Rabbi David Samson, author of four commentaries on the teachings of Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, has just translated and written a commentary on Rosh Milin, a work by Rav Kook on the Hebrew alphabet. He recently spoke to The Jewish Press about the new book.
The Jewish Press: In what way is Rosh Milin different than other works on the Hebrew alphabet?
Rabbi Samson: Its approach is very different. Rav Kook maintains that the Hebrew letters form a 22-step process of spiritual development – for the individual and for the world. This process begins with alef, and develops, unfolds, and comes to fruition as it reaches tav.
Rosh Milin is a deep, cryptic map that takes us from who and where we are to what and who we can become.
Kabbalah teaches us that Hebrew is far more than just another language. Hebrew letters are like atoms. Rabbi Kook explains that they are the deepest, most fundamental building blocks of all existence.
Can you elaborate?
In the wisdom of the Kabbalah, letters are understood to be powerful, life-giving forces. Sefer Yetzirah teaches us that they were used to create heaven and earth. The Torah begins: “In the beginning, G-d created the (et) heavens and the (et) earth.” “Et” is spelled alef tav. Thus, the opening line in the Torah can be read as follows: “In the beginning, G-d created the alef and the tav.”
This means that even before the heavens and the earth, G-d created the alphabet. Bezalel knew how to combine the letters used in creation. It was this secret wisdom that enabled him to build the Mishkan (Berachot 55).
Rav Kook teaches that the Jewish soul is also composed of Hebrew letters. If we had a super, high-powered spiritual microscope and looked at a Jewish soul, we would discover the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Each letter has a deeper, living nature inspiring each individual ego and psyche. All of a Jew’s primary activities – whether in thought, will, deed, or imagination – stem from the letters of his soul. Different combinations of letters make for different types of souls. There are high-powered combinations, and there are souls of lesser might.
How does Rav Kook explain the letter alef?
He focuses on a perplexing phenomenon. The Hebrew word “alef” is actually derived from the Aramaic word “ulpan,” which means to teach. It’s as if the very first concept the alphabet teaches us can’t be expressed in Hebrew. It can only be expressed in Aramaic.
Rav Kook asserts that the meaning of alef is that its message is beyond comprehension. It’s inherently ungraspable and impossible to articulate. The alef is that which precedes creation – G-d, the creator, the source of all existence – and that’s absolutely transcendent and beyond even the slightest bit of comprehension.
The beginning of understanding – the alef of understanding – is to understand that our understanding only begins after we agree that it’s not understandable. Yet, though G-d Himself is unfathomable, He reveals something of Himself which can be taught, learned, and understood.
Alef corresponds to the number one. One stands alone. (Everything after one is plural. Our world is a world of two and beyond – a world of many, a world of dichotomy, categories, dimensions, and more.) But alef is also the number 1,000, which represents the opposite end of the spectrum. The number 1,000 is grand-scale multiplicity; 1 is anything but that.
We would think that we who inhabit the multifaceted land of 1,000 can never experience or touch Oneness. But that’s not exactly true. “Come,” the alef says, “I want to share a secret with you. You – man, and I – can almost touch.”
And that is the most remarkable and meaningful lesson that has ever been taught. There is a bridge, a path, that can be traveled that can bring us into some sort of proximity or relationship with The Ultimate: with the alef, The One.
Do we know why Rav Kook wrote the book?
In a letter to his son, he mentions an overwhelming force that compelled him to write it. At the time, he was stranded in London because of World War I, and he apologizes for undertaking the endeavor in the darkness of chutz l’aretz which lacks the clear Divine light and wisdom that hovers over Eretz Yisrael. He refers to the revelations in the book as cracks of sunlight shining through a thick wall.
Did he write it for every Jew?
In the letter, he makes clear that the book is intended for the select few who have successfully entered the world of Kabbalah. He expresses regret that he didn’t have time to explain matters in a form that laymen could understand.
Nonetheless, he states that the few people who understand it will impact the world in a positive way, and the people who don’t understand it will benefit by the added spiritual light that the teachings will bring to the world.
If the book was originally intended for experts in Kabbalah, why did you decide to translate the book into English?
I think many concepts of Kabbalah that were the exclusive treasure of the masters of the secrets of Torah in Rav Kook’s time have become common knowledge in our generation.
Certainly not everyone will grasp things immediately. But Rav Kook emphasized that the mere external familiarity with the secrets has great value in itself. In the course of time, as the novice continues learning, the abstract concepts will grow clearer.
In the meantime, reading the book and understanding that there are many things one doesn’t understand is a powerful lesson in humility which many of us need in order to put our inflated egos aside and embrace the teachings of our Sages.
Today, there are many Kabbalah societies, Kabbalah laymen groups on Facebook, etc. Is there any value to them considering that they’re obviously not teaching true Kabbalah?
This is not a simple yes-or-no question. It’s both good and bad. If someone looking for G-d finds enlightenment, it’s good. But if that person is not willing to improve faulty character traits and abandon unholy vices in the process, then the elixir of Torah – and especially Kabbalah – can turn into a poison for him or her.
G-d won’t open the windows to Torah secrets to people who are unwilling to clean up their personal lives or to those who learn it merely to be cool or to gain theoretical knowledge, as if they were studying physics. If a person is tainted with the traits of pride or lust, his understandings will likewise be tainted.
You can’t become a kabbalist just by reading books. Kabbalah comes from the word “to receive.” The secrets of Judaism are received from rabbi to student, through the diligent study of all disciplines of Torah, from halacha to agaddah, as well as the teachings of past masters of Kabbalah, along with constant work on perfecting one’s character and climbing the ladder of holiness. There are no shortcuts.
When did you start studying Kabbalah?
During my high school years in America, I learned in the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Baltimore. When I made aliyah at the age of 17, I enrolled in the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva where I studied under Rav Kook’s son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda, for 13 years.
At the age of 30, I felt a need to become familiar with the more esoteric levels of Torah, which Rav Kook encourages in his writings, especially for students who possess a strong inner compulsion for the secrets.
Since our Sages recommend that a person be at least 40 before beginning to learn Kabbalah, I went to Rav Raphael Levine, the son of Rav Aryeh Levine, to solicit his permission. He told me that a p’sak halacha was needed and sent me to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
Interestingly, Rav Kook helped the Elyashiv family make aliyah, and arranged the shidduch of the young Rav Yosef to the daughter of Rabbi Aryeh Levine, in addition to performing the kiddushin at the wedding.
Rav Elyashiv agreed to my request and even found times to teach me. Ever since then, in addition to teaching Gemara and acting as the principal of two religious high schools, I have continued to learn Kabbalah from several well-known kabbalists.