The Secrets of Torah
(From the biography of Rabbi Kook “Above the Stream” by Tzvi Fishman)
Rabbi Kook believed that a Torah scholar should strive for a mastery of all branches of Torah, both the revealed and the esoteric, the Peshat, Remez, Drash, and Sod. Throughout a substantial portion of his writings, he stressed the necessity of learning the secrets of Torah at the time of Israel’s Redemption. His thoughts and discourses on the inner wisdom of the Torah can be found in his Letters, and in his books, Orot, Orot HaTorah, Orot HaT’shuva, Shemona Prachim, and in his four volumes exploring the mystic dimension and inner life of the soul, Orot HaKodesh. While not all students had an inclination for the esoteric side of the Torah, for those who did, Rabbi Kook gave his blessings. Interestingly, he rarely mentions the word, Kabbalah in his essays, nor employs its terminology, preferring to use his own literary descriptions, in a rich, flowing, and masterful Hebrew (rather than the standard Kabbalistic expressions such as Sefirot, Partzufim, Yichudim, the esoteric Names of God, and the like). Because of his unique style and intricate use of the Hebrew language, and because of the mystical nature of his themes, the following translations are merely approximations of the original source:
“The revelation of the secrets of Torah in the last generation, in order to purify the hearts and to fill the minds with noble thoughts, whose source lies in the secrets of Torah, this is an absolute necessity in the last generation to insure the survival of Judaism” (Orot HaKodesh, Part 1, Pg. 141).
In his holy proclamation, “The Great Call,” Rabbi Kook wrote:
“Dear brothers, Sages of Torah, and influential scholars! We too acted foolishly and sinned! We studied and researched the sources; we debated the fine points of the Talmud and discovered new insights; we wrote and explained; but we forgot Hashem and His might. We failed to hear the words of the true prophets, the exalted voice of our eternal sages, to hear the voice of the Tzaddikim (righteous ones) and Hasidim (saintly ones), the sages of Mussar, and the possessors of the secrets of Torah, who called out and proclaimed in the most strident of voices, that in the end, the river of Talmudic analysis would turn arid and dry if the deep ocean of Kabbalah, and the Torah’s inner understandings, weren’t constantly drawn into the learning – the waters of the knowledge of Hashem, the pristine waters of pure faith which flows from our inner souls, and which stream forth from our life source,” (Orot, pg. 101).
Elsewhere in the book Orot, Rabbi Kook writes:
“The secrets of Torah bring the Redemption and return Israel to its Land, because the Torah of truth in its mighty inner logic demands the complete soul of the Nation. Through this inner Torah, the Nation begins to feel the pain of Exile and to realize the absolute impossibility for its character to fulfill its potential as long as it is oppressed on foreign soil. As long as the light of the supernal Torah is sealed and bound, the inner need to return to Zion will not stir itself with deep faith.”
“From a moral point-of-view, the innate fear of transgression is the healthiest human disposition. This quality stands out in the Jewish people, in its natural aversion to any sin or wrongdoing in opposition to the Torah and the commandments, which are the inheritance of the community of Jacob. This disposition will only return to the Jewish people through national program of Torah learning, both in producing outstanding Torah scholars, and in establishing fixed times of daily learning for the masses. It is impossible for the Jewish People to return to their natural life, in all of its breadth and stature, if it will not also return to its spiritual nature, in all of its fullness, including the all-important fear of sin which, when healthy, brings remorse and T’shuva in its wake. With the strengthening of the Nation’s vitality in all of its facets, its restless confusion will cease, and its national institutions will all return to their natural moral focus, so unique and deep-seated in Israel, to differentiate with a hair-splitting exactness between the forbidden and the permitted. Then all the detailed laws of the Torah and the Sages will be recognized as the necessary foundation for an independent Jewish life, without which a vital national existence is impossible.”
Rabbi Kook believed that a standard learning of Torah was not enough to return the Israelite Nation completely to its roots. After a two-thousand year exile, the Jewish People had to undergo a profound, inner transformation in order to truly become, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” A change in external behavior was not enough. The transformation must affect personalities, thought processes, and the Nation’s innermost aspirations. He wrote:
“To strengthen these foundations, we need to endear the hearts of our people to the light of the true, inner Torah, the secrets of Torah, which, because of their influence on students who had not been properly prepared, brought about their rejection and scorn. It is, however, from this life-giving light… that the world’s lasting Salvation will sprout. The appearance of this exalted, benevolent light will revitalize both the Nation and the individual, to raise the fallen tabernacle of David, and to remove the shame of the people of God from all of the earth.”
