Lights-of-teshuvah-bookcover“In its essence,
teshuvah (repentance) is a movement
of return to the origin —

to the source of life and supernal being
in their wholeness,
without boundaries and limitations —
with an intent that is rendered most noble and blessed by the simple and shining supernal radiance.”

The Lights of Teshuvah

(Orot ha-Teshuvah/אורות התשובה)
by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook
translated by
Yaacov David Shulman
© 2020 by Yaacov David Shulman
ISBN 9798672243726

The Hebrew month of Elul, which began this year on Friday evening, Aug. 21, commences the annual “penitential period” of the Jewish year that reaches its peak on Yom Kippur. According to kabbalah, it doesn’t fully conclude until Hoshanah Rabbah, which begins this year on Thursday evening, Oct. 8th.

It’s appropriate during this time to “repent.”

What is repentance?

The conventional definition might be: Cease doing what we should not do and begin or “return” to doing what we should do — especially as defined by halachah/Jewish law. 

But as seen in the introductory quote above, it can mean far, far more than that.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of what rav-kookwas called “mandatory Palestine,” before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. 

As such, he was arguably the leading authority in Jewish law and learning of his time.

At the same time, he had learned Kabbalah during his student years, and was thus both an Orthodox scholar and a mystic, following the tradition of the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, Rabbi Yosef Karo, Rabbi Yonah of Gerona, and many others. For him, Orthodoxy is not implicitly antithetical to spirituality, as it might be for some other branches of Judaism, nor is spirituality (particularly as expressed in Kabbalah) antithetical to Orthodoxy, as it might be for the more “rationalistic” branches, like “Modern Orthodoxy” (although over time, at least some ideas from Kabbalah have become part of Reform, Conservative and other branches).  

In “The Lights of Teshuvah,” he describes repentance — “teshuvah” — as our return to the perception of the Undivided Divine Wholeness and our unity with it. In doing so, he does not deny or ignore the conventional definition, but absorbs it in his greater vision. He is telling us: A change in action alone is not the sole goal of “teshuvah.” That goal is fulfilled by an actual change in our spiritual perception; a raising of our consciousness (in a term most familiar today).

The writings of many Kabbalists can be rather technical. They describe a change in our consciousness, but do so with reference to the terminology of Kabbalah, much as Physicists describe the workings of the natural world in technical and mathematical terms, rather than purely sensory ones. To understand and learn from the Kabbalists, we must often go through a process of “inner translation” before we can see the vistas they open to us.

Rav Kook typically writes more from his experience, and thus is more clearly writing about ours, as well.  The Light (or Lights) he saw and sees, he cannot but proclaim joyfully to us. Only based on personal experience could he state so convincingly:

“(A person’s) recognition that the whole world [i.e. the entire Creation], with all of its phenomena, is only the emanation [הזרחה i.e. “glow” or “shine”] of the outside of the garment (consisting) of the light of absolute, Divine truth implants within (his) heart a clear love of the truth.” [2] 

A short review like this of this book doesn’t permit going into the full depth, breadth and detail of Rav Kook’s thoughts. Still, I can say that reading Rav Kook’s words allows us to partake of something of his own state of consciousness (as discussed in my previous post:

His writing is exciting, uplifting, inspiring. This can only be so when writing is done “from the heart to the heart.”

At the same time, Rav Kook’s writings have been noted for their difficulty. He was not a Hebrew prose “stylist,” as was Rabbi Mosheh Hayyim Luzzatto (an 18th century Italian rabbi and Kabbalist who was as much concerned with style as with content, and who became known as “the father of modern Hebrew letters”).

Translator Yaacov David Shulman has given us a fine, workable translation of Rav Kook’s words. He has also thankfully annotated the Biblical and Talmudic references, making this all the more valuable. Mr. Shulman has prepared (3) versions of this work:
1 — The Hebrew-English version being reviewed here.
2 — A Hebrew-only version.
3 — An English-only version. 

In any version, this book makes for excellent reading at any time of year, but especially during Elul and moreso, during the 10 “Yamim Noraim” — the “Days of Awe” between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

The book contains innumerable points from which to derive sermons, lectures and classes. I would also be very happy to see group discussion of it, to deepen its impact in motivating us to reach for something higher — a higher level of living and acting; a higher level of spiritual perception — that, as Rav Kook tells us, is our true natural state.

All three editions are available on In addition, the English-only edition can be found on “Book Depository” and “Book Shop.”

