In each generation, the Holy One Blessed Be He sends special souls into the world to shepherd the Jewish People. Shepherds like Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabenu, King David, and Rabbi Akiva.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook had a soul like theirs. His soul was filled with a burning love for Hashem, for Torah, for the Land of Israel, for all the Jewish People and for all of mankind. Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook was born in the Hebrew month of Elul, in the year 1865, in the town of Griva, Russia.
A story is told about him as a young boy in Heder. During breaks in their learning, the children would line up outside with their school bags on their backs. Avraham would march them around the yard as if leading them on a voyage. The boys would call out: “Where are we going?” and their young leader would reply in a joyous voice: “To Eretz Yisrael!”
Young Avraham’s parents instilled in him a great love for Torah and a passionate yearning for Eretz Yisrael. He loved and honored his parents all of his life, remembering to find time in his always busy schedule to write them long detailed letters. One of the reasons he became a great Rabbi in Israel - indeed, a Rabbi unlike all the rest - is because of the love for Torah and Eretz Yisrael which he absorbed from his father and mother.
Even as a youth, he was a visionary. He saw things which other people did not. His power of imagination was extraordinary. When he pictured the Beit HaMikdash in his mind, he saw it exactly as it was, in all of its splendor and glory, with the Kohanim in their white garments performing the service of the korbanot offerings, while myriads of pilgrims made the ascent to Jerusalem for the Festivals.
When he was older, he wrote in his famous book, “Orot,” that by imagining the Beit HaMikdash, and by eagerly anticipating the energetic work of the Kohanim, and by “hearing” in one’s mind the joyous songs of the Levi’im, spiritual waves went forth into the world which brought the day closer when the Beit HaMikdash would become a reality, may it be soon.
If Avraham Yitzhak hadn’t grown up to be a Torah scholar, he most likely would have been a great artist – perhaps a painter, a writer of great literature, or a poet. Indeed, during the course of his life, he penned many poems and essays, filling up thousands of pages of Torah commentary with deep explanations about the inner, secret meanings of life. Like the Biblical Yosef, who was known for his dreams which came true, the young Avraham envisioned many things. Most of them, when he was growing up, he kept to himself, not wanting to draw attention to himself.
Before his ninth birthday, he so surpassed his classmates in learning, his father, Rabbi Shalom Zalman Kook, a noted Talmid Chacham, had to take him out of school and teach him himself at home. At the time of his bar mitzvah, he began to learn away from home in the Lutchin Yeshiva. In the wonderful book, “An Angel Among Men” (written by Simcha Raz and translated by Rabbi Moshe D. Lichtman), Avraham’s “havruta” study partner, Avraham Sho’er, describes young Avraham’s unique character:
Throughout his early teens, Avraham would study all night in the beit midrash several nights a week. On one occasion, during a short break in the Gemara lesson they were learning, Avraham Yitzhak said to his friend, “It may very well be that at this late hour, the two of us are sustaining the world with our Torah learning.” Avraham Sho’er relates:
“As he continued speaking, I was elevated into sublime, heavenly spheres. I could almost see the heavenly angels and cherubs weighing the actions and 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 Maharasha – and put it in one of the scales, and it tipped the measuring device in favor of the entire world.”
Fifteen-year-old Avraham’s havruta recollects: “Then he said, ‘Someday, I shall be a great Torah scholar.’ I saw his face redden and his eyes catching flame. His pupils looked like glowing coals swimming in milk, darting to and fro. Then he whispered, ‘I will ascend to Eretz Yisrael, to the Holy City of Jerusalem. I will establish a yeshiva there like the fabled yeshiva in Yavneh at the time of the Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai.’ Young students will come to me from all corners of the Earth, and the Torah shall go forth from Jerusalem.’”
His friend remembers: “Every night during the Three Weeks, Avraham Yitzhak would close his Gemara at midnight. The two of us would then descend from the bimah, where we were learning, and go sit by the large stove. There, we would take off our shoes, sit on the ground, and recite the Tikun Hatzot prayers over the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and over the exile from our Homeland. Avraham Yitzhak would cry aloud with flowing tears. I too would become very teary-eyed, as my heart surged emotionally within me. After the Midnight Lament, we would recite Tehillim in voices heavy with emotion. Avraham would chose the Psalms that speak of Israel’s tribulation, those which lament the Churban yet foretell of great consolation for Zion and Israel.
“Once I asked him, ‘Why do you weep so profusely when we recite Tikun Hatzot? I too love Eretz Yisrael very dearly. I too yearn to ascend to the Cherished Land….’ Avraham Yitzhak interrupted me and answered my query with such a natural innocence that I was left speechless. He said, ‘You are not a Kohen. I am.’
In 1884, at the age of nineteen, after marrying the daughter of the well-known Torah scholar, the Aderet, the Rabbi of Ponevezh, Rabbi Eliahu David Rabinowitz-Te’omim, Avraham Yitzhak continued his studies at the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin, living in the home of his distinguished father-in-law.
