In this chapter, Rav Kook reflects on: the universal influence of Torah; the relationship between Torah and natural morality; the light of Torah found in the inner core of every wisdom and science; and the special connection of Torah and the Jewish soul.
The Torah is integrally bound to the spirit of the Jewish people. The very essence of Israel’s spirit encompasses everything: the light of God, the destiny of the universe, the source of souls. The essence of Israel’s spirit is not confined to the lot of the Jewish people but embraces the spiritual destiny of the entire world. As the Aleinu prayer reads, we pray “to repair the world in God’s reign.”
When the Torah’s influence grows stronger, when its knowledge spreads, when its light shines forth, when its sentiments penetrate every soul — [when there is greater Torah study in the Jewish people] — then the Divine illumination disseminates throughout the world, gaining esteem and preeminence. The entire world is uplifted with the spiritual ascent of those select individuals, lofty of spirit, [i.e., Torah scholars.]
“Derech Eretz1 must precede Torah learning.” This is a temporary prerequisite, yet needed in all generations. Morality in its natural state, with all of the depths of its beauty and full strength, must be set in the soul. Then it becomes a underlying platform for those great influences which come from the strength of Torah.
Just as yirat shamayim, awe of Heaven, is the root-essence which precedes wisdom, so, too, natural morality is the root-essence which precedes awe and all of its categories.
This principle applies not only to the individual, but also to the entire nation and to all of humanity.
And if sometimes it is necessary to introduce the Torah’s influence without the preliminary internalization of pure, natural morality, this is only as a temporary decree. Life perforce must cause the chain of events to return to their secure order — the introduction of natural morality, in all its aspects, in order to build on its foundations the palace of Torah and elevated awe.
Any Torah matter requires the preparatory stage of derech eretz.1 If it is something with which one’s intellect and natural propriety agree, one must go the straight route: by inclining the heart and agreement of the pure desire which is human nature. For example, theft, licentiousness, and modest may be learned from the ant, dove, and cat (Eiruvin 100b). All the more so from one’s own internal recognition and religious sensitivity.
If it is a [Torah] matter which is beyond the intellect and the heart’s inclination, it also should proceed through the channel of derech eretz. This is by way of each individual’s connection to the nation. And in the path of “Performance of one mitzvah leads to another” (Avot 4:2). And the sense of rightness which one feels when connected to the Torah, to the elevated Divine Will which is revealed in the light of Torah; when one joins the entire nation, in all its generations, in its way of life in the concept of holiness.
All of these are paths of derech eretz. They prepare the way for loftier enlightenment to radiate, in splendor and brilliant brightness.
The Torah truly makes the Jewish soul. And general wisdom, outside the Torah, makes the human soul.
When we look at the innermost part of our soul, in its very essence, we find that the spirit of Israel lives within it. Similarly, one can discern in the inner core of all science and wisdom — the light of Torah.
The Torah was given to Israel so that the gates of light, which are the brightest, broadest, and holiest of all man’s gates of native discernment and natural spirit of morality, should be open to us. And through us, to the entire world.
If we block our ears from hearing the simple voice of God which calls out powerfully through all the natural gates of enlightenment, the heritage of all peoples, because we think we will find the light of Torah in a Torah which is torn from any light of life which is spread in the world, in its essence and in the human soul in its glory, then we have failed to recognize the true stature of Torah.
Regarding this phenomenon, it says, “A foolish people who are not wise” (Deut. 32:6). As Onkeles translated, “A people who received the Torah, yet did not become wise.”
Do not think that it is possible to live a spiritual life without the light of the Torah. Just as it is impossible to live without light and air, without food and drink, even more so it is impossible to live [spiritually] without the vitality of the Torah.
If you see individuals who are distant from Torah, and yet they live [spiritual lives], in fact, the degree of their spirituality is only according to their connection to the Torah, or their connection to those who live a life of Torah. Or that they have, hidden in their souls, some inherited treasure of influence from the life of Torah, bestowed to them from their ancestors in previous generations.
Torah scholars who are “privy to the secrets of God” relate to the mystical teachings of Torah like the rest of the people relates to the revealed Torah; they must receive their fundamental life- force from the influence of the secrets of Torah.
Just as the national soul of the Jewish people can only realize its special potential in the Land of Israel, so, too, every individual Jew can only realize his spiritual potential in the Torah. The Torah is the spiritual ‘holy land’ which corresponds to the special qualities of the Jewish soul.
All other spheres of knowledge, vis a vis the spiritual potential of the Jewish soul, are like foreign lands.
1Tana d'bei Eliyahu Rabbah 1. The term Derech Eretz, literally, “the way of the world,” may be interpreted in several ways. It is often understood as basic decency and good manners. That is the meaning to which Rav Kook refers in the second paragraph.
Derech Eretz can also mean ‘work,’ especially productive work (see Maimonides on Avot 2:2). And, in a broader context, all that is good and proper in the general culture (as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch described in his writings). This is the meaning of the phrase which Rav Kook uses in the third paragraph.