Faith Amidst Crisis

The following is a transcript of Ilana Dayan's interview of Yashlatz Rosh Yeshivah Rav Yerachmiel Weiss on "Mi Sh'Midaber," March 9, 2008. 



Dayan: Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav is much more than a Torah or educational institution. It has always been the spearhead of the Religious-Zionist movement in Israel. Here, the elder Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook established the first religious-zionist yeshiva, and from here, his son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, sent his students to settle Gush Emunim, and to settle Sebastia.

Here, last Thursday, a single terrorist murdered eight young students, in a shooting attack. This is a special edition of “Mi Shemidaber”, at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem. We will be talking about loss, pain, and faith.

We are here with Rav Yerachmiel Weiss, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva LeTzeirim, next to Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem. Rav Weiss, shalom and good evening.


Rav: Shalom, Shalom, and I hope for Shalom.


Dayan: And I thank you very much for agreeing to speak with me. In our conversation, I would like to try to understand more about what you and your students are going through. Are you able, at this point, to remember what happened on Thursday, and tell me what stands out most strongly in your memory, what image is engraved on your mind more than any other?


Rav Weiss: A lot of pictures run through my mind. I think the most powerful image I have is of identifying the bodies.


Dayan: You were here, in this library?


Rav Weiss: No, no. All the bodies were brought to the main courtyard of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, in order to identify them. And I strongly requested to be allowed to see the bodies. I was so ... I had in my mind names of boys who were missing.


Dayan: You knew of students who were missing, from among the boys who were murdered?


Rav Weiss: Yes. And I wanted to see for myself. It became clear that nobody was able to identify the bodies, and I said, “What are you waiting for? I’m here.” After a long time, they allowed me to go in, and they asked me if I could identify the bodies. I said, “Yes.” The bodies were covered with long white “ZAKA” plastic sheets, and I had to lift each covering, and see who they were. Who was there.


Dayan: And you identified them?


Rav Weiss: I was emotionally prepared—if I can use such a harsh phrase—with the names of the boys that were missing. But beneath the first sheet I lifted was one of my former students. Yonadav. And it was so unexpected ...


I wasn’t looking for him at all, and I so didn’t want him to be there. After that, I hoped. I heard that in the hospital were a few more unidentified boys. It is human nature to hope.


They were laid out in a row, seven covered stretchers. I begin to lift the sheets, and I see, one after another, that they are all mine!


Dayan: Did you say anything?


Rav Weiss: It’s hard for me to remember what I said or didn’t say, but it was very hard.


"They were laid out in a row, seven covered stretchers. I begin to lift the sheets, and I see, one after another, that they are all mine!"

Dayan: Did you feel yourself growing faint?


Rav Weiss: No, not at all.


Dayan: Really? Not at all?

Rav Weiss: Not at all.


That wasn’t the issue—the pain of loss. Intellectually, I knew they were gone. But I didn’t feel it yet emotionally. It was the realization that we were parting from such a large group of people all at once.


Dayan: Do you remember a last conversation with any of them? A discussion, an accounting, even a Torah talk with one of the five who were your own students, up until last Thursday?


Rav Weiss: Let me put it this way. Yochai was in the other twelfth grade class, not mine, but during the period before Purim, he came to a lot of my classes. So almost every day we spoke. Sometimes briefly, sometimes at length.


There was a boy we called “Adam”—Avraham David Moses. He sat with me on Wednesday evening, and we had a very long discussion in my office. We talked about all different topics, about him, about his family. We spent the whole evening talking.


Dayan: Have you spoken with his parents since then?


Rav Weiss: Of course.


Dayan: What do you say to the parents of such a young boy?


Rav Weiss: You don’t have to say very much to them ... to hug them and hold them, and tell them that just yesterday I spoke with their son. And they said to me, “Yes, that’s right. He told us that he had a conversation with you. Thank you.”


