Inspiration for the Jewish Festivals – Interview with Rabbi Dov Begun

On the first English book by renowned founding head of Machon Meir in Jerusalem, seen as the baale t’shuva wing of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav.

Tzvi Fishman ,

'Israel  Redeemed'
'Israel Redeemed'
Tzvi Fishman

In Israel, if you ask someone in the Religious Zionist community for the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the word “T’shuva,” the reply is likely to be Rabbi Dov Begun. The soft-spoken, ever-smiling author of the new book, “Israel Redeemed,” is founder and head of Yeshiva Machon Meir in Jerusalem, considered to be the baale t’shuva wing of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav.

Though his short and always optimistic-articles in the Machon Meir Shabbat bulletin, and his Torah classes broadcast on the nation’s leading radio stations are popular throughout the country, this marks the first time he has published a book, a collection of essays on the Jewish Festivals.

“The project was put together by students and staff at Machon Meir as a gift on my eightieth birthday,” he says with his famous smiling chuckle. “I don’t read English, but people tell me that the translation by Raphael Blumberg is very good.”

This “spiritual father” of the knitted-kippah camp in Israel grew up on a secular kibbutz. He began learning Torah when he was 23, studying at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva under HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook zts"l for ten years before receiving ordination, Smicha. He says he founded Machon Meir in a small apartment after the Yom Kippur War, “in order to disseminate Torah in the spirit of Rabbi Kook to the people of Israel and to Jews around the world.”

Since then, tens of thousands of students have learned in its two large buildings in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, down the street from Mercaz HaRav. After several years of learning, students continue on in all walks of life, bringing the fervor of Religious Zionism to all segments of the Nation, and to settlements and communities around the country. The yeshiva boasts programs in English, French, Spanish, and Russian, alongside Hebrew-speaking Israelis who come to Machon Meir to strengthen their attachment to Judaism after their army careers.

Sitting in the noisy beit midrash, surrounded by young Jews from all over the world, you can’t help but feel that the prophecy of the Ingathering of the Exiles is taking place before your eyes.

How did the Rav became religious?

“During my service in the army, I met a lot of religious soldiers. Often in the army, there is no immediate assignment, so there’s a lot of time to sit and talk. It was the first time I came to know religious people in a serious fashion. Their idealism and beliefs moved something in me. I discovered that the Jewish People existed a long time before Herzl.

"When my army service ended, I came to Jerusalem to learn at Mercaz HaRav. So you see, although there are people who claim that the army makes our young soldiers irreligious, G-d forbid, many return to the Torah, davka (precisely) in the army. Look in our beit midrash – it is filled with baale t’shuva whose return to Judaism was triggered by their army experience, either by getting to know religious soldiers, or thanks to the way that service Tzahal attaches an individual to the greater history and mission of Jewish People as a whole.”

Why did you name your book, ‘Israel Redeemed?’

Rabbi Begun explains: “When Rabbi Kook was the Rabbi of Yafo, before he came to Jerusalem, a decade before the Balfour Declaration, and long before the establishment of Medinat Yisrael, he wrote a letter on Rosh Chodesh Elul, declaring that anyone who didn’t see the Redemption unfolding before his eyes in the sprouting settlements of Rishon L’Zion, Rehovot, Petak Tikvah, Hadera, and Zichron Yaakov, to name just a few, and in the increasing Aliyah from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Yemen, was blind to the acts of Hashem."

"At that time, there were barely fifty-thousand Jews in Israel, yet Rabbi Kook saw, even in that early stage of ingathering and rebuilding of the Land, the fulfillment of the prophecies of Redemption. Today, blee ayin hara, some six million Jews live in Eretz Yisrael. The Nation of Israel has become a superpower in just a few decades and the Torah center of world Jewry. This isn’t Redemption? It is all how you look at things, as we say in our prayers, ‘May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy.’”

What do you tell people who are troubled about the many problems Israel faces and the current battle over the Jewish Identity of the State? Because of its secular nature, there are people who maintain that the State of Israel isn’t the ‘Atchalta D’Geula’ (beginning of Redemption) as the students of Rabbi Kook believe.

His eyes twinkled, as if he had heard the question a thousand times. “There is a famous photograph of Rabbi Kook where he is holding up two fingers together, as if to say, ‘Be patient.’ The beginning of the Jerusalem Talmud describes how the Redemption of Israel will transpire, ‘Kimah kimah,’ little by little, in gradual stages like the dawning of the day (Berachot, 1:1). We are still in the beginning, but look what miraculous progress we have made.”

