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October 22, 2014 / 28 Tishri, 5775
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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Ten: Rabbi Kook

Tevye book cover

Good to his word, Aharon succeeded in securing the red immigration cards that the Jews needed to become foreign residents of Turkish Palestine. Theoretically, the permits allowed them to live and work in the country without fear of expulsion, but the permits could be revoked at the whim of a nasty official. When their one day of welcome at Rishon LeZion expired, the pioneers once again gathered their belong- ings and set off like gypsies on the road to Jaffa. Like a make-believe emperor, Dupont stood in his carriage at the entrance to the colony, making sure that all of the newcomers vacated his vassal state. The religious Jews headed for Zichron Yaakov to arrange for absorption in one of the “frum” religious JCA settlements, while the Zionists went off to find work in secular kibbutzim.

Tevye and his family set off for the historic reunion with Hodel. Ruchel and Nachman had been granted a two day vacation before they had to report back to Rishon, so they were traveling with Tevye to Jaffa. They had rented a Company wagon, and everyone crowded inside.

The morning after the wedding, it was impossible to tell what shone more brightly, Nachman’s face or the sparkling sun of the Holy Land. As the Rabbis of the Talmud had said, “When a man finds a wife, he finds a blessing.” Yesterday, Nachman was a youth. Today, he was a man. Ruchel too was all smiles. Now that she was married, she had to cover her hair with a kerchief, which gave her a special “grown up” status. All the morning, she kept her head lowered to hide her continuous blush.

Tevye sat between the bride and groom, at the helm of the wagon. He was in a jubilant mood. Not only had his Ruchela married a scholar, a real Talmid Chacham, but he himself had undergone a miraculous transformation. It seemed liked a dream, but here he was, holding a pair of reins in his hands, driving a horse and wagon, not in Czarist Russia, but in God’s chosen land! And who could tell what other wonders were in store? According to the great Bible commentator, Rashi, God’s promise to Abraham included not only the Land of Israel, but children, affluence, and fame. Though an aging widower like Tevye could not expect any more children, he certainly was not loathe to the prospect of receiving a modest fortune and world renown. Nonetheless, he was happy with what he had. With hardly a ruble in his pocket, Tevye felt like a very rich man.

So high were Tevye’s spirits, he didn’t seem to notice the desolation around him. All of the landscape was scorched. There were more rocks on the road than on the bordering hillsides. A shade tree could barely be found. The scant vegetation which managed to grow in the wasteland was shrouded in dust, like old furniture stored in an attic. Besides an occasional bedouin, not a human being could be seen along the entire stretch of their journey.

Nachman also felt joyously happy. With an unrestrained enthusiasm, he didn’t stop talking. He didn’t speak about his new wife. Nor did he chatter about his wedding. Nor about being in Israel. He spoke on and on about Rabbi Kook. With a look of mystical rapture, he confessed that meeting Rabbi Kook was the dream of his life. Any other woman besides Ruchel might have been jealous, but she was happy that his dream was about to come true. Tevye was more anxious to get on to the reunion with Hodel, but Nachman would not be dissuaded. Nachman insisted that they meet Rabbi Kook. First, he wanted to receive the exalted Rabbi’s blessing. Second, he wanted to hear everything he could from the respected sage. To understand the great spiritual adventure they were living, Nachman insisted, they had to meet the mentor of their generation, the rabbi of rabbis, HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook.

Tevye was skeptical. He had met lots of rabbis in his lifetime, and though he respected them all, he didn’t see a big difference between one Torah scholar and the next.

“What great spiritual adventure?” Bat Sheva asked.

“The redemption of our people,” Nachman answered.

“Being kicked out of your village, murdered, and exiled from country to country is not what I call redemption,” the willful girl responded.

“She has a point,” Tevye agreed.

“You’ll understand when Rabbi Kook explains it to you,” Nachman assured.

“Why must I understand? Aren’t the pains in my back and the aches in my feet enough learning for a lifetime?”

