Stories Rav Amital Told; Stories of Rav Amital by Yonatan Shai Freedman
(Delivered on Shabbat afternoon Parashat Eikev 5770 at Congregation Etz Chaim, Kew Gardens Hills, NY)


Put it simply: three weeks ago, Am Yisrael lost a gadol.  Rav Yehuda Amital passed away at the age of 85.  He was a Holocaust survivor who made aliya, fought in the War of Independence, founded Yeshivat Har Etzion where he served as its rosh yeshiva, and served as a minister in the Knesset.  In the three weeks since his death, I have heard or read many eulogies and obituaries containing his biographical information and life story.  Some tried to summarize and present his hashkafa and shitot.  Those are both monumental tasks best left to someone who knew him much longer than I did, and those who are interested should check out the haretzion.org website to see the long list of eulogies they have compiled.

I speak here today to provide a first-hand account of my memories of Rav Amital. I will tell you some of the stories he told – the ones he repeated most often – that I heard directly from him, to allow you to receive the message he imparted to me and my fellow students.  But the stories I will tell you about him are not the “classic” oft-repeated Rav Amital stories that many of you have heard before, or that the aforementioned eulogies are filled with.  With one exception, all these stories are my first-hand account.  I hope that at the end you are left with a glimpse of a great man who was also the “yehudi pashut” or simple Jew that he strived to be.  In fact, he even said that he became a rosh yeshiva to show people that even a “yehudi pashut” can be a rosh yeshiva.

None of the eulogies were able to talk about Rav Amital without mentioning his famous story of the crying baby.  He told this story all the time.  The founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Ba'al Ha-Tanya, was studying Torah in the end room of a railroad flat.  Two rooms away there was a baby sleeping.  In the middle room, his grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek, was learning.  Suddenly, the Ba'al Ha-tanya, heard the baby cry.  The elder rebbe rose from his studying, passed through the room where his grandson was studying, and went to the next room to soothe the baby to sleep.  Meanwhile, his grandson was too involved in his studies to notice the baby crying.  On returning to his room, the Ba’al Ha-Tanya told his grandson to stop learning.  He proclaimed, “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear a baby’s cry, there is something very wrong with his learning.”  He explained that this was a founding principle of the yeshiva – we would learn Torah but still hear the baby’s cry.  In this vein, Rav Amital told us that when he saw the plans of the Beit Midrash and noted that it did not have windows, he immediately requested that the Beit Medrash have big windows.  A Beit Midrash must be connected to the outside world to hear the cries of Am Yisrael.

Rav Amital always wanted a kesher with his talmidim.  In his later years, as he was less involved with the yeshiva and had less personal contact with the talmidim, it was sadly no longer the case.  He used to tell us that we should come and ask him questions, but on a topic we care about.  He said one time at a public Q&A session, a talmid asked him, "What does Rav Amital think about the Big Bang?"  He answered, “Big Bang? Small Bang?  Mah zeh meshaneh li?”  (What difference does that make to me?).  He said there are people who are genuinely bothered by issues of how the Big Bang Theory fits with the pesukim in Bereishit.  But he knew that this talmid just heard that this is an issue and asked about it without caring.  To strengthen his point he told the following story.  On erev Shabbat, chassidim recite Shir Hashirim.  He told how one erev Shabbat a rebbe was in shul reciting Shir Hashirim to himself while seated around a table with his closest talmidim doing the same.  A man walked into the room, interrupted the rebbe and said, “Rebbe, my cow is sick.”  The rebbe stopped, “Oh no, your cow is sick?  Let's go look at it.”  He went and followed the man home and looked at his cow, blessed him that his cow should feel better and wished him hatzlacha.  When he returned to shul, one of his talmidim asked him why he would interrupt his Shir Hashirim just to go and look at this fellow's cow.  The rebbe told him that when he wants a kesher with his rebbe, he goes and asks him a shaylah or talks with him in learning.  But, that man was a simple farmer, and did not know how to talk in learning.  But he too wanted a kesher with the rebbe.  So he went and talked with the rebbe on a topic he knew - his cow.  Rav Amital would then beseech his talmidim to please come just to schmooze on any topic.  He reported that one year a talmid knocked on his office door.  Upon entering he said, “Harav, ha-parah ha-parah” (Rabbi, my cow, my cow).  He had nothing to talk about, but Rav Amital said it made him happy that he still wanted to talk, so he invited him in to just sit and schmooze for a few minutes.

