Friday, May 24, 2024

My Take on the News

Running Out of Gas

We have reached the end of the year. The year 5780 is almost upon us. It is time to trade in our old calendars for new ones, rather than simply turning to the next page.

I recently read the following comment in a sefer: If all the people who passed away over the past year had known that their deaths had been decreed last Rosh Hashanah, they would have stormed the heavens with their pleas to be inscribed in the Book of Life. On the Yomim Noraim, when we read U’nesaneh Tokef and declare that Hashem is determining “who by fire and who by water, who by the sword and who by strangulation,” it sounds abstract and theoretical, but the truth is that this is very much the reality.

Just today (Sunday), the newspapers reported about the death of David Greenholtz, an Israeli software engineer who worked in New York and had gone on vacation with his wife and two children to Los Cabos, Mexico. The family had been walking on the beach when a large wave swept him out to sea.

How many people have perished in hurricanes around the world? That is precisely the meaning of “who by water.” How many people have drowned? That is the meaning of the phrase “who by strangulation.” Rav Shimshon Pincus once said that when a person davens for life on Rosh Hashanah, he should envision his life as being comparable to a car that runs out of fuel. From time to time, every car must have its fuel tank refilled in order for it to continue operating. It is not enough merely to daven that the car will not break down; it has only a finite quantity of fuel and requires intervention to keep it going. Likewise, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that we have an inherent hold on life, and that we simply must daven for it not to be lost. Rather, we have all exhausted our allotment of days when we arrive at Rosh Hashanah, and we must be inscribed anew in the Book of Life.

May we all be blessed with a good new year.

We Have Done Our Part

At the end of one particular election campaign, Rav Shach was dejected after he had failed to prevent a political move that he opposed. When the Steipler became aware of his disappointment, he sent the following message to Rav Shach: “When Avrohom Avinu was unable to find ten tzaddikim to save the city of Sodom, the Torah says, ‘And Avrohom returned to his place.’ Why does it tell us this? This fact seems to be extraneous and unrelated to the narrative. But its purpose is to teach us that a person must perform his hishtadlus, but that is all. Beyond that, Hashem runs the world.”

The Steipler’s message to Rav Shach was simple: Every person is obligated to make the effort that is demanded of him, but he is not responsible for the outcome of his efforts. The Stepler added, “The rov [i.e., Rav Shach] invested far more energy than he even possessed. Now it is time for him to return with joy to the yeshiva of Ponovezh.”

In our case, we must return to the avodah of Elul and to our preparations for Rosh Hashanah.

This week, I attended an event at which Rav Moshe Dovid Lefkowitz (a rosh yeshiva and community rov in Bnei Brak, the mashgiach of the Beer Yaakov yeshiva, and the son of Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz) delivered a drosha. In the course of his speech, he related that he had once approached Rav Shach during his years as a yeshiva bochur and had asked what kabbalah he should accept in advance of the Yomim Noraim. The rosh yeshiva replied, “To say a single brocha deliberately and with kavanah.”

“One brocha will bring many more brachos, and possibly all of davening, in its wake,” Rav Moshe Dovid asserted. “Look at the way many yungerleit recite Pesukei Dezimrah!” He related that his father, Rav Michel Yehuda, had once been asked for his definition of a ben Torah. Rav Michel Yehuda replied, “A yungerman who regularly arrives at the end of Pesukei Dezimrah has excluded himself from the category of bnei Torah!” Each of us knows where his own particular failings lie, and what kabbalos he must make.

But let us return to the topic of the election: We have all done what was required of us, with the knowledge that we were joining the legions of the Master of the Universe. From now on, all that is left for us to do is to daven. Even if the situation looks bleak, Hashem is capable of anything! With or without a coalition of 61 seats, we must remember that the world has a Master.

Lieberman’s Libels

Avigdor Lieberman continued his combative rhetoric even after the elections, proclaiming that he would not compromise on all the causes on which he has taken a firm stand: the draft law, public transportation on Shabbos, flexible standards for conversions, and secular studies in chareidi schools. I cannot imagine what triggered his animosity toward the chareidi community. During the election campaign, his rhetoric was absolutely venomous. In Hebrew, he described the chareidim as “inhuman.” One can only imagine what sort of invective he employed in Russian. He crossed red lines that should never be crossed!

