PRINCES AMONG MEN: LESSONS FROM THE BELEAGUERED
One of the most heartbreaking, and yet most inspiring, books of recent times is Princes Among Men: Memories of Eight Young Souls, the volume put out by the Mercaz HaRav Kook yeshiva in Jerusalem after eight students were murdered there last spring by an Israeli Arab jihadist. It is a portrait not only of the young men themselves, but of a community which the West should get to know better.
The “religious Zionist” community, of which the Mercaz HaRav is the flagship, may well the most maligned population on the planet. The ideology of jihad can be expounded at Western universities and on the op-ed pages of major newspapers; the philosophy of religious Zionism cannot. Since 1967 the religious Zionist community has played a leading role in establishing Jewish settlements in Judea, Samaria and (formerly) Gaza – the “occupied territories,” in politically correct parlance – and has accordingly been branded “extremist” by those to whom Abbas is a “moderate.” The Mercaz HaRav was undoubtedly targeted in an effort to strike at the heart of the Jewish nation, and in Israel this was well understood. The outpouring of sympathy for the victims and their families was immense; the noble and dignified way with which the Mercaz HaRav community took the blow made a deep impression.
In the aftermath of the attack, the life-stories of the victims began to be told. It emerged that they were not a random sampling even of their elite institution. They were taken from among its most devoted students – the ones who, while most of their student body was getting ready for a new-month celebration, were at or near the library, trying to get in a few more minutes of learning. In a few moments, Israel and the world lost eight future leaders.
Amid the grief for an irretrievable loss, there was also an unexpected, paradoxical exaltation. The recitation of what these young men had already achieved produced a sense of revelation, a moment of clarity about Israel’s nature and mission. A month after the murders, Rabbi Bnayahu Broner wrote in a newsletter: “The horrifying encounter with death shook the foundations of the houses of Israel. On the other hand – we were privileged to encounter the stories of the lives of these holy ones […] lives of true value, holy and elevated lives.” Or as Rabbi Tuvia Lifshitz, the father of Yochai Lifshitz, put it:
“For as long as a seal or stamp is held against a piece of paper, its letters are not visible. But when the stamp is lifted, then all is revealed – every letter appears for everyone to behold. During a person’s lifetime, what is hidden is much greater than what is revealed. It is not always possible to discern a man’s true essence while he is alive. But after he dies, then his personality is fully revealed for all to see. His seal is completely visible.”
Addressing his murdered son, Rabbi Lifshitz told of the thousands who came to console the family:
“It seems that even more than they came to console us, they came to partake of your distinctiveness. A life of Torah, and a Torah full of life. Harmony, perfection, joy, and above all, service, diligence, and effort.”
Similar words were written about Neriya Cohen, Segev Avihail, Avraham David Moses, Yonatan Eldar, Roei Roth, Yonadav Haim Hirshfeld, and Doron Meherete, by parents, teachers, siblings and classmates. Perhaps “joy” is the word that comes up oftenest, contrary to contemporary views of religion as gloomy and repressive and of the studious as maladjusted “nerds.” Quite incomprehensible to such views is the scene of Avraham David’s classmates taking turns sitting next to him on school excursions to hear him recite from the Talmud, with commentaries. The joy manifest in these lives is the joy of those who believe they are serving the Creator, in small ways as well as great, from mastering a difficult subject in Talmud to cleaning up after a party. And there was also play and merrymaking; the scholarly, staunchly-patriotic Neriya Cohen was chosen by his companions as “Purim rabbi,” to preside over the spoofs which mark that holiday, and is remembered as the instigator of an epic water-fight. The reader not only hears about this joy but also sees it in many incandescent photographs.
“Discipline” is another prominent theme. Several of the boys were known to have adhered to self-made schedules of learning. He didn’t waste time,” is a statement encountered repeatedly. Needless to say, as Orthodox Jews the eight accepted and lived by a great many rules. Another common theme is “purity.” “Helpfulness – to family members, friends, members of the community – is also a common characteristic. The word “honesty” also comes up frequently. Several were mentioned as being the person in a group that would protect the unpopular or insist on truthfulness toward the teacher.
