Rav Yehuda Amital and the Secret of Jewish Continuity
Tonight is the seventh Yahrzeit of Rav Yehuda Amital, founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He was influential in many ways on the Dati Leumi scene, both initiating religious approaches that became mainstream and diverging from the consensus at other times.
Having spent several years learning at the Gush in the twilight of Rav Amital’s career, I had the extraordinary fortune of counting him among those who have had a profound influence on my Judaism.
His legacies include the establishment of one of the first Yeshivot Hesder, as he combined a Lithuanian yeshiva curriculum with not only army service but also a certain Hasidic and spiritual flavor; significant theological contributions on natural ethics, theology of history, and Kiddush and Hillul Hashem; and the publication of several volumes of traditional Talmudic and halakhic novella. Throughout his speeches and writings, he consistently focused on recognizing and appreciating the complexity of life—his favorite slogan was “ein patentim, no shortcuts”—even in the face of countervailing trends. Over his public life, he shifted from supporting the far-right Gush Emunim to founding the left-wing religious Meimad party, for which he served as a government minister following the Rabin assassination.
In honor of this year’s Yahrzeit, I wish to honor Rav Amital’s legacy by presenting one of his favorite teachings, and to do so by means of a Derasha, an art form that he mastered.
Editor’s Note: The following Derasha, entitled “Transitions, Stability, and Ritual: Parshat Pinhas and the Secret to Jewish Continuity,” was originally presented on July 15, 2017, at Lincoln Square Synagogue.
Parshat Pinhas is full of transitions.
We begin with the wrap-up of the Pinhas story, where Pinhas had just killed Kozbi and Zimri. As a reward, he receives both a “Covenant of Peace” and a “Covenant of Priesthood,” which, according to the Rabbis, marks his transition into the priestly status.
Pinhas’s actions had served to stop a plague, which was occasioned by the Midianites and had killed many Jews. Following this epidemic, which itself came on the heels of God’s wiping out Korach’s rebellion, our Parsha features a lengthy headcount of all the Israelites.
The count fulfills three distinct purposes. First, it is a way of taking stock of the damage left in the wake of destruction. Rashi compares this to a shepherd who counts his sheep after they were ravaged by wolves. He offers another reason as well: Moshe had counted the Israelites when he first assumed the mantle of leadership, and now, as his time is winding down, he counts them again before ending his tenure.
Thirdly, as the verses make clear, the census is tied to the division of the land that the people are poised to enter. As the verses tell us, those who are counted stand to receive a portion of Eretz Yisrael.
We are then presented with elaborate details of the partitioning of the land, its division among the tribes, both large and small. We hear about the daughters of Tzelofhad: what if someone has only daughters—do they receive a portion?
Parshat Pinhas discusses Moshe’s request for a leader to replace him. God designates as Yehoshua, and Moshe passes the spirit of leadership on to him.
All in all, the census of the people, and the three reasons surrounding it—the plague, Moshe’s looming exit, and the impending communal entry to the land of Israel—delineate a clear transition period. Not only does Pinhas experience a change in status, but the entire People of Israel are about to undergo one as well. Israel has just endured a plague, and is now counting itself in preparation for receiving a new leader and entering the Land.
In the middle of this lengthy count, we are told, very poignantly, that no one survived the time in the desert, save for Kalev and Yehoshua, the two “good” spies. God had decided that everyone else would perish in the desert and not enter the Land of Israel, on account of the nation’s acceptance of the negative report of the other ten spies. No man who had left Egypt—but for Kalev and Yehoshua—was to experience the Holy Land.
It is thus a full transition—a complete changeover from one generation to the next, from one leader to the next, from one land to the next; in essence, a comprehensive shift in national identity.
It is safe to conclude, then, that transitions are thematically central to Parshat Pinhas.
And then we get to the next part of the Parsha. It’s anything but dynamic. It delineates the sacrifices designated for various occasions: a twice daily olah offering, and a combination of offerings to be brought every Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. As one might presume, there is a fair amount of repetition in the Torah’s description of what is required. It is a dry, monotonous account fleshing out the particulars of these sacrifices.
