“Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people” (Lev. 19:18)
From the first Shabbat he spent after arriving in Jaffa, writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon felt himself drawn to the esteemed rabbi of Jaffa — Rav Kook.
Many years later, the Nobel Prize laureate for Hebrew literature related a number of stories about Rav Kook in a collection of essays entitled “Between Me and Myself” (1976). Included is the following incident, which illustrates the scholar’s rare traits of selflessness and magnanimity.
It is customary in the world that we like those who like us, and we hate those who hate us. If someone harms us, we do not forgive. And if we have the opportunity, we will ruin his life.
There are some who don’t even like their friends and will belittle them. And there are some who ingratiate themselves with their foes. These are common traits, apparent in the way most people relate to friends and enemies.
And yet, I have known saintly individuals, and they are few in number. They do not hate their adversaries; and they remain silent in the face of their attacks. Even if they have the opportunity to thwart their attacks — for their own good — nonetheless, they leave them alone and do not obstruct the assault.
One such lofty individual was our great teacher and master, the gaon Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, may his memory be for a blessing. His adversaries caused him many terrible afflictions. Commensurate with his saintliness, those adversaries who hated him for no good reason grew in number.
Despite this, he accepted these sufferings with love. In fact, he would rejoice over every insult that came his way. Our Sages taught about such individuals:
“Those who are insulted but do not insult, who hear themselves reviled but do not respond, who act with love and rejoice in suffering — about them verse says, ‘May those who love [God] be like the rising of the sun in its strength’ (Judges 5:31)” (Shabbat 88b).
I will relate one incident out of a thousand that I know about our great master.
Rabbi Zusha Brandwine owned a printing press in Jerusalem. It once happened that he was absent from the press for several days. When he arrived, he found a stack of notices which had been printed on his machines. He examined one and saw that it was replete with curses and insults against the holy one of God, our master the gaon Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, may his memory be for a blessing.
Horrified, he cried out in anger, “Who did this despicable act, printing such a slanderous work? Quickly, remove all of the copies and destroy them. To the last letter!”
The leader of the typesetters turned to him. “Rabbi Zusha, don’t be angry. Your friend (so-and-so) came here and gave us this notice to print. He paid full payment on condition that we print it today. We shook hands on the deal, agreeing to print it today, so we can’t go back on our word. And we will not renege.”
Deeply pained, Reb Zusha stood up, not knowing what he should do. The client was a childhood friend. And the printers were business partners, in profits as well as losses. Yet our master Rav Kook was the person he respected most in the entire world! And now his own printing press was publishing such slanderous notices....
Thinking the matter over, he decided to ask Rav Kook’s advice. So he went to the rabbi and related the entire incident to him.
“Your printing press is not the only one in Jerusalem,” Rav Kook responded. “If you destroy the slanderous notices, their authors will find another press to print them. So you will suffer a financial loss, and the notes will be printed anyway. Return to your shop and hand over the defamatory notes to their author. He will do what is right in his eyes — may the merciful God forgive him.”
Can there be found such a man, bearing God’s spirit, who sees his enemies embittering his life, yet he sits still and remains silent?
(Mei-atzmi el Atzmi, pp. 200-201)
A number of Rav Kook’s letters from the early 1920’s — written after publication of Orot and the controversy which arose concerning certain passages in the book — reveal his feelings about personal attacks against him by fringe elements in Jerusalem at the time.
In a letter to his parents, Rav Kook wrote:
“I ask that you, dear parents, be not disturbed by these matters. It is an obligation of God’s holy service — a service whose signature is truth — that we should not be afraid of those who argue and insult. I myself do not resent them at all. And certainly not the simple-hearted (temimim) among them. On the contrary, I sympathize with their pain. Nonetheless, I see that I must clarify these topics, so that they will bring benefit and honor to God’s people, as well as fortify the Torah for future times.” (Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. IV, letter 1049)
A few years later, he replied to the rabbi of Manchester:
“Regarding the libelous letters which some have published against me — it is unnecessary to pay them any notice. Even at the time, the episode was insignificant. Certainly now, no one pays attention to the actions of a few individuals, far removed from the world and life, in the deep darkness. I myself hold no grudge against them. On the contrary, I help their needy when they require assistance. For some of them are simple-hearted Jews who believe that even the slightest encouragement of nationalism [Zionism] must be repudiated. What can be done with such people, who recoil when they hear words of praise for our national revival?” (ibid., letter 1118)