Silver from the Land of Israel
A New Light on the Sabbath and Holidays from Writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook
By Rabbi Chanan Morrison
Urim Publications, 2010, 271 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 15, 2010
This book is filled with gems: interesting, clever, and delightful moral lessons that were taught by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel. This is Rabbi Chanan Morrison's second book containing the teachings of Rabbi Kook. The first, Gold from the Land of Israel, published in 2006, was a compilation of Rabbi Kook's ideas on the weekly Torah portion. This volume offers his teachings on the Sabbath and holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, Chanukah, Purim, Passover, Israel Independence Day, Lag Ba'Omer, Jerusalem Day, Shavuot, and Tishah B'Av. The selections are short and to the point, usually only two or three pages each.
The writings are sermonic. They are morality lessons. As is true of virtually all sermons of all faiths, the sermons are not designed to inform readers and listeners what is in the Bible or what the true origin of a religious practice is, or what really happened in Jewish history. Sermons use a biblical verse, practice, or event as a spring from which to veer and to teach a homily that is really unrelated to the verse, practice, and event.
For example, in The Proper Time to Light, Rabbi Kook notes that women light Shabbat candles eighteen minutes before sundown. Why? Why not just before sundown, the time when the Shabbat begins? Without discussing the origin of the practice or when it started, or why the number eighteen is used, he states that there is a Midrash that he interprets to state that the cloud pillar, that led the Israelites during their forty year trek in the desert during the day, appeared shortly before the start of the day. Similarly, the fire-pillar that led the people at night appeared shortly before evening. The two overlapped. The rabbi suggests that this overlap provided "a continual point of reference for the people." He concludes: Lighting the Sabbath candles before the Shabbat commences demonstrates "that the Sabbath light casts its spiritual radiance over the other days of the week." This is good theology. It teaches proper behavior, to extend the message and spirituality of the Sabbath throughout the week. It is also interesting to see how Rabbi Kook was clever in developing it. But, as previously states, the practice of early Shabbat candle lighting did not begin to teach this moral. This is a sermon.
Readers also need to realize that Rabbi Kook was a mystic. His teachings are frequently based more on the sefirot than on science, on induction rather than deduction, and his messages are usually God rather than human-oriented, and are based on the idea that God is involved in the daily life of people.
For example, Rabbi Kook asks why Psalm 81:11 uses the present tense when it speaks about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The passage says: "I am the eternal your God who raises you up from the land of Egypt." His question ignores the fact that Scripture uses the present tense in hundreds of biblical verses when it refers to the past. He answers that the exodus from Egypt was not the significant divine act; it was the "act of elevation, lifting the souls of Israel." Thus, he continues, the verse from Psalms is not referring to an historical event. It "is a perpetual act of God, influencing and uplifting the Jewish people throughout the generations. There is no limit to this elevation, no end to our spiritual aspirations. The only limitations come from us." Again, whether readers agree with Rabbi Kook that God influences people, they will concur that the message that people need to strive to achieve all that they can is an important message.
Rabbi Morrison presents these lessons in easy to read language. He does not dwell on mystical notions. He presents the teachings as gems that will delight.