These are the types of passages that we often gloss over. There’s no plot line. The laws aren’t exciting or interesting; they just don’t speak to the contemporary human condition. It’s a repetitive listing of which animal offerings are required for this date and that, how much flour or oil to bring along with this type of animal.
In a sense, you could say that the text’s somewhat repetitive nature, its monotony, is representative of the bringing of sacrifices themselves. Every day, day in and day out, there is the same offering (Num. 28:4):
אֶת־הַכֶּ֥בֶשׂ אֶחָ֖ד תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה בַבֹּ֑קֶר וְאֵת֙ הַכֶּ֣בֶשׂ הַשֵּׁנִ֔י תַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה בֵּ֥ין הָֽעַרְבָּֽיִם
Offer one sheep in the morning and the other sheep in the afternoon.
Each is accompanied by a tenth of an Ephah of flour, mixed with oil, and a quarter-Hin of wine. This sacrificial combination is brought twice a day, 365 days a year, the same exact offering each time. And while some of the other offerings may take place less frequently—once a week, monthly, or annually—they too are not overly exciting. Each offering prescribes a very specific, set regimen of what is needed. There are no special ingredients to be offered. In fact, there is actually a prohibition against including a “secret sauce”—one may not include leaven or honey in any sacrifice on God’s altar!
A Midrash cited in the Ein Yaakov collection presents a discussion as to what the most important verse in the Torah might be. Several different opinions are offered by various rabbis. One invokes שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְקֹוָ֥ק אֶחָֽד, “Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). Another offers וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ, “Love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Both are clearly important verses, ones that might score high marks on a public poll. But the other opinion is most surprising: Shimon Ben Pazi says that the most important verse in the Torah appears in our Parsha—אֶת־הַכֶּ֥בֶשׂ אֶחָ֖ד תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה בַבֹּ֑קֶר וְאֵת֙ הַכֶּ֣בֶשׂ הַשֵּׁנִ֔י תַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה בֵּ֥ין הָֽעַרְבָּֽיִם, “Offer one sheep in the morning and the other sheep in the afternoon.” This position is perplexing—the key verse in the Torah is about sacrificing sheep? Even more surprising is the fact that this choice of verse is singled out as the authoritative position on the matter!
What is the message here? How can the most important verse be the most monotonous one?
But, of course, that is exactly Shimon ben Pazi’s point. It is precisely the most prosaic of pesukim, one describing the basic structure of a ritual done twice a day, day in and day out, that is the core of Torah. In a sense, it’s an answer that undermines the question. There is no singular “high point” in Judaism. It is the every day, every law, every verse, that counts. It is consistency in following tradition that is to be valued, rather than a search for the high point, a pinnacle of Judaism.
One often hears about new programs or initiatives that are promoted as meaningful, as exciting, that feature highlights of Judaism. And while there is certainly value in presenting the highlights and seeking meaning—and while Judaism undoubtedly offers both of those—I wonder whether something might be lost in the singular focus on these points, to the exclusion of the more prosaic.
It might be helpful to think about Shimon ben Pazi’s claim in the context of a familial relationship. Of course, one is going to have certain highlights of a relationship, whether it’s a special birthday party, anniversary dinner, a favorite vacation. But in order to have a relationship in the first place, in order for it to be possible to appreciate the high points, it is necessary to first establish a solid framework of commitment, of consistent support and love for one another. That might entail more mundane actions, such as washing dishes or taking out the garbage. Absent that foundation, that consistent connection at the base, the exciting events ring hollow. The same goes for one’s relationship with God and religion.
While Judaism doesn’t currently practice sacrifice, this paradigm can explain why Judaism does have set prayer three times a day, corresponding to the Temple sacrifices. The prayers have a set, unchanging, text that repeats daily, and at times weekly or monthly. Although one might experience high points in prayer from time to time, the structure doesn’t exactly lend itself to ecstatic rapture; there won’t always be a new revelation each time you attend synagogue. But the structure is in place in order to offer an avenue to consistently demonstrate one’s fealty to God. One’s religious identity is constituted by following this and other rituals, by going to synagogue and saying prayers, by putting on tefillin, by lighting Shabbat candles or doing any other mitzvah. When we attend Shul, whether it is אֶת־הַכֶּ֥בֶשׂ אֶחָ֖ד תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה בַבֹּ֑קֶר, for daily services, or whether it’s וּבְיוֹם֙ הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת, coming weekly on Shabbos, it is the consistency that is central, the fact that there is a set time in one’s schedule for their relationship with God.