For orders, Mr. Shulman can be reached at:


[1] Kook, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak; Lights of Repentance; Yaacov David Shulman, trans.; © 2020 by Yaacov David Shulman (self published); ch. 12:8a, p. 170 (Eng.)/171 (Heb.)
[2] ibid., ch. 15:1, p. 254 (Eng.)/255 (Heb.)







Rebbe Nachman of Breslav teaches:

“Make sure that you don’t allow your mind to become chametz, leavened. Don’t dwell on bad thoughts or desires at all. These thoughts are rooted in the side of death. If they come into your mind, just reject them and push them out completely, because ultimately they ruin the mind and make it impossible to pray properly and experience genuine joy. You should try to avoid even the merest hint of thoughts like these. You should be as careful about it as we are to avoid even the merest speck of chametz on Pesach. Evil thoughts are the leaven in the the dough, and the law regarding leaven on Pesach is that we must destroy it completely so that it can neither be seen nor found. Purify your mind and empty it of any thoughts like these.” 1

Torah tells us to remove “chametz” — any leavening or yeast-product — from our homes in preparation for and during Passover.

An undeniable sense of spiritual purification accompanies that procedure.

It’s after Pesach. I’ve just read this teaching of Rebbe Nachman’s, that uses Passover/Pesach imagery to discuss a condition that we might address daily, at any time of year.

The 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l, similarly said:

Chametz, which becomes bloated as it rises, symbolizes self-inflated egotism and pride.” 2

What are “bad thoughts or desires?” Or “evil thoughts?”

When I was 17, I first entered psychotherapy with a wonderful Social Worker, Mrs. Sarah Lieberson, z”l. I remember telling her that I was uncomfortable being so angry. She asked a question that startled me: “What’s wrong with being angry?”

I was hardly brought up in a religious home, but somehow, I’d absorbed the idea from the culture at large that anger was “bad.” This therapist had just made a mind-boggling suggestion: Anger wasn’t necessarily “bad” or “wrong.” By inference, the same was equally true for any feeling. It was an “epiphany.” 3

Looking back 56 years, it was one of the pivotal moments in my life.

I could probably say that I’m a Social Worker today because of that moment.

Of course, I understood that she wasn’t telling me that any way I might express my anger was necessarily “acceptable.” If I did harm to myself or someone else, that manner of expression was something to question and change. But I didn’t have to feel shame or guilt for the feeling itself.

Not only that: Anger could be a necessary, useful tool in meeting life’s challenges, if applied effectively.

If we try to handle our anger by suppressing it or “pushing it out,” or merely “hold it in” or deny it, we create an unhealthy condition within ourselves. That can come out in tension, in misdirected or inappropriate anger, in depression, etc.

Does Rebbe Nachman mean that we should reject our own anger (and other feelings) in ways that we have come to know are psychologically and emotionally unhealthy?

I hardly think so!

Torah tradition is rich with attention to moderating anger — from the rabbis of the Talmud, to the Rambam and other medieval writers, to the 18th century Hasidim and the 19th century Musar movement. In the 20th century, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s “Gateway to Happiness” incorporates a CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)-based approach, while illuminating each point with reference to Jewish tradition.

What, then, is Rebbe Nachman’s purpose?

In the course of our contemplation/prayer/hitbodedut, we come to experience the pure peace of God. As we progress, we come to realize by experience that this is the essential nature of our own mind and heart. In this context, Rebbe Nachman is telling us that “chametz-dik” thoughts — of anger, worry, envy, etc. — disturb the quiet calmness that is our natural state. 

This is also in keeping with what Maharishi Patanjali says about the essence of Yoga:

“Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of ‘mind-stuff’.” 4

In a general way, he means: “‘Yoga’ is not letting anything disturb your peace-of-mind.”

The first step is to understand that if our peace of mind is disturbed by anything, it is we, ourselves, who have allowed the disturbance; sometimes even created or added to it.

Rebbe Nachman means the same thing.

1 Likutey Moharan I, 5:4; also Advice, p. 176

2 Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, p. 129ff.; Vol. VII, p. 276

3 It also separated me from my peers, in many ways, just as the nascent “Hippie” ethos was beginning to emerge (1965). After this “epiphany,” I couldn’t believe “Love is all you need,” etc. At the same time, it prevented me from getting involved in drugs (as many peers did) or in groups that promised “liberation” in exchange for autonomy.

4 Yoga Sutras 1:2

Rabbi Eli Mallon

photo by Carl Merkin (

Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LCSW

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 141 other followers


<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: