HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook zts"lFirst Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, revered and famed Torah sage, philosopher, writer, poet, iconic and beloved leader of religious Zionism and the return to Zion (1865-1935).
During the winter of 1913-1914, Rav Kook together with Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld lead a rabbinical delegation to visit the newly established Jewish settlements in the northern part of the country. This expedition - called in Hebrew Masa HaMoshavot - was initiated by Rav Kook, who at the time served as chief rabbi of Jaffa and the surrounding settlements. The purpose of the tour was to meet with the Jewish pioneers, to raise their spirits, and strengthen religious observance in these remote northern communities.
The following is a description of the impressions made by their visit at the Merchavya cooperative settlement, as described by Gershon Gafner, a prominent member of the cooperative.
Merchavya had been established a few years earlier, in 1911, the first Jewish settlement in the desolate Jezreel valley (near Afula). Members of HaShomer (an early Jewish defense organization) protected the settlers and the settlement from hostile attacks by Bedouin and neighboring Arabs.
The Wagon of Jewish Laborers
In his memoir, "My Path to Merchavya," Gafner recounted his memories from the rabbis' visit:
We were informed regarding the arrival date for the visit of Rabbis Kook and Sonnenfeld, of blessed memory, and Rabbi Yadler. In honor of these esteemed guests, we hired a diligence [a French stagecoach] from Nazareth to bring them from the Afula station to Merchavya. The visit, however, was postponed repeatedly. Since it was expensive to retain the diligence coach, we had to return this fancy and modern (for those days) form of transportation.
One day we were surprised to receive an urgent message from Afula. The rabbis had arrived and were waiting at the station! We were to come at once and bring them to Merchavya.
Lacking a better option, we quickly 'renovated' one of the carts used to transport manure. We cleaned it up, 'upholstered' it with straw and sacks, and made our way to Afula. In this fashion, we brought our honored guests to Mechavya...
We expressed our regret that we did not have the opportunity on such short notice - from when we learned of their arrival - to prepare more suitable transportation for them. In response to this apology, Rav Kook delivered an impassioned speech. This fiery address lasted about an hour.
Rav Kook expressed his great joy on the tremendous merit, zechut, that, for the first time in his life, he was privileged to travel in a wagon of Jewish laborers in the Land of the Patriarchs. His speech probed the depths of Jewish history. He praised the importance of working the land, and recalled the sacred history of the Jezreel valley, which we pioneers were the first to redeem after thousands of years of desolation. With tremendous excitement, he noted that our fathers' fathers had lived in this place, creating Jewish life with dedication and self-sacrifice – and now the descendants of those ancient Hebrews have arisen and continued their Jewish tradition.
He concluded his words with a heartfelt blessing that we should merit to see with our own eyes the entire Land of Israel redeemed and flourishing, through the labor of the children of the eternal nation.
Rav Kook's words made a deep impression on us. We felt, with great admiration, that he was truly worthy of the crown of Torah that he wore.
Self-Defense on Shabbat
The rabbinical delegation stayed with us several days. During one of the nights, the rabbis were witness to an attack on Merchavya. We explained to them that the Arabs primarily chose to attack us on Friday nights [on the assumption that few or no Jewish guards would be on duty]. Therefore we are forced to go out on the Sabbath to protect our property and our lives. We asked them to provide a clear answer if we are acting properly, according to Jewish law.
Rav Kook responded calmly and with clear understanding [of the situation]. If, he explained, we are certain that it is a life-threatening situation, than it is our obligation to defend the place, even if this will lead to Sabbath-desecration. The [well-known halakhic] principle is: 'Danger to human life overrides the laws of the Sabbath.'
Rabbi Sonnenfeld, Rabbi Yadler, and the other rabbis, however, did not express an opinion, one way or the other.
After his visit at Merchavya, Rav Kook closely followed after the development of the settlement. And the people of Merchavya - most of whom were far removed from traditional Judaism – felt a profound admiration for him. They saw in Rav Kook a Torah scholar blessed with a sensitive soul, as well as a broad and humane outlook.
(Translated from the Megged Yerachim journal, vol. 174, RavKookTorah.org, sent to Arutz Sheva by Rabbi Chanan Morrison)