My Take on the News

Elections in the Shadow of Rockets

The hot topic this week is the upcoming election, but we have had plenty of other things to keep us busy. The situation on Israel’s southern border is quite distressing. We are living in the shadow of an ongoing nightmare named Hamas, a terror organization that makes cynical use of Palestinian citizens who are willing to give up their lives for the sake of their battle against the Jews.

The situation in Gaza is very complicated. As of now, Hamas is the ruling power in Gaza, and it is responsible for the missiles that have been fired into Israel. These missiles have reached Ashkelon and even the center of the country (Moshav Mishmeret, which is near the city of Kfar Saba). There was a sort of unwritten agreement that as long as the conflict remained confined to the border region, Israel would not respond with much force. When Hamas crossed that red line, it was with the intent of forcing Israel into a drastic response. Netanyahu cut his visit to America short due to the escalating tensions. As could be expected, he ordered the Israeli military to respond.

Israel blew up a number of buildings, including some locations of strategic importance to Hamas, but did not harm anyone from Hamas. The response was not sufficient to end the offensives against Israeli citizens. It may have led to a certain calming of the tensions, and perhaps the satisfying sense that Israel had done something to strike back at its enemies, but that was all. At the same time, if Netanyahu had intensified the Israeli response, then it probably would have triggered a severe reaction from the terror organization, which would have endangered the lives of Israeli citizens and would have paralyzed the country’s airport. Even if Netanyahu had completely liquidated Hamas, there would be no guarantee that the anarchy that would fill the Gaza strip as a result wouldn’t work against us. In the absence of any leadership, one million Gazans with no hope for a future would be capable of doing all sorts of horrific things.

In that case, you are probably wondering, what is the solution? Will we be forced to contend with violence from Gaza forever? That is a very good question, and, unfortunately, no one seems to have the answer.

Surrounded by Miracles

This week, I heard a drasha. In shul, it is customary for someone to deliver a brief devar Torah after the minyanim for Mincha and Maariv. In this case, the speaker discussed some recent events and remarked that we are not even aware of the great miracles that happen all around us. Recently, a missile from Gaza struck a house in the community of Mishmeret, and no one was injured. The house was completely destroyed, and rumor has it that two dogs that had remained in the house were killed. Under ordinary circumstances, all of the human occupants of the house would also have died. However, one person “happened” to be outside at the time and another “happened” to be in the entranceway. The bottom line is that there were no fatalities, and while that seems to be the result of pure chance, the truth is that it was a miracle.

This type of thing happens over and over. In some cases, it seems that the Arabs launching the missiles simply do not know how to aim. The Arabs themselves claim that “someone” in Heaven is thwarting their plans. The Iron Dome has intercepted only about 50 percent of the missiles that have been fired until now. The rest fell in uninhabited areas. If that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.

During the Gulf War, when missiles from Iraq were landing in Tel Aviv, it was impossible not to spot the Heavenly intervention. Thirty-nine missiles fell in Gush Dan, and only one person was killed. Entire buildings collapsed, but no people were harmed. In several cases, the missiles landed in uninhabited areas of Gush Dan, a miracle in its own right.

Beyond that, we can never know what evil our enemies were plotting and were unable to perpetrate. In Hallel, Dovid Hamelech states, “Praise Hashem, all the nations.” Why should the nations, rather than the Jewish people, praise Hashem? For they are the only ones who knew how many evil plans they hatched against us that they failed to carry out. We will never be aware of the full extent to which we were spared from harm at our enemies’ hands. May Hashem always protect us.

The Endless Cycle of Bloodshed

As I mentioned, it is frightening to think of what a million Arabs in Gaza could do if they were sufficiently inflamed. Just to give you a glimmer of an idea, let me tell you about the havoc that several dozen Hamas terrorists caused – not hundreds or thousands, but just a few dozen of them. These terrorists were being held in Ketziot Prison, near Be’er Sheva. All of them, or at least the vast majority, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for committing acts of murder.

