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From the World of Rabbi Kook
“On the day of our receiving the Torah, which we celebrate with the joy of such profound holiness, we have to remember that not only willingly did we undertake the Torah yoke, but under the coercion of the mountain threatening to smash us. And through this act, the Torah was engraved deep within us.”  (Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah, p. 166)

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Rabbi Dov BegonFounder and Head of Machon Meir
Message for Today: “My Spirit…and My Words…Will not Leave Your Mouths, or the Mouths of Your Children”

At the Sinai Revelation, “Moses led the people out of the camp toward the divine presence. They stood transfixed at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). Rashi comments, “The mountain was torn from its place and overturned upon them like a wash basin. G-d said, ‘if you accept the Torah, fine. Otherwise, this shall be your burial place” (Shabbat 88a). And why did G-d overturn the mountain upon them in this way? To make known the Torah’s virtue, that Israel cannot survive without it. Had Israel accepted the Torah willingly, they would say that it is not essential and they can get along without it. After all, they received it of their own free will and they could have rejected it just as well. G-d therefore overturned the mountain upon them, to show that Israel cannot survive without the Torah, just as the world cannot exist without the Torah (see Maharal, Gur Arye),

In the Talmud it says of King Hezekiah, “He drove a sword into the door of the study hall and he said, ‘Whoever is not studying Torah will be impaled with this sword.’ A search was made from Dan to Beersheva and…no one, child or adult, was found to be unfamiliar with Jewish law…” (Sanhedrin 94b).

Rav Kook had a vision of “our nation being rebuilt and consolidated, regaining its strength and resuming all aspects of its life as a nation.” This, he said, would occur “by way of their faith and reverence, their divine, hallowed, noble content spreading, gaining control, developing and becoming strong. All the nation’s builders will arrive at the profound truth of this point” (Orot HeTeshuvah 15:11). And how will the nation return to its spiritual nature? “Through mass Torah learning, through schools to raise up Torah scholars and other schools where the masses can learn Torah on a regular basis.”

Today, in the Jewish People’s process of rebirth, we can distinguish between two stages. The first is the ingathering of the exiles and the establishment of a Jewish state. The second stage is spiritual rebirth, fulfillment of the prophetic promise, “I will sprinkle pure water upon you….A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you” (Ezekiel 36:25-6). This refers to the renewal of prophecy in Israel, as Rav Kook wrote: “The great repentance that will revive the nation, and that will bring redemption to Israel and to the world, will be repentance that derives from the ruach hakodesh [prophetic intuition] that abounds amongst them” (ibid. 97). And what will lead to this spiritual renewal and rebirth? Torah learning.

The day is not far off when Israel, willingly and agreeably, will enact a Torah Education Law. All Jewish children will learn Torah, which is the heritage of the entire Jewish People, just as it was given at Sinai to all of Israel. Then, with our own eyes we will see the fulfillment of the divine promise, “This is My covenant with them’ – says the L-rd: ‘My spirit shall be upon you and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your children, nor from the mouth of your children’s children– henceforth and forever” (Isaiah 69:20-21) With blessings for a joyous Shavuot and looking forward to complete salvation,

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Shlomo AvinerChief Rabbi of Beit El
“Should One Adopt Strictures?”

I feel a strange feeling inside. I want to be stringent! Actually, what’s so strange? Surely the rabbis are always writing, “Whoever takes the strict approach is worthy of blessing.” Who doesn’t want a blessing? Yet I immediately stop and say to myself, “If that is my motive, then it’s for me and not for G-d. I’m still only out for myself, so what have I gained?

Yet I quickly recover and quietly decide, all the same, to take the strict approach – it is surely a higher level of serving G-d. Who doesn’t want to be on that high level? Obviously, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato wrote (Mesilat Yesharim, Ch. 13)), not everyone merits to be “Parushim” or “Chassidim”. A “Parush” is one who adopts strictures that involve abstaining from that which is permissible. A “Chassid” is one who adopts strictures involving fulfilling that from which he is exempt. All the same, the special elite who sit before G-d, longing to merit His closeness, have a need to adopt strictures, and I want to be amongst those elite. Therefore I adopt strictures. Well and good!

Then an inner thought strikes me: “Stop man! Do you enjoy jumping to a level that is inappropriate for you? Please open up Mesilat Yesharim, Ch. 14 and see what ‘perishut’ [abstinence] means.” I read: “Perishut covers three spheres. First, there is perishut in law, i.e., to be always strict wherever there is controversy.” I’m not ready for that. I am ready to undertake some of the strictures, for example with food, since it is possible to acquire “mehadrin” products that taste good and cost no more. I therefore thought I would adopt strictures involving food. But to be strict on EVERY controversy? That’s not for me. Second, Perishut means setting oneself apart from society, abstaining from speech, isolating oneself a lot and constantly engaging in serving G-d. That isn’t me either. I also like doing all sorts of things for my own sake. Third, abstinence from pleasure, taking from the world only small portions, in accordance with what is essential, regarding food, clothing, entertainment and other pleasantries. Not for me!

