Friday, the 3rd of Elul, 5770 (August 13, 2010) marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, arguably the most influential and revered rabbi of the 20th century.
The first Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land in modern times, Rabbi Kook's breadth of thought, knowledge, leadership and piety were unmatched. Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, who headed the hareidi-religious Council of Torah Sages, once said to the famous sage Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky of Vilna, “We are considered Torah giants only up until the point that we reach the door of Rabbi Kook’s room.”
Rabbi Kook was born in 1865 in a village in Latvia. When he was 19, he both received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Yechiel Michal HaLevy Epstein, the author of the Arukh HaShulchan, and became engaged to the daughter of the Aderet, Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim. She gave birth to a daughter, but died just a few years later. Thereafter, Rabbi Kook married her first cousin, daughter of the Aderet’s twin brother; she bore him two daughters and a son, the famed Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook.
He served as Rabbi in Zeimel (Lithuania) and Boisk (Latvia) before being offered the position of “Rabbi of Jaffa and the Farming Villages.” He arrived in the Holy Land in 1904, and served in this position for ten years – until he departed for Europe in 1914 to take part in the Agudat Yisrael convention, and found himself trapped by World War I. He became the rabbi in London’s largest synagogue, having set a condition that he would return to Jaffa as soon as feasible.
After he returned, he was appointed Rabbi of Jerusalem, and shortly afterward established the Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Kook became Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land in 1921, with Rabbi Yaakov Meir chosen to serve as the Chief Sephardic Rabbi.
In 1924, Rabbi Kook founded the Central Universal Yeshiva, known even today as Merkaz HaRav, the flagship yeshiva of the religious-Zionist public. He formulated its objectives as “a yeshiva to which the best students will stream from all over the world, outstanding in talent, inspiration, idealism… to return the crown to its former glory, and to become expert in the Torah of the Land of Israel and in the revival of sanctity in the Holy Land.”
Rabbi Kook was the officiating rabbi at the weddings of many future rabbis, including the contemporary Torah giant Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv, as well as the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.
Rabbi Kook died in 1935, and no funeral in Israel was larger than his for decades afterwards; approximately one-fourth of the entire Jewish population in the country was there.
"It is unbelievable,” writes a modern-day student of Rabbi Kook, Har Bracha’s Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, “how so many varied talents could be integrated into one soul. His knowledge encompassed every field of Torah study and philosophy, his memory was phenomenal, his piety was unrivaled, he was courageous and a man of truth who paid a high personal price for standing up for truth, he was friendly, charming and fascinating, he was both intellectual and poetic, and he was very active spiritually and publicly on behalf of the Torah, the nation and the land…”
His vision of national and personal redemption led him to love and view the entire world in both its macro and micro formats.
Quotes from his writings:
“The truly righteous [lit., the pure righteous ones] do not complain about evil, but rather add justice; they do not complain about heresy, but rather add faith; they do not complain about ignorance, but rather add wisdom.”
“The great love that we feel for our nation will not blind us from seeing its faults – but even after the most wide-ranging critical review, [we know that] it is free from all faults.”
“The thought of a happiness that comes from outside the person, brings him sadness. But the recognition in the value of one’s will and the freedom granted by its uplifting, brings great joy.”
“One whose soul does not wander in the expanses, one who does not seek the light of truth and goodness with all his heart, does not suffer spiritual ruins – but he will also not have his own self-based constructions. Instead, he takes shelter in the shadow of the natural constructions, like rabbits under boulders. But one who has a human soul cannot take shelter in anything other than constructions that he builds with his own spiritual toil…”
“When one looks truly at the good side of everyone, others come to love him very naturally, and he does not need even a speck of flattery.”
“There are free men with the spirit of a slave, and slaves whose spirit is full of freedom. He who is true to his inner self is a free man, while he whose entire life is merely a stage for what is good and beautiful in the eyes of others, is a slave.”
“We [Israel] are great, and our foibles are great, and therefore our troubles are great – but our consolations will also be great.”
“The desire to be good to all with no restrictions - not in the quantity of those to whom we are good nor in the quality of the good we perform – that is the inner nucleus of the essence of the soul of Israel.”