Nechama For the Churban

Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l left last week for the Yeshiva Shel Ma’aloh. He was born Yehuda Klein in Grossvarden, Romania, and studied as a child in the local yeshiva, which was run by a transplant from the Mir. He suffered the destruction of his family in the Shoah, and spent eight months himself in a labor camp before being liberated by the Red Army on Simchas Torah in 1944.

Arriving in Israel, he learned in Chevron under R. Issar Zalman Meltzer, from whom he subsequently received semichah. (He would later marry his granddaughter, יבלח”ט Miriam.) He also learned with R Yaakov Moshe Charlop.

With the outbreak of the War of Independence, he was drafted into Tzahal, and fought at Latrun and the Western Galil. After the war, he served as one of the roshei yeshiva of Yeshivat HaDarom. It is there that he developed the concept of the Hesder yeshiva, and was one of the important forces bringing turning that vision into a reality.

After the June War, he accepted the position of Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, a post he would retain until age 80, serving alongside יבלח”ט R Aharon Lichtenstein, shlit”a.

Rav Amital championed a new approach to learning Tanach that emphasized the importance of pshat. It was fiercely resisted and criticized, especially by leading figures in the Chardal world, such as R Nebenzahl, shlit”a and R Tzvi Yisrael Tau, shlit”a. They saw the new approach as devaluing the contribution of Chazal and reducing the stature of figures in Tanach. Both charges are denied by adherents of the new school. The controversy continues unabated to this day.

In the political world, he is remembered for founding a religious left-leaning party, Meimad, that accepted Oslo, and was allied with Labor. He served in governments of Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak before leaving the political scene.

The following is excerpted from one of his most famous presentations. It is a wonderful thought to keep in mind during the Nine Days, especially keeping in mind that it was written by an eyewitness to the Holocaust.

“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?
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…”

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?

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 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.

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 appreciation of the present will be perverted.

[Thanks to Ralph Kostant for the tip.]

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18 Responses

  1. Binyomin Eckstein says:

    תוספות מסכת מכות דף כד עמוד ב

    אבל קשה מנלן דאותה נבואה דכתיב עוד ישבו זקנים וזקנות ברחובות היא לעולם הבא דלמא היא בעולם קודם גאולה וי”ל דממה שהוא אמר בפסח שני (פסחים דף סח.) ניחא דקאמר עתידים (מתים שיחיו) דכתיב עוד ישבו זקנים וזקנות ברחובות וילכו על משענותם ועל אלישע שהחיה המת כתיב משענתו וגמרינן משענת דהאי קרא ממשענת דאלישע מה להלן החיה המת אף כאן תחיית המתים וא”כ ע”כ האי נבואה לעתיד לבא שהרי עבר בית ראשון ובית שני שלא היתה תחיית המתים וניחא הכל והשם יזכנו לראות משיח אמן.

    נחם ד’ אלוקינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים, ואת העיר האבלה והחרבה והבזויה והשוממה, האבלה מבלי בניה והחרבה ממעונותיה והבזויה מכבודה והשוממה מאין יושב והיא יושבת וראשה חפוי כאשה עקרה שלא ילדה

    שפתי חיים מועדים ג עמ’ שלא
    יש השואלים איך אפשר לומר האבלה החרבה הבזויה והשוממה בזמנינו, הרי ירושלים נבנית ויהודים גרים בה? ראשית, אין צורך להשיב על שאלה כזו, חז”ל תיקנו את הנוסח, ובודאי כדבריהם כן הוא. ובאמת ירושלים אף במובן הגשמי רחוקה עדיין מאד ממה שהיתה בזמן הבית, שהיו בה בזמן הרגלים עשרות מיליונים של יהודים… ומההיבט הרוחני ברוב ערי ארץ ישראל אין היום בתי עבודה זרה של הגוים, רק כאשר באים לירושלים, ובפרט לעיר העתיקה של ירושלים – ירושלים האמיתית, שם רואים בתי העבודה זרה והתיפלה שך הגויים, ושם שומעים צלצולי הפעמונים מבתי הטומאה, וקולו של המואזין מרעים ומכריז, ההרי זה חילול ד’ נורא שדוקא בעיר ד’ שומעים ורואים זאת, האם אין זה חורבן ובזיון נורא, כמה צער צריך להיות על כך.

