Illustration: Deut. 34 Xanten Bible c. 1294, Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library [CC0, Public Domain]
On the holiday of Tu b’Shvat, we express our love for the Land of Israel by eating fruits which grow in the Land, most specifically the seven species mentioned in the Torah: “A Land of wheat, and barley, and grapevines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a Land of olive oil, and date honey….” (Deut. 8:8).
Most people are familiar with the illustration depicting the giant fruits of the Land in Biblical times, which have been adopted as the symbol of Israel’s Tourism Ministry. It took two strong men to carry a cluster of grapes. Not only was the fruit gigantic, there were also giants in the Land. Allow me to explain, relying on the teachings of HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook.
If we could dissect a soul, what would we discover inside? What would a microscopic examination reveal? What are a soul's components? What are its atoms? When we probe as deeply as we can into the anatomy of the soul, suddenly under our high-powered lens, an alef comes into focus. Then we see a mem, and a taf. If a soul had a genetic make-up, we would discover that its DNA helix is made up of Hebrew letters.
In the wisdom of the Kabbalah, letters are understood to be powerful, life-giving forces. The Gemara teaches that the Hebrew letters were used to create the heaven and earth (b. Ber. 55a). Bezalel knew how to combine the letters which were used in Creation. It was this secret wisdom which enabled him to build the mishkan (Ibid).
Just as the Hebrew letters are the building blocks of Torah, and of the world, they combine to form the molecular blueprint of the soul. What atoms are to the physical world, Hebrew letters are to the spiritual.
Rabbi Kook writes: “The soul is filled with letters which are infused with the light of life, full of knowledge and will, full of spiritual seeking, and full existence." (Orot 1:7).
The soul is filled with letters which contain the Divine life force which grants us existence. They themselves have knowledge and will and a quest for spiritual inspiration. All of a Jew's primary activities, whether our thought, will, deed, or imagination, stem from the letters of our soul. Different combinations of letters make for different types of souls. There are high-powered combinations, and there are souls of lesser might. According to the brilliance of these life-giving letters, a person's soul radiates with more and more energy.
Not only is the soul filled with Hebrew letters, mitzvot (commandments) are filled with them, too. Rabbi Kook writes: "Upon approaching a mitzvah, the mitzvah is always full of the light of life of all of the worlds — every mitzvah is filled with letters — big, incredible letters — from among all of the 613 precepts (Ibid).”
The mitzvot are the channels which enable letters to flow from their Divine source to the soul. The life force in the mitzvot adds vitality to the life force in mankind. They are the circuits and conduits of life. And they too, like the letters, are microcosms of existence, bursting with the energy which G-d supplies to the world.
When a Jew performs a mitzvah, we receive a new dose of energy and life. When the letters of our soul collide and combine with the letters of the mitzvah, an explosion occurs. Like a fusion of atoms, new life is released to the soul and to all of the worlds. The union of the soul and the mitzvah is what gives the world its constant renewal. And because each individual mitzvah is integrally connected to all of the 613 precepts of the Torah, when we perform one mitzvah, we release the power of them all in a chain reaction which sends waves of holiness and light throughout the universe. This is the mechanism which brings life to the world. Thus, our Sages have taught that if the Jews were to stop learning Torah, G-d forbid, for even a moment, the whole world would come to an end (b. Shab. 88a).
This is how Rabbi Kook describes it:
"As soon as we approach a commandment's performance, all of the living letters which constitute our essence expand — we grow bigger, and become stronger and more forceful in the light of life and sublime existence which is resplendent and rich with the wealth of universal holiness and with the light of Torah and of wisdom.... and all of the universe is renewed with light and life. The judgment of the world turns meritorious because of our deeds; light and truth, good will and inward satisfaction grace every face."
When a Jew performs a mitzvah, the letters of his or her soul are magnified with an accelerated life force. Letters of Torah from the upper worlds of existence merge with the letters of the individual soul. This "wedding" between the upper and lower worlds causes a union of splendor and joy. Our will and G-d's will become one. We and the world are filled with supernal strength, wisdom, holiness, valor, harmony, and joy. The same wholeness which returned to the world upon the giving of the Torah now returns to our souls. In the meeting of a Jew and the mitzvah, the purpose of life is achieved. We stand in line with G-d's will for existence. The soul cleaves to G-d. Worlds merge, and the union brings rebirth to all of Creation.
Because of the soul's connection to all the world, each seemingly small mitzvah is, in truth, a cosmic deed which fills the world with untold blessing. The performance of a mitzvah fills the world with Torah, and with inner goodness and truth. We hold in our hands the fate of existence. Our good deeds infuse the world with merit. By observing the commandments of the Torah, we not only elevate our own life, we make the world a better place. In the Heavenly court, G-d's judgment is sweetened.
