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.)