My Take on the News

The Political Deadlock Still Holds Strong

It has been a long time since we last “met,” and we are now deep into the winter of the year 5780. Last motzoei Shabbos, Daylight Savings Time ended here in Israel, and shekiyah this week has dropped to 5:00 in the evening.

Much has happened since the week of Yom Kippur, when the previous installment of this column was published. It is very difficult to leave the uplifting atmosphere of the Yomim Tovim and return to the world of politics. It seems that it was just yesterday when we proclaimed that “the Kingship and the sovereignty belong to He Who lives for eternity,” yet now we are all preoccupied by the news that Prime Minister Netanyahu has given up the mandate to form the next government, allowing it to be passed on to the man who hopes to succeed him. Why couldn’t we have remained in the ethereal realm of the Yomim Tovim for a bit longer, basking in our connection to Hashem rather than plummeting back into the world of the political wrangling between Netanyahu and Gantz?

In the world of politics, we are still facing the same deadlock. Nothing has changed, aside from the fact that Netanyahu informed President Rivlin that he had not succeeded in assembling a government, and that he had chosen to return the mandate that had been given to him to do so. Naturally, the president transferred the mandate to Gantz. However, there is little more that he will be able to accomplish with it.

The reason for the deadlock is as follows: Netanyahu entered the negotiations with Blue and White with a bloc of 55 mandates, which included the Likud party, the chareidi parties, and Yamina (which includes Betzalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz, both of whom are ministers today, as well as Shaked and Bennett, who chose to join forces with the other right-wing parties after they failed to reach the electoral threshold in the previous election). Blue and White, meanwhile, announced that they are unwilling to include the political right in their coalition, and they insisted that Netanyahu’s bloc be dismantled. As for the chareidim, even though the leaders of Blue and White spent the entire election campaign insisting that they would accept only a secular government, they have softened their stance on that issue and have not refused to enter a government that includes the chareidi parties. Nevertheless, the chareidi parties themselves have constantly proclaimed their refusal to sit in a government together with Yair Lapid, whose party, Yesh Atid, is one of the three factions that make up Blue and White. (The other two are Chosen L’Yisrael, led by Benny Gantz, and a smaller party headed by Moshe Yaalon.) Netanyahu therefore demanded that Gantz terminate his partnership with Lapid, but Gantz has professed his unwillingness to betray his partner. Thus, we are at a standstill once again.

Who Will Be the First Prime Minister?

Nevertheless, there is one small difference between Netanyahu and Gantz: Binyamin Netanyahu does not have the ability to recruit any mandates beyond the 55 that already make up his bloc, since Avigdor Lieberman, who is ostensibly the head of a right-wing party, has already proclaimed his refusal to join a government led by Netanyahu and the chareidim. Lieberman spent the entire election campaign mocking and denouncing the chareidim and the “messianic” right (of which he himself had always been a member in the past). Benny Gantz, meanwhile, seems to have an option for forming a government without Netanyahu, at least on paper: He may be joined by Lieberman in a secular coalition with the external support of the Arab parties. The support of the Arabs, even though it will be from without, would give such a coalition the legal legitimacy it needs in order to be established.

Never in the history of the State of Israel, though, have the Arab parties, some of which are openly anti-Zionist, been counted as part of the government. That is why I stressed that Gantz’s option for an alternative coalition is largely theoretical. Such a government would not survive for long, and it certainly would not have legitimacy in the eyes of the Israeli public. And that is why we are still at the same political impasse.

A meeting between Netanyahu and Gantz took place this past Sunday night. There wasn’t much that anyone expected the meeting to accomplish, and according to the reports that emerged on Sunday evening, it did not yield any progress. I find it difficult to believe that any of the politicians will agree to come down from the tall trees that they have already climbed. Netanyahu will not betray his partners in the chareidi parties or on the right, and it is unlikely that Gantz will detach himself from Yair Lapid. Moreover, the two would have to agree on another issue: If a rotation agreement is reached, which of them will be the first to hold the position of prime minister?

For now, there is no sign of a light at the end of this tunnel, and there is already talk of a third round of elections. But there is no guarantee that even another election would lead to a solution to this impasse.

