Yakir and Dovid studying together in the Gush Beit Midrash

 

“Death has climbed in through our windows and entered our homes. It has removed children from our roads and the young men from our streets” (Yirmiyahu 9).

Last week two students of mine in the Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, who had studied in my shiur, fell during battle in Gaza. It has been a devastating week for the entire yeshiva community and the families whose lives have been shattered by the unspeakable tragedy. The deaths of these two young men, lifelong friends, has rippled through the entire Jewish world. As their Rebbe, I am in grief. But I receive inspiration from their story that provides a light in this otherwise darkened time.

These two soldier-scholars, Dovid and Yakir, lived similar yet tragically shortened lives. Each of their fathers studied in our yeshiva and raised Torah-committed families on the values they absorbed decades ago. Their sons proudly identified with our yeshiva and relished the opportunity to continue the family legacy by studying in their fathers’ revered beit midrash, and for this I am eternally honored.

Dovid Schwartz’s parents were native-born Israelis, while Yakir Hexter’s parents made aliyah from the United States. The pairing of these two families provides a sad but fitting metaphor for our yeshiva, which has been a flagship hesder yeshiva for over fifty years while also assisting thousands of students in transitioning to aliyah.

A part of our yeshiva has been torn away and there is a gaping hole that these two young men filled. As their Rebbe, I mourn the fact that I will never see them again as I hold back tears and clear lumps in my throat.

Dovid

Dovid Schwartz, Hy’d, had a pure, incandescent smile that never left his face. He radiated happiness and goodness, and literally climbed into your heart. He displayed quiet, understated leadership that was never aggressive or controlling. He always assumed responsibility, organizing group events or scheduling changes. He was a truth-seeker, possessing deep personal convictions, but always eager to receive helpful input from his teachers. Even after leaving yeshiva, he would periodically “check-in” with me for guidance as he transitioned to the next stage.

Dovid’s intellectual curiosity inspired him to look beyond his natural setting for religious inspiration and personal growth. Though he was raised and schooled in a National Religious context, he was a regular at Chassidic tishes and shiurim. Based on his request, I started a weekly shiur in Chassidus in our Yeshiva, though we don’t typically stress this area of study. He scrupulously maintained this weekly shiur even during the difficult conditions of Corona. He deeply enjoyed parashat hashavua, publishing a collection of his own divrei Torah in honor of his wedding.

He was deeply spiritual, yet remarkably practical, humble but strong of will. He was extremely conscientious and took meticulous notes of each shiur. Conscious that religious identity should be simple but compelling, he hung three handwritten pesukim above his bed. One of them captured his short life: “I will rely upon Your kindness; my heart will rejoice in your deliverance” (Tehillim 13).

Yakir

Yakir Hexter was immensely driven and held himself to extremely high standards. He enjoyed learning Mesillat Yesharim, a classic mussar work that lays out a detailed roadmap for religious development. Yet, despite his own surpassing standards, Yakir was humble about his achievements, yet was extremely tolerant of those who could not match his own lofty expectations.

As an iconic picture of him studying with Dovid illustrates, Yakir was an exceptional listener and excelled at making other people feel seen and heard. He had embarked on a degree in architecture, which was true to his extraordinary ability to create space for other people. He was a magnet for English-speaking students looking for a shoulder to lean on, or in need of a friendly shmooze.

Extremely modest, Yakir’s smile was inconspicuous, charming, and endearing. His smile never outshone others, but invited them to reciprocate with their own smile and happiness. He never drowned out others in the room.

He was an artist and an original thinker who exhibited a broad intellectual sweep. Additionally, he possessed strong moral integrity and conscientiously donated to charity from his various side endeavors. As he deeply valued time as a commodity, he also allocated hours of his personal time to support the needy.

Though Yakir possessed a strong moral fiber, he knew how to let loose with his friends, be mischievous, and have fun. He combined finesse, imagination, modesty, moral integrity, intensity, and sensitivity.

