On the Road to Mattan Torah
The Yom Tov of Pesach has come to an end. It was an eventful week, filled with plenty of action and activity. There were throngs of visitors at the Kosel Hamaarovi, especially for the biannual Birkas Kohanim. Many of us paid Chol Hamoed visits to our rabbeim or relatives, and, of course, there were many shiurim. The botei medrash of Eretz Yisroel were filled with participants in the yeshivas bein hazemanim programs that preceded the Yom Tov, and masses of people attended shiurim throughout Chol Hamoed. One could not help but be deeply inspired by the sight. In my own neighborhood of Givat Shaul alone, three different shuls – Pressburg, Ohel Yehonasan, and Rav Yisroel Meir Druk’s shul – organized daily learning sedorim throughout the days of Chol Hamoed, with each seder concluding with a shiur at 12:30 every day.
During Chol Hamoed, our community was privileged to be visited by Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Rav Asher Weiss, Rav Dovid Cohen, and Rav Noam Alon. The bais medrash of the Pressburg shul, which was recently renovated, has become a magnificent, thriving hub of Torah learning and davening. The shul was visited by two distinguished guests over the course of Chol Hamoed, each of whom was a special attraction in his own right. The first was Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch. As far as I know, this was his first visit to the neighborhood of Givat Shaul. The shul was filled to capacity during his address. The other prominent guest was Rav Yitzchok Shapiro, who came to Givat Shaul to deliver a shiur, which was deemed a special attraction and likewise drew a huge crowd.
Incidentally, Rav Shapiro’s visit to the shul was not a matter of happenstance. It was the Shapiro family themselves who were responsible for the refurbishment of the Pressburg shul. The family patriarch, Rav Avrohom Yosef Shapiro, was a son-in-law of the Cheishev Sofer, the Pressburger rov of the previous generation, and a brother-in-law of Rav Simcha Bunim Schreiber-Sofer, who passed away a year and a half ago.
But the lofty days of the Yom Tov of Pesach have ended, plunging us back into our usual mundane routines. We can only hope that we will manage to hold on to some small element of the sanctified atmosphere of Pesach over the coming summer. Perhaps the mitzvah of Sefiras Ha’omer, which reminds us of the steady approach of the date of Mattan Torah, will help us achieve that objective.
Who Will Be the Next Minister of Justice?
Meanwhile, the negotiations for the next government coalition are underway. Every party has its own requirements and demands, which sometimes place the parties in conflict with each other. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s job is to appease all of the players on the political field, which creates a problematic situation for him. In order to gather 61 supporters, he will have to please everyone, including Kachlon’s Kulanu party and Lieberman’s Yisroel Beiteinu. And that is not easy. For instance, Betzalel Smotrich of the United Right is demanding the position of Minister of Justice. He hopes to continue the judicial revolution that was begun by the current minister, Ayelet Shaked, who joined forces with Naftoli Bennett in the election and failed to pass the electoral threshold. Netanyahu, however, will find it very difficult to grant him that position. Lieberman, for his part, wants the defense portfolio, which is a somewhat bold demand for someone in his position. Netanyahu will also have to allocate some positions of seniority to the chareidim. It is important to keep in mind that Shas and United Torah Judaism are now the two largest parties in the Knesset after Likud and the Blue and White party. In any event, the coalition talks have already begun, while members of the Knesset have already been sworn in.
Here in Israel, we have been watching the recent events in America with growing concern. The shooting attack at a shul in San Diego has brought the subject of anti-Semitism in America back into the public consciousness. It is quite disconcerting to note that the murder was committed solely because the shooter hated Jews. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the election of a Jew to the office of president, while the prime minister of the country is also Jewish, has elicited fear within the country’s Jewish community, where there is concern that the flames of anti-Semitism will be stoked by the development. Then there was the recent incident in Yeshivas Torah Chaim in Moscow: On the night of bedikas chometz, a vandal broke into the yeshiva, spray painted anti-Semitic slogans and swastikas on the walls, and then set fire to the storage room that contained food for the holiday. We were also perturbed by the offensive caricature that appeared in the New York Times, in which President Trump is depicted being led by a dog that resembles Netanyahu. The newspaper apologized for the cartoon, but it has left a vile taste in our mouths. We are also watching the events within the Democrat Party, and the struggle between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, with no small measure of concern. The question of who the next president of America will be is a matter of great importance to Israel.
