Living Passionately and Idealistically
BY RABBI DR. YOSEF BRONSTEIN
The importance of Ratzon
As a kabbalist, Rav Kook often underscored the importance of a human being’s ratzon (“will” or “desire”). When stripped down to its core, a person’s essential ratzon is “a small spark of the great flame of… G-d’s will.” Just as G-d desires the betterment of the world and all its inhabitants, so, too, deep down, every person has an identical burning drive. Our most elemental desire is that each individual and the world collectively live the ideal life of perfection and connection to G-d (Orot HaKodesh 3, p. 39).
Due to our complex makeup, this primal passion is often concealed. Instead, we focus on more limited goals and desires. We crave fulfilling relationships, a good job, or success in specific projects. As Jews, however, our mission is to constantly analyse our drives and passions and work to connect each specific passion back to our core desire for spiritual perfection. Through a process of “moral toil,” we are called to elevate ourselves above the “vicious and narrow cycle of limited desires” and consciously realize how each of our passions is part of this “great tapestry” of the general pining for perfection (Orot HaKodesh 3, p. 40).
Ratzon and Teshuvah
Rav Kook highlighted several aspects of religious life that are ideal opportunities for cultivating and revealing this elemental ratzon (see, for example, Orot HaKodesh 3, 77). One such example is the process of teshuvah. When a person thinks seriously about his current spiritual state or the state of his family, community, or the world as a whole, he will immediately realize the significant gap that exists between the present reality and the Torah’s vision of perfection. Contemplating this chasm will nourish one’s primal desire for perfection and closeness to G-d. Teshuvah then can help the inner ratzon grow from a small spark to a raging fire, from a subconscious drive to a conscious and omnipresent organizing principle in one’s life (Orot HaTeshuva 9:1–2).
A Unified Personality
Teshuvah though, can also have a detrimental impact on a person’s ratzon. True High Holiday teshuvah requires one to amputate specific external drives that have become appended to the pure soul (Orot HaTeshuva 8:1). This severing of the less idealistic parts of our identity can negatively affect the one doing teshuvah.
Rav Kook explains that a person – body and soul, mind and heart, yetzer hatov and yetzer hara – is a holistic entity. If, before engaging in teshuvah, a person was passionate for physical pleasure, the redirecting of these drives can potentially weaken a person’s general vitality and zest for life.
A diminishment of even negative desires can leave a person more blasé and less passionate than before, or in Rav Kook’s language, with a debilitated ratzon.
Rav Kook writes that the beginning of one’s growth in Yirat Shamayim is often accompanied by a wave of “passivity” as a person incorrectly associates religious life with “losing one’s essential ratzon” (Orot HaKodesh 3, pg. 28 [introduction]).
The Simcha of Sukkot
This is why the holiday season of Tishrei concludes with Sukkot. True teshuvah, as painful as it is, must conclude with a sense of joy and vitality. The painful contemplation of the gap between the real and the ideal does not end in despondency but in the joyful realization that we are blessed to live in G-d’s presence and have the wherewithal to constantly strengthen that connection (Orot HaTeshuva 16:3). Teshuvah broadens our field of vision, allowing us to see new spiritual opportunities on the horizon. This joyful excitement should be the dominant emotion that we gain through the months of Ellul and Tishrei. And so the apprehensive opening days of Tishrei cannot be complete without the joy of Sukkot. Through serving G-d with joy, we will reinvigorate our ratzon and passionately pursue an optimistic life of serving G-d.
“A tzaddik must believe in himself that he is fit to experience joy in the performance of mitzvot, such a joy that the entire world is not worthy of it… And particularly in the times of joy… we banish from our hearts gloomy calculations that can cloud a person’s spiritual life. Rather, we are happy with G-d, in the sanctity of His light that is revealed in our souls… and we spiritually connect with [G-d’s light], with the vitality of His sanctity that gives life to all” (Shemoneh Kevatzim 2:222).
Rabbi Dr. Yosef Bronstein is a faculty member of Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalyaim and Yeshiva University.