In terms of time, penitence may be divided into two parts: sudden penitence and gradual penitence.
Sudden penitence comes about as result of a certain spiritual flash that enters the soul. At once the person senses all the evil and the ugliness of sin and he is converted into a new being; already he experiences inside himself a complete transformation for the better. This form of penitence dawns on a person through the grace of some inner spiritual force, whose traces point to the depths of the mysterious.
There is also a gradual form of penitence. No sudden flash of illumination dawns upon the person to make him change from the depth of evil to the good, but he feels that he must mend his way of life, his will, his pattern of thought. By heeding this impulse he gradually acquires the ways of equity, he corrects his morals, he improves his actions, and he conditions himself increasingly to becoming a good person, until he reaches a high level of purity and perfection.
The higher expression of penitence comes about as result of a flash of illumination of the all-good, the divine, the light of Him who abides in eternity. The universal soul, the spiritual essence, is revealed to us in all its majesty and holiness, to the extent that the human heart can absorb it. Indeed, is not the all of existence so good and so noble, is not the good and the nobility in ourselves but an expression of our relatedness to the all? How then can we allow ourselves to become severed from the all, a strange fragment, detached like tiny grains of sand that are of no value? As a result of this perception, which is truly a divinely inspired perception, comes about penitence out of love, in the life of the individual in the life of society.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935 ) was one of the greatest mystics and philosophers of Jewish history. He served as the first chief Rabbi of Palestine. His writing is intensely personal and offers us his direct personal observations into the spiritual life, in all its aspects. His writings are insightful in terms of human psychology and religious phenomenology. While the people of Israel, their revival and spiritual destiny occupy a central place in his thought, making him a fundamental source for contemporary religious Zionist thinking, the import of his work is universal in scope, because of the penetrating spiritual vision into spiritual processes and into the depth of the human heart.
The work from which this citation is quoted is devoted to the notion of teshuva. Teshuva translates as repentance, penitence and return. Its fuller scope, certainly in the thought of Rav Kook, is a full movement of return to the divine and to divine living. Teshuva means for Rav Kook much more than just repenting from one’s sins. This work is extremely popular and may be his most popular work. It is studied in different levels of the educational school and forms part of the curriculum of secondary schools as well as of institutions of adult learning. For many, it has come to define the meaning of return-repentance.
I chose to share this passage from Rav Kook in part because of how canonical it has become for certain circles, particularly those of religious zionists/modern orthodox. But to an even larger extent I chose it because it grows out of direct personal experience, and not simply the ongoing process of traditional commentary and homiletics. It is thus a voice that can speak to any one at any time.
Chapter 2 of Lights of Penitence/Return offers a phenomenology of return. Perhaps one might even distinguish between the two types here presented as leaning either toward penitence or toward return. The phenomenology distinguishes between the two forms in terms of time, but it is really a distinction in terms of who initiates the process of repentance and who drives it. The second type is based primarily on human effort, growing from a recognition for the need to repent. This leads to a gradual process of purification and removal from sin, until the individual reaches higher degrees of purity.
It is clear from the structure of this chapter that Rav Kook’s attention is given primarily to the first time, that of sudden return. Here the initiative clearly comes from beyond the individual. It is a flash of illumination from the beyond. Rav Kook describes it as a spiritual flash that enters the soul, the grace of an inner spiritual force, pointing to mysterious depths, and a flash of illumination of the divine. This flash is associated with the universal soul and its characteristic is the recognition of goodness and nobility of the all and our own connectedness to it. True conversion is founded upon recognition of the totality of goodness that manifests in all and in the recognition that one is part of such greater totality, not severed from it. This is true spiritual conversion, returning to a full vision of reality and allowing the person to find his or her place in a unified vision of all being. Grounded as it is in a universal vision of being, this is a vision of repentance/return/conversion that can speak to one and all, as all are part of the great unified Being.