The State of Israel has absorbed a huge mass of Russian immigrants, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. These people were not persecuted, nor were they Prisoners of Zion; they were simply citizens of a backward country who hoped to find some way to improve their lives. For many of them, Israel was merely a stepping stone to other countries in Canada and Europe, where they planned to continue after receiving the “absorption basket” of benefits offered to new immigrants in Israel. Very few of them enlisted in the army, and many of them receive various stipends from the government. Their ranks also include an assortment of hooligans and anti-Semites. (There was once a gang in Petach Tikvah consisting of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The members of this gang sprayed swastikas on shuls, killed animals, and committed other acts that shook the country.) Yet Avigdor Lieberman dares to label the chareidim parasites and draft dodgers, and to lambast them for receiving government stipends, when his own constituents are plagued by those very faults!

I will never forget the day when President Weizmann visited the family of an IDF soldier who had been killed in the line of duty. He was shocked to hear that the soldier’s father, a Ukrainian non-Jew, had returned to live in the Ukraine, and that the deceased soldier had been sending his salary to his father so that he could purchase a home. “Was it worth it for your son to serve in the army for that purpose?” the president asked in shock.

“The draft is mandatory in Ukraine, as well,” the bereaved father replied, “and the odds of dying in the army are even greater there.”

Many of Lieberman’s constituents, then, are not Zionists themselves, yet they have the gall to assail the chareidi community!

Post-Election Musings

It was reported that there were 3000 inspectors equipped with body cameras during the election. There are 10,800 polling stations throughout the country, which means that there was an average of one inspector for every 3.7 polling stations. Thus, the odds of inspectors being present at five adjacent polling stations should have been virtually nil. Nevertheless, inspectors were present at each of the five polling stations on Rechov Yirmiyohu in Yerushalayim. Statistically, it should have been impossible; practically, it was certainly feasible, especially if an anti-chareidi (or even anti-Semitic) official was behind the presence of the inspectors.

Otzma Yehudit, with all its egotistical confidence, turned out to be the victim of its own misplaced pride. Somehow, this party felt entitled to take a major gamble with the future of the entire country! Ultimately, it cannot be said that they prevented the formation of a right-wing bloc of 61 seats, since they earned only enough votes for two mandates, which would not have made enough of a difference. Nevertheless, they did not know at the outset that this would be the case, and that means that they took a risk at the expense of the rest of us. Last night, Ben-Gvir declared, “You think Netanyahu is a political genius? He isn’t a politician or a genius!” Perhaps one can say the same about his party: “Otzma Yehudit? It is neither otzmah [power] nor yehudit [Jewish]!”

Reading the results from the city of Beit Shemesh, I couldn’t help but shudder. Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah had received a total of 15,025 votes, accounting for 36.47 percent of the total. The Shas party had received 7,562 votes, which made up another 18.35 percent of the total. Yamina, in contrast, garnered only 3,903 votes, less than 10 percent of the total. The other parties, with the exception of the Likud, had an insignificant showing in the city. But for our purposes, what is important is that UTJ and Shas together received almost 55 percent of the total vote.

The 2019 election campaign was full of negative sentiment—against Bibi, but even more so against the Torah itself. We discovered that there many people in Israel who are fearful of the chareidi community. Two months ago, the respondents to a survey were asked to rate the level of religious coercion that they believed exists in Israel on a scale of one to ten. On the political left, the average response was 6.2. Between the left and center, the average rose to 8, while the average response among centrists was 7.4. Between the center and the right, the average was 5.5, while on the right itself, it was still a whopping 4.7. The respondents were then asked whether they personally felt that they had encountered religious coercion. To that question, 59 percent of the supporters of Yesh Atid answered in the affirmative, while 41 percent responded in the negative—which means that Yair Lapid himself is far removed from a large portion of his voter base. Among the supporters of the Zionist Camp, 78 percent of the respondents answered in the affirmative. Among Likud voters, 76 percent replied that they do not feel religious coercion in their own lives, but almost a quarter replied that they do.

