By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
In the year 5665 (1905), the Ridbaz made Aliya from the United States to take on the job of the rabbi of Tzefat. He was a friend of Rav Kook, and before he made the trip he wrote a letter to Rav Kook, ending as follows: “And I hope that I will meet with the one desired by my soul, the honorable rabbi, whose soul is linked to my soul.” However, in spite of their strong friendship, the Ridbaz fought very strongly against Rav Kook on many items, such as selling land to Gentiles before Shemitta and Rav Kook’s attitude toward sinners. He did not understand how Rav Kook could form a close relationship with sinners and still continue to pray, “Let there be no hope for apostates.” He therefore asked Rav Kook to explain his behavior. Rav Kook replied in a famous letter, no 555 in his published letters. His son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda noted that this number is the numerical value of the word “ Takanah” – a decree - a hint of the fact that the letter is a great decree which explains the unique traits of Bnei Yisrael.
Rav Kook explains that there are two main elements which form the basis for the link between Yisrael and G-d. One is “segulah” –innate characteristics of the people – which he defined as “an internal holy force which is part of the nature of the soul, as is desired by G-d.” The other element depends on the free choice of man, appearing as holiness that stems from good deeds and the study of Torah. While the power of the unique traits is infinitely greater than good deeds that are performed by choice, it has been decreed that the unique traits will be revealed in practice only through human actions. And it is G-d who organizes actions of the souls. At times the unique traits take precedence and at other times freedom of choice is most important. But the innate traits are always present. And that is the basis of the rule that “Even when a Jew sins he remains a Jew.”
Rav Kook explains the changes throughout the generations in his analysis of the epic poem sung after the crossing of the Red Sea, “Shirat Hayam,” in his book Olat Re’Iyah. It is written, “Until your nation will pass over, until this nation which you have acquired will pass over” [Shemot 15:16]. The sages have taught us, “Until your nation will pass over – that is the first return to the land. Until this nation which you have acquired – that is the second return.” [Sanhedrin 98b]. In the First Temple the innate uniqueness of the people was emphasized, and therefore there were open miracles in the Temple and through the prophets. Therefore this is linked to your nation, since the events took place because the people were the nation of G-d. However, in the second Temple there were no miracles and no prophecy, rather there was much Torah study and many rabbinical decrees. This is referred to as the nation which G-d acquired – taking possession through positive action. This corresponds to what is written in the introduction to Pirkei Avot: “All of Yisrael have a portion in the world to come, as is written, ‘your nation are all righteous’ [Yeshayahu 60:21].” Everybody in Yisrael, even the sinners, have a portion in the world to come. This is clearly because of their innate traits, and that is why it is written, “your nation are all righteous” – it is because they are your nation, because of their innate traits and not their specific good deeds.
Not everybody accepted Rav Kook’s way of thinking. Hillel Tzietlin tells about when he visited Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, who was sympathetic to the Zionist activities but continued to speak out against irreligious people. “The Rav of Yaffo (Rav Kook) tries to approach them in many ways, but that is not my position. He says that we should not judge them... because internally they are clearly better than their external appearance, since they are ready to give their lives for settling the land. This approach does not appear correct in my eyes. Why should we become involved with their spiritual traits? G-d can see into the hearts of man, but we as human beings can only act according to revealed matters, and we must make all of our rulings based on the halacha.”