May 30, 2024
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Rebbe David Cohen, zy”a, the holy Nazir of Yerushalayim, was a profound spiritual seeker, mystic and scholar. Revered for his sensitivity and gentle ways, the “Rav haNazir” was a lofty soul and ascetic, who spent much of his life in meditation and dveykut. In 1915, while studying at the University of Basel for his PhD in Greek philosophy, the young searcher heard that the tzadik Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook was in St. Gallen. The Rav haNazir describes their momentous meeting in his introduction to Orot haKodesh, “The Lights of Holiness”:

“Full of excitement, uncertainty and expectation, carrying a volume of Shaarei Kedushah, ‘Gates of Holiness,’ by R’ Chaim Vital, I made my way to the Rav after taking a mikveh in the Rhine River. I found him deeply engaged in learning with his son and was welcomed as a guest to sleep in their home. My heart could not rest at night. My life’s destiny was hanging in the balance…

I awoke before dawn. Hearing the sound of footsteps back and forth, I approached the room from whence the sound emerged and came upon the Rav in the midst of Birchot haShachar, the morning blessings. The Rav was reciting the Akeidah, the section of davening recounting the sacrifice of Yitzchak in a most sublime, supernal melody.

My life then stood in the balance… I listened to him and was transformed; I turned into a new man…. I had found a master.”

~

וישמע יתרו

“And Yitro heard…”

(Shemos, 18:1)

Rashi explains that Yitro—the high priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe Rabbeinu, and a spiritual seeker in his own right—heard of the great miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim and Kriyat Yam Suf as well as the vicious attack of Amalek. The Divine hand and hashgacha pratit in these events was open and revealed for all to see. While the voice of Hashem was audible throughout the world, it was Yitro who “heard” and responded to the call, joining klal Yisrael and changing his destiny.

Our sedra contains the most important moment in human history, the Giving of the Torah, when we collectively declared naaseh v’nishma, “We will perform and we will listen.” Our commitment to “perform” Hashem’s commands to the fullest is expressed as nishma; not only will we fulfill them in action, we will “listen” to them, understand and deeply internalize their meaning. Philosopher and street-ball legend Sidney Deane has pointed out the critical difference between “listening” and merely “hearing”: beyond the technical auditory experience of sound-waves entering one’s ears, in Yiddishkeit the modality of “shema” includes attention to the implications behind the message.

The revelation at Mount Sinai also included the Torah sheh-b’al Peh, the Oral Law transmitted verbally, מפה לאוזן, “from mouth to ear.” The Rav haNazir explains that the core transmission language of Talmud Bavli is based on different variations of the word shema. That is, its didactic metaphors of instruction and understanding are based not on seeing but on hearing. A traditional teaching, for example, is called שמעתתא, “that which was heard,” and the Gemara often invites us to ta shema, “come and learn.” Talmudic discourses also include phrases such as shema mina, “infer from this,” ka-mashma lan, “it teaches us this,” and lo shemiyah lei, “he did not agree.”

HaRAYa”H Kook was known as הרואה הגדול, “the Great Seer,” and his holy disciple, the Rav haNazir, as השומע הגדול “the Great Listener.” The Rav haNazir wrote extensively on Jewish mystical thought, and advanced a doctrine toward the renewal of prophecy in our age. His magnum opus, Kol haNevuah, “The Voice of Prophecy” describes the Torah as an account of our communication with the Ribbono Shel Olam and opens with Yeshayahu’s call to Am Yisrael: הַטּוּ אָזְנְכֶם וּלְכוּ אֵלַי שִׁמְעוּ וּתְחִי נַפְשְׁכֶם וְאֶכְרְתָה לָכֶם בְּרִית עוֹלָם, “Turn your ears and come to Me, listen and your souls will live, And I will hew an eternal covenant with you” (55:3). Hashem is always calling out to us, communicating with us. Our responsibility is not just to “hear” His commandments and instructions, but to actively listen to the message of Divine communication.

This week, as we collectively “listen” to the re-reading of the sedra, may we hear the Divine call along with Yitro, and open our hearts to the prophetic call. And as the Rav haNazir concludes his introduction to Kol haNevuah: “May it be the Divine will that we be worthy of the renewal of the holy, worthy of the rebirth of our prophetic auditory spirit, through our national revival in our Holy Land.”

With thanks to the sweetest of gabbaim, Rav Yitzchak Even-Shayish (Marmorstein), the dedicated keeper of Beit haRav Kook in Yerushalayim, and in appreciation of his holy efforts in ensuring that our generation continues to hear and understand the prophetic voice.


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpia of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family. 

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