My Take on the News

A Killing in Iraq

On Friday morning, the front page stories in the Israeli newspapers had been rendered irrelevant by the time they hit the newsstands. The newspapers reported on Netanyahu’s request for immunity and his visit to Greece, but the country had already moved on to a bigger story: the strike on the airport in Baghdad, which was a sign of the United States’ constant monitoring of terrorists throughout the world, including General Qassem Soleimani. Three Katyusha rockets were fired at the military base adjacent to the airport, killing seven people, including Soleimani. The Pentagon released a statement announcing that Soleimani had been eliminated on President Trump’s orders. Following the assassination, Prime Minister Netanyahu cut short his visit to Greece and returned to Israel.

Netanyahu returned to Israel especially quickly in order to make sure that his return to Yerushalayim did not involve chillul Shabbos. The religious reporters who were part of his entourage in Greece were uncertain if they should remain there or return with him, and Netanyahu assured them that they could join the prime ministerial convoy, which does not stop at traffic lights.

Parenthetically, Netanyahu’s wife and daughter remained in Greece over Shabbos, as was planned. Only the prime minister himself returned to Israel early on account of the security considerations.

Trump’s first reason for eliminating Soleimani was the fact that he was a terrorist with a tremendous amount of blood on his hands. Even more significant, though, was the attack on the American embassy in Baghdad. From President Trump’s perspective, anyone who attacks the United States should be considered to have forfeited his own life. Trump has already warned Iran that the United States has selected 52 targets to attack, and that they and their collaborators should beware of provoking the Americans.

Incidentally, Dan Shapiro, who served as the American ambassador to Israel under President Obama (remember that?) announced publicly that attacking some of those 52 targets would be considered a war crime. Now, even if this is true, it is generally wise to remain silent during a time of tension.

On the other hand, it is also important to refrain from igniting a conflict at a time when the entire world seems to have become a volatile powder keg.

The Arab MKs Denounce Trump

After the liquidation in Iraq, things changed somewhat here in Israel. First of all, there was a sense of gratitude toward Trump. Regardless of anyone’s personal opinions about him, he put an end to one of the greatest enemies of Israel, a man who had an organized, nefarious plan to destroy the Jews and the State of Israel. High-ranking Israeli officials have remained in constant contact with America since the liquidation, tensely monitoring the subsequent developments. In light of the potential repercussions, Israel has chosen to declare a heightened state of alert in its embassies around the world and on all of its borders.

As an example, in light of the current situation, the IDF decided that the Chermon would be closed to visitors on Friday, and the public was asked to refrain from visiting the area. There were no specific instructions issued to the residents of the Golan Heights and the surrounding area, and their daily routines were allowed to continue, but the residents decided on their own accord to remain in their homes. At the same time, the United States instructed its citizens in Iraq to leave the country immediately, fearing reprisals from terrorists there.

Most of the voices on the Israeli political scene applauded the elimination of Soleimani. However, some disagreed. The Arab members of the Knesset from the Joint Arab List denounced it as an act of thuggery. “The killing of Soleimani could lead to an attack against Israel,” they declared. “The Trump administration is endangering the lives of all the residents of the Middle East. Anyone who is opening champagne bottles today [to celebrate the killing] does not understand that the elimination of Soleimani could lead to an attack against Israel,” they warned. From those remarks, one might draw the mistaken conclusion that they have suddenly become concerned about Israeli lives….

There is also a Jewish member of the Joint List, a member of the Knesset named Ofer Kassif. His response was blistering: “If this American brutality causes a loss of Israeli lives, it will be on Trump’s head and on the head of his friend, Netanyahu the escaped criminal.”

A Tragedy in Tel Aviv

A few hours later, Shabbos arrived, and winter came along with it. Last week, I lamented the widespread complacency in this country, which was decried even by Yitzchok Rabin in his own time. The overconfident attitude of “yihyeh b’seder” is the mother of all negligence in this country, and it plagues the army, the construction industry, the highways, the railroad, and even the forces responsible for national security. “It will be all right” is practically an Israeli motto, but things are not always all right. Sometimes—perhaps even all the time—this negligent attitude results in outright tragedies!

