Controversy has raged in Israel over the election of a chief rabbi, with many even questioning whether there still is a need for such a position. But once upon a time the position was filled by a giant – a man possessed of deep knowledge and remarkable compassion.
His name was Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zt”l.
There is a popular garden restaurant in Jerusalem, frequented by tourists and locals alike. To reach it, you walk down HaRav Kook Street and turn into an alley, walking past the restored house where Rabbi Kook and his family lived. The house has been refurbished as a museum, though it is quite a modest abode.
Rav Kook built bridges of understanding between Jews. His very life was a shining example of love for all Jews, no matter their level of observance.
He was born in Latvia in 1865. Eretz Yisrael was always fundamental to his faith and in 1904 he moved to Palestine, where he was appointed chief rabbi of Jaffa.
He happened to be in Berlin for an Agudat Yisrael conference when World War I broke out. Stranded in Europe, he managed to get to Switzerland and then Britain, where he was active in the campaign for a Jewish homeland that led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. When he returned to Palestine in 1921, he became the country’s first chief rabbi.
His dream was to reach out to every Jew, even the most secular, and he traveled all over the country visiting the pioneers who were building settlements in the Galilee and Jezreel Valley. He loved them because he saw them as part of the rebuilding of a Jewish nation.
For twelve years he lived in the nondescript home I recently visited – from 1923 until his death in 1935. He resided on the upper level and turned the hall into a yeshiva and bet midrash until larger premises were built in 1968 in Kiryat Moshe. The yeshiva, Mercaz HaRav, perpetuates his philosophy and his vision.
His quiet, bookish way of life is evident in his restored home, which now contains an archive of his manuscripts and letters, a library of his works, and a small synagogue. Visitors can also view a film showing his life during the days leading to the birth of the state of Israel.
The garden and courtyard where his house stands convey the feel of those early days and the unpretentious lifestyle he favored. When you watch the film of his life’s work you feel humbled, for here was a great man whose outreach to all Jews is a shining example of tolerance – something so badly needed in these days of deep and bitter division among our people.