“That’s just the physical side of our life. There is a whole spiritual reality as well.”

Tevye didn’t see anything spiritual in milking a cow at four in the morning, but he didn’t want to get into a mystical argument with his new son-in-law. The milkman from Anatevka was a simple Jew, not a Kabbalist. It was enough for him to serve the Lord with gladness and a peasant’s simple faith, believing that everything was in the hands of His Creator. Life was a never-ending series of trials, with joyous occasions scattered like bread crumbs along the road, to give a man hope and the strength to continue. A Jew had to stick to the Torah and thank the Almighty for both the good and the bad. As King Solomon had said, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the sum of man.” Anything more, like Nachman’s talk of redemption and the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, only gave Tevye a headache.

After several long hours of travel, they reached the port city of Jaffa. In contrast to the barren desert landscapes which they had left behind, the noisy congestion of Jaffa came as a welcomed sight. Narrow streets and alleyways were infested with man and beast. Arab porters scurried in every direction, laden with fleeces of wool, copper vessels, and Persians rugs. Caravan drivers led their camels toward the market. The aroma of oriental spices and teas perfumed the air. Vendors cried out, selling their wares from booths on the street. Turkish soldiers with bayonetted rifles strutted through the crowds, keeping order. Crippled beggars stuck out their hands for money, and dark-faced Africans and Moslems offered juice drinks from jugs strapped over their backs. The cobblestone pavement was soiled with sheep dung and donkey droppings. Flies swarmed everywhere. They stuck to Tevye’s beard, unfazed by his swats and his curses. Only when the Jews made their way through the teeming city toward the harbor did an ocean breeze rescue them from their furious attackers.

The roadway along the port was congested with carts loading and unloading merchandise. Dozens of sun-bleached rowboats were tied to the wharf, while schooners and four-chimneyed freighters lay anchored further out to sea. Tevye pulled alongside a wagon laden with wine barrels and driven by Jews. Nachman greeted them and asked the way to Rabbi Kook’s house. They answered in Russian and pointed down the roadway to a cluster of houses at the outskirts of the port.

Soon, more and more Jews could be seen as they approached the white-cottaged neighborhood. Many of the faces were so dark and oriental that Tevye wondered if they were Jewish. Some wore the same caftans and turbans of the Arabs. Other Jews, paler in complexion and recognizably Ashkenazim, were dressed like Russian workers with vests, caps, and bushy beards. Everyone they asked seemed to know where the Rabbi of Jaffa lived. In his excitement, Nachman jumped down from the wagon and ran on ahead. The Rabbi’s wife showed them into the house. She said that the Rabbi was resting, but he appeared in a doorway at the far end of the parlor, eager to greet his guests as if he had been expecting their arrival.

Nachman rushed forward and bowed, grasping the Rabbi’s outstretched hand. Rabbi Kook was dressed formally in a long black frock. A black fur-lined shtreimel covered his head like a crown. What astonished Tevye were his eyes. In the depths of their piercing blackness, a light shone with a mystical radiance. When he glanced at Tevye, the humble milkman felt that his secrets lay open before him like playing cards spread out on a table. The great Torah scholar smiled at the newcomers and wished them a pleasant shalom. His eyes glowed with kindness, but at the same time, they were incredibly serious. The Rabbi’s glance seemed to say, “My friend, Tevye, I love you like a brother, but we both know that being a Jew isn’t so simple.”

The holy sage invited the men into his book-filled study. Tevye suggested to Hevedke that he stay outside to guard the wagon. Rabbi Kook said it wasn’t necessary, the neighborhood was safe, but Tevye insisted. He wanted to discuss the delicate matter of Hevedke and Hava in privacy. With a glance at the fair Russian poet, Rabbi Kook understood. Ushering Tevye, Nachman, and Goliath into his study, he asked his wife to kindly prepare them some tea.

