The writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook are always insightful and inspiring, sometimes difficult to understand. His voice was unique and poetic, yet he might have benefited from access to an editor or publisher. Or more to the point, we would have benefited, as it remains difficult to navigate his work even in the present day. Rav Kook’s writings defy boundaries and stylistic conventions; they also leap between subject matter and ideas as the proverbial gazelle of the high places. Wandering into the pathways of his original thought is always edifying but rarely oriented towards a distinct topic or destination. It is therefore extremely helpful when scholars put together a coherent collection of Rav Kook’s thoughts on a distinct subject.
In 5780, the periodical Nitzanei Eretz published an issue collecting essays on Elul and teshuva by great leaders of the intellectual heritage of Mercaz HaRav, under whose auspices the journal was published. Included in these was a series of Shabbat Shuva sermons from Rav Kook himself. Some of these are dated and some are not, but they likely span the years 1900-1904. This would have immediately predated his arrival in Israel as the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa in 1905.
It is unusual for Shabbat Shuva to fall on Parshat Ha’azinu as it does this year, but this was the case in October of 1902. So that is likely the date of the sermon Rav Kook gave with an epigraph from the second pasuk of the parsha, employed here as the title to this week’s column. Rav Kook addresses the beginning of Ha’azinu – in particular, from the perspective of his philosophy of nature that would remain a prominent motif in his writings as he matured and developed in the Land of Israel. He ties these pesukim and ideas into the idea of teshuva as a necessary aspect of human existence.
Rav Kook examines the opening concepts of the parsha: The heavens should listen, the earth will hear, teachings fall like rain and sayings soak in as the dew. He explains that in our world, we find things in a pure state of nature and we also see them altered by the intervention of men. Our science and industry are necessary aspects of our emergence as a species, but there is a certain amount of defilement – of abuse of nature – that results. Through our industry we depart from the pure state in which we were created, and eventually, if we want to realize our potential as creative and spiritual beings, we must return to a pure state through our own agency.
The heavens listen, Rav Kook explains, because the heavens represent our pure, unsullied natural state. But the earth hears and it doesn’t understand – the earth is base and dirty, it accepted the murdered body of Hevel, and it was cursed with the first man after he ate the forbidden fruit. Before the curse of Adam, the tree and the fruit were the same; it was only because of his violation of the pure laws of nature that it became necessary for fruits to grow on trees as separate entities. We too have become separated from our essence and sometimes produce “fruit” that we don’t recognize and that are not worthy of our true spiritual selves.
As human beings we embody both of these characteristics and we vacillate between them. Sometimes we are actualized as spiritual beings and our consciousness is in the heavens, pure and clean. Sometimes we are dragged down by our moral failures and the weakness of our will until we crawl in the mud and the dirt like beasts. The words of Hashem reach us wherever we might be, providing us with an opportunity to return to their source.
In another Shabbat Shuva sermon from a prior year, Rav Kook spoke about how the best teshuva comes from love of Hashem and desiring to come closer to Him. There is another sort of teshuva that is born of shame and regret in the knowledge that we have done wrong. But for many, perhaps even most of us, teshuva is precipitated only by suffering when we experience misfortune as a result of our own poor choices. Rav Kook assures us that even this, and especially this – the remorse born out of punishment – comes from Hashem’s great love for us. He wants us to return to Him, to become the people he created us to be, so he gives us the impetus we require in order to achieve our potential.
Whether we are high like the sky or low as the earth, falling as the rain or emerging with the dew, the words of Hashem lead us to the best version of ourselves. They show us the path to return to Hashem, no matter where they find us or how low we might have fallen.