Wednesday, May 29, 2024

My Take on the News

The Month of Selichos and Elections Draws Near

I don’t know what it is like in America, but we are already beginning to sense the approach of Elul. It is a feeling that is difficult to describe, but it is palpable in the air. The yungeleit and yeshiva bochurim of this country are already making their final preparations for next week, when they will return to their yeshivos or kollelim with the knowledge that they will remain there until after Yom Kippur. They are about to begin a 40-day period of absolute immersion in Torah. The cry of the shofar is practically audible in the air by now, and in Sephardic shuls around the country, Selichos are already being recited.

This has bearing on the upcoming election as well. The election will take place in less than three weeks, and the chilonim have already realized that Shas, and possibly United Torah Judaism as well, will benefit from the timing. At this time of year, when the drive to draw close to the Master of the Universe is in the air, there are bound to be some voters who will cast their ballots for the chareidi parties even if they wouldn’t have done so at any other time. In fact, one Israeli newspaper published a story called “Chodesh Harachamim Vehabechirot” (“The Month of Mercy and Elections”), a play on the phrase “Chodesh Harachamim Vehaselichos.”

There is another connection, as well: It is said that even the fish in the sea tremble during the month of Elul. This year, the election itself has evoked plenty of trembling. There is much fear that Avigdor Lieberman will once again hold the key to determining the makeup of the next government, which seems to be a very realistic scenario, and that he will insist on a national unity government. He might even go so far as to demand for the chareidim to be excluded from the government. This is a major concern, since no one will agree to a third round of elections, and if Lieberman stands firm on this issue, the Likud will have to designate a different candidate to head the unity government. In that scenario, the chareidim will be the pariahs of the government, as they were under the Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett government. The only thing to do now is to invest all the necessary hishtadlus to avert that scenario…and to daven.

The Untimely Passing of a Remarkable Yungerman

I knew Rabbi Yehoshua Ben-Paz not only because he was my neighbor in Givat Shaul, but also through his grandfather. Reb Yehoshua was an exalted human being, and I cannot stop thinking about his last moments in the ocean, about the tragic orphan-hood that has descended upon his two children—one of whom is two years old, while the other is only two months old—and about his righteous wife, his parents, and his grandparents. Just a week ago, I wrote that bein hazemanim is often a time of calamities, and every passing day has indeed brought disasters in its wake, including drowning incidents, car accidents, and hikers losing their way. In my previous article, I quoted Rav Gershon Edelstein, who pointed out the proliferation of disasters during bein hazemanim and attributed it to the lack of the zechus of Torah learning at that time. Rav Gershon also quoted the Chazon Ish on this subject.

I will never forget the end of Pesach bein hazemanim in the year 5772/2012. The annual Lev L’Achim event was taking place at the Heichalei Malchus Hall and I was asked to approach the two roshei yeshiva of Be’er Yaakov, Rav Dovid Yitzchok Shapiro and Rav Moshe Dovid Lefkowitz, to inform them that their beloved talmid, Menachem Tzion Adani, had drowned. Menachem Tzion was admired by everyone who knew him. He was a noble individual and a noted masmid in the yeshiva. I found myself trembling as I approached the front of the room to share the tragic news with the two roshei yeshiva. I will never forget the levayah or the shivah, and I will always remember the young niftar’s brilliant eyes. A kollel bearing his name has since been opened at Kever Rochel.

And now we have suffered the loss of Reb Yehoshua Ben-Paz. His parents lived in Be’er Yaakov for about 15 years, beginning in 1978, while his father, Rav Yitzchok, served as a mashgiach in the yeshiva ketanah. It is a family steeped in Torah learning and mussar. In a voice choked with tears, the uncle of the niftar, a fellow Givat Shaul resident, Yossi Ben-Paz, told me that the tragedy was utterly unfathomable. Since his earliest days, everyone had felt that Yehoshua was destined for greatness. He had been one of the most outstanding talmidim in the Ponovezh Yeshiva and was a highly respected and accomplished yungerman in kollel, a masmid and a brilliant scholar who was perpetually gracious and cheerful.

His untimely death was a decree from Above; there can be no question of that. There was no negligence or recklessness involved in his death; it was purely a gezeirah decreed by Hashem.

