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Shabbat Parashat Beshalach 5782

Igrot Hareaya Letters of Rav Kook: Course of Study in Contemporary Times

#89 part III

Date and Place: 21 Menachem Av 5664 (1904), Rechovot


Recipient: R. Dr. Moshe Zeidel.  He was a close disciple of Rav Kook, from their time in Boisk. Dr. Zeidel was a philologist and philosopher, who asked Rav Kook many philosophical questions.


Body: [Last time, Rav Kook wrote about the importance of talented students studying well on a basic level the classic works of mussar. Only then can one investigate these matters in depth, which requires a pure heart more than an academic approach. It must be done in a way that is also good for the future. We continue from that point and begin seeing an approach to the Torah’s view of slavery.]

When investigating matters of ethics/philosophy, one must take very measured steps. If, for example, one will breach the boundaries of the attribute of mercy even slightly and briefly but more than is healthy for the very distant future, it can sometimes cause greater damage than the greatest revealed impropriety. We can, then, conclude the following. Although we must not undo the feelings of rectitude and its practical applications in the present, in line with the images these feelings conjure up, we should still not take them too far.

We need to look at life on two scales: how it is and how it should be.  Absolute rectitude is always connected to the way life should be. However, temporary rectitude is more connected to the practical world in the present. The loftiness of Torah and G-dliness must by necessity be a precious instrument that is designed to align the world with the situation it is supposed to be in. It is critical for you to be aware that these two elements are connected like the changing views of the horizon that one sees on a long walk.

Realize that the laws of slavery, like all Hashem’s straight paths, which the righteous follow and the sinners stumble on, did not intrinsically bring about any stumbling block to the world. The institution of slavery is a natural one within humanity (i.e., when left unsupervised, man creates it), and legally supervised slavery does not extend beyond natural slavery. To the contrary, its rules in the Torah come to fix certain problems, which tend to exist in natural slavery.

The existence of different social classes – rich and poor, strong and weak, is indisputable. Those who have acquired a lot of property and use legal means to hire poor workers treat them like slaves to a great extent from a natural perspective. For examples, coal miners are hired willfully, but in practice, they are like slaves to their employers. Certainly, some people who have a lowly social status and are at the whims of evil people who manipulate the legal system, would be better off being slaves who were bought for money. For example, now we need moral statements to worry about the lives of workers from a financial and social perspective. A rich person with an insensitive heart mocks the rules of justice and ethics. In the case of the mine owner, he would prefer digging a tunnel that lacks light and air, even if it shortens the lives of and debilitates tens of thousands of people. He prefers that to spending extra money to provide a proper tunnel. If a mine collapses and buries its workers, it is of little concern to him because he can find new workers.

If these jobs were done not by workers but by his legal slaves, he would have incentive to protect their lives, as they are his financial resources, and the poor workers would actually be better off. Therefore, our holy Torah charts out a path to elevate a person’s heart and bring him closer to the ways of the Master of the Universe. As long as social factors dictate that the institution of slavery will exist, the Torah will fulfill the role of “I have created an evil inclination, I have created the Torah as a remedy” (Kiddushin 30b).

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