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Monday, November 21, 2005

Middot Chassidut

Here is another very important letter from Rav Kook translated by Rav Bezalel Naor:

I see in any youth who comes, seeks, asks, and speaks of his confusion the likeness of a precious stone, onyx or jasper, destined to be set in the gates of Jerusalem

  • many matters of philosophy cannot be fully understood if one's emotions are not also adequately prepared
  • We must understand life according to two standards: how it is and how it ought to be.

    By the grace of God, 21 Menachem Av 5644.

    To my beloved friend, delightful and pleasant, imbued with understanding and knowledge of the awe of God, sharp-witted and learned, our teacher, Rabbi Moshe Seidle, may his light shine, and in all that pertains to him, shalom.

    Your precious words gladdened my heart while I sat in the pleasant fields of the settlement of Rechovot in Judea with the view of the Judean hills before my eyes, and was inspired as I contemplated the glory of God that crowned us here in ancient days and that will continue to crown us with his benevolence in days to come, as his words are not unfulfilled. Indeed, we must prepare ourselves with the spirit of God for our glorious future, with the spirit of knowledge and the light of God, which will have the power to unite all the flourishing forces in our nation and ready us for a healthy and perfect life, life which will be an example for all the nations of the world in their strength and courage, and in the glory of their holiness and grandeur so that we then will be able to fulfill the mission befitting the nation of Israel in the land of Israel. This is impossible except by combining all the good found in the lives of both the fathers and the sons, in such a manner that not only will the good in one way of life not oppose the good of the other way, but that both sides will also strengthen and exalt one another. This is the principle of returning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers. These are the thoughts which occupy me, and thank God that everything I believed outside this land about what needs to be done for the good of our nation and our land is in keeping with what I see here in our holy land, inspired by a spirit of purity which will invigorate all actions, so that we may say, "O house of Jacob, come, and let us walk in the light of the Lord."

    And here, I was thinking of the thirst for the word of God, taking in our generation the form of a fainting thirst. Only in the most fortunate and those closest to holiness has this disease of thirst not turned longing into revulsion. I know, without a doubt, that only to the extent that we spread the work of God and the light of the Torah in a language known to those with parched thirst, will our might increase. Thus will we be fit to wear our splendor and the raiment of our glory, and deserving redemption and salvation, as we return to God and his holy word in love, a love born of recognition and understanding. "And from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him, if you seek with all your heart and all your soul." And this request made with one's entire heart and entire soul can not be fulfilled except after the removal of all the darkness of confusion which blocks the light of Israel, so that it cannot be revealed in its majestic splendor. Only when we recognize our own value, the merit of having the spirit of God upon us, only then will our sublime might return to us and [enable] us to know how to live in our holy land after all the many difficult trials [God] imposed on us to teach us knowledge and wisdom. For this reason, I see in any youth who comes, seeks, asks, and speaks of his confusion the likeness of a precious stone, onyx or jasper, destined to be set in the gates of Jerusalem: "And I will make your windows of rubies, and your gates of beryl, and all your borders of choicest stones. And all your children will be taught of the Lord, and great will be the peace of your children."

    Therefore, all my longing and desire is that our talented youth should study, first to gain familiarity [with the texts] and then in depth, the ethical and philosophical part of the Torah, the Torah of the heart, compiled in concise principles by the pious one in his book. This study imparts ever-increasing enlightenment if time is set aside for it, an hour or two every day, sufficient for the acquisition of a proper outlook and inner sensitivity for the ethical and philosophical part of the Torah. This study makes the spirit gentle and delights the soul, until one finds oneself ready and able to inquire and examine, filled with courage and strength, for "the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" Occupation with laws of dei’ot in the Torah bears fruit so that the debate, explanation, examination, and innovation in these topics will become common to all talented youth, as it is already, thank God, (well-versed] in the practical parts of the Torah. This will be beneficial in that even the practical side of the Torah will be heightened and broadened.