In effect, the Almighty has put in our hands the key to existence. Divine blessing and life are released in the world according to what we do (Nefesh HaChaim, Gate 1:3).
In eretz yisrael (the Land of Israel), the letters of our soul grow bigger. They are magnified thousands and thousands of times, even without doing a mitzvah, because just being in Israel is a mitzvah in itself.
Rabbi Kook writes:
"In eretz Yisrael, the letters of our souls grow bigger; there they reveal shining light; they are nurtured with independent life from the light of life of the whole Congregation of Israel; they are directly influenced from the secret of their original creation."
In simple language, Rabbi Kook is saying that if there were a Geiger counter which could measure the existence of Hebrew letters, it would start to crackle with a thunderous noise the moment it approached the borders of Israel.
Eretz Yisrael is the Land of gigantic, 3-D letters. It is the land of indigenous alefs and bets. Like the giants which the Spies encountered in Hevron (Num. 13:22) and the gigantic fruit they found in the Land, the alphabet of eretz Yisrael dwarfs the Lilliputian alphabet of the Diaspora. The letters thrive in the air of Israel and draw body-building nutrients from its holy soil. In contrast, the letters of hutz l'aretz (outside of the Land) are stunted, like plants grown outside of their natural climate.
When a Jew makes aliyah to eretz Yisrael, our letters shift into high gear and multiply in size. All of our being gets bigger. We grow closer to G-d. Compared to the person we were in galut, we become larger than life. We transform into giants, filled with greater valor, greater holiness, greater happiness, and wisdom.
What is the secret of this change? In eretz Yisrael, our letters, like our souls, become the gigantic letters of clal yisrael (the community of Israel). They are no longer small, private, individual letters of the diaspora, living private individual lives — they multiply and multiply through their union with the nation of Israel. In the land of clal yisrael, our letters merge with the mega-soul of the nation, and not just with the neighborhood shul.
In our connection to the nation, the oleh (immigrant) to Israel becomes a more complete Jew. We become a co-builder of the Jewish nation. We become independent in our own Land. Our aspirations are filled with idealism. We become an architect of history, an active partner of Redemption. Our outlook and psyche are exponentially expanded by our new identification with the national aspiration and will.
Because we are living in Israel, our whole life is a mitzvah. A mitzvah which is equal in weight to all of the mitzvot of the Torah (Sifre Deut. 80 on 12:29). Divine life flows and flows into our being through the infinite channel of our new mitzvah life. Our house is a mitzvah, our job is a mitzvah, every step which we take in the Holy Land is a mitzvah, every four cubits earns us a greater share in the world to come (b. Ket. 111a). Every holy breath we take fills us with holy life. Letters and letters of Torah pour endlessly into our soul.
In his essay, Rabbi Kook quotes a verse from the book of Isaiah: "And it shall come to pass, that he who is left in Zion, and he that remains in Jerusalem, they shall be called holy, everyone in Jerusalem who is written to life" (Isaiah 4:3).
In eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem, the letters of our souls are inscribed for eternal life. Like the Land's giant letters, the mitzvot of the Land are giant mitzvot too, performed where the commandments are supposed to be performed, as the Ramban writes: “For the essence of all the mitzvot is that they be performed in the Land of Hashem” (Ramban on Lev. 18:25; also Kuzari, 5:22). They burst with energy and life through the full force of their value.
In Israel, the performance of the mitzvot is pure, without static and pollution, when performed in the land of G-d. In Israel, each mitzvah reverberates through the myriad of souls of the clal (community), multiplying beyond measure, echoing through the universe, filling the world with harmony, completeness, and order. When the nation is living its true Torah life in Israel, G-d's will for the world is fulfilled. The vaults of heaven spread open, and Divine blessing flows uninterrupted to all of creation.
So too, the Torah of eretz Yisrael is the complete Torah. As our Sages teach: “There is no Torah like the Torah of eretz Yisrael” (Midrash Tehillim 105). The Torah in Israel is the all-encompassing Torah, the Torah of the nation, the Torah of the clal, none of whose mitzvot or letters are missing. In the Land of Israel, the Torah is in its true place, radiating its influence in intimate pleasantness, its heavenly letters glowing with the light of the Shechinah (G-d's presence) (Ketubot 75a). In contrast, our Sages tell us the Torah in galut is shrouded in darkness (b. San. 24a).
So, my friends, you can be little, or you can be big. The choice is up to you.
This article is excerpted from “Eretz Yisrael: The Teachings of HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook” by Rabbi David Samson and Tzvi Fishman. Visit Tzvi Fishman’s website to read more about his work. Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.