Rabbi Amichai Gordin
Yeshivat Har Etzion and Shaalvim High School
The following article is dedicated with appreciation to all of the Olim from affluent countries, wherever they may be. Many of these people left behind large extended families, familiar communities, and profitable sources of income – and they journeyed to the unknown. Where do these Olim, who give up everything they have and move to Eretz Yisrael, get such great spiritual reserves? Where do they get the courage to leave behind a familiar culture and language and to move to a land that is so different than their own? Who among us, the “Tzabarim” who were born here, would be able to succeed in such a difficult test – to leave everything behind and move to Israel?
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On Rosh Chodesh Av 5731 (1971), the anniversary of the death of Aharon the High Priest, a routine flight from the United States landed at Ben Gurion Airport. A family that of Olim were on that plane. Looking back, it is clear that the absorption of the family was a huge success. But on that summer day, there was no way to predict the future. The father of the family was the “great white hope” of modern Torah study in the United States. All the Torah scholars that lived in the United States at the time had come from Europe. Many of them had serious doubts if it would be possible to raise serious Torah scholars in modern surroundings. The cultural gap between the youth growing up in the United States and the rabbis who came from Europe and taught their lessons in Yiddish was huge. (Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik was unusual in that he taught in English.) The general feeling of the young people at the time was that each side would remain separate from the other.
From this point of view, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein was a very important ray of light. Rav Aharon was “one of the boys,” he even knew how to play baseball and basketball, but in spite of this he had an unfathomable power in the study of Torah. As opposed to the common situation among the religious Zionists in Israel, where many students begin serious study only at the age of 18 or so, Rav Lichtenstein was already occupied in his youth in serious study. At the age of 18 he wrote a scholarly and deep treatise about the unfamiliar subject of Ziva, impure flows of bodily fluids. A year later the young man published an even more complex article on the subject of ritual impurity.
There was great hope for the future of the young rabbi. He showed the young men of America that the Torah is not only the property of Europe from the era “before the war.” This rabbi showed the people that there were other alternatives to the European model.
After ten years of teaching in Yeshiva University, Rav Lichtenstein asked the heads of the yeshiva for a leave of absence for one year. He explained, “I have been invited to join a new yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. I am not sure that this will be a success, and I would like to take a leave for a year or two in order to see how it works out.” Rav Lichtenstein’s doubts were quite reasonable. The new yeshiva was housed in temporary structures on a desolate and rocky hillside. The spiritual and physical future of the yeshiva was not at all clear.
The Yeshiva University management was shocked to hear this request. They asked, “Are you crazy? What are you lacking here? You want to leave an established position where you are a great success and a leader, and go to a doubtful home on a rocky hill? Look how much you are appreciated here. Who will show you any appreciation on the other side of the ocean?”
It was not enough for the management just to attempt to convince the Rav. In order to keep possession of their valuable teacher, they also gave him a strict ultimatum. “We will not give you a leave of absence. If you leave, we will not take you back here.”
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Rav Lichtenstein left his position in Yeshiva University. He got onto the airplane knowing that he had no job waiting for him in the United States. Years later, he said that when he got onto the plane he felt like the Roman warriors who burned the bridges across which they had come, so that their soldiers would not be able to retreat. But in his case, somebody else burned the bridges behind him.
The rabbi’s first years in Israel were not easy. Every achievement of his was the result of a huge effort. In the United States, he was intimately linked to the culture of his students. In Israel, he was put in the same position as the elderly European rabbis in the United States. There was a huge cultural gap between the American rabbi and the Israeli-born students. The passing years never really erased the gap. Twenty years later, in a discussion with the members of my class, he inadvertently called himself a “chutznik” – an outsider. The feeling of being a stranger never left him.
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However, Torah has the power to bring hearts close together. The great Torah learning of our mentor was sufficient to link him to the coarse Israeli youths. The great Torah learning was able to overcome the generation gap. Torah will always be able to close any gaps. The Rav had the privilege of setting thousands of students on their feet, and he established a stronghold of Torah.
A few years ago, Rav Lichtenstein was awarded a prize for the huge Torah enterprise which he had helped establish. In his speech, he admitted that he often wondered why his teacher, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, who he felt was greater than he was in every way, did not have so many students. Rav Lichtenstein gave a very definite answer to this question: “The merit of Eretz Yisrael gave me extra support.”