The Sages of the Oral Tradition have taught us that there are many ways to uncover the Torah's hidden messages. We can uncover them through gematria (numerology), acronyms, formations of letters, Scriptural word patterns, equidistant letter sequences (otherwise known as “Bible codes”), etc.
One of the lesser-known ways to access the Torah’s hidden secrets was made popular by the great medieval Rabbi and scholar Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1269-1343), otherwise known as the “Ba’al HaTurim”, after his main, four-volume work in Halachah (Jewish law), the Arba'ah Turim.
In his commentary on the Bible, the Ba’al HaTurim points out any ‘unusual’ word (or usage of a word) in the text, as well as any other occurrences of that particular word elsewhere in the Torah – and he draws a connection between them, often arriving at a whole different layer of meaning.
In the following anecdote, a Rabbi uses the Ba’al HaTurim’s method of Scriptural word association to interpret a verse in this week’s Torah portion – and what emerges is a powerful message for all of us:
But first a little background about the two Torah personalities mentioned in the story…
~ Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld ZT”L (1848-1932) was the spiritual leader and co-founder of the Eidah HaChareidis, chareidi (“Ultra-Orthodox”) Jewish community in Jerusalem, during the years of the British Mandate of Palestine. He became an important figure in Jerusalem's Old City, and was involved in many communal activities, such as the founding of schools and the Diskin Orphanage, and the fight against Zionism and secularism.
~ Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook ZT”L (1865–1935) was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, the founder of Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav Kook (The Central Universal Yeshiva), Jewish thinker, Kabbalist, renowned Torah scholar, and spiritual leader of the Religious Zionist movement.
[Contrary to a number of distorted accounts, Rabbis Zonnenfeld and Kook actually enjoyed a warm relationship and had great respect for one another, although the two were vigorous opponents in many areas.]
During Rav Abraham Isaac Kook's tenure in Jerusalem, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld served as the Chief Rabbi of the Eidah HaChareidis. In contrast to Rav Kook's deep love for the young pioneers, who toiled to rejuvenate the barren land, Rav Zonnenfeld was very wary and critical of them.
A close associate of Rav Zonnenfeld once came to Rav Kook's house to discuss current events. In the middle of the conversation, the visitor remarked: "I recently heard a brilliant idea from our master, Rav Zonnenfeld. In all of Scriptures, we find the word nachnu [a shortened form of the word anachnu, meaning 'we'] only twice: In Parshas Matos (Numbers 32:32) it says: ‘We [nachnu] shall cross over, armed [chalutzim - which can also mean ‘pioneers’]; and in the Book of Eichah (Lamentations) (3:42) it says: ‘We [nachnu] have transgressed and rebelled.’ This scriptural word association hints to the fact that the secular pioneers currently building the Land are considered sinners who rebel against the word of G-d." [The majority of pioneers did not observe the Torah and mitzvos.]
Upon hearing these words, Rav Kook responded: "Please tell my distinguished friend, Rav Yosef Chaim, that there is a third occurrence of the word nachnu in the Torah, which tips the scales in favor of the secular chalutzim. It says in Parshas Mikeitz (Genesis 42:11): ‘All of us, sons of one man are we [nachnu].’ This implies that all Jews – be they religious or secular - are descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; and the merit of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs stands by their side. Therefore, we must hope and pray that the merit of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael (rebuilding the Land of Israel) will protect the pioneer builders of our land, and that through this mitzvah they will be inspired to return to the Torah.”
This story’s crucial message needs to be pounded into our hearts and minds if we ever want to achieve true Jewish unity: ‘All of us, sons of one man are we [nachnu].’
We are family. One big (mostly happy) Jewish family. We all descend from the same great people, our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, which makes all of us true brothers and sisters, no matter how religious or secular we might be right now. Whether we are wearing a shtreimel, a knit kippah, or no kippah at all, we are still family. So let’s act like family, the way we were meant to be!