Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rav Amital zt"l had a great deal of influence on me and I'd like to say a few personal words about him, inadequate as they may be.

Let me begin by observing that eulogies of the "he was a talmid chacham but nevertheless he was a decent human being" variety are less appreciations of the deceased than they are damning indictments of our society. I'll try to turn this into more of an appreciation by being more specific about the particular kind of decent human being he was, but if a bit of implicit indictment remains, so be it.

Rav Amital was comfortable in his own skin. He never tried to impress himself or others. He was resistant to rigid ideologies of any sort; he didn't get carried away and he didn't generally over-react to events. In short, he was very level-headed and wise, the kind of person you wanted at your side during a crisis.

Rav Amital came by this gift of character honestly. He was never exposed to the disconnected elitism of cloistered Litvishe yeshiva bocherim or of Hungarian rebbishe einiklech, since he was neither. (In fact, his family was Hungarian and non-chassidish.) He loved baalabatim because he came from a world of baalabatim and he never left that world. He was exposed to enough of life and saw enough tragedy not to share the enthusiasms of the provincial.

When I came to the Gush not long after the Yom Kippur war, it was natural for the chutznikim to gravitate to Rav Lichtenstein, with whom we had a common language. But the yeshiva was very small then and we got to know Rav Amital well. Eight talmidim of the yeshiva had fallen in the Yom Kippur War and it had taken a great toll on Rav Amital; he was plainly somewhat depressed the whole year.

On Purim, he invited all the Americans to his home in Givat Mordechai for the seudah. (There were 18 of us.) A prominent dati-leumi personality (DLP) was invited as well and every time Rav Amital asked him to say a few words, he would answer "od lo bamadregah" and have another drink and another pickle. Finally, he stood up, declared he was bamadregah and launched into an unending tirade about kedushas Eretz Yisrael and how the "Amerikakim" don't understand any of this. He insisted that Rav Amital's daughter Ayelet bring him some soil so he could show the Amerikakim what ahavat Eretz Yisrael is all about. She did and he made a brachah and ate the soil, while Ayelet shouted "DLP, zeh zevel! DLP, zeh zevel!" In the meantime, whenever he could get a word in edgewise, Rav Amital would try to explain that the main thing isn't soil but people. He'd shout "DLP, ha-ikar zeh Am Yisrael!"but his heroic efforts failed to sway DLP, who finally insisted that "Kresh" (Rav Amital's son-in-law, Shmulik Karsh) drive us all to some hill near Beit Fajar, so he could prostrate himself.

I mention all this not just because it was, in some bizarre way, a formative experience for many of us, but because it was also the first time we could actually witness the subtle transformation that Rav Amital was undergoing. He had recently published his book "Hamaalot MiMaamakim", which was in most ways of the Kooknik atchalta de-geulah genre. But already then it seemed that he had seen too much life to inhabit the world of fantasy and he had too much empathy for people to sacrifice them to ideology.

All this came more and more to the fore as the Kooknik roadmap towards redemption diverged increasingly from the reality he saw with his eyes. He began Meimad as a contra to Kooknik determinism. Unfortunately, what began as a forum for clear-eyed realism was in short order taken over by fantasists of a far more pernicious sort and Rav Amital ultimately abandoned politics (probably considerably later than he should have).

But anyone who knew him understands that Rav Amital was never interested in politics, only in Am Yisrael. The images I will retain of him are of a warm, empathetic, down-to-earth mensch, who also happened to be a great talmid chacham.

I will remember him on Purim with a toy guitar singing Sol a Kokosh Mar.

I will remember when Andy K. and I stayed with the Amitals for Shabbos and after the lights went out on Friday night and the family went to sleep, we somehow messed up the dial-a-flush toilet and water started shpritzing in all directions and Rav Amital came out in his pajamas and the three of us were all crowded into this tiny bathroom in the pitch black trying to figure something out.

I will remember when I came to say goodbye to Rav Amital at the end of my year in Gush and he said to me "Ben, lama ata ozev otanu?" and instead of treating it as the rhetorical question it was, I began to stammer and I decided right that very second that I would return to Israel to live at the very first opportunity.

It has been 30 years since I returned here and I have never forgotten my debt to him. I only wish I had told him. Yehe zichro baruch.