The Land of Israel's Place in the Torah

Now and then, people question the importance of the Land of Israel, as if to imply that the settlers are overly occupied with this mitzvah and exaggerate its importance. True, indeed, one must be careful that the pursuit of a specific mitzvah does not result in the weakening of other mitzvoth. At the same time, it is imperative to know that the significance of the Land of Israel is one of the foundations of the Torah. Anyone who learns Torah truthfully can plainly see this. Nevertheless, since even after all that has been written in the Torah there are still skeptics, I thought to myself that this year I would dedicate a portion of my weekly column to bring to attention the centrality of the Land of Israel.

Behold, in this week’s Torah portion, our forefather Abraham is commanded “Go away from your land” to the Land of Israel. He arrives at Elon Moreh, or Schem, in the heart of Samaria, and God appears to him, saying: “I will give this land to your offspring” (Genesis 12:7). The meaning is all of the Land of Israel, but the main emphasis is on the place where he is standing – in Samaria, which together with the lands of Judah and Benjamin, comprise the heart of the land. The Sages add (as Rashi comments), when Abraham was in Schem, God showed him “Mount Gerizim (Har Bracha) and Mount Eval, where Israel received the oath of the Torah.”

Due to a famine in the land, Abraham was forced to descend to Egypt, and when he returned to the area of Beit El, God once again appears to him, saying: “Raise your eyes, and, from the place where you are now [standing], look to the north, to the south, to the east, and to the west. For all the land that you see, I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; if a man will be able to count [all] the grains of dust in the world, then your offspring also will be countable”(Genesis 13:14-17). From this we learn that in the merit of inheriting the land, we also merit the increase of our offspring. We also learned that, specifically from the place where he was standing, from Beit El in the mountains of Benjamin, our forefather Abraham was commanded to view the breadth of the entire land, and to know that all of it is designated to his offspring. Accordingly, the command continues: “Rise, walk the land, through its length and breadth, for I will give it [al] to you.” Abraham then goes to the area of Hebron.

Once again, at the “Pact between Halves” (‘brit bein ha’betarim’), God repeats to Abraham: “I am God who took you out of Ur Casdim to give you this land as a possession.” Concerned, Abraham asks: “How can I really know that it will be mine?” (Genesis 15:7-8).

Once more, later in the Torah portion, we learn that even the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision), is bound and interconnected with the Land of Israel, for through the brit (covenant) we inherit the land, as is written: “To you and your offspring I will give the land where you are now living as a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan shall be [your] eternal heritage, and I will be a God to [your descendants]” (Genesis 17:8).

And here, today, we have merited returning and settling in the land of our forefathers, in the holy places where the Heavenly promises were spoken. The more Jews who ascend the mountains to settle them, the more we will merit the realization of God’s promise. The mouths of our enemies will be stifled, and we will merit dwelling securely in our land.

The Greatness of Rabbi Kook

His Personality

There have been scores of Torah giants in recent generations, but the stature of none compares to that of Rabbi Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, zt”l (1865 -1935). His genius was astounding – there was no field of Torah study that he had not mastered. His recall was astonishing – great scholars related that no matter what Torah subject they discussed with him it would appear as if he had just recently learned the issue in depth. Not only was he versed, sharp, and innovative in the arenas of Talmud and Halakha, he was at home in all areas of Jewish thought: Bible, Midrash, philosophy, and mysticism. On top of all this, he was unmatched in piety and righteousness, and his entire existence was dedicated to the service of the Creator. Rabbi Kook was a mighty figure who fought for truth and was willing to put himself on the line for the sake of Torah justice.

It is not uncommon for extreme brilliance to result in strange character traits, but Rabbi Kook was friendly and pleasant, so much so that all who knew him were captivated by his warm character. He was intellectual and emotional, sharp and poetic. He possessed a rich inner life, while at the same time was very active spiritually and publicly on behalf of the Torah, the nation, and the land. That all of these talents could reside together harmoniously in one soul is itself remarkable.

The Respect of His Contemporaries

The aforementioned descriptions were expressed not only by Rabbi Kook’s disciples. The great Torah leaders of his time also attested to these facts. Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer once said to the famed Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky from Vilna, “The two of us are considered Torah giants until we reach the door of Rabbi Kook’s office.” When he participated in rabbinic envoys within Israel and abroad, other great rabbis joined him: Rabbi Epstein, Dean of the Slobodka Yeshiva and the Rabbi from Kovna, author of “Dvar Avraham”, yet it was clear that Rabbi Kook was the most prominent among them.