“True complete T’shuva necessitates exalted horizons of meditation, an ascent to the supernal realm which is filled with truth and holiness. One can attain this only through the study of the inner dimensions of Torah and Divine wisdom dealing with the mystical understanding of the world. This demands physical and moral purity, so that the darkness of lusts will not pollute the lucidness of the intellect. But the study of Torah must precede all other disciplines, especially the study of the transcendental Torah, for only it can break down all of the iron-like, material barriers separating the individual and the community from their Father in heaven.”
“If people studied the Torah in this light, to broaden their spiritual ken, in order to understand the connection between the details of life and the universal, spiritual realms of existence, then T’shuva would come, and the perfection of the world would follow in its wake…. We must employ a higher healing, to add strength to our spiritual talents, to understand in a clear, straightforward, down-to-earth manner, the connection between the teachings and commandments of the Torah, and the highest, most universal ideas. Then the power of the spiritual life will be renewed in the world, in practice and theory, and a movement of general T’shuva will begin to blossom and bloom.”
Rabbi Kook wrote about himself:
“Not by accident did the Master of all souls implant within my being an ever-burning yearning for all that is hidden, for all that is lofty and sublime. Not by accident did He bring me to the Land of Israel, and not by accident did he grace me with a spirit of valor, and an inner purity, even though I am encompassed by a myriad of shortcomings and frailties… All of these things were planted within me to help me bring light to the world, to create a literature ablaze with the light of the secrets of Torah in a popular fashion and comprehensible by everyone, filled with song and strength, and marked by clearness of understanding and faithful explanation, in order to elevate the Nation of Hashem, and to facilitate the everlasting Redemption which has begun to shine in the Land of Israel.”
Night after night, in the quiet hours when the day’s official chores and meetings had ended, Rabbi Kook filled up notebooks with his constant stream of thoughts:
The Wisdom of Holiness
“The wisdom of holiness is exalted above all other forms of wisdom, in that it transforms a student’s will and character traits, drawing them closer to the lofty levels they long to reach. This propensity is lacking in all other worldly wisdoms – even though they illustrate many lofty and noble matters – they don’t work in the same manner, to bring out the inner essence of the student to their true expression. Worldly wisdoms relate only to a person’s intellectual aspect, and not to his essential self and inner powers… Thus, they cannot transform the person who studies them into a new being, to uproot evil traits from their psyche and heart, and uplift them to a new existential level, purified to live by the true light of everlasting life.”
The Call to the Spiritual
“When an individual, and likewise the generation, comes to the point where its spiritual aspects and demands call out for manifestation, then this vital thirst cannot be quenched by any limited content, if this content lacks the ability to lift his being to open horizons, where he will come to delight in the essential nature of his soul, from the root source of his being. Therefore, the mystical secrets of the world, the secrets of Torah, the esoteric knowledge of Hashem, call out for the generation to reveal them.
“If a person stubbornly persists in seeking spiritual satisfaction in the exterior, surface aspects of life, this will drain all of his powers, fragment his being, and lead his turbulent yearning to a place where he will find only emptiness and despondence. With a despairing heart, the person will look for another path to satiate his unfulfilled yearning.
“It is for mighty men of valor to rise to this challenge, the brave of heart for whom the light of Hashem is the whole content of their lives. Even if they have been broken and hardened from great despair; even if they have grown faint due to a paucity of faith in themselves; even if they have become weary by their struggle against the great multitude who proceeds blindly along in a routine fashion – let them not put an end to their worthwhile endeavor; let them not permit their strength to falter. They hold aloft on the flame of the recondite understandings of the Torah, hidden treasures of knowledge, an inner clarification of faith, heralding everlasting salvation for the Jewish People and mankind, for the body and soul, for this world and for all worlds, for the great and the small, the elderly and the young.”
The All-Encompassing Dimension
“Philosophy only encompasses a small segment of the spiritual universe. By its very nature, it is divorced from all things which exist beyond its borders. Thus it is a fragmented discipline. The loftiness of recognizing how all feelings and inclinations, from the small to the grand, are interdependent and attached one to the other, and how seemingly separate worlds are organically one, this is something which philosophy cannot portray.
“Far greater is the realm of the secrets, which by its nature penetrates to the depths of all thoughts, all feelings, all inclinations, all aspirations, and all worlds, from their beginning to their end. It recognizes the unity of all existence, on both the physical and spiritual planes, the unity of the great and the small. Therefore, in the realm of the inner Torah, there is no distinction between the great and the small – everything is equally important, and everything has a marked value.
“Due to this superior perspective, the study of the mystical and its limitless horizons, encompassing all thoughts and spiritual lights, this is the only path capable of providing overall guidance. This is the reason why the secrets of Torah are the soul of faith, and the soul of the Torah.”