The Price of a Soldier’s Remains
Another major story this week is the annual convention of Lev L’Achim, which is held every year after Pesach and attracts the attention of the Israeli public, largely on account of the fact that it is attended by many gedolei Yisroel. This year, the convention will mark the 70th anniversary of the inception of Lev L’Achim, which was originally known as “Pe’ylim” and began with young activists traveling around the various cities on the periphery of the country and convincing parents to send their children to religious schools. The annual convention begins with a series of internal events designated for the thousands of activists of Lev L’Achim and comes to a climax with the appearance of the gedolei Yisroel. I presume that you will read about it next week.
Yet another important development was the return of the remains of Zechariah Baumel, a soldier whose fate we waited many years to learn. Following the intervention of Vladimir Putin, Baumel’s remains were returned to Israel immediately prior to the election. Netanyahu scored quite a few points in the eyes of the public as a result of that achievement, but we have since learned that there was a price to pay: Israel released two Syrian prisoners, one of whom was serving time for criminal offenses, while the other had been convicted of plotting to attack an IDF base. The approval that Netanyahu enjoyed has now turned to criticism on account of his failure to have the swap approved by the cabinet.
Hit-and-Run Driver Turns Himself In
On Sunday evening of Chol Hamoed, I was driving toward the neighborhood of Ramot, when I discovered that the police had erected barriers at the end of the road, slowing traffic to a crawl. I didn’t know what had caused them to block traffic, but I eventually managed to make it past the congestion. Several hours later, I heard the bitter news: A speeding car had hit a young man who was crossing the street completely legally, in a crosswalk and at a green light. The young man, Chaim Binyomin ben Shoshana Raizel, is still in critical condition. The driver fled from the scene of the accident, without stopping to assist the victim. This is bound to have severe repercussions for him. The car was found, abandoned, several hours later, but the driver had disappeared. The police publicized his picture and appealed to the public to help them locate him. On Sunday evening, the driver turned himself in.
There was also a fatal accident in the city of Beitar Illit, in which a young child was struck by a bus and was killed. His mother was standing beside him when he suddenly darted into the road. The family had come from Monsey to spend Pesach in Israel and to celebrate the boy’s upsherin, which took place at the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai in Meron immediately before the Yom Tov. At the levayah, the child was eulogized by his young father, and the participants were moved to tears.
A third tragedy took place when three yeshiva bochurim were enjoying a hike in the vicinity of the Kinneret. They entered the water, and one of the three was swept away and drowned. After a search that lasted several hours, his body was found and removed from the water. We all monitored the search efforts anxiously, hoping that a miracle would occur and that he would be found alive. Unfortunately, though, he had passed away by the time his body was found. His name was Ariel Dovid Koslovsky. He was an 18-year-old yeshiva bochur from the neighborhood of Ramot in Yerushalayim.
The Passing of the Rebbe Who Represented the Holocaust
On Sunday, we received the tragic news of the petirah of Rav Menachem Mendel Taub, the Kaliver Rebbe zt”l. The Kaliver Rebbe was one of the most beloved and highly admired rabbeim in all of Eretz Yisroel and perhaps in the entire world. To us, the Rebbe was the embodiment of the tragedies of the Holocaust and the unfathomable spiritual rebirth of Klal Yisroel following the devastation. It was known that he had davened to Hashem to allow him to survive the war, promising that he would go on to recite Shema Yisroel with thousands of other Jews, particularly children. He uttered this tefillah when he was on the threshold of the crematorium in the concentration camp. Realizing that he might be about to recite Shema Yisroel and to join his martyred brothers and sisters in Shomayim, the Rebbe pledged to recite Shema with the living instead if he survived the war.
