My Take on the News

Mourning Rav Shteinman

This week, the first yahrtzeit of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was marked by a series of hespeidim. The religious newspapers in Israel were filled with articles about the revered rosh yeshiva. And in the context of the loss of one of my own neighborhood’s revered Torah personalities, I heard yet another fascinating story about Rav Shteinman.

Last Shabbos, Givat Shaul lost one of its illustrious elders, Rav Menachem Mendel Hochwald. At the shivah, I learned about his family’s origins. His parents hailed from Galicia, and during the First World War they found themselves stuck in the Italian port city of Trieste, where many would-be immigrants to Eretz Yisroel were forced to remain at the time. Menachem Mendel was one of five children born to the couple in Trieste.

The city of Trieste did not have much in the way of a religious community, and Rav Menachem Mendel’s father, Rav Tuvia, sent his son Avrohom Abba to learn in the yeshiva in Montreux, Switzerland. Eventually, the family planned to move to Antwerp. In the winter of 1938, Rav Tuvia traveled to Montreux to visit his son, while there he contracted pneumonia and passed away. His kevurah in Montreux was handled by two talmidim in the yeshiva: Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, the future gadol of Europe, and Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman.

Several years ago, Rav Menachem Mendel’s son brought his own son to visit Rav Shteinman and to receive a brocha on the occasion of his bar mitzvah. The father related that he was the grandson of Rav Tuvia Hochwald of Trieste, and Rav Shteinman immediately said, “I took care of your grandfather’s burial.” This was over 70 years after Rav Tuvia’s petirah in Montreux, yet somehow, Rav Shteinman recalled his role in the kevurah.

Parenthetically, Rav Tuvia’s untimely passing conveys a lesson about the workings of Divine hashgocha. At the time, it seemed like the most devastating tragedy that could befall the family; his wife had been left widowed and caring for five children on her own, the youngest of whom was only nine years old. In retrospect, though, the loss of the family patriarch turned out to be the key to their ultimate salvation. If the family had followed their original plan, they would have relocated to Antwerp – and then they would have been martyred in Auschwitz. But they remained in Italy, and eventually received documents that allowed them to move to Eretz Yisroel, where they went on to build their own families. The tragedy turned out to be the catalyst for the rest of the family’s salvation.

Here is another story that attests to Rav Shteinman’s power of recall: One of the talmidim in Montreux was a young man, Moshe Dovid Romm. He arrived in the yeshiva in the year 5701/1941, before he had even reached the age of thirteen. In Teves of that year, he returned to his home to celebrate his bar mitzvah. During his time in the yeshiva, he developed close relationships with Rav Moshe Soloveichik and Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. In his later years, he settled in Eretz Yisroel and became the head of a kollel in Yerushalayim. (Today, that institution is known as Bais Medrash Halacha L’Moshe and is headed by his son, Rav Yaakov Romm.)

Rav Moshe Dovid Romm passed away in the month of Adar Rishon 5774/2014. His sons, Rav Yaakov and Rav Aharon, once visited Rav Shteinman to consult with him about a certain issue, introducing themselves as the sons of Rav Moshe Romm.

“You must mean Rav Moshe Dovid,” Rav Shteinman replied. Seventy years later, he still remembered that Rav Moshe Dovid had a middle name. In fact, a yungerman from the kollel once came to show Rav Shteinman a sefer that he had written, and when the rosh yeshiva examined the rosh kollel’s letter of approbation, he murmured, “I wonder why Rav Moshe Dovid signs his name as ‘Moshe,’ instead of using his full name.”

 

Rav Shteinman Listens to a Child

One year, a young boy from Cholon who had become a baal teshuvah used his savings to purchase a shofar, in order to guarantee that even if he spent Rosh Hashanah with his nonreligious parents, he would not miss the tekios. The boy asked a yungerman from Lev L’Achim to teach him how to sound the shofar, but the yungerman was uncertain if he should take time away from his learning for that purpose.

This question was brought before Rav Shteinman, who related that he had encountered a similar question in his own youth: When he was twelve years old, he wished to learn how to lein from a sefer Torah, but he was uncertain if it was appropriate to do so if it would detract time from his learning. Rav Simcha Zelig Riger, the dayan of Brisk, ruled that it was not considered bittul Torah. “In the end,” Rav Shteinman related, “I followed the advice of Rav Moshe Sokolovsky [the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Chessed in Brisk] and remained immersed in learning. Today, however, I know how to lein as well.” Of course, Rav Shteinman’s actual psak was that the boy should indeed be taught how to sound the shofar.

