This past week, we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan and the Women of the Wall appeared at the Kosel Hamaarovi once again to launch their usual attack on its kedushah. If we thought that they and their Reform cohorts were going to wait for the government to respond to the Supreme Court and for the court to issue its ruling on the subject, then we were sadly mistaken. They came to the Kosel and managed to create a major provocation.
This time, they arrived in the company of a group of men, and they brought Sifrei Torah into the ezras noshim in “our” section of the Kosel. The men and women proceeded to make a scene, waiting eagerly for the commotion that they were sure would erupt. Many people tried to avoid giving them that pleasure, but there were a few who found it difficult to remain indifferent in the face of their shameful provocation.
This month, the group of provocateurs crossed a line that they have rarely crossed in the past. Until now, they have generally congregated in the outer plaza at the Kosel. This time, they entered the ezras noshim itself. In addition, they were abetted by the police, a fact that makes the episode even more tragic. It is possible that their excesses this month will ultimately be to their detriment, since their actions sparked a massive uproar. Perhaps this time, even the Supreme Court will understand that they are not truly interested in davening or in the Kosel, and that their sole agenda is to create a provocation.
Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, the rov of the Kosel, issued a scathing condemnation of the women’s actions. Even the prime minister reacted this time, announcing that they had violated the status quo, and it is highly unusual for the prime minister to make such a statement about the Reform Jews. The Minister of Religious Affairs also entered the fray, penning a letter to the attorney general in which he enumerated a number of red lines that the group had crossed: engaging in mixed prayer, bringing Sifrei Torah to the Kosel from outside sources, and bringing a group of men and women into the ezras noshim. In conclusion, the minister, Dovid Azulai, wrote to Attorney General Mandelblit, “There is no need for us to explain that this provocative behavior is deserving of every condemnation and that it cannot be allowed to take place under the supervision of the Israeli police.” Azulai demanded that the attorney general take steps against the group.
Another Stormy Winter Begins in the Knesset
The Knesset reconvened after a lengthy recess, and many political commentators have already described it as the start of a “stormy winter.” The clash between Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and opposition leader Yitzchok Herzog at the Knesset’s opening session was only to be predicted. It was perhaps somewhat less predictable that Reuven Rivlin, who participated in the occasion, would rebuke the government for its conduct.
Everyone found a different reason for excitement on the Knesset’s opening day. Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset speaker, was enthusiastic about an unprecedented development: Instead of the state budget being delivered in print, with boxes full of bound copies being distributed to the members of the Knesset, it was now presented on a USB key. Actually, the USB key itself was not an innovation. Last year, the budget was available both in print and in digital format, but this year, it was presented only digitally.
Personally, I marked the opening of the Knesset in my own way, by davening in the newly-expanded Knesset shul. After many years of operating in cramped quarters, the shul was finally made somewhat less tiny, in large part due to a regular mispallel by the name of Edelstein. The placards bearing the text of Modim, Brich Shemei and the like have yet to be returned to their places, since someone who has a greater understanding of aesthetics than of davening has decided that they will be replaced with newer versions, in a more unified format. Let us hope that the Knesset speaker has this matter decided by the mispallelim in the shul and not by an interior decorator.
There was an uproar in the Knesset when the Muslim members of the Knesset observed a minute of silence in memory of the Arabs killed in Kfar Kassem sixty years ago. It began with a speech delivered by one of those legislators, who mentioned the Arabs killed in that battle and called upon his colleagues to stand for a minute of silence. Of course, it had been planned in advance. All the Arab members of the Knesset were present, and they all stood in silence. Yuli Edelstein was outraged, but I found it amusing. The Muslims in the Knesset have been developing more and more audacity as time goes on. In the past, whenever there was a war or a rash of terror attacks, they would avoid publicity by hiding in their homes. Today, they appear at the Knesset podium and accuse the soldiers of the IDF of being murderers.
Last week, a picture was published of a group of Muslims kneeling for their prayer services in the shul at Ben Gurion Airport. In place of their usual prayer rugs, they were using the tallisos found in the shul. It was an image that was difficult to behold. For whatever reason, it did not become a widely publicized scandal in the chareidi media in Eretz Yisroel.
Speaking of Muslim prayer, the following is a firsthand account of a recent incident, from someone I consider eminently reliable: “It happened on Sunday evening, at sunset. I was standing outside the Kosel with dozens of other people. The digital board next to the bus stop showed that both a number 1 bus and a number 3 bus were supposed to arrive within two minutes. I wanted to go to the Chords Bridge, and the driver of the first bus, a number 3, advised me to wait for the number 1, since the route of the 3 is much more circuitous. Two minutes passed, and the number 1 bus didn’t show up, but another number 3 arrived instead. The bus was half empty, but it drove off without taking on any more passengers. A man in an electric wheelchair had some difficulty getting off, which caused the driver to shout at him, and he drove away without letting anyone else board the bus. The number 1 bus finally arrived 20 minutes later, and we watched as the bus allowed its passengers to disembark at the stop down the road. Then it drove in our direction, but the driver turned off the engine before he arrived at the stop and signaled to us that he would be waiting for ten minutes. And do you know what he did? He took some pieces of paper, went to the open area in the middle of the bus, and prostrated himself on the floor. He was a Muslim, and he had decided that it was time for him to pray.