Rav Amital often mocked religious fads and alternative methods of expressing piety or spirituality.  He was uninterested in doing beyond what he considered “normal.”  He used to tell us that if you want to become a talmid chakham, or even just a better person, “Ein Patentim” (there are no shortcuts).  You have to work on yourself and work hard.  You can't just use some segula to become great.  Someone once asked him whether it was still ok to do any of the segulas.  He told a story of the Ba’al Shem Tov.  There was a rabbi who came to town giving out segulas for different things.  Some talmidim asked the Besht whether the visitor was legitimate and how they could know.  He said to go and ask him if he has a segula that will get you to concentrate and eliminate foreign thoughts during davening.  If he has one, then he is a fraud.

If you ask me, that might be why the use of Kabbala as a religious thrill bothered him so much (in addition to it becoming diluted for celebrities like Madonna, whose name I heard him mention a few times in that context).  There is an organization called Beit Medrash Tair, very involved in reaching out to chilonim.  One of their standard activities is offering informal classes in popular Tel Aviv cafes.  The organizers are Gush alumni and they viewed Rav Amital as their posek.  They once told him that they currently get only a handful of attendees each time, but that if they were to teach Kabbala they would have a packed and overflowing house.  He responded that better no one should come than they teach Kabbala.

Rav Amital really lived out his ideal of hearing the baby’s cry, and often would speak out on the pressing issues of the day.  On the last night of each zman in yeshiva, there is always an all-night learning mishmar.  At about 2-3 AM, the roshei yeshiva would speak to the talmidim.  In 2005, Rav Amital used that opportunity to discuss some things he heard recently that really bothered him about the upcoming Disengagement from Gush Katif.  He said, “I heard some people say, ‘This won't happen as God will not let it happen.’”  That was a common sentiment, one I heard from an American gadol even the week before the disengagement took place.  Rav Amital said chas ve-shalom anyone should say that or even think that.  He said, “If someone gets up and says ‘I am an expert in politics, and I predict based on all my experience and knowledge that this will not happen’ that is legitimate.”  I am an expert in sociology, history, government, etc. and this won't happen - all legitimate.  But Rav Amital continued, I lived through the Holocaust.  We do not know or understand Hashem's ways and bad things happen.  Such a thing CAN happen.  It is dangerous if anyone says Hashem will not let this happen.  Unfortunately, how right Rav Amital was, as it did happen, and even worse, some people did lose their faith because they believed those who said Hashem would not let such a thing happen.  On a related note, it also bothered Rav Amital when he would hear someone say that they knew the reason any tragedy happened, for example that the Holocaust happened to get us the land of Israel.  He would say there is no explanation that a human can offer that will suffice to explain the atrocities of the Holocaust, not even the Land of Israel.

Speaking of the Shoah, on more than one occasion I heard Rav Amital dispel the notion common in some books about gedolim that in pre-war Europe everyone was a tzaddik.  He used to say there were more frum people in the Knesset than the town council in Vilna.  He added that this is further proof that closing yourself off from the world is not a fool-proof method to remain frum.

The Rosh Hashanah that took place after the attacks on 9/11, Rav Amital spoke about the torah reading of Akeidat Yitzchak and he got up and said “See?  Hashem doesn't want human sacrifices.  The biggest issue with these attacks is that they were perpetrated in God's name.  How can they distort what God wants so much?  Isn't it clear from the akeida that he does not want such a thing?  This is a great chilul Hashem that they claim to be serving you by performing these atrocities!”