American Lawyers Defend Netanyahu

Meanwhile, in a sensational story that hit the media this week, the transcripts of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conversations with Nuni Moses, the owner of Yediot Acharonot, were released to the public. These were the discussions in which Moses promised to ensure more favorable coverage for the prime minister in his newspaper—or, more specifically, to put an end to the coverage that was slanted against Netanyahu and his family—and Netanyahu promised, in exchange, to promote the passage of a law that would prohibit the distribution of newspapers for free. This law would have inflicted harm on Yisrael HaYom, the newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson, which had been a source of major competition for Yediot Acharonot.

Netanyahu’s dealings with Moses are the subject of one of the criminal cases against him that are currently being reviewed by the state prosecution. Superficially, this seems to be a case of bribery; that is, Nuni Moses seems to have bribed Netanyahu to pass a law that would favor him. This issue has already been discussed and debated endlessly, but the public release of detailed recordings of their conversations—which were apparently leaked to the press by the prosecution—has brought the issue back into the public consciousness.

In this particular case, the odds seem to be in Netanyahu’s favor for several reasons. For one thing, the facts appear to support his claims of innocence, since he actually fought against the law that was meant to curtail the distribution of Yisrael HaYom. Netanyahu even brought the country to an election after the law passed in the Knesset. In addition, it is very difficult to interpret favorable coverage in a newspaper as a form of bribery. On that point, Netanyahu cited the professional opinions of various prestigious American lawyers, who wrote to the attorney general arguing that it is absurd and completely illogical to press criminal charges against a person for asking for positive newspaper coverage. One of the attorneys who were brought from America for this purpose was Nathan Lewin, who led the court battle over the Chabad library. Alan Dershowitz also supported Netanyahu. Furthermore, it has turned out that all the other MKs who promoted the law opposing Yisroel HaYom, and who were shown to have been covered very favorably in Yediot Acharonot, were not prosecuted at all.

A Fatal Lightning Strike

Meanwhile, the past couple of weeks have brought a number of serious traffic accidents, in which almost 20 people were killed. In a small country such as ours, that is a very large number. Of course, every death is a tragedy, and when nearly twenty lives were snuffed out in the course of two weeks, it is incredibly devastating. Between last Friday and motzoei Shabbos, nine people were killed in a series of accidents. It is quite possible that the beginning of winter led to an increase in accidents; any rainfall, and especially the first rain of the season, tends to make the roads slippery and increase the likelihood of car crashes.

A different kind of tragedy took place at the Zikim beach in the south, where an entire family was struck by lightning during a Chol Hamoed outing. Four members of the family were hospitalized in critical condition in Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. One day after the lightning strike, one of the victims—Asher Chazut, a 14-year-old talmid in Yeshivas Ner Shmuel in Yerushalayim—passed away from his injuries. The boy had been enjoying an outing to the beach with his family when a thunderstorm suddenly erupted, and he was fatally wounded by lightning. Paramedics worked to resuscitate him for over an hour, while he was simultaneously being transported to the hospital. Several of his family members were also injured; some of them have recovered somewhat over time. Many tefillos were recited for the young man’s benefit over the course of the day, but he eventually succumbed to his injuries.

Asher Chazut’s father is Rabbi Shimon Chazut, a highly respected veteran educator who is well-known in Beer Sheva on account of his work for the community. His reaction to his son’s passing was a major kiddush Hashem and was quoted in the secular media.

The Hillula at the Kever of Shimon Hatzaddik

The past couple of weeks have also been marked by the levayos of two gedolim. One was the levayah of Rav Nissim Karelitz , which is the subject of a separate article. Klal Yisroel also suffered the passing of Rav Shaul Breisch, the av beis din of Zurich, whose levayah took place on Sunday evening. Another tragic funeral saw us bid farewell to Reb Nachman Yosef Markowitz, a yungerman and baal chessed from Beit Shemesh who was killed in a traffic accident.

But we have also experienced miraculous salvations. As I have commented in the past, our enemies always try to carry out murderous attacks during our holiday periods in order to disrupt our joy. The lack of deadly attacks this past month was not due to a lack of will on their part, but rather to the fact that they did not succeed. As usual, the Shin Bet has hinted that quite a few terror attacks were thwarted.

At the same time, there was the annual hillula at the kever of Shimon Hatzaddik. On Sunday evening and on Monday, thousands of people visited the kever, which is located on the dividing line between the Shmuel Hanovi neighborhood and the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah (where the District Court and the Ministry of Justice are located). As is the case in Meron on Lag Ba’Omer, a bonfire was lit and a festive seudah, arranged by the Chasdei Yosef organization, was held at the site. The entirety of Sefer Tehillim was also recited in the context of the hillula.

