Philosophical and Educational Themes in Rav Amital’s Discourses for the High Holidays

  • Yeshiva Staff
By Rav Yehuda Gilad
Translated by Kaeren Fish
 
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In tribute to Matityahu Moshe Ben Shlomo Mermelstein z"l
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Dedicated by Steven Weiner & Lisa Wise in tribute to
Mr. Yechiel Saiman of blessed memory. 
His presence in our community was such a privilege and treat for us, 
and he is very deeply missed.  
We send our warmest wishes of comfort to his wife Chana 
and to all of their children and grandchildren.  
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We took sweet counsel together, and walked to the House of God in company. (Ps. 55:15)
 
What is the secret of the tremor that we felt, as students at Yeshivat Har Etzion, with the approach of the Yamim Nora’im? How does one explain the magic that touched our hearts as we listened to the simple and wondrous sichot of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Amital zt”l, during the month of Elul and the Yamim Nora’im? What was the delicate spirit that wafted between the words, causing the innermost fibers of the soul to tremble?
 
Was it the description of the elderly patriarch Abraham, stretching forth his hand to take up the knife and slaughter his son, while at the same time crying to the heavens, “I lift my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come?” Or perhaps the image of him “swimming in tears”?
 
Was it the image of Isaac addressing his father in such human terms, asking, “What will become of you both in your old age?” Or rather, perhaps, the cry, “Then this depends on me alone!” emanating from R. Elazar b. Dordaya in the depths of despair, which mixed with the hundred sobs of the mother of Sisra, fearful for the fate of her son, and mingled with the cry, “I am the man who has seen suffering,” conveyed in the warm voice of our own teacher, Rav Amital?
 
Whatever the key, it is impossible to recreate the electric atmosphere in the beit midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion during Rav Amital’s sichot for the Yamim Nora’im, or during the prayer services that he led. Something of it no doubt left an impression in the hearts of the listeners, like an ancient melody that stirs the depths of the heart.
 
However, besides the uplifting spiritual experience, there was also profound Torah, and we must not forget this. His collection of sichot, When God Is Near,[1] is an attempt to fill the letters and words printed on the page with the Oral Torah that echoes in our memory. Oral teachings may not be committed to writing – but at the same time, “this is Torah, and we need to learn it.”
 
I attempt below to define some of the central themes running through the spiritual and educational philosophy of my teacher and father-in-law, Rav Amital, as reflected in his sichot for the Yamim Nora’im.
 
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Rav Amital would frequently repeat the maxim, “A person should always be God-fearing.” In order to be God-fearing it is necessary, first and foremost, to be a person, a “mentsch.” Moreover, his interpretation of the concluding verse of Ecclesiastes – “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: fear God, and observe His commandments, for that is the whole of man” – was that “man” – meaning, being humane – is an essential prerequisite for fear of Heaven. The lofty level achieved by Abraham, God’s beloved, in the test of the Akeda – “Now I know that you are one who fears God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” – did not come at the expense of his humanity. Rav Amital emphasized that the story of the Akeda is not a simple story free of difficulties, but a sharp expression emphasizing the humanity of the servant of God.
 
Rav Amital’s treatment of the story of the Akeda is a perfect example of the novelty of his spiritual philosophy. As we know, commentators have been perplexed by Abraham’s silence during this episode. In contrast to his cry, “Will the Judge of all the earth not perform justice?” and the fierce negotiations concerning the fate of Sodom, Abraham’s mute obedience during the Akeda cries out to the heavens. Some scholars view this negatively (mainly outside of the world of the beit midrash, although there are echoes of this view in some ancient piyyutim), while others praise Abraham for it. Along came Rav Amital and explained that according to the prevailing view among Chazal, which is also reflected in halakha, Abraham was not silent at all! The Mishna in Taanit provides that on a public fast day, additional blessings are recited as part of the Amida, including “He Who answered Abraham at Mt. Moriah – may He answer you and listen to your cry on this day. Blessed are You, Lord, Redeemer of Israel.” Likewise, we recite in our Selichot, “He Who answered our father Abraham at Mt. Moriah – may He answer us.” Rav Amital asked, but nowhere in the Torah do we find mention of Abraham having prayed or asked for anything on Mt. Moriah! His answer was, there are midrashim that describe Abraham’s prayer; indeed, we must assume that he prayed, for how could he not have?!
 