The Gerer Rebbe admitted that Rabbi Kook remembered the writings of his father, the “Sefat Emet” even better than he himself. The renowned and learned Kabbalist, author of “Leshem Shvo VeAchlama,” said of Rabbi Kook that there was no Torah secret that he was not aware of.

It is told of a certain rabbi who was immersed in the study of Kabbalah and was having trouble finding the source of certain writings in his possession. He turned to the leading mystics in Jerusalem but they could not help him. When they suggested that he speak with Rabbi Kook, he was surprised, for he could not believe that Rabbi Kook, who as Chief Rabbi was so busy with public issues and Halakhic inquiries from morning until night would be able to identify the material at hand; but the rabbi did.

Once, a youngster who was studying at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva High School was having doubts about his future direction of study and he turned to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach for advice. The student said that perhaps because the majority of Torah leaders do not agree with the path taken by Rabbi Kook, it would be more appropriate for him to follow the path of the majority. Rabbi Aurbach responded, saying, “What are you talking about? In the time of Rabbi Kook, the majority of Torah giants were ‘all as if nothing’ compared to him.”

Rabbi Kook conducted the marriages of both Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, zt”l, and Rabbi Elyashiv, shlita. He was their rabbi. Rabbi A.I. Kerlitz, the “Chazon Ish,” addressed Rabbi Kook as “our royal and respected Rabbi.”

His Unique Path – Torah and Redemption

Going far beyond matters connected to the Rabbinate, Rabbi Kook addressed the difficulties of the day. He was very familiar with the philosophical and cultural winds of his generation and examined them from the perspective of the Torah. With astounding depth and comprehension, he knew how to size up the various philosophies collectively, find the positive points in each one of them, and uncover their holy roots. Rabbi Kook possessed a unified, all-inclusive vision of things: he found harmony among the many sides of the Torah, the many factions within the Jewish people, and the many periods in history. Only a genius and righteous individual of his stature, bound to the One God could truly see the unity in all, and, as a result, pave wonderful paths and clarifications toward the rectification of existence.

Many were aware of Rabbi Kook’s greatness and righteousness, but few understood that his teachings contained a comprehensive solution for contemporary crises. He understood the very sources of those forces which were bursting forth and exploding in the modern age – the Jewish Haskala (“Enlightenment”), nationalism, freedom, and creativity, and he was able to discern the good and bad in them, forging a path for correcting them.

The Suffering of Rabbi Kook

Rabbi Kook was completely taken up by his responsibilities. He did not flee from the demands of the Rabbinate, demands which called for answering thousands of questions from all corners of the world, sitting in judgment of Torah-court cases, writing requests and recommendations for the needy, and caring for numerous other public needs. In addition, he would give many Torah classes, would participate in numerous assemblies and conferences, and would warmly receive his many friends who eagerly frequented the rabbi to hear his words of Torah. The more the years passed, the greater his burden became.

Despite the fact that he loved every single Jew, and was able to see the good in both the old and new settlements in Israel, Rabbi Kook suffered greatly from fierce disputes. Members of “Neturei Karta” hated the rabbi because of his friendliness towards the Jewish pioneers, while the pioneers caused the rabbi anguish through their insistence on profaning the Sabbath, and eating non-Kosher food. In his later years, when he took a stand in defending Abraham Stavsky against an accusation that he was guilty of murdering Chaim Arlozarof, the workers were extremely critical of the rabbi. Rabbi Kook was very sensitive, and was deeply hurt by the words spoken against him. Once, when he was shown an article attacking him that was written by one of the malicious members of Neturei Karta, the rabbi did not leave his room for almost three days. Yet, all the same, he forgave everybody and carried his burden quietly.

Once, when one of the slanderers who had caused the rabbi great pain was forced to turn to the rabbi for help, Rabbi Kook forgot everything and came to his aid. In Israel, his enemies were powerless, but their malign spread to parts of the Jewish communities in Europe. There were some who were influenced by these evil reports, and, as a result, remained in Europe in stead of coming to Israel. They were eventually murdered by the Nazis. On the other hand, there were many who, due to Rabbi Kook’s influence, immigrated to Israel.

