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz emphasized (Sichot Mussar, 26) that a person who believes in himself can uncover powers and potential that hitherto he did not think he possessed.
All these forces – of simchat hanefesh‘ the joy of repentance, the creation of the new personality and the ability to see the good in ourselves – coalesce on Yom Kippur, the day the second set of luchot were given to us and the day the Bet Hamikdash was consecrated (Masechet Taanit 26b). On Yom Kippur, we were given all the tools through which we serve God, and every year we celebrate those personal and national tools, and polish them anew.
May we use them well, and in the repentance of joy bring about the personal and national redemption of all Israel.