The Soul of Torah
How to Bring Yom Yerushalayim Back to Life
BY RABBI ELIE MISCHEL
Let’s be honest: Yom Yerushalayim is a bust.
Though the Knesset established the 28th of Iyar as a national holiday in 1968, the holiday celebrating the unification of Jerusalem and the extraordinary miracles of the Six-Day War has become a sectarian celebration, observed almost exclusively by Israel’s Religious Zionist community. In the Diaspora, the holiday barely registers even in Modern Orthodox communities, where it is remembered primarily by minyan-goers when the ba’al tefillah skips tachanun (woohoo!) and adds a quick Hallel (feh, five more minutes in shul).
Why is Yom Yerushalayim on life support? Have the miracles of 1967 lost their luster? And why does our generation take this modern miracle for granted with a collective yawn?
Though he passed away almost 90 years ago, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook diagnoses the problem with penetrating insight. In a letter written in 1913, Rav Kook addresses the primary cause of the Jewish people’s modern spiritual malaise and why most Jews of his generation failed to recognize the significance of the new Yishuv.
“We must not ignore the general cure that will heal all of our problems, and the abandonment of which has led to our downfall. [The root of the problem] is something that I have bitterly cried out, time and time again, hundreds and thousands of times: that we have abandoned the soul of the Torah. This is the great flaw that has surrounded many generations, from the times of the prophets, the rabbis, the rishonim and the acharonim. Our most capable Torah scholars have focused primarily on the practical side of Torah… while the emotional aspect, even more so the theoretical aspect, and certainly the holiest aspects of Torah – in which the redemption is hidden – have been entirely ignored… The essential elixir of life is abandoned in the corner” (Iggrot Ra’ayah #483).
Rav Kook repeats his lament over the Torah world’s neglect of penimiyut haTorah, the inner Torah, throughout his writings. “As long as the light of the higher Torah is sealed, the inner demand of return to Zion is not aroused with the depth of faith” (Orot 64). But what, precisely, is the “soul of Torah” that we are missing, and why is it so critical? Is the study of this “higher Torah” merely a segulah for bringing the redemption, or is there a more logical reason why this particular form of Torah study is so critical for our time?
Because of the sheer number of mitzvot and halachot contained in our Torah, many people view the Torah as a vast collection of rules and laws, as if each halacha stands on its own. Rav Tzvi Yehudah, Rav Kook’s only son, would often cite a verse from Yishayahu when describing this approach to Torah: “For it is commandment by commandment, commandment by commandment; line by line, a bit here and bit there” (28:13).
Every mitzvah and halacha is holy and important, but when our grasp of Torah, the Jewish people and our role in the world is not holistic but rather “a crumb here and a crumb there,” Yishayahu warns that we will “fall backward” and become “broken, snared, and captured” (ibid.). In other words, if we only study the details of Torah without understanding how the details work together to create a coherent whole, we are likely to descend into complications, confusion, and heresy. Studying Torah exclusively this way is akin to standing too close to a work of art. As your eyes almost touch the painting, you see many vivid splashes of color, but nothing more. Only by stepping back can you see how all of the individual colors work together to create a beautiful and coherent whole.
What is penimiyut haTorah? It is the Torah that illuminates the whole and enables us to hear the beautiful symphony of Judaism, how all the individual musical notes, the mitzvot and halachot, fit together. Rav Kook also calls this Torat Eretz Yisrael: “This is Torat Eretz Yisrael, the Torah that is always concerned for the bigger picture and for the greater soul of the entire nation… in which the details are absorbed into the greater whole and are uplifted and crowned with its glory” (Orot HaTorah 13:3,6).
Practically, what qualifies as the “soul of Torah”? Rabbi Shlomo Aviner writes that it can be studied on three levels, summarized through the abbreviation of קמ”ח, “Kemach” (flour): Kabbalah (ק), Mussar (מ) and Chakirah (ח). Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s teaching – “If there is no Torah, there is no flour; if there is no flour, there is no Torah” (Pirkei Avot 3:16) – aptly captures the necessary balance between the “body” of Torah and the “soul” of Torah. “If there is no Torah,” if we do not acquire a firm foundation in gemara and halacha, “there is no flour” – we will be ignorant Jews who fumble through life, uncertain of G-d’s will. But at the same time, “if there is no flour,” if we ignore the soul of Torah, “there is no Torah,” the Torah will become dry and oppressive to us, for each detail of Judaism, on its own, will feel pointless and meaningless.