Tevye guessed that he was several years older than the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, but he felt like a young man in his presence. The Rabbi’s aura of wisdom and piety commanded unquestioned respect. Tevye had the feeling that he was in the presence of a king. Whether it was the Rabbi himself, the library of holy books, or something more mystical, Tevye didn’t know, but the awe of the High Holy Days pervaded the room.

With genuine interest, the Rabbi asked where they had lived before their arrival in Israel. He had of course heard about the terrible pogroms sweeping through Russia, and he was visibly chagrined to hear about the murder of Nachman’s father, may the Almighty revenge his spilled blood. He himself had studied in the Yeshiva of Volozin, and he dreaded that the great Torah center would also fall prey to the ever-spreading attacks.

“We have to understand that the time has come for the Jewish people to return home to Zion,” he said. “God has decreed. The ingathering of the exiles is at hand. We can choose to hear the shofar of freedom calling us back to Zion on our own, or we can be compelled to hear it by the Czars and Cossacks of the world. I fear in my innermost being that if we don’t hear the call of our prophets; if we don’t actualize the words of our prayers to return to the Land of our forefathers and rebuild our ancient cities; if we close our eyes to the expulsions and murders which come upon us every day in the exile; if we cling to foreign lands and foreign rulers and foreign ways, then a wave of horrible violence will come upon us, more devastating than anything we have experienced before.”

The Rabbi’s eyes blazed as if envisioning some unspeakable horror beyond the walls of his study. Tevye trembled. Nachman sat breathlessly listening to every word.

“The spirit of Israel is awakening,” the Rabbi continued. “The soul of our nation is demanding its own Land. Zion is to become a beacon of light to the world, and we who are fortunate to hear the voice of our forefathers calling to us from the past, it is our job to teach others to hear the call too.”

“I am only a simple milkman,” Tevye confided. “I came to Eretz Yisrael because my daughter is here with her husband on some communist kibbutz in the north.”

“You have come home to Zion for much more than that,” the Rabbi answered with a smile in his eyes. “The Almighty has chosen you, Reb Tevye, to be one of the builders, one of the pioneers. In this generation, in this monumental time of our national rebirth on our holy, ancient soil, there can be no simple milkmen, no simple Jews. Each one of us is called upon to be like a thousand until all of our scattered brethren flock here to join us.”

“Even if I understood all of the things which your honor is saying, I don’t think my atheist son-in-law would listen.”

“No Jew is an atheist,” Rabbi Kook answered. “No matter how confused our young people are with foreign ideas and creeds, the Jewish soul is always pure. Sometimes our eyes are blind and our ears are deaf, but our inner souls long for our God and our Torah. We carry the flame of our heritage eternally within our hearts. Nothing can extinguish it, not even two-thousand years of darkness and exile. If your son-in-law doesn’t listen, then his children, or his children’s children will. The repentance of our nation is promised. `For from Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem.’ In the light of this great beacon shining out from Jerusalem, all of mankind will come to recognize the Kingship of God over the earth.

What could Tevye do but nod his head and agree? He had never heard a rabbi speak before in such an exalted manner. Usually, you went to the rabbi to ask him how to slaughter a chicken, not for a philosophical discourse on the salvation of the whole human race. In a way, Rabbi Kook spoke in the visionary style of Perchik and Ben Zion, but where they were full of senseless babble, the Rabbi was unquestionably graced with the word and spirit of God.

“With the honorable Rabbi’s permission,” Tevye ventured to ask. “It is true that in Russia, we common Jews never thought much further than making a living and getting to sleep at the end of the day. We were content to receive whatever crumbs we could from the Czar, and observe the Sabbath in peace. I was blessed with seven wonderful daughters, but to put bread on the table, I spent more time with my horse and my cow. When I looked up from my milking, modern times had set in, and my daughters had been seduced by its charms. One girl is in America. Another, may God shelter her, has drowned. My poor Tzeitl’s husband dropped dead. My Hodel ran off with a Marxist free thinker. And Bat Sheva, I am afraid, has fallen in love with a Zionist Rasputin. Only Ruchel, who has just married Nachman, has merited a life filled with Torah. The girl you saw outside, my Havala, ran off with the Russian you saw in your salon, breaking my heart and the heart of my tortured wife, Golda, may her memory be for a blessing. Now, against all of my wishes and threats, this very same Galagan has followed us here, at the risk of his life several times over. All he talks about is properly marrying my daughter and becoming a Jew. I ask your advice. What is a father to do?”

