My Take on the News

Foreign Guests in Yerushalayim

Of course, the new elections aren’t the only piece of news from this past week. For one thing, we received a visit from Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt; the former is the senior advisor and son-in-law of President Donald Trump, and the latter is the president’s special envoy for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Prime Minister Netanyahu met with the guests from abroad at his official residence in Yerushalayim, where he commented on the events of the previous night.

“We had a small incident last night, but it won’t stop us,” Netanyahu said. We will continue working together with the Trump administration, and we will continue our efforts to create thriving security and peace. The United States under President Trump is working to assist our allies in the region to deal with their challenges and take advantage of their opportunities.”

To be honest, here in Israel we are quite fearful of the plan that these two young men have developed for us.

The name Netanyahu was in the headlines for another reason at the end of last week, but this time it was on account of the prime minister’s wife. Last week, the prosecution signed a plea agreement with Mrs. Netanyahu in what has become known as “the residence case.” Sara Netanyahu will repay 45,000 NIS to the state coffers, as well as paying a fine of 10,000 NIS, and she will be convicted, albeit not on the charges of fraud that the prosecution demanded. Mrs. Netanyahu originally faced charges of receiving benefits under false pretenses, fraud, and breach of trust. At the end of a mediation process, it was agreed that the charges would be reduced to deliberately taking advantage of another person’s error. This is a charge that is used on rare occasions and carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison. The arrangement will be presented to the Shalom Court in Yerushalayim on June 6 in Mrs. Netanyahu’s presence. I won’t go into the specifics, but in general, she is accused of having used government funds for things that she was not entitled to receive.

And then there was Yom Yerushalayim. As usual, there were several chareidim who received the title of Yakir Ha’ir this year.

There was also – perhaps I should add “lehavdil” – the annual hillula at the kever of Shmuel Hanovi. This event doesn’t attract much attention, even though it is attended by thousands of people, because its scale is dwarfed by the festivities of Lag Ba’omer.

Another Conspiracy Theorist

Some time ago, I wrote about the Yemenite children who were reportedly abducted in the early years of the state, and I mocked Dr. Sariel Birnbaum, who wrote that the scandal was a fabrication born in “chareidi Brooklyn.” Birnbaum maintains that the allegations are nothing but a religious conspiracy to tarnish the reputation of the State of Israel. On the other hand, he quoted the findings of the Bahlul-Minkowski Commission, which was unable to account for 22 cases of children who had disappeared, and the Shalgi Commission, which was left with 56 unresolved cases.

Birnbaum has now received the backing of Yaakov Lazovik, a man who served as the state archivist. Lazovik published an article in which he claimed, “When I served as the state archivist, we discovered thousands of files associated with the Yemenite children. There were immigration records, hospitalization records, and even death records. There was only one thing we didn’t find – evidence of institutionalized kidnapping.”

The answer I would give to Lazovik’s claims is the same as my response to Birnbaum: Even if he didn’t find any such evidence, that doesn’t mean that the kidnappings did not happen. It is astonishing that a former state archivist and a professor can deny something that seems to have been proven beyond any doubt. Their claims of a lack of evidence are worse than bizarre. Since when does anyone draw an ironclad conclusion from a lack of evidence to the contrary?

The Loss of a Home

Looking at the pictures of the ruined homes in Mevo Modiin, I could not help but be overwhelmed by sorrow. Thirty-five out of the 42 houses in the community were completely destroyed by the fire that ravaged it. There is a growing suspicion that the fire was the work of an arsonist. If that turns out to be true, the families will at least receive compensation from the state, since it will be considered an act of terror.

Still, one can only imagine the depth of their pain. We are all used to the idea of going home every night, but these people have suddenly found themselves without homes. In the blink of an eye, their homes were gone. It is an unfathomable tragedy.

It can be dizzying to think about the details. Do you have closets in your home, where you keep your clothes? These people have no closets and no clothes anymore. Do you have a drawer where you keep your socks? Well, their drawers and socks are gone. And it goes beyond that, as well: Do you have any diplomas, semicha certificates, awards, or other precious possessions? Do you have photo albums from your wedding? What about a sefer that was inscribed to you by a gadol? For these people, all of those things have gone up in smoke.

I was appalled when no one in the government made a move to assist the devastated families, or at least to express solidarity with them and to share in their pain. It was Aryeh Deri who did that, which saved the dignity of the government. Deri hinted that if the fire was the result of arson, if would be easier to help the families (possibly because that would make it a hate crime and an act of terror). Meanwhile, it certainly appears to be the work of an arsonist. To think of what it means for a person to be responsible for torching 35 homes! We cannot allow ourselves to remain indifferent to the misery of these families who had their own homes, with closets full of belongings and memories, with wardrobes and letters and pictures and many more things – and all of it has suddenly gone up in smoke.

Answering Amein at the Kosel

Two weeks ago, I wrote the following: “It is never dull at the Kosel. A person may be reciting Tehillim, but he will have to pause from time to time to respond to Borchu or a Kaddish. Perhaps it would be interesting to ask Rav Chaim Kanievsky if it is appropriate to interrupt a perek of Tehillim in order to respond to every ‘amein.’” This paragraph drew a number of reactions, two of which I feel compelled to share with you.

