Sunday, July 11, 2010

RABBI YEHUDA AMITAL, of Blessed Memory, Passes Away at Age 85

Torah scholar, founder and head of a great yeshiva, rabbinical leader, dayan (rabbinical court judge), government minister, warrior, Holocaust survivor: HaRav Yehuda Amital, who passed away overnight this past Thursday in Jerusalem, was all of the above and more during a life that spanned 85 eventful years. Here is an edited excerpt from his biography at the website of Yeshiva Har Etzion, which he founded:
Harav Yehuda Amital was born in 1924 in Transylvania. He studied Torah in Cheder and Yeshiva, and had virtually no formal secular education. In l943, with the invasion of the Nazis, he was taken to a labor camp, while his entire family - parents, sister and brother - were taken to Auschwitz where they were murdered. After his liberation, he arrived in Eretz Yisrael at the end of l944, on Chanuka 5705.

When he arrived in Israel, Rav Amital continued his yeshiva studies in Jerusalem and received Semikhah [rabbinical ordination] from HaGaon Harav R. Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l. While in yeshiva, he joined the Haganah. The following year he married Miriam Meltzer, daughter of the Chief Rabbi of Rehovot and granddaughter of Rav Meltzer. Rav Amital fought in the War of Independence, in the battles of Latrun and western Galilee. After the war HaRav Amital became a Safra D'Dayna (rabbinic secretary) in the Rabbinical Court in Rehovot and two years later, he became a Ram (instructor) in Yeshivat HaDarom.

Rav Amital predicted that the phenomenon of Yeshiva students being exempted from army service would increase the friction between the religious and secular community, on the one hand, and would lead to emotional and ideological distance between the Yeshiva students and the State of Israel, on the other. Upon formulating the idea of Yeshivot Hesder, in which Yeshiva students combine advanced Talmudic study with active service in the Israeli Defense Forces, often in elite combat units. He took an active role developing the first hesder group at Yeshivat HaDarom.

After the Six Day War, he was called upon by Mr. Moshe Moskovic - a survivor of the l948 battle for Gush Etzion - to found a Yeshivat Hesder in Gush Etzion. In 1968, the Yeshiva opened in Kfar Etzion.

Yeshiva Har Etzion is the flagship of religious Zionist yeshivas, and draws hundreds of students from Israel and abroad yearly.

Rav Amital represented Yeshivot Hesder in the Army network and held the rank of Captain in the Armored Corps.

Rav Amital officially stepped down as head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in 2008.

I believe he will be best remembered as a profound and articulate exponent of the philosophy of Religious Zionism. Here is a excerpt from one of his Torah lessons, which deeply inspired me, adapted from a lecture given on Yom Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, 5754 (1994). Reader, keep in mind that these are the words of someone who personally witnessed the nadir of the Jewish people, when the Jews of Europe, abandoned by the world, were helpless victims of the Nazi murderers, may their names be erased; and who survived to personally witness and play an active role in the establishment of the State of Israel and its development into a strong, vibrant nation. [One may read the entire lecture here.]

"This Day God Has Made - Let Us Rejoice and Be Glad in It"

"Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall yet again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand because of his old age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. Thus says the Lord of hosts: If it will be wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this nation in those days, it will also be wondrous in my eyes, says the Lord of hosts." [Zekharia 8:4-6]

In this description by the prophet Zekharia, no exceptional or supernatural phenomenon is mentioned. There is no unique event, nor any description of awesome strength. All we have here, in effect, is a simple, pastoral description of normal life. The grandfather and grandmother are sitting in Jerusalem, walking-sticks in hand, and the grandchildren are playing in the streets. Can it be that it is this very scene that, according to the prophet, will be "wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this nation?" Is it possible that such a natural scene prompts God to add, "it will also be wondrous in my eyes?"

Zekharia prophesied great and inspiring events, but it is specifically here that "wondrousness" is mentioned. Moreover, Rabbi Akiva, the great Tanna, was able to look clearly, to smile and to laugh at the very destruction of the Temple when he was reminded of this prophecy. The gemara (Makkot 24b) recounts the story of Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and Rabbi Yehoshua who were walking towards Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple:

"When they reached Mt. Scopus they tore their clothes. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox coming out of the place of the Holy of Holies. They began to cry, and Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. They said to him, 'Why do you laugh?' He answered, 'Why do you cry?' They said to him, 'The place of which it is said [Bamidbar 1], "And the stranger who comes near will die" now has foxes walking in it; shall we not cry?' He said to them, 'For that reason I laugh. For it is written [Yeshayahu 8], "I appoint for Myself faithful witnesses - Uriah Ha-Kohen and Zekharia ben Yevarekhyahu." What connection can there be between Uriah and Zekharia? After all, Uriah lived during the time of the First Temple, while Zekharia lived during the Second. But God made Zekharia's prophecy dependent on that of Uriah. Of Uriah it is written [Mikha 3], "Therefore because of you Zion shall be ploughed like a field," while in Zekharia we learn, "Old men and old women shall yet again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem." Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was afraid that Zekharia's prophecy would never come true. Now that Uriah's prophecy has been fulfilled, Zekharia's prophecy will certainly be fulfilled as well.' With that they said to him, 'Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.'"