Enlightenment on Chol Hamoed

Sukkos was a time of special joy. The mitzvos of the Yom Tov, along with the drashos on Chol Hamoed, created an atmosphere of great festivity. Throughout the Torah world in Israel, special drashos and shiurim are organized on every Chol Hamoed; many shuls schedule an assortment of speakers over the course of each holiday, and the community flocks to attend the drashos. Personally, I review the list of shiurim that is published in the Yom Tov issue of the Israeli Yated Neeman, and I make sure to attend the ones that interest me the most.

The first shiur that I heard this year was held in the Bais Vaad in Givat Shaul, which is actually the home of the Fliegelman family. The Fliegelmans’ son, Reb Tzvi, is a longtime talmid in Yeshivas Kol Torah who regularly organizes shiurim to benefit the community. All of the most prominent gedolei Torah, roshei yeshivos, and baalei mussar have already visited the Fliegelman home, and their shiurim have been collected in a series of volumes bearing the title Bais Vaad. This publication, which is overseen by Reb Tzvi, includes a wealth of shiurim and shmuessen. You may recall that I have written in the past about the shiurim delivered by Rav Shmuel Berenbaum and, yibadeil l’chaim, Rav Binyomin Finkel in the Fliegelman home.

This time, the shiur was delivered by Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi, one of the roshei yeshiva of the Mir yeshiva. Tzvika sat in his wheelchair, enraptured by the dazzling chiddushim presented by his distinguished guest. One idea that Rav Yitzchok shared was a fascinating insight of the Vilna Gaon: As we know, Yom Kippur provides atonement for transgressions of the mitzvos bein adam laMakom, but not for interpersonal infractions. But the Gaon adds that if a person doesn’t make amends with the people whom he was wronged, and therefore does not receive atonements for his interpersonal sins, then he will also not be forgiven for his sins against Hashem.

“It’s simple logic,” Rav Yitzchok explained. “How can a Father forgive a person who has sinned against one of His children?”

Rav Yitzchok also noted in his speech that no person has a guarantee that his life will continue. When he made that comment, he looked directly at me and added, “As we have just seen.” He was referring to the fact that we had met while paying a shiva call to the three sons of Rav Leib Shmuel Yager, a tzaddik who hailed originally from New York, who passed away on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. “Who would have dreamed that such a tragedy would take place?” Rav Yitzchok added. (Parenthetically, I applaud the Ganei Yerushalayim hotel for honoring the aveilim and allowing them to sit shiva in one of the hotel’s halls. Rav Yager was a mashgiach at the hotel and passed away in the course of his work.)

Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi made one other comment that I would like to mention here. “When a person gives to others,” he related, in a statement attributed to the gedolim of previous generations, “he is really giving to himself. The more he gives, the more he will receive.”

The Three Entrances to Gehinnom

The first day of Chol Hamoed found me in the Pnei Shmuel shul in Bayit Vegan, where Rav Aviezer Wolfson was delivering a shiur. I have always been aware of Rav Aviezer’s many virtues and talents, but I had never heard any of his shiurim, and my interest was piqued by the announcement that he was scheduled to speak. When I arrived at the shul and saw the sign identifying it, I realized that it had been named for Rav Aviezer’s parents, Reb Shmuel and Fanny Wolfson; the seminary in Beer Yaakov also bears their names. I believe that the Wolfson yeshiva, which is headed by Rav Doniel Wolfson—Rav Aviezer’s son, who attended the shiur and sat with great deference throughout his father’s presentation—is also officially known as Pnei Shmuel.

Years ago, Rav Aviezer Wolfson was a young talmid in the Yeshiva of Beer Yaakov. Both the rosh yeshiva, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, and the mashgiach, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, were quite fond of the young man, whose brilliance and refined personality made a powerful impression on everyone who met him. While he was in the yeshiva, he raised funds for the institution from both his father, Reb Shmuel zt”l, and his uncle, Sir Isaac Wolfson, who donated the bais medrash, one of the most magnificent such facilities in Eretz Yisroel in its time. Rav Aviezer embodies the intersection of Torah and gedulah; he is an affluent man who dedicates all of his time to Torah and kiruv. He is also the spiritual patron of Yeshivas Toras Chaim in Moscow, which is one of the venues where he delivers shiurim.