A National Unity Government Seems Inevitable

What will happen now? In all likelihood, there will be a national unity government. There seems to be no other possible scenario. President Rivlin has negated the possibility of holding another election, and no one is interested. Besides, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it, since the balance of power between the right and the left is likely to remain exactly the same. The chareidi parties have announced that they are prepared to deal with any scenario. At this moment, the party leaders are engaging in a round of meetings with President Rivlin. Amazingly, neither Gantz nor Netanyahu is interested in being the first one to attempt to form a coalition, an effort that is likely to end in failure. Each of them wants the other to be the first to fail.

In general, this election was the strangest one that I can remember. It was an election in which everyone voted against, rather than for, someone or something. People voted against Bibi or against religion. Who would ever have thought that there would be so many Israeli citizens who would identify with the hateful discourse that typified this campaign? Is this the product of the mass influx of non-Jews into the country? Or, perhaps, has the religious community has made mistakes and alienated part of the secular public?

It has been a time of both anguish and joy for us, the members of the religious community of Israel. We were pained by the tears of the gedolei Yisroel, who have been very tense in recent days. The responsibility of this election campaign has weighed heavily on their shoulders, and they have been deeply concerned for the future of our community. At the same time, we rejoiced in the fact that their tears had the desired impact. We were pleased by the rise in support for the chareidi parties throughout the country, and we were pained by the fact that this accomplishment did not bring about the maximum results that it should have. We were pleased by the hundreds of thousands of people who answered the call of the gedolim and declared their allegiance to Hashem and His Torah, and we were dismayed by the almost equal number of people who accepted the message of hatred. We share in the joy of the Torah as well as in its pain.

Let the Outstretched Hand Not Be Turned Away

Aryeh Deri’s sense of personal responsibility was evident when he spoke at the Shas event celebrating the conclusion of the election campaign. On the day before, the day of the election, it was clear that he felt weighed down by an overwhelming burden. I know how to read his emotions even when he is silent: He was deeply concerned about the prospect of a chillul Hashem, and he was pained by the potential for a loss of support for the Shas party. After all, the battle being waged was not over his personal honor, fame, or political power. Rather, the party was fighting for the causes it holds dear: the continued flourishing of the Torah world and the needs of the religious community.

Deri was overjoyed when the results of the election showed that there are many Jews who are faithful to Hashem and His Torah, devoted adherents of Rav Ovadiah Yosef who value the Torah and are dedicated to the glory of Sephardic Jewry. I am not referring to the innermost circle of religious Shas supporters, but rather to the party’s broader base of voters, who are not necessarily religious themselves. It was a tremendous source of joy to see that the spark of Jewish faith within the Sephardic community has continued to burn.

In his speech, Aryeh Deri did not declare victory, even though the results of the election were certainly a triumph for the Shas party. He silenced those who were cheering enthusiastically. Deri is always the first to read the political map and the first to draw the appropriate conclusions. “There is a time for war and a time for peace,” he announced. “Our job now is to heal the rifts. We have reached the edge of a precipice that requires us to change course immediately. Let us hope that our outstretched hands will not be turned away.

“Our election campaign,” Deri continued, referring to the campaigns of both Shas and UTJ, “was the cleanest, worthiest, and most honest. We didn’t disparage anyone, even though they set out to destroy us. We didn’t defame anyone, even though they slandered us viciously. We spread messages of faith, hope, bitachon, and tefillah. And it worked.”

Of course, the central story of this election was Avigdor Lieberman’s shocking turnaround. What happened to the man who has always supported the chareidim? The religious parties never harmed him, never schemed to diminish his power, and never opposed him in any way. To the contrary, the chareidim always showed particular fondness for Lieberman and his circle of supporters. And in this campaign, in spite of his incessant incitement against the chareidi community, the chareidim did not respond in kind to his defamation. At this point, we are all hoping that some positive development will follow on the heels of this election. When else could such a thing happen, if not on erev Rosh Hashanah?

“Lapid Lied to Us!”

