Parashat Acharei Mot: R. Kook, the Seder, and Necessary Negativity

This week, I came across a quote of R. Kook in a Haggadah I received as a gift.  It’s from Arpilei Tohar, and touches on important questions of how we increase Hashem’s presence in the world.  The quote reads (in the translation I saw),

“The truly righteous do not complain about evil, but rather add justice; they do not complain about heresy, but rather add faith; they do not complain about ignorance, but rather add wisdom.” (It’s also online.)

The problem is that it’s hard to see this as a valid approach, based on our general experience of the world or even just of the Haggadah. After I show that, I will suggest that it’s not even what R. Kook meant.

Relying on Rav Kook or Using Him to Confirm What We Want to Hear?

I have no expertise in R. Kook’s writings, but a quick perusal even just of Arpilei Tohar shows that he operated out of a highly metaphysical (and Kabbalistic) perspective.  Many who quote R. Kook do buy his whole picture, particularly in Israel.

For those who do not, cherry-picking pretends to be relying on his authority, but it really isn’t. Those who don’t accept R. Kook’s views can’t then cite this one statement as authoritative, since he’s not their authority (I made a similar point about Hazon Ish here.)

Of course, we often quote Torah scholars without claiming to follow everything they ever wrote. In those instances, I believe, we’re saying the quote in question articulates an obvious truth of the Torah’s worldview; we’re not quoting that scholar as that scholar, we’re saying, look, in this instance, so and so recognized Torah scholar phrased one of the Torah’s truths very well.

I’m not sure that works here.

The World Doesn’t Reflect Rav Kook

One obvious problem with this quote is that it implies that adding justice rather than opposing evil, etc., is a workable strategy, when that conforms poorly with our general experience.  It seems to me hard to claim, as a matter of ordinary human fact, that justice, faith, and wisdom (or any other good ideas) do overcome or ever have overcome their opposites simply by stressing the good.

We can’t resist our appetites for that which tasty or pleasurable purely by focusing on the good.  In character development, too, we we have to uproot and oppose anger, arrogance, avarice (just to stick with the “a”s).

Americans did once think democracy would sweep the world purely by its advantages as a system (as did the communists).  It turned out (after R. Kook was no longer around to see it) to be overly hopeful. One possibility, then, is that Rav Kook, living at a particularly optimistic moment in history, suggested a view that has not panned out.

Rejecting Egypt: Haggadah Examples 

The Haggadah itself presents ample reason to wonder at the quote as well. My father, a”h, was very fond of noting that one reason we emphasize Hashem’s direct role in the Exodus was that it radically freed us of Egyptian or any other culture. Had anyone else freed us, our gratitude would also have led us to an uncritical acceptance of their culture, because they would have been, in our eyes, an obviously good nation. Hashem’s freeing us also freed us to take from around us only those ideas that in fact fit with Hashem’s view of the world.

Embedded in this vort is a reality we don’t stress Seder night, but that the Torah does elsewhere, that we were meant to actively and firmly reject almost all of Egyptian and Canaanite culture (the Torah says explicitly in Vayikra 18;3, that we cannot act in the “ways of” the Egyptians or Canaanites, which Sifra Acharei Mot 9, as it happens, understands to mean homosexual marriage).

The Wicked Child

We can debate who qualifies (or whether anyone does, or whether this strategy would be effective), but the Haggadah knows of a wicked child, who does not see him/herself obligated by the events in Egypt.

The Haggadah tells us to respond sharply, that this child, with that attitude, would not have been redeemed.  Lest we think of that as rhetorical, let’s recall Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Masechta de-Pischa 12’s view that one in five, or one in fifty, or one in five hundred Jews left Egypt.

So when we imply to the wicked child—whoever that might be—that s/he would not have been redeemed, we would seem to mean it literally. Which would not seem the attitude R. Kook espoused.

In the beloved and otherwise upbeat Dayenu, we include Hashem’s killing of the first-born as well as dealing with their idols as part of what we celebrate. In addition to taking us out of Egypt, giving us wealth, and food, and the Torah, we make sure to remember Hashem killed the Egyptian first-born and destroyed their gods.  It’s not the whole story, but it is a part of the story we mention when we could easily have left it out.

Finally, towards the end of the Seder, after all the positivity, as we’re about to launch into extended joyous praise of Hashem, we pause to recite Tehillim 79;6-7, 69;25, and then Eichah 3;66 over the cup of Elijah. All four verses call for Hashem to pour His wrath, as it were, on those who oppose Him.

Where I Can See Walking with Rav Kook

R. Kook knew all these sources, too, suggesting that we haven’t understood him well enough. In this case—and I stress that I am no expert—I wonder whether his reference to הצדיקים הטהורים, most literally the “purely righteous,” or even “the pure and righteous,”  might have meant that this wasn’t a universal ideal, it was the path of a subset of the righteous. Perhaps some righteous are so pure that they would not involve themselves in the world’s realia. They would not combat heresy or evil, because that’s not their role; they would focus only on increasing good. (Like a nazir, who lives an unusual and not fully human life—there’s a value to that, but it’s not the general path).

That makes it less relevant to us, who are not that pure or righteous.  We, I suggest, have to live in the world we live in, in which our task is to support and increase the good and to fight the evil. Doing half the job will always be half, incomplete and unsatisfactory. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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