Last week, the prisoners became angry when the prison staff jammed their cell phone signals and they began to riot. Of course, they are not supposed to have cell phones at all, but no one paid much attention to that. In fact, there was once an Arab member of the Knesset who exploited his parliamentary immunity to smuggle cell phones into the possession of security prisoners. For that, he himself is now in prison. In any event, these prisoners rioted over the “violation” of their right to use phones. This resulted in injuries to several of the prison guards, one of whom was almost killed, and a sense of fear pervaded the prison. The wardens were terrified of their prisoners.

With tensions rising between Israel and Hamas, some senior Egyptian officials recently decided to intervene and try to restore calm. A delegation from Egypt visited Israel and Gaza last weekend in an effort to restore quiet for at least a year. The Israelis presented a number of demands that were included in the concept of quiet: All missile fire from Gaza toward Israel must be stopped, the dispatching of incendiary balloons must be ceased as well, and the Arabs in Gaza must stop rioting and attempting to enter Israel. Hamas agreed only to stop launching missiles in exchange for an Israeli promise to cease their aerial attacks and to lift the siege on Gaza (which has been making life unbearable for the residents of the area, plunging more people into the cycle of despair that leads them to be willing to commit acts of terror against Israel). It is a complicated situation indeed.

A Country Unprepared for War

This week, the state comptroller released a report that warns that the Israeli home front is not prepared for a state of war. State Comptroller Yosef Shapira, a retired judge, discovered a long list of deficiencies in the branch of the IDF known as the Home Front Command. Just as the army has a command division for the north and another in the south, it also has a division known as the Home Front Command, whose function is to ensure that Israeli civilians within the country will be prepared in the event of an attack. This includes ensuring that bomb shelters are ready and that emergency rescue organizations are prepared to deal with a calamity, whether it is a terror attack, an earthquake, or a chemical missile – may Hashem protect us. The state comptroller has found that we are not ready, which is quite fitting for the typical Israeli, whom Yitzchok Rabin described as the embodiment of the attitude of “yihiyeh b’seder.”

The comptroller’s report deals with the Home Front Command’s level of readiness for emergency situations and its ability to deal with complex disaster scenes. The report warns that the Home Front Command does not have adequate ability to efficiently and quickly extract victims trapped on higher floors in tall buildings in several locations simultaneously. The comptroller emphasizes that the need to prepare for such an eventuality was made clear to the Home Front Command as early as the year 2010. The report also revealed deficiencies in the operational readiness of the reserve forces designated for rescue and extraction operations. “Officials in the Home Front Command believe, and the statistics attest, that the general preparedness of the rescue and extraction units in the reserves is on a low to medium level,” the report warns its readers. “The demolition sites where the rescue and extraction units practice are familiar to them, and the training therefore does not present a challenge to them. This hinders their operational abilities.”

The report also noted that Israel lacks necessary equipment: “There isn’t enough mechanical equipment, and as a result the extraction units will find it difficult to operate in complicated sites.” Not only that, but there is a shortage of ambulances. “The Home Front Command has only about 8 percent of the ambulances that it would need at its disposal. The State Comptroller is warning that due to the lack of medical staff in Magen David Adom to operate ambulances in the event of an emergency, it is not possible to guarantee the swift and efficient evacuation of wounded victims from damaged buildings.”

Shapira Finds Fault with Gantz

The State Comptroller’s office is an official body that wields authority over the entire government. In general, the position is assigned to a former justice. The comptroller works in a large building near the Knesset and the prime minister’s office, and he has a huge staff at his disposal. He examines one government office after another, including the police force and the army, as well as various entities that operate alongside the government, such as Israel Railways. He publishes reports as he sees fit; each one deals with a different subject, or with several subjects at once.

