Wall’s Later Prophets, on the CDHa’Orot: The Lights of Rav Kook. This summer is the 75th anniversary of the death of the much-loved poet and scholar RavKook, the first chief rabbi of the nascent land of Israel. Credit: David Zimand.
Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010
Ha’Rav Kook: Master of the Lights
by Itzchak Marmorstein
A world of chaos stands before us, all the time that we have not yet reached the "tikkun elyon"—the highest level of healing, repairing, transforming—by uniting all life forces and all their diverse tendencies. As long as each one exalts himself, claiming, I am sovereign, I and no other—there cannot be peace in our midst (Notebook 8:429).
In the early 1980s, in a sunlit cottage in Winnipeg Beach, Canada, I sat down to read from the writings of Rabbi Avraham Itzchak HaCohen Kook, TZ"L (Tzadik Zichrono Livracha—the righteous, whose memory should be a blessing), who passed away in 1935. I knew well the world of chaos. I am an Israeli-born only child of Holocaust survivors; my mother was in Auschwitz. I absorbed on the cellular level the reality that a huge darkness and evil had recently occurred in the world. For some time, and in response, I had been seeking the greatest possible light.
My search brought me to serious study of the Torah in 1973, though I remained disturbed by the manifestations of parochialism in the religious world. And then I read:
All our endeavors must be directed toward disclosing the "or hashalom haclali," the light of universal harmony, which derives not from suppressing any power, any thought, any tendency, but bringing each of them within the vast ocean of infinite light, where all things find their unity, where all is ennobled and exalted, all is hallowed (Notebook 8:429).
As I read, I experienced an internal expansion, an inner recognition.
We must liberate ourselves from confinement within our private concerns.... This reduces us to the worst kind of smallness, and brings upon us endless physical and spiritual distress. It is necessary for us to raise our thought and will and our basic preoccupations toward universality, to the inclusion of all, to the whole world, to humankind, to the Jewish people, to all existence.... The firmer our vision of universality, the greater joy we will experience and the more we will merit divine illumination (Orot HaKodesh 3:147).
Continuing to read, I felt my soul stirring, touched by an extraordinary consciousness whose grasp of the brokenness and wholeness of existence and the possibilities for perfection was breathtaking and clear:
Tshuva-return is inspired by the yearning of all existence to be better, purer, more vigorous and on a higher plane than it is. Within this yearning is a hidden life-force for overcoming every factor that limits and weakens existence (Orot HaTshuva/Lights of Return, 6:1).
Since that light-filled afternoon, I have often been inspired deeply by the writings of Rav Kook—known by some as Baal Ha'Orot, the Master of the Lights. I have dedicated my life to sharing his song with the world. His seventy-fifth Yaartzeit (anniversary of passing) approaches (Elul 3/August 14), and it is my privilege to share with you a little of his story and some highlights from the Kook book.
Everyone in contact with Rav Kook described a similar picture.
Here was a rabbi, a Cohen, with unparalleled knowledge of the breadth and depth of the entire Torah. Here was an enlightened soul whose illumination shone powerfully. Here was a fearless leader, instrumental in the process leading to the Balfour Declaration, the first Chief Rabbi of the nascent Land of Israel, whose love for all humankind was boundless.
He was respected and loved by Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular, intellectual and worker, Right and Left. Chagall said upon meeting him that he now knew what holiness is. Einstein on conferring with him in 1925 said that Rav Kook was one of the few people who understood his theory of relativity. He told Einstein about passages in kabbalistic texts that speak of varying experiences of time in different hechalot (chambers of experience). In Jewish Mysticism, Gershon Sholem explained that Rav Kook was the "last [newest] example of productive Kabbalistic thought that I know."
The noisy opposition of a small percentage of the ultra-Orthodox Old Yishuv (Jewish residents of the land before establishment of the State of Israel) did not prevent him from boldly putting forth a vision of integration, a vision of universal peace and love:
The whole Torah, its moral teachings, commandments, good deeds and studies has as its objective to remove the roadblocks so that universal love should be able to spread, to extend to all realms of life (Midot HaRaya: Ahava 12).
He first arrived in the land of Israel on the twenty-eighth of Iyar, 1904.
He stepped off the boat in Yaffo and prayed for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and Israel. This day is now forever stamped in Jewish history as Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). For it was on Iyar 28 (June 7), in 1967, that the IDF captured the Old City of Jerusalem in the midst of the Six-Day War. Rav Kook was the first to use the term Medinat Israel (the State of Israel).
