“You speak of desecration of Torah and mitzvot?” Abraham Isaac Lipkovitz exploded. “Rabbis are firefighters! Go put out the fires! What are you doing sitting around here?”
A group of rabbis, including Rav Kook, had gathered in Lipkovitz’s home in Rehovot to discuss the state of religious life in the Land of Israel. They were particularly disturbed by blatant violations of the Sabbath in the new settlements.
But Lipkovitz, who worked in construction and agriculture, was a doer. He had little patience for the rabbis’ endless discussions. He cited the example of the prophet Samuel, who would travel around the country to fortify religious observance.
“You rabbis are sitting here, while over there — there are fires burning! Every day, the fires destroy more and more. And you are responsible! You are at fault!” Lipkovitz took a breath. “You need to go to all these places and demand that the Sabbath be observed.”
For several years, Rav Kook had toyed with the idea of a rabbinical tour of the northern communities. Perhaps it was Lipkovitz’s outburst that spurred the rabbi to put his plan into action.
In mid-November of 1913, a small delegation of rabbis, led by Rav Kook, set out to visit the new communities of the Galilee and the north. The rabbinical tour was meant to strengthen ties with the isolated moshavot and bolster religious observance. Rav Kook delineated the tour’s objectives in his introduction to Eileh Massei, a pamphlet which documented the rabbis’ month-long tour:
“We are called upon to assist as best we can, “to come to God’s aid for the heroes” (Judges 5:23) — to visit the moshavot, to raise their spirits, to inject the dew of holy life into the bones of the settlements… [We must] elevate the life of faithful Judaism, and publicly announce the call for harmony and unity between the Old Yishuv [the established religious communities in the cities] and the New Yishuv [the new Zionist settlements].”
The journey enabled the rabbis to meet the pioneers of the First and Second Aliyah, and learn of the difficulties of life on the moshavot first-hand. In fact, meeting and interacting with Rav Kook, the elderly Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld of Jerusalem, and the other rabbis in the delegation had a powerful impact on many of the pioneers. In many cases it succeeded in awakening a desire for greater observance of the Sabbath and kashruth. Practical arrangements for separating agricultural tithes were instituted, and other religious matters were worked out.
But the most crucial issue — the lack of traditional Jewish education for the children — could not be properly addressed during such a short visit.
The cooperative settlement Merhavya had been established two years earlier, in 1911. It was the first Jewish settlement in the desolate Jezreel valley, near Afula. Members of HaShomer, an early Jewish defense organization, protected the settlement from attacks by Bedouin and neighboring Arabs.
Gershon Gafner, a prominent member of the cooperative, recorded his memories of the rabbis’ visit in his memoir, My Path to Merhavya:
We were informed of the arrival date for the visit of Rabbis Kook and Zonnenfeld, of blessed memory, and Rabbi Yadler. In honor of these esteemed guests, we hired a “diligence” (a French stagecoach) from Nazareth to bring them from the Afula station to Merhavya. The visit, however, was postponed repeatedly. Since it was expensive to retain the diligence coach, we had to return this elegant and modern (for those days) form of transportation.
One day we were surprised to receive an urgent message from Afula. The rabbis had arrived and were waiting for us at the station! We were to come at once and bring them to Merhavya.
Lacking a better option, we quickly “renovated” one of the carts which we used to transport manure. We cleaned it up, “upholstered” it with straw and sacks, and made our way to Afula. In this fashion, we brought our honored guests to Merhavya....
We expressed our regret that we did not have the opportunity on such short notice — from when we learned of their arrival — to prepare a more suitable form of transportation for them. In response to this apology, Rav Kook delivered an impassioned speech. His fiery address lasted nearly an hour.
Rav Kook expressed his great joy that, for the first time in his life, he was privileged to travel in a wagon of Jewish laborers in the Land of the Patriarchs. His speech probed the depths of Jewish history. He praised the importance of working the land and recalled the sacred history of the Jezreel valley, which we pioneers were the first to redeem after centuries of desolation. With tremendous excitement, he noted that our fathers’ fathers had lived in this place, creating Jewish life with dedication and self-sacrifice. And now, he noted, the descendants of those ancient Hebrews have arisen and continued their Jewish tradition.
He concluded his words with a heartfelt blessing that we should merit to see, with our own eyes, the entire Land of Israel redeemed and flourishing through the labor of the children of the Eternal Nation.
Rav Kook’s words made a deep impression on us. We felt, with great admiration, that he was truly worthy of the crown of Torah that he wore.
The rabbinical delegation stayed with us several days. During one of the nights, the rabbis were witness to an attack on Merhavya. We explained to them that the Arabs primarily chose to attack us on Friday nights [on the assumption that few or no Jewish guards would be on duty]. Therefore we are forced to go out on the Sabbath to protect our property and our lives. We asked the rabbis to provide a clear answer if we are acting properly according to Jewish law.
Rav Kook responded calmly and with full understanding of the situation. If, he explained, we are certain that it is a life-threatening situation, then it is our obligation to defend the place, even if this will lead to violation of the Sabbath laws. This is in accordance with the well-known Halakhic principle, “Danger to human life overrides the laws of the Sabbath.”
Rabbi Zonnenfeld, Rabbi Yadler, and the other rabbis, however, did not express an opinion one way or the other.
After his visit to Merhavya, Rav Kook closely followed after the development of the settlement. And the people of Merhavya — most of whom were far removed from traditional Judaism — felt a profound admiration for him. They saw in Rav Kook a Torah scholar blessed with a sensitive soul, as well as a broad and humane outlook.
(Stories from the Land of Israel. Adapted from the Megged Yerachim journal, vol. 174, Eileh Massei)
Illustration image: colorized photo of Merchavia, 1922 (Wikimedia Commons)