During this time of the year, the three weeks as they are known, the three weeks of mourning over the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, my first thought when they begin, is that soon the anniversary of the death ("yuretziet") of Rav Amital will be upon us. I equate the two now, as both are a time for mourning and a time for introspection.
I look around and wonder how things may have been different if this giant of a man would still be walking among us. How our thoughts and collective conscience may have been led along different pathways. How our actions and beliefs may have taken a different turn with his tutelage, guidance and certainly his need to express what was "right" - no matter what the cost.
I was recently asked by someone who read one of my short stories, "A Pot Of Gold", in a cynical tongue-in-cheek manner if I truly believed in angels. I answered that while I cannot prove the existence of angels, I know I have danced with them many times. The person gave me a look as if I had totally lost it, laughed, and said "Okay, I will bite. When did you dance with angels?" I smiled and said, "Every year, on Yom Kippur when I was in Yeshivat Har Etzion and listened to Rav Amital during Musaf, and the students burst out in song at "Mareh Kohen" - I danced with the angels."
Obviously the person thought I had truly lost my mind. Perhaps I have. Yet if I was ever asked again, the answer would be the same. I have danced with the angels because of Rav Amital. Such is the gift he left behind. Such was his legacy.
Below I have taken the opportunity of reprinting a piece I wrote when Rav Amital died. It remains as true today as it did three years ago. I place it below, not only to honor his name and his legacy but perhaps for those who did not know him, to understand the loss of such a great man - one who knew how to call upon the angels and God himself and force the heavens themselves to listen to the pleas, prayers and tears of all of mankind.
Clinging To The Divine
Over the past week I have spent most of my waking hours in grief and mourning. I am no stranger to grief yet the depth of this specific pain has left me speechless and pleading with the Divine for some solace. And though mourning at this time of year should be reserved for the destruction of the Temple during these nine accursed days, I mourn for a man who for many years was in all ways a father to me. I have truly experienced the repercussions of the horrendous destruction of the Temple Mount.
Devouring all the words and eulogies one could find on the person, Rabbi and leader known to all as “Rav Yehuda Amital” has not eased the pain. Most covered Rav Amital’s history, his long journey from the Holocaust to the land of Israel and the huge and incredible accomplishments - social, religious, political and moral - this great man made during a lifetime of eighty‐five years. This is important for the “historical record” as it were. Yet to me and many others, there was also the person, the individual, the human who defied and still defies categorization.
Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the yeshiva he built, known as Yeshivat Har Etzion and drank from its waters, underwent a metamorphosis. We watched, listened, heard and studied Rav Amital’s words and actions over the years. Paradoxically, the thoughts, ideas and philosophies of Rav Amital were never written in stone. He was a constantly moving stream ‐ evolving, moving forward, striving to find what was right in all situations. Rav Amital never took the easy path. Indeed, the term “easy” was an anathema to him. He sought not only what was best for the State of Israel, but was guided by a profound inner‐ethic which demanded the best for all Jews and indeed for all mankind, no matter where they lived, be it in the Diaspora or in Israel.
One factor, one focal point steered Rav Amital. It was his belief that the Divine Hand was apparent in all things and it played a part in each and every individual in their own private and public lives. “Hashgacha Peratit” as it is known in Hebrew. He could not explain the “why” of it, as he himself was left with the terrible burden of knowing he had survived the Holocaust while all his family, community and friends had been murdered. He only knew that once the Divine Hand showed a path, it must be acted upon. Rav Amital was a man of deep introspection and a man who never faltered when he believed action must be taken.
Yet beyond words, which are so limited in trying to describe this giant of a man whose likeness is granted to our people perhaps every few generations, there was a living, breathing soul, which, if it touched you, it stayed within your heart of hearts forever.
I was one of the lucky ones who was deeply effected and influenced by Rav Amital. The magnitude of his personality was not limited to his vision and foresight. Rav Amital’s greatness emanated from his true love for even the most simple Jew. Indeed, in another era, in another time, though he would have shunned it like a plague, Rav Amital could have easily become one of the great Hassidic leaders.
There was a time, oh‐so‐long ago it seems, when we as a people had faced the demons of the Yom Kippur War and found ourselves not so many years later embroiled in the First Lebanon War. This time, specifically painful for Rav Amital, was a moment in history that changed a great deal in his outlook and thinking. The stream within him became an ocean raging in the tempest of a great hurricane and Rav Amital with courage beyond most normal humankind, allowed it to evolve. But I will leave this aspect to his biographers and those who can explain these events in a more cogent way than I ever can hope to achieve.
During this time of war I asked Rav Amital a question. I do not know what I expected from my Teacher and Mentor, as it was a question that no human could possibly answer.
