2.J.2 Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Penitence, Chapter 3, Particularized Penitence and General Penitence, presented by Alon Goshen-Gottstein

— Hindu response by Anant Rambachan
— Christian response by Philip Sheldrake 
— Buddhist response by Ruben Habito 


There is a form of penitence that addresses itself to a particular sin or to many particular sins. The person confronts his sin face to face, and feels remorseful that he fell into the trap of sin. Slowly he struggles to come out if, until he is liberated from his sinful enslavement and he begins to experience a holy freedom that is most delightful to his weary self. His healing continues; rays of a benign sun, bearing divine mercy, reach out to him, and a feeling of happiness grows within him. He experiences this at the same time that his heart remains broken and his spirit bowed and melancholy. Indeed this lowly feeling itself, which suits him in his condition, adds to his spiritual satisfaction and his sense of true peace. He feels himself drawing closer to the source of life, to the living God, who but a short time before was so remote from him. His wistful spirit recalls with joyous relief its previous inner anguish, and is filled with a feeling of gratitude. It breaks into a hymn of thanksgiving: “Praise the Lord, O my soul, forget not all His kindnesses, He forgives all Your sins, He heals all your afflictions, He rescues your life from the pit, He adorns you with grace and compassions, He sates you with every good, He renews your youth like an eagle; the Lord performs merciful acts, He vindicates the cause of the oppressed” (Ps. 103: 2-6). How anguished the soul was when the burden of sin, its dark, vulgar and frightfully oppressive weight, lay upon her! How depressed she was, even if outer riches and honors fell to her lot! What good is there in all the wealth if the inner content of life is impoverished and dry? And how blissful she now is in the inner feeling that her sin has been forgiven, that the nearness of God is already alive and shining in her, that her inner burden has been made oppressed by inner confusion and distress. She is at rest, and filled with an innocent peace. “Return to your peace, O my soul, for the Lord has bestowed His kindness on you” (Ps. 116:7).

There is another kind of feeling of penitence, unspecified and general. A person does not conjure up the memory of past sin or sins, but in a general way he feels terribly depressed. He feels himself pervaded by sin; that the divine light does not shine on him; that there is nothing noble in him; that his heart is unfeeling, his moral behavior does not follow the right course, worthy of sustaining a meaningful life for a wholesome human being; that his state of education is crude, his emotions stirred by dark and sinister passions that revolt him. He is ashamed of himself; he knows that God is not within him, and this is his greatest misfortune, his most oppressive sin. He is embittered against himself; he can find no escape from his oppressive thoughts, which do not focus on any particular misdeeds; his whole being is as though in a torture chamber. For this state of spiritual malaise penitence comes as the therapy from a master physician. The feeling of penitence, with an insight to its profound nature, its basis in the deepest levels of the soul, in the mysterious workings of nature, in all the dimensions of the Torah and our religious tradition comes with all its might and streams into his soul. A sense of assurance in the healing, the general renewal that penitence extends to all who embrace it, distills in him a spirit of grace and acceptance. He senses the fulfillment of the verse “I will comfort you as the person who is comforted by his mother” (Isa. 66:13).

Day by day, inspired by this higher level of general penitence, his feeling becomes more firm, clearer, more illumined by reason and more authenticated by the principles of the Torah. His manner becomes increasingly brightened, his vigor, his eyes sparkle with a holy fire, his heart is bathed in rivers of delight, holiness and purity hover over him. His spirit is filled with endless love, his soul thirsts for God, and this very thirst nourishes him like the choices of foods [lit. “like marrow and fat” as in Ps. 63:6]. The holy spirit rings out before him like a bell, and he is given the good news that all his transgressions, the known and the unknown, have been erased, that he has been born anew as a new being, that the whole world, all realms of being, have been renewed with him, and that all things now join in a chorus of song, that the gladness of God fills all creation. “Great is penitence, for it brings healing to the world, and even one individual who repents is forgiven and the whole world is forgiven with him” (Yoma 86a).


(For introductory remarks on Rav Kook and The Lights of Penitence, see comments on Chapter 2 of the same work.)

Chapter 3 offers us another typology of repentance. The specific distinction in the title of the chapter is between particularized and general repentance, the former addressing specific sins, the latter referring to the overall state of the individual. Closer inspection suggests additional ways of capturing the distinction between the two types of repentance. The first type focuses on sin, whether one or many, and the individual’s awareness of his sin(s) and his desire to rise beyond it. The second type does not focus on a sin, but rather on the distance from God and has spiritual rebirth, full entry into divine presence, as its goal. Accordingly, one might consider the twofold meaning of the Hebrew teshuva as breaking down into two distinct types. The sense of penitence and repentance, characterizes the first type, while the sense of return characterizes the second.

The first type describes a state of awareness in which one retains the memory of sin, expressed in a lowly spirit. However, whereas previously one was oppressed and bound, divine mercy reaches the penitent, who is now liberated, aware that his sin has been forgiven. Joy and brokenheartedness coexist in him, and his interior condition is one of gratitude, leading him to identify himself with the words of the Psalmist, giving thanks to God, for having forgiven his sins. The fruit of this type of repentance is peace.

The second type of teshuva centers on the core recognition that God is not within the person, this manifesting itself in his thoughts, feelings, moral stature and overall state of being. Teshuva is a form of healing. It streams as a great force into the soul. The process here described is, in Rav Kook’s words, one of general renewal. This rebirth points to the image of the mother, who gives new life. The new life is attained by the association of teshuva and the mother, through an explicit appeal to Isa. 66,13 and the implicit kabbalistic associations that tie “mother” and teshuva to the same point in the divinity

The good news of this second type of return is one of spiritual rebirth. Rav Kook offers us an image of what spiritual rebirth consists of, the internal luminosity of that state, its kindness, joy, holiness and purity. Above all, love and thirsting for God are the marks of this state of being in God, above the former state of oppression by sin. As in Chapter 2, here too this higher state is not only personal but cosmic in scope, connected to all beings. Along with the individual, all beings and all of creation, is transformed. If the first type concluded with a hymn of gratitude of the repentant, forgiven for his sins, the description of the second type concludes with a cosmic song of divine joy.