With the arrival of the winter season, I noted that the weather seems to surprise the country every year. And that is precisely what happened on Shabbos this week. It was a relatively cold and rainy Shabbos, and entire roads in various cities in the Gush Dan region suffered from heavy flooding, with the waters reaching the roofs of parked cars. It was clear that the infrastructure had been damaged, and the drainage systems were not working, a mishap that is far from appropriate for a properly run city or country.

Worst of all was the tragedy in an elevator in a residential building in Tel Aviv. This took place in a fairly new building; a couple entered the building’s elevator, which then became stuck when the building lost power. The immobilized elevator remained in the basement, which then became flooded with rainwater, and the two drowned to death. The entire country was shaken by the horrific tragedy. Even the prime minister felt compelled to convey his condolences and pain over the deaths. Fingers of blame were pointed at the municipality. “The infrastructure hasn’t been maintained for years,” the family complained, accusing the city of indifference to the residents of the neighborhood and of criminal negligence. The emergency rescue services were also targeted for criticism. “How is it possible that it took so much time for them to arrive?” the family demanded. “And how could it be that this building, which is only a year and a half old, received construction permits?”

An investigation revealed that the trapped couple had called all the emergency services, particularly the fire department, which is supposed to respond in these cases. It seems that there was serious negligence at play.

Tzion Shoshani is the father of Dean Shoshani, one of the two drowning victims. He spoke in a broken voice, acknowledging that his son’s untimely passing was a Divine decree. “This is very hard,” he said. “Fathers are not supposed to bury their children. Dean was amazing, an incredible child and a genius. He always looked beyond what we could see; he knew that there is a Creator of the world, that He ordains everything, and that everything comes from Him. Everything that happens is for the best. We had Dean for 25 years, and now we have given him back.”

Supreme Court Petitioned to Disqualify Netanyahu

I don’t wish to go into this subject at length, but it is an issue that has been preoccupying the country for months: the claim that the entire judicial system has been harnessed to destroy Netanyahu for political reasons. It began with investigations and continued with seemingly groundless criminal indictments, and it is still going on. There is also the ongoing feud between the Minister of Justice, a Netanyahu devotee who was picked by the prime minister, and the attorney general and state prosecutor. The situation is certainly far from boring. But above all, a petition was recently submitted to the Supreme Court to declare Netanyahu legally unfit to assemble the next government, even if he wins the election. This petition was filed by a group of 67 academics and public figures.

The Supreme Court, led by its chief justice, decided on Thursday to reject the petition, albeit not because it was wrong. The court simply ruled that it was premature. “According to the Basic Law: The Government, the authority to assign one of the members of the Knesset to form a government belongs to the president,” the chief justice wrote in her ruling. “Naturally, since the election hasn’t yet taken place and its results are unknown, the president hasn’t yet consulted with the representatives of the parties, and he hasn’t yet been faced with the question that the petitioners have raised. Therefore, even though the legal question itself is a significant one, it is purely theoretical and does not need to be resolved at this time.”

To translate this into simpler terms, the court decided that if the citizens of the country foolishly elect Netanyahu, they will deal with the situation after the election.

Netanyahu became justifiably nervous after hearing the court’s statement. “The Supreme Court was correct in rejecting the petition,” he responded, “but let us make something clear: I think that there is no need for this to be discussed at all. The choice of who will lead the nation must be made only by the people, not by anyone else.”

Netanyahu Requests Immunity

It may be easy to forget this—and it seems that many in Israel may have forgotten it as well—but the election is only 55 days away. In the Knesset building, there is a large screen that shows the number of days remaining until the election, and it is not far away at all. So let us return to the news of the political situation in the State of Israel.

First of all, the polls indicate that the election will not change anything. In all likelihood, there will be a deadlock once again, with Avigdor Lieberman holding the key to the next coalition. Some pundits predicted that after Netanyahu asked the Knesset speaker not to remove his parliamentary immunity, he would lose popularity in the polls. That, however, did not happen.

Netanyahu asked Yuli Edelstein to refer his case to a committee that will discuss his immunity. He has requested for the Knesset to announce that his immunity from prosecution will not be revoked. If that decision is made, then it will be impossible for him to face prosecution until the end of his tenure as a member of the Knesset—that is, until the conclusion of the current Knesset. Netanyahu claims that parliamentary immunity is a crucial element of democracy and is intended to prevent government officials from being removed from power with trumped-up criminal charges. Therefore, he announced to the public, he has no intention to forgo that right.

