Faith Through Tears
Rabbi Yerachmiel Weiss, who lost six students in the Merkaz HaRav massacre, was interviewed by usually hard-hitting TV personality Ilana Dayan - and turned the show into an experience in faith amidst crisis.
Rabbi Weiss is the head of the Yeshiva High School of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav. Five of the eight students murdered on Thursday night by an Arab terrorist from Jerusalem studied there, and one is a recent graduate.
Answering probing questions about his relationship with G-d when facing untimely death head-on, Rabbi Weiss spoke, with a voice alternating between choked sorrow and firm confidence, about his students, himself, and G-d.
A written account of such an intense discussion, as the one below, necessarily loses most of its sheer power. The interview can be viewed (in Hebrew) in full by clicking here.
Dayan first asked Rabbi Weiss what was his main memory of Thursday night. "I believe it was the actual identification of the bodies," he responded. "This was the strongest impression I was left with. I had to lift up the sheets covering them, one at a time. I had been prepared for some of them, because I knew they were unaccounted for - but the first sheet I picked up was that of Yonadav [Hirschfeld, 19, of Kokhav HaShachar]. He was a former student of mine. It was such a shock, so unexpected; I so much didn't want him to be there... I continued to hope that those whom I knew were unaccounted for might be in the hospital, because I knew some were there - but then I started to lift up the sheets, one after the other, and I saw [with broken voice] that they were all mine! It was so difficult..."
Q. Did you feel that your strength was leaving you?
A. No, no. It was more the realization that we were parting from such a large group, all at once; it was a terrible pain at the loss...
The loss of life is a loss of faith.
Rabbi Weiss said that there had been some thought that possibly the students should remain in the Yeshiva for the Sabbath, as they usually do on alternating Sabbaths. "But I felt that they should go home; their natural place to be after such a traumatic experience is at home, to be in their healthy environment, to cry with their mothers and with their fathers, and then to return anew to the Yeshiva on Sunday."
Q. You think that it is good to cry?
A. [after a silence] Crying is one of the healthy needs of life. One who does not feel, doesn't cry; one who doesn't cry, doesn't feel. How is it possible to lose six students [voice breaking] and not cry?! One would have to be totally closed and impenetrable! I told them that I would cry together with them; they didn't even have to be told that it's OK to cry.
Q. What was the hardest question they asked you?
A. They first wanted to know what happened and how it happened; this occupied them very much. Then I sat down with them and we started to talk about what happened. There was confusion, and pain... The loss of life is a loss of faith.
Q. That sentence is very significant, and I would like to try to understand it with you. If we can 'crack' it, and I'm not sure we can, then we will have learned something. [Commercial break] The sentence that you just said - the loss of life is a loss of faith - returns me to what you said in your eulogy at the funerals. There, in the plaza of the yeshiva, with thousands of students and former students listening, and with the eight corpses wrapped in tallitot [prayer shawls] in front of you, it appeared to me that you were somewhere else - that you were engaged in a totally private discussion with the Holy One, Blessed be He. Am I right?
A. Yes. Yes and no... I was not in a totally different place; I was in a place where the complexity of life - between the question, Why? [broken voice] Why did You leave me? --
Q. Is that permitted, Rabbi Weiss?
A. It is a must! I was in a place between that question and between the clear knowledge that everything is true and correct. That's where I was, trying to connect them.
Q. Explain to me that complexity. You seemed to be rebuking G-d, saying what great happiness He had arranged for Himself [by bringing pure young Torah scholars to Him] --
A. No, no. I was happy for Him. I'll try to explain it in a language that will be understood outside; stop me if it is not clear.
Q. I will. I'll just add that there was a feeling during this past day of intense media coverage of what is going on here that we were on the outside looking in, that we didn't quite get everything that was going on [in the Yeshiva atmosphere and culture], or what you were all experiencing and how you were reacting. And especially that eulogy of yours, in which you allowed yourself to take such a strong position against G-d - just a few minutes after you told the parents, 'G-d gave and G-d took.' How do these two go together?
A. They have to go together. To ask, to cry out, to sob - it's not coming from a place of detachment or distance; it's more like a child asking his mother, 'Why are you walking away from me now? Why can't I see you? Why don't you show me the good that is in you? Why are you covering it up?' And I said to G-d, 'Look, your Torah says that Adar is the month of joy - and I need that joy that You promised me!'
Q. But you said it with irony, 'Look what joy you arranged for yourself...'
A. It's not irony; it's a very deep truth. 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.
Q. Could it be that right this minute there is a student here who is experiencing a crisis of faith?
A. For sure. If not, something is wrong. They should not view things just in terms of, 'I prayed, so I deserve it.' ... They have already come to me with their questions. You must understand that I am also the homeroom teacher of the 12th grade, and I gathered them together, and invited them to ask their questions. The most basic question - and I don't know how it's possible not to ask it - is how could it be that they were killed while studying Torah?