Of the three ways to study the “soul of Torah,” I believe the middle level – chakirah, Jewish thought – to be the most critical for our generation. Most of us feel ill-equipped to study Kabbalah without a teacher, while Mussar focuses primarily on applying penimiyut haTorah to an individual’s inner world. Chakirah, which includes foundational books like Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, the writings of the Maharal, Chassidut and the works of Rav Kook himself, helps us see the big picture of Judaism – why G-d created mankind, the role of Am Yisrael, His chosen nation, the meaning of Jewish history and the return to the Land of Israel, and much, much more.
Without this bigger picture perspective, Judaism can easily feel like an oppressive and ridiculous collection of “thou shalt nots” – “thou shalt not rip toilet paper on Shabbat,” “thou shalt not sleep in after a hard day at work for fear of missing minyan,” and “thou shalt not check the score of the Mets game on Shabbat (though really, what’s the point? They’re the Mets).” Should we really be surprised if our children, who too often study Torah “a bit here and a bit there,” find it boring at best?
A baby needs to be bathed and fed, and there’s always another diaper to change. Each of these tasks, on their own, are unlikely to fill an exhausted parent with joy. But when the baby’s parents remember the bigger picture – that they have the incredible merit to care for and raise a precious child to serve Hashem – their busy lives will be more joyous and energized. In the same way, when we study and absorb the larger goals of Judaism, each of the many details of halachic life become meaningful ways to advance our mission. And when our lives feel meaningful, we quickly discover newfound passion, energy and joy.
But studying the “soul of Torah” is critical for another reason. Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Charlop explains that only those who are connected to the “ruach haSod,” “the inner spirit” of Torah, can clearly see and feel the extraordinary holiness and value of Eretz Yisrael (Mei Marom 6:235). On its face, the Land of Israel is a physical place like any other. Its people are imperfect, its streets are clogged with traffic, and yes – it’s hot. Only by studying the soul of Torah will one learn to see more deeply and appreciate the holiness of the Land of prophecy and the awesome significance of our people’s return to the Holy Land.
If this is true of the Land of Israel generally, it is doubly true of Yerushalayim. Economically, Yerushalayim is no Silicon Valley, nor is it a particularly affordable or convenient place to live (try renewing your car registration in the Holy City, without a bottle of schnapps). Is it any wonder that our generation, blessed to walk the physical streets of Jerusalem, are not overwhelmed with emotion on Yom Yerushalayim?
To appreciate the gift of Yerushalayim, the gift our generation too often takes for granted, requires eyes trained to see the soul of our Land, eyes that grasp the bigger picture of Jewish history and Jewish destiny. When Rav Kook tried to create a movement that would infuse religious depth into Zionism, he named it Degel Yerushalayim, for if Zion is the body of our people, Yerushalayim is its soul – something so profound, it cannot be adequately expressed in words. As Elie Wiesel once wrote: “‘Jerusalem,’ my grandfather would say, weeping, weeping with his whole being. ‘Jerusalem,’ my Master would say, laughing, laughing with his whole being.”
To appreciate Jerusalem, the soul of the Land, we must study and absorb the soul of Torah. In our shuls and schools, alongside daf yomi and Tzurba M’Rabanan, we must study Torat Eretz Yisrael, the inner Torah that for too long has been neglected. It is the only way to awaken our nation and open our eyes.
Yes, there will always be other priorities demanding our time and attention, particularly today, as terrorism and antisemitism threaten us from without and political infighting threatens to tear us apart from within. But these dangers only heighten the importance of understanding the big picture of Torah. As Rav Kook concludes his letter: “Specifically during times of crisis and danger, we must take the most effective medicine. We must be radicals… Whomever has courage in his heart, strength in his pen, and the spirit of G-d in his soul, must go out into battle and shout for light!”
Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Editor of HaMizrachi magazine.