    ועוד, קשה לדבר על יהודים, אבל הרי המצב היום שאי אפשר לצאת לרחובות ירושלים, כמעט אין פינה בירושלים שאפשר להסתובב בה, גם בירושלים האמיתית בעיר העתיקה, קשה ללכת ברחוב מרוב הפריצות והמראות האסורות המטמאות את העינים והלב, האם זה אינו חורבן

    (This is not what Zecharia meant by ילדים וילדות משחקים ברחובותיה…)

  2. Bob Miller says:

    There have been long dark stretches in our history in which any “normal” interlude would have struck us as wondrous and miraculous.

    It’s important, though, that we not equate “normal” with “doing what the non-Jewish world does, only in Hebrew”.

  3. David says:

    Yasher koiach for this great post. It is heartwarming that a fundamentally charedi website can show respect and appreciation for someone like Rav Amital zt”l.
    Just a few technical points:

    1) Was Rav Amital a “rosh yeshiva” of Yeshivat Hadarom? I thought he was just one of the ramim (along with Rav Shach zt”l)?
    2) Did he “accept the position of Rosh Yeshiva” of Gush? The story I heard was that he opened the yeshiva and thought he woudl run it only until he found a rosh yeshiva, not thinking of himself as a rosh yeshiva. It was only when Rav Lichtenstein shelit’a refused to be the lone Rosh Yeshiva that Rav Amital agreed to be co-rosh yeshiva.
    3) Did he champion the peshat-oriented methodology of Tanach? I know this methodology is oversimplistically called “the Gush derech of Tanach” by many, but I don’t think Rav Amital had much, if anything, to do with it. He himself never taught Tanach. Tanach became a major thing in Gush (due mainly to the influence of Rav Yoel Bin Nun, Yav Yaakov Medan and others), but while the roshei yeshiva didn’t mind that this happened, I don’t think they actively “championed” it.

    I would just humbly add that one of Rav Amital’s central messages as an educator and a leader was to see the broad picture and not only the details. For example, he decried the tendency (especially in America) to be scrupulously makpid about kashrus while indulging excessively and showing no moderation in food. He also taught repeatedly that ahavas yisroel means not only being nice to the guy next to you, but to be sensitive to the needs of the entire Jewish people. As a religious Zionist, he taught that zionisim is not just about building settlements, but about a much broader vision of a Jewish State that represents the highest ethical and moral ideals. When the Second Intifada broke out, and there was a lot of fear, frustration and uncertainty in the country, he got up in the yeshiva and insisted that we must keep things in perspective and recognize how much better things where then than 50-60 years ago. He also frequently spoke of avoiding oversimplifying Judaism by reducing it to just one value or ideal.

    These are all very important messages that he perceptively felt needed to be emphasized. Yehi zichro baruch.

  4. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Bob, sadly, the thinking represented by your caveat is exactly what so many use as an excuse for not returning to our land.

    A couple of months before we made Aliyah Nefesh B’Nefesh held an orientation program. One of the speakers was a psychologist. She gave a Power Point presentation illustrating the post Aliyah phases most people go through. (It reminded me a little of the 5 phases of grief. L’havdil!) She said most people go from an elated high to a “what the heck have I done” despair. Ultimately she said, and this is the goal, most successful Olim level off to live “normal” lives, very much like the description Rav Amital quoted above.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Menachem Lipkin wrote, “Bob, sadly, the thinking represented by your caveat is exactly what so many use as an excuse for not returning to our land.”

    It’s no basis for staying in Chutz La’aretz. It’s a basis for being discriminating about what we want our “normal” to become.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    According to what I have been told, and I did not do methodical historical research, Rav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht zt”l established Kerem B’Yavneh, which became the first hesder yeshiva. He did this under the direction of the Chazon Ish, and many former talmidim of KBY went on to other yeshivos such as ITRI and Mir. It may be the case that Rav Amital was thinking along these lines early in the game, but KBY was the first hesder yeshiva.

  7. dr. bill says:

    David captured a number of points about Rav Amital ztl. However, he omitted one very important figure in his discussion of Tanach at Har Etzion.