Rav Aviezer’s shiur dealt with a passage in the Gemara (Eiruvin 19a): “Rav Yirmiyah says: There are three entrances to Gehinnom—one in the desert, one in the sea, and one in Yerushalayim.” He cited the Maharal’s explanation of the concept of an “entrance” to Gehinnom. The “entrance” in the desert, he explained, relates to the rebellion of Korach, who disparaged the details of the mitzvah of tzitzis and claimed that the details were not given by Hashem. The “entrance” in the sea refers to Yonah Hanovi’s attempt to flee from Hashem; Yonah believed that while Hashem is all-powerful, He would not take him to task for a minor infraction. The third “entrance,” meanwhile, refers to Sancheriv’s denial of Divine hashgachah, which resulted in the deaths of his entire army. All of these “entrances” to Gehinnom, Rav Wolfson explained, are created by a person himself.

The shiur delved into the subject in much greater detail, but for our purposes, it should be enough for me to give you merely a taste of its contents.

Encounters with Brilliance

I also attended two other shiurim over the course of Chol Hamoed. The first was delivered by Rav Noam Alon, who spoke on Thursday in the Chazon Ish shul in Ramat Shlomo. His shiurim are invariably a taste of Gan Eden itself and a source of sheer delight even for an am haaretz such as myself. Rav Noam is the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Brachfeld and the son-in-law of the famed Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l. With his vast breadth of knowledge and engaging style, he managed to simultaneously entertain and elevate his audience, as well as exposing us to facts that we had never known before. Did you know, for instance, that according to one view, if the arba minim do not need to be taken all at once, it is possible to fulfill the mitzvah even if one picks up each of the three hadassim separately?

I also attended a shiur in the Pressburg yeshiva, which has become a thriving hub of Torah learning and tefillah. Throughout Chol Hamoed and the bein hazemanim vacation, every room in the shul was overflowing with people immersed in learning. On the fourth day of the holiday, the shul was graced by a visitor who had never been in Givat Shaul before: Rav Chaim Feinstein, who delivered a shiur that led all of us to understand just how little we actually comprehend. When he had finished speaking, I remarked to him, “At least I understand now what people mean when they say that the rov is ‘higher than high.’”

Rav Chaim smiled and responded, “You mean above twenty amos?”

Another interesting event was organized by the Vaad Chizuk, a special organization that caters to America bochurim in Israel and was founded with the encouragement of Rav Shlomo Wolbe. The Vaad Chizuk organizes special events several times a year for the benefit of those bochurim, with speeches delivered in English. The organization also arranges for yungerleit to help bochurim in their yeshivos, as well as maintaining a telephone hotline offering assistance and advice. This Chol Hamoed, they organized a simchas bais hashoevah attended by Rav Yehoshua Eichenstein, the rosh yeshiva of Yad Aharon, who is also the director of this organization. I was present, and I watched as hundreds of American yeshiva bochurim danced joyously in honor of the Yom Tov and the Torah. At the center of the circle, Rav Eichenstein danced merrily with Rav Eliezer Wolbe, who is the driving force behind the organization. It was a deeply moving experience.

Memories of Rav Elya Svei

I have already mentioned Rav Shlomo Wolbe twice in this column. If you are one of my regular readers, you may recall that I had a very close connection to him. In fact, the link between the Yaakovson and Wolbe families dates back three generations. My grandfather, Rav Binyomin Zev Yaakovson zt”l, who was one of the leaders of Agudas Yisroel and Rav Yaakov Rosenheim’s right-hand man, was active on behalf of the Vaad Hatzolah and Keren HaTorah, as well as serving as the rov of the Machzikei Hadas community in Copenhagen, Denmark. During the Second World War, he led his entire community from Denmark to Sweden, thus escaping from the clutches of the Nazis. In Sweden, he met Rav Wolbe and founded the Lidingo school, which served as a haven for Jewish refugees.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s son, Rabbi Avrohom Wolbe, who lives in Monsey, invited me to join him at his grandson’s bar mitzvah in the city of Beitar Illit. It is not often that I have occasion to visit Beitar, which is located near Yerushalayim, but this past week I found myself there in honor of the simcha.

