A Sense of Mission
An Address on the Occasion of Harav Amital's 70th Birthday
[Yeshivat Har Etzion's annual dinner in 5755 (1995) was held in honor of the 70th birthday of our Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Yehuda Amital shlit"a. The following is his speech at the dinner.]
On this evening, when you have chosen to honor me on the occasion of my seventieth birthday, I feel the need to share some very personal feelings with you. I hope I will be able to express myself clearly.
Since the time I was informed that this dinner was to be in my honor, I have had mixed feelings. Together with a very natural sense of satisfaction, I have also felt somewhat uncomfortable. This is not due to modesty or shyness. Nor do I underestimate the value of what I have been privileged to accomplish. I thank God for having allowed me to play a role in various initiatives which are now so important in our lives. Some of them, I believe, are of historic significance. It is precisely my faith in their importance which impelled me to act. Furthermore, I thank God for having given me the strength to act and to express even unpopular opinions when I felt that the honor of God or the honor of the Torah was at stake, or when I felt that it would serve the good of the Jewish people or the land of Israel.
Above all, I feel it was a great privilege to participate in the founding of our yeshiva. I am filled with joy, satisfaction, and pride when I think that within several years of its founding, with Harav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit"a joining me as Rosh Yeshiva, our yeshiva became one of the world's great institutions of higher Torah education. It is great not merely in size, but in spirit - a unique spirit, which is a source of inspiration to many in Israel and the world over. Yet despite all this, I feel uncomfortable tonight.
This year I celebrate fifty years since my aliya to the land of Israel. In other words, fifty years since my salvation from the Holocaust.
Ladies and gentlemen, whether you believe me or not, I don't believe I was born with special abilities. Many years passed before I felt I could lead and not just be led. Let me relate to you an incident from my service in Israel's War of Independence. When I first arrived in Israel, I went to study in a yeshiva. There I joined the Hagana, and participated in underground weapons training. As you know, this was forbidden by the Mandatory government.
When the state was declared, I was drafted into the army, and some days later I was summoned to my commanding officer. I don't know his rank because the Israeli Army did not yet have uniforms. He said to me, "I see from the questionnaire which you filled out that you were a member of the Hagana. I don't know what training you received, but I assume you have held a weapon. I am placing thirty men under your command. They have just arrived from Cyprus and have never held a gun. After a day of training, you will take them to the front. We have no time; the Arabs are attacking and we must fight by all means possible."
I responded, "I will do anything you ask, but please do not ask me to be a commander. I understand that we must send men to fight without enough training, but I cannot see myself as their officer. I am not a leader. Please find someone else."
To this day my conscience disturbs me for not accepting the command, since the person who took my place was even less capable than me.
Over the years I have had a growing feeling that I am a representative of my friends who perished in the Holocaust. This sense of mission has grown stronger all the time. I feel that I have been given the strength and abilities of many of those who didn't survive, and I carry the burden of their expectations. I have no choice but to try to rise to this challenge. This has given me the strength and the drive to take initiative and even to lead.
On this night when you honor me out of esteem for my accomplishments, I ask one question. Where is the honor for those martyrs who for years have driven me and who continue to this day to drive me to achieve, with God's help? This is the source of the discomfort which mixes with my feeling of satisfaction tonight. I hope I have succeeded in conveying my emotions clearly. I feel an inner need to share this very personal feeling with you.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have no intention of retiring or of reducing my involvement in the yeshiva or in the community. As long as God gives me the strength, I will continue to work, with God's help, to the best of my ability. As my friend Rav Lichtenstein has already mentioned, I hope that, with God's help, we will continue to work together to disseminate Torah and to educate Torah scholars. We are fortunate in sharing the same educational goals, and if there exist differences in nuance between us, they only serve to enrich our students' spiritual worlds. We both aim to produce Godfearing Torah scholars, who possess moral sensitivity as well as a deep sense of responsibility towards the Jewish people - scholars whose spiritual goals on a personal level will not cause them to ignore the plights of individuals or of the community. We urgently need spiritual leadership which is relevant to our generation, which will know how to deal with this generation's problems.
I thank God that, despite the wide age gap between me and my students, I nevertheless feel that I am relevant to them. I believe I still have the ability to convey to them critical ideas and emotions in the realms of faith, morality, and the striving for truth. I thank God that I occasionally also have the opportunity to make myself heard outside the yeshiva and to impart Jewish messages to a public which is distant from Judaism. I see all this as a special privilege which God has graced me with.
Our time is a difficult one for the Jewish people. The ravages of assimilation are well-known. The dangers to the Jewish people are tangible. Even in the State of Israel the threat of the loss of Jewish identity is as pressing as elsewhere. Moreover, the state itself is in danger of losing its Jewish character. The State of Israel recently absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jews [from the former Soviet Union] who have never heard of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Aharon, David and Shlomo. We must try to provide them with a Jewish identity at a time when a significant portion of the Israeli public is itself totally removed from the sources of Judaism. There are today tens of thousands of youngsters in Israel whose level of Jewish knowledge approaches that of the Russian immigrants. The loss of Jewish identity poses a threat to the very existence of the State of Israel - literally, its existence. At a time like this, everyone is called to the banner - young and old, men and women, thinkers and activists.
The State of Israel is confronted today by two fateful issues: one, the question of its future borders, and two, the question of its national character.
The borders will be set in the coming years by the government in power at the time. The nature of the government is determined by the will of the voters. In a democratic system, every voter has an equal say. The vote of a wise person carries no more weight than the vote of a simpleton. So in the struggle over the future borders of the state, every citizen has an equal vote.
This is not the case in the struggle over the Jewishness of the state. That will not be determined by the Knesset. Anyone who probes the matter will realize that the epicenter of the cultural crisis is located within Israeli society itself. In this area, the government has limited influence. We need to treat the roots of the problem within society and not just the external symptoms. Not everyone has equal say in this matter. For example, we cannot compare the influence of the average citizen to thaof the intelligentsia. In this struggle, the influence of each person from our camp is determined according to three criteria:
First, the depth of his spirituality and Torah learning;
Second, the extent to which he cares about the nation's fate;
Third, his ability to establish genuine communication with a population which differs from him in its opinions, lifestyle, and culture.
I believe this is the most important struggle in the State of Israel, and to my dismay, not many people seem to understand this. There are many people who care deeply about the future of Israel and are prepared to devote their energy and financial resources to the battle over Israel's borders. But they pay little attention to the battle over the character of the State of Israel. In my opinion, it is only the latter which can ensure Israel's continued existence.
In the battle over the Jewishness of Israel, yeshivot like ours will have to stand in the front lines. And I am confident that our yeshiva, with God's help and with your aid and encouragement, will meet the challenge. On a personal level, I pray to God that He give me the strength to participate in this struggle for many more years.
Before ending my remarks, I will permit myself to say that one of my best ideas - the idea thanks to which we are all here tonight - was to invite my friend Rav Aharon Lichtenstein to serve with me as Rosh Yeshiva. I wish him health and length of days, and hope we can continue to serve our yeshiva together for many years to come.
If I am already speaking of good ideas, I must mention one more. It was a joint decision by my wife Miriam and me. The idea was for us to build a life together. I owe her very very much, but since we're not used to getting each other angry, I won't elaborate. I will just mention our warm and supportive family, which we have been privileged to build together, with God's grace, through harmony and love.
I will conclude by thanking you once again, in my wife's name and in my own, for all the warmth and friendship you have showered on us tonight.
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