I visited the beach in Bat Yam on Monday. The lifeguards had placed flags all along the length of the strip of beach designated for thousands of bathers. They announced that there was a dangerous riptide and we knew that they were correct. The tide was too strong for a person to fight. At 6:00, the lifeguards announced that the beach would be closing at 7:00. As I left the area, I saw groups of vacationers arriving from Kiryat Sefer. They had chosen to come at this late hour in order to enjoy the beach without being disturbed by background noise from the lifeguards. “Ribbono Shel Olam, who is going to warn you about rip currents?” I demanded. “Who will help you if someone is swept out to sea?”

To the Ben-Paz family, as well as the precious families in America who lost their loved ones to drowning incidents this summer, I can only say what Rav Ovadiah Yosef once told a bereaved father who had lost his son: “HaMakom yenacheim eschem.” The word “HaMakom” means “the place.” These families can be comforted with the knowledge of the place where their loved ones have gone, a place where they will be together with all the other righteous individuals who have passed from this world.

What it Means to Be a Simple Jew

I am always amazed by the people we consider to be “simple” Jews. Rav Simcha Hakohen Kook, the rov of Rechovot, once said to me, “There is no such thing as a simple Jew. There is only a person who is simply Jewish.”

This week, I was at the barbershop of Reb Nissim, the talented barber of Givat Shaul, and our conversation naturally turned to the subject of Reb Yehoshua Ben-Paz, who had lived near the shop. There were many people in the neighborhood who had not been acquainted with Reb Yehoshua.

“I would be interested in knowing the origin of his family name,” I commented.

“What do you mean?” Reb Nissim exclaimed. “Haven’t you heard of the Amora Rav Yehuda ben Pazi? Don’t you know the story of his name?” In addition to being a master of his craft, Reb Nissim apparently has a wealth of Gemaros and Medrashim at his fingertips. He quoted a number of sources in various masechtos with uncanny precision (“on daf 18a, toward the bottom, before the wide lines”), adding apologetically after each one that he just “happened” to be familiar with the source. “I happened to hear this yesterday in Rav Mutzafi’s shiur,” he said at one point. “We have a shiur in the evenings, and we happen to have learned this just the other day,” he remarked at a different juncture.

Reb Nissim’s last name is Chajaj. “When we first came to Eretz Yisroel,” he related, “I wanted to change my name to Chagigah, but my wife said to me, ‘Nissim, that is going too far.’” He commented that his wife’s maiden name is Taib, and he is certain that she is related to the rov for whom Rechov Chai-Taib in Har Nof is named. As I listened to him speak, reeling off quotations from various sources, I was awed by the breadth of his knowledge. Here was a “simple,” ordinary Jew.

Here is a devar Torah that Reb Nissim shared with me. The maamar Chazal of “Ashrei mi sheba lekan vetalmudo beyado—Praiseworthy is he who comes here with his learning in hand” had come up in the course of our conversation. Reb Nissim remarked, “You know, the gematria of the word lekan is 101, which alludes to Chazal’s statement that a person who reviews his learning 100 times does not compare to someone who reviews it 101 times. And do you know why they chose the number 101? It is the gematria of the name of Michoel, the malach of forgetfulness. It is a beautiful thought, isn’t it?”

“Wonderful,” I said approvingly.

Reb Nissim continued, “Do you know where that Gemara appears? In Maseches Chagigah, daf tes, amud bais. But there is more. The word ‘Amaleik’ is a contraction of ‘ameil kuf.’ Amaleik tries to trick a person into being ameil—toiling over his learning—only one hundred times, the gematria of the letter kuf, and not 101, so that he will forget everything he has learned.”

“Nissim,” I said, “I am in awe.”

“I happened to hear that idea not long ago,” he said modestly. “As the rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaikin told us, a person cannot exist without Torah.

By that point in our conversation, he had nearly completed his work. “The most important thing is that you vote Gimmel,” I reminded him.

“Well, of course!” Nissim exclaimed. “For me, the election has nothing to do with politics. It is all about Torah!”

Vacation for Ner Moshe

There is a yeshiva in my neighborhood of Givat Shaul, Yeshivas Ner Moshe, which caters to American bochurim. The rosh yeshiva, Rav Shalom Schechter, was one of the most outstanding talmidim in Brisk in his youth. The bochurim of Ner Moshe are an enormous asset to our neighborhood. They generally remain in their bais medrash, but at various events, such as a hachnosas Sefer Torah or a Lag Ba’Omer bonfire, they appear alongside the local residents and set the tone for the occasion. They are capable of singing and dancing ebulliently, and they foster an atmosphere of excitement and joy.