And this all brings me back to Rav Amital. He was very fond of this Midrash of Shimon ben Pazi, and would quote it quite frequently. Despite his personal charisma, and his spiritual nature—in many ways he resembled a Hasidic Rebbe—his message was clear: constancy and consistency, אֶת־הַכֶּ֥בֶשׂ אֶחָ֖ד תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה בַבֹּ֑קֶר, are the core tenets of being an observant Jew. There may be flashes of religious brilliance from time to time, but one cannot rely on that; one must build a religious framework from the ground up in order to advance as a religious Jew, in order to dependably keep God in our lives.
The message of korbanot, of the consistent offering to God day in and day out, week in and week out, is indeed a powerful one. And its message is rendered all the more powerful on account of its positioning in Parshat Pinhas. The Jewish People are situated at a major crossroads, in a real transitional period: a new land waits ahead, to be entered by new leadership, as well as a new followership, a new population. You can imagine the people, contemplating what lies ahead, bewildered by the changing landscape, fearful of what the promised land promises them. Everything was changing—the leadership, the people, the land.
But one thing was going to stay the same throughout. It will always be the same God, the same Torah, the same rituals, the same offerings. אֶת־הַכֶּ֥בֶשׂ אֶחָ֖ד תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה בַבֹּ֑קֶר, the religion remains the same, day in and day out. Moshe may pass on, but God can find a replacement for him, Yehoshua. The generation of the desert may expire, but their children and children’s children hold fast to that very same Torah. Yes, the Land of Israel may hold unexpected things in store. But if the Torah was able to keep the Jewish people in good stead through their desert travels, it should serve to sustain them in Eretz Yisrael as well, only on a higher spiritual plane.
If the first half of our Parsha depicts a people nervous about what the future holds in store, the second half, with its prosaic listing of sacrifices, subtly responds to precisely those concerns. The Torah will sustain Israel amidst all the changes—it will always be the same sacrifices, the same religion, the same God.
Rav Amital was among a number of Torah scholars who survived the scourge of the Holocaust, finding himself in a new land with a new group of people. He experienced, in his description, a world built and then destroyed. What he maintained, and what maintained him, was his commitment to Torah study and to Jewish tradition. He endeavored to pass on what he had learned, to teach another generation how to be true to Torah Judaism, to be deeply committed to Torah and Halacha while seeing it as inseparable from ethics, to build a holy and healthy Land of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. As he put it, his world could be rebuilt once again, upon the bedrock foundation of Torah Judaism.
The message of our Parsha—and the message of Rav Amital’s life—is, in a sense, what Jewish History is all about. The Jewish People has flourished at times, and suffered at others. We have been autonomous and subservient, prominent and obscure, powerful and powerless, shifting along with the vagaries of history. But one thing has remained consistent throughout—אֶת־הַכֶּ֥בֶשׂ אֶחָ֖ד תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה בַבֹּ֑קֶר, the daily commitment to religion—and it has held the Jewish People together throughout it all. There is a reason that Psalmist says לוּלֵ֣י ת֭וֹרָתְךָ שַׁעֲשֻׁעָ֑י אָ֝֗ז אָבַ֥דְתִּי בְעָנְיִֽי, “If not for your Torah, God, my pastime, I would have been lost and forsaken.” Rituals are the constant throughout Jewish history, sustaining Israel amidst whatever challenges come its way.
All told, this profound yet simple message is the extraordinary legacy of Rav Yehuda Amital: entering Eretz Yisrael against great adversity, and adapting to the new challenges and opportunities of the Holy Land, while persisting in the Torah and traditions he had learned in Europe in his youth. He taught, by doctrine and by example, that there are no shortcuts. The righteous live by their consistent devotion to the Torah and Halakhah, thus ensuring Jewish continuity.
May Rav Amital’s teachings and memory be for a blessing.
Yehi Zikhro Barukh.