My Take on the News

Torah at All Times

This past week, I heard the following comments from Rav Yitzchok Yosef, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel: “Yaakov Avinu wanted to live in tranquility so that he could learn Torah with peace of mind. He knew how much depth the Torah requires, how much a person must delve into the intricacies of halacha in order to understand it. The Torah is broader than the earth and vaster than the sea. But when he wanted to live in peace in order to focus on his learning, he was beset by the tragedy of the disappearance of Yosef. Hashem was hinting to him that a person must learn Torah at all times and in all situations, even when he is suffering from hardships. Even when you are suffering, even when reporters are surrounding you and subjecting you to all sorts of harassment, even in the most difficult situations, you must sit and learn Torah. That is what Yaakov Avinu represents.”

Rav Yitzchok went on to speak about his father, Rav Ovadiah Yosef. “A person who knows the value of the Torah, who understands the importance of the Torah and the fact that it is the center of our lives, will invest all of his energy in Torah learning. As long as he has strength remaining within him, he will continue to pour it into learning. There are some talmidei chachomim who become fatigued when they are learning, and do you know what they do? They place their feet in basins of water, or, as in the stories about the rabbonim of Morocco, they do all sorts of other things so that they will wake up as soon as they doze off.

“Forty or fifty years ago, my father zt”l used to keep chocolate in his drawer. That is something that wakes a person up. At 2:00 in the morning, when everyone was sleeping, he wanted to learn but he was tired. So he would take a piece of chocolate, which contains caffeine, and it would wake him up. The rebbetzin, my mother a”h, knew that it was detrimental to his health, and she used to hide the chocolate so that he would not find it. In the end, he began hiding it from her among his seforim. He came up with many different tactics so that he would be able to continue learning. One day, he was sitting and learning, and suddenly I noticed that he had stood up. I said, ‘Abba, why don’t you sit down? Why are you standing?’ And he replied, ‘I feel tired; I am falling asleep, but I want to learn.’ He channeled all of his strength into learning; he did everything possible to continue learning. He marshaled all of his strength for the Torah.”

When a person is interested in something, Rav Yitzchok added, he will become oblivious to his own fatigue. He described a scenario in which a boy returns home from school carrying a bulging backpack filled with books. Exhausted from his walk home, the boy drops the bag on the floor and declares that he has no strength left. His mother asks him to make a quick trip to the corner grocery, but the boy claims to be too worn out to move a muscle. Several seconds later, though, he hears the siren of an ambulance as it arrives on his street and he perks up. Before anyone can blink, he races downstairs to watch the exciting scene. Suddenly, his strength seems to have been restored.

This boy, the Rishon Letzion explained, was not lying when he claimed that his strength had deserted him. He truly felt that his energy was depleted. But when something arouses a person’s curiosity – in this case, the sound of the ambulance – his strength will return to him. And that is the approach that we must take to learning Torah.

 

Choosing the New Police Chief

I think you will agree with me that things are never boring in Eretz Yisroel, not even for a moment. I know that in America, the headlines of the past week have focused on the death of former President George H.W. Bush. His son spoke about him as an incredible father, and he even shed tears, moving the country with his emotion.

In Israel, meanwhile, every day produces numerous new events. Sara Netanyahu is under investigation again, this time on a new suspicion – namely, that she lied to the state comptroller. This allegation was brought to light by Nir Chefetz, a state witness. Meanwhile, Binyomin Netanyahu and Naftoli Bennett are continuing to squabble, while the Minister of Internal Security cannot seem to designate a new police chief. It is a long story, but the bottom line is that he wanted to appoint Commissioner Moshe “Chico” Edri to the position and he was not successful. That was considered a serious blow to the minister.

At the beginning, there was a candidate for the position by the name of David Bitan, the commander of the Tel Aviv police force. The “problem” with Bitan, though, is that he wears a yarmulka. Even “worse” was the fact that he was caught on camera at the entrance to Kever Rochel, with a rov from southern Israel in his car. Certain individuals asserted that a person who befriends rabbonim is not fit to serve as the commissioner of the Israeli police force.

When Bitan was first competing against three other candidates for the position, he visited Rav Chaim Kanievsky to request a brocha. To everyone’s bafflement, Rav Chaim asked if he was a kohein. Sometime later, Minister Erdan decided to nominate Moshe Edri for the position. Last weekend, Edri’s candidacy was rejected, and a temporary police chief was named – Moshe Cohen, the police commander of the southern district. Cohen is a brother of Dudi Cohen, a former chief of the police force. Some suggested that this was what Rav Chaim had in mind when he asked his puzzling question. At this time, it seems almost certain that Cohen will be selected to hold the position permanently. If he is not chosen, there are two other possibilities: Either someone from outside the police force will be appointed, or else, according to Minister Erdan, David Bitan will be given the post.