The Rebbe was born in Transylvania and was a sixth-generation descendant of Rav Yitzchok Eizik of Kaliv. In 1944, following the conquest of Hungary by the German army, he was sent to Auschwitz along with his family, of which he was the only survivor. After the war, the Rebbe traveled first to Sweden and then to the United States. Finally, in 1963, he established the first center of the Kaliver chassidus in Israel, in Rishon Letzion. He moved to Bnei Brak in 1980, establishing a magnificent center for the chassidus there, and in 2002 he moved to Yerushalayim, in the vicinity of the bais medrash that he established in Shikun Chabad. During the Holocaust, the Rebbe suffered terrible torment. He often said that it was impossible for him to describe the things he had witnessed, since no one would ever believe him. After the war, he dedicated his life to spreading kevod Shomayim. He went on to recite Shema Yisroel with other Jews thousands of times, thereby fulfilling the pledge that he had made during those dark hours.
I remember the Rebbe from my childhood. Rishon Letzion, the city where he first resided after coming to Israel, is adjacent to Be’er Yaakov, and we used to make the trip to Rishon Letzion on foot in order to attend his tishen on Friday nights. The Kaliver bais medrash was a beautiful facility decorated with breathtaking artwork, which was highly unusual at the time. The Rebbe was responsible for arranging yemei iyun for police officers and higher-ranking officials in the police force, as well the “bar bei rov” program, a special day of learning for non-chareidi men that would be held on one of their vacation days, such as Yom Haatzmaut. Another of the causes to which he dedicated himself was the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust, especially the spiritual lessons that could be derived from it.
“Why Did You Throw Us Into the Water?”
Three years ago, I witnessed a remarkable event that took place on the banks of the Danube River in Hungary. I was present as a guest of the Conference of European Rabbis, and one of the events that I attended was a reenactment of the march of the Holocaust victims who were murdered at that site. A memorial tent had been erected at the edge of the water, with a large number of shoes serving as a memorial to the victims. Dozens of rabbonim and other dignitaries were present for the event. The most prominent of them was the Kaliver Rebbe. He was barely capable of moving by that point; he was supported by two gabbaim and was extremely frail. The previous day, I had seen him walking out of the town of Kaliv to visit the gravesites of his forebears. Then, too, he had seemed very weak, but as soon as he positioned himself at his shtender, he seemed to be infused with supernatural strength. I stood a meter away and watched as tears streamed from his eyes. It was an unforgettable experience.
“We were in Auschwitz, and we were in the Warsaw ghetto,” the Rebbe announced. “We saw things that are impossible to describe. Children were thrown into pits. People were killed with fire. Shomu shomayim! Shema Yisroel! We say, ‘Hoshana lemaan kedoshim hameshulachim ba’eish – Please save us for the sake of the holy ones who were cast into flames.’ Here [on the banks of the Danube], we must daven to be saved because of the holy ones who were cast into water. What cruelty! The things we endured seventy years ago, before the war ended… We were in Auschwitz, and a few hours before we were released, I stood there, before they wanted to throw me into the fire, and I said, ‘Shema Yisroel, Ribbono Shel Olam, what will You gain from this? Soon I will be with my brothers and sisters. I had two brothers with families and two sisters with families, and my father-in-law and mother-in-law, and none of them survived. Please, let me do something. I promise You that I will recite Shema Yisroel with the living!’ Rabbosai, for the past seventy years, I have been trying to pay for that pledge that I made to the Ribbono Shel Olam.”