But the one thing they know how to do best is to learn. During bein hazemanim, they can be found in all the neighborhood shuls.

In Eretz Yisroel, many people have a habit of swapping apartments during bein hazemanim. For instance, a family from Givat Shaul might exchange their apartment every summer with a different family from Haifa, so that each can enjoy a change of scenery. These apartment swaps are convenient for both families, especially because they are free, and many of the members of our community tend to be poor. Thus, this is the most affordable way for a family to take a vacation, and experience has shown that it is indeed a source of refreshment.

For the wonderful bochurim of Yeshivas Ner Moshe, the summertime change of scenery takes a different form. Instead of learning in the bais medrash of their own yeshiva, they relocate to other shuls in the neighborhood, such as Zupnik or Pressburg or Mishkan Babad. This gives us the opportunity to observe them learning for hours on end and to be filled with admiration for them. The talmidim of Rav Shalom Schechter are truly remarkable bnei Torah.

Coming into Shabbos from a Levayah

While we haven’t yet made it to the month of Elul, the general atmosphere last week and at the beginning of this week was one of solemnity. First of all, there were the young, righteous people who lost their lives at sea. And before we could recover from those tragedies, there was the dreadful terror attack at Maayan Dani. The site is located not far from Modiin Illit (the official name of Kiryat Sefer), near the community of Dolev (and near Ramallah, as well). It is a natural spring that is often visited by the residents of Dolev. The Shnerb family of Lod, another nearby city, were enjoying a visit to the area when they stumbled across an explosive device. The resultant explosion killed their 17-year-old daughter Rina. Rina’s father, Rabbi Eitan Shnerb, and his 19-year-old son Dvir were both wounded as well.

Rabbi Shnerb is a well-known individual. About a year ago, the media reported that he had set out to inspect the eiruv surrounding a military base, which was part of his duty as a rov in the IDF, and he discovered a group of terrorists in the process of trying to infiltrate the base. The terrorists were immediately neutralized. Rina’s levayah took place before Shabbos, and the entire country entered Shabbos still reeling from the tragedy.

On Motzoei Shabbos, we learned that a major military operation had taken place in Syria, where the IDF had conducted an air strike against a group of drones armed with explosives, which were slated to fly toward Israel and carry out major terror attacks. All of this was sponsored by the terrorist state of Iran. The Israeli strike was certainly a complicated operation that had been undertaken with the aid of detailed, extensive intelligence. All of that adds up to a major miracle.

There was also a serious incident on the southern border on Friday, when thousands of Palestinians rioted at the border fence and some of them attempted to break through the fence and enter the country. This created a problematic situation for the IDF, since they could not shoot at thousands of civilians and cause a mass slaughter, which would evoke condemnations from the entire world. On the other hand, there was a genuine danger to Israeli lives. One Arab was killed after throwing grenades at Israeli soldiers. All in all, it was a fearsome occurrence.

Fake News About Rav Nachman’s Remains

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu has spent much of the past few days immersed in security consultations, but he managed to find the time to pay a brief visit to the Ukraine, were he met with the new (Jewish) president of the country, Volodymyr Zelensky. Netanyahu was later infuriated when the Israeli press failed to report on what he considered to be another landmark diplomatic accomplishment and instead focused on his wife’s faux pas during the visit. In their defense, perhaps we should point out that Sara Netanyahu regularly creates uproars that tend to attract media attention. However, that still does not justify the major tumult surrounding her actions, and it certainly doesn’t warrant ignoring Netanyahu himself in order to report on his wife’s actions.

As far as I am concerned, the fake news in this episode wasn’t this story itself, but rather the news item that was carried by several newspapers: that Netanyahu would be returning from Ukraine with the remains of Rav Nachman of Breslov, which would be buried in Israel. It would have been amusing if it hadn’t been so patently false. It is absolutely unrealistic for many reasons, including the very simple fact that the country of Ukraine would never agree to give up the gold mine represented by Rav Nachman’s kever in Uman, which is a magnet for Jewish tourism.