But all of that is trivial in comparison to the most important development, winter rainfall finally began in earnest.

What Were the Arabs Thinking?

I can’t understand what the Arabs were thinking. Did they really believe that they could dig tunnels across the border, into Israeli territory, and that people wouldn’t realize that someone was digging beneath their homes? As it turns out, Israel has been monitoring the tunnels for several years. The army recently released a video that shows that Israel has even managed to install cameras inside the tunnels. The Israelis were aware of the Arabs’ plan, which was to extend their tunnels to the area of Metulla and then to emerge from underground, surrounding the northern city and effectively conquering it. They also planned to reach Route 90 and paralyze the traffic on the highway.

Didn’t they foresee that the residents of the north would call the police and the army when they heard the sounds of machinery operating underground, as their homes actually trembled from the excavations? Perhaps the Arabs simply didn’t think…

Now, the Israeli public doesn’t feel that they are in a state of war. In fact, this is not a war; the army has simply launched an operation to destroy the terror tunnels. For Netanyahu, though, this came at precisely the right time. In the midst of all his troubles, he is now scoring points with the public by taking care of the defense of the citizens of Israel. Remember, Netanyahu is not only the prime minister at the moment, but the defense minister as well – and that means that he is does not need to share the credit for this operation with anyone else. This is a time when he needs that credit more than ever. If you are thinking of suggesting that this is the reason for the timing of the operation, well, you can draw that conclusion if you like.

Meanwhile, Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the UN, managed to assemble a majority to condemn Hamas for the construction of the terror tunnels. This led to much rejoicing in Israel, since it was the first time in many years that we saw the slightest trace of sympathy from the United Nations.

The Draft Law is Still an Issue

The draft law continues to loom over the chareidi community. The government asked the Supreme Court for an extension of four months to enact a new law, and the court granted it only a month and a half. What will be done during that time? Well, the same thing that the government planned to do if it was given a four-month extension. The problem is that no one even knows what that would have been…

In principle, it should not be a problem to pass a new law in a short amount of time. The past two weeks have shown that even the current narrow coalition is not only able to continue functioning, but has actually improved on its previous performance. Every MK and government minister now knows that his vote could spell the difference between the passage of a bill and its defeat – although losing a vote on a proposed law is really only a moral blow, no more than that – and, therefore, each of them feels a personal responsibility to be present in order to cast their votes. This was not the case when the coalition had 67 members, which led individual MKs to think that their absences from the Knesset would not have any negative effects.

But that is not the issue with the draft law. Even if Yesh Atid and Yisroel Beiteinu vote against the law, which both parties supported in the past, it could still be passed. The problem is actually within the chareidi sector itself. At this point, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel insists that certain changes must be made in the law. Now that Lapid and Lieberman have decided to oppose the law regardless of its contents, it is possible that those changes will be made. But in any event, Netanyahu is waiting for Agudas Yisroel – as opposed to Degel HaTorah or Shas – to decide whether he should continue with the law in its current form.

You would probably like to know what specific changes Agudas Yisroel is demanding. The truth is that I have the same question. So far, no one I have asked has been able to explain it to me. MK Uri Maklev agreed to meet with me this week and answer all of my questions.

Thursdays Without El Al

For a while, it seemed that the saga of the El Al “Shabbos flight” had come to an end. However, as it turns out, the story hasn’t ended yet. True, El Al issued a halfhearted apology to the chareidim whom it accused of rioting and disrupting the flight. However, there is a committee in the Knesset known as the Public Petitions Committee, which is headed by MK Yisroel Eichler, and he is not the type of man to let an incident of this nature pass without some response. When someone lashes out at the chareidim, Eichler steps in to defend them.

This past week, the Public Petitions Committee met to discuss the complaints submitted by the passengers on the infamous Erev Shabbos El Al flight. The committee session was attended by the directors of the airline, representatives of the Ministry of Transportation, and passengers who had complained to the committee about the episode. At the beginning of the session, Eichler read aloud the written complaints that he had received from passengers on the flight. The letters vividly described the ordeal that the passengers had experienced from the time they arrived at the airport on Thursday afternoon until they finally landed in Israel on Motzoei Shabbos, as well as the slanderous defamation to which they were subjected during the following days.

