Who is the Leading Rabbi of Our Times?
by HaRav Shlomo Aviner, Head of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim.
People are always saying: This Rabbi is the Gadol Ha-Dor or that Rabbi is the Gadol Ha-Dor, etc… Who is the Gadol Ha-Dor? The problematic word is not the word “Gadol – great,” we know who the great Torah scholars are. The problematic word is “Ha-Dor – the generation.” What is the meaning of “the generation”? Would a great Rabbi of one generation be the leader of another generation? Our Sages explain that Hashem showed the leaders and sages of each and every generation to Moshe Rabbenu until the time of the Messiah, as it says in Shir Ha-Shirim (1:8), “Follow the footsteps of the sheep (ikvei ha-tzon)” (Yalkut Shimoni, Shir Ha-Shirim #982). We learn from this that each generation has leaders which are appropriate for it. The leader of the generation is the right man in the right place at the right time. Everything is therefore dependent on the generation. The Vilna Gaon wrote in his book “Even Sheleimah” (chap. 11) that each generation has its virtues and its limitations, as well as the repentance it must perform based on the way Hashem is directing the world during its time. Each generation is directed differently. There was the generation of leaving Egypt, the generation of wandering in the desert, the generation of entering the Land of Israel, the generation of the Tana’im (the Rabbis of the Mishnah), the generation of the Amora’im (the Rabbis of the Gemara), the generation of leaving the Land and the generation of returning to the Land. Each generation has its role, challenges, obligations, and trials. When we want to speak about who is the Gadol Ha-Dor, we must therefore define the generation.
What is unique about our generation? Anyone who asks this question displays a lack of understanding. Our generation is unique as it is the generation of revival. Haven’t you noticed that the Land which was destroyed is now blooming like the garden of Hashem? Maybe it is happenstance? – It is not happenstance! It is the hand of Hashem. And haven’t you notice that the Land which was empty is now filled with millions of Jews? By chance? – It is not by chance! And haven’t you noticed that in the Exile we were enslaved to the non-Jews and now we are free? And haven’t you noticed that in each and every generation the non-Jews rose up to destroy us and now we have an army? – And let us see what happens if our enemies rise up. And you haven’t noticed that the economy is strong? And haven’t you noticed that the Torah is flourishing in the Land of Israel? You therefore see that Hashem has decided to return his Divine Presence to Zion. Someone who does not see this does know this generation and cannot lead the generation. He may be able to lead another generation, but not this generation.
Maran (our revered teacher) Ha-Rav Kook wrote in his letters (#378 and this famous letter also appears at the beginning of his work Orot Ha-Teshuvah) that there is a need to write a book of repentance which is appropriate for this generation. Someone who wants to write an innovative work about repentance with holiness and awe of Hashem can do so, but if he does not see the Revealed Redemption and the light of salvation shining, he is not able to bring out the truth of the Torah. This means that someone may be a great Torah scholar and an extremely righteous person, but if he does not notice that Hashem is doing something with this generation, he does not know this generation. It is therefore not by coincidence that the first book that Maran Ha-Rav Kook wrote when he made aliyah is called “Ikvei Ha-Tzon” (Footsteps of the Sheep). “If you do not know the beauty of the women” (Shir Ha-Shirim 1:8), i.e. if you do not know how to help this generation repent and how to lead them, “follow the footsteps of the sheep (ibid.),” i.e. you must understand the generation. The Torah – and any Torah ruling – must be based on two things: Knowledge of Torah, which is the essence, and knowledge of the reality around you. There is a story about a rabbi who was learning Torah with his father-in-law, who was great Torah scholar. They would learn, and if someone came with a question, the great Torah scholar would answer and they would return to learning. The great Torah scholar once went out for a bit and a woman entered with a question about her piece of meat. The son-in-law said: “Wait, wait, I am not the Rav, he will be back in an hour.” The woman said: “I can’t wait. My children are waiting to eat. I need an answer.” He had mercy, looked at the meat, found a contradiction between two laws in the Shulchan Aruch, came up with a solution, compared it to another ruling and gave a ruling. Just then, the great Torah scholar entered. The rabbi said: “Father-in-law, this lady came in with a liver, I looked at this meat, found a contradiction between these two laws in the Shulchan Aruch, came up with this solution, compared it to this particular law and ruled this way.” The father-in-law said: “Very good. There is only one problem: That is not a liver, it is a spleen.” A Torah ruling has two parts: knowledge of Torah and knowledge of the reality. Maran Ha-Rav Kook wrote in that letter that someone who does not see the light of salvation shining cannot reach the truth of the Torah.
Therefore, if we ask: who is the Gadol Ha-Dor? He is the great Rabbi of this generation, the one who knows and understands this generation, the generation of the most horrible catastrophe and the generation of the greatest revival. He is the unique Divine messenger to lead this generation. Baruch Hashem, there are many great Rabbis and we are happy about this fact, but Rav Kook is the Gadol Ha-Dor. The teachings of Maran Ha-Rav Kook comprise a system for building the generation which is reviving our Nation in our Land and teaching us how to insert a soul into this revival – a difficult task. One needs patience, as this revival progresses slowly and it can take generations. Our Rabbi, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah Ha-Cohain Kook, said that his father is not only the leader of this generation, but the leader of generations. And we hold on to the coattails of Maran Ha-Rav Kook and our Rabbi, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah, and continue to toil in the work of the national revival in our Land until the Complete Redemption arrives.