    Rav Mordechai Breuer ztl (Rav Amital ztl’s chavruta at Chevron I believe) was the senior rebbe of Tanach at Har Etzion. His derech as well as his important seforim Pirkei Moadot and Pirkei Berashit are as controversial as they are brilliant and original. (for any die-hard talmudists, his discussion in the first volume of Pirkei Moadot of eiruv tavshilin, is an example of his careful reading of text; in this case a sugyah in Beitzah.) His explanation of pshat in the introduction to Pirkei Moadot is important to read.

    Vastly oversimplifying, al regel achat, Rav Breuer brought the derech of Brisk to the study of Chumash/Tanach. Where others saw complexities, contradictions and variations in stories and even halakhot, (the significance for the moadim being a prime example,) Rav Breuer emphasized the “shtei (or more) dinim” that have to be acknowledged, understood separately and then harmonized. Often he stressed that the literal meaning is not the correct meaning. However, while it is not normative, the literal meaning cannot be ignored. Some saw this as acknowledging the textual hypotheses of biblical criticism; Rav Breuer saw it as the methodology of the rishonim updated with the conceptual derech of Brisk.

    In reality, Rav Amital was a mashgiakh ruchani, a powerful Baal Machashavah as well as a Rosh HaYeshiva. His example and teaching of being normal, is a powerful lesson in implementing the shvil hazahav. In all areas except anivus, he was a living lesson in what it means to be balanced. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

  8. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >(This is not what Zecharia meant by ילדים וילדות משחקים ברחובותיה…)

    No, this is not what the שפתי חיים believes is meant by Zecharia prophesy.

    Where is it written that R’ Amital is not allowed his own understanding?

  9. David says:

    Dr. Bill,

    Rav Breuer z”l came to the yeshiva once a week to deliver a Chumash shiur for whoever was interested. His presence and impact was not so substantial. I attended his weekly shiur for about a year, and, if I recall correctly, the room was packed at the beginning of the zeman and then many guys gradually dropped out. Rav Medan’s weekly Tanach shiur, by contrast, was always full, and many talmidim (like myself) used to reserve the front row seats a day in advance. I’ve always wondered why people associate the so-called “Gush derech of Tanach” (as if there is such a thing) with Rav Breuer. From what I’ve seen of the Tanach material coming out of Gush and Herzog, very little of it is based on the “Torat Habechinot.” In my experience, it is characterized more by literary analysis, such as building on parallelisms between different Biblical sections, noting conspicuous repetition of certain terms, chiastic structure, and so on. There is also some use of historical and archaelogical data. I’m not sure how significantly Rav Breuer influenced the landscape of Tanach study at Gush, even if his contributions were undoubtedly very important generally.

  10. Menachem says:

    R. Adlerstein,
    Rav Amital had little to do with advancing the derekh halimud in Tanakh championed by Michlelet Herzog, just as Rav Lichtenstein has little to do with it.

    [YA – I will admit to taking some of the bio material from – GASP! – Hebrew Wikipedia. It does identify R Amital as a supporter, and also sees him as the rebbi of some of its key personalities. I will not be disappointed if you are entirely correct.]

    Binyomin Eckstein,
    Not that it would have mattered anyway, but nothing you cite contradicts what Rav Amital said. The question he dealt with was why did Zecharia choose something so mundane to glorify. Unless you’re claiming that the words really don’t mean anything like what they actually do mean– Rav Amital’s point stands.

    As an aside, with all due respect to R. Chaim Friedlander, what in the world does this mean: “ראשית, אין צורך להשיב על שאלה כזו, חז”ל תיקנו את הנוסח, ובודאי כדבריהם כן הוא.” Surely, when Chazal wrote this it was true. Is R. Freidlander’s thesis that it must always remain true?? I can’t imagine that he believes that, as that would be kefira mamash!