In my opinion this represents a revolutionary approach to understanding the story of the Akeda. The story is usually viewed as the clearest expression of the superhuman quality (some would say, the inhuman quality) demanded of a servant of God in an extreme situation of self-sacrifice for the sake of kiddush Hashem. In Rav Amital’s view, inspired by Rav Kook, the episode conveys a supremely humane message. The greatness of the man of faith is reflected not in the suppression of his feelings, but rather – on the contrary – it is the harsh doubts and grappling on the road to fulfilling God’s command that reflect the most desirable path for a servant of God.
 
Furthermore, Rav Amital made explicit mention of current events, thereby revealing something of the educational motives, inter alia, underpinning this idea: “We are familiar with this phenomenon of suppressing all human or fatherly feelings while in the throes of religious ecstasy. In biblical times this found expression in the worship of Moloch, and in our times, we see the same attitude in the response of our neighbors to the death of a ‘shahid.’” It was so important to Rav Amital to emphasize the huge difference between the noble act of Abraham and the abominable acts of those concerning whom we say, “He has not made our portion like theirs, nor our lot like all of their multitudes.” Indeed, he went so far as to state that “had Abraham’s test lacked this human dimension, the Akeda would not only lose its grandeur, but perhaps the whole episode would have been illegitimate and invalid”!
 
This reveals one of the foundations of Rav Amital’s thought. There are approaches that see uprooting the human dimension and suppressing it before God’s will as the pinnacle of serving God and fear of Heaven. By suppressing one’s lowly human side, man can achieve true closeness to his Maker. This sense of closeness to God gives a person an uplifting, purifying spiritual experience. However, this uplifting experience is, by its nature, disconnected from everyday life and the moral challenges that it brings. Rav Amital viewed this as a great danger.
 
The purpose of the selection of Abraham is described by God: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment, that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him” (Gen. 18:19). The “way of the Lord” is “to do justice and judgment,” and the opposite must also be true: a path that does not lead a person to justice and judgment in everyday life is not the way of the Lord! For this reason, Rav Amital presents us with an approach that seeks and finds fear of Heaven here in this world. It is specifically through our humanity, with all its doubts, pains, and deficiencies, with all the moral challenges that it entails, that we embody the fear of Heaven. The encounter between God and man takes place in the human realm. Man may indeed be required to subordinate his will to the will of God, but he will find himself doing so with questions, uncertainties, and prayers. What God desires most is the heavenly expanses that open up from within man’s inner turmoil and from among the fragments of his broken heart.
 
Rav Amital would often quote the comment of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk on the verse, “And you shall be holy men unto Me”: God says, “Holy angels I have in droves up in heaven; it is holy men – holy with a human holiness – that I seek.”
 
This path is both easier and more difficult. On one hand, it is easier, because a person feels comfortable with himself, with his humanity, and this approach reassures him: “It is not in the heavens, nor is it over the sea…for the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it.” On the other hand, this path is also more difficult and demanding. Sometimes it is easier to ascend to the heavens than to bring the heavens down to Earth. Disconnecting from the here and now allows for an overpowering religious experience that can carry a person to lofty spiritual heights. In contrast, the demand that we be holy people, filled and motivated by human holiness, demands hard work, honesty, pure motives, ethical standards, and morality within a complex and challenging world which generally is not accompanied by uplifting experiences of spiritual exultation.
 
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“Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.” It would seem that the fear of falseness, of what is superficial and alien, motivated Rav Amital and drew him, again and again, toward a primal, authentic simplicity. Rav Amital invites us to discover the depth of simplicity, the simple shofar blast that emanates from the innermost depths which is so necessary in our complicated world. As Rashi teaches in his comment on the Mishna in Rosh Hashana, “The shofar of Rosh Hashana is a straight (literally, “simple”) antelope’s horn.” The reason is explained in the Gemara: that matters of prayer require simplicity.
 
In one of his sichot Rav Amital cites the testimony about Rabbi Shimshon of Chinon who, having studied all the proper kabbalistic kavanot for prayer, prayed a simple prayer “like an infant.” Between the lines we detect a subtle reservation about delving into the kabbalistic sphere. He seems to be concerned about the disconnection from the experience of living a simple, human life of divine service as well as the sense of superiority that might develop as a result.
 
Rav Amital greatly loved the teaching of the Sefat Emet on the verse, “How beautiful are your footsteps in sandals (bane’alim), O prince’s daughter!” The excitement and enthusiasm is at its best when it is safely and securely concealed (bane’alim = locked away). Making it public cheapens it, sometimes even distorts it. Pure, clean divine service belongs in the inner recesses of the psyche. Its heart beats quietly within; its voice is not heard.
 