While on the topic of drashot, I must tell you the following story.  Every year Rav Amital would be in yeshiva for Shabbat Bereishit, the first Shabbat of the zman, and there would be a big tish attended by all the rebbeim.  During Friday night davening, Rav Amital gave the same speech for at least the few years that I was there (sometimes also mentioning how someone asked him about the Big Bang theory).  He said that I read through this parasha and I don't understand a single word.  I don't know what tohu va-vohu is.  I don't know what it means to have erev va-voker before the sun and moon were created.  He would list many things and say I don't understand one word!  All I know is one thing - Hashem created the world.  If you want to say it was evolution, the Big Bang, six days of creation or any other theory or explanation of beriyat ha-olam – those are all legitimate, as long as you say Hashem was behind it pulling the strings.  One year, as a fluke of the calendar, the first Shabbat was Parashat Noach.  An eager crowd gathered to hear what Rav Amital would say.  He got up and said that I used to give a speech about how I didn't understand Parashat Bereishit.  But I always thought it stopped there, and I understood from Noach and on.  This year I was going through the parasha and I realized I don't understand anything here either.  I hope it stops there, because for all I know it's Lech Lecha too!

There was also a tish with Rav Amital and all the ramim for Shabbat Zachor.  There, one of the ramim once told the following story in front of Rav Amital, and Rav Amital verified it.  He said there was a meeting of the ramim preceding a term when the yeshiva would be studying Bava Metzia.  Someone suggested that starting at the beginning might be difficult for new talmidim and that they should choose somewhere else for them to start.  They all began thinking where to begin from.  After a moment’s pause, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein suggested that they begin with - as best as I can recall the story – Bava Metzia 91a.  No one had any objection and they were ready to move on to their next topic.  Suddenly, Rav Amital interrupted, “Can someone please go get me a gemara?  I want to see what's on Bava Metzia 91a.”

At one of the Shabbat Zachor tishes, he commented that all his years of giving speeches taught him something.  If you gave a speech for 20 minutes, then you could have done it in 15.  One of the talmidim called out, “Why don't you ever say that when Rav Lichtenstein is here?”  Rav Amital replied, “Believe me that would not work.”

Rav Amital was practical.  He definitely was someone who drank on Purim and at the Shabbat Zachor tish, and was fine if anyone else wanted to drink also.  But I recall that at his tish on Shabbat Zachor my shana aleph, Rav Amital said that anyone in the yeshiva who wanted to drink was welcome to, and a minimal quantity of alcohol would be provided.  But, he continued, what is not allowed is for anyone to influence another person to drink or get drunk.

At one tish he told us that we have all these trappings for Shabbat and we think we are really experiencing the joy of Shabbat.  However, he said that in the Holocaust, when he was working at forced labor, he managed to procure a second shirt.  As Shabbat would enter he would change his shirt – and that was true elation in honor of Shabbat.

One of the ramim at one Shabbat Zachor tish told a story about that year’s recent yeshiva dinner and again Rav Amital concurred.  Someone decided that Rav Amital needed to speak in English.  They helped him prepare very short remarks that he somehow managed to deliver.  But he would not suffice with that.  At the end of the small paragraph of thanks in English, he quickly switched to Hebrew.  He said that was for the guests.  “Allow me to switch to Hebrew and let me speak to my talmidim directly for a moment.”  In Hebrew he then said, “You all should make aliyah.  How much longer will you stay here?  You are needed in Eretz Yisrael.”

Though Rav Amital viewed himself as a “yehudi pashut,” he did have an idea of what he really was.  He told us that in the shul where he davened in Givat Mordechai, he noticed that they were waiting for him each day to begin chazarat ha-shatz.  After a few days he told the gabbai not to wait.  He imagined a scenario where the malakhim hear all the tefillot and then it suddenly stops.  When they ask what happened they are told, “mechakim le-Amital” (we are waiting for Rav Amital), a situation he wanted to avoid.  The gabbai responded that they need someone to wait for, and if he would tell him for whom to wait, he would instruct the chazzan accordingly.  Rav Amital scanned the room for a minute looking for a suitable candidate and said, “OK you can wait for me.”

