Rav Kook’s Different Dimensions

Rav Kook’s Different Dimensions

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:27 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 11:26-16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5
Havdalah: 8:26 p.m

‘We must see life in two dimensions, as it is and as it should be. Absolute righteousness is always rooted in how things should be, but provisional righteousness, which touches more on acting in the present, is built on how things actually are. … The two are connected, like alternating horizons on a long journey.” These are the words of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, pre-state Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, in his 1910 ruling on the shmittah, the laws of the Sabbatical year requiring a release of debts and that the land remain uncultivated every seven years.

The shmittah law itself seems one of the many balances between the absolute and the provisional that the Torah describes so well. The notion of shmittah is found earlier in Exodus 23:10-11 and Leviticus 25:2-6 but it has a different resonance here as the Israelites are readying themselves to enter the land.

We are told that “there will never cease to be poor among those in your land,” therefore the command: “open your hand to the poor” [Deut 15:11]. Rav Kook wrote that the entire land could be sold to fulfill this command because he believed in the value of assisting the struggling agricultural workers in the new settlements. According to Yehudah Mirsky’s recent biography, “Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution” (Yale University Press), Rav Kook believed that “residence in the Land of Israel is itself a mitzvah of the first order, and so to perform the mitzvah of the Sabbatical year at the cost of genuine socioeconomic injury to those living in the land is to set the Torah at cross-purposes with itself.”

Rav Kook’s intersection of the ideal and the real, though written over a hundred years ago, still characterizes the Jewish approach to the Land of Israel and our residence in it. This parsha tells us that God will “grant you rest from all your enemies around you, vishavtem betach, and you will dwell in security” [Deut 12:10], an ideal not always realized.

In the midst of this unit is a warning which gives off a sense of the relationship between these two dimensions of life, how they are and how we would like them to be. The text cautions against listening to a “prophet or a dreamer of dreams” [Deut 13:2] who predicts something correctly and yet is still a false prophet. Just because a sign or portent given by a false prophet is fulfilled does not make that individual a wholly justified representative of God. Following God is more complicated than following a leader saying what a society wishfully dreams to hear, these verses seem to be telling us.

In the modern world, shmittah could have new applications, in keeping with Rav Kook’s sense that we need to build on a sense of “provisional righteousness.” For those of us who are not farmers, what might it mean to let something lie fallow in the seventh year and to remit debts? Is that something we are even capable of?

Ruth Calderon, a teacher of Talmud and now member of the Israeli Knesset with the Yesh Atid party, has a sabbatical year project with three parts, educational, environmental and socioeconomic. She writes, “Underlying the project is the belief that the Sabbatical year, which will commence this coming Tishrei, is a big opportunity — a chance to renew this ancient concept in a way that will reflect our values of democracy, equality and compassion.”

There is also a group (ishmitah.org.il) led by Einat Kramer and Rabbi Michael Melchior trying to bring consciousness of the meaning of shmittah into Israeli society.

The parsha begins with the injunction of choice: “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse” [Deut 11:26]. We must be aware of both dimensions at the same time, to be aware that we can try to live in the dimension of blessing, in a world where debts are forgiven and sustenance found without working the land by the sweat of our brow, and at the same time aware that curses and evil and false prophets loom to erase that goodness.

Attempting to live according to good choices, while knowing that false ones exist, is the essence of living as Jews in the world. The Talmud says “Before God created the evil inclination, God created the Torah as its antidote”  [Bava Batra 16a]. The laws of the shmittah (that we have an opportunity to observe this coming year, 5775) are a perfect illustration of the holy paradoxes we strive to live with.

Let us hope, guided by the understanding of Rav Kook, that although we are not living on the plane of the perfected we can be aware of the existence of a world as it should be, that there is a way to make these dreams into things that are able to be more than provisional but to become fully realized and actual. 

Beth Kissileff  is a writer and journalist. She is editor of “Reading Genesis” (Continuum, 2015).

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