My Take on the News

Regulation Bill Approved by the Knesset

This week, one of the top news stories was the approval of the Regulation Law. As I have reported in the past, the Supreme Court – which is the ruling body in the State of Israel – has ruled that the settlement of Amona must be evacuated. I mentioned at the time that this ruling had the potential to bring down the government, and indeed that almost happened this past week. The political right demanded that the prime minister pass a law that would bypass the Supreme Court and stipulate that the residents of Amona be allowed to remain in their homes and the Arab owners of the land should receive compensation instead. Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, though, was afraid to accede to their demand, since the attorney general informed him that the Supreme Court was certain to rule that the law was illegal, and he would be unable to defend it.

Does all this sound outlandish to you? I agree, but it is exactly what happened. The next step was that Naftali Bennett exerted pressure on Netanyahu to comply with his demands, and the prime minister relented. Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon originally claimed that he and his party would oppose the law, but they, too, gave in. Last Wednesday, the law was passed by a majority of 58 to 50.

It is still unclear what will happen next, but in any event, this subject has occupied the country’s attention for several days. Next week, I will try to write about the situation and present a detailed breakdown of the dispute.

Another major story this week is the dramatic increase in El Al pilots calling in sick. The pilots are demanding a raise, and until their demands are met, they are repeatedly developing mysterious “ailments.” The result has been the repeated cancellation of flights, which has evoked public outrage. Efforts have been made to explain to the pilots that their tactic will work against them, since travelers may opt to use other airlines instead and, if they are pleased with the service, may not return to El Al. Nonetheless, the pilots haven’t exactly been convinced. Incidentally, the average El Al pilot receives a monthly salary of 98,000 shekels, whereas the average American commercial pilot, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, earns the equivalent of approximately 35,000 shekels each month. But let us move on to other topics.

How Much Did the Government Invest in Kever Rochel?

It is only natural that every Jew who visits Eretz Yisroel from abroad will visit one of the country’s holy sites: the Kosel Hamaarovi, the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, Kever Rochel, and other sites. Those three are the most well-known destinations for visitors from abroad.

This week, the police lost any semblance of control as tens of thousands of visitors streamed to Kever Rochel. It is the same phenomenon that we see every year on Lag Ba’omer in Meron. But there is one subject that isn’t often discussed: the government’s attitude toward anything having to do with the upkeep of holy sites, to say nothing of further developing and renovating them. This issue was brought up in the Knesset this week by Michoel Malchieli, the new member of the Knesset from the Shas party. His address was titled “The Need to Renovate the Holy Sites of Israel, Including Kever Rochel and the Kever of Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura.” In light of the importance of the subject, I will quote a portion of his speech.

Malchieli began by citing a number of news reports from this past week about the desecration of graves and other sites of significance. He faulted the police for failing to take appropriate measures against the perpetrators of vandalism at holy sites.

“I would like to demonstrate that the holy sites of Israel have been left vulnerable to defilement,” he began. “They are easy prey for the enemies of religion and the enemies of Judaism, who are constantly plotting and perpetrating harm. I condemn anyone who dares raise his hand against the things that are holy to the Jewish people.

“Mr. Speaker, fellow members of the Knesset, and Mr. Minister,” Malchieli continued, “this is a nationwide epidemic. Hardly a week goes by that we do not hear about additional cases of vandalism, of destruction, of hateful graffiti, and even of attempts on the lives of people. A person who has no respect for the sanctity of a holy place will also be indifferent to the sanctity of human life. And I would like to phrase my next point with caution: The authorities charged with enforcing the law in the State of Israel are often accused of being too quick to act regarding anything having to do with the desecration of holy sites. But on the contrary, let them answer this question: In how many of the hundreds of cases of desecration that were reported, and the many more cases that were not reported, were the perpetrators captured? How many of them were brought to justice for the crime of desecrating holy sites here in Israel – shuls, cemeteries, and other places? Hundreds of times already, stones and Molotov cocktails have been thrown at mispallelim coming to daven at Kever Rochel. How many of the offenders were arrested? How many of them were tried and sentenced? The laxity with which the government treats those who desecrate our holy sites has a direct correlation with the constant increase in the perpetrators’ audacity. And that means that the authorities themselves are partially at fault for many of these incidents.”

Government Negligence

Malchieli moved on to discuss the issue of government funding, citing Kever Rochel as an example. “The hillula of Rochel Imeinu was at the beginning of this week,” he said. “According to police estimates, the number of visitors to the kever exceeded their expectations. You were also at Kever Rochel on Sunday, Mr. Minister, like all the other tens of thousands of visitors, and you saw how the site has been refurbished. It now looks new and inviting. Allow me to reveal a secret to you, Mr. Minister: Over the past five years, millions of shekels have been invested in Kever Rochel, but not a single shekel came from state coffers. I would like to express my appreciation to the philanthropist – and I do not know who he is – who was appalled by the previous appearance of Kever Rochel and decided to donate a huge amount of money for the sake of improving the site. Kever Rochel is one of the most popular destinations for tourists in the State of Israel, after the Kosel and after Meron. And I ask: How can this be? Why has this place been treated like an unwanted stepson by all the dozens of ministers of tourism who have served this country? Or perhaps the issue is that the Ministry of Tourism views the visitors to these sites as undeserving of proper facilities. And Kever Rochel is just one example.”

