Book review: Repentance for life

The matza that you buy a few weeks before and eat on Pesach is, in fact, prepared many months in advance of the holiday. When it comes to books about Rosh HaShana, they should similarly be released many months in advance of the holiday to make the most use of them.

Having made aliyah this year, Rosh HaShana 5782 was the first time Rabbi Steven Pruzansky was not as Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck since he was installed there in 1994. Those who attended his Shabbos Shuva droshas from 1994 through 2020 could hear a master orator in action.

In Repentance for Life (Kodesh Press), Pruzansky has compiled 18 of his finest speeches and put them in print. Topics cover numerous aspects of repentance, all written that are contemporary and real. Perhaps the best time to release a book like this is just after Passover.

As Pruzansky articulately writes, true teshuva (repentance) is not a trivial task. In our youth, and some of us in our older years, we will go up to a person in the days (and often hours) before Rosh Hashana and blithely ask, “do you forgive me?” as if forgiveness was such an easy task. In the first two essays, Pruzansky shows the depth of repentance and that it cannot be merrily done.

Moving to Israel has certainly not mellowed the rabbi. In this insightful guide, Pruzansky comes out in full-force intensity. Be in what he calls the “troubling phenomenon in the modern world that our older children grow up and do not sit next to their parents in shul.” While that may not seem like such a pressing problem, he writes that it is indicative of more significant issues. In chapter after chapter, he highlights numerous areas, character traits, societal issues and more, that need to be worked on.

In many of the essays, all of them profound, he asks 15-20 penetrating questions that cut to the core of what repentance is all about. As he plumbs through the depth of what real teshuva means, one should consider the saying of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. Who observed that it is easier to learn the entire Talmud than change a single character trait. The book drives that point home as it details the myriad challenges in making real change last.

Pruzansky has almost 400 lectures on YU Torah, many of them on history, halacha, the intersection of Jewish law and American law, and more. In the book, he shows the depth and breadth of his scholarship, quoting myriad sources in each chapter and bringing them together to weave some beautiful insights.

Each of the 18 chapters are gems, but I found chapter 11 on Repentance and Avodah Lishmah (Divine service for its own sake) to be particularly insightful. He details the many aspects, sometimes seemingly contradictory, about what doing something for its own sake means. He raises 19 questions on the topic and answers all of them with great insight.

As to the notion of lishmah, he notes that a crucial starting point to understand the topic is to realize the contrast between lishmah and lo lishmah (not for its own sake). Moreover, while lishmah has only one meaning and application, the realm of lo lishmah is varied, complex, and has six different levels.

This is a deep and broad book. At nearly 600 pages, there is a lot to digest here. Given that 5782 is a leap year, Rosh Hashana 2022 will not be until a year from now. As Rosh Hashana is meant to transform us, Repentance for Life will help make that journey much easier and much more real. And it is a remarkable book to start reading now.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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