Being an honest person was very important to Rav Amital, but it was also part of the larger framework of being a normal person.  At the end of my Shana Bet, Rav Amital spoke with the group of talmidim about to enter the army.  He took some questions and gave some advice.  I recall two specific instructions of his.  In the Israeli army, every single bit of equipment is signed for, and at the end of your service or stay at a specific base, you must return it or pay for any missing items.  It is not that this specific helmet is signed for, but that you signed for a helmet, and if you give back a helmet - any helmet - you are off the hook.  This has led many people missing equipment to just take someone else's equipment.  There is even a term that is used “le-hashlim tziyud” - bridging gaps in equipment.  Rav Amital was obviously very against this.  He said that just because you call it “le-hashlim” and the Torah says “lo tignov” and not “lo tashlim” it does not make it ok.  If you know that your equipment is missing because of someone using yours to be mashlim, when you leave you should tell them and say that I can't stoop to that level because Rav Amital told me so.  The other bit of advice he gave was that if your commander is working you very hard and having you run say 20 laps, and you have done 18 or 19, and he says have you done all 20, you can say “yes.”  That's part of being normal.

Rav Amital got the aliya of Kol Nearim on Simchat Torah whenever he was not Chatan Torah.  He took great pride in having the children of the Ramim and kollel, including his own grandchildren, joining him for the aliya.  He would get up to the bima and turn to all the kids and say “you all have to say the bracha together with me.”  Once a yound grandson of Rav Amital got up to do Anim Zemirot in yeshiva.  Rav Amital got up from his seat to go stand somewhere with a better view of the bima, motioned to someone to move a tallit sitting on the bima out of the way as it was blocking his view of the short child, and even asked a person who walked over and moved in his view to move out of the way.  He stood there, back to the aron, just watching his grandson and shepping nachas.

One time, during a Friday night meal, at the completion of one of the zemirot, Rav Amital stood up and said that there was a lot of talking during the zemirot and “if any of you were a guest in my house and talked during zemirot I would not invite you back.”  The lesson was taken to heart as everyone joined in on the next zemer.

Rav Amital often held question and answer sessions with the talmidim.  This was a good chance to hear his views on issues and receive his advice.  It was also a great opportunity to see Rav Amital’s extraordinary sense of humor.  In one of my early years in yeshiva there was a story in the newspaper about a child in Bet Shemesh who was approached with a New Testament by a missionary and brought it with him to school.  The teacher took the class outside and burned it in some sort of group participation ceremony.  When asked his opinion, Rav Amital said, “Mah ani yachol lomar?  Sekhel lo mechalkim be-chinam.”  (What can I say?  Common sense is not given out free).

New talmidim entering Yeshivat Har Etzion are often regaled with great stories about the roshei yeshiva.  One of those stories is often about Rav Amital's service in the IDF.  At one question and answer session a student wanted some more info.  Expecting a long list, he asked Rav Amital which wars he fought in.  Rav Amital said “Milchemet Ha'atzmaut” (the War of Independence).  The student said, “Zeh ha-kol?” (That's it?).  Rav Amital answered, “Lo maspik lecha?”  (Is that not enough for you?).

Rav Amital was well aware that his psakim were not always in line with Rav Lichtenstein, and that it was known that Rav Amital's were usually more lenient.  He once commented that everyone knows that he says that Americans in Israel should keep one day of yontif while Rav Lichtenstein says that there is some in-between halakhic status, known colloquially as “one and a half days.”  Yet, despite this public knowledge, he said that each year people came over and asked him directly and he gave them his answer.  He quipped, “Maybe they feel better hearing it directly?”

Rav Amital's wife's grandfather was Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer.  Once he mentioned that when he wore his tallit to shul on Shabbat, he wore it under his coat.  Looking for some significance, I asked why.  He looked at me as though he were giving an obvious answer and said, “tzniut.”

