In the shadow of the skyscrapers in the south of Tel Aviv, the fashionable neighborhood of Neve Tzedek, the first quarter of the city, is bustling with activities. On 21 Ahava Street, in the heart of this neighborhood with its glorious history, stood a small, modest corner house. Behind its ramshackle walls, an enchanted oasis had once served as a meeting place for the most renowned intellectuals and cultural personalities of the Jewish community in Eretz Israel.
S.Y. Agnon, Bialik, the writer Azar, Berl Katznelson, A.D. Gordon and Nahum Gutman were just some of the people who visited the place regularly. They were joined by other visitors such as Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the undisputed leader of the ultra-Orthodox community in the Old Yishuv (the pre-Zionist Jewish community) in Jerusalem, and many of the most prominent rabbis of the Jewish community in Eretz Israel in the 1920s.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (HaRaAYaH), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in pre-state Israel, was one of the most prominent personalities in the history of the Jewish people. A brilliant thinker with a poet’s spirit, but above all a great Kabbalist, Rav Kook devoted his life to translating the principles of Kabbalah — first and foremost the love of others—into the language and path that the young people could relate to in their quest for the identity that had crystallized in the country at the turn of the century. Notwithstanding his many writings, the image of Rav Kook remained a mystery.
Rav Kook’s expansive heart was a spiritual junction in which the world of Haskalah (enlightenment) and secular intellect intersected with the spiritual world, the Torah, and the Lithuanian Halakhah.
His warm and intense love for human beings melted the iron barriers and the contradictions between the different factions of the settlers. He saw the secular settlers who came to the Land of Israel and the Haredim as partners in a spiritual, united society that he wished to establish.
In the early years of the Zionist enterprise, it was the division and polarization of the Jewish community that tore his heart to shreds. He devoted his thoughts to one goal only: finding the right way to unify the nation, first and foremost the connection between the two poles, the secular and the religious.
Many derogatory remarks were leveled against him for his “affection” toward the “Zionists,” who were considered secular, as compiled in the book The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook. “They build the land,” Rav Kook often said. “And the Land of Israel is an opportunity for us to begin a period of spiritual and material prosperity. We only have to know how to implement it correctly.”
As a direct continuation of the great Kabbalists who worked before him, the Land of Israel was viewed by Rav Kook as a new spiritual step in which the people returning to Zion were required to realize their spiritual role. He believed that the Land of Israel was given to the people of Israel in order to form a spiritual exemplary society, a hotbed for the work in which one must cultivate the desire for inner transcendence, far beyond the territorial aspect.
For Rav Kook, the return to Israel after years of long exile symbolized the beginning of the return of the Jewish people to the realization of the spiritual idea upon which it was founded, a place for the observance of a spiritual life, out of unity that transcends the narrow egoistic existence.
Like Rav Yehuda Ashlag (Baal HaSulam), the most renowned Kabbalist of the 20th Century and friend of Rav Kook, both rabbis warned on many occasions that we should not settle solely for the technical existence of external customs and symbols. From the heights of his spiritual attainment, Rav Kook looked at the Israeli reality and determined that the return to the Land of Israel had indeed ended the period of external exile, but the internal exile was not yet over.
The internal division between the ranks of the people was perceived as the root of all troubles, and he therefore emphasized that the secret of the true strength of the Jewish people is in connection, and that unity and spirituality are equal. More than once, he argued that only when we unite in love of others over the egoistic nature that erodes us, can we rise to the spiritual level and live here in peace and tranquility.
As a man of action, Rav Kook was not satisfied with the flourishing of philosophical ideas and sophistication. In the fall of 1913, he headed a special delegation of ten rabbis to the famous “Masah HaMoshavot” (tour of the agricultural settlements.)
During the dangerous journey, the rabbis rode in a convoy of mule carts, in the train cars of the “Valley Train” (a train from Haifa to the Jordan River), and even on a boat, all in order to have an encounter between the members of the old Yishuv, the moshavim and the kibbutzim. One of the most famous stories that expresses Rav Kook’s worldview occurred in the dining room of Kibbutz Merhavia.
Upon their arrival, the rabbis were received coldly. Their entry into the dining room was accompanied by suspicious looks. One of the settlers rose to his feet and shouted, “Don’t waste your work and speeches. You will not influence anyone here.” Great confusion and astonishment prevailed. Rav Kook broke the tension and turned to him with a warm voice and said softly, “We did not come to influence, we came to be influenced.”
Unlike many of his colleagues, Rav Kook did not look at the pioneers with condescension or arrogance. He saw the pioneers of Merhavia as organic parts of one human fabric, working harmoniously and with significant inner effort to realize the purpose of creation.
“Love” was not an abstract concept in his eyes, but a practical and perfect expression of the sense of deep connection that exists among all “organs of the body” in their corrected state. He reiterated that the destiny of the people of Israel is to be a special organ whose role is to pave the way for the entire body, and to illuminate the ultimate goal for all humanity’s benefit. We must strive to realize this role and spread the principles of the wisdom of truth with all our strength, until the spiritual power inherent in it will emerge from power and be revealed in full bloom.
Eighty-three years have passed since the death of Rav Kook, and in the reality of our divided lives, his enormous absence is felt more than ever. It is precisely the crumbling Israeli society that lives in the Land of Israel that needs the conciliatory spirit of Rav Kook.
It is not surprising that most of Rav Kook’s writings begin with the word “Orot” (“lights”) and are named after the light. The Israeli light still emanates from the windows of his house, gleaming radiantly, full of purity, and inviting us to walk through the front gates and enter his former abode. It seems that the little house is still open and inviting, and its neighbors are part of that united body he saw in his mind that climbs up to the peak of spiritual consciousness.
Featured in The Times of Israel