Thoughts in honor of the 50th Yahrzeit of
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook zt”l
“There are souls which serve as receptacles for the ‘light.’
But there are more sublime souls which are themselves the ‘light.’”
AS THE YEARS SLIP BY SINCE RAV KOOK’S PASSING, HIS figure grows larger and more impressive. The problems he grappled with and the solutions he proposed can be even better appreciated today than they were in his own day; the intensity and reality of his faith inspire us and strengthen our own faith; and his vision, breadth and courage can help to guide us through the seemingly overwhelming problems of our own tumultuous and difficult era.
Faith and Divine Mission
From the vantage point of our basically cynical, secular world, perhaps the most striking factor about Rav Kook was the certainty and reality of his faith. For Rav Kook, the Divine Presence was a daily, tangible experience, and Providence, he felt, had selected him to bridge the great and growing gap between the religious establishment and the religious builders of the new Yishuv.
Shabbetai Don-Yahia, the late editor of Hatzofe and a former disciple Of the Rav, once said: “Rav Kook was different than normal human beings. He . . . at times could detach himself completely from his terrestrial surroundings and communicate with higher spheres. If you should ask me, what is Ruach Hakodesh, I would not be able to answer you. But in the presence of Rav Kook I felt what Ruach Hakodesh must be like.”
Isaac Halevy, the brilliant historian and founder of Agudas Yisroel, wrote to Rav Kook, “I well know and make known publicly that God has sent you to Eretz Yisroel to be a sustainer of life.’
The profound inner harmony of the Rav s soul was reflected in his face. Dr. Pinchas Cohn, political secretary to Chaim Weizmann during the London period, relates: “In the midst of the dark, anxiety-ridden days of World War 1,1 was undergoing a personal crisis and decided to visit the Rav and relate to him what troubled me and surely he would be able to provide me with words of encouragement and strength. To visit the Rav one needed no entrance pass, not even prior notification. His home was open to all and the Rav helped each needy person as best he could. Between visitors, he went back to his study and writing.
“When I entered the hall where the Rav sat, no one else was present and the Rav sat at the head of the table completely immersed in learning a sefer. I looked at his face and it was exceptionally serene. A quiet sublimity surrounded him, a peacefulness out of place in the stormy world about. I remained as if glued to my spot and so I stood and continued to peer at him. Gradually, my anxiety dissolved, my heart was quieted and my soul was restored. I had no need to speak. I quietly backed away and left. From the peacefulness of the Rav, I had derived all that I needed.”
Rav Kook’s two leading disciples, the Gaon and Zaddik Rabbi Y.M. Charlop and Rabbi David Hakohen, were both first drawn to the Rav by hearing him pray. That experience changed the course of their lives.
Emphasis on the Thought, Spirit and Ethics of Judaism
Rav Kook never ceased to stress that religious Jewry’s inability to influence contemporary Jewry was in large measure due to our failure to emphasize and communicate the inner spiritual force of Judaism as expressed in the whole range of our ethical, philosophic, Kabbalistic and Aggadic literature.
Maran, the late Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner zt”l, was greatly influenced by Rav Kook’s emphasis and even utilized the Rav’s precise terminology “Hilchos Dayos V’chovos Halevovos” in describing his own profound mamorim (lectures).
Creating a Devout, Learned, but Self-Confident Generation
The Rav’s faith enabled him to confront the whole range of modern day problems with confidence and courage. He strove to help create a thoroughly learned and devout generation, who at the same time could contribute to and influence the shape and character of the exploding renaissance going on around them. He sought to replace the image of the Golut Jew as a bent, fearful, somewhat pathetic figure, with a deeply spiritual but joyous, self-confident new generation.
Rav Kook sharply decried and was deeply pained by all forms of irreligiosity, but never gave up on all Jews who continued to identify themselves as part of Klal Yisroel. He was strongly opposed to dividing religious and irreligious Jews into separate camps as if the irreligious were no longer part of Klal Yisroel. In this regard he pointed to the symbolism of the arava on Succos and the foul-smelling chelbana used in the ketores (incense). He wrote with great feeling:
“The pure Zaddikim do not complain about evil, but increase justice; do not complain about lack of faith, but increase faith; do not complain about ignorance, but increase wisdom.”