He learned under the tutelage of the Rosh Yeshiva, the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, who later remarked about his prize student: “It was worthwhile establishing the Volozhin Yeshiva just to produce a Torah scholar like him.” Within a short time, the new student became known as “the Iluey of Ponevezh” – meaning the young Torah genius
Because of his noticeable aura of holiness, people said the Shechinah surrounded him with a distinctive spiritual glow. When he prayed, tears filled his eyes. In addition to his outstanding piety, he was known for his diligence in learning, studying eighteen hours a day, and well into the night, sitting beside a kerosene lamp. In an almost superhuman manner, he learned sixty folio pages of Talmud each day, along with the commentaries. Often he forgot about food until the Rosh Yeshiva ordered him to eat in order to safeguard his health. Two decades later, when he became the Rabbi of Jaffa, he maintained his fervent style of Talmudic learning, pacing back and forth in his study at night while he consumed page after page.
Once, he reviewed the entire, twenty-volume Talmud Bavli in just thirty days!
The famed Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kogen, was a personal friend of Rabbi Kook’s father, and a friend of his esteemed father-in-law, the Aderet, as well. The Chofetz Chaim was famous everywhere for his piety and great Torah wisdom. He authored the book, “Shmirat HaLashon” about the importance of speaking in a holy manner and guarding one’s tongue, and he composed the definitive encyclopedia of Jewish Law, called the “Mishna Berurah.” On one of his visits to Ponevezh, the Chofetz Chaim conversed with Avraham Yitzhak about halackhic issues and became exceedingly impressed. He invited him to join a chavura group of Kohanim who were studying “Kodashim” – the laws regarding the Beit HaMikdash and the Temple service.
The Chofetz Chaim, a Kohen himself like Avraham Yitzhak, believed that Kohanim must be ready for the re-building of the Beit HaMikdash, which he steadfastly hoped would occur in their time, especially now when Jews of all types were returning to dwell in the Promised Land. Seeing groups of devoutly religious Jews, marching off to Zion, along with bands of simple Jewish laborers, and brazenly secular, university-learned Zionists, he was inspired to joyfully remark, “The Redemption is beginning!” Truly, he thought, this was the start of the promised ingathering!
The Chofetz Chaim appealed to the twenty-three-year-old Torah prodigy to accept the position as Rabbi of the Jewish community of Zaumel. In a letter to the Aderet, the Chofetz Chaim expressed his joy that his son-in-law had agreed to the appointment, writing, “My heart rejoices over this. May Hashem help him ascend higher and higher, for he is truly great in Torah.” Indeed, the Chofetz Chaim’s blessing was soon fulfilled. In Zaumel, the young Rabbi would study frequently with the outstanding Kabbalist, Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv, author of Leshem Sh’vo V’Achlamh, who lived in a nearby village. Filled with a powerful inner demand to share his knowledge with others, a compulsion which flamed inside of him all through his life, he wrote a short treatise, Chavash Pe’er, about the laws of Tefillin. Like the Chofetz Chaim, he traveled from place to place to distribute it, urging the people he met to observe the precept as meticulously as they could.
Hand-in-hand with his great enthusiasm for studying the secret mystical side of Torah, a practice Rabbi Kook began in his youth, he delved into the inner meanings of the Hebrew letters, the building blocks of all existence. The Midrash teaches that Hashem created the world using the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and that Bezalel constructed the Mishkan in the Wilderness of Sinai by employing their secret powers. Later in his life, Rabbi Kook wrote a small book called “Rosh Milin,” explaining the Kabbalist meanings of the letters.
In his classic book, “Orot,” Rabbi Kook writes that the Jewish soul is composed of the twenty-two Hebrew letters of the Torah. For instance, if we had a powerful spiritual microscope, when we looked at the cells of the body, in a realm far deeper than the world of genes and chromosomes, we would discover the Alefs and Bets. The mitzvot as well, Rabbi Kook teaches, are filled with Hebrew letters. When a Jew comes to perform a mitzvah, the letters of his soul and the letters of the mitzvah combine in a spiritual centrifuge, producing an explosion of positive, holy energy. Because Eretz Yisrael is a LAND OF GIANT LETTERS, similar to the giant-size fruit which the Spies in the Wilderness discovered during their reconnaissance of the Promised Land, when a Jew performs a Torah commandment in the Holy Land, his private letters encounter the giant ALEFS, BETS, and GIMMELS of the Land.
This atomic-like fusion sets off an explosion which sends blessing to the four corners of the world. The Chofetz Chaim himself is known to have said that a mitzvah performed in the Land of Hashem has twenty times the value of the same commandment performed in foreign Gentile lands. This is because Eretz Yisrael is the Land of Clal Yisrael – which contains all the souls of the Israelite Nation, past, present, and future. In Eretz Yisrael, a Jew’s soul is magnified by its attachment to the Clal. His service of Hashem is united with the service of the entire Nation - whereas outside the Land, in the lands of the Gentiles, the service of Hashem is confined to a private, individual basis alone.
