In his essay, "Concerning the Process of Ideas in Israel", Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook presents a holistic approach to Jewish national history. The following is an insufficient summary; the interested reader is enthusiastically directed towards the English translation (in the collected historical essays of Rav Kook, When God Becomes History, B. Naor, ed. Orot, Inc. 2003, pp. 66-88).
Rav Kook begins with the thesis that there are two components to Jewish life: the National idea, and the Divine idea. The National idea is that pride and courage which propels a collection of humans to create a society. It includes the concept of State, but goes beyond that. The Divine idea, on the other hand, is the spirit which moves Man to engage the Infinite. It gives joy and vitalizes the Jewish nation, provides meaning to life, and acts as a light unto the nations. It is the presence of shekhinah within the nation.
These two concepts are completely interdependent. The spirit of the Divine imbues the National with meaning and height, while the National provides bravery, esprit de corps and a proper vessel for the nation's mission. The Jews in the times of Solomon experienced this celestial interaction.
However, even when the nation as a whole dwelled in the Divine idea, individuals engaged in idolatry and other spiritual poisons, to which the surrounding nations lured them. The Divine light was pushed out of individual souls, and unleashed the beast inside. The Divine idea began to rot from within, until all that was left was the National idea. This became so divorced from Godliness, that it became more like the nationalism demonstrated by other nations, and it eventually fell apart. However, as hard as it was to see, the Divine spark rested, deep in the recesses of the nation's psyche, waiting to re-emerge.
In the exile, the National idea was gone. All that was left was for the exiles to pick up the pieces of their Divine spark. However, without the National bond, and with the Jews dispersed and no longer rightly a nation, the individualistic tendencies of this spirituality came to the forefront. The Jew became obsessed with individual salvation and guarantee of personal immortality. The minutiae of law and custom replaced the joy of national experience. This is when the World to Come became such an important concept. Earlier, the Divine light completely outshone these concerns, and a person found natural immortality through his membership in Knesset Yisrael. Now, however, the Divine idea gave way to the new Religious idea, one which focused on the negative, rather than the positive. Both always existed, but the focus had shifted.
Originally, the pagan cultures of the world were to see Israel in its glory, and be influenced by the interaction between the National and Divine ideas. However, it was tragically the exile, when the Religious idea was in force, that the nations chose to learn from. Thus, Islam and (especially) Christianity took the negative, the obsession with the individual, and the preoccupation with the afterlife. (Rav Kook's son discusses how scientific skepticism begins to chip away at this unhealthy lesson taken from Judaism, and paves the way for the nations to ultimately rejoin the correct path, when Israel is ready to provide the correct example.) However, the dispersion also had beneficent results, in the Divine idea being spread, in some form, to the whole world.
Ultimately, however, the Divine spark keeps pressing the Jewish nation to change its ways. Repentance is a long process, but involves the re-emergence of the National idea, once again. The Divine idea aids this National idea and refines it. The Religious idea is once again subsumed in the Divine and National interaction, with the understanding that the minutiae of the Law aids, not only the individual, but, most importantly, the nation as a whole. Thus, the individual gains his importance and value through the nation once again.
This essay is as important today (if not more) as it was eighty years ago. I would only add that we must not lose hope when we see the National idea struggling to keep the Divine idea away. These cosmic changes take time, and faith in God's plan must guide us. Let us recall Rav Yosef, who said, "Let the Messiah come, and may I merit to sit in the shadow of the dung of his donkey." Unlike the other sages, Rav Yosef understood that the negative manifestations of physical and National rebirth would eventually give way to the light of Torah and the knowledge of God.
To quote Rav Kook, "Rav Yosef will light the candle of the commandment, ...and a little light dispels much darkness. The evil will be transformed into good, the curse into blessing. This is the import of the cryptic passage of the Zohar:
- The head of the academy in the palace of Messiah said, 'Whoever does not transform darkness to light and bitterness to sweetness, may not enter here.'