Three weeks ago, the comptroller released a report filled with blistering criticism of the state of transportation in the country. That report was highly damaging to Transportation Minister Yisroel Katz and, in effect, to the entire government. It came as a severe blow to the government that the comptroller had found fault with transportation in the country, an area on which Israel prides itself on its advancement and progress. Some criticized the comptroller for releasing his report, claiming that it is inappropriate to criticize the government three weeks before the elections. But now he has done it again, this time regarding the Home Front Command.

At the same time, the comptroller has taken an evenhanded approach. His report this week contains an entire chapter about the police force, in which describes a serious ethical issue with the police’s dealings with a hi-tech company known as the Fifth Dimension. Now, who do you suppose was the head of this company, which has since collapsed? If you guessed Benny Gantz, you were right. Netanyahu has attacked Gantz more than once with the argument that if he was unable to successfully manage a small company, he is likely not qualified to run the entire country. Now the state comptroller has come to rub salt on those wounds.

The comptroller’s report reveals the dealings between the police force and its commissioner at the time, Roni Alshich, and the hi-tech company headed by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Among other things, it reveals that the police artificially adjusted the nature of their business dealings with the company, dividing certain contracts into separate dealings and reducing the official figures regarding their involvement in order to avoid the legal obligation to publish a tender for the services they contracted to the company. (By law, any contractual arrangement valued at 50,000 shekels or more must be preceded by a tender.) In eighteen different instances, there were suspicions of criminal misconduct. The report notes that the police first entered into a contract with the company after a meeting between Police Commissioner Roni Alshich and senior executives in the company in August 2016. The contract upon which they agreed was valued at four million shekels, and included an option for future involvement in a project with the police worth 50 million shekels. The comptroller pointed out that the mere fact that the company’s senior executives, including Gantz, were present for that professional meeting was itself problematic, due to the conflict of interests involved.

The Likud party is demanding that the attorney general open a criminal investigation into both Gantz and Roni Alshich, another of Netanyahu’s political foes. Minister Yariv Levin dubbed this “Case Fifty Million.” As you can see, there is no shortage of interesting events here in Israel.

Klal Yisroel Above All

We were all distressed when we heard about the Ethiopian plane that disintegrated on its way to Nairobi on the third of Adar, killing its 149 passengers and the eight members of its flight crew. Any human being would be distraught over the deaths of other human beings. Over the course of the day, we heard that two of the victims were Israelis and we began to grieve with even greater intensity. We are all part of a single body, the nation of Israel, and the loss of two fellow Jews was devastating to all of us.

After the disaster, one of the members of the Knesset Guard asked me to put him in touch with Aryeh Deri. He explained that one of the victims, Aryeh Matzliach of Maaleh Adumim, was his brother-in-law. Matzliach was a virtuous man with a refined Jewish soul. The guard who spoke to me related that his sister had been shattered by her husband’s tragic death. With tears in his eyes, he asked for assistance with the efforts to locate his brother-in-law’s body. Aryeh Deri set aside the election campaign and leapt into action, investing a tremendous amount of precious time into seeing to it that the men of Zaka would be permitted to reach the area of the crash and locate the bodies of the Israeli victims.

In the Blue and White party, Lapid regularly boasts that the State of Israel takes precedence over all other concerns. In the Shas party, it is slightly different: Any Jew – or the Jewish people as a whole – takes precedence over all else.

Yesterday, the security guard approached me again. He related that parts of the body had been found, but the searchers were encountering hurdles imposed by the government. The authorities planned to bury the remains of all the victims, including the Jews, in a mass grave of sorts. Even the body parts that had already been found were required to be left there; they were not permitted to be brought back to Israel. Rabbi Yitzchok Vaknin, who had come to the Knesset for a session of the Finance Committee, davened with us in the Knesset shul that afternoon and I introduced the guard to him. The sense of pain and helplessness was unbearable. What consolation could possibly be offered to the widow, her orphaned children, and the broader family? At this time, they do not even have a kever to visit. Who knows if the rest of the body will even be found? Who can say whether any part of the body will ever be brought to kevurah? Until that time, the family members can’t even observe shivah. Someone will also have to issue a p’sak to permit the widows to remarry. It is a dreadful situation.

