Friday, August 13, 2010

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (1865 - 1935)

Today (the third of Elul) is the yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of Rav Kook, one of the most influential figures in the modern Jewish world.

Rav Kook was a visionary far ahead of the curve, and his focus on ahavat Yisrael, ahavat haTorah, and ahavat Eretz Yisrael was legendary. Indeed, a large part of his life was devoted towards drawing others toward the Torah's illumination, reconciling the seeming dichotomy between the paths of the Gaon of Vilna and the Baal Shem Tov (as a scion of both worlds), and reuniting the "separated twins" (the Written Law and Oral Law; this is a major theme of Rav Kook's Orot HaTorah and is beyond the scope of this essay and my own understanding), which can only be truly achieved in the Holy Land.

Rav Kook was a master of all the different aspects of the Torah; the revealed and the esoteric, halacha and aggada, Rav Kook wove brilliant treatises on any and every subject pertinent to Judaism. He had a deeply sensitive soul that is reflected in his poetry and his expositions on the world around us.

Unfortunately, Rav Kook's philosophy and writings have been the subject of many interpretations and many people have misappropriated his ideas and attempted to fit them to justify their own agendas. Additionally, his relationships and decisions have been distorted by numerous revisionists, casting a pall on his reputation to the extent that there are many who feel the need to "legitimize" Rav Kook.

I have been learning the Ein AYah with Reb Ally, and have been making feeble attempts to learn the Orot HaTorah, assisted by Rav Moshe Weinberger's wonderful ongoing series on the sefer. While I am slowly being opened up to the world of Rav Kook, I realize that I am barely scratching the surface of the rich depth and inspiring beauty that his Torah reveals. I believe that anybody who learns his sefarim with an open heart and a desire to grow spiritually will see that Rav Kook doesn't need anyone to legitimize him.

One story that I read long ago about Rav Kook made a lasting impression on me:

One day [Avraham Yitzchak] said to me "I've decided that we must set aside two night s a week as 'mishmar' nights, when we will learn all night."
I recall one "mishmar" night which was characteristic of this budding genius. We were studying Tractate Chullin together, arguing some point in the text. I insisted that my view was right, and we debated the matter back and forth, until, at last we agreed.
The hour was late, and we were studying together at the bimah. Everything around us was silent and still. In the next room, the other yeshiva students had been asleep for some time. Above the holy ark, the conventional ner tamid burned on. We rested a bit from our strenuous argument and sat a few moments to chat. 
He then said to me in a voice suffused with secrecy, "Do you realize, it is possible that right now the two of us are sustaining the entire world! Maybe, at this moment, the Holy One Blessed be He is judging the world, weighing the sins of the entire human race on his scales of justice. Perhaps the sins piled up on one pan of the scales outweigh all the merits gathered in the other pan. Then, the angel Michael - whom our tradition identifies as "one defending angel out of a thousand" (Iyov 33:23) takes our words of Torah and places them on the pan of merits and good deeds...and they tip the scales! Then we will have been privileged to save the entire world - yes, the two of us, as young as we are; I just started wearing tefillin and you are not even Bar Mitzvah yet..."
He continued talking, and I was elevated into the sublime heavenly spheres. I could almost palpably see the heavenly entourage - angels and cherubs - weighing the actions and good deeds of the entire human race on fiery scales. Then, the angels took the page of Tractate Chullin that we were learning - with the commentaries of Rashi, Tosafot, and the MaHaRSha - and put it on one of the pans and it tipped the scales in favor of the entire world.
...[t]hese were Rav Kook's youthful dreams; these were his aspirations and yearnings in his first year after his Bar Mitzva.
- Avraham Sho'er

So many things about this story resonate in my heart - the wide eyed wonder of young Rav Kook as he contemplates the impact that every individual - great or small - has on the universe when he learns God's Torah. The whirling inspiration that our narrator feels so many years later as he remembers his brush with greatness...

I have heard people refer to Rav Kook's "naivete" and "childlike innocence". Even in my limited impression of Rav Kook, this characterization is a difficult one to accept; such an attribution takes away from his greatness, because it connotes that this giant of a personality lived in some sort of dreamworld, unable (or unwilling) to relate to the reality of the world around him. I cannot accept that. Rav Kook was well aware of the foibles of Man and the existence of evil; he battled it often, sometimes fiercely with a heavy pen that demolished his foes with poetic words of strength and wisdom. It seems to me more that Rav Kook was one of those few individuals who never let go of the hope and joy that we only briefly enjoy as children before it is torn from our grasp as we try to "grow up". That hope and belief allowed him to confront the world and envision an ideal that was  - is - attainable, if we would only let go of those things that hold us back.

My friend Rabbi Cary Friedman and I once discussed learning Rav Kook's Torah. Rabbi Friedman told me that there are two types of people who learn Rav Kook's seforim: those who engage in a transcendent event, wherein they are carried to soaring heights on the wings of Rav Kook's lofty ideas and ethereal concepts - and those who read a few lines and say "what was that?" in confusion.

I hope I am part of the former...


Neil Harris said...

Great post. I've been up learning Oros HaTeshuva.

Shmuel said...

Very appropriate for this point in the year.