At this point, I started to think: So why am I really doing all of this? Then I chanced upon Chapter 20 of Mesilat Yesharim, which is about “Chassidut”. There it states: Consider well before you adopt strictures. Be very careful. Perhaps it is your evil impulse talking. You are liable to think that a lot of things are good deeds when they are really sins.” Heaven help me! How sophisticated that evil impulse is! He disguises himself as the good impulse, camouflaging sins as good deeds. I thought it was the good impulse pulling me towards strictures, but it was the evil impulse!
I continue reading: For example, you run to do a mitzvah, and this puts you in competition with others, and starts a quarrel. Score one for the evil impulse! Or, suppose that someone is acting improperly and I let him have it, and the result is that the situation worsens. Score another! There is also a story about a very great rabbi, Rav Tarfon, who adopted strictures like Bet Shammai, and he was severely castigated because he was impinging on the authority of Bet Hillel, undermining the people’s faith in them.

Perhaps that happened as well. Perhaps one time through my strictures I denigrated someone. One time I saw that in the Jerusalem Talmud it says that a precondition for adopting a stricture is that no should be shamed as a result. Here I start to feel bad. A friend told me a true story about a rabbi who was invited by another rabbi to a joyous affair. When the host honored him by offering him a particular food, the guest refused, explaining that he didn’t trust the kashrut of that food item. The host then locked the doors, confronted the guest and threatened, “You’re going to eat, or I’ll break a chair over your head!” Very nice! If the guest doesn’t trust the kashrut, let him not come, but he has no right to be insulting.

Yes, if I am honest with myself, sometimes I adopt strictures not to bring joy to G-d but to leave the impression that I am a tzaddik. Some people put on airs by way of their wealth, others by way of their wisdom, still others by way of their valor or beauty, and still others by way of their religiosity. Arrogance. Religious ostentation. The evil impulse is really clever. If it told me, “Do a sin!” I wouldn’t listen. So it drags me to do a “mitzvah” of sorts. I’ve noticed that sometimes I crave a mitzvah precisely in the presence of others. And even when it happens in private, I feel pride within me. I saw in Mesilat Yesharim that pride is abominable even when it is inside.

This principle, that strictures sometimes serve to cover up for wickedness, I learned from my teacher, by way of a shocking anecdote. A woman came to him and asked, “Is my coat kosher for Pesach?” He looked at her incredulously. “Really!” she insisted. “I sewed buttons on it using the same needle with which I sewed up a bag that had been used to hold chametz.” My Rav cleared his throat and replied, “Let me tell you a story. A man came to a rabbi and asked, “I found a rope in the street. Should I return it?” “Yes you should,” the rabbi replied. “Rabbi, the rope was tied to a horse.” “So return the horse as well.” “Rabbi, horses don’t wander around free. It was pulling a wagon.” “Nu, so return that too.” “Yet there’s no wagon that’s just left empty. It was holding a treasure.” “So return the treasure!” “But you don’t understand! There were people inside!” “What did you do with them?’ the rabbi shouted.” “I killed them!” “Why did you kill them?” the rabbi shouted, “Why did you kill?”

At this point, the woman said, “Yes! I, too, committed murder…I killed the baby that was born to me out of wedlock…” My rabbi had sensed that the woman’s excessive strictness was serving to cover up something serious.

By the way, make no mistake. My teacher keeps many strictures, but for him it is truly appropriate, for he is a great man, and righteous in all. By contrast, I am small, and I tell myself, “Not everyone who wishes to pass as a scholar may do so.” One time it happened that we both had army reserve duty together. In the dining room there was meat with regular kashrut supervision, and almost all of the soldiers ate it, and there was also “glatt kosher” meat. My teacher ate from the regular meat. I asked him, “Rebbe, don’t you prefer the strict path?” My teacher replied, “Here, I am being strict in preserving the dignity of my fellow Jews.”

Rabbi Elisha AvinerEducation Corner
“The Old and the New” (for Shavuot Night)

The Sefat Emet explains that the custom of learning on Shavuot Night is “in accordance with our sages’ dictum that ‘if you hearken to the old, you will attain the new’ (Berachot 40a). For that reason, on this night we must undergo the act of receiving once more the Torah that we learned previously. That constitutes preparation for us to learn new Torah” (Sefat Emet, Shavuot 640). On Shavuot Night we review our old learning in order to receive new learning henceforth in the morning.