Materially, yes. But many people point to the rise in aggressively secular, pluralistic movements which work aggressively to undermine the foundations of Judaism throughout Israeli society.

“The truth is the very opposite,” he replied happily. “The media highlights the secular, but there has never been more Torah learning in the Land of Israel since the time of the First Temple. Every day, new yeshivot, ulpanot, and Talmud Torah open throughout the country. The baal t’shuva movement is flourishing. The forces of impurity in the world sense that their end is near, so they do everything they can to interfere with the holiness they see here. This all comes to makes us stronger.

Rabbi Kook foresaw this in his writings. He assures us that this period of ‘chutzpah’ will pass when the soul of the Nation senses the emptiness of endless material pursuit, feels the moral bankruptcy and the futility of searching for freedom in foreign wells, sparking a great desire and flame to reconnect with our Nation’s holy roots.”

Wherever one sees the name Yeshivat Machon Meir in advertisements, or on its website, TV station, and weekly Shabbat handout in shuls, you see the slogan, ‘With love and faith.’ Why?

“Rabbi Kook wrote that the mission of our times was to strengthen ‘Ahavah’ - the love of all Jews, and ‘Emunah’ - the essence of Jewish Faith found in Torat Eretz Yisrael. In his day, the spirits of secular Zionism and all sorts of foreign, heretical creeds, were rampant. Nonetheless, Rabbi Kook stressed the importance of embracing all Jews for the good in them, both for their positive deeds in rebuilding the Israelite Nation and for resettling the Land, and for their holy souls in their being a part of Clal Yisrael – the all-encompassing community of Israel.

"Their wrong practices and deeds are to be chastised, he wrote, but this mustn’t blemish our love for fellow Jews."

"Regarding Emunah, Rabbi Kook taught that faith was much more than a feeling and the abstract belief in the Creator. Emunah is a discipline of Torah which must be learned. Who is Hashem? How does he appear in the world through Am Yisrael? What does He want for the His Nation, the Children of Israel? Rabbi Kook stressed the importance of seeing the acts of Hashem in our times, and in being His partner in the unfolding Redemption in the concrete, down-to-earth life of the Jewish People which was coming to pass through the return of our scattered and exiled people to our Biblical borders, and through the rebirth of the Nation in Israel, a miracle we are privileged to be experiencing every day.”

Every year, in the month of Elul, you teach Rabbi Kook’s book, ‘Orot HaT’shuva’ to new students. Why?

“HaRav Tzvi Yehuda established the practice, upon his father’s request, as a part of the learning at Mercaz HaRav. For Rabbi Kook, the phenomenon of T’shuva is much more than an individual’s repentance over his personal transgressions. T’shuva is the force that makes the world go around – the yearning of all existence to unite with the Creator.

"In Am Yisrael, this is expressed through the return of the exiled Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael, and through the establishment of the Kingdom of Hashem in the world, via our national return to Torah, as the Prophet states, ‘For from Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.’”

What most characterizes Rabbi Begun’s book on the Jewish Festivals is its national perspective on Jewish life and Torah. For example, in his essay on the month of Elul, he points outs that the Torah’s references to the phenomena of T’shuva focus its the national aspect, the return of the Jewish People to Hashem via the return to the exiled and scattered Jews to Eretz Yisrael. Also, in the words of the Prophets, the ingathering of the exiles and the national return of the Jewish People to Zion is seen as the harbinger of Salvation, leading to the Redemption of the world.

This process of national return, he explains, is also embodied in the three types of blasts of the shofar sounded on Rosh Hashannah. Beyond their meaning for each person’s private return to Hashem, the simple “Tekiah” symbolizes the peaceful life of the Nation in the Land of Israel; followed by the broken sobbing sounds (“Tru’ah”) of the exile; leading to a renewed “Tekiah” and the return to our national Torah life in Israel, and the final “Tekiah Gedolah,” the great shofar blast of our future Redemption.

Like Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Begun is a Kohen. I asked him,

What blessing can you give the readers of your book and the entire Jewish Nation at the start of the New Year?

Again he smiled.

“That they and all of the Jews scattered throughout the Diaspora will merit the unsurpassed blessing of joining their brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael, to participate in the rebuilding of our Nation, in fulfillment of our daily prayers, and in realization of our age-old dream. ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’”

[The book “Israel Redeemed” by Rabbi Dov Begun is published by Urim Publications.]



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