  11. L. Oberstein says:

    I met Rav Amital twice and found him most impressive. I also had the honor of meeting his political partners in Meimad Professor Avi Ravitszky and Rabbi Meelchior. Sadly, Rav Amital has passed away, Professor Ravitsky was hit by a bus and is no longer functioning at his previous level and Rabbi Melchior has been reduced to a functionary of a declining Labor Party. In short, the voices of moderation, pluralism, tolerance, the original and authentic Religious Zionism of the founders and earlier leaders, has fallen by the wayside. I hope that there exists a next generation of people like Rav Amital to save Israel from turning into Sparta and losing its soul. That is really the battle. Rav Amital told me personally that his opponents in Religious Zionism were leading on a dangerous path that was more of a cult than authentic Religious Zionsim, they had elevated the Land above every other value. I asked Rabbi Melamed om Beit El about Rav Amital and he felt similarly that Rav Amital was a kanai but on the wrong side.
    I have great respect for both of these leaders who both exibited sincerity and idealism, but chose diametrically different paths in Religious Zionism.

  12. dr. bill says:

    David, You are correct that the vast majority of tanach study at Gush over the past 30 years, is more modern literary analysis of the different types you described. However, those methods, while taught at Gush did not originate there. They are not uniquely different; what is unique, is to have tanach play so central a role at an advanced yeshiva.

    And my son told me of the same phenomena about attendance over the semester that you describe. That said what is entirely unique about Gush methodologically (and I believe it is a methodology that has limited following) is what Rav Breuer taught. Neither his “shtei dinim” nor his study of trop, is what is currently emphasized; however, I would suggest that most associate his methodology wth Gush.

  13. Binyomin Eckstein says:

    Charedi Leumi – I doubt Rav Amital understood ילדים וילדות משחקים as open displays of sexuality.

    Menachem – Isn’t it clear from Tosfos that if we were to take the simple meaning at face value, and thus the possibility that it might happen before the ultimate Geulah, that R’ Akiva would not have drawn consolation from it? Otherwise what is Tosfos asking?

    Is R. Freidlander’s thesis that it must always remain true?? I can’t imagine that he believes that, as that would be kefira mamash!

    It remains true as long as Tisha B’Av remains a day on which we say Nachem…

  14. R. Yaakov Beasley says:

    MV”R Amital ZT”L was the original founder of Har Etzion (Gush), and in a move of unmatched humility, invited Rav Aharon shilt”a to serve as Rosh Yeshiva (who promptly declined and insisted that the two serve together). If Rav Aharon provided the yeshiva’s “da’at”, Rav Amital provided the “chochma” – the best of the hespeidim that I have read captures him and the loss we have suffered perfectly –
    [it is available on the vbm website]

    On the note of the Tanach’s methodology, from the research I did when outlining its development for Tradition, I would suggest that R. Breuer zt”l was the major influence of R. Yoel, whose approach historical/literary (and sans mefarshim, which led to his famous dispute with Nechama zt”l in the 80’s) provided the cornerstone of the yeshiva’s approach. You will still find echoes of R. Breuer in younger teachers like Yehuda Rock and Yoni Grossman, and I quote him when teaching more than often. Rav Medan is noted for his creativity – however, his understanding of the peshat/derash divide is much more conservative than most of the other Gush figures, and as such is not as influential (highly respected, but assumed to be too unique to duplicate – I will be developing this IYH in an upcoming article in Tr. ACM”L). This is another aspect of R. Amital’s legacy – his insistence on populating the gush with teachers with diverse appointments so that no one will leave 100% convinced of the absolute rightness of his views …

  15. David Glasner says:

    Rabbi Amital along with his father-in-law R. Tzvi Yehuda Meltzer developed the idea of yeshivat hesder independently and at about the same time as Rabbi Goldvicht. There was an important difference in that R. Goldvicht felt that hesder was a bedi’avad and that le-hathilah one should only learn and not combine the army with yeshiva. R. Amital and R. Meltzer advocated hesder as a shitah le-hathilah.

    Also, R. Isser Zalman was not R. Amital’s rebbi or rosh yeshivah at Hevron. The rosh yeshiva was R. Yehezkel Sarna with whom R. Amital had a difficult relationship. After leaving Hevron as a result, he came to R. Meltzer’s Yeshivat Kletzk, then in Pardes Hanah. R. Meltzer was so impressed with the young Hungarian without obvious yichus (actually he was a descendant of the Kuntres ha-sefeikot, but he was not the type to brag about that) that he proposed him as a shidduch to his daughter. His relationship with R. Isser Zalman started only after the engagement. But R. Isser Zalman did give R. Amital semicha.

