Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 119: A Time to Act for God

Hillel’s Counsel

What should we do in a time when Torah scholars are ridiculed and Torah knowledge is belittled? The renowned Talmudic sage Hillel gave the following advice:

“If you see a generation that is eager to study Torah, you should spread [i.e., disseminate Torah]. But if you see a generation that does not appreciate Torah, you should ‘gather in’ [refrain from teaching Torah]. As it says: “It is a time to act for God, for they have violated Your Torah” (Psalm 119:126).” (Berachot 63a)

This is peculiar advice! Would it not be more logical to intensify our efforts to disseminate Torah precisely in a lost and confused generation, when it is most needed?

The Source of Decline

The Torah’s wisdom cannot be properly appreciated without a certain degree of purity and readiness of the soul. Only then can one recognize the true significance of Torah and its special light. Only then can one properly grasp the benefits acquired by those who study it — and through them, the entire generation.

The root cause of all moral declines is a deterioration in knowledge and understanding. First, the views of the intellectual elite become warped. They, in turn, influence and corrupt the opinions of the rest of society.

If you see a generation that does not appreciate Torah.” This phenomenon originates from a fundamental change in society’s outlook and attitudes. Methods used to convey the Torah’s message were successful in engaging previous generations. The current generation, however, no longer identifies with this approach. The world has changed. The old techniques are no longer effective in opening the heart and the mind to the Torah’s inner truth.

A Time to ‘Gather in'

At such a time, we are obligated to deepen our understanding of lofty matters and examine the Torah’s most central teachings. The philosophical underpinnings of the Torah must be analyzed and clarified. When the intellectual elite are able to recover what they lacked in faith and knowledge, their connection to the Torah will be restored. And then the entire generation will regain its appreciation for Torah.

When Torah wisdom is not respected, it is a sign that its inner concepts have not been properly clarified. This situation cannot be repaired by the continued dissemination of worn out and shallow ideas. Trite sentiments and words of rebuke — even if they are essentially correct, and perhaps effective for simple folk — will no longer work. We must address the heart of the problem.

Our response must be, as Hillel counseled, to “gather in.” We need to focus our attention inwards, to probe and reevaluate the Torah’s philosophical underpinnings.

"A Time to Act for God"

When the Torah is generally loved and respected, on the other hand, we should further spread its teachings. Since its messages are widely accepted, it is appropriate to utilize those unsophisticated approaches which appeal to the average person. Even though this dissemination will not qualitatively add to our understanding of the Torah, it will enrich it quantitatively, as more people study Torah and perform its commandments. And from these new students will sprout the great minds who will reveal its inner light in a confused generation.

The Torah contains esoteric ideas that should not be publicized when there is no need to do so. However, it becomes our duty to clarify these topics when the generation needs it. When the Torah is held in low esteem, “It is a time to act for God.” For the sake of heaven, “they violate Your Torah” — the scholars of the generation must violate the usual principles, and reveal previously hidden areas of the Torah. Thus we find, for example, that the Oral Law was committed to writing, despite the prohibition against writing down that which was meant to be transmitted orally. Even esoteric Midrashic subjects, normally taught privately to a select few, were written down and disclosed to the public.

A Divine Signal for Growth

While it is disturbing to see the Torah being abandoned, this phenomenon is in fact part of a Divine pattern in history, a cyclic process whereby the Torah’s inner truth is gradually revealed over time.

The greater (and more wide-spread) the rejection of Torah, the greater is our obligation to analyze the hidden, ‘gathered-in’ portions of the Torah. This pressing need is a Divine call, charging us to deepen our understanding of Torah and uplift the nation.

“Though I have fallen, I will arise. Though I sit in darkness, God will be my light” (Micah 7:8).

As the Sages explained the verse: ‘Had I not fallen, I would not have risen up. Had I not sat in the darkness, God would not be my light’ (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 6).

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 367-368)