“Just imagine how many complaints would have poured in if a religious Jew had done the same thing,” commented the man who experienced this.
Nor was that the end of the story.
“When the driver finished his prayers, he returned to his seat and opened the doors, and the bus filled with people. At one stop, a father got off the bus and the driver closed the door before his two children were able to get off with him. The children screamed to be let off, and we all shouted at the driver as well, but our shouts fell on deaf ears. He simply let them off at the following stop. Then, before the bus turned on to Rechov Strauss, he stopped. It was a bit frightening, but we soon saw that someone was bringing him a bag from the falafel store on that corner. And then he waited some more, until a second bag arrived. It made no difference to him that people were waiting on the bus.
“Waiting for the falafel was certainly not acceptable,” he concluded, summing up the main points of his story. “It was also wrong for him to make his passengers wait for ten minutes while he prayed. And according to the schedule, he should have arrived 20 minutes before that began; the initial delay was also wrong. Even if – if – a bus driver deserves a break between trips, it shouldn’t mean such a lengthy delay. The fact that we had to wait half an hour for a number 1 bus is certainly a sign of the Egged bus company’s negligence and poor service. I was told by people who travel that route regularly that it is a frequent occurrence. And the driver’s cruelty to those two children was unquestionably evil. This was abuse of people who have no choice but to rely on public transportation,” he emphasized.
450 Children with Cancer
This past week, the Israel Cancer Association held its annual cancer awareness day. Every year, the day is marked by conferences, fundraising efforts, and news releases about new studies and discoveries. This time, there was a terse yet frightening announcement about the number of people in Israel suffering from cancer. “Today, there are 200,000 cancer patients living in Israel. Every year, about 30,000 new patients are diagnosed with cancer, 450 of them children.”
Those statistics are heartrending!
Before Sukkos, a video was released showing Rabbi Chananya Chollak of Ezer Mitzion visiting the homes of the gedolei Yisroel with a list of names of sick people in need of a cure. “They want to live,” Rabbi Chollak told the rabbonim. The video shows Rav Gershon Edelstein’s hands trembling as he murmurs the names of the ill. Rav Yaakov Edelstein read through the pages wordlessly (since his last hospitalization, he has been unable to speak and communicates solely through written notes), rested his head on one hand with an expression of anguish, and then raised both hands heavenward, with tears rolling down his cheeks. Finally, he wrote a brief message: “May Hashem send a refuah sheleimah, soon and with ease, to all the patients at Ezer Mitzion. Written and signed by Yaakov Edelstein, who is beset with suffering.” At his home in Ramat Hasharon, the rov also wrote that the patients should make it a habit of pronouncing the name “Kedarlaomer,” which is an acronym for “kol de’ovid Rachmana letav ovid, uvrachamav meivi yeshuah – everything that the Merciful One does is for the best, and in His mercy He will bring salvation.”
Four hundred fifty children annually works out to about one and a quarter children each day. May Hashem have mercy!
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz’s Telephone Call
This week, I visited the family of Rav Nochum Tenenbaum zt”l, a member of the Givat Shaul community, during the week of his shivah. Rav Nochum was a son of Rav Moshe Dovid Tenenbaum zt”l, who served for decades as the chairman of the Vaad Hayeshivos of Eretz Yisroel. Rav Nochum suffered from cancer for several years before his passing. Every once in a while, he was told that he had finally overcome the disease, only to discover before long that it had not been vanquished after all. This Simchas Torah, at Hadassah Hospital in Yerushalayim, his soul returned to its Creator. On Motzoei Yom Tov, he was escorted to his final rest by a huge funeral procession.
The visitors at the shivah this week came away with a wealth of incredible stories, told by family members and other visitors alike. The image that emerged was of an outstanding individual, a man who singlehandedly managed a vast enterprise of tzedakah and chesed, a confidant of the gedolei Yisroel and the driving force behind the establishment of many centers of Torah learning and tefillah. Rav Nochum was responsible for a spiritual revolution in Golders Green, London, during the years he lived there (due to a previous illness). He was an outstanding person in many ways, yet he was also incredibly humble, never seeking anything for his own gain.