His tears continued to flow, and he began to tremble. He had told the same story many times in the past, but here, on the banks of the Danube River, at the exact spot where living Jews had been thrown to their deaths on this cursed soil, we could not help but tremble upon hearing it. The Rebbe continued, “We had the privilege of receiving the Torah that Moshe Rabbeinu brought down from Shomayim. It is our life; it is everything to us. Unfortunately, people have arisen who want to destroy the Torah, the Torah of Moshe, chas veshalom. What will happen now? If there is no Torah, there can be no Klal Yisroel. If there is no Torah, there can be no Eretz Yisroel. The Torah says, ‘Listen, Yisroel, today you are drawing close to a war.’ This is a spiritual war… I was born here… Many great people, who were kedoshim and tehorim, were taken to Auschwitz. And here, at this place, Rabbosai, here and now, the neshamos that were cast into the water are standing and crying out, ‘Why? Why did you throw us into the river?’ Look at these shoes [which are affixed to the ground alongside the Danube River as a memorial to the murdered Jews]. The word naal is an acronym for the phrase ‘nochosh afar lachmo – the snake’s bread is dirt.’ Hashem was angry with the nochosh for doing things that were not good, things from which he had no benefit. What benefit came from this? We stand here, and we declare, ‘Remove your shoes from your feet, for this place is sacred ground.’ Our battle, along with the Orthodox rabbonim and along with the government, will be to spread Yiddishkeit. I have heard that they are prepared to help us physically and emotionally. That will be a great thing.”
The Rebbe’s words, spoken in a Hebrew that was heavily influenced by Yiddish, seemed to pierce the hearts of everyone present, including the non-Jewish diplomats and journalists. “Let me tell you a story,” he concluded. “I once delivered a drosha to some high-ranking officials in the air force and I said to them, ‘You know that in a fraction of a second, a person can cause tremendous destruction. With the press of a single button, you can release a bomb that can create enormous devastation. So you should also believe that in a fraction of a second, with an action that seems very small, you can also build an enormous edifice.” That is what the Rebbe himself achieved with the recitation of Shema Yisroel.
The Festival of Freedom – in Prison
Every Jewish prisoner desires to be released for the Seder night. In fact, the official policy of the Prison Service (and of the country’s hospitals) is to endeavor to release as many prisoners as possible for the Seder night. A Jewish state should indeed honor the Jewish festival of freedom. The following is the sad story of Lior Sharabi, an inmate in the observant wing of Maasiyahu Prison.
On the Shabbos of Parshas Tazria, Lior was on furlough. Based on his “ranking,” he is required to be accompanied by two approved chaperons throughout his furloughs. Those two people must be chosen from a list of five who were approved by the Prison Service, and they are not permitted to rotate with others. The same people who arrive at the prison in order to take him home are required to remain with him throughout his life and to accompany him when he returns. There is no rhyme or reason to these rules; they are simply the arbitrary decisions of the Prison Service.
On that particular Shabbos, the police went to Lior’s home to confirm that he was there and that his two designated chaperons were with him. They arrived at his home six times, and on their first inspection, they discovered that his father, who was one of the designated chaperons, had gone to shul. In his defense, Lior argued that there were still two approved chaperons with him, his wife and his mother. Nevertheless, when he returned to the prison, he was taken to a disciplinary hearing and was penalized with the revocation of all of his furloughs for a period of sixty days, including the Seder night. For an inmate in prison, there can probably be no greater punishment. His lawyer was told that the mere fact that he would be permitted to leave the prison for the Seder was itself a privilege, and there was no way the decision could be disputed. That was a bit of a perplexing argument: Since a prisoner’s furloughs are enshrined in official regulations, why should they be considered a privilege?