The Rabbi glanced over at Nachman.

“His heart is set on converting,” Nachman answered. “Not only because of the girl. The pogroms in Russia seemed to have affected him deeply. Even when some of our traveling companions gave him a beating, he still insisted on following us. I told him he would have to study, and he agrees, even if it means being separated from Hava.”

“We can find him a place in Jaffa if he is truly willing to learn for a year,” the Rabbi said, turning toward Tevye. “The heart must be filled with a love for all people. Feelings of hatred must be directed against wickedness only, not against people. We must always remember that there is a spark of godliness in everyone.”

Tevye was not certain that the Rabbi’s answer was the solution he wanted to hear. But at least a year in some yeshiva would keep Hevedke away from his daughter. Before they left Rabbi Kook’s study, the Rabbi gave Tevye his special blessing as a Kohen, a member of the ancient priestly class.

“Perhaps, your honor, the Rabbi, could give a poor milkman a blessing that I find suitable husbands for the rest of my daughters?”

Once again, the Rabbi’s eyes glimmered when he gave Tevye the blessing he asked for. Nachman lingered for a few extra minutes to tell the Rabbi about his teacher’s position in Rishon LeZion. The sage seemed especially pleased with this news. It meant that the light of Torah in the Holy Land was growing along with the orchards and vineyards. As Rabbi Kook led Nachman out of the room, he invited the young scholar to visit him on the holidays so that they could learn Torah together. More than anything else in the world, this was what Nachman wanted to hear.

Rabbi Kook escorted them to the porch, said good-bye, and called for Hevedke to enter. With a look of surprise on his face, the tall Russian walked up the stairs, glancing back for a last look at Hava. When the door closed behind him, Tevye told his daughters to climb back into the wagon.

“What about Hevedke?” Hava asked.

“Hevedke is becoming a yeshiva bocher,” her father said.

“What do you mean?” Hava demanded.

“He’s starting his studies today.”

“Isn’t he coming with us?”

“No. He’ll be staying here in Jaffa, in the yeshiva of Rabbi Kook.”

“For how long?” Hava asked.

“At least for a year. Isn’t that what we agreed?”

“Will I be able to visit?”

“No, not while he’s learning. The halacha-law forbids it.”

“Is Jewish law everything?” the girl protested.

“Yes,” her father replied.

“What about emotions? Aren’t they important?”

“They certainly are. In the right place, in the right time, and with the right person.”

“Can’t I even say good-bye?”

“No,” Tevye said. “Until Hevedke becomes a Jew, being together is out of the question.”

It hurt Tevye’s heart to say it, but he kept his face frozen in a stern, disapproving expression. It was best for the girl. After all, the experiment could fail. In the end, it might turn out that Hevedke’s love for Hava outweighed his love for the Torah. Until he proved himself in the purifying crucible of a yeshiva, where the Torah was learned day and night, all of his proclamations had as much substance as wind.

Hava stared at her father. She bit down on her lip. If this was the way it had to be, so be it. If this was a test, she was ready. If this was the way she could atone for the mistakes of her past, she would wait two years if she had to. Once, she had recklessly rushed off to be with Hevedke, and now, to make amends, she would have to wait a long time. With her heart pounding inside her, she turned away from the house of the Rabbi and stared out at the road. She wanted to be strong. For Hevedke’s sake. To give him a genuine chance to earn her father’s blessing.

About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." For the past several years, he has written a popular and controversial blog at Arutz 7. A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press


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