While I was visiting the grieving family, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel arrived. The family members showed him some of Rav Nochum’s notes from his years as a talmid at Yeshivas Mir, which contained many teachings of the roshei hayeshiva. They related that Rav Nochum had personally decorated the aron kodesh in the yeshiva, and that it was he who drove Rav Chaim Shmulevitz to Kever Rochel for the famous visit when he exhorted Rochel Imeinu to weep for her children. Rav Nochum used to relate that Rav Chaim spent only a short time on his visit to the Kosel before returning to the yeshiva, but when he visited Kever Rochel, he remained there for a relatively long time.
Rav Eliezer Yehuda replied that according to the version of the story he had heard, it was Rav Shia Ozer Halperin who brought Rav Chaim Shmulevitz to Kever Rochel on that famous day. According to that story, Rav Chaim asked his driver for a telephone token so that he could call his wife from the public phone at the kever. When the story, which later became known throughout the world, was told to Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, he was asked to identify the mussar haskel from Rav Chaim’s visit to Kever Rochel. Rav Nosson Tzvi replied, “We learn from this story that when a person is going to be late, he should call his wife.”
A Mountain vs. a Minister
This past week also marked the passage of three years since the petirah of Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l. Dr. Yosef Burg z”l, a former government minister, once remarked that the difference between a mountain (har) and a government minister (sar) is that a mountain appears small from afar, but seems to grow larger and larger as one draws closer to it, whereas a government minister is the opposite. From a distance, a minister may seem like a great person, but as one becomes acquainted with him, his smallness becomes more apparent.
As time goes by since Rav Ovadiah’s passing, I find myself thinking of that comment. Every year that passes seems to accentuate his greatness even further. Three years have elapsed since his passing – on the third day of Cheshvan, 5774 – and we find our awe of his spiritual stature constantly growing. No one disputes the fact that Rav Ovadiah was a spiritual giant, a man who led a revolution in the way of thinking of every Sephardic Jew as an individual and of the Sephardic Torah world as a whole. Rav Ovadiah changed the country’s attitude toward the traditional Sephardic public, elevated their status in the realms of rabbonus and dayanus, and spearheaded the establishment of Sephardic institutions of Torah learning. Under his guidance, the Shas party was not merely a political movement, but a tool to realize his objectives of kiruv, chinuch and chizuk.
In the past, I reviewed the transcripts of Rav Ovadiah’s public speeches over the years. One subject about which he cared deeply during his early years was the issue of Torah education. As a young dayan, he once returned from a Chinuch Atzmai school registration event in Be’er Sheva accompanied by Rav Shlomo Lorintz. On the bus, Rav Ovadiah told Rav Lorintz that the senior officials of the Mizrachi party had threatened to have him dismissed from his post if he participated in the event. At that time, dayanim were appointed by the state and the government had the power to fire them. The selection of dayanim was in the hands of the Mizrachi party, meaning that those officials had the power to make good on their threats. But Rav Ovadiah stood his ground, and at every possible juncture – as a darshan, as a yungerman, as a dayan, as the rov of Tel Aviv, and as the chief rabbi of Israel – he trumpeted his opposition to the schooling of boys and girls together. As the founder of Shas, he was responsible for the establishment of many institutions throughout the country, as well as supporting the existing Sephardic institutions. He was the force behind the founding of the Shas network of chadarim and the El Hamaayan educational system. I was present at the historic event when Rav Ovadiah and his two close friends, Rav Bentzion Abba-Shaul and Rav Yehuda Tzadkah, signed the founding document for the network of chadarim. On that occasion, the three gedolim exuded love and concern for the children of the Jewish people.
Children and Pikuach Nefesh
Rav Yehuda Tzadka and Rav Bentzion Abba-Shaul both supported the establishment of the Shas party as an instrument for spreading kedushah, even though they typically shunned politics. In fact, both of them were opposed to participating in the Knesset elections altogether. Their support for the Shas party’s founding was an uncharacteristic move, born of the necessity of staving off the danger of secularization and the damage caused by the Israeli government. In addition, they were driven by hakoras hatov to Rav Ovadiah, their good friend from Yeshivat Porat Yosef.
Rav Mordechai Toledano, a son-in-law of Rav Ovadiah and a dayan in Tel Aviv, once asked Rav Bentzion why he was not assisting Rav Ovadiah in the political battle he was fighting singlehandedly. Rav Bentzion replied, “It should be enough for you that I am not announcing my opposition to the elections.” To prove his point, he quoted a Gemara about how to deal with a non-Jew who threatens to impart tumah to anyone who refuses to submit to him.
When Rav Ovadiah heard about the exchange, he said, “What is the comparison? Did we enter the Knesset in order to become tamei? We are there in order to save innocent Jewish children!”
A similar exchange took place with Rav Yehuda Tzadkah, who was likewise asked why he was not joining Rav Ovadiah’s efforts. “Does my father-in-law have more of a responsibility to Jewish children than you do?” Rav Toledano asked him.