Here is a true story that took place in Yerushalayim, in the neighborhood of Romema, at polling station 30.2. My son was a member of the polling station staff on behalf of Degel HaTorah, and he was seated beside another worker who was stationed there on behalf of Yesh Atid, an imposing-looking older man who appeared to be quite affluent. Each of them kept his distance from the other, but at some point over the course of the day, both of them stepped outside for a cigarette break. The Degel HaTorah worker began rolling tobacco, while the Yesh Atid supporter produced an elegant cigarette holder. As they began to smoke together, they also struck up a conversation.

The worker from Yesh Atid revealed that he hadn’t come out to work at the polling station to receive the day’s wages of 1200 NIS. “In fact, I won’t take the money,” he said. “I came here because I am worried about our country.” The man explained that he lives in Herzliya and is the head of a group of activists who are concerned about the future of Israel. At his luxurious home, he hosted conferences with many of the leaders of the various political parties, and Yair Lapid made the strongest impression on the group. Since that day, he and his friends have joined the circle of volunteers on behalf of Lapid’s party and have been prepared to go to great lengths in order to support him. “Lapid speaks cogently,” he asserted. “He talks about equality and liberty, about the concept of ‘live and let live.’ We were captivated by his charm and by his agenda.”

“Is that so?” my son replied. “What if I were to tell you that he is an evil, cruel man who has taken away the meager stipends of the poor and is consumed with hatred for chareidim?”

The other man was appalled. It was clear that he was taken aback by my son’s bluntness, but he had already been drawn into a conversation. He spoke about his career, implying that his monthly income essentially rolls into his bank account on its own, and that he no longer has the need to work in order to earn it. He spoke about his upper-class neighborhood in Herzliya and about his own life, but he also admitted that he had heard about the zero VAT law and the disadvantage to families in which the wife is the sole breadwinner. It was clear that he was affected by my son’s description of the situation.

Before they returned to their posts, the man from Herzliya said, “What bothered us the most is the fact that a yungerman in kollel receives a monthly stipend of 3000 NIS from the government, without working at all.”

“That’s a lie,” my son replied. “A yungerman is paid only 700 NIS by the government.”

“You are wrong,” the gentleman from Herzliya insisted. “It’s 3000 NIS.”

“I am a yungerman in the Mir yeshiva,” my son said. “My kollel pays me the 700 NIS that they receive from the government, along with a small supplement that they pay out of their own pockets. That is all.”

The older man fell silent. It was clear to him that the chareidi who was standing before him was not lying. On the other hand, Yair Lapid had named a much higher sum. He took out a stylized, expensive cell phone and fixed his gaze on its screen, apparently seeking some information that would shed light on the truth of the matter.

“I am also perturbed by the fact that the chareidim are a drain on the state,” he said.

“Find one way in which I am more of a drain on the state than you are,” my son challenged him. The man was unable to come up with a response. The only difference he could identify was the fact that chareidim do not serve in the army, an issue that they agreed not to discuss. “Let’s put that aside for a minute,” my son said, “because it’s a matter of belief. You believe in the army, and I believe in the Torah. Let’s discuss everything else, and you will see that I am right. Besides, do you think that Lapid’s approach will contribute to the draft of chareidim at all? Will hatred and coercion accomplish his goals?”

The man was forced to concede that he was correct.

They returned to their seats at the polling station, continuing their conversation in whispers during lulls in the activity. “Look,” the wealthy man said at one point, “I did some research just now, and it seems that you are correct.” Then he surprised my son by adding, “I’d like to invite you to a meeting in my home. All the people who were mesmerized by Lapid will come and listen to you.” He asked my son to take down his e-mail address, and he was surprised to learn that the yungerman seated beside him did not even know how to write English letters. Instead, he handed him a business card, which was written entirely in English. “I believe that you will change their minds completely,” he said.

“Have I changed your opinion?” my son asked him.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I have been duped. Lapid lied to us! I checked the figures, and you were correct. A yungerman receives only 700 shekels from the government.”

“Then you won’t vote for Yesh Atid today?” my son pressed.

The man was silent for a moment. “I have certainly begun to reconsider that decision,” he finally said. “I will have to discuss it with my wife, and we will make our final decision together.”