Exclusion of Women: The Madness Continues

I don’t know how much this story interests you, but one of the main subjects of attention here in Israel is the issue of the so-called exclusion of women. Two weeks ago, a concert was scheduled to take place in a park in the city of Afula, where singer Motti Steinmetz was scheduled to perform for the chareidi public. An entity that calls itself the Women’s Lobby petitioned the court in Nazareth against the concert, arguing that the separate seating constituted illegal exclusion of women. Personally, I find that argument difficult to comprehend, since men are excluded from the women’s section just as much as women are excluded from the area designated for men. Nevertheless, their petition was accepted, and the judge ruled that the event could not be held if men and women were segregated. MK Moshe Arbel, whom you may recall from my previous articles, petitioned the court against the judge’s verdict, and a different judge, in this case an Arab, ruled that the concert could go on. The Arab judge ruled that the chareidi minority was also entitled to some degree of benefit from the municipality’s funds. The Women’s Lobby proceeded to appeal to the Supreme Court, which overturned the Arab judge’s verdict on procedural grounds; the judge ruled that a verdict issued by a judge in the District Court cannot be overturned by another judge in the same court, and that the case should have been appealed to a higher authority. The judges stressed that they were merely overturning the previous verdict for procedural reasons, but they were not addressing the actual issue of whether it was appropriate to segregate men and women. In practical terms, it was also too late to change the situation, since the concert was already in progress when the court issued its ruling.

Hostility Toward Shuls

Two shuls in Israel recently received a ringing slap in the face from the cities in which they are located. One of those incidents was in Beit Shemesh, where a shul was razed by bulldozers guarded by police. Some blame this on the municipal government and the mayor of the city, Dr. Aliza Bloch. Bloch herself claims that it is the fault of the Israel Lands Administration, which owns the land on which the structure was illegally built, and that the demolition has no connection to the municipality. In any event, one thing is clear: If Rabbi Moshe Abutbul had remained in the office of mayor, this would never have happened. And the chareidi community is somewhat at fault for the fact that Abutbul is no longer the mayor.

Meanwhile, in Arad, a shul belonging to the Gerrer chassidus was evicted from the public bomb shelter on Rechov Efroni where it had been housed. This eviction was ordered by the municipality, while the mispallelim of the shul claim that it was completely groundless, and that their presence in the bomb shelter ensured that it was well maintained and ready for use in the event of a disaster. They maintain that the municipality’s decision was merely a result of animosity toward the shul. This past Shabbos, thousands of residents of Arad gathered to daven in a nearby street and thereby protest the city’s decision.

And the saga of our woes isn’t yet over. Last Wednesday, the mispallelim at Heichal Yaakov, the main shul in the city of Bat Yam, were shocked to discover that hate-filled graffiti had been scrawled on the walls of the shul. The other day, the mispallelim of a shul in Netivot known as Ohel Yosef Ateres Reuven were horrified to discover that their shul had been subjected to an act of vandalism. The gabbaim and mispallelim were certain that the crime was motivated by hatred for religion. As I have said in the past, something terrible is happening in the public sphere in the Jewish state. And that is very sad.

The Petition Against Otzma Yehudit

Last Wednesday, the Central Elections Committee, headed by Justice Chanan Meltzer, convened to discuss the petitions it had received to disqualify certain parties from running in the election. One of the petitions was filed against Otzma Yehudit, the party under the leadership of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel. This was eminently predicta. Election comes with a demand for anyone associated with Rabbi Meir Kahane to be disqualified, based on the fact that the Supreme Court in his day had labeled him a racist and ruled that he was in violation of the law.

At the time, Rav Ovadiah Yosef ruled that the members of the Shas party should leave the Knesset whenever he spoke. Before the previous election, the Supreme Court disqualified the candidacy of Michael Ben-Ari, who had been included on the United Right list. As a result, Itamar Ben-Gvir was elected in his place. This time, the party is running independently, and the left attempted to have them disqualified. When the matter was put to a vote within the committee, the result was an even breakdown of 15 votes in favor of disqualifying the party and 15 against. As a result, the petition was rejected.

The next step, of course, is a petition to the Supreme Court, which has already been submitted. The petition was filed on behalf of a group of individual politicians from the left and center, as well as several political parties—Blue and White, the Democratic Camp, and Labor. Another party named in the petition is the Reform Center for Religion and State. Every petition of this nature bears the fingerprints of the Reform movement. They are also involved in every legal struggle related to the “exclusion” of women. In this case, they didn’t even bother to hide their involvement.