One of the letters described a portion of El Al’s abuse of its passengers: “We were told at first that the flight crew had been delayed and that the flight would not be taking off on time. It was already 9:00 at night. This meant that we would land sometime around 2:00 in the afternoon. We asked to be allowed to disembark so that we could spend Shabbos in New York. The captain promised us, ‘We are taking off now. We are the first in line for takeoff, and we will arrive in Israel two and a half hours before Shabbos.’ The plane started to move down the runway, but then ice had to be removed from its wings and engines. This procedure took over an hour, which meant that the earliest we would land in Israel would be close to 3:30 in the afternoon, an hour before shkiah. According to our calculations, that meant that we would be spending Shabbos in Ben Gurion Airport. Despite the pressure and our demands to be let off the plane, no one raised a hand against anyone and there was no verbal abuse. In the middle of the flight, we began to suspect that we would be landing in Athens rather than in Israel. We asked the flight attendants, but they refused to tell us anything. It was only much later that the captain announced that we would not be able to arrive at Ben Gurion in time for Shabbos and therefore would be landing in Athens.”

The passenger claimed that El Al had not reserved enough hotel rooms or ordered enough food in Athens, but he was outraged even more by the fact that the chareidi passengers were slandered. “After all of our suffering and isolation, we found out on Motzoei Shabbos that we were accused of being violent! They claimed that we struck the flight attendants and that we tried to break into the cockpit. The airline even said that it would file a complaint against the passengers. We were shocked!”

The deputy director general of El Al told the committee that the company itself had not publicized any reports about the alleged violence, and that no such claims were made by El Al. He also tried to argue that El Al could not even be blamed for the delay in New York. Nevertheless, he could not explain why the shomer Shabbos passengers were not permitted to disembark in New York and to remain there on Shabbos.

Rav Yitzchok Goldknopf, chairman of the Vaad Harabbonim Lemaan HaShabbos, argued that El Al must recognize that the mere fact that the passengers feel victimized is itself a problem for the airline. “El Al’s agreement with the Vaad Harabbonim states that it will neither take off nor land on Shabbos,” he said. “The weekly flight in question is scheduled at a dangerous time, and there is a concern that it may result in chillul Shabbos. It would be proper for El Al to discontinue this flight,” he said. “If it does not, the vaad will advise religious travelers to refrain from taking the flight.”

Poland to Mark Jewish Cemeteries

Here is another interesting report that I heard this week, in a different Knesset committee: The Polish government plans to place stone markers at the borders of about 1,400 Jewish cemeteries throughout Poland. This is the result of an agreement between Rabbi Mordechai Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland and a member of the Conference of European Rabbis, and the Polish Minister of Culture, Pieter Galinsky. According to their agreement, all of the Jewish cemeteries will be mapped, their borders will be recorded in a computerized database that will be accessible to the public, and stones will be placed at the corners of every cemetery in order to delineate its boundaries. This is certainly a major breakthrough, and the Knesset Diaspora Committee has welcomed the development.

Rabbi Schudrich noted that about 200 out of the 1,400 Jewish cemeteries in Poland are already marked, but it is still necessary to place the new marking stones, since some of the fences were erected many years ago and have already begun to crumble. Moreover, the exact boundaries of some of the cemeteries are disputed.

He also said that hundreds of cemeteries have already been mapped, and some of the information has already been stored in the computerized database of Lo Tishkach, an organization under the auspices of the Conference of European Rabbis, and the Claims Conference. The remaining cemeteries will be mapped by the Antiquities Authority of the Polish Ministry of Culture, with the assistance of local authorities and of international databases. Using bar codes that will be placed on the stone markers, visitors will be able to access information about the history of each cemetery and the surrounding area, including the borders of the cemetery and the people who are buried there. Rabbi Schudrich thanked the public for being receptive to his efforts, and added that he hopes that his work will prevent the future desecration of cemeteries by local governments and businesses alike.

Eight Days of Inspiration

At this time of year, there is much talk about the light of Chanukah – and the truth is that we feel that light in our hearts. There is something unique about Chanukah.

I heard a beautiful comment from MK Yisroel Eichler. He cited the classic question of why it was necessary for the oil in the Bais Hamikdosh to last miraculously for eight days, when the halacha states that “tumah hutrah betzibbur” – an item that has become tamei may be used for a communal obligation. Because of this principle, it should have been acceptable to light the menorah even with oil that was tomei. Eichler quoted Rav Aharon of Belz, who answered this question by declaring, “For the chanukas habayis of the Bais Hamikdosh, we cannot rely on something bedieved. For the inauguration of the Bais Hamikdosh, we needed to use oil that was pure.” The same idea, he added, applies to the chinuch of our children as well.