With that, Malchieli reached his main point. “If you would like to learn about the government’s discriminatory attitude toward the mekomos kedoshim,” he said, “you can derive a picture of it from the budget for the Center for the Development of Holy Sites. Mr. Speaker, the regular funding for this institution is a paltry sum of less than ten million shekels per year. In contrast, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Antiquities Authority each receive government funding of almost 200 million shekels annually. Why is this? Is a tourist site in Masada any more important than the kever of Shmuel Hanovi? Is Masada more important than Kever Rochel, the Kosel, and the burial site of Rav Meir Baal Haness?

Azulai Answers

Malchieli went on to praise Dovid Azulai, the Minister of Religious Affairs, and Aryeh Deri, the Minister of the Interior (and Minister of the Negev and Galil) for procuring the sum of 10 million shekels that was earmarked for the Center for the Development of Holy Sites. He expressed his hope that this would be a harbinger of further allocations to come. “I hope,” he declared, “that as a result of this motion for the agenda, there will be a serious discussion of this subject, we will develop a picture of the current needs, and we will work together to obtain proper funding for the development of these mekomos kedoshim. This is something that the government owes to the mekomos kedoshim and to all the people who come to visit them.”

The point that Malchieli raised was an important one, and the discussion will now continue in the Knesset Finance Committee in the hope of pressuring the government to increase the budget for these sites. Meanwhile, the government’s response to Malchieli’s speech was delivered in the plenum by Dovid Azulai, the Minister of Religious Affairs.

Azulai began, “My friend, MK Malchieli, first of all, I would like to congratulate you on your new position and wish you all the best. This is the first time that you are speaking and I am responding to you, so I will permit myself to welcome you and to wish you success. Most importantly, may you create a kiddush Hashem, and may we all succeed in doing nothing but what is good for our people.”

The minister then moved on to the subject at hand. “I agree with you, MK Malchieli,” he declared. “I was once in your position, and I raised the same issue: that the State of Israel does not place sufficient emphasis on these sites. But I must mention that, boruch Hashem, to my great pleasure, this area fell under my purview when I was appointed to my current position, and you are certainly aware of the importance that I attach to these things. Therefore, I hope that, with Hashem’s help, this issue will be brought to the Finance Committee, and once it has been discussed there, we will be able to achieve much more in this respect. I believe that that is the place to make progress.”

Azulai also addressed a topic that was not sufficiently clarified. “The burial site of Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura zt”l is located on the southwestern slope of Har Hazeisim,” he said. “There is a certain family that lives in the vicinity and claims to be the owners of that plot of land. Their claim is supported by partial documentation, but the ownership of that land and the authenticity of their documents are currently being investigated by the courts. This subject is under the jurisdiction of the Cemetery Council of Yerushalayim, which is the official body responsible for the various cemeteries in the city. The council is working to settle the dispute over the land’s ownership, as I said, and until the investigation is concluded, temporary solutions have been put in place to enable visitors to come to the site. Thus, an access path to the site was recently completed, and the council will begin cleaning the area over the coming days. At the same time, all the weeds and dirt that obstruct the access path are the responsibility of the Yerushalayim municipality. As a former member of that city council, you are certainly more familiar with it than I am. In response to your motion for the agenda, I contacted the Yerushalayim City Council and asked them to clear the dirt and excess weeds from the path, and I hope that you will also help us attend to this matter.”

“We Are Trying!”

Azulai moved on to the subject of government funding for mekomos kedoshim in Eretz Yisroel in general. “Since I first entered this position,” he related, “I have kept in mind the great importance of developing our mekomos kedoshim, as well as refurbishing and improving access to these sites for the benefit of visitors. This is the first time since the founding of the state that the Ministry of Religious Affairs is allocating funds for this subject. I have designated significant amounts of money for the development of these sites. The ministries under Aryeh Deri – the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of the Negev, Galil, and Periphery – have also been collaborating with us extensively in many places.