It has been a year since the passing of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and Hashem has not abandoned us. He has given us more tzaddikim to guide and inspire us, but we still mourn Rav Shteinman, just as we grieved after the passing of Rav Shach and, I imagine, just as the world felt empty and bereft after the passing of the Chofetz Chaim or Rav Chaim Ozer. In Rav Shteinman’s absence, we cannot help but feel apprehension, mixed with the terrible sense that we have been orphaned.

Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of remarkable stories about Rav Shteinman have been told and written over the past year, but the greatest story of all is that of Rav Shteinman’s absolute, uncompromising devotion to the Torah. He was a tzaddik who remained steadfastly ensconced in the daled amos of Torah learning, sacrificing every physical comfort possible in order to dedicate himself to talmud Torah.

I will never forget the day when I brought my son, who was a small child at the time, to see the rosh yeshiva. We waited outside his home, and I was warned by his family members that he was returning from a trip out of the city and would be exhausted. Although my son wished to ask a question, we decided to remain silent in order to avoid burdening him with conversation, and we planned merely to observe the rosh yeshiva when he arrived. But when the rosh yeshiva’s car arrived and he saw the little boy standing outside his door, he leaned forward and said, “Are you waiting for me?” He listened intently as my son asked his question, then gave his answer and added a brocha for Hashem to open his heart to the Torah.

 

Are There No Chareidi Volunteers in Israel?

Last Tuesday, at a festive ceremony in the Knesset auditorium, an award known as the “Shield of the Minister of Labor, Welfare, and Social Services for Excellent Volunteers” was distributed to the recipients for the year 2018. I read through the list of recipients, and I did not find a single member of the chareidi community among them. The names on the list included Chana Warsiak from Nes Tziona, Yaakov Shai from Kfar Saba, Ahuva Lachish from Cholon, Henry Chananya from Kiryat Gat, Moshe Kaftan from Hod Hasharon, the Hydrotherapy Center in Shaar Hanegev, and an emergency rescue unit in Arad. The only name on the list that might have been connected to the chareidi community was Marleen Fars of Shlomi, a woman who was born in South Lebanon and was wounded during the Lebanon War, when she was serving as a nurse on behalf of the Red Cross. Mrs. Fars suffers from impaired vision as a result of her injury, and after her rehabilitation she began volunteering in Migdal Ohr.

Since the year 2010, dozens of individuals and organizations have received this award, but very few chareidim have been among its recipients. In fact, the only chareidi individual I could find on the list of previous recipients was Rabbi Nachman Ehrenreich, who received the award in 2014. There were no other names that I recognized.

There is a reason that this perturbs me: There is no doubt that the percentage of chareidim who perform volunteer work that benefits the general public is far greater than the same percentage within the broader Israeli populace. Therefore, if this award is bestowed on a dozen recipients every year, and not a single one of them – or, in one case, only one of them – is chareidi, that means that an entire sector of the population has been blatantly ignored. And that is to say nothing of huge organizations such as Rav Yosef Cohen’s Chasdei Naomi, Rav Eliyahu Cohen’s Ohr Leah, or the Weingarten family’s Darchei Miriam, along with the innumerable other organizations that the chareidi community has produced.

 

The Most Socially Minded Knesset Member

Nechemiah Strassler, a writer for Haaretz who is known for his antipathy to the chareidi public, recently published a vitriolic attack on MK Yitzchak Vaknin. In a sardonic play on the motto of one of Israel’s renowned chesed organizations, the article was titled, “Vaknin, You Promised Us Chicken for Shabbos!” Vaknin has introduced a new bill that would support an initiative to raise a certain type of poultry. Strassler slammed the initiative, claiming that it would benefit the 500 farmers who raise the fowl, while the rest of the country would suffer from a hike in the price of poultry. “That is what Vaknin is trying to achieve,” he wrote pointedly, making sure to inform his readers that Yitzchak Vaknin owns a chicken coop that produces eggs for sale, and that he chairs the agricultural lobby in the Knesset. Based on these facts, Strassler drew the conclusion that Vaknin’s law is motivated by his own personal interests, and that the MK is “not socially minded.” He did not quote a reply from Vaknin himself.

I don’t know very much about this particular bill, but I find it ludicrous for anyone to claim that Yitzchak Vaknin does not have a sense of social responsibility. Vaknin, a resident of Moshav Yaara on the northern border, oversees a massive chesed enterprise in the north and has practically made chesed his life’s work. He distributes food packages to tens of thousands of families in northern Israel, he runs summer camps and other programs for poor children, and he arranges distributions of backpacks and school supplies at the beginning of every school year. It is hard to imagine anyone else who is more socially minded.