Last Tuesday, the Chief Rabbinate issued a statement that a discussion about the two Israeli victims of the plane crash had been held in Rav Yitzchok Yosef’s office. The meeting was attended by two of the Zaka volunteers who had returned from the scene of the crash, along with officials from the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. The assemblage was shocked when Rav Yitzchok Yosef announced that he would be willing to travel personally to Ethiopia if he could convince the authorities to allow the experts of Zaka to continue their search. A special bais din was designated to deal with the matter, and this will undoubtedly require a good deal of study and will entail major responsibility. The bais din is headed by the Rishon Letzion himself, who is joined by Rav Michoel Amos, a member of the Bais Din Hagadol, and by Rav Yaakov Roza, who is a prominent expert in this field and serves as the rov of the various chareidi emergency services organizations in Israel.

Rav Shlomo Zalman’s Wisdom

We recently marked the yahrtzeit of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, who passed away on the 20th of Adar Rishon 5755. Almost 25 years have elapsed since his petirah. Rav Shlomo Zalman was a famed rosh yeshiva and marbitz Torah, as well as a posek hador, and in addition to that, he was a paternal figure to Jews everywhere. He eschewed honorifics of any kind, although he was once dubbed “maran posek hador” in an announcement released by Agudas Yisroel of Yerushalayim. For some reason, he suspected (correctly) that the title was the doing of his nephew, Rav Avrohom Yosef Leizerson, who was a member of his inner circle. At seven o’clock in the morning, Rav Shlomo Zalman called Rav Leizerson and demanded, “How could you do such a thing to me? You, of all people?”

Rav Leizerson had a wealth of incredible stories to share about his uncle. Rav Shlomo Zalman was once examined by Professor Beller, the noted neurosurgeon, after undergoing an operation. The professor asked the posek how he was feeling, and Rav Shlomo Zalman replied, “I had tremendous yissurim.” When the surgeon appeared perplexed by his answer, Rav Shlomo Zalman explained, “I was in a lot of pain.” Upon returning to the yeshiva, he commented to the bochurim, “I have learned that the concept of yissurim is understood only by a believing Jew. A doctor doesn’t understand that. All he knows is pain.”

Rav Shlomo Zalman was once emerging from the vosikin minyan in Shaarei Chesed on Rosh Hashanah when he encountered a friend who was experiencing many personal tribulations. Rav Shlomo Zalman greeted the man and inquired about his welfare. “Boruch Hashem,” the man replied. “We rejoice in yissurim.” He appeared to be on the verge of beginning to dance. Rav Shlomo Zalman glanced at the machzor he was holding and said, “My machzor says ‘and not through yissurim.’”

Before Rav Shlomo Zalman’s neurosurgery, the aforementioned Professor Beller wanted to remove one of his peyos and he refused. He was told that if he did not permit it, he would end up being deaf in one ear and blind in one eye. Rav Shlomo Zalman agreed to accept that fate, provided that his peyos would remain untouched. Indeed, for decades thereafter, he suffered from loss of vision and hearing on that side of his head. At his first examination after the surgery, the doctor asked him how he was feeling, and Rav Shlomo Zalman admitted that his vision and hearing were impaired. “You see,” the doctor said, “I warned you!”

After the appointment had ended, Rav Shlomo Zalman commented to his son, Reb Berel, “Now do you understand what it means that the best doctors go to Gehinnom? What reason did he have to argue with me after the operation?”