But why did Rabbi Akiva mention specifically this prophecy of Zekharia? Was this all that he prophesied? Did he not prophesy greater things than this? Was it not Zekharia who said, "Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for I come and I will dwell in the midst of you... and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you" [ibid. 2:14-15]? Why is this prophecy not mentioned? Did Zekharia's prophecies involve only boys and girls, old men and women? Did he not speak [ibid. 12:7-8] of God "giving victory to the tents of Yehuda first... On that day shall the Lord defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the feeblest among them shall be like David; and the house of David shall be like a divine being, like the angel of the Lord at their head?" We could bring many other examples. What is it, then, that makes this prophecy of "old men and women in Jerusalem, their sticks in their hands" and of "boys and girls playing in the streets," so special? Why is it this prophecy that brings comfort?

Prophecies concerning supernatural events that will take place in the future are understandable. The suffering was extraordinary, exile was extraordinary - the entire country was emptied of its inhabitants, all being led away into captivity, young and old alike. An extraordinary phenomenon. But the prophet announces publicly: Life will return to its usual path, life will be normal again! "Old men and old women shall yet again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem..."

A profound idea is contained herein. Someone who lacks a historical awareness, someone who sees only the present and is cut off from the past, is incapable of seeing the future, and perceives even the present in a distorted way. Rabbi Akiva was someone with historical perspective.

Someone who does not understand the meaning of an entire nation being exiled from its land, cannot understand the historical significance of its return. Eretz Yisrael was entirely emptied of all her inhabitants. Has such a thing ever happened in history? A nation that was exiled from its land, and returns to it?

The prophet says, "Old men and old women shall yet again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem." Once again there will be "boys and girls playing in its streets." Simple, normal life. Only someone with a deep historical awareness can understand the significance of such a scene. Miracles are one-time events. But Jews living a normal life in Eretz Yisrael, after seventy years (of the Babylonian exile) during which the country was empty and desolate - someone looking with historical perspective can only be astonished. Of him the prophet says, "If it will be wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this nation in those days, it will also be wondrous in my eyes, says the Lord of hosts."

Normal life, that which other nations accept as a natural phenomenon, is perceived by us as a meta-historical one, a manifestation of the Divine. For them everything is "smooth" - "And Esav continued on his way to Se'ir;" such is the way of the world. But "Yaakov and his sons went down to Egypt." For us, every natural phenomenon becomes a supernatural one. For us, everything is always different.

After two thousand years, children play in the streets of Israel, in the squares of Jerusalem! Can this be a natural phenomenon, after two thousand years? For us, everything is always different.


Someone who sees only today, now, is disturbed by problems and questions. But someone with a feel for history knows, like Rabbi Akiva who saw a fox coming out of the place of the Kodesh Kodashim, that "old men and women shall yet again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem."

The prophet Yirmiyahu [33:10-12] says, "Thus says the Lord: Again there shall be heard in this place - which you say is desolate, empty of man and of beast; in the cities of Yehuda and in the streets of Jerusalem which are deserted and without man, without inhabitant, and without animal - the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of those who will say, 'Praise the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for His kindness is forever' when they bring thanksgiving offerings to God's house. For I shall return the captivity of the land as in former times, says the Lord." For our many sins, we have yet to merit seeing the "bringing of thanksgiving offerings to God's house." But the Anshei Knesset Ha-Gedola, when they composed the blessing recited at weddings, left out the end of the verse and changed it to read: "Again there shall be heard in the cities of Yehuda and in the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the joyous voice of bridegrooms emanating from the chuppa and that of the young men coming from their celebration." What are the "young men" here celebrating? Are they holding a "siyum?" Or simply wasting time?

They are, in fact, the representatives of "normal life." A normal state of affairs involves young people coming out of parties, and it was them to whom the Anshei Knesset Ha-Gedola referred. Are we blind to the fulfillment of this prophecy? Have we not participated in the joy of bridegrooms and brides in Jerusalem? Have we not danced in its streets? Have we not been witness to the joyous sounds of wedding parties emanating from the chuppa?


We have prevailed in worse times and we shall prevail now. But we have to know that without a strong sense of history we shall not be able to understand what is happening here. If we fail to take our past into account, we will not understand the future, and even our apreciation of the present will be perverted.

Today let us all say, "I have faith in your loving- kindness, my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I shall sing to the Lord for He has rendered me good" [Tehillim 13:6], and "God has given me suffering - but has not left me to die!" [118:18].

"Open for me the gates of righteousness, I shall enter them and praise God... I praise You for You have answered me, and have been my salvation. The stone which the builders despised has become the chief cornerstone. This is God's doing - it is wondrous in our eyes."

May Rebbetzin Miriam Amital, the widow of the Rav, his children, his students and colleagues, and all of Israel be comforted among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem. We have suffered an incalculable loss, but we are comforted by the words of Rav Amital, as Rabbi Akiva once comforted his companions over the destruction of the Temple in Jersusalem.


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