Rav Tzadkah replied, “For me, the Knesset and its elections are like kitniyos on Pesach. Even though there is no actual reason to prohibit it, that is the minhag, and we do not deviate from it.”
Rav Toledano attested that when he relayed this comment to Rav Ovadiah, the latter leapt out of his seat. “Saving Jewish children is like kitniyos?” he exclaimed incredulously. “On the contrary, it’s pikuach nefesh!”
Indeed, when Rav Ovadiah later informed the other rabbonim that their public support was necessary, both of them were willing to make that move. I still remember the day when Rav Bentzion signed a letter in support of Rav Ovadiah’s efforts and handed it to Aryeh Deri.
Parenthetically, anyone who was close with Rav Ovadiah is well aware that he, too, was extremely reluctant to visit the Knesset. Even in his years as an official rov, he refrained from visiting the building unless he had no other choice. Most of the official invitations that he received to visit the Knesset as the chief rabbi of Israel, or after his retirement from that position, were discarded out of revulsion. Deep down, Rav Ovadiah was no less a kana’i than his colleagues.
A Segulah to Ward Off Cats
Another of Rav Ovadiah’s salient character traits was his profound compassion and kindness toward others. I myself was exposed to his immense compassion on many occasions. I will share two of those anecdotes here.
Once, I was asked by a friend to arrange for his son to meet with Rav Ovadiah at a time when it was virtually impossible for anyone to see him. “It’s pikuach nefesh,” my friend insisted, begging me to arrange for an exception. When I questioned him as to the nature of the pikuach nefesh, he explained that his son had become utterly terrified of cats, creatures that are ubiquitous on Israeli streets. The phobia had become so intense that the boy refused to leave his home, and if he ever did step outside, he fled back indoors almost immediately, upon catching even the slightest glimpse of one of the creatures he feared.
I was in a quandary. How would the rov receive such a request? None of his family members dared approach him about the subject. They suggested that I present the request myself. I entered the rov’s study and waited for him to look up from his sefer. As soon as he did, I explained the situation to him. I was astounded by his response: “Bring the boy here right away!”
The boy was brought to the rov’s home and Rav Ovadiah taught him a “segulah,” guaranteeing him that if he adhered to the practice, no feline would ever be able to harm him. Naturally, the “segulah” achieved its desired effect and the boy was cured of his fear.
On another occasion, an engaged couple asked me to arrange for them to meet with the rov. They explained that a date for their wedding had already been set, but a well-known mekubal had then warned their parents that their names did not “match.” They were in turmoil and were desperate for help. Once again, Rav Ovadiah’s family told me to approach him myself, and then maybe – maybe! – he would agree to meet with the couple.
When Rav Ovadiah heard the story, he was overcome with sympathy for the suffering chosson and kallah. “Get them on the phone,” he said. I will never be able to quote the comments he made about “mekubalim” and “matching names,” and I certainly cannot reveal whom those comments were said about. I will tell you only that after he had reassured them that the wedding could proceed as scheduled, he added, “If you are still afraid, then I will personally come to serve as the mesader kiddushin.” With that, the two were cured of any doubts they may have harbored.
These two incidents are clear illustrations of Rav Ovadiah’s love for every Jew – the very same love that led him to dedicate every spare moment in his life to benefit the Jewish people.
The Battle for Housing Begins
Another major news story has been the discussion regarding the state budget planned for the coming two years. Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon stood at the Knesset podium last week and presented the budget, and seventy members of the Knesset registered to deliver their own addresses on the subject. It was only to be expected that the coalition members would praise the budget, while the opposition members would condemn it. The speeches were predictable and boring, and with 70 speeches in total, they dragged on for many hours.
By 11:00 p.m. on Wednesday, the members of the Knesset were exhausted. The voting took place in the morning, and the results were equally predictable: Sixty members of the Knesset supported the budget, while fifty opposed it. The budget has now been transferred to the Finance Committee for further discussion. That is where the real excitement will take place.
Shortly before the vote was held, a new member of the Knesset, Rabbi Michael Malchieli of the Shas party, arrived. Malchieli, who has served until now as a member of the Yerushalayim city council, took over for Aryeh Deri, who resigned from his seat in the Knesset and remained “only” a government minister. In order to avoid leaving the Knesset with only 119 members, the 34-year-old newcomer had to be sworn in before the vote on the budget could take place.
There is one more piece of news from the halls of government: The chareidi parties (Shas, Degel HaTorah, and Agudas Yisroel) have reached the conclusion that this winter must be dedicated to the fight for housing for the chareidi populace. The reason is simple: The situation has already become far too desperate. Almost no new apartments are being built for chareidim, and there are no plans in the works for future land allocations. The government is doing nothing about the situation, while housing prices are skyrocketing and parents of young married couples are drowning in debt. Let us hope that we will succeed in this endeavor.