Another speaker I heard quoted Rav Uri Zohar, who pointed out that Yosef’s release from prison, his appointment as viceroy of Mitzrayim, and the salvation of the entire land from the ravages of the famine began with a simple question that Yosef asked his fellow prisoners: “Why are your faces downcast today?” If Yosef hadn’t taken an interest in the feelings of the sar hamashkim and the sar ha’ofim, if he had simply ignored their melancholy and had gone about his business, then the later events described in the parshiyos would not have happened. This is a lesson for all of us: When we see someone who seems morose or dejected, we should take the initiative to inquire if there is anything we can do for him.

Yungeleit Running Through the Streets

Chanukah will be over by the time you read these lines, but I still feel compelled to share some impressions from the Yom Tov with you. Every Yom Tov has its own unique sights and images. Before Sukkos, one can see people meticulously scrutinizing esrogim in the marketplace, searching for the tiniest blemish. Before Pesach, groups of men assemble to bake matzos for the upcoming Yom Tov. Of course, the festive rejoicing of Purim fills the streets with incredible fervor. And then there is Chanukah, when yungeleit race home from their kollelim in order to light their menorahs at precisely the right time. These men would never run with such alacrity for any other purpose, even if they were told that a visitor from South Africa was distributing hundred dollar bills at the Kosel. The mitzvos are the most precious commodities in their lives – and that is what makes them a precious commodity to us.

On Sunday evening, I stood on the main street in Givat Shaul and watched these kollel men rushing home to perform the mitzvah. Many of them were out of breath as they hurried down the street, but their faces were ablaze with the light of the mitzvah. Moments before that, I had stepped into the bais medrash of the Pressburg kollel, which consists of yungeleit who are destined to become morei horaah. With just minutes remaining to the seder, they were thoroughly immersed in their learning. Moments afterward, they would be rushing through the streets with the greatest sense of urgency.

On Chanukah, we have no need for any surveys or polls to reveal the level of attachment to tradition among the people of Israel. Every day, the majority of Israeli households feature lit menorahs. I saw the flickering flames in the windows of homes even in the most secular neighborhoods. Even at public menorah lightings, chilonim stand respectfully, wearing yarmulkas and shouting, “Amen!”

A Visit from the Judge

One of Israel’s newspapers reported this week about a family court judge in Be’er Sheva who decided to visit a terminal patient in a nursing home in the city. The patient was involved in a dispute with his family members, which had reached the judge’s courtroom. The man’s children had removed him from his home and sent him to a nursing home against his will, explaining that their father was unable to function on his own or to care for himself, and that it was to his benefit to be placed in an institution. They claimed that there was no alternative, and they also asked the judge to grant them control of his assets.

At the next hearing, the judge surprised the family by revealing that she had visited their father in the nursing home and had spoken with him at length. He had cooperated fully and had been completely lucid, and she had reached the conclusion that there was no reason for him to remain in the institution and she had no objection to him returning home. She also revealed that the father had told her that his children did not visit him. With that, the case was thrown out.

Don’t Trust the Radio

Last week, I turned on the radio as I was driving out of Givat Shaul in the direction of Romema. The newscaster announced that the Ayalon Highway and Derech Hashalom had been shut down by protestors, and he added that traffic was also at a standstill at the entrance to Yerushalayim and in the area of the Chords Bridge. No sooner had he spoken than I arrived at the Chords Bridge, where I found that there was not even the slightest sign of a traffic jam.

Lapid’s Conceit

Yair Lapid has a problem: An investigative journalist has revealed that he met numerous times with Nuni Moses, the editor of Yediot Acharonot. It doesn’t take a skilled investigator to determine that Lapid has been receiving extremely favorable coverage in the newspaper. Was there some sort of quid pro quo arrangement between the two? Did a bribe of some kind change hands? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But the police can always investigate. After all, Lapid should receive the same treatment that was accorded to Netanyahu. The attorney general has already been asked to order a criminal investigation. What makes the situation even worse for Lapid is the fact that these meetings were kept secret. There is a law that requires public figures to make their schedules of meetings known to the public, but Lapid failed to do so. In fact, he met with Moses at the home of a mutual friend in Savyon, which makes their dealings all the more suspicious.

The most incredible thing about this was Lapid’s reaction. If I remember correctly, this is what he said: “The meetings themselves were fine. A politician is allowed to meet with the editor of a newspaper. It becomes forbidden only when the politician is corupt.” Essentially, Lapid was saying that while he and Netanyahu had both done the same thing, Netanyahu should be tried and sentenced for it because he is “corrupt,” while Lapid himself should face no prosecution, because he is not corrupt. And that is the height of hubris