The Origin of a Famous Photograph

Rav Shlomo Zalman’s Torah continues to illuminate our world, even many years after his passing. Many seforim, including the classic Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah, stand as testaments to his greatness in Torah. And there are constant chiddushim. My son once ceased his practice of inhaling snuff on Shabbos after he heard that Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv expressed uncertainty as to whether it required a brocha. He recently mentioned this in passing to Rav Ezriel Auerbach, who replied, “I don’t know about that. I can tell you that my father used to take pinches of snuff from other mispallelim in Shaarei Chesed, and he did not recite a brocha.” In effect, this was a “new,” relatively obscure p’sak halacha from Rav Shlomo Zalman.

It can be mind-boggling to think about how Rav Shlomo Zalman bore the burdens of a generation on his shoulders. The masses of people who attended his levayah are evidence of that. His warm gaze and gentle caress reinvigorated many people who had collapsed under the weight of their troubles, breathing fresh life into their tortured hearts. Once, I myself was one of those fortunate enough to benefit from his reassurances. On another occasion, I accompanied then-Interior Minister Yitzchok Peretz, who was suffering greatly from the public’s opposition; he, too, emerged from the encounter with his confidence bolstered and his spirits buoyed.

I photographed the gadol hador and the government minister during that meeting. Years later, I developed an enlarged picture of Rav Shlomo Zalman from that encounter and brought it as a gift to his son, Rav Shmuel, who told me that it brought him more joy than any other gift that he had received in years. He proceeded to hang the picture on the wall of his home, and every Sukkos it was relocated to his sukkah. I often find the same image reproduced in chareidi newspapers.

Obsessive Davening

Not long ago, the second volume of Chochmas Hanefesh was released. This sefer was written by Rabbi Yitzchok Lorentz, the founder of the Binas Halev organization. One anecdote that appears in the sefer is the story of a yungerman who decided to leave learning and embark on a path of abstinence from all worldly matters, immersing himself completely in davening. The young man’s father insisted that he seek out Rav Shlomo Zalman’s counsel regarding the new path in life that he had chosen. Rav Shlomo Zalman listened intently to the man’s story and then brought up a seemingly unrelated topic. “A kohein is disqualified from performing the avodah if he has an exceptionally long arm,” Rav Shlomo Zalman related. “What could be wrong with a long arm? Why is it considered a mum?” He paused, then answered his own question: “A person’s body requires balance!”

Similarly, Rav Shlomo Zalman explained to the yungerman, a person’s spiritual life requires balance, as well. “There is Torah learning, which takes place in the mind, and there is tefillah, which takes place in the heart. You are wounding yourself, because you are causing yourself to have an enormous heart and a small head. You are turning yourself into a baal mum!”

“I am happy with that mum,” the yungerman protested.

Rav Shlomo Zalman took hold of his hand and said, “All the people who have tried to invent new paths for themselves were ultimately shattered as a result. They were left with no Torah and no tefillah, and sometimes were not even observant. Your intentions are good, but this is not the way that our rabbeim served Hashem.”

Ultimately, the young man accepted Rav Shlomo Zalman’s advice.

Taking a Bit Too Much Credit

I recently read about a woman who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, for whom the Meuhedet health fund refused to pay for a particular medication, despite the fact that it was enthusiastically recommended by Professor Dimitrios Karussis of the neurology department of Hadassah Ein Kerem, who had determined that the woman met the criteria to receive the medication. The article that described the incident was filled with praise for the Public Inquiries Department of the Knesset, which handled the patient’s complaint with all the urgency that it was due. The article quotes the head of the department as describing his work, and even the director-general of the Knesset is quoted, with his picture appearing alongside the article.

I know Dimitrios Karussis. He is a Greek doctor who has decided to dedicate his life to improving the lives of patients suffering from various forms of sclerosis. As a result, he spends his days in a tiny, rundown office in Hadassah Hospital, when he could easily have been the director of any of the largest medical centers in the world, enjoying the fame and fortune that would result from such a position. There is something very special about him. I am also familiar with the disease, as well as with the medication in question. I feel that it is foolish for anyone to reject a recommendation made by Dimitrios Karussis, but that is not my point right now. Instead, I am somewhat perturbed by the way the Public Inquiries Department pounced on this opportunity for publicity. Something about their boasting seems excessive and perhaps even detached from reality.