In 1908, he wrote a letter calling for the reconciliation of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. He explained that the Torah records Yaakov, saying upon his emotional reunion with his twin brother/enemy, Esau, "I have seen you; it is like seeing the face of Elokim" (Genesis 33:10). Rav Kook continued:
The words of Yaakov shall not go down as a vain utterance. The brotherly love of Esau and Yaakov, of Itzchak and Ishmael, will rise above all the "mehumot"—disturbances ... and transform them to "or ve'chesed olam"—universal light and compassion (Letters 1:112).
Jewish tradition explains that the feud between Yaakov and Esau is the prototype for the hostility between Jews and Christians and that the history of Itzchak and Ishmael seeded the tension between Jews and Muslims. At the beginning of our return to the land, Rav Kook called for the core of love that exists between each brother and sister to re-emerge:
This broad understanding [that we are all actually brothers and sisters each reflecting Divinity] must be our guide in all our ways in the end of days ... turning the bitter to sweet and darkness to light (Letters 1:112).
His entire life and thought was dedicated to tikkun, to directing life toward the light of harmony:
When love-possessed people see the world, living creatures full of quarrels, hatred, persecution and conflicts, they yearn with all their being to share in those aspirations that move life toward wholeness and unity, peace and tranquility.... They want that every particular shall be preserved and developed and that the collective whole shall be united and abounding in peace (Notebook 1:101).
He encouraged the inward journey:
The greater a person is, the more they must seek to discover themselves. The deep levels of our soul remain concealed, so that we must be alone frequently, to elevate our imagination, deepen our thought, and to liberate our mind. Then our soul will reveal itself to us by radiating some of its light upon us (Orot HaKodesh 3:270).
He invited each person to value and share his or her inner truth:
Let everyone express in faithfulness and truth whatever their soul reveals to them, let everyone bring forth their spiritual creativity from potentiality to actuality without any deception. Out of such sparks torches of light will be assembled and they will illuminate the whole world out of their glory. Out of such fragments of inner truth, will the great truth emerge (Orot HaKodesh 1:166).
He supported the highest possible idealism:
The great dreams are the foundation of the world.... The crudeness of conventional life, wholly immersed in its materialistic aspect, removes from the world the light of the dream.... The world is in convulsion with pains engendered by the destructive toxins of reality, devoid of the brightness of the dream....The free dream, which is in revolt against reality and its limitations, is truly the most substantive truth of existence (Orot HaKodesh 1:226).
People often ask, "What would Rav Kook say if he were alive today?"
I feel he was too original and too independent a thinker for anyone to really know, though many are happy to speculate. As he himself said, "The inner essence of the soul ... must have absolute inner freedom. It experiences its freedom, which is life, through its originality in thought" (Orot HaKodesh 1:177).
I write this as a personal tribute to a sage who has brought so much light into my life and the lives of countless others. And as an invitation to anyone seeking deeper understanding to read directly from the wisdom of Rav Kook. Contemporary idealists, spiritual seekers, and world fixers of all backgrounds will find much of interest in his sophisticated and holistic teachings.
We, like him, continue to be faced with the immense challenge of tikkun olam (repairing the world). In exploring the dynamics of repair, Rav Kook emphasized that tov (good) is the strongest force in existence and our dedication to it is our most powerful tool.
It's the good that I desire,
Its broad expanses entrance me,
Its lips, its roses, I kiss,
Its glorious vision exalts me.
Absolute good, without limitation,
Without end, constriction or boundary,
That does not separate from anyone alive,
And with its love fixes everything broken.
Good for me, good for all,
Good without evil or fear,
Good full of pleasure for all,
Full of tranquility, without anxiety.
Good forever, good right now,
Good for every people and nation,
For all who seek for the good and not for the bad,
And the light and the delight, as the One is there.
(Naftshee Takshiv Shiro / My Soul Will Hear Its Song, page 18)
Tov le kol aam ve'aam (good for every people and nation) ...
Bemhera BeYamenu (may it be soon and in our days).
Israeli-born Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein, MSW, has been studying and teaching the writings of Rav Kook for thirty years. His focus now is on performing Rav Kook's poetry with jazz musicians. For CDs and booking, visit www.haorot.org. The textual translations in this piece are adapted from Rabbi B.Z. Bokser's translation; the poem is translated by I. Marmorstein.
Marmorstein, Itzchak. 2010. Ha’Rav Kook: Master of the Lights . Tikkun 25(4): 27