Dayan: The boys, the young men, today and yesterday, over the course of Shabbat, were they able to express their emotions? Were they able to talk about what happened?

Rav Weiss: They are expressing themselves constantly. Shabbat was supposed to be a “free Shabbat”, when the boys go home. We hadn’t planned on having any students here in the yeshiva. Next Shabbat they were all supposed to be here. So we discussed possibly keeping them here, in light of the attack.


But I said no, that the healthiest place for the children to be after such a difficult, traumatic experience is at home. That is the healthiest place for them, to be able to cry with their mothers and fathers. And then to come back on Sunday to a new reality.


[Rav Weiss crying]

"Crying is one of the basic necessities of a healthy life. A person who doesn’t feel, doesn’t cry. A person who doesn’t cry, doesn’t feel. How can someone lose six students, and not cry?! You would have to be made of stone!"

Dayan: Do you think it is good to cry?


Rav Weiss: Crying is one of the basic necessities of a healthy life. A person who doesn’t feel, doesn’t cry. A person who doesn’t cry, doesn’t feel. How can someone lose six students, and not cry?! You would have to be made of stone!


Dayan: Is that what you told the boys?


Rav Weiss: You have to tell them, “Guys, I am crying. You can cry with me.” We lost very dear friends. Crying is not a sign of weakness. I almost want to say that crying is necessary to maintain our health! It is a natural part of life.


Dayan: What is the hardest question you were asked by one of the boys, over the course of the last two days?



Rav Weiss: Today I began a little bit to ... I think at first, they didn’t ask anything. Their initial questions were “who?” and “what?” Who is missing? Who is no longer with us? Later, they were preoccupied with asking the boys who were involved what exactly happened. That interested them very much.


Today, after we had an assembly at the yeshiva, after I gathered them all together and spoke. I wanted to talk to them first, before they began asking questions, to give them—how should I define it?—to set limits for asking questions, and offer guidance about how to conduct themselves now.


There is confusion. There is pain. Loss of life is loss of faith.


Dayan: That is exactly the issue I would like to clarify with you. The sentence you just said now—“Loss of life is loss of faith”—I am not sure that we will be able to decipher it. But if we are able to, then maybe we will all learn something.


[Commercial break—reintroduction of Rav Weiss]


Dayan: We are still at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav in Jerusalem, here in the library. There are still holes in the window panes, made when the terrorist shot and murdered eight young students. Signs of the massacre are still here, though no sign of blood remains.

Rav Yerachmiel Weiss, Rabbi of the Yeshiva LeTzeirim, you said before the break that loss of life is loss of faith. That takes me back to your moving eulogy, which you delivered for your students, here in the courtyard of the yeshiva, this past Friday.


And it seemed to me that with the thousands of students in the yard, and the murdered boys laid out before you, wrapped in prayer shawls, that you were engaged in a personal dialogue with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Is it true what I sensed? That you were in another place?


Rav Weiss: Yes and no. Of course, I wasn’t in another place, but in a place defined by the complexities of life, somewhere between wonder and shock, asking, “Why? Why have You abandoned me?”


Dayan: Is that permitted, Rav Weiss?

Rav Weiss: It’s an obligation! I was between the question of why, and the awareness that it is all just, and it is all truth.


Dayan: Explain that complexity to me.


Rav Weiss: To try to make the connection between those two aspects, that is where I was.


Dayan: You rebuke HaKadosh Baruch Hu. You seemed to be asking Him, “Are you having a good time now?”


Rav Weiss: No. I have to be happy with Him, happy for Him. I will try to explain myself. I only hope that I am understood. If my choice of language is not clear, then stop me.


Dayan: I hope we will be able to understand you. Because I have to say, that over the last twenty-four hours, the media has been publicizing what we perceive as outsiders. We don’t yet completely understand what you are going through and how you are coping. And specifically your eulogy, when you permitted yourself to cry out, “My Lord, my Lord, why have you abandoned me?”—you are the same person who said to the parents just moments before, “Hashem gave and Hashem took.” How are those two remarks related?



