By Rabbi Dovid Sears
In praising the custom of telling stories about tzaddikim, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov told his disciples that hearing such stories during his childhood—while growing up in Medzhibozh in the house of his holy great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov—inspired him to strive for the spiritual heights. The stories of tzaddikim encapsulate noble values and deeds that would require entire volumes to explain intellectually. Yet in a few words, these glimpses into the lives of “anshei ma’aseh,” men of deeds, enable us to “get the message” immediately. However, this volume is unique. What makes “Stories From the Land of Israel” distinctive is that these stories reflect a revolution in modern Jewish history—the unprecedented return of the Jewish people to our ancient homeland after two thousand years of exile, and the renascence of our religious life in the land that the Giver of the Torah awarded to Abraham and his descendants for all time. As one of my cyber-friends has written, “Rav Kook brought the prophet Yeshayahu back to life in the streets of Eretz Yisrael and created a guidepost with his vision for Jews returning and rebuilding the Land.”
The prolific Rabbi Chanan Morrison once again has performed a great service to the English-speaking Jewish public in collecting and retelling these inspiring stories of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, and his son Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, who carried on his father’s spiritual legacy during the tumultuous years during which Israel achieved statehood and thereafter. He also tells us about the saintly “Nazir of Jerusalem,” Rabbi David Cohen, who became a devotee of Rav Kook while studying in Switzerland during World War I. (Rabbi Aryeh Levin, another close disciple of Rav Kook, is also a worthy subject for such stories, but Simcha Raz has already treated us to a number of them in his now-classic biography, “A Tzaddik in Our Time.")
Thus we hear of such “Chassidic wonders” as Rav Kook’s blessing for long life to a kindly host, who lived until 108; or how he helped out a simple Yemenite laborer tempted to leave Eretz Yisrael in search of a better livelihood by introducing him to the angel who presides over the heavenly scales of judgment. We read of his ahavat Yisrael in reaching out to non-religious settlers in farming collectives and Poriah (near Tiveria); his religious devotions in a London bomb shelter, and his bold defense of the religious Zionist enterprise (culminating in the Balfour Declaration) during his three years of “exile” in England during World War I. During his tenure as Chief Rabbi, Rav Kook is notified that several non-religious construction workers insist on working on Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem, thus disturbing the prayers of a nearby congregation. The Rav’s solution? He sends an emissary to blow the Shofar for them, thus reawakening their Jewish souls through love, after which they change their clothes and come to the synagogue. We also get filled in on a few often-misunderstood subjects like the circumstances surrounding Rav Kook’s hetter mekhirah (temporary sale of land in Israel during the Sabbatical Year); and his brillian quandary posed by visitors from the Diaspora who wanted to celebrate a second Pesach Seder in Jerusalem (I won’t spoil the story for you by telling you the ending). In addition, we hear of the often-maligned “radical nationalist” Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook’s love for his students at Merkaz HaRav (and their love for him), his fervent rejoicing in the happiness of the Jewish people and his grief in hours of national sorrow. The description of how it happened that Rav Zvi Yehudah and the Nazir were escorted to the newly-liberated Western Wall after the Six Day War should stir every Jewish heart.
According to Rabbi Nachman, beyond their commonsense value of providing us with guidance and good examples, the stories of tzaddikim have a mystical effect on those who hear them (or read) them: They “clear the mind” of confused thoughts and illusions, and in so doing, enable us to attain a glimpse of Godliness. What accomplishes this purification of the mind is the perception of the hashgachah peratit, or Divine Providence, manifested in the lives of those who truly walk with God. Here too we encounter such tales as Zalman Shazar’s walking into Rav Kook’s study one day in Elul, to find the Rav standing beside the Nazir as the latter sounded the Shofar with the kabbalistic intentions of the Arizal — hearing in those sounds the Shofar of Mashiach. And we learn how at the moment of Rav Kook’s passing, the Nazir attests that all those present heard a heavenly voice proclaim, “Haim, ad olam! Life, forever!”
May the legacy of these “tzaddikim in our time” reach us through Rabbi Morrison’s artfully told stories, clear away the clouds from our minds, and instill in us the Baal Shem Tov’s “three loves”: love of God, love of Torah and love of Israel — both our people and our land, which are inseparable.