For this reason, Rav Amital repeatedly cites Chazal’s teaching, “One’s prayer is not heard unless he makes his heart like flesh.” As Rashi explains, “‘Like flesh’ – which is soft, and not like stone, which is hard.”
 
After praising this quality of softness and tenderness, Rav Amital concludes with the wish “that our prayers be like the prayer of an infant.”
 
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Another central element in Rav Amital’s teachings relates to the relationship between the individual and the community, the personal and the communal. In his sichot for the month of Elul, Rav Amital would cite Chazal’s teaching in Tractate Rosh Hashana, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself like a sheliach tzibbur and showed Moses the order of prayer.” From this wondrous image of God wrapped in a tallit Rav Amital drew two messages about how one should pray. The wrapping in the tallit represents the de-emphasis of the ego. Excessive preoccupation with “I” and “me” borders on arrogance, and petitions aimed solely at the needs of the individual are compared in the holy Zohar to the barking of a dog.
 
At the same time, a person must beware of the other extreme of self-abasement. Each one of us is a sheliach tzibbur and needs to feel the communal responsibility that he bears. Every person who stands in prayer in the synagogue is also a sheliach tzibbur for all of Israel – including those who never set foot in a synagogue, even during the Yamim Nora’im.
 
“I dwell amongst my people,” declares the Shunamite woman, and from her we learn that the prayer of the individual is in its proper place only when it is part of the prayer of the community.
 
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The authenticity in Rav Amital’s sichot, their genuineness, captured the hearts of his listeners. One of the reasons is the feeling that Rav Amital integrated the private, individual realm with communal and national concerns. His personal background as a survivor of the Holocaust finds expression here and there in his sichot, as he shares his thoughts of that dark time and the implications for us today.
 
In one of his sichot Rav Amital cites the verse, “The Lord is near to those who are broken-hearted,” and comments that “after the Holocaust, the entire Jewish people is included in the category of the ‘broken-hearted.’” The footsteps of redemption and revival also resounded in his heart, without obscuring the abyss left by the Holocaust. The Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel, the two most dramatic events in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple, play a central role in Rav Amital’s teachings – both as a private individual, a sensitive soul, a survivor of that terrible conflagration, and as a leader, educator, and public intellectual with a well-developed sense of history.
 
Rav Amital held a complex religious worldview. His demand for profound simplicity in man’s relationship with God was light years away from a simplistic religious view. After the Holocaust, any simplistic approach to divine providence in the world is a dangerous pretension. Concerning his own feelings during that time, Rav Amital wrote, “I saw before my eyes the hand of God, but I did not understand its meaning.” This complex experience of confronting the secret of God’s Presence, full of faith and non-comprehension at the same time, was clearly evidenced in Rav Amital’s sichot during the Yamim Nora’im in his words, in his silences, and in the space between them.
 
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Rav Amital’s students joke that a new berakha was instituted in our beit midrash: “who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to hear the cry of an infant.” Rav Amital recounted over and over the story of the Admor HaZaken who once rebuked his son for having been so immersed in his study that he failed to hear the crying of an infant in his cradle. In the sichot for the Yamim Nora’im too, in between the discussion of Selichot, the prayers, and the shofar, there is the unmistakable sound of the infant crying.
 
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We cannot conclude our discussion without mentioning Rav Amital’s electrifying leading of the prayers on the Yamim Nora’im. His sichot were delivered before or during the prayer services and the sounding of the shofar. The depth, simplicity, honesty, and naturalness flowed seamlessly from his sichot to his prayers and from his prayers to the sichot, until it seemed at times that they had merged together.
 
The sicha preceding Ne’ila had its own special status. As the gates of heaven were closing, before pouring out his heart before his Creator, Rav Amital would sing, with a special melody, the words of the midrash on the verse in Song of Songs: “I sleep, but my heart wakes: hark, the sound of my beloved knocking, saying, ‘Open for me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled, for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.’… I rose up to open for my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, and my fingers with flowing myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.”
 
What is that “sound of my beloved knocking?” Rav Amital would ask, and his answer was that those feelings of uplift that we experienced throughout the day are themselves the sound of our Beloved knocking. It is not from the expanses of the infinite that the Beloved calls to His bride; it is not from the distant heavens that the Holy One, blessed be He, is revealed to man; but rather from within the fragments of his own broken heart: “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth.”
 

[1] Rav Yehuda Amital, When God Is Near: On the High Holidays, ed. Rav Yoel Amital, transl. Kaeren Fish (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2015). This essay appears as the afterword to the book and is excerpted with permission.