Rav Weiss: They are intrinsically related. We ask, we cry out, we weep. We beg of HaKadosh Baruch Hu to return to us what we have lost. I am not shouting at Him, “Why?” out of withdrawal or detachment. But as a child calling out to his mother or father, “Why are you leaving me now? Why are you hiding from me? Why aren’t you showing me your good side? Why are you concealing it from me?”


And I said to Hashem, “In Your Torah, it is written, in Your Oral Torah, it is written: When Adar arrives, we increase our happiness. I need that happiness that You promised me!”


Dayan: But Rav Weiss, can you explain the irony? When you said, “Look what joy you arranged for yourself ...”


Rav Weiss: There is no irony. It’s something very deep. It’s not ironic at all. It is the depth of faith-based truth. You [G-d] have great joy; you have added wellsprings of joy in Heaven to the very source of life.


Dayan: Could it be, Rav Weiss, that if I wander among your students, that I will discover a young boy, who for him, the loss is a real loss of faith?


Rav Weiss: Certainly. And if not, then something is wrong with that boy. For he perceives things at a more immature level, at a simpler level, from the viewpoint of a child. At the level of reward and punishment. “I prayed, so give me back my friends.”

I see things at a greater depth, on a more complex level.


Dayan: But will the boys dare to approach you, to complain and demand to know, “Where was HaKadosh Baruch Hu on Thursday night?”


Rav Weiss: Today I already spoke with them. Aside from the fact that I am the Rosh Yeshiva, I am also the classroom teacher for one of the twelfth grade classes. I think that is more meaningful to the students’ lives, that I teach and educate them. I gathered the entire yeshiva staff together to discuss what happened, what was happening, and what we were going to do. Then I sat with my students, and told them they could ask me questions. They immediately began to ask.


"'How can it be that they were praying, and learning Torah, and in the end they died, were killed?' 
It’s so simple—how could anyone not ask that question?"

Dayan: What, for example?


Rav Weiss: How can it be that they were praying, and learning Torah, and in the end they died, were killed? It’s so simple—how could anyone not ask that question?


Dayan: And there is something else, that you know may eventually happen—anger and uprising, and demand for revenge. There were already calls for revenge from the other side of the fence, from people who are not affiliated with the yeshiva. And you have also expressed your bitterness.

But today when Minister Yuli Tamir came to the yeshiva, and they called her “murderer” and forced her to leave, what did you say to the students?


Rav Weiss: Just a minute. This isn’t pleasant for me to discuss, but my students were not involved in that incident. She first came to visit us in the Yeshiva LeTzeirim, and nothing happened. I won’t say that everyone was overjoyed by her presence, but I told my students that whoever did not have it within him to be accepting and gracious, should not come. And I was worried about a few people.


Dayan: What did you tell them?

Rav Weiss: I said, “Guys, maybe you shouldn’t be here today. I don’t want you to create an atmosphere that we don’t want. Now is not the time for anything disruptive. I told them that what is important at the yeshiva now is for us all to be united, to stick together. One of the boys told me, “HaRav, I promise I won’t say a word."


Dayan: Did he keep his promise?


Rav Weiss: Yes. I believed him.


Dayan: But there could be something else.


Rav Weiss: Yes, but that was in the yeshiva here. It isn’t pleasant for me to differentiate between the two.


Dayan: [unclear]


Rav Weiss: That’s exactly it.


Dayan: But maybe there is also something deeper here, that has to do with what happened after the Disengagement [from Gaza]. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there is a sense of betrayal, of neglect. A renewed feeling that the government has abandoned us, in the wake of this traumatic event.


Rav Weiss: I’m not there yet. I am still at the very beginning of the process of mourning. Those calculations ... there is definitely a sense of betrayal, but I have simply not reached that stage yet.


Dayan: In my opinion, you reached that stage long before the terror attack.