“One of those sites,” he continued, “is the kever of Yonasan ben Uziel in Amuka, where renovations will begin in the near future. The planning process for those renovations is already well underway. There are other joint projects that are currently being carried out, such as the development of the Rambam’s gravesite in Teveria. Anyone who has visited that site recently can certainly attest to the changes taking place there. The work at the Rambam’s gravesite is scheduled to be completed shortly. In addition, renovations are scheduled to begin shortly at the kever of Rebbi Akiva in Teveria, the cave of Eliyahu Hanovi in Haifa, the kever of Yehuda ben Yaakov in the city of Yahud, and a series of other sites, such as the kever of Rav Avdimi D’min Haifa, the site of Choni Hame’agel in Chatzor, the kever of Rav Yehuda ben Bava, the ancient shul in Peikiin, the cave of the Ishah Hashunamis in Kfar Shunam, the kever of Rav Shimon Shazuri, the kever of Rav Shimon ben Rav Elazar, and the kever of Rav Yishmoel Kohein Gadol in Sajur. I would like to emphasize that since I was appointed to this position, the ministry has increased its regular allocation of funds to the Center for the Development of Holy Sites, which has made it possible today for the organization to meet many of the demands that are placed upon it. But I must also add that this is not enough. It is merely a fraction of the work that lies ahead of us.”

As I mentioned, the next step is for the subject to be brought before the Knesset Finance Committee. By a unanimous vote, the Knesset chose to transfer the issue for discussion to the committee, which is chaired by MK Moshe Gafni.

Rav Shach and the Joint

Last week was the fifteenth yahrtzeit of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l. Although I shared a number of stories about Rav Shach with you last week, I feel compelled to add another detail, which I discovered while leafing through newspapers from decades ago.

In Nissan 5750, Rav Shach stunned the world by addressing the secular Jews of Israel, the products of the kibbutzim and the socialites of Tel Aviv, with the piercing question, “What makes you Jews? You are Jewish, you are circumcised, but what is your culture? English? When you open a Chumash, do you know the meaning of the words? There are kibbutzim where the people do not know what Yom Kippur is. They do not know about Shabbos and they do not know about mikvah. They merely spend their time raising rabbits and pigs. Do they have any connection with their Father in Heaven? If they have no Shabbos and no Yom Kippur,” Rav Shach repeated, “then what makes them Jewish?”

When Rav Shach delivered this powerful address at the Yad Eliyahu Stadium, the Israeli media broadcasted it throughout the country. His call for a return to Yiddishkeit stirred many souls in secular Israeli society, and many baalei teshuvah returned to Yiddishkeit as a result of his cry. Rav Shach returned home from that event exhausted, feeling that a crushing weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He felt that he had fulfilled his obligation to draw the secular world’s attention to its estrangement from Judaism, but many people wondered when he had come up with the idea to address the chilonim in this fashion.

In fact, I discovered that Rav Shach delivered an almost identical speech several years earlier, to a much smaller audience. This took place at a reception for the directors of the Joint, which was held at the offices of the Vaad Hayeshivos in Adar Sheini of 5786. The event was attended by only a few people, including a Mr. Abramowitz from the Joint, as well as a person who had just been appointed to a senior position in the organization. (I was unable to determine the name of that person. The newspapers said only that it was a reception “in honor of the new vice president and director-general of the Joint.” In his speech, Rav Shach mentioned only “the honored Mr. Abramowitz” by name.) On that occasion, Rav Shach said almost the same words: “Jew! Are you a Jew? What makes you a Jew? What is your culture? You know English? An Egyptian also knows English! You know the history of the English people? The Egyptian knows that as well. Is it that you are a philosopher? An Arab can also study philosophy. The culture of the Jews is Shas, and when I speak about Shas, I am referring not only to what we learn from it, but to what the Shas teaches us.”

After those remarks, Rav Shach asked the leaders of the Joint to increase their donations to the Torah world, explaining that the Jews who study Torah are those who perpetuate the existence of the Jewish nation.

“Remember the Old Man”

My perusal of those old newspapers led me to some other interesting discoveries, as well. One article describes a gathering of the Tzeirei Agudas Yisroel, where Rav Shach made the following remarks: “Ever since the First World War, the world has been going through an upheaval. Huge countries have been erased after being in power for centuries. Their governments were wiped out and forgotten virtually overnight. The entire world has suffered through terrifying turmoil, and hatred of the Jews is on the rise. If anti-Semitism once existed in isolated countries, today it has spread to encompass the entire world. Everyone thinks that they are suffering because of us.”

Rav Shach concluded his address with a sentiment that he voiced on many occasions: “The false idea that founding a state will be the solution to the Jewish people’s problem with anti-Semitism has been debunked. The idea that by being a nation like all other nations we can achieve equality and recognition has been disproven. One and a half million children are tragically being educated without Torah. We must remember that our devotion to our faith and our observance of Torah and mitzvos is the only guarantee we possess; it is the only thing that has preserved us throughout the generations, and it is our true national identity. We must safeguard our children’s chinuch and unite as one community of Jews who are faithful to Hashem and His Torah.”