Netanyahu’s problem is that the Blue and White party is trying to establish a Knesset Committee to convene immediately. If they succeed, then the opposition will have a majority on the committee, and Lieberman will certainly vote against Netanyahu. If that happens, then Netanyahu will not gain time, and he will even lose ground. Much depends on the question of whether the Knesset has the legal ability at this time to establish a committee that doesn’t yet exist. Surprisingly, the Knesset legal advisor announced on Sunday evening that it is possible. This threw a bit of a monkey wrench into Netanyahu’s plans, and we will have to wait and see how the situation unfolds. In any event, I think you will agree with me that it is highly unusual for a prime minister to announce openly that he is fighting against fabricated criminal charges. In effect, Netanyahu accused the leaders of the judicial system in the country that he governs of severe misconduct.

Chaos and Conflict on the Right

The political right is in a state of chaos. Netanyahu is begging the right-wing parties to merge for the upcoming election, in order to prevent any votes from going to waste. He hopes that if they form a single unified party, the right-wing bloc might finally succeed in crossing the threshold of 61 mandates without Lieberman. For now, though, it seems that the right will remain divided, and votes will be squandered.

The political right consists of four different groups: the New Right party headed by Naftoli Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, the Bayit Yehudi party (formerly Mafdal or NRP) headed by Rafi Peretz, the National Union headed by Betzalel Smotrich, and Itamar Ben-Gvir’s party, Otzma Yehudit. The most amazing recent development was that Ben-Gvir and Rafi Peretz signed an agreement to run together, but trouble was not long in coming. Rafi Peretz has come under heavy fire from his own party for signing the agreement.

Netanyahu feels that all four right-wing parties must unite. The leaders of the four parties, however, are not convinced that it is the best thing for the right, even if it is good for the Likud. A recent poll conducted by a right-wing organization showed that 80 percent of the national religious public would prefer a single list whose makeup would be determined by the voters. About 10,000 people signed a petition in favor of forming a united list.

Betzalel Smotrich, the chairman of the National Union party, leveled harsh criticism at Rafi Peretz. “When you do something that is not natural or honest, it leads to a chain reaction of sorts,” he declared accusingly. “In the first election, Rabbi Rafi didn’t want unity, and we practically had to force him to accept the bloc with Otzma Yehudit out of responsibility to the right. He refused even to have his picture taken together with them for a campaign advertisement. This time, it took him twenty minutes to reach an agreement with them, and he gave them everything they wanted, solely to make it possible for him to remain in the leading position. This was not an ideological move or a process based on principle.

“I was balanced, and I still am,” Smotrich continued. “We certainly have to connect with Otzma in order to avoid wasting votes, but we must remember that they are not the center of the national religious community today. There is a very big difference. Leaders should not give in to fear and should not use tricks and gimmicks. I want a mandate from the public. I can’t force myself on the public, and no other candidate should or can do so. There is a great danger that even if we are included, we will not cross the electoral threshold.”

Peretz Calls for Unity

At the beginning of the cabinet session on Sunday, Rafi Peretz spoke about the tensions between the right-wing parties and informed them that they have a week and a half to think about the matter seriously, to put aside their differences, and to join together in advance of the election. Peretz made these comments after Prime Minister Netanyahu warned them that the political right will never forgive Peretz, Smotrich, and Naftoli Bennett if they fail to unite their parties.

“The prime minister has appealed to us, the parties of the right, with a request for us to unite,” Peretz said. “I responded to him that it is my desire as well. I call upon Bennett and Smotrich to find a way for us to unite. We have a week and a half to stop and think seriously about it, and to put aside all of our differences. Throughout the past year, at each of the three opportunities that arose, I always favored alliances and I was always prepared to make concessions. This time, as well, I am certainly ready for us to find ways to sit together. That is what the people want, and that is what I want.”

Peretz made these comments after signing an agreement with Itamar Ben-Gvir and promising him spots on the joint right-wing list without consulting with his colleagues. That is why Bennett and Smotrich did not exactly react to his comments with enthusiastic approval.