Once a group of workers who were unable to finish constructing a building before Rosh Hashanah continued their work on the Holy Day itself. The neighbors immediately notified the Rav, and shortly there after, the Rav’s messenger arrived at the building site, Shofar in hand.
He approached the startled workers, blessed them with a good year, and informed them that the Rav had asked him to blow Shofar on their behalf, so that they could fulfill their obligation. He therefore asked if they would interrupt their labor to listen, whereupon he said the bracha and began to blow.
The Rav’s words and the Shofar’s blast fulfilled their purpose. With each blast the Jewish core was touched and aroused. The workers left their tools and work, gathered round the blower and some began to cry. They recalled the images of their parents, the shtetl and the synagogue and asked themselves, “What happened to us?” After the blasts were completed, they said little but all agreed to discontinue their work. They changed their clothing and joined the prayers at the synagogue of the Rav.
Material and Spiritual Renewal
Rav Kook’s perspective was panoramic and all encompassing. Though renowned for his love of every Jew, he was also an extremely penetrating, perceptive and sophisticated critic. While discerning sparks of Yiddishkeit in the intense devotion of the irreligious settlers to the physical rebuilding of the land, he was sickened by their disregard of Torah observance. However, he saw their generation as transitional, to be ultimately supplanted by descendants loyal to Torah.
With prophetic insight he predicted 80 years ago that the irreligious pioneers’ ideological zeal would wane and wither, and that believing Jews would launch the true, spiritual renewal.
Besides his interpretation of the return to and renewal of Eretz Yisroel, Rav Kook provided a world view unmatched by any other modern Jewish thinker in its scope, originality and loyalty to the mainstream of Jewish thought. He enabled intelligent, observant Jews to view the world as a place which must be improved rather than neglected. He sought for the spiritual unity of life and demonstrated that Torah was not removed and distant from the flow and flux of everyday life.
But perhaps his greatest contribution was to provide meaning, by his inspired thought and extraordinary deeds, to the profound historical changes that Klal Yisroel was and is experiencing in the modern era. He clarified the special role that our generation has to play in the dramatic unfolding of Jewish history.
Herman Wouk has written that to present Judaism to our age requires two qualities: prophecy and monumental scholarship. In the person of Rav Kook, both qualities were present in abundance. Yet unfortunately, the true nature of his life and works have been clouded by misunderstanding. The time is right to clarify and communicate his message for our confused generation.
Rav Kook on Education
On the individual level, Rav Kook emphasized the necessity of providing each child with the opportunity to develop in the specific fields for which he had a unique gift or inclination, rather than forcing him into a prescribed learning mold. He warned that such compulsion could and did lead to defections from the ranks of Judaism which could easily have been avoided. (Orot HaTorah pps. 43-44)
On a broader level, he recognized the importance of knowing secular subjects as well as gaining familiarity with the spirit of the times as a prerequisite to making an impact on the contemporary world (Ikvay Hatson p. 129). He also recognized the need for and supported vocational education.
On the other hand, he warned against under-estimating the continuing value of the old style cheder. In a letter to Rabbi Fishman (Maimon), who had spoken disparagingly of an old style yeshiva, Rav Kook sharply rebuked him for his remarks and pointed out that the pure, unadulterated method of Torah education was still the main source for sanctity and outstanding scholarship. (Letters v. 2, pps. 206-7)
And in his frequently referred to (but seldom read) address at the dedication of Hebrew University, Rav Kook underscored the profound apprehensions which must accompany education partaking of outside knowledge.
His perspective did not reflect an empty tolerance of diverse approaches, but rather a profound grasp of the legitimacy of different approaches, each in its own way, contributing to Kavod Shamayim.
In the end, the primary goal of education, was seen by Rav Kook as a means to develop the best in man by attaching himself to the divine through the medium of Torah. All other considerations are secondary. (Letters v. 1, pps. 218-9; Orot HaTorah p. 14)