Rav Weiss: No. The loss, the confrontation with the deaths of such young individuals, watching lives come to an abrupt end, finding myself in a position where I have to try to help the parents, and as much as possible, help the students, to understand this all at some level which permits us to keep on living, to accept, without breaking down completely.


Dayan: Forgive me for persisting, but it seems to me that the huge crisis of the Disengagment—and we’re talking about two years ago—and the difficulty in coping with the disappointment in promises made by Rabbis that went unfulfilled ...


Rav Weiss: No, I’m not there at all.


Dayan: But perhaps some of your students are there?


Rav Weiss: Let me tell you something. The students may be feeling that way. That may very well be. The problem I personally have is not about betrayal. It is the failure of our leadership to see—a self-enforced blindness to what is going on. You thought everything would work out. Open your eyes! Look at what is happening here!


That is stronger for me than their desire to find ways to make peace. It is natural to hope for peace, but look what you’ve done! And look where things are going.


Dayan: But what interests me is what has happened to your students, as a result of that Disengagement.


Rav Weiss: Of course, but what are students? My students ... I have twenty something students, whom we call “the Gush Katif refugees." I have students from Yehuda and Shomron. They are people whose homes are constantly under threat of destruction.


Of course they experience other emotions.


Dayan: Do you have any students who no longer want any connection to the government, the connection encouraged by Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, whom this street is named after, who headed this yeshivah for so many years, who saw in the State of Israel—and his father also had the same vision, incidentally—the seeds of our Final Redemption. Do any of your students see things differently?


Rav Weiss: It’s very complicated. In general, everyone feels connected to the country and the nation. But of course, there are those who feel ...


Dayan: ... still part of it all, though much less?


Rav Weiss: Just a moment, slow down. There are those who don’t feel any less connected, and of course there are those who do feel less connected. It’s quite natural, at their young age, to feel betrayed. Without at doubt, they feel hurt and betrayed.


Not from the point of being disappointed in the Rabbis who made promises, but from their personal viewpoints. You don’t want me? Then why should I want you?


Dayan: Do you find yourself in a position of having to convince boys to join the army for example?


Rav Weiss: It’s not necessary. And I’ll tell you something else – after the Disengagement, our yeshivah was closed for the bein hazemanim vacation. Everybody went down to Kfar Darom. Not everybody—but at least half the yeshivah. We went to Kfar Darom.


Dayan: Your son-in-law is the Rav of Kfar Darom.


Rav Weiss: My son-in-law is the Rav of Kfar Darom.


Later, almost everyone on the roof had their recruitment dates deferred. It was so hard for them to understand that they weren’t wanted in the Israeli Defense Forces! They refused to accept that fact. You have to understand the complexities here.


Dayan: Did you ever discuss that topic with any of the boys who were killed?

Rav Weiss: Who were killed? Not that I remember.



Dayan: Incidentally, you met with the commander of the paratroopers, Captain David Shapira? The one who came in here and killed the terrorist?


Rav Weiss: He is also one of our graduates, by the way. A graduate of the yeshivah.


Dayan: Does he come to pray here on Shabbat?


Rav Weiss: He lives here in the neighborhood, his son learns here, in the kindergarten next door to us ... but no, I haven’t had a chance to speak with him. I know him—he’s a graduate of our yeshivah—he studied here, then went to the army, then studied here some more, and returned to the army.


Dayan: Did you speak with the boys who were here in the library, during those harrowing minutes?


Rav Weiss: Yes. With some of them, yes.


"This morning I visited one of the victims at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital. A boy who was hit by the first round of shots, with a bullet wound in his chest. He told me that he ran down into the bomb shelter here, and lay there all alone. I asked him who was with him. He said, 'Nobody.'"

Dayan: Were any of them able to describe in detail what he experienced? In a way that you can try to explain to us what happened here inside the library?


