Wednesday, July 03, 2013

HaRav Yehuda Amital z"l - To Dance With The Angels

It is hard for me to even comprehend that three years have gone by since the death of Rav Yehuda Amital. His shadow lives on in many facets of my life and certainly in the life of thousands of students who studied under him. And yet, as in all things, time seems to try and heal the pain, lessen the tears, and cause us to move on.

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

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Israel After 30+ Years - A Very Personal Perspective

Over the years I have from time to time ruminated on the wisdom of moving to Israel from NYC. If I count from the time I first came to Israel and stayed to study I have been here for over 40 years. If from the date of Aliyah, the day I moved to Israel, it is over 35 years. No matter how one looks at it, it would be fair to say such a time period does offer perspective.

Recently, a best friend came to visit, which he does fairly often, and in one of our discussions he mentioned his surprise that after speaking with at least 4 other friends of his who have been living in Israel for 30 years or more that we all expressed a desire to "get the hell out of the country for a while". More surprising none of us were talking about a vacation of 3 weeks. We were all talking about the need to simply "leave" for an extended and very prolonged period. A sort of "cabin fever" which was surprising and certainly for him, came out of left field.

Many of you who read this may know me or have known me over the years and such a sentiment of "wanting to get out" may come as a surprise. Yet the Israel I moved to so many years ago, the Israel in which all my children and grandchildren have been born in, the Israel where I have lived through war and its destruction, the Israel which lay at the center of all my personal and professional decisions,  the Israel where my heart had rested - that Israel seems to slowly have faded into a mist-filled memory of the past.

I am not talking about the deep social, economic or religious change to the very fiber of this country. This, though radical, when looked upon in the perspective of history, and certainly swift, does not really make a dent upon myself or others like me. Nor do I think, though it is possible that this is true, that I am somehow facing suddenly a "life crises" of identity. What I personally have sacrificed in my lifetime, and what others who read this  have sacrificed - well we all know every person has their own baggage and their own bag of sorrows. Therefore talking about specific personal experiences, sorrows and horrors will serve no purpose nor would I feel comfortable in doing so.

I am certainly not sorry nor if given a chance to redo it would I do so, that my children were born and raised here. I thought and still do believe, Israel was the best choice and indeed a blessing in that area. 

When I came to Israel, there was no Nefesh Bi'Nefesh, and indeed the only support system for Aliyah was a very lose and antiquated system of Jewish Agency Aliya Counselors. I was lucky to have landed with one of the best at the time, but even so, over 30  years ago, a few days after coming to Israel, I had written off the Jewish Agency which at the time had full control over Olim. Even today, the name of the Jewish Agency just mentioned brings up cynical thoughts, and the absolute useless and even detrimental experience it caused for many Olim. I was one of the few of the lucky ones, in that I did not have to move into an Aliyah Center, and I was spared at least part of the ordeal and thus got out from under the heavy and useless arm of the Jewish Agency as fast as I could. Indeed, I ran from it and thank goodness I did. The Jewish Agency along with Rishut HaShidur (Israel's Official News agency) which is just another tool to tax people for no reason, are two examples par-excellance of arcane, useless and even destructive institutions which should be shut down and relegated to history.

However, despite the mini-rant above, none of this effected or effects the present. These were just bumps in the road, bumps to be traveled over and to move on. Life has a way of leading us and allowing us to lead. It can be beautiful and cruel, For some the path is hard and difficult, for others a bit more easy, for others brutal and devastating, for even others destructive and full of horror. Sometimes it is our choice - other times it is not the path we decide but the path that chose us. Mistakes are made and if we are lucky we get to correct them. Choices are presented. They usually are never black and white but in shades of gray. And to make such choices wisdom, knowledge, compassion and kindness are required or else we lose our own selves within a black pit which often more than not leads us straight to an Abyss which can only be  imagined by Dante.