When I asked the question of Rav Amital in the Beit Medrash in the Yeshiva, he looked up at me and said (and I translate this from the Hebrew):
“Teddy, I do not hold the keys to understanding the universe in my coat pocket. It is not the answers you should be seeking. It is the right questions to ask.”
It took many long years and a great deal of personal pain to gain enough wisdom to understand the answer Rav Amital gave me on that day.
Make no mistake. The world of Religious Zionism as Rav Amital tried to build it, tried to teach it, tried to explain it, tried to influence it, is in grave danger without his soul and teaching to lead and guide us. We have not only lost a leader, but a person who is truly beyond description, even if we write volumes about him.
The younger generation, my children among them, who understand the loss of Rav Amital more than most because they knew him, will and must find their own path within our people and in our homeland. Yet they will be denied access to this man who was beyond and greater than life. They will be forced to rely on a lesser wisdom, which pains and scares me in equal measure.
Again and again this past week, between waves of tears which come at the most unpredictable times, and memories long buried, somehow fight their way to the surface, I wonder at our future bereft of this great man and leader.
On Yom Kippur, thousands would converge on the Yeshiva to listen to Rav Amital be the “Chazan”. The experience, which anyone who has ever been there will tell you, was beyond description. If there was any place on this earth where one could truly feel and understand the meaning of Yom Kippur and dance with the angels, it was in the Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion.
Before Neilah every single year, Rav Amital would give a five minute speech. Every single year it was the same thing. Every single year it was the same words. Every single year he quoted from the same Talmudic piece and Midrash. And every single year, we drank it in as if it was the very first time we ever heard it. He began in tears and ended in tears. Indeed the tears never stopped flowing.
“I am asleep but my heart wakes: My Beloved is knocking saying, Open to me, my sister, my dove, my undefiled.” (Song of Songs 5:2)
Upon this the Midrash comments: “Open to me. Rabbi Jassa said: The One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘My sons, present to me an opening of repentance no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which wagons and chariots can pass through.”
After quoting the above Rav Amital would say:
“It is our duty, during Neilah, while the gates of heaven are closing to our prayer to forcibly keep a gate open. We must not only pray for ourselves but for all of our people and all of humanity. We must pray for those incapable of prayer. To make our tears and prayers heard so that we can guarantee for ourselves, our families and all of our people a year of blessings and peace.”
As Rabbi Yoel Amital, (Rav Amital’s son) has said again and again, this became almost a code. It was the essence of the man who became Rav Amital. It was and will always remain the focal point of his teachings. To rip just a pinhole in the heavens so that God will stretch that pinhole and allow chariots to pass through. But first we must rip that pinhole open. First, we must act and grasp the moment. First and foremost we must be whom we were truly meant to be.
And at the end of Yom Kippur before Maariv thousands of people would join in song singing:
“Min Hametzar” – “Out of my distress I called upon God, and God answered me with liberation”.
For those who knew him, this was the essence of Rav Amital. He taught a generation of thousands upon thousands of students, and the number is no exaggeration, to cry from the depths of our souls. To split the heavens open with a small pinhole. To call upon the Divine demanding to be heard. To cling to the Divine. This was the right and more importantly, the responsibility of all those who dared to follow along a path which was fraught with obstacles.
To cling to the Divine.
In his passing from this world, the legacy that Rav Amital left us, if we prove wise enough, should not be forgotten nor ignored – if only for the sake of our children and our children’s children. That legacy though so complicated and multi‐faceted is also very simple. To always attempt to tear open that pinhole in the heavens and place our tears before the Throne of He Who Hears All Prayers – for all Jews no matter what they believe and practice or don’t believe and practice. For every single person be they wise, erudite, simple or tainted. All deserve our tears and our hope. All deserve a kind word and a helping hand. This was Rav Amital’s message. A simple one. Yet one so deep, so incredible, so full of love it should leave us shivering in awe.
“A Song To Thee On High. From the depths (of my soul) I call upon you God”.
May we all be granted the wisdom not to seek the answers, but the right questions to ask.
Of all the eulogies written it is time for someone to say with respect, total devotion and great sorrow the simple words:
“We loved you Rav Amital.“
Through the tears, mourning and sorrow ‐ Yihi Zichro Baruch.
We, your people, your students, and those who never knew you, desperately need your guidance and wisdom.
May God in His compassion, truly allow for the following words written on all gravestones to be realized.
May Rav Amital’s soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life.
Tiheyeh Nismato Tzerurah Bi’Zror HaChaim.
Ted William Gross
4th of the month of Av, 5770
Thursday, July 15, 2010