The Universal Vision
“The essence of spiritual vision is to perceive everything in an all-encompassing perspective of unity. This differentiates it with regular intellectual perception which is always concerned with particulars, forcing them unnaturally into general categories. People who feel a strong pull toward the inner understandings of Torah are gifted with a powerful attachment to universality. They suffer anguish when they are compelled to deal with particular matters, whether spiritual or practical. But they find relief in knowing that life is filled with particulars and down-to-earth duties which must be attended to in order to bring ideals to fruition. Nonetheless, an inner urging compels them to reduce the bothersome chore of dealing with external necessities and details, and to return, as soon as possible, to the light of the ideal.”
“Whomever feels within his inner being, after many trials, that his soul can only find comfort and rest via the study of the secrets of Torah, he must recognize, with no uncertainty, that for this he was created.
“He must not allow himself to be impeded by any obstacles, whether spiritual or physical, from chasing after what constitutes the essence of his existence and his true perfection. He must believe that not only his own perfection and salvation lie in the elevation of his being, but also the salvation of the community and the Tikun of the world.
“Every soul which attains fulfillment always improves the general character of the world. All of life is blessed through the truly enlightened individuals, when they proceed forward firmly on their path, not allowing themselves to be deterred by life’s obstacles. Many souls and worlds are blessed through their efforts. But everything depends on the purity of his character and humility.
“Let him not distract his mind with the question that always rises to weaken the resolve of those who are destined for the inner quest, that in following his holy leanings he will not find time to attend to his own affairs, to the needs of his family and the world around him, and to the other disciplines of Torah concerned with action, nor find time for the study of Gemara, doing kind deeds, and for the refinement of character traits. All doors will open for him, for all of his needs, in both the spiritual and practical side of his life, only if he continues to cleave to his inner roots, to the dimension of Torah which is unique to his soul, devoting himself with a constant yearning for inner enlightenment and the quest for perfection. It is precisely the one who engages himself in the study of Torah for its own sake who merits great reward.
“However, if he should sever himself from his source, and wander about drawing water from other wells, he will drift from ocean to ocean, from one stream to the next, to the very end of the earth, but he will find no rest. Wandering from place to place, he will be like a bird who strays from its nest.
“Thus, a person must always find courage in Hashem and trust in the God of his life, who created his soul within him, with a singular disposition and penchant for holiness, trusting that this is the one-and-only gateway to discover what he seeks.”
The Influence of the Holy
“The knowledge of the Divine attained by the holy seekers of Hashem is the foundation for of the spiritual illumination which appears in the world and in all hearts. The holy men, those pure of thought and idea, attach themselves, in their inner being, to the spiritual goodness which fills all things. All the secrets which are revealed to them comes as an illuminance of light, a revelation of the Divine, which infuses the world with eternal life and spiritual sustenance, granting stability to all existence with the radiating effulgence of its goodness. This life-giving light constantly flows from the source of the Torah, which graces the world with illumination from the most exalted realm of the Divine.
“These men of upright hearts are the channels through which light and life flow to everything in Creation. They are the vessels which spread the light of everlasting life. They are the servants of Hashem who carry out His Word, messengers who perform His Will to revive those near death, to fortify the weak, to awaken those who slumber. And they cry out in the Name of the Lord, the Master of the Universe, who says to all creatures, ‘Live and rejoice in all of the good; rise up and ascend higher and higher.’”
“It is not the goal of the highest levels of secret knowledge to be disseminated throughout the world in a quantitative manner, whose knowledge is accessible to the masses. This is impossible. If the masses become familiar with its external expression they will remain ignorant of its inner meaning, and this will impact the world in a negative fashion. However, it is imperative that this exalted knowledge be acquired by those graced with the precious penchant for mystical contemplation. These individuals, by their elevated state of spirituality, uplift the world from its lowliness by the mere fact of their existence, and not by any concrete action. The exalted secrets of the inner world remain their treasure, without the need to reveal them.
“So too, the overall goal of Am Yisrael in the world is not the mechanical, widespread dissemination of teachings and their influence on mankind, but rather the faithful adherence to its own unique treasures. This, in and of itself elevates humanity, by the gift and blessing of its presence within the brotherhood of man. In a parallel manner, the practical guidance set forth by the Prophets of Israel, calling upon the nations of the world to ascend to Jerusalem to learn the ways of Hashem (Isaiah, 2:3), this is a formula for the realm of practical action, which is a lower level of prophecy. The higher level of vision, ‘Aspaclaria,’ characterized by the teaching of Moshe, proclaims: ‘If you will indeed heed My Voice, and safeguard My Covenant, then you will be My treasured possession amongst all peoples; for all of the earth is Mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy Nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Children of Israel,’” (Shmot, 19: 5-6).