Delicate, But Strong

One of the nicknames of Dovid Hamelech was “Adinu Ha’Etzni.” The first term, “Adino,” stems from the root “adin,” which means sensitive or gentle. In contrast, the second word, “Ha’Etzni,” evokes the image of a strong and durable tree, or an “etz.” Noticing this contrast, Chazal extolled Dovid Hamelech for combining spiritual sensitivity with military prowess. While in the beit midrash he was soft and tranquil, but when called out to the battlefield, he morphed into a toughened and hard-edged soldier.

For thousands of years our children weren’t forced to undergo this metamorphosis. Fortunately, we now enjoy Jewish sovereignty as well as a Jewish army to protect us. I am grateful for the privilege of watching my talmidim morph from thoughtful, sensitive Torah scholars into brave soldiers. Sadly, there is a steep price to pay for his historical privilege.

Humbled By Talmidim

The Talmud concludes that a Rebbe gains wisdom from his students (“U’mitalmidei yoter mikulam”). Obviously, as the study of Torah is centered on a give-and-take, interaction with students yields new intellectual perspectives. Students bring fresh sets of eyes and novel approaches to Torah study. However, a Rebbe learns and is inspired by watching his talmidim applying his values more successfully than he himself is capable of. As I watch the passion and commitment of my students, I wonder if I can ever live up to my own example.

The commitment that Dovid and Yakir displayed toward our people and country humbles me. Obviously, I tried to instill passion and selflessness in Dovid and Yakir, but watching them risk everything for our nation and, sadly, sacrifice their lives, leaves me beyond words. I am expected to provide leadership and inspiration, but I am humbled by their extraordinary commitment and hope that with Hashem’s help, I will be worthy of the privilege He gave me to teach these two fine young men during their brief time on Earth.

Unfulfilled Potential

A Rebbe looks to the future, planting seeds that will one day grow into a life of Torah, commitment, family, country, and idealism, with Hashem’s help. Every talmid brings a world of potential and possibility. Tragically, my hopes for Dovid and Yakir have now been cut short. All that remains is a gaping hole of unfulfilled potential. In place of future there is only sadness.

But amidst this gloom I take solace in knowing they have returned to Hashem in pure, unsullied innocence. People who die at an advanced age bear the scars of a lifetime of frustration, and failure which this world brings.

Hashem created us pure and perfect, yet life breaks us down. As Dovid and Yakir were just beginning their life’s journey, they were still unblemished by the pain and hardship of this world. They returned to Hashem pure and pristine, just as He created them. The pure souls of the righteous that Hashem delivered to us have returned practically untarnished.

Friends

Their death is even more painful given the strong bond of friendship they enjoyed during their lifetime. Dovid and Yakir befriended each other in high school and maintained that bond during yeshiva, army training, and officers’ training. They served together until their death. They lived most of their life locked in loving friendship and ascended to Heaven together. The iconic picture of them studying in the beit midrash captures the exquisite beauty and agonizing pain of their friendship, in life and in death.

Our people are recovering from a terrible year of strife and social discord. The war has involuntarily thrust unity upon us, and we are currently riding a euphoric wave of national solidarity. We all seek ways to preserve this national unity for the long term. Perhaps we should use this time to improve our friendships, both with our personal friends and with every member of our nation. Friends can disagree, but their bond of friendship can never be broken.

My revered Rebbe, Rav Amital, who suffered the loss of eight talmidim during the Yom Kippur War, delivered passionate sichot prior to Neilah and the closure of Yom Kippur. He lamented that since Hashem does not tolerate forgery, human beings who are riddled with falsehoods and lies, cannot properly daven to Hashem. He consoled us by stressing that Hashem also listens to the cries of the broken-hearted. A Jew who lives history is broken-hearted (“A broken and depressed heart Hashem will not despise”). We are broken-hearted by the loss of Dovid and Yakir. I will miss them dearly. Tragically, there is already half a minyan of Gush talmidim in shamayim. May they have an aliyas neshamah and be melitzim yesharim for all of Klal Yisrael. Please Hashem, end our suffering and protect all of our soldiers, and send Mashiach speedily in our days.

 

Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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