The Journey of the Jewish Nation - Part II (Ideas #95)

Rav Kook and the Birthpangs of the Mashiach


...It...was granted to Moshe...prophecy of undimmed clarity that discerned simultaneously the claims of general principles as well...(as) the exacting demands of the particulars. But there never arose another like Moshe...It was, therefore, needed to assign the...general principles to the prophets and...the particulars to the sages....

In the course of time the concern with the work of the sages predominated over the work of the prophets..... At the end of the present epoch, when the light of prophecy will begin to have its revival, there will develop a reaction, a pronounced disdain for the particulars....

This will continue until the radiance of prophecy will reemerge...not as unripe fruit, but as the first fruits full of vitality and life, and prophecy itself will acknowledge the great efficacy in the work of the sages, and in righteous humility exclaim: The sage is greater than the prophet. This transcending of one-sidedness will vindicate the vision of unity expressed by the psalmist.... The soul of Moshe will reappear in the world.

                                           Rav Kook, The Sage is Greater than the Prophet (Orot, pp. 120-1)

In the first part of The Journey of the Jewish Nation (Ideas #94), we identified a Hegelian understanding of Jewish history with the mystical approach of Rabbi Akiva. This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that one of the greatest recent heirs of the Jewish mystical tradition, Rav Kook, also echoes Hegel's view of history.

Rav Kook uses a most original dialectical approach in his writings about Jewish history. Rav Kook saw two dimensions in Judaism, the combination of which represents human perfection: 1) the larger propheticinspiration that calls us to do good in larger terms; and 2) the working out of particular legal details concerning how to accomplish these lofty goals. (Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks makes a similar distinction between the prophetic component and what he refers to as the priestly/halachic component.) On an individual level, this combination was attained in what we refer to as Torat Moshe (the Torah of Moshe), but collectively, this will only be achieved in messianic times.

For Rav Kook, Jewish history has not yet witnessed a true coexistence of these two components. Though halacha was present in Biblical times, it was clearly overshadowed by the larger perspective of the prophets; and while the prophetic component existed in post-Biblical times (albeit in non-prophetic garb), it was completely outweighed by the cognitive enterprise of working out the details.

It is actually the darkness of exile that forced us to remove ourselves from the inspiration of the prophets so that we could work on the particulars needed for the final light. The ancient Jewish state and the Mikdash served as the embodiment of great general principles. Zion was a place that marched to the beat of a completely different drummer and from the small Jewish state came the wellsprings of inspiration for the entire world. As long as the Jews were living a national existence, however, they could not properly focus on working out the details. Thus, in a natural path of history, there was an inevitable need to pass into the stage of exile in order to one day arrive at the final stage of redemption.

As was already mentioned, this entirely human road was the one chosen by the Jewish people on that fateful day in Av when they felt all too human, sending out scouts and accepting their emissaries’ negative conclusions based on human facts on the ground. Like other nations, the Jews too, would only progress through historical dialectics, involving destruction as well as greater rebirth. In this way, Galut/darkness was needed for the final light.

For Rav Kook, the confusion of the Modern period of Jewish history was also part of the natural road of history. Just as the first two periods consisted of long tumultuous processes that included many ups and downs, so too the third period would not come to us without what the sages appropriately referred to as the birth pains of the Mashiach. Thus did Rav Kook understand secular Zionism and all the other non-traditional movements that sought the larger themes of inspiration. An inner thirst for the spiritual/prophetic dimension would necessarily rail against the cognitive component as its enemy. Only with the maturation and reappearance of that component would it be able to come to terms of coexistence with the world of halacha that has been the focus of our people for the last two thousand years.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Rav Kook was not only describing the path of Jewish history, but his analysis would also create the underpinnings for its final stage. He did this by practicing what he preached and looking for the great ideas that could be found via study of the particulars and the rabbinic tradition to which he belonged. Indeed, such study manifests the transcendence of one-sidedness about which he wrote.

Like Rav Kook, we can also bring the redemption closer. In our Torah studies, we are well advised to follow in the footsteps of Rav Kook and to seek the great ideas within the particulars. In fact, this may well be the greatest task of our generation, so that we meaningfully embody the famous words spoken about our nation, “If they are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets...”