Rav Weiss: Panic. An inability for them to acknowledge and accept what was happening. Confusion. They had no idea what to do. This morning I visited one of the victims at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital. A boy who was hit by the first round of shots, with a bullet wound in his chest. He told me that he ran down into the bomb shelter here, and lay there all alone. I asked him who was with him. He said, “Nobody.”


For almost twenty-five minutes he lay there with a hole in his lung, until suddenly, he found it hard to breathe. Then somebody came and found him, and got him out of there.


Dayan: And the boys that hid here in the classrooms – do they talk about it? About what they experienced?

Rav Weiss: I haven’t spoken to all of them yet—I haven’t had time. That may sound strange to you, but we weren’t here together on Shabbat. I got home from a funeral, perhaps just half an hour before Shabbat. Maybe a little earlier. That was it.


Dayan: What kind of Shabbat did you have?

Rav Weiss: It is written that, “Shabbat hi me-liz’ok” [on Shabbat we do not cry.] We try, on Shabbat, to separate ourselves from pain and sorrow. It may seem artificial, but it’s something very deep, that gives one a lot of strength. We can’t forget, we can’t deny, but there is a measure of agreement, of acceptance.


Dayan: What are you accepting, Rav Weiss? The loss of eight young lives? What do you accept? The lack of significance, the lack of meaning? Do you agree with the deaths that were so futile? What do you agree with?


Rav Weiss: I agree with the 300 who are alive. I agree with Am Yisrael Chai. I agree with all the hopes of life. The health of life, the progress of life, the faith in life.


Dayan: Forgive me for interrupting, but I need to understand you. We don’t need to argue in order to understand. Isn’t there, in that agreement, something that diminishes the holiness of the one who died? The importance of the individual who is gone?


Rav Weiss: I don’t understand your question.


Dayan: When you say to me that you accept what remains, that you agree with the Divine decision made regarding who will die, and who will remain—“I accept things as they are, and I appreciate what I still have.” I ask if that doesn’t detract from the loss.


Rav Weiss: You asked me why I am happy on Shabbat. I am happy on Shabbat that the world goes on. My grandchildren’s smiles—I continue with my life. I answered that for you. But now you ask me, if when I accept Hashem’s decree, if I am not minimizing the severity of the loss?


Dayan: Yes. That’s what I’m asking.


Rav Weiss: I wish I could know that I am not needed to praise and accept the decree. Maybe one of them is atoning for the entire nation. I can’t tell you things like that. It is beyond our understanding, the meaning of this. Chazal have very illustrative explanations—they tell us that “the keys to death and life are in the hands of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.” We have no say in the matter.



There is a very complex discourse—very graphic, very commentative—a person with some imagination is fascinated by it.


There is a concept known as “Para Aduma” [the red heifer (Numbers 19)]. In my opinion, the concept is very hard to understand. But in general, the idea behind it is purifying the impurity of death. Death does not only harm the one who dies, but everyone around him. The loss of life, on a certain level, causes impurity. The para aduma, its ashes, are able to purify—but we won’t get into the details of that.


The Sages write: “The following is declared to be the Torah’s decree ...” Those are words from Parshat Para Aduma. There is a Midrash that relates: Shlomo HaMelech wrote that he wanted to understand, but was not able to. Shlomo was wiser than any other man, but the understanding was beyond him. What was beyond him? The secret of para aduma. How it purifies, how it strengthens.


Then it is written: “... have them bring you a completely red cow ...” Chazal interpret that when it says, “you”, Hashem is referring to Moshe Rabbeinu. I will reveal to “you” the secret of the para aduma.


Moshe had a sublime personality. He has the experience of Hashem communicating with him directly, without taking leave of his senses, without losing control. He spoke face to face with Hashem. He was able to withstand the infinite, eternal aspect of Hashem. He understood the concept of para aduma. We are not there. But we know the concept exists, and that we are moving in that direction. The world is developing, the world is making progress, and it will never cease to make progress and develop, and one day we will be there.