With all their devotion to study – and to prayer; Avraham David Moses and Roi Roth were mentioned as especially fervent in prayer -- they had practical interests as well. Most of them were interested in physical fitness and intended to join the army. Their love of Torah was inseparable from their love for the land, and called for enterprise and physical courage. Yonatan Eldar was an expert navigator and student of maps; he was also a computer expert and already managing a family enterprise. Doron Meherete was working his way through yeshiva, planning to become a judge and leader in the Ethiopian Jewish community. A few days before the murder, Yochai Lifshitz had joined in the search for a missing woman; when an abandoned house had to be entered. Yochai and his friend were both afraid of going in, but Yochai insisted that he be the one to go in while his friend remained outside.
As a writer, I am particularly haunted by Yonadav Haim Hirshfeld, two of whose poems I had seen before he was murdered; I had commented that one of the poems showed “a sharpness of mind and a sense of formal composition that is very promising,” while the other showed “a lot of depth and drive.” Yonadav was a prolific writer; also a musician who wore a recorder on an orange cord and was always playing tunes on it; also a youth leader who took a personal interest in the younger boys he counseled; also a junior entrepreneur who organized a successful independent meal plan for a group of students. With all this, he found time to pay weekly visits to his ailing great-grandmother. What a contrast between that young life and the Western image of the artist, who is almost expected to be feckless and commit misdeeds which will be forgiven for the sake of his “art.” “Perfection of the life or of the work,” the inescapable alternative as Yeats phrases it. If only Yonadav -- and Segev Avihail, also a gifted poet -- could have lived to produce the work that was in them, and give that alternative the lie.
As I read and reread this book I found myself wishing it could be read, not only by Jews but by anyone who wants to see a future for manhood and for humanity. It is a reminder of what is worth defending. Amid a secular culture that encourages youth to be hedonistic, nihilistic, mindless, selfish and pessimistic, it is deeply heartening to see what young men, where encouraged to develop into human beings, are capable of. With all their energy and sharpness of mind, could not young men somehow be enlisted against their manipulators?
What is the secret of this community’s success in producing such fine young people? Evidently, the Torah, whose rules and regulations are not just burdensome restrictions but an intellectual challenge to which young men can respond. The community’s devotion to the land of Israel must also be a factor. The joy manifested by these young men comes from their belief that they are building a good world.
There’s a video online -- “Strength and Growth…Amidst Adversity” (http://vimeo.com/4012993), produced by the One Israel Fund -- that affords a glimpse of the life for which these young men were training. It shows the arid mountains of Judea and Samaria, the hilltop settlements protected by state-of-the art electronic surveillance and by young men on constant alert, and within these settlements, people who speak of their lives with energy and enthusiasm. The father of Yonadav Hirshfeld speaks: “Every positive thing that a person does by the merit of the eight that were murdered, that’s good for the person that improved himself and good for the souls by whose merit it happened.” His mother says that in the way of the murder a youth center is finally being built in their settlement, Kochav HaShachar. A resident of Efrat, Eve Harrow, puts the present settler population at 300,000 and sums up: “We’re willing to make the sacrifices, we’re willing to do whatever it takes to stay out here.. We’re representing Jews all over the world by staying out here…We’re protecting everybody, everywhere.” And “everybody, everywhere” surely includes us, here. How this community keeps up its courage and continues to build in the face of its would-be destroyers – this is what Princes Among Men could begin to teach us. To the extent that these lessons can be learned, these eight young leaders will not have died in vain.
Princes Among Men: Memories of Eight Young Souls is published by Feldheim and can be ordered at www.feldheim.com.
Esther Cameron edits The Deronda Review and www.pointandcircumference.com.