    For this reason, when I saw your comments on the study of Torah thought, with the questions you presented me, I was happy and thanked God that my voice has not been a voice calling in the wilderness, and I hope that "many will run to and fro, and knowledge will be increased.’’ But I think it best to remind you of the need to proceed gradually —in other words, to acquire proper proficiency in any work of ethics that comes your way, the simpler ones first, because they all come from the hearts of great scholars, wise and most pious, and many matters of philosophy cannot be fully understood if one's emotions are not also adequately prepared. That is why the Torah is also called a poem, as it is called an obligation. For this reason one needs to call on the help of that special strength to feel the words of the living God, which are clear only to a pure heart, and this demands the moral (side of the Torah], which deals not so much with [philosophical] inquiries, as with establishment of the soul on its inner foundations. But one should not stop [there] but go on to philosophical inquiries]. "Let us therefore know, let us follow on to know the Lord; his going forth is as sure as the morning and he shall come to us as the rain, as the latter rain that waters the earth. "

    This brief comment completed, I turn to your wise remarks. Even though these and similar questions have been asked in previous generations, they need further clarification in ours. But the content of this clarification must he to raise the intellect to wider concepts, the purpose of both practical and theoretical antitheses, and with a truer, more generalized view the light of truth is revealed, making specific answers for every detail unnecessary.

    Know well, my friend, that when a person takes up a particular investigation or study, he must always prepare himself, as much as it is within his power to do so, to be intimate with the matter under study, and if possible to familiarize himself with the concept to the point where he feels it as [part] of himself, his soul and the depths of his emotions for if he does not make use of this capacity he will lack the major one of the necessary conditions for the quest of truth. Therefore, when we turn ourselves to the study of how to understand the Ways of righteousness hidden in the light of the Torah, which includes the vision of reality in relation to human morals, theoretical and practical, personal and general, social and political, from beginning to end, we need first of all the desire to discover the truth, to integrate the visions of life, each according to its power. In other words, [we] must not view moral levels according to the particular state of a special generation, but rather in accordance with the value needed to establish this moral [state] in practice, in accordance with its own [rules] and with the chain of events growing out of it, to the end of time, so that its effect will always be beneficial and enlightening. This process must be done in carefully measured steps. If, in a particular period of history, the attribute of mercy is overabundant, more than is necessary for the [desirable] outcome of the distant future, harmful and destructive forces will arrive in its wake, sometimes greater than those of an apparent injustice. From this you should understand that, although we are not in any way permitted to neutralize [our] sense of justice, and the laws resulting from them, in relation to our current actions, in accordance with those same visions manifesting themselves in our emotions in the present, we must not depend on them as if they were "what is above, what is below, what came before and what will come after." We must understand life according to two standards: how it is and how it ought to be. The absolute [standard of] righteousness is always fixed at the point where life should be, while the [standards of] passing righteousness, more in line with present deeds, are built on the point where life actually is. The great and divine Torah can not be anything but a delightful vessel that directs and structures life for its proper state. But you must be careful not to think of these two dimensions as independent of each other, they are connected as are the successive horizons [seen] by the wayfarer on his distant path.

    Know also that the developing powers of goodness and light emanating from the Torah are balanced between their derivation from the [coercive] power of law and judgment, and from the goodness of the heart and internal consensus in the absence of coercion, even that of the conscience. This is the reason we always attach the covenant of the forefathers with the most essential principles, and the covenant of the land of Israel is also derived both from our inheritance from them and from our acceptance of the Torah. Since our forefathers kept the [laws of] the Torah by their own free inner choice, it is desirable that this quality play a large role in morality. This is the idea behind the hidden aspect [of-goodness], manifested particularly in midot chasidut and as actions above and beyond the letter of the law, for if these were set down as obligations of the law, they would have obscured its eternal guidance from being a beacon to all generations and a light to the gentiles, according to their widely varied spiritual levels. That aspect of morality which must rise out of charity and the love of righteousness must always be the greater part of general positive morality [Torah and the commandments], just as the open air is in comparison with buildings and the cultural activities in them, so that it is impossible not to reserve a large role for it. That which is added by good intention and the spirit of giving must be [counted as] midot chasidut, and if these exalted virtues were set as fixed obligations, the harm suffered by humanity would be immeasurable. Only that which is most essential for present physical and moral life, and which, when weakened, harms the roots of the future, becomes law, and it is written: "He who is commanded and acts is greater than he who is not commanded and nevertheless acts.’’ But that which reaches the essence of good, spreading like a dew of resurrection for future days, without harming by its softness and gentleness the entire goal of the future ascension [of the world] — this has the merit to be designated an act of charity and lovingkindness. Acts above and beyond the letter of the law will be of great benefit when man's heart of stone turns into a heart of flesh. For this reason, these acts in excess of the law must remain [voluntary], and as the level of man rises, pious deeds will spread from the domain of the individual to that of the masses, becoming a trait of the entire nation: "and all thy children shall be taught of the Lord.’’