Another newspaper article describes a visit to Yeshivas Itri in Yerushalayim, where Rav Shach delivered a shiur on Maseches Yevamos, concluding his address with a few words of chizuk. In that speech, Rav Shach reiterated a point that he often made: the reason for his love for Sefer Bereishis. “All the parshiyos of Bereishis speak about things that are meant to sanctify a person and to purify his middos,” he explained. As examples, he cited Avrohom Avinu’s acts of chesed, and even the fact that Hashem Himself sought permission from the malachim, so to speak, before creating man.

Rav Shach advised the talmidim of Itri to use their intellects to evaluate and carefully examine every shiur they heard, including his own. “I would certainly be pleased if there were no flaw in my reasoning,” he declared, “but a talmid who hears a shiur must think about it carefully, assessing it over and over, to determine whether he has any basis for challenging it.” He also presented his view on the appropriate derech halimud: “The most important foundation of learning is the need to sit and learn more and more, Gemara after Gemara, and to review everything we have learned. That is the path that guarantees growth. If a person learns, then he can also think about yiras Shomayim, but it is impossible merely to ponder fearing Hashem without learning, for an empty person cannot grow.”

He went on to elaborate further on the interplay between Torah learning and yiras Shomayim: “Learning Torah is certainly the most important thing, but there is one condition: A person must be open to receiving yiras Shomayim. We can see on the streets today what a person without yiras Shomayim is like. We hear all sorts of terrible stories about people being murdered for the sake of kavod or for other reasons. The Torah is a Torah of life; it teaches us how to live. Without the Torah, a person could be like an animal: He could work, eat, and die like a simple beast. The yeshiva gives you life; the Torah allows you to feel the pleasantness and sweetness of life.”

Rav Shach presented his views on the proper derech halimud in a shmuess at Yeshivas Ponovezh as well. “Every talmid in yeshiva must aspire to know all of Shas,” he asserted. “There was never a gadol who did not know Shas. A person should learn Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos at a decent pace, without dwelling on every detail. Certainly, one should not learn superficially, for no benefit can come of that.” In the very same shmuess, Rav Shach announced that anyone who arrived more than 15 minutes late for seder would lose his right to his usual seat in the bais medrash.

At Itri, Rav Shach invoked one of his most often-used turns of phrase:

“Take my words to heart, and remember that an old man once came here and told you to grow in learning…”

Silencing Half the Country

Long ago, the memorial day for Yitzchok Rabin became a day for political wrangling. This year, once again, the prime minister and the head of the opposition each spoke at the Knesset podium, trading barbs and accusations. Yitzchok Herzog, the opposition leader, accused Netanyahu repeatedly of engaging in incitement; it seemed as if he believed that any criticism constitutes incitement.

Knesset member after Knesset member, from the right and the left alike, addressed the plenum, effectively turning the special memorial event into a political battle. In a laudable move, Education Minister Naftali Bennett decided to deviate from his own prepared speech and to attack Herzog for his incendiary words. After greeting all the dignitaries who were present for the occasion – the Knesset speaker, the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, former Chief Rabbi Lau, the president of the Bank of Israel, the Rabin family, and the Knesset members themselves – Bennett began, “I was planning to deliver a different speech. Buji, what you have done is exactly the opposite of leadership. We are allowed to disagree in this institution, and it is proper for us to disagree, but what you are trying to do is to silence half of the State of Israel and to cast blame on half of the country. A campaign began 21 years ago to blame the current prime minister, who was then the leader of the opposition, for inciting the murder of Yitzchok Rabin.”

The plenum was immediately filled with a cacophony of voices raised in protest and argument.

It is interesting to note that the Knesset plenum is utterly detached not only from the rest of the country, but even from the rest of the building itself. While the country’s parliamentarians bickered and fought in the plenum, the employees of the Knesset celebrated the inauguration of the new Knesset shul. Last Monday, a heavily attended celebration marked the opening of the expanded shul. So while the conduct of the Knesset members in the plenum may be a mark of shame for the State of Israel, the events elsewhere in the building may be a sign of its dignity.

I was present for the arrival of Rav Shlomo Amar, the chief rabbi of Yerushalayim and former chief rabbi of the State of Israel. I found it astounding to watch as dozens of employees of the Knesset stood in line to receive his bracha. At times like that, one can see the spiritual beauty and depth of even the “simplest” people – ordinary workers, from a wide range of departments and divisions in the Knesset, who chose to don yarmulkas and come to the Knesset shul.

Thanking Hashem for Every Breath

In conclusion, this is the text of an email I received this week, which I am sure you will find as impressive as I did: “Our Dudi fell on the street in front of Yeshivas Ohr Shmuel in Yerushalayim and broke his leg. He is in the orthopedic ward at Shaare Tzedek; he is unable to move and is in excruciating agony. Anyone who is capable of walking, running, or jumping should give thanks to Hashem.”