MK Michoel Malchieli submitted a parliamentary query to the Minister of Internal Security demanding an explanation for the incident. “How can you explain the fact that such a minor infraction was punished with such a stiff penalty?” he demanded. “Why is it that – in light of his relatively minor crime, and after he has already been released for numerous furloughs – this prisoner cannot be allowed only one chaperon, or his chaperons can’t at least be permitted to alternate with each other? Would you be willing to intervene so that the Prison Service will reconsider the severe penalty that he received, and will consider the two chaperons who were with him as a fulfillment of the conditions of his leave, so that his release for the Seder night will not be revoked?” Malchieli’s aide, Akiva Hofi, made his own efforts to have the decision rescinded. At the same time, MK Yinon Azulai (son of Dovid Azulai z”l, who was known for his efforts on behalf of prisoners) attempted to address the matter from a different angle as well.
On the day before Pesach, the prisoner was informed that his penalty had been rescinded and that he would indeed be released for the Seder night. Since my telephone number was the only number he knew, he called me to express his gratitude and promptly burst into tears. But I do not believe that this is a sign that the Prison Service has suddenly become compassionate; They probably understood simply that in this case, the opposition to their ruling would be fierce. If it was indeed proven that there were two chaperons present, then the penalty was completely disproportionate. There is no question that the next Knesset will have to pass legislation to protect the rights of the unfortunate people who are languishing behind prison walls. Furloughs must be officially categorized as basic rights for a prisoner, not as privileges, and chaperons must be permitted to alternate with each other. All in all, the regulations concerning the use of chaperons and the prohibition for a prisoner to leave his home – even to go to shul – when he is on furlough should be relaxed.
Other Problems Arise
There is a famous comment regarding the Haggadah: The purpose for which it enumerates the “four sons” is to teach us that even the rasha is still considered a son. A father is obligated to speak to the rasha just as much as to his other children, if not more so. This child must be given time and respect, and the parent must make an effort to reach out to him. He may not be a tam or a chochom, and he may have a penchant for asking frustrating questions, but he is still a child. Rav Don Tiomkin, a prominent mechanech, recently published a sefer titled Boser Hamalachim regarding the proper approach to dealing with such children and defining the proper parameters of the relationship between a parent and a child. This is one of many situations in which one can apply the rule: “Don’t be right. Be smart.”
Here is one excerpt from the sefer: “A common scenario is when an adolescent young man puts on tefillin before shkiah and is immediately rebuked for remembering only at that time. What does this accomplish? It certainly doesn’t instill an avid desire or positive interest in this area. In contrast to that, a youth who receives a compliment in a similar scenario, and who is praised for not allowing the day to end before he puts on tefillin, despite of the hassle involved, will not interpret that praise as a tacit agreement on his parents’ part for him to spend the rest of his life putting on tefillin at the last possible moment. Rather, he will be happy that they appreciate the nisayon that he withstood by putting on tefillin, and that will give him a genuine incentive not to miss performing the mitzvah on the next day, either. With Hashem’s help, over time, a process will develop, at his own pace, in which he will learn to put on tefillin on time, rather than waiting until the last moment.”
Rav Tiomkin’s seforim quote extensively from Chazal and from the gedolei Yisroel. For instance, he relates that the Nesivos Sholom states, “When a child who needs a bedieved approach is given a chinuch of lechatchilah, it is a grave injustice.” Rav Moshe Sternbuch is quoted as saying, “When a child feels that he has been rejected and that his parents do not love him, he will ultimately end up in the street.” Rav Tiomkin also quotes Rav Shimshon Pincus as stating, “Today, there are many people and many groups in the outside world who are merely waiting for a chareidi child to slip out of his community, so that they can give him ‘warmth’ and ‘affection.’” Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l is quoted as teaching, “Today, we must educate children with the rod of pleasantness, not with the rod of harshness.”
There is one comment in the author’s introduction to the sefer that captures its very essence: “The practice of ‘ordinary’ chinuch, which is done through discipline, setting boundaries, prohibiting various things and creating feelings of guilt, is generally successful only in exacerbating the situation. It is like the makkah of tzefardeia. You ban one thing, and two other problems arise in its place…” What is the solution, then? The mechaber goes on to explain that one must understand the depth of the pain experienced by these youths and reach a situation in which there is a relationship of mutual respect, trust, and love. That is the only way that a father can truly touch the heart of such a child.