“Recently,” the article states, “the health fund was forced to provide the medication, following an unequivocal ruling of the Ministry of Health that the fund is obligated by law to fund the medication, and as a result of the direct intervention of the Public Inquiries Department of the Knesset, which dealt swiftly with the patient’s request.” There is clearly something missing from this story: Why doesn’t the article state that the decision of the Ministry of Health was a result of the intervention of the Knesset? And if the Health Ministry responded directly to a request from the patient, then what role did the Knesset department play in the story?

The article goes on to relate, “[The patient’s] sister contacted the complaints commission of the Ministry of Health and the Public Inquiries Department of the Knesset. As a result, the Health Ministry determined that the health fund is required to provide funding for the medication, which is included in the basket of medical services.” Once again, it is not clear what role the Public Inquiries Department played in these events. Somehow, I have the feeling that they are following the example of the fly that landed on an ox while it was plowing a field, and then turned to the ox after the job was finished and announced triumphantly, “We did it!” The most important element of this story, which is not stated in the article, would be the fact that the Knesset department contacted the Health Ministry and asked for its intervention, which is what led to the resolution of the affair. And I believe that there is a very simple reason that the article makes no mention of that: It simply did not happen.

Working for Others

On that note, I actually find it amusing that the Knesset has a specific department dedicated to fielding inquiries and complaints from the public, which includes a director, possibly a deputy director, and various other staff members. In reality, this does not need to be the work of a dedicated department. The average chareidi MK spends all of his time dealing with requests for assistance from the public. If you come to the Knesset and peek into the offices of legislators such as Yinon Azulai, Yisroel Eichler or Yaakov Margi, not to mention Michoel Malkieli and Uri Maklev, you will find that they are all toiling to respond to every request for help of any kind that they received from citizens throughout the country.

As the late government minister Rechavam Zeevi Hy”d once said to me, “My father taught me that if a day when goes when I do not help another Jew, it cannot be considered a successful day.”

Prayer from the Heart

On the Sunday morning after Purim, in the Zupnik shul in Givat Shaul, I couldn’t help but notice a young bochur who was weeping as he davened. Chazoras hashatz was almost ending, but this young man was still immersed in his personal Shemoneh Esrei, with tears streaming from his eyes. As soon as I noticed him, I found myself transfixed by the sight. What tragedy, I wondered, could have befallen this young man and his family? Why was he so profoundly distressed?

I am acquainted with the young man, who is a wonderful bochur in every sense. With his outstanding middos and personal charm, he is one of the gems of our neighborhood. His name is Meir Ovadiah Chizkiyohu; he is related to a well-known family in Bnei Brak. As he continued to shed tears, I became concerned: What could have happened to the beloved Givat Shaul branch of the Chizkiyohu family?

As Tachanun began, he was still engrossed in his Shemoneh Esrei, and since he was standing behind me, I had no choice but to remain rooted to my spot. If I knew the reason for his anguish, I thought, I would be able to offer him some words of encouragement. But it was impossible to offer any reassurances if I did not have the slightest idea as to what the cause of his distress might be. The bochur continued to weep, and I continued to stare at him.

Suddenly, a man standing next to me tapped me on the shoulder, rousing me from my reverie. “What happened?” he whispered to me with a half-smile. “Did you drink too much?”

I didn’t laugh in response. Instead, I motioned with my head in the direction of the young man. “Have you ever seen anything like that?” I asked.

The other man smiled broadly. “Didn’t you know?” he whispered to me. “That bochur is getting married today!”

I immediately felt a surge of relief. Apparently, the young man was not suffering through a crisis, after all. His tears were not the product of pain, but rather a manifestation of heartfelt prayer. And I had no doubt that the home that he will go on to build, with its foundation of pure, heartfelt tears, will truly be a bayis ne’eman b’Yisroel.