Great joy is to be had as well - make no mistake. War, change, death and life all mix together, and over the years one must to stay even remotely sane, seek out the moments of peace, joy and happiness. Yet this is true of life all over not specifically in Israel per-say, so why in many of my friends and myself do we suddenly have and no longer fear to express this deeply embedded need to get the hell out of here. Is it disappointment? Is it age? Is it just an "itch"? Or is it something more perhaps sinister and depressing which goes to the very root of the society that we all have given a hand in creation. Do we see what others do not see yet? Do we view the world with different glasses, and find that Israel, the one we thought existed, the one we fought for should exist - no longer does exist?

Has the world passed us by as we grew older? Have we become so out of touch and so unable to adopt anymore that we are simply unable and lack the strength to continue? 

Many feel that Israel is a modern, culturally adept and fair country. Until you fall into the pit of dealing with a myriad of arcane laws and realize we live in a state which when needed will flex almost a "police state" mentality against its own citizens. And no, I am not talking about terrorism or war. I am talking about the day to day life and existence. We are taxed beyond any measure of sense or economic justice; the poor are left to their sorrows; the rich live in their own reality; laws which by all means should actually show enlightenment ad understanding are created to support and help the "have's" and not the "have-nots". This is on all sides of the spectrum in politics. I have long ago realized, at least for myself, it makes absolutely no difference whether the "right" or "left" run the country. In the end once in power they all do the exact same thing in terms of social inequality and injustice.

There are days when I feel it is time to leave. Even with my entire family here, it is time to leave. To set up home far away from here, in a place where not every decision has to be weighed and days can flow one into another in moments of peace. There are days when I feel the fight is not over. Where all that love and desire to create a country worthy of our people and heritage is worth the fight and worth all the deprivation and sacrifice. And there are days where I simply no longer care. Those days scare the hell out of me. The days where I can no longer care, where I am totally withered and bereft of dreams which carried me so long and so far. 

Maybe it is time to go. And I am sure those of you with the flame of ideals still lit in your eyes and soul, will say to me "then just go. Get out. Who needs you?" and perhaps you are right. Perhaps on these things one should stay silent and one should just move "quietly into the night". Or perhaps if this is truly how many feel who have come here years ago, some red lights should go off. Alarm bells and sirens should sound loudly and the question must be asked, "Why? Why do all these people suddenly want to leave their home? Why do they feel after so many years betrayed and abandoned by the country they fought for and devoted their entire lives to?"

There was a time when I believed all should come and live here. I can no longer give the Aliya speech with any sort of conviction. I can no longer look into someone's eyes and say "You should live in Israel". Indeed, if asked, I stay silent on the matter these days, terrified, truly and totally terrified that if I do answer, what will come out of my mouth will be a scathing and cynical attack on the country that for so long stood at the center and apex of my belief system. Indeed, I sometimes feel sorry for those planeloads of Olim coming from the US and Canada, and think to myself that they have no idea what they are truly getting themselves into. And yet, that is the beauty of life. In that we do not know what the future holds in store for us.

As the sun rises on a new day, I can still see, to my utter surprise and even joy, a Jerusalem of Gold - a precious jewel I had thought lost to me long ago. I can see it shimmer and flicker as it always did. And for some unknown reason I feel it pull at me - weaker I grant you, than it pulled at my heart so many years ago, but still the pull and attraction is there. It cannot be denied. 

I sigh. I look away. I search deep inside. And I pray for the strength to ignore the rubble and find the gold. Another day has come to the country I helped in a very small way to build. Another day has come in which I will see things which I no longer want to contemplate. Another day has arrived where perhaps I will finally decide to leave. Or perhaps I will look up and the mist will be lifted.

It is a complex reality brought about by a dream of thousands of years. And it comes down to leaving or staying. Or as I truly have come to believe the choice is not even mine to make. As life will lead me upon another path and road. And all I can do is hope that I will have time to take a breath, to think and look forward to those ever-rarer times when the sun will smile upon my face, and the golden tint of the magic of Jerusalem and Israel will shine through.