First, Rabbi Moshe Shimon Oppen wrote the following: “You asked if one should repeatedly interrupt a kappitel of Tehillim to respond amein to brachos at the Kosel, and you mentioned that it would be a shailah for Rav Chaim. Interestingly, about eight years ago, I asked Rav Eliyahu Mann to pose this question to the Sar HaTorah. Rav Chaim replied that a person is certainly obligated to answer every amein and amein yehei shemeih rabbah, even in the middle of kappitlach. Since that time, I try to keep my distance from minyanim at the Kosel, or at Rav Shimon’s kever, or at the kever of Mamme Rochel.”

Another talmid chochom wrote, “About two months ago, the sefer Neos Efraim was published. It is a collection of divrei Torah by Rav Efraim Strauss, a mashgiach at Yeshivas Kol Torah. The sefer is described as ‘precious insights from the gedolei Yisroel.’ On page 25, it states, ‘In the month of Shevat 5764, I was approached by a group of bochurim who were learning as part of the Dirshu program early every morning before Shacharis. The time for davening would begin in the middle of their learning, and the practice in the yeshiva was for the chazzan to begin reciting the brachos aloud. They asked if they should interrupt their learning in order to answer amein or if they should continue learning. I asked this question to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt”l, and he replied that from the vantage point of the halachos of talmud Torah, one could say that a person who is involved in learning is not required to interrupt it in order to respond, but for the sake of yiras Shomayim, he should stop learning in order to respond amein to the Birchos Hashachar.”

There is Always an Explanation

The ambulance pulled up to the entrance to the apartment building. Its motor continued to run as one of the paramedics jumped out of the vehicle and ordered all the curious onlookers to move aside in order to avoid embarrassing the person who had called the ambulance. But there was one onlooker who stubbornly remained in her place: a young woman who stood holding a small child. She ignored the other bystanders’ entreaties for her to move aside and their reprimands for her insensitivity. It was as if she and her son were rooted to their spot, directly next to the building’s entrance. Finally, an old man was brought out of the building on a stretcher and loaded into the ambulance. The doors slammed, and the vehicle drove away with its siren still wailing … and then the woman finally moved aside.

“Did you see?” she said to the child in her arms.

“I saw,” he confirmed.

This is a true story, and the young mother’s actions certainly sound indefensible. To the other neighbors who witnessed the scene, her apparent callousness was shocking. But that is only because they were not aware of the background to the story. Just a few days earlier, her son had begun to choke. He was taken by ambulance to Shaare Zedek Hospital, where his life was saved in what was undeniably a miraculous turn of events. On this evening, as he was lying in bed, he heard the wailing of the siren and the ambulance pulling up outside his own building, and he was certain that it had come to take him away again. He grabbed the sides of his bed, his face paled, and he began to shake like a needle in the hand of a nurse in training. His terror seemed to be on the verge of jeopardizing his well-being.

“It’s not for you,” his mother assured him, but the child insisted that it had come for him.

Seeing no alternative, the boy’s mother took him outside to see for himself that the ambulance had come for someone else. He refused to budge from the door of the ambulance until he had seen that a different person was placed inside it, and until the vehicle that had terrified him had gone on its way.

The moral of the story should be obvious: When you see a person acting in a bizarre or even reprehensible way, do not automatically assume that there is something wrong with them. There could be a very reasonable explanation for their behavior, and even if you cannot think of one, there might be a justification that would never occur to you.

Two Tragic Losses

This week, I must conclude with something sad. Three years ago, I interviewed Rav Yisroel Meir Cohen, one of the most prominent activists of Lev L’Achim, who was suffering from a severe illness. He related at the time that the doctors considered him already dead. That article focused on an incredible person who had dedicated his life to reaching out to our irreligious brethren. This past week, he passed away. His funeral procession, which traveled from his home in Kiryat Sefer to Yerushalayim, was joined by all the activists of Lev L’Achim and thousands of residents of the city.

In America, Shloime Green passed away as well. Shloime was a father of three who had suffered many crushing hardships and had always maintained his pure faith and even his smile. The extended Green family sat shivah in Lakewood, including the family patriarch, Rav Yisroel Green, who is known for his prodigious involvement in tzedakah. His son-in-law, Rav Mordechai Ralbag, is an av bais din in Yerushalayim, a position that makes him equivalent to a judge in the State of Israel. Rabbi Ralbag wrote a touching letter to his father-in-law in the aftermath of the tragedy, from which I will quote several lines.

“I remember when Shloime was at the beginning of his illness,” he related. “He didn’t ask for a vacation in Florida or in Switzerland. He wanted only to come to Eretz Yisroel, the Holy Land. We had the privilege of hosting him in our home for a short time, and I had the good fortune of getting to know him. His inner strength was incredible. He always saw the positive in everything. Shloime suffered throughout his life, especially after his illness was discovered, and he could easily have been expected to complain, to become depressed, and to lose all hope, which is what many in his situation would have done, but he chose a different path. He decided to always be happy and to see only the good in everything… At the last family simcha, I saw him fall twice on Shabbos, and I saw his entire body trembling as he sat at the table. I wondered how much a person could suffer, but he continued overcoming his suffering, telling jokes and sharing divrei Torah. He was the strongest person in the family. It is about people like him that the Mishnah says, ‘Who is a mighty man? One who overcomes his yeitzer hara.’ He had total control over his body and his senses.”

Yehi zichro boruch.