If he had wanted, he could have taken revenge upon his adversaries. He had the majority of the leading Torah scholars and the majority of the public on his side, not to mention the British authorities (because of his role as an important leader of the Jewish population in Israel). But he was pious, and though he heard himself being disgraced, he did not respond. He could have changed his positions somewhat, not expressing his views on matters that might not be properly understood, but Rabbi Kook was a man of truth who stood up for justice with great self-sacrifice and without changing a single letter. He could have wrapped himself in pride, displaying indifference and disgust toward his opponents, but he had a soft heart. He therefore bore his pain in all these matters until finally his body could no longer bear it and his health deteriorated. Once, his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah, said that the zealots of Agudat Yisrael and the laborers shortened the life of his father.

Rabbi Kook, who was ready to help any destitute or needy person, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, respected by the masses of the Jewish people, rabbis, the secular “enlightened” leaders, and the rich who constantly visited him; who raised huge amounts of money for the good of Torah institutions in Israel and Eastern Europe, the poor, and the settlement of the land of Israel, lived in shameful poverty. On numerous occasions, not even a cent was left in Rabbi Kook’s home to purchase food. An older Jew who immigrated to Israel from the United States took notice of the rabbi’s state and made a practice of giving the rabbi’s wife a “lira” coin which would suffice the family for the week. Only in his final days of sickness was a benefactor found who paid to have Rabbi Kook placed in a kosher nursing home. It was in this home that Rabbi Kook’s soul departed in sanctity and purity.

Once, Rabbi Kook expressed regret that he could not dedicate all of his time to recording his ideas; his lack of time caused him to jot down his ideas quickly and in an unorganized manner. He had hoped to bring the Hebrew writers of his age back to Torah, and was even somewhat successful with a number of them: Azar, Bialik, and Agnon. Yet, even they, much less their contemporaries, could not fully understand the depth of Rabbi Kook’s ideas. In fact, there were very few Torah scholars who actually grasped the profundity of Rabbi Kook’s teachings. And though everybody was captivated by the rabbi’s personality, his lessons, and his unique ideas, only a handful actually understood the true depth of his wisdom. And they were the ones who were destined to carry on Rabbi Kook’s philosophy in Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav. They understood that his teachings contained the solution to the difficulties of our times, and that by learning these teachings the Jewish people will be redeemed.

Miraculous Remedies and Wonder Working

Cure-Seeking through Blessings and Miraculous Remedies

How should we view the practice some people have of approaching rabbis with requests for healing, miraculous remedies, and amulets?

At “Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav,” under Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, there was no such dealing in the supernatural, and one did not go to request magical remedies or blessings from rabbis. No doubt, there is room for supplication prayers and receiving the blessings of prominent Torah scholars; where there is Torah greatness, there is certainly Divine assistance and unique providence. Such providence, however, is not to be confused with an independent talent for wonder-working. Rather, it results from the spiritual might of the Torah knowledge which the scholar possesses.

In general, it is possible to say that the more Torah greatness and complete faith one possesses, the less need one feels to resort to the supernatural; where Torah knowledge is lacking there is a greater tendency toward wonder-working, blessings, miracles, and amulets. This is quite evident, and indeed, it is no coincidence. Man possesses a yearning for the spiritual, for things that reside beyond his own mundane, physical realm. He harbors a thirst for the living God and for closeness to his Maker. When one studies Torah and senses that it is the source which quenches his thirst, he no longer feels the need to visit wonder-workers. He appeals directly to his Creator, the ultimate source of all. When, though, one lacks Torah knowledge and faith, one feels the need for conjurers of miracles and wonders. Because he finds no spiritual sustenance in Torah study, he searches for it in the miraculous. He does not quite comprehend the spirituality that exists in Torah greatness. He feels the need for wonders, powerful spiritual flashes, in order to strengthen his faith. This is reflected in the words, “Miracles and wonders in the lands of the children of Ham” – in a place of darkness, lacking genuine Torah insight, a need for spiritual flashes makes itself felt. A person who is full of Torah, whose Torah study is the great central spiritual channel through which he becomes filled with a sense of closeness to God, feels no need for wonders.

In addition, one must be aware of the fact that the capacity for spiritual insight exists not only with Torah personages and scholars. Even non-Jews possess such powers. Such capacities, though, lack exactness, for what we are dealing with here is not prophecy, but general insight. While such insight is sometimes accurate, it is preferable not to become dependent upon it, for it can also cause damage.