The Belzer Rebbe Votes for the First Time

I could write volumes about this election, but I believe that the most incredible aspect of it is the impact of the gedolei Yisroel. On that note, the Belzer Rebbe voted in this election for the first time in his life. He has always instructed his chassidim to vote, whereas he personally refrained from doing so, for reasons of his own. This time, however, he joined the chassidim at the polling stations. Within the Belzer community, this was considered a historic event.

Many other gedolim participated visibly in the election as well. On the morning of the election, we were all inundated with pictures of our spiritual leaders and Torah giants casting their ballots. There they were—our revered tzaddikim, our roshei yeshivos and admorim, many of them elderly men who barely ever leave their homes. All of them went to the polls to fulfill the mitzvah. As for the rest of us, we all had the sense that this was no ordinary election, and that every ballot was a significant mitzvah in its own right.

All in all, the results were a major kiddush Hashem. Shas received over 327,000 votes, and UTJ received 266,857 votes. And all of this is before the soldiers’ votes were counted. This made for a total of 600,000 votes received by the two chareidi parties. That is an enormous quantity, and it was a clear, unequivocal declaration of the public’s loyalty to Hashem.

A Paragon of Responsibility for Klal Yisroel

As the year draws to a close, I feel obligated to honor an outstanding debt of sorts. At the end of Nissan, Rav Mordechai Neustadt passed away. Rav Neustadt was a wonderful man, both brilliant and exceedingly pleasant. Above all, he was distinguished by his sense of responsibility for the Jewish people. I owe it to him to write a bit about his life.

Rav Neustadt lived at different times both in Israel and in America. He was born in Vienna, escaped to Pressburg before the war, and eventually made his way to Eretz Yisroel. During the 1940s and 1950s, he was a member of a group of idealistic youths, most of whom were affiliated with Tzeirei Agudas Yisroel, who operated among the immigrants to Israel with the guidance of the Brisker Rov and the Chazon Ish. Rav Neustadt himself was a regular visitor to the homes of both gedolim. In later years, he was a devoted follower of both Rav Shach and Rav Shteinman, whose instructions he followed to the letter.

About 30 years ago, Rav Neustadt moved to America and began working to benefit Russian Jewry through the organization known as the Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel. Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, the famed Prisoner of Zion, had met with Rav Moshe Sherer, the president of Agudas Yisroel, and then with Rav Eliyahu Essas, and the decision was made to launch an effort to save the spiritual lives of the Jews of Russia. Rav Mordechai Neustadt demonstrated enormous acumen and dedication in this area, essentially doing the work of several people at once. He also solicited the involvement of several gedolim in America: Rav Elya Svei, whom he considered his personal rebbi, as well as Rav Chaim Dov Keller of Telz and Rav Mattisyahu Salomon of Lakewood. In addition, he managed to recruit other prominent individuals to the cause, including Rav Shraga Feivel Cohen and Rav Moshe Reichman.

At a certain point, Rav Neustadt crossed paths with my father, and the two became close friends. My father traveled to Russia in order to found a yeshiva for Russian baalei teshuvah, with Rav Mordechai Neustadt managing the yeshiva while Rav Moshe Reichman was responsible for its funding. Hundreds of Russian youths, when they were sufficiently prepared, traveled from Russia to learn in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel of Baltimore. My father, who was a graduate of the yeshiva and a close friend of the roshei yeshiva, received their agreement to open a special program for those bochurim. This was a remarkable chapter in the history of kiruv, for which Rav Mordechai Neustadt deserves the credit.

During Rav Neustadt’s final years, I made several efforts to schedule an interview with him through his grandson, who was learning in Yeshivas Ner Moshe in my own neighborhood of Givat Shaul. Today, I am pained by the fact that those plans never came to fruition. I know that Rav Neustadt had dozens of fascinating stories to tell about the many gedolei Yisroel with whom he maintained close relationships. The religious communities of Israel and America alike owe him a tremendous debt. He was a man who poured his heart and soul into kiddush sheim Shomayim and worked tirelessly to spread kedushah throughout the world.