Why is it that without reviewing the old we cannot merit the new? Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Ein Aya on Berachot 40a) explains that numerous motives are likely to lead a person to learn Torah. Some learn Torah out of great admiration for the Torah. Others do so out of curiosity, it being human nature to take an interest in the world at large, and to seek out new information. Rav Kook declares that no sort of curiosity suffices to help a person to amass Torah knowledge. Only one who learns out of love for it will be so privileged: “A special pre-condition for acquiring and understanding Torah is that one learn it out of love for Torah, per se, and for its holy worth.”

And what distinguishes between one who learns it out of love and one who learns it out of curiosity? The topic of study: One who learns out of curiosity, will only choose new topics. He won’t trouble himself to review his old learning, but will look for fascinating, new topics. Nonetheless, it is impossible to amass Torah knowledge without loving Torah per se, rather than loving it for the emotional or intellectual satisfaction that it provides. Whoever loves the Torah for its own sake, will also love his old learning and will ponder it time and time again.

Rav Kook further explains: “Even one’s old learning one should view daily as being new. ‘If you hearken to the old, you will attain the new’: By dint of one’s love of his old learning, and his true devotion to Torah, he will merit to have revealed to him the secrets of Torah, new and unique Torah lessons, which in turn will infuse him with the spirit to go on and learn still other new Torah lessons.”

There is old and there is new, and there is a third category: the renewal of the old. Regarding the special nature of that third category, Rav Kook would address his students at the beginning of the new semester of learning. His words were publicized by Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah: “Sometimes one has to express new thoughts, but other times one has to express precisely old thoughts but in new form. I think that talks about old thoughts expressed in new form are more important than talks about new thoughts. What is chiefly important in spiritual attainment is not the very novelty of the ideas being expressed, but the manner in which the person receiving the ideas is affected. Others might think an idea is already known, when it really is not. As the sefer Chovot HaLevavot teaches [in the section on G-d’s Oneness], each day we should view the Torah as new for us.”
Explanation: There are two types of novel ideas: 1. There are novel thoughts that foment a change in approach, a turning point, an entirely new insight. 2. There are novel thoughts that are based on old ideas, but through which new treasures are uncovered. Those old ideas can be viewed in a new light. They can adopt new forms. Rav Kook states that novel thoughts of the second type are more important. Why? Because “what is chiefly important in spiritual attainment is not the very novelty of the ideas being expressed, but the manner in which the person receiving the ideas is affected. Others might think an idea is already known, when it really is not.” In other words, in the world of spirit, the essence is not the external spark, nor the demonstrative aspect, but the inner content. A Torah saying can be known to all. It can be a familiar turn of phrase that no longer arouses excitement. The truth is, however, that only certain aspects of it will be well-known, while its depth will be hidden from the masses. If a Torah scholar comes along and reveals that depth, and many succeed in absorbing his message, that is a novel idea, even if no new foundation was created, but only its inner meaning, until now hidden from the masses, is now exposed to them. Likewise, there are Torah teachings uttered by the sages of old, that due to the passage of time and the change in style, we imagine to be obsolete and irrelevant to our spiritual universe. Yet a Torah scholar can come along, and he can remove their ancient garb and renew their form, exposing their timeless content and dressing them in an up-to-date style of explanation, until those words of Torah are found acceptable to those who hear them and have an influence on them. That is the true novelty.

Our sages bequeathed to us magnificent spiritual treasures of law and lore, faith and ethics. Nonetheless, the years have taken a toll. Manners of thought and expression have changed. New problems have arisen and it is they that concern us. As a result, parts of the Torah have become far removed from us. Therefore, there are those who seek to forge new pathways in the Torah, totally new ways that will provide a response to our present spiritual quandaries. Indeed, novel approaches of this sort are great and sometimes essential. Yet Rav Kook held that the greatest novelty of all is to provide new forms for the spiritual treasures of old, bequeathed to us by the great sages of Israel, from the distant and more recent past.

So declared the sefer Chovot HaLevavot as far as man’s faith in the One G-d. Man is required to delve deeply into this idea, develop his thoughts and to refine his thoughts again and again. True, the core remains the same – faith in the One G-d. Yet all progress in understanding the concept opens up new levels of faith, in comparison to which all the previous levels were lacking, such that one ultimately believes that only now he has achieved belief. The words remain identical, the turn of phrase is the same, yet the man’s faith has been rendered totally new. It therefore says, “If you hearken to the old, you will attain the new.” The new is not cut off from the old. Rather, it is a new development of the old. Therefore, only hearkening to the old can lead us to our attaining the new, to the old’s being renewed.

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