Incitement Seeps In

We can never afford to belittle the effects of incitement against our community. The anti-chareidi propaganda that sweeps through our country always manages to filter into the public consciousness, shaping impressions and misconceptions even when the claims are patently false. For instance, there is constant talk about the alleged fact that chareidim do not work. This cannot really be true, since chareidi families also have bills to pay. What is true is that in many chareidi families, the husband is involved in full-time Torah learning and the wife works to support the family in his place. I doubt that there are many families in which neither the husband nor the wife is employed.

There are many chareidi men who work. We all see them. There are also many chareidi men who spend their days learning Torah, which delights all of us. And in those households, the woman of the house works to support the family. There is no such thing as a chareidi family that chooses not to have a breadwinner; there are simply some families in which only one of the two parents plays that role. Nevertheless, since the claim that chareidim do not work is repeated so often, it has begun to take root in the public consciousness. In fact, this misconception has even begun to influence the election campaign. As I said, one should not dismiss the significance of anti-chareidi incitement. And where is the Haredi Institute for Policy Research to put an end to this libelous accusation?

This week, Anthony De Lannoy, an internationally recognized Belgian economist and director of the International Monetary Fund, was interviewed in the media. At one point, he made the following statement: “I am thinking specifically about a group such as the chareidim, whose participation in the workforce is significantly lower than that of others, yet who receive the majority of the public’s support. At a certain point, if this group grows too large, then the rest of society, which funds their social benefits, will not be capable of doing it any longer.” One could virtually hear Lapid’s voice emanating from his throat with his trademark charge, “The chilonim can’t have you on their backs….”

De Lannoy attacked the Israeli government for failing to provide professional training for chareidim in fields that would be suitable for them, such as cyber security. But his starting assumptions were based on the usual canards about the chareidim—that they do not work, that they receive the majority of the social benefits, and that they are supported by the chiloni public. The incitement that is spread here in Israel has somehow reached as far as Belgium.

At the Home of Rav Pam

This Thursday is the 18th yahrtzeit of Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. Rav Pam was also the founder of Shuvu, the massive kiruv organization in Eretz Yisroel. I had the privilege of visiting his home on several occasions, one of which was for a reception celebrating the miraculous return to life of Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman, the director-general of Shuvu in Israel, who somehow manages to navigate the organization through the stormy waves that constantly beset it. Shuvu faces a daunting array of financial issues and opposition from the government, on both the national and the local level. There are efforts constantly being made to thwart its endeavors, whether out of envy or due to the (admittedly justified) fear that Shuvu will “steal” children away from the public school system. Years ago, Gutterman became severely ill and was hovering somewhere between life and death, until he recovered miraculously.

I have known Rabbi Gutterman throughout his life. My father zt”l was the rov of the Machzikei Hadas community in Copenhagen, and his father was a sort of rosh kahal there and personally funded all (or most) of the religious needs of the community. The senior Rav Gutterman was a tzaddik by any measure, and the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. The celebration of his recovery was one of the most moving events in which I have ever participated.

Before that occasion, I had visited Rav Pam’s home together with Aryeh Deri, in his first stint as Minister of the Interior, when he visited America in the year 1990. Deri met with gedolei Yisroel in America and was a guest of the Lakewood Yeshiva, where we traveled by helicopter from Manhattan. He was also the speaker at the dinner of the Mir Yeshiva and met with the directors of Merrill Lynch, to whom he presented a revolutionary proposal involving the local governments in Israel. At the time, it sounded like a farfetched idea and was not implemented. However, the same idea was adopted 25 years later. But that is not my point.

As the most junior member of Deri’s delegation, I was sent to Rav Pam’s door to find out if the group could come in. Everyone waited in the convoy of cars (which included a security vehicle that had been sent by the Israeli consulate) outside the rosh yeshiva’s home, as I approached the door and rang the bell. The door was opened by a man whom I took to be Rav Pam’s gabbai or chavrusah, or something of the sort. I explained the reason for my arrival, and he told me to invite the delegation inside. I delicately asked if he could receive permission from the rov himself, to which he replied, “I am Avrohom Pam.” I nearly fainted on the spot. I had never imagined that Rav Pam would answer the door, or that he would be wearing an ordinary-looking jacket and would radiate such an unassuming air. For me, that was the most memorable moment of the entire visit. Years later, I met one of Rav Pam’s sons in a store, and I was struck by his modesty and his mannerisms, which were incredibly reminiscent of his father.

In any event, I consider it an enormous privilege to have met and spoken with Rav Pam.



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