Because of his ardent love for Hashem, and for the special Land which Hashem created for His People, Rabbi Kook could actually picture, in his mind’s eye, the giant letters of the Holy Land. He realized that to achieve the maximum closeness to Hashem that he could, he had to be in the Holy Land, the Land that Hashem had especially created for His Chosen People, the reason He commanded Avraham Avinu, “Lech lecha!” – “Get thee forth to the Land that I will show thee!”
Listening to the reading of the Torah and the portion of the Prophets in the Beit Knesset every Shabbat as a youth, Rabbi Kook couldn’t help but notice that the goal of the Torah was the establishment of a holy Torah NATION in Hashem’s Chosen Land, “The Land that the eyes of Hashem are upon it from the beginning of the year to the end.” This was the understanding behind the ruling of the Rambam and the Gemara in Tractate Ketubot which stated, “In all generations and times, a Jew should live in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city where the majority of residents are idol worshippers, and not live outside of the Land, even in a city where the majority of residents are Jews.”
This was a most startling lesson. After studying the passage time and again, it was difficult for the young Torah genius to rise up from the open Talmud in front of him. It was difficult for him to reconcile the words of the Sages with the reality outside on the streets of Jewish neighborhood where he lived in Russia. Unquestionably, what the Sages stated was true. Obviously, the Jewish People were supposed to dwell in the Holy Land. Obviously, that was the will of the Almighty. The commandment to dwell in the Land of Israel was repeated over and over again in the Torah.
Then why, when it was possible to journey to Eretz Yisrael and to live in the Promised Land did so many Jews still live in Gentile lands? Why didn’t the Jews pack of their belongings and set off for Zion? Hadn’t the greatest Torah scholar of modern times, the Gaon of Vilna, sent his students to resettle the Land of Israel, teaching them that the time of Redemption had come, and that the Jews had to rise up and seize the hour – and seize shovels and pitchforks to play an active part with Hashem in revitalizing the Land that had faithfully waited in desolation for almost two-thousand years for her children to come home?
What, he wondered, was everyone waiting for? The question haunted his thoughts. With his analytical mind and computer-like memory, he reviewed the entire Gemara until he discovered the answer. As the Sages taught, when the Jews were cast into Exile, the Torah was cast into darkness. A verse in the “Book of Lamentations” states: “He has made me sit down in dark places like those long dead. He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains,” (Lamentations, 3:6-7). The Gemara explains the words, ‘He has made me to sit down in places of darkness,’ stating: “Rabbi Yirmeya said, ‘This is the Torah learning of Babylon,’” (Sanhedrin 24A).
Realizing that he was trapped in the spiritual darkness around him, the young visionary and seeker of Truth longed to be a part of “a new light on Zion,” as everyone said in their daily morning prayers. He longed to fulfill the words of the Amidah Prayer, calling for the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of Yerushalayim. He longed to rise up out of the darkness of Galut to the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, to the complete Torah, as it was originally meant to be fulfilled, in the place which Hashem had designated – the Holy Land. He longed to observe the Torah in all of its aspects, both the national and private, including the agricultural laws pertaining to the Land, the laws relating to kingship and the Israelite army, the Sanhedrin, Beit HaMikdash, the laws of Taharah, and the like – over two-thirds of the Mishna. In Chutz L’Aretz, without a national Homeland of their own, the exiled Jews were left with a truncated Torah composed of private individual mitzvot.
The difference, Rabbi Kook realized, was not only quantitative, in being able to perform more precepts in Eretz Yisrael, but qualitative as well – Torat Eretz Yisrael was an entirely different understanding as to the scope and meaning of Torah. The life of a Jew in Eretz Yisrael was totally different from Jewish existence in a foreign land. The Torah, Rabbi Kook realized, was not just a list of do’s-and-don’ts to help guide a person’s life in a holy fashion, but rather the CONSTITUTION OF A HOLY NATION.
Overwhelmed by the immensity of this revelation, and of the implications involved, he began to set down his awakenings in a stream of essays which later became his famous book, “Orot.” Inspired by the head-spinning revelation which had been clearly stated again and again in the straightforward words of the Torah, his longing and love for the Land of Israel became a towering flame, which consumed his thoughts day and night.
Thus, after seventeen years as the Rabbi of Zaumel, then Boisk, a large Jewish community in southern Latvia, when an invitation arrived beseeching him to become the Rabbi of Jaffa in the Holy Land, Rabbi Kook’s heart beat joyfully. For the great devotee to Torah, who, as a child, had pretending to march off with his Heder classmates to Eretz Yisrael, the offer was a dream come true.
Excerpted from the biograph of Rabbi Kook, “Above the Stream” by Tzvi Fishman.