Netanyahu continued warning all four of them, “If the parties to the right of the Likud do not unite, they are liable to fail to cross the electoral threshold. The right-wing voters will never forgive Ministers Naftoli Bennett, Betzalel Smotrich, and Rafi Peretz if they do not form a united list. If there are two separate lists, they are liable to fall below the electoral threshold.”

Those concerns are certainly warranted.

Tears Over the Siyum at MetLife

In spite of all the turmoil and drama on the political scene, those events were certainly eclipsed by the Siyum HaShas. Personally, I was fascinated by the Siyum HaShas in New Jersey, on your side of the ocean. I must admit that while I watched it, there were times when I found myself shedding tears as I was overcome by emotion.

When Helfgott recited Kaddish, the camera focused on a bench occupied by elderly Holocaust survivors. We saw a man with a short white beard whose eyes brimmed with tears, and I found myself weeping along with him. I thought about this man, about the incalculable suffering he may have endured and all that he might have lost in the concentration camps, and I thought about my mother and about all of her siblings, who were murdered by the Nazis. Who would ever have believed that such a remarkable event would take place a few decades later? The camera focused on several more Holocaust survivors as well. And then there was the precious child who was very sick and was instructed by Rav Chaim Kanievsky to learn a masechta. I didn’t understand much of the address about his story in English, but I understood the main points. And when the stadium applauded for the heroic child, I found myself applauding along with them. I am davening wholeheartedly for that child to experience a complete recovery and to be as healthy as all his peers. I would be very pleased if someone would tell me his name and his mother’s name. On my next visit to America, whenever it takes place, I would be happy to meet him, perhaps along with one of the elderly men I saw on the video.

The Double Daf Yomi Initiative

In any event, the fact that nearly 100,000 Jews gathered together in a single place to witness the siyum of Shas, sounding a deafening chorus of “Amens,” was an enormous kiddush Hashem and a powerful statement. Hearing Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky assert that this siyum was more of a beginning than an ending was also a powerful experience. The dancing was inspiring, and Rav Abish Brodt was deeply moving. The sight of the yeshiva bochurim beaming with pleasure was also highly uplifting.

Parenthetically, I checked the official website of the stadium, and I discovered that it contains 82,000 seats. I imagine that that figure does not include the playing field, where many more seats were set up for the siyum. It was certainly a meaningful and exhilarating event, and I can only hope that I will be able to attend in person at the next siyum.

As the new daf yomi cycle begins, another initiative is gathering steam. This program would see its participants learning two blatt every day, and thus completing the entire Shas in less than four years. The initiative has received Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s brocha, which has generated much enthusiasm. It will be interesting to see how far it spreads.

This talk of siyumim reminds me of the following: Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel once remarked at a siyum in his home, “The most beautiful image that I can imagine in my mind is the picture of a ben Torah sitting and learning. And my favorite words are ‘hadran alach Talmud Bavli.’”

The word hadran is a form of the word hadar, which has different meanings in Aramaic and in Hebrew. The Aramaic word denotes a return, while the Hebrew word hadar refers to beauty. Thus, when we declare “hadran alach” at a siyum, we imply that the beauty of the Gemara will rest upon us.

A Series of Siyumim

Here in Eretz Yisroel, there was a series of siyumim in honor of the conclusion of the daf yomi cycle. I certainly cannot tell you about all of them, especially since there were many celebrations on a small scale. Almost every chassidus organized its own siyum, and chareidi cities held their own siyumim. On motzoei Shabbos a large siyum was held in Petach Tikvah, attended by the rabbonim and roshei yeshivos of the city, along with thousands of local residents. One of the highlights of the event was an address by a rov who declared, “In seven weeks, we will be finishing Maseches Brachos, and we will begin Shabbos. It will be the week of Parshas Ki Sisa, which speaks about the covenant of Shabbos between Klal Yisroel and Hashem. Therefore, I am calling upon our mayor, who is present here, not to disturb the Shabbos or interfere with it. It has been reported that you are thinking about joining the other mayors who desecrate Shabbos by having public transportation run in their cities on the Shabbos day. On behalf of all of us, I ask you please not to disturb the holy Shabbos.”

Mayor Rami Greenberg, who wears a yarmulke, was present during this speech, and he heard the enthusiastic ovation in response to the speaker’s words.