Dayan: And over the course of that Shabbat, Rav Weiss, did you ever ask yourself a question that you had never asked yourself before?


Rav Weiss: I asked them many years ago, but not now. I’ll say this: [Chaim Nachman] Bialik wrote in a poem, “Satan has not yet devised a vengeance for the blood of a small child.” From a deep, theoretical point of view, it makes no difference whether one child or one hundred children are killed. There is Divine justice, and we don’t ask questions. We try to understand these issues our whole lives.


Dayan: What will remain with you, from that particular Thursday?


Rav Weiss: The pain. A persons life is made up of everything that happens to him. His source of life is everything he has, everyone else he is in contact with. He gives, and he receives, from everyone his life is connected to.



Dayan: Have you already begun to miss the boys?


Rav Weiss: Of course!


Dayan: Is it the kind of longing that can be decreased through faith?


Rav Weiss: It is something else altogether. Faith is our account with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. It isn’t about what he takes from us. Faith is—I will use an expression that isn’t heard in our circles.


There is a series of books written by Rav Kook called “Torat HaKodesh”. In that series, there are some astounding essays, written as sub-chapters.


Dayan: What is the sentence?

Rav Weiss: There are a series of chapters including one called “Chaiyut” [life], and one called “The Worldwide Divine Life." There is a sentence there that takes a long time to explain, and I could not even do so in the short half hour we have together.


“Death is a passing vision. Its impurity is false. What truly reinforces and strengthens us in life, is what people call death.” Did you listen to the sentence?


Dayan: Perhaps you can try to explain it anyway, in the short amount of time we have left. The way you might explain it to Avraham David Moses’ brother, if he were to ask you.


To Neriya’s cousin, who was alongside him when he was killed.


"But we know there is a place where life is only good, and there, life is eternal. I am convinced, with my minimal level of understanding, that there, in that place I am connected to through faith, that in that place, we all come back to life."

Rav Weiss: I don’t know if I can explain. I need more time to explain. I would explain to him that life begins with the One who gives life, and that life never ends. And that life is released from the burden of the body, and continues somewhere else.


That is the place we refer to as “the bond of life”, and we believe it is exists. From that perspective, we accept death. And we know that whatever we are unable to understand, it is because we cannot rid ourselves of the impurity of death, from the falsehood that seems so true to us.


There is no denying that death is one of the hardest issues with which we must cope. We spend our whole lives trying to get over our fear of death. In essence, we never actually live our lives on a truly positive note, because we are so busy trying to avoid death. Our entire lives are overshadowed the fear of losing our lives.


But we know there is a place where life is only good, and there, life is eternal. I am convinced, with my minimal level of understanding, that there, in that place I am connected to through faith, that in that place, we all come back to life.



Dayan: And I ask myself, and ask you one last question, Rav Weiss, if despite the faith and the value system that embraces you – the things that you know, that you learned and taught for so many years, and that certainly must be helping you to get through these difficult days – was there not a single moment, especially over the weekend, that you felt you were on the verge of breaking down?


Rav Weiss: I will give you an answer you aren’t expecting, from a place of faith. I thought that if this place was hit so hard, then maybe I am no longer worthy of serving as the leader. Perhaps a better man is needed, someone who would not be hit so hard. If it is because I am so good that I too am receiving blows, then maybe it also means I should not be here.


Dayan: It still seems to me, that the students at the Yeshiva LeTzeirim are privileged to have such a distinguished Rav and teacher. I thank you so much for agreeing to be with us this evening.


Rav Weiss: Thank you very much.


Dayan: Rav Yerachmiel Weiss, thank you very much. And this is the conclusion of a painful, difficult interview with the Rav, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah LeTzeirim, next to Mercaz Harav. At this moment, the Aravit prayers are in progress in the beit knesset.


Thank you very much for being with us. Thank you very much Rav Weiss. Good night.





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