“Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people” (Lev. 19:18)
From the very first Shabbat he spent upon arriving in Jaffa, renowned writer and Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon felt drawn to the esteemed rabbi of Jaffa, Rav Kook.
Many years later, Agnon related several stories about Rav Kook in his collection of essays titled “Between Me and Myself” (1976). Among these stories is the following incident, which illustrates the scholar’s exceptional qualities 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 enemies. These are common traits, apparent in the way most people relate to friends and foes.
Nevertheless, I have had the privilege of knowing saintly individuals, and they are few. 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 esteemed 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 without 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.
It once happened that Rabbi Zusha Brandwine, owner of a printing press in Jerusalem, was away from his press for several days. When he returned, he found a stack of notices that had been printed on his machines. He examined one and saw that it was replete with curses and insults directed at the holy servant of God, our master Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.
Horrified, he cried out in anger, “Who did this despicable act? Who printed such slanderous notices? Quickly, remove all of the copies and destroy them. To the last letter!”
The head 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 in full 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 to do. The client was a childhood friend. And the printers were business partners, sharing 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 seek Rav Kook’s counsel. He went to the rabbi and recounted 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. Then you will incur a financial loss, and the materials will be printed anyway. Return to your shop and deliver the defamatory notes to their author. He will do what he believes is right, may the merciful God forgive him.”
Can there be found such a person, bearing God’s spirit, who sees his enemies embittering his life, yet chooses to sit still and remain silent?
(Mei-atzmi el Atzmi, pp. 200-201)
Several of Rav Kook’s letters from the early 1920s, written after the publication of Orot and the ensuing controversy surrounding certain passages in the book, reveal the rabbi’s feelings about the personal attacks launched against him by fringe elements in Jerusalem at the time.
In a letter to his parents, Rav Kook wrote:
“I implore you, dear parents, do not be troubled 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 sincere and simple-hearted 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)
Several years later, he replied to the rabbi of Manchester:
“As for the slanderous letters that some people published against me, it is unnecessary to pay them any notice. Even at the time, the incident held little significance. Certainly now, no one pays attention to the actions of a few individuals, distant from worldly affairs and life, in the deep darkness. I myself bear no ill will toward them. On the contrary, I help their needy when they require assistance. 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 instinctively recoil when they hear words of praise for our national revival?” (ibid., letter 1118)