Strassler’s insinuations that Vaknin stands to gain personally from the new law are also unfounded. MK Dani Saida, one of Vaknin’s colleagues in the Knesset, explained to me that the poultry bill has no bearing on the egg industry. As for the fact that Vaknin is the head of the agricultural lobby in the Knesset, that is true. Along with MK Eitan Broshi of the Zionist Camp, Yitzchak Vaknin has been fighting for the rights of farmers for two decades. But does that make it some sort of personal interest? Vaknin is visiting America at the time of this writing, but I imagine that when he returns, he will do an even better job of defending himself than I could – that is, unless he makes the characteristic move of choosing not to respond to his detractors.

 

The Public Was Misled

Under the title, “The Genie Has Left the Bottle,” Nechemiah Strassler also reported that the official statistics regarding the recycling of 1.5-liter bottles may have been inflated to create the impression that the legal quotas are being met. This has been accomplished by recycling bottles with small amounts of liquid left within them, which adds to the recorded weight of the bottles. A new report has revealed that the system for measuring the volume of recycling in the country is skewed and seems to have demonstrated that Israel is lagging significantly behind the rest of the world in its level of recycling. The report blames the government for deliberately turning a blind eye to the lapses and for giving in to pressure exerted by the large beverage companies. The recycling companies, of course, have rejected these claims.

This report brought me back many years into the past, to the debates in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee over the Recycling Law. The chareidi parties fought fiercely against the law, especially as it pertained to family-size bottles. The law requires a deposit fee to be tacked onto the price of every recyclable bottle, and the chareidim argued that this would create an unfair burden on large or poor families, who don’t generally have room in their homes to store empty bottles, and therefore would never bring the bottles in for recycling and thus recoup the deposit fees. In the end, they asserted, the deposit fee would merely add to the cost of the products. The chareidim were derided for this stance; other politicians accused them of having been “bought out” by the beverage companies or other interested parties. In the end, the “sacred” value of environmental protection triumphed, and the parties reached a compromise of some sort regarding large bottles.

Now, many years later, the chareidi parties have been vindicated in retrospect. Does anyone actually bring the bottles back to the stores in order to recoup the deposit fees? In fact, does anyone recycle at all? Is there any more awareness of issues such as the ozone layer and global warming? All that has happened is that the price of bottled drinks has increased for all consumers, and almost no one has recovered the added cost of the deposit fees.

 

When Optimism Goes Too Far

 

It’s all a matter of misplaced optimism.

A man – it could be you, or me, or anyone else – trudges down the steps of his apartment building, filled with confidence that the bulging garbage bag he is grasping tightly will survive the trip. He knows that the laws of nature themselves are against him, yet he has once again stuffed the bag far beyond its capacity, believing that this time – unlike last time, or the time before – it will not rip.

This scene takes place every week on erev Shabbos, when the bursting plastic bag is tossed into the downstairs dumpster as the last pre-Shabbos act of the head of the family, who is in the process of hurrying to Mincha. When all the accumulated refuse finally makes its way into that great green receptacle, it is a cause for triumphant celebration. Because, more often than not, something goes awry.

I understand the desire to cram every item possible into the last garbage bag of the week. What I do not understand is why we tend to rely on the bag’s miraculous survival even when it has been filled well beyond its capacity. After the egg shells and tuna cans are joined by the empty packages that once contained chickens and kishka, followed by mounds of potato and zucchini peels, the man of the house is still not satisfied. No, he insists on stuffing a few empty plastic bottles into the bag along with its other contents. And then he makes his way downstairs.

As he navigates the stairs, the bag begins to tear. Droplets of liquid dot the newly washed floors, and one of the handles snaps. The bag threatens to break – just as it did on the last erev Shabbos! – and its unfortunate bearer finds himself clutching the bag with both hands, practically embracing it in an effort to redistribute the weight and to prevent its contents from scattering everywhere. And as he struggles with this unwieldy burden, he can almost imagine the bag itself addressing him accusingly: “Did you forget that this happened just last week?”