Thieves in Our Midst

Speaking of Yeshivas Ner Moshe, this week the news headlines informed us that a thief who had burglarized yeshivos in Yerushalayim had been captured. One of the yeshivos that suffered during the rash of thefts was Yeshivas Ner Moshe in Givat Shaul, a yeshiva that caters to bochurim from America. Thanks to the security cameras installed in the yeshiva, clear footage was captured that showed three youths entering the area where the bochurim kept their hats and jackets, and systematically emptying all of the pockets in the room.

I found the images captured by the camera to be deeply distressing, since the three thieves wore white shirts and yarmulkes. This means that there are only two possibilities: Either they were chilonim who disguised themselves as yeshiva bochurim, or they were actual yeshiva bochurim who became corrupted. In our terminology, such youths are known as noshrim (dropouts). This is a very sad and painful phenomenon, because the youths who succumb to this phenomenon are generally those whose estrangement from Yiddishkeit could have been prevented.

I advised askonim in the neighborhood to try to identify the thieves and reach out to them, rather than handing over the images to the police. I was certain that the youths would return the money they had stolen and would even agree to enroll in some sort of learning program. Nevertheless, my suggestion was rejected, and the police became involved. It did not take long for one of the thieves to be located, a task that was made quite simple in light of the images that were captured by the cameras. So it seems that the rash of thefts will come to an end, but I am still haunted by the images of those three young men. I can only hope that they will mend their ways in the upcoming year. But much of that depends on us—the members of their own community.

The Ponovezher Rov’s Sacrifice

Rav Yosef Shlomo Markowitz is a man who will one day become the rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh. For the time being, though, he spends his days immersed in learning in the city of Beit Shemesh. I received a telephone call from him on erev Shabbos, and before we began a discussion of the subject he had called about, I stopped him and said, “Did you know that this Friday is the fiftieth yahrtzeit of your great-grandfather?” Rav Markowitz is a descendant of the Ponovezher Rov.

“I know,” he replied, “and since you have mentioned it, let me share one of his insights. The Yerushalmi describes the future wickedness of a ben sorer u’moreh in an unusual way: It states that he will commit murder—”

“And that he is destined to forget his learning!” I interrupted him.

Rav Markowitz was stunned. “You are familiar with this vort?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s in Rav Elyashiv’s Divrei Aggadah.”

“Interesting,” he said. “If you look in Michtov Me’Eliyohu on Elul, you will find it attributed to my great-grandfather. The Yerushalmi states that Hashem foresees that the ben sorer u’moreh will rob people, will commit murder, and will ultimately forget his learning, and that it is better for him to die young, when he is still free of sin. These sins are listed in ascending order of severity, implying that the most heinous of all is the fact that he will abandon his learning. As long as a person remains committed to Torah learning, there is still hope that he will repent, but once he gives up his learning, all will be lost.

“When I think about my great-grandfather,” Rav Markowitz continued, “I feel that he sacrificed his own life for the sake of Ponovezh. Imagine if the Ketzos Hachoshen had been asked to forgo writing his classic sefer and to open a yeshiva instead. One would imagine that it would be a terrible challenge for him to do that. And I have no doubt that my great-grandfather could have written his own versions of the Ketzos, the Nesivos, and countless other seforim, yet he sacrificed all of that for the sake of founding the Ponovezh yeshiva. Is there anyone else in the world who has made such an enormous sacrifice for the sake of the Torah? Have you ever met anyone else who has such enormous love for the Torah?”

“You know for a fact that he could have written a sefer similar to the Ketzos Hachoshen?” I asked.

“Everyone knows that he was the rov of Ponovezh at the age of 30,” he replied. “But at the age of 20, before his marriage, he was already serving as a substitute rov in Novardok in place of the Aruch Hashulchan. He was a world-class Torah genius. Do you know what it means for a gaon of such stature to give up the chance to write a monumental sefer that would carry on his legacy for generations, and to build a yeshiva instead?”

“It wasn’t just one yeshiva that he built,” I replied. “He was responsible for the entire Torah world in Eretz Yisroel.”

“Of course,” Rav Markowitz agreed. “I am merely trying to illustrate his sacrifice. There can be no question that it was enormous.”



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