Rabbi David Walk
Usually I don't do requests, but this article is in response to an appeal for a written version of a sermon I delivered on Rosh Hashanah. So, if you were there you can put this down. Otherwise, I hope that you enjoy my meager effort. But I should mention that we believe that there is no learning forum without new ideas so, hopefully, a new twist could emerge.
In my opinion the two greatest thinkers within traditional Judaism in the 20th century were Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) and Rabbi Joseph Dov HaLevy Soloveitchik (1903-1993). I know that there are many out there who might nominate others for this accolade, but for my money these two were the most original and important contributors to Jewish thought or philosophy in that period. There were, to be sure, many others who contributed mightily to lamdut (Torah study) or halacha or community, but I think that someday future generations will look back and see these two giants as the great originators of that hundred years.
There is a certain poetic justice in the fact that they met just once. It was barely a month before the passing of Rav Kook, and there is a fascinating article by Rabbi Jeffrey Sacks in the Tradition Archives about that meeting. But there it was: two luminaries passing each other, one in the course of setting and the other just ascending. It's sort of ironic that they were both called the 'Rav' by their multitude of students. When I made aliyah in the 80's I would often cause confusion by mentioning the 'Rav' and, of course, meaning Rabbi Soloveitchik and the listener would assume that I meant Rav Kook. But the point they share in common which I find so important during this season is totally different.
Throughout the vast literature on Teshuva, all the great authorities view this phenomenon as correction of sin. Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik view the crux of the matter is the correction of man. Of course, man's deviation and corruption are expressed in his sins, but the real source of the problem is man's distance from his Creator. Rav Soloveitchik speaks of the penitent as a person who creates and redeems himself. Rav Kook describes a teshuva that is necessary even in the absence of a specific sin, a teshuva that arises from the distance between the Holy One and His creations. Both focus on the change and the elevation that take place within the inner recesses of the soul.
Rav Kook wrote: It is in the nature of teshuva to endow a person with peace and with solemnity simultaneously. Even the mere thought of teshuva is a comfort to him; in one tiny spark of its great light there is already to be found a lofty and elevated joy of a whole world. But together with this it confronts his mind continuously with the obligations of perfection, which save him from pride and bestow upon him a sweet light, which endows his life with great and abiding value (Orot Ha-teshuva 7:1). He also wrote: The word teshuvah literally means 'return.' It is not an escape from the world. On the contrary, it is 'precisely through genuine, pure teshuvah that we return to the world and to life' (Orot HaTeshuvah 14:30).
The Rav, I mean Rabbi Soloveitchik, expressed that idea very powerfully in his criticism of Christianity's view of teshuva. He wrote That Christians viewed sin as a surrender to nature, while we view sin as detachment from nature. The Torah expects us to remain firmly connected to a natural existence. That's why celibacy is anathema to us and a virtue to them. In his teshuva derasha of 1967, Rabbi Soloveitchik movingly described a stormy night that Pesach when windows were crashing open in his Brookline home. He went downstairs to close the windows in the room where his beloved wife slept, only to be hit with the harsh reality that she had died a month before on Ta'anit Esther. He was in denial. Rav Soloveitchik explained that this is what Teshuva is all about. Teshuva has to make us jump out of the reality that we create for ourselves based on our wants, desires and needs and to face the real, objective reality of life itself.
Their dual demand for a reality check as a prerequisite for teshuva presents us with a dilemma. Teshuva isn't an expression of reality. It is an expression of defeating a harsh reality. The reality of nature is that everything follows rules. And one of the rules of nature is that tomorrow tends to be a repeat of today. The sun will rise again in the east, and set in the west. How can we break the continuity of our behavior? It seems to be unnatural.
And that's true. The odds are very much against successful teshuva. Just like breaking an addiction is unlikely, so, too is improving my behavior an unlikely result of my High Holiday endeavor. How many of us are confessing for similar sins to the ones we enumerated last year? Let me count the hands out there in readership land. Yup, pretty much unanimous. But it is possible. In most studies the recidivism rate for addicts or criminals runs 85 to 90 per cent. I believe that it's similar in teshuva rates. But that's the message of these Days of Awe, we must believe that God will support sincere efforts at improvement, and get us into that ten per cent.
I believe that this explains the famous statement of Maimonides in the third chapter of the Laws of Repentance: Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if it's saying: Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator (#4). You must awake twice. One time to remind us that teshuva is hard, and once to remind us that it's still possible. Good luck!