This week, it struck me: This is precisely the story of our relationship with El Al – the confidence that everything will work out this time, even if it hasn’t in the past. First, they lose their passengers’ baggage, and then they forget to order glatt kosher meals. Then there is a delay at takeoff, and then the flight crew does not allow the passengers to daven in the aisles. The fifth mishap comes when the passengers on a flight to Kiev are accidentally placed on a plane headed to Berlin. Well, as long as the flight is headed somewhere in Europe, El Al probably reasons that it doesn’t make a difference…. But each time, over and over, we all keep telling our travel agents that we prefer to fly with El Al. We will even pay more for our tickets, and we are certain that nothing will go wrong this time. Yes, that bulging garbage bag is an apt analogy for El Al….

El Al is the quintessential product of Israeli conceit. This is a country whose motto is “yihyeh b’seder” – the smug assurance that everything will be all right – and where complaints or protests of injustice are met with downright disdain. Try to stand up for your rights, and you will receive a contemptuous reply of “Who do you think you are?” Israel is a state in which an elitist society tramples the rights of those who cling to their traditions, a society whose arrogance cries out to the heavens, a society that seems to recognize nothing and no one outside of itself. And El Al is the perfect reflection of those traits.

 

An Auspicious Beginning for a New Kollel

At a recent celebratory event, the residents of the Neve Yaakov neighborhood of Yerushalayim hailed the founding of a new evening kollel to complement the multitude of Torah institutions and programs that already exist in the neighborhood. The event, which was attended by dozens of yungeleit, marked the founding of Kollel Toras Michoel, which was to operate as part of the Be’er Moshe network of institutions, under the oversight of the mora d’asra, Rav Yisroel Yitzchok Zilberman, and Rabbi Yisroel Kellerman, a local resident and member of the Yerushalayim city council. Of course, the event was also attended by some of the supporters and leaders of the Be’er Moshe network, which includes Bais Medrash Torah U’Tefillah, a local institution that serves as a beacon of Torah, chesed, halacha and mussar.

The yungeleit at the event were treated to a remarkable novel insight into the significance of Torah learning during Chanukah. Rav Zilberman quoted the Shulchan Aruch’s statement that the festive meals of Chanukah are considered “seudos reshus” – optional seudos. The brother of the Maharal explains that these seudos celebrate the fact that the Jewish army defeated the Yevonim and that the Jews were once again able to engage in Torah learning. Thus, Rav Zilberman explained, the true simcha of Chanukah lies in the actual learning of the Torah, rather than in gastronomic enjoyment.

Kollel Toras Michoel was named in memory of Rav Michoel Lipsky, a famed baal chesed and supporter of Torah learning. Rav Michoel’s family is responsible for the support of the new kollel. “Supporting people who learn Torah,” Rav Zilberman asserted, “is as great a virtue as the actual act of learning.”

Rav Zilberman went on to extol the virtues of learning Torah at night. He quoted the Rambam’s admonition (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:13) that “a person who wishes to obtain the crown of Torah should be careful with all of his nights.” That, he explained, is why the night kollelim of Bais Medrash Torah U’Tefillah – which operate alongside its programs on erev Shabbos, motzoei Shabbos, and erev yom tov – offer such tremendous benefit to their participants.

Rav Zilberman also pointed out the special spiritual power inherent in marking the transition from day to night with ruchniyus, which the Chofetz Chaim quotes the Shelah as espousing. He pointed out that this is yet another of the special aspects of these kollelim, whose supporters he extolled for their contributions. He also praised the yungeleit who devote their time to their Torah learning, and he lauded the organizers of the kollel for the generous stipends paid to its members. He concluded his address by praising Rav Shimon Sheinfeld and Rav Yitzchok Yaakovson, residents of the neighborhood who also serve as roshei kollelim on behalf of Be’er Moshe – a network that is named after Rav Moshe Menachem Yaakovson, rov of Be’er Yaakov. I believe you can understand my personal interest in this event: Rav Moshe Menachem Yaakovson was my father.

The guest of honor at the event was Rabbi Yisroel Kellerman, who has long been a supporter of the yungeleit of Neve Yaakov in general, and of Bais Medrash Torah U’Tefillah in particular. At a recent gathering, hundreds of yungeleit pledged to join the efforts to raise funds for the construction of a new bais medrash, which is slated to be one of the most magnificent such institutions in the city. Rabbi Kellerman praised the yungeleit for embarking on this daunting undertaking, in spite of their own personal lack of resources. He concluded his speech with the assurance that he and his colleagues in the city council would do everything in their power to assist the community, along with other lomdei Torah in the city. He also noted that the chareidi parties had fared very well in Neve Yaakov in the recent election, “We,” he asserted, “are servants to those who serve Hashem.”