ARCHIVES: Why Yom Kippur?

A.H. Rabinowitz Tradition Online

Soldiers of the 421st Armored Brigade raise the Israeli flag along the banks of the Suez Canal, 1973.

A half-century ago the Jewish world found itself in a situation not terribly dissimilar from our own. War arrived brutally and by surprise on an Autumn Yom Tov. Writing in the pages of TRADITION following the war, Rabbi A.H. Rabinowitz asked “Why Yom Kippur?” (Fall 1975)—aside from Egyptian tactical strategy and hope for surprise, what was the spiritual meaning of the State being attacked on our holy day?

In a wide-ranging essay, in which he recounts the event of Yom Kippur 1973, when he served as the Chief Military Chaplain for the Israeli Air Force, Rabbi Rabinowitz speculates on the trajectory of Jewish history and confesses initially being confounded by the traumatic timing of those events:

“Rabbi, why did it happen on Yom Kippur?” The question was voiced by a young female trainee during one of my sessions at the officer’s training school. She did not ask why it happened; she knew that only too well. Every youngster in Israel grows up with the feeling that he may well have to fight to live. His brothers, sisters, parents, uncles and aunts have all. done and are doing just that. Why should his lot be different in a hostile world? “But, Rabbi, what was the significance of it happening on Yom Kippur?” The question rang across the hall then and it has been resounding in my ears ever since. For the first time in my life I was almost at a loss for words. This youngster sensed the deeper significance of it having occurred on Yom Kippur. She sensed it; I could not explain it. My lame response hardly bears repeating. I failed her dismally. Perhaps I failed myself even more so. Why did it have to be Yom Kippur? What Jewish historical logic lies beneath the surface? Where in the maze of the bewildering labyrinth of Messianic times lies the key? The Jewish soul and consciousness were stirred in an unfathomable manner that relate to the essence of Jewish being. Why Yom Kippur?

Rabinowitz uses this question to frame his ruminations on what the State of Israel and the Jewish people underwent 50 years ago, suggesting that:

The Jew has an appointment with destiny. He can do one of two things; the choice is his. He can cop out and assimilate or he can strive to keep the appointment. There is no in-between and those who sit on the fence delude themselves, fail themselves and fail their people. We know how history deals with complacency. It is time to face reality—as men and as Jews. It had to be Yom Kippur. It could only have happened on Yom Kippur. Because Yom Kippur is that moment in Jewish life when a man faces himself. When a people comes face to face with its being, with its past and with its future. Providence has, on occasion, to deal drastically with man for man’s good. Rather than allow him to fail himself by indifference or default Providence brings him up sharply, restores him to basic truths and thereby enables him to surge ahead with renewed vigor, strength and vitality.

So what does the timing of our own struggle on Simhat Torah mean for our generation? As we await theological insights to emerge from amidst the fog of war, read A.H. Rabinowitz, “Why Yom Kippur?” TRADITION 15:3 (Fall 1975).

Rabbi Abraham Hirsch (Avraham Zvi) Rabinowitz z”l (1931-1987) was an accomplished author of many books in Hebrew and English on Jewish law, thought, and Zionism. (He contributed to the translation of R. Soloveitchik’s Five Addresses (Hamesh Derashot].) An alumnus of Gateshead Yeshiva and Hebron Yeshiva, he received rabbinical ordination from Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, and served as rabbi to communities in England and South Africa before returning to Israel with his family in 1961. He was appointed the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Air Force in 1968.

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