The BEST: “Shir Meruba” – Rav Kook’s “The Fourfold Song”
by Benjamin J. Samuels
There is one who sings the Song of Self. And within one’s self, finds everything; the full of one’s spiritual satisfaction within one’s own fullness.
And there is one who sings the Song of Nation. He steps out from the circle of his private concern, which he doesn’t find sufficiently broad, nor idealistically grounding. He strives for fierce heights yet attaches himself with gentle love to the ensemble of Knesset Yisrael – the Jewish people, and with her sings her songs, shares in her distresses, delights in her hopes. Engrossed is he with thoughts elevated and pure regarding her past and future; with love and wise-heart, he studies her inner spiritual essence.
And there is one who broadens further her sense of self, until it extends and expands beyond the boundary of Israel, to sing the Song of Humanity. Her spirit advances and encompasses the majesty of humanity, the splendorous dignity of its divine image. She is drawn to common destiny and yearns for humanity’s sublime self-actualization. From this life source she draws the principles of her ruminations and investigations, her ambitions and dreams.
And there is one who still more expansively rises higher until one unifies one’s self with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds. With all of them, one sings. This one engages one’s self with Perek Shira – the daily Song of World-Creation, to whom it is forepromised that one will be worthy of the World-Yet-to-Come.
And then there is one who arises with all these songs together in concert, all parts contributing their voices, all together harmonizing their melodies. One with another creating polyphonic vitality and life: They are the sounds of joy and jubilation, the sounds of rejoicing and exultation, the sounds of ecstasy and holiness.
The Song of Self, the Song of Nation, the Song of Humanity, the Song of World-Creation – they all symphonize together within this person at every moment and at all times.
And this perfection in its plenitude ascends to become the song of holiness, the song of El (God), the song of Israel, with passionate intensity and beauty, with fierce integrity and grandeur. Yisrael shir El – Israel [means] the song of God. It is a simple song, a twofold song, a threefold song, a fourfold song. It is the Song of Songs of Solomon, Shir haShirim asher liShlomo, [the song] of the King in whom is the peace of wholeness.
[R. Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook zt”l, Shemona Kevatzim 7:112; Orot HaKodesh 2:444-5 – click here for the Hebrew text. Translation by Benjamin J. Samuels, with borrowing from Ben Zion Bokser, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Paulist Press, 1978), 228-229; and Ari Ze’ev Schwartz, The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook: The Writings of a Jewish Mystic (Gefen Publishing House, 2018).]
Background: From 1910 to 1919, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935) penned eight spiritual diaries, Shemona Kevatizm, in which he recorded his theological musings and religious yearnings, often through poetic expression. This poem was likely composed around 1917. World War I was ravaging Europe; Russia was aflame in revolution; the 1918 flu pandemic was incubating, and Rav Kook was forced by circumstance to remain away from his home in the Land of Israel, exiled in London through 1919, until after the war’s end and safe passage could be regained back to what would shortly become British Mandate Palestine. (For a biography of Rav Kook during this era, see Yehuda Mirksy, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution). “The Fourfold Song” resounds with the competing, and often conflicting, secular socio-political movements and ideologies of the first quarter of the 20th century – Zionism, nationalism, socialism, universalism – and yet harmonizes them within a redemptive Jewish religious framework of soulful lyricism, rabbinic reference, kabbalistic allusion, and messianic longing.
Why this is The BEST: Rav Kook models resilient faith and righteous aspiration at a time of world war, profound global crisis, dramatic dislocation, gross inhumanity, revolutionary upheaval, and grave uncertainty. Although the maelstrom of historical forces churning within the backdrop of Rav Kook’s poem were certainly unique to his time just over a century ago, it is remarkable how wondrously resonant “The Fourfold Song” is with the competing, and sometimes conflicting, ideational and ideological pulls of our own time.
The Song of Self
At a time of global pandemic and its attendant economic decline, in an era of social unrest and civil discord, is it reasonable to sing the Song of Self? Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Avot 1:14). Self-preservation mandates that we shutter our shuls and schools, shelter in place, and avoid health risks all while needing to evade financial collapse and societal dysfunction. Civil unrest can lead us to seek refuge in the protective laws and order of society, for as Rabbi Hanina Segan HaKohanim philosophized, “Without the dread of government, neighbor would swallow neighbor alive” (Avot 2:16). And yet is it morally and religiously sufficient to sing the Song of Self alone?
The Song of Nation
At a time of increasing antisemitism and anti-Israelism, how shall we full-throatedly sing the Song of Nation, standing stalwart with the people of Israel, and zealously championing the cause of the Jewish people in all their habitations? Is singing the Song of Nation restricted, though, to political advocacy, community security, and anti-defamation? Singing the Song of Nation arguably also entails living robust Jewish communal lives, with Jewish education and religious practice nurturing our particular identity. As patriotic citizens committed to the realization of the affirmative principles, values, ideals, and aspirations of our polity, how else do we sing the Song of Nation? And does a two-part song of Self and Nation fulfill the fullness of our Divine charge? Might we even find in our Jewish particularism the resources lifting us to universalism and humanism?
The Song of Humanity
Our global pandemic has reminded all humanity of our common origins, vulnerabilities, and destiny. Have scarce medical resources and under-determined scientific understanding inspired multi-national collaboration or competition? Has our international awakening to persistent, systemic racism and its mortal toll triggered our moral outrage, and stimulated our ethical and political imagination? Do we hear the call to join our Jewish voices on behalf of black lives, and sing the Song of Humanity?
The Song of World-Creation
Although less at the forefront of global concern these past few months, Climate Change arguably remains the greatest existential threat to Earth’s biodiversity, and even to the future human habitability of our planet. What did Rav Kook understand to be the musical score of the Song of World-Creation? What do we understand it to be?
The Song of Songs
The Song of Self, the Song of Nation, the Song of Humanity, the Song of World-Creation … It is a simple song, a twofold song, a threefold song, a fourfold song.
Rav Kook calls upon us across time to appreciate the music of a symphony of resonances, dissonances, and contrapuntal polyphonies. We know, as surely Rav Kook did, that a complexity of challenges and problems requires us to orchestrate a complex of solutions. Which song shall we sing? Let us dare to sing together the Fourfold Song, the Song of Songs, the song whose dynamic peace is found in its synergistic wholeness.
Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels, Ph.D, has been rabbi of Cong. Shaarei Tefillah in Newton, Massachusetts since 1995 and teaches widely in the Greater Boston Jewish Community.
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[Published June 25, 2020]