Once someone asked him which mussar sefer Rav Amital was currently reading, hoping for a recommendation.  Rav Amital responded that he was not currently reading anything, and he said the boy should choose whichever sefer he feels will speak to him.  The following question was from someone who had just learned a halakha about not learning during davening and mentioned how sometimes that was hard if it was right before a shiur he needed to prepare for.  Rav Amital turned back to the first talmid and said, “That is why I don’t use a mussar sefer; I get mussar from questions like that because I always end up learning during davening when I’m not supposed to.”

This past year, like every year, Rav Amital davened from the amud on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and he delivered a speech or two as well.  He got sick shortly after Simchat Torah.  At his last question and answer session before Rosh Hashanah, the last time I heard him speak and take questions, someone asked if he had any recommended reading to get one inspired for teshuva in time for RH.  After confirming the questioner spoke Hebrew, Rav Amital then said “Mesilat Yesharim.”  After pausing for a moment he continued, “Ve-ha'aretz Natan Livnei Adam - ve-gam yesh et zeh be'anglit” a book of his teachings that had recently come out with a Hebrew and English version, eliciting the expected laughter from the room.

Rav Amital often bemoaned how the Dati Leumi community did not value the chareidi gedolim and vice versa, and he would specifically note how few dati leumi people he saw at a specific gadol's levaya.  If he had any kesher with that gadol, he would deliver a eulogy in yeshiva.  When Rav Shach passed away, to whom Rav Amital was distantly related, Rav Amital told a very interesting story.  He said that a ba'al teshuva once came to Rav Shach.  His not-as-frum parents wanted him to come home and visit.  They are willing to be kosher for that purpose, but in the area where they live there is only Rabbanut kashrut, and not the standard of Badatz that he, their son, kept.  With tears Rav Amital told Rav Shach's response, “Rabbanut lo treif.”  Rabbanut food is kosher, and Rav Amital explained, even if it is not up to your standard, how can you let that interfere with your kesher with your parents and your kibbud av va-eim?

Even the most casual observer of his life should be able to pick out the 2 decisions of Rav Amital that exemplify his greatness.  Rav Amital said that he founded the yeshiva because he wanted to show people that a simple Jew, not the greatest mind of the generation, can be a rosh yeshiva.  Three years after it opened, Rav Amital invited someone to take over as rosh yeshiva, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.  Rav Lichtenstein refused to replace him and agreed only to work alongside Rav Amital as co-roshei yeshiva.  Rav Lichtenstein IS one of the gedolim of our generation, and Rav Amital was willing to invite someone into his own yeshiva who in many areas would overshadow and far surpass him.  How many would be willing to do that?  How many organizations with 2 people at the head of it manage to last that way for 40 years, each one according the other one great respect?  Rav Amital’s second act of greatness was his decision to step down and allow students of his to replace him.  At the time of his decision, more than one yeshiva was falling apart due to a vicious struggle between different factions, each wanting their rebbe to take over as rosh yeshiva.  At one elite chareidi yeshiva, this led to smoke bombs, brass knuckles, and worse.  Rav Amital wanted to avoid that, and rather than live out his entire life as rosh yeshiva, something no one would tell him he is not entitled to do, he preferred to step down and arrange a peaceful transfer to the next generation.

Rav Amital did more than respect Rav Lichtenstein – he fought for others to respect Rav Lichtenstein.  Rav Amital once told of an event – perhaps a wedding – that he and Rav Lichtenstein attended.  He said that there were many rebbeim getting called up for all the honors.  Each rebbe was getting called up with lavish titles “Ha-gaon ha-rav Shlit"a” etc.  Then they called up Rav Lichtenstein and they just said “Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.”  Rav Amital said I decided that when they call me up, if I get more titles than Rav Lichtenstein I will not go up.  Sure enough, they lavished a few more titles on Rav Amital than they gave Rav Lichtenstein, and Rav Amital signaled that he was not interested and that they should replace him.

Again, don't think that just because he knew of Rav Lichtenstein's greatness that it was obvious to all.  The story is told that Rav Lichtenstein once drove Rav Amital to an army base to visit some talmidim serving there.  When they approached the gate, Rav Lichtenstein said to the guard, “The rabbi is here to see his talmidim.”  The guard responded, “OK, the rabbi can enter but the driver has to stay outside.”  I once asked Rav Lichtenstein if this story is true and Rav Lichtenstein replied, “It happened way more than once.”