It is told, regarding Rabbi Zusha, one of the giants of Hassidism, that he had a follower – a Hassid – who sought his advice with regard to everything related to God’s service, and would even give him redemptive money as a form of atonement. One time, the Hassid came to the house of the rabbi and found that he was not at home. He asked Rabbi Zusha’s wife where he had gone and she replied that he had gone to visit his rabbi, the Maggid of Mezritch. The man was surprised to hear that Rabbi Zusha, his rabbi, also had a rabbi. He said to himself, “Why should I go to a disciple when I can go to the rabbi himself?” Yet, from the moment he began frequenting the Maggid, he experienced misfortune in all respects. The Hassid went to Rabbi Zusha and asked, “How is it that when I sought your advice I succeeded, yet when I sought the advice of your rabbi, who is greater than you, I encountered misfortune?” Rabbi Zusha answered, “I will tell you. When you did not search out the best possible rabbi in order to give your redemptive money, God did not make such a thorough check to see if you are a good and upright person, deserving of His blessing. But, when you searched out the best possible rabbi in order to give your redemptive money, God began to inspect you as well, to see if you are a good and upright person deserving of His blessing.” This tale contains a profound lesson. A person who has a rabbi who understands him, guides and councils him in his service of God, merits heavenly blessing. If, though, a person is not truly connected to a rabbi, yet merely goes to him in order to receive a blessing and displays no sincere desire to change and improve, God inspects him more closely.

All hardships that befall a person are meant to perfect and direct him in his service of God. When a person goes to a rabbi who does not know him, the rabbi tells him to say a few chapters from the Book of Psalms, light candles, etc. Perhaps this will be of some benefit for him, maybe not, for the rabbi’s advice is just that – advice. It is not prophecy. This is not the way for a person to deal with his difficulties. And while it is best not to deny such a path to a person who does not possess a healthy connection to the Torah and whose connection to rabbis and blessings is what fills his entire spiritual world, nevertheless, one should be aware that the main channel for clinging to God is through the study of Torah and closeness to a rabbi who provides guidance in his service of God. This is the path taken by people of Torah, and it is the healthiest approach to serving God.

Miraculous Remedies and Amulets

Having addressed the practice of some people to request healing and blessings from rabbis, let us continue and deal with the phenomenon of miraculous remedies and amulets. It is not advisable to seek out such supernatural devices, despite the fact that they sometimes contain solutions to problems. This is not the path that the Torah has chosen. This path does not appear anywhere in the entire Oral or Written tradition. Often, such things are no more than a hoax and a deception. According to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the Rambam, for instance, the effect of such practices is no more than psychological. Yet, even if we were to accept their legitimacy, this is not the correct path. For this reason, the Sages teach us that when difficulties befall a person he must reflect upon and examine his ways, to check his behavior, to repair and refine his service of God. Instead of seeking out short cuts through supernatural and miraculous solutions, one should make a thorough spiritual mending.

Hassidism thus teaches the following story: A villager hired a tutor to teach his son Torah. When it became known to the father that this innocent teacher was in fact a secret mystic, he pleaded with him to teach him the language of the birds. Initially the teacher refused, but the father insisted and threatened to make public the fact that he was a mystic. Finally the teacher gave in, and agreed to teach the father the language of the birds. After mastering this, the father would go about listening to the birds. If the man heard the birds say, “Whoever buys flour today will profit,” he would buy, “Whoever sells wheat today will profit,” he would sell. And thus, the villager became wealthy as a result of the birds. One day he heard the birds say, “This villager will die in thirty days.” Startled, he turned to the mystic and asked him what to do. “I told you,” said the mystic, “that you were better off not knowing the language of the birds. True, if you had remained ignorant of the language of the birds you wo
uld have lost a bit of money here and there, but this would have served as atonement for your sins, and you would have continued to live. Now, though, there is no way of escaping your fate.”

This tale also contains a profound message. “Be innocent before God your Lord” (Deuteronomy 18:13). If trouble befalls a person, it is actually for his own good. One must deal with it and learn how to improve his actions. Yet, when one avoids difficulties through the use of supernatural measures, this does not mean that he has solved the true problem. Even when supernatural practices do succeed – and quite often what appears to be success is no more than an illusion – it is likely to be only a partial solution. Yet, when one does not solve the problem from its foundation, it is bound to reawaken and burst forth from another direction.

In summary, the healthy way of serving God is through studying His Torah, adhering to its laws, and clinging to Torah scholars who guide us according to the word of God. The more one grows in Torah, the less one deals in supernatural devices. Therefore, one must seek guidance from a rabbi concerning proper service of God. This relationship becomes the true source of one’s blessing. If a person confronted with difficulties attempts to bypass them by means of supernatural exercises and amulets, he will not solve the true and fundamental problem, and it possibly will reappear in some other situation.