Rav Dov Yoffe’s Rebuke
I will cite a few more noteworthy quotations from the sefer, because this issue, as we all know, is a leading problem in our generation.
Rav Tiomkin relates that Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who was asked about this issue by Rav Yisroel Ganz, responded as follows: “Yemin mekareves, yemin mekareves. True, once in fifty years you will find a reason to punish a child and to use the semol docheh, but you should immediately return to the yemin mekareves.”
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman is also quoted: “In the sefer Tzaddik Katamar Yifrach, it is related that Rav Shteinman was asked on several occasions how one should wake children for the zeman of Krias Shema and tefillah. He always responded, ‘No more than once or twice. Any more than that will only cause damage and discord between parents and their children. Be careful about that.’ This was not said in reference to youths at risk … but the danger is even greater with such youths. Any criticism is like poison, which gives the child the sense that he is not accepted.”
The sefer also quotes Rav Gershon Edelstein as stating, “If a child has gone astray, one must act toward him with friendship and respect, and one must reach out to him. Then there is a chance that he will come back, for he himself will know that he has acted improperly, and he will know that it was improper for him to defy his parents’ wishes, but that he was compelled by his yeitzer hara. If we show friendship to this child, it will give him strength and there will be hope that he will return to the proper path. But if we drive him away, it will only become worse.” (These comments were made during a shmuess and appeared in the issue of Darkei Hachizuk published for Pesach of the year 5774.)
I will conclude with a story of my own: I was once present at the home of Rav Dov Yoffe in Rechasim, when a couple came to consult with him about a child who regularly refused to get up in the morning. The parents brought the child with them, and while the father sat silently throughout the conversation, the mother was clearly playing the dominant role. She quoted an assortment of maamarei Chazal as she described her approach to the situation, and Rav Dov listened carefully and began to contemplate his response. Then the boy spoke up. “Is it appropriate to pour water on me?” he asked. The mashgiach’s face turned pale, and the boy added, “When I don’t get up in the morning, my mother pours a bucket of water over me.”
Rav Dov’s gaze was fixed on the floor, but he addressed the boy’s mother as she stood beside him. “Who ever heard of pouring water on a child?” he asked. “What does that accomplish?”
B’Lev Echad – Bringing Light into the Lives of the Sick
This Chol Hamoed was also marked by a number of events that merged a celebration of the chareidi parties’ success in the recent electoral campaign with the custom of visiting rabbonim during a Yom Tov. Within the Litvishe community, a major event attended by thousands of people honored Rav Chaim Kanievsky, while Rav Shalom Cohen, the nosi of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of Shas and rosh yeshiva of Porat Yosef, was the guest of honor at a major event for the Sephardic community.
There were other festive events arranged by various organizations, whether for children who are ill, for young orphans, or for the families of special children. I chose to attend an event held by B’Lev Echad. Unfortunately, I have a family member who is ill, but my connection with the organization is a fortunate byproduct of that situation. No matter how much I write about B’Lev Echad, I will never be able to fully describe the magnitude of their contributions not only to the sick, but to their family members as well, who often suffer terribly along with them.
As usual, B’Lev Echad organized a massive Chol Hamoed event. This time, it was in the community center in the neighborhood of Ramot in Yerushalayim. The unmistakable investment of energy and effort resulted in a fantastic event typical of B’Lev Echad, which organizes an assortment of activities throughout the year to benefit these special children and their families. The volunteers began the preparations for the Chol Hamoed event early in the morning and succeeded in providing the families with an incredibly enjoyable experience. The day began with an assortment of unique and interesting playground equipment and jumping castles for the children, followed by a musical performance by Yehuda Fleishman, Yoni Berger, and Nachman Goldberg, and then by a magic show. I could write many pages about B’Lev Echad and what they have accomplished, but I will suffice with two simple yet powerful words: “Thank you.”