Dayan then moved the focus of the discussion, asking if the sense of having been betrayed by the country or the government during the expulsion from Gush Katif was being played out in the students' reactions. Rabbi Weiss said that this was not the issue, and that he is now concentrating with the students on the significance of death and the like. When she pressed the matter, however, Rabbi Weiss said, "I believe the problem for me is less one of betrayal and more one of simple blindness covering the eyes of our leaders. They thought that it [the withdrawal] might work, they tried to make peace - fine. But now - open your eyes and see what's going on here! It's natural to hope for peace and to try and all that, but now they just have to look around them and see what's going on. That is much stronger for me than to worry about betrayal and the like."
Rabbi Weiss said that among the students, the attitude towards the State is very complex: "Certainly some of them feel less connected to the State than they did before; others do not... I don't have to convince them to enlist in the army; they want to."
When Rabbi Weiss said that he had returned home from a funeral just a half-hour before the Sabbath, Dayan asked, "What type of Sabbath did you have?"
Rabbi Weiss reflected and said, "Our Sages taught, 'Shabbat hi mi-liz'ok' - on the Sabbath we do not cry. We try to take leave of pain and sorrow on the Sabbath. It may seem artificial, but, in fact, it is very deep and gives much strength. We don't forget what happened, but - there is some type of agreement, of acceptance."
Q. Agreement with what, Rabbi Weiss? With what is there to agree? With the loss of eight young lives? With the futility of life? With what is there to agree?
A. With the 300 students who are alive. With Am Yisrael Chai. Agreement with the hopes of life, with the faith in life, with the health of life, with the progress of life.
Q. Excuse me for interrupting, but I would truly like to understand: Isn't there something in this consent that nullifies the sanctity of those who died? or that minimizes the importance of the individual who died?
Only Moses, who communicated directly with G-d, was given the ability to understand how death is purified.
A. You asked me what I'm happy about on the Sabbath, and I say that I'm happy with life, with the smiles of my grandchildren, with the fact that life continues. If you ask me if the fact that I accept G-d's decree lessens the value of those who were killed - on the contrary. It could be that they were chosen specifically to atone for the entire nation; can I possibly know these things? All these Heavenly calculations are totally beyond us, they are on a different sphere. Our Sages said, in a very picturesque manner, that the keys to life and death are in G-d's hands; we have no say.
He then proceeded to discuss the difficult issue of the Red Heifer [Numbers 19], "which is very complex and deep, but in brief we can say that it comes to purify the impurity of death. Death harms not only the one who dies, but everyone around him. This loss is called a type of impurity. King Solomon wished to understand how the Red Heifer purifies the impurity of death, but was not granted this understanding. Only Moses was allowed to understand it. Moses is on a different plane; he could communicate with G-d as if through a clear crystal, without losing his normal senses. He can understand how death is purified; we are not there. We know that it exists, and that we are on the way there, and the world is getting there, and the world will get there.
Q. Did you, in the course of this Sabbath, ask yourself questions that you had never asked yourself before?
A. [chagrined smile] I asked questions that I had not asked in a long time. When I was younger, I asked these questions... Let me say that as Bialik wrote in a poem, 'Satan has not yet created vengeance for the blood of a small child.' That is to say, there is no theoretical difference between the death of one child or of 100; both are bad. We deal and struggle with these questions of Divine justice and evil and the like throughout our whole lives.
Q. What will remain with you from this past Thursday?
A. Pain. A person lives and is nourished from whatever is around him...
When asked if he had already begun to miss his dead students, the rabbi's face broke out in pain, and he could barely eke out the words, 'For sure.' Asked if his faith could help him, he quickly recovered and said, "It's totally different. Faith is my relationship with G-d, and the loss we suffered is something else... Let me quote to you from Rabbi [Avraham Yitzchak] Kook, in his series of works called Orot HaKodesh, the Lights of Holiness. He writes the following sentence, which requires much time to explain, more than we have now. He writes: "Death is an imaginary vision. Its impurity is its deception. That which is truly the strength of life, people call 'death.'"
Q. Perhaps, nonetheless, you can explain it, as you would to the brother of one of the boys who would come and ask you.
A. I don't know if I could; I would need time to explain. I would have to explain to him that life begins with the One Who gives life, and doesn't end; it is freed from the burden of the body, and then continues in another place... We know that from our point of view here, we truly see death as the worst thing; our whole lives are dedicated to preventing death. Actually, we don't really live life from its positive aspects, but just in order to run away from death. As Rav Kook says, we are just afraid of the opposite of death. But we know that there is a place where life is truly positive, and that's where it continues [after death].
If we are hit so strongly, perhaps it's not right for me to be here at the head...
Q. I would like to ask you, Rabbi Weiss, if despite all, and with all the faith and values that enwrap you, and all that you know and teach, if despite all, perhaps there was a moment that you felt that you might be on the verge of a break.
A. I will tell you something that comes from a place that you might not expect. I thought [voice breaking, speaking slowly] that, if this place is hit so strongly, then perhaps, it's not right for me to be here at the head of it. Perhaps someone else is needed who is better than me, someone who might not be hit as bad. And if it's because I'm so good that I'm getting hit, then perhaps that also means that I shouldn't be here.
Q. [emotional herself] It still appears to me that the students of this yeshiva have merited to have an outstanding rabbi and educator. Thank you very much.