    R. Amital’s rebbi in Grosswardein was R. Chaim Yehuda Levi, HYD. He was not a transplant from the Mir. He was a Hungarian, but not a run of the mill Hungarian. A grandson of the Dor Revi’i, he left Hungary, after years of study in the Hungarian yeshivot, to learn in the Mir. He became a talmid of R. Chaim Ozer and R. Baruch Ber and other gedolei Lita. R. Chaim Ozer encouraged him to return to Hungary to bring enlightenment and teach the Litvishe derech ha-limud to the backward Hungarians. At the end of his sefer of hiddushim, Resisei Tal, R. Amital writes a beautiful remembrance of his beloved rebbi.

  16. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >Charedi Leumi – I doubt Rav Amital understood ילדים וילדות משחקים as open displays of sexuality.

    where in the world did you get such an idea from this post??

    >It remains true as long as Tisha B’Av remains a day on which we say Nachem…

    why? I am not suggesting we change the nusach, but you have not given very compelling reasons.

    Why can’t tisha be’Av be focused on Hurban Habayit – not on the city’s desolation?

    Also who ever said that the term geula (even as used by tosafot) has to be understood in a boolean fashion? Plenty of Hachmei Yisrael saw the geula as a process – with ups and downs – that operates within the natueal sphere.

    Do you trully believe that R’ Amital’s peirush is untennable???

  17. Menachem says:

    Binyamin Eckstein– “Isn’t it clear from Tosfos that if we were to take the simple meaning at face value, and thus the possibility that it might happen before the ultimate Geulah, that R’ Akiva would not have drawn consolation from it? Otherwise what is Tosfos asking?”

    I think you’re off the mark, for 2 reasons:

    1. Let us grant, for the moment, that Tosafos is assuming that R. Akiva would not have drawn solace from any pre-“ultimate Geulah” fulfillment of the verse; and that therefore the passuk must, on Tosafos’ reading, refer to Yemos Hamashiach (“Olam haba”, in the terminology of the Tosafos). Nonetheless, Rav Amital’s primary question still stands, and in fact, is even sharper: given that this scene takes place in an age where dead people literally rise from their graves, why are Zecharia and Rebbi Akiva focusing on little kids and old people playing in the streets, the most mundane of realities?

    2. As far as your contention that Tosafos assume that R. Akiva could not have drawn solace from any pre-“ultimate Geulah” fulfillment of the verse– I think if you read the entire Tosafos carefully, you’ll discover that ruach acheres hayta imam. The last line of Tosafos is critical in understanding what they were bothered by in the first place:
    וא”כ ע”כ האי נבואה לעתיד לבא שהרי עבר בית ראשון ובית שני שלא היתה תחיית המתים וניחא הכל. The Tosafos here are negating the idea that the prophecy of Zechariah had ALREADY been realized during either Bayis Rishon or Bayis Sheni. The clear implication, מכלל לאו אתה שומע הן– what bothered the Tosafos in the first place was not, as you assume, that R. Akiva could draw solace from a prophecy that referred to a pre-geula future, but that he would draw it from a prophecy that might have ALREADY been realized. Tosafos’ question is, Why does R. Akiva assume that Zecharia’s prophecy refers to the future at all?
    Sure enough, the text of the Tosafos (Talmidei) Rabbenu Peretz (whose glosses formed the basis of the printed Tosafos in Makkos) reads:
    תימה, ואימא הני נביאים היו אחר חורבן בית ראשון קודם בית שני והיו מתנבאים על בית שני ואימא בבית שני נתקיימה נבואה דעוד ישבו זקנים
    Thus, nowhere is it implied in Tosafos that no solace should or could be drawn from a pre-ultimate geulah.

  18. Menachem says:

    Further response to Binyamin Eckstein–

    “It remains true as long as Tisha B’Av remains a day on which we say Nachem…”

    If I understand the reconstructed thesis correctly, it is that inasmuch as the text of Nachem was written by Chazal, it remains true so long as we continue to recite it on Tisha B’av.

    Does this not seem rather strange and confused? And what does it even mean– that every line of Nachem remains true so long as all of it continues to be recited on Tisha B’av? That every line remains true so long as any of it is recited?

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