    Regarding war, it was not possible that, at a time when every one of our neighbors were wolves in the night, Israel alone would not fight, because they would then have gathered and destroyed, God forbid, the remnant of the nation. On the contrary, it was vitally necessary to evoke fear in the savages, even by ruthless means, but with the aspiration of bringing mankind to its proper state, but without proceeding too quickly. Be aware also, that the social laws were lenient, not pressuring the spirit of the nation to piety because [piety] would then have become routine and mandatory, and the Torah's purpose is that the mind be ruled by love and benevolence.

    This is the reason underlying the Torah's leniency in the laws of war. The elimination of idolatry is in keeping with Israel's general mission; and in any case this matter was handed to the courts, for the examination of the moral quality of each particular cult, since not all cases are identical. Because of our many sins, and the lack of practical application, this matter has not been expounded to us in detail from the time we lost our national spiritual strength, [and thus it will remain] until God, blessed be he, returns to us our crown of glory, may it be soon in our days.

    As for corrupt ideas, man must overcome them with the power of his mind. Nevertheless. if he is unable to do so, we have the right to compel him not to discuss these matters with others, since these [ideas] bring ruin to society. If he heeds this, he will by himself come to recognition of the truth. Understand that the Torah juxtaposes the topics of "he who blasphemes the name of the Lord," "he that kills any man," and "he that kills a beast." This implies that corrupt thoughts are not only a Corruption of the mind and morals, but a matter of the corruption of society as well.

    I also want to clarify what you wrote concerning my words about the non-observant. My intention is that we explain to them the irrefutable [fact], witnessed by experience that the nation's survival until now has been due to the performance of the commandments. It is not possible that the nation and its spirit can survive without the fulfillment of the Torah, but even if we were, for the sake of argument, to accept their mistaken view, they cannot claim much experience to weigh against ours. Thus to threaten the existence of the nation, by their own words dear to them, is evil and folly. One who realizes, even by way of rational reasoning, that there is a spiritual existence, and that it is impossible for anything evil and corrupt to come to any good, will understand that whoever lifts his hand against our national survival, be it in passion or by plan, is partner to the most destructive evil-doers. I do not, nevertheless, reject the claim in their favor that many of the misguided of our generation are for all intents and purposes coerced to think as they do, because of the corrupt ideas [prevalent today] and the lack of proper influence to help them steer a straight path. May the Lord enlighten our darkness in his kindness.

    I began writing this letter in Rechovot, when your letter reached me, and then I became distracted [with other matters] until after Rosh Hashanah, which passed with God's help. When my brother Shmuel Chana, long life to him, came, I was reminded [of the letter] and quickly hurried to complete it. Read my words well, and I hope you will find what you sought. And please write everything, and do not leave out your wise observations, because youth, which raises heartfelt questions, is very dear to me. I hope at the proper time to explain further and more clearly, with the help of God, blessed be he.

    I close with a new year's blessing and with much love. May God, blessed be he, bring you success in his Torah as well as in his awe, and broaden your understanding to know his holy name. May you be successful in all matters, as befits your precious soul, and as your beloved friend, who wishes your joy, from the holy land.

    Humbly yours,
    Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook