Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Repentance
To dedicate this lesson

T'shuva - It's Not What You Think

one of the elderly Russian women asked Rav Kook's mother, "Tell me, please: We're on our way to the Holy Land to meet our god, but why would you Jews be going there? Mrs. Kook answered without hesitation: "You're going to visit a dead god, but we're going to meet the living G-d."

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Rabbi Netanel Yossifun

Elul 4 5781
When the parents of Rav Kook z"l immigrated to the Holy Land, they came by ship – together with many Russian Christians on a pilgrimage to their holy places in Jerusalem.

At one point during the course of the journey, one of the elderly Russian women asked Rav Kook's mother, "Tell me, please: We're on our way to the Holy Land to meet our god, but why would you Jews be going there?"

Mrs. Kook answered without hesitation: "You're going to visit a dead god, but we're going to meet the living G-d."


This is precisely the essence of the Land of Israel: one can meet the Living G-d in his everyday life. The great Torah commentator R. David Kimchi (the Radak, d. 1235) explained that the verse "I will walk before G-d in the lands of life" (Tehillim 116) is referring to the Land of Israel, where G-d's presence is found; that the cities of the Holy Land are the Lands of Life; and that Eretz Yisrael is called Life.

This concept is revealed in the Torah portion of Parashat Ki Tavo (D'varim 28), where we see that the blessings for the performance of mitzvot, and the punishments for sins, are entirely in the material, This-Worldly plane. The reward is not a spiritual, World-to-Come type, but rather, "Blessed are your fruits and your livestock… G-d will cause your [attacking] enemies to be beaten before you…" Of course, these blessings are received in their entirety only in Eretz Yisrael, as the above chapter continues: "G-d will bless you in the Land that Hashem your G-d gives you."

Our encounter with the living G-d in the Land of Israel provides a fresh perspective on the concept of t'shuva - repentance and return - which is a process we begin in earnest during this month of Elul. The t'shuva of this month becomes a "return to life." Rav Kook taught that the "treasure of t'shuva" is the "wondrous treasure of life." (It is not for naught that the great Hassidic masters said that the 18th day of Elul, the birthday of the two great luminaries – the Baal Shem Tov and the Baal HaTanya – is the day that brought life to Elul; their point was that a special path of t'shuva is to view it as a return to life.)

It is well-known that the word Elul is an acronym for "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li," which means "I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me." This arouses a strong question: Sometimes our relationship with G-d is depicted as that between a king and his subjects, or as a father and his children, or even as a master and his servants. How is it that in Elul, of all times, when we make an accounting of our shortcomings and failures, our relationship with Hashem is depicted not as one of fear and awe, but of love and closeness?

The answer is rooted in the concept of "return to life." The bonds between man and woman are that which create new life; this is the source of life. The t'shuva of Elul, too, returns us to the source of life, with great love. The acronym of Elul teaches us that the primary aspect of repentance/return is not the search for faults and failures; rather, it is our great faith that human life is fundamentally good, that all failures we experience are external and peripheral to it, and that when we do t'shuva we return to the goodness of what is truly our lives.

Our yetzer hara (evil inclination) strives to shine the t'shuva spotlight specifically on our sins. It hopes to thus bring us to despair, and then to fail and sin even more, and certainly not to return in t'shuva. The yetzer hara is correct: if we associate t'shuva with negative thoughts regarding our self-image, we are likely to choose to stay away from it.

But when t'shuva is full of faith in the fundamental goodness of life, it fills us with strength and confidence in ourselves and our ability to improve and advance. It causes us to rejoice in t'shuva, and to thus avoid additional failures and errors.

When we do t'shuva, we must always remember that G-d loves us and that we love Him. We must always keep in mind that we belong to Him and He belongs to us, as in the words of the acronym of Elul. We must know that all the sins, and the distance between ourselves and Hashem, are nothing more than passing dust particles, and that we have the ability to cleanse and remove them. The t'shuva of Elul is likened to the love between man and woman, for it sprouts within us new life – life of love of Hashem.
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