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Rav Kook: chapter from Musar Avicha

Author: Esther Ehrman, Tishri 5776/October 2015

In this section of Musar Avicha, Rav Kook discusses G-d’s attribute of Truth. It is, says Rav Kook, His hallmark in our world, His recognisable stamp. Our relationship with the Divine depends on the conduit - our Service, our prayers - conforming to this, speaking, as it were, His language of truth, acting in accordance with His, evidently ‘true’, values.

To this end, we need our intelligence and knowledge, which will, in turn, inform our will (ratzon). Nothing can take place unless we will it. However, since the language is the language of truth, our Service must ensure that what it expresses - our will - is ‘true’.

The concept of ‘will’ was the subject of philosophical discussions in Rav Kook’s day. Two German philosophers, Schopenhauer (first half of 19th century) and Nietzsche (second half of 19th century) had seen man’s will power as a basic drive of human activity. Schopenhauer considered it the will to life; Nietzsche wrote about the will to might/power, a notion that, in a somewhat distorted form, was to be adopted by Nazi ideology. Human action depends on the will that will enable a desire, plan, idea to become reality. If society is to improve, that will needs strength, as it does for the individual to achieve.

Rav Kook looks at the will of the individual in its relationship to the will of G-d; the nature of the will is necessarily determined by the attribute of truth in G-d’s will. Truth is not instinctive, but it is inherent in man’s will, a Divine ingredient in man. It is there, to be uncovered and made manifest, so that the communication can be possible. This does not entail denying or overcoming one’s personal will, but ensuring that it is one’s ‘true’ will. That is the subject of this section.

Deeds have a true value, which does not depend on the benefit accrued. Rav Kook illustrates this with two examples: one is the person who, in saving himself from danger, also saves a fly in the process. Should he see the saving of the fly - the other - as more valuable than saving his own life? That would surely be misguided, since human life is more valuable. In the second example a person saves many people and gets a large reward. He is happier about the reward than about his act of saving others. This, too, is misguided.

Rav Kook explains that while such evaluations are part of the process of finding truth, they are not the essential part. However, he warns that self interest in evaluating any deed can mislead and cloud our judgment and may thus prevent us from getting to our true will. We always need the guidelines of the Torah, of course, in this process. Otherwise, we might think we are doing what is good, like being concerned with others (chesed) when that is not so, as, for instance, when Saul saved the life of the wicked Amalek.

To reach the goal of a connection with G-d, we need to have humility (anava) and the ability to acknowledge the good in the world (hakarat ha tov) that G-d has blessed us with. Armed with both of these and using our intelligence, it will be possible to discern the true will and pray for things that accord with it. We will then be in a position to ask for things that accord with the Divine will (e.g. perhaps, ask for the ability to help others?).

Existence, life, is a supreme good, clearly so from G-d’s point of view, since He created it. Our aim must therefore be, to have ‘true’ life. There is nothing egoistic about that aim; it enables us to make G-d’s will a reality. This is exemplified in the last lines of this section, where G-d asks the Messiah, Rav Kook tells us, what he would like to be given. The Messiah answers: life. That is the model for a human will that conforms to G-d’s truth, the hallmark of His will to benefit humanity.