I told you that I will tell you one story that is not a first-hand account.  I hope that you will agree with me that it was worthy of inclusion.  There is a talmid in yeshiva with a unique talent.  He is able to do a good imitation of many rebbeim in yeshiva, but his best one is clearly Rav Amital.  For a very long time, this talmid had two rules about his imitations - he would not do them during brachot or davening and he would not do them in front of the people he was imitating.  One Shabbat Zachor, as it helped raise some tzedaka, he acquiesced and agreed to do havdala in Rav Amital's voice right in front of Rav Amital – violating both his rules.  I'm sure it was one of the most hilarious havdalas in his lifetime.  After its completion, a clearly amused Rav Amital declared out loud for all to hear “Mushlam” (perfect).  Rav Amital had some favorite songs, and one was a special tune for “Vetaher Libenu” where every time we sang it, he sang a solo for the slow high part.  That next Shabbat after havdala, Rav Amital sang the song.  Noting this talmid’s skill, he had the talmid also take a turn singing the high part in his voice.  His wife was there and listening in and was confused enough to believe it was her husband singing, but as it might have been in a slightly different key, she got concerned that something was happening to his voice and asked him about it later.  Rav Amital later told this talmid that he had to tell her “zeh lo ani bichlal” (it was someone else).  At a later occasion, Rav Amital held an open house for talmidim to visit, like he did for most chagim, and that talmid attended.  Rav Amital's wife said “You know, I prefer the original to the imitation.”  The talmid replied, “I agree with you; I prefer hearing Rav Amital too.”  She said, “No, you misunderstood me.  You were so good that I am convinced you are the original and my husband is the imitation.”

I told you ALL those other stories JUST to tell you this one.  After I left yeshiva at the end of Shana Daled, I returned to yeshiva that summer with some high-school aged students as part of Bnei Akiva's Mach Hach Ba'aretz summer program.  Spotting me across the Beit Midrash he came over and said to me, “Rak hitpatarnu mimcha ve-kvar chazarta?” (We just got rid of you and you are back already?)  Later that week, Rav Amital held a question and answer session with the boys on the program.  He looked around the room for a familiar face, found me, and called me to the front of the room to translate, as he realized that not all of the program participants would understand his Hebrew.  This is one of the conversations I had to translate.  Someone asked him what he thought of co-education.  He responded with a story I heard from him on one other occasion as well.  He said that a few years back he visited the Frisch School and someone asked him the same question.  He responded, “ha-ba'aya hi lo ha-limmud; ha-ba'aya hi ma she-koreh acharei ha-limmud” (the learning is not the problem; the problem is what happens after the learning is done).  As a follow-up, someone asked him if he thought it was ok to be in a secular studies class taught by a woman.  Rav Amital, understanding the underlying premise that it was not ok for Judaic studies but it might be acceptable for secular, said that he sees no difference and that it is allowed for both secular and Judaic studies.  I was somewhat shocked by the chutzpah of that boy's skeptical follow-up: would you have a woman teach in your yeshiva?  Unfazed, Rav Amital responded that when Nechama Leibowitz was alive she gave classes in his yeshiva.

At the end of the Shabbat Zachor tish each year, the talmidim used to dance Rav Amital out and escort him, still singing, part of the way home.  He used to insist that we stop at the end of the yeshiva campus, I assume to not wake up the community.  At the end of the yeshiva campus there was a parking barrier to block cars.  The first 3 years of my participation, I remember those near him told him “ad ha-amud,” meaning that he should not worry, as they would escort him with singing only as far as that barrier.  My fourth year was the last year that I was there for Rav Amital’s Shabbat Zachor tish.  That year, as we danced him out, those near him again told him “ad ha-amud,” but due to some renovations taking place, the barrier was gone.  That year we got to escort him about 30 feet further than previous years, before he noticed.  What we would not give to be able to dance with him again.
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