Rabbi Avrohom Wolbe and his wife had made the trip from Monsey to attend the bar mitzvah, and I soon discovered that his mechutan, Rabbi Shlomo Caplan, had also come in for the occasion—in his case, from Lakewood. As soon as I caught sight of this distinguished-looking man, my journalistic curiosity got the better of me, and I hurried to strike up a conversation with him. When I inquired about his background, he replied, “I learned in Ner Yisroel in my youth, and today I am a yungerman in Lakewood.” I was certain that there was more to his life story than that, and sure enough, he added modestly, “I was also a rov of a community in Philadelphia.” That, in fact, was a position that he occupied for over 30 years.

Naturally, my next question was if he had any stories to share about Rav Elya Svei. Rabbi Caplan laughed. “Of course. I used to consult with him about every difficult shailah that came my way.” I pressed him for an example, and he related, “There was a certain distinguished person whom I wanted to recruit to serve on the Vaad HaKashrus that was under my direction. He sought advice from Rav Svei, who told him to turn down my offer. I asked for permission to try to convince Rav Svei to change his mind, and I was given an appointment to meet with him. But when I began speaking, Rav Elya said, ‘You can say anything you want, but I will not change my mind!’ At that point, there was no reason for me to continue.”

“I take it that the person in question never joined the Vaad HaKashrus?” I asked.

“You are correct,” Rabbi Caplan replied. He also recalled that whenever Rav Elya was consulted about a weighty issue, he would habitually spend three to five minutes immersed in silent thought, without uttering a word, as he pondered the question. Only after those minutes had passed would be respond.

Rabbi Caplan related that he had been appointed to his rabbinic position after the previous rov of the community, Rav Meir Kahn, decided to move to Eretz Yisroel in his old age. The kehillah had written to Rav Ruderman and has asked him to recommend a candidate to replace the departing rov, and he suggested his talmid Rav Shlomo Caplan. As our conversation progressed, I learned that he had posed many halachic shailos to Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky. In fact, he had a clear rule of thumb: He would consult with Rav Elya Svei regarding any issues pertaining to his communal leadership, while shailos on halacha would be referred to Rav Shmuel.

I asked Rav Caplan to share one more example of a shailah he had asked Rav Elya Svei, and he acquiesced. “There was a man in Philadelphia who was personally observant, but who had some sort of connection to the Conservative community,” he related. “A question arose as to whether he could be permitted to be part of our community and to lead the davening in shul. Rav Elya Svei paskened that it should not be permitted.”

Dancing with Minister Ochana in Radin

These were only a few of the remarkable events that took place over this Chol Hamoed. Every self-respecting yeshiva organizes its own simchas bais hasohevah, and in my neighborhood of Givat Shaul alone, there were six major events accompanied by musical bands. But in spite of the proliferation of events, I was particularly moved by the simchas bais hashoevah held by the Radin yeshiva in Netanya, where one of my sons is a talmid. I was quite surprised to find the rosh yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Gugig, dancing joyously in front of the aron kodesh, surrounded by hundreds of bochurim, together with Rabbi Asher Ochana. I am certain that you have not heard of him, but Asher Ochana served as the Minister of Religious Affairs several years ago, on behalf of the Shas party. I could not understand what connection he could possibly have to the Radin yeshiva.

“Asher, what are you doing here?” I asked, as soon as he took a break from the exuberant dancing. Ochana laughed loudly, as did everyone else in the vicinity. They looked at me as if I were an elderly man who had lost touch with the times. Today, Asher Ochana serves as the chairman of the religious council in Netanya, which means that he was responsible for making the official arrangements (including the funding) for the festive event. A wide range of dignitaries were present, including Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin of Lev L’Achim, Rav Moshe Lachover of the local branch of Degel HaTorah, Rav Zelig Orlansky of the Israeli Yated Neeman, and Rav Yitzchok Zemel. The rov of the city, Rav Kalman Bar, mingled with the celebrants, affording me a chance to observe his popularity and warm personality. The participants in the event were almost exclusively Netanya residents, all of whom spoke highly of Asher Ochana.

Of course, the participants also included the dedicated members of the yeshiva’s faculty, among them Rav Ovadiah Broide, the rosh yeshiva who greeted all the attendees radiantly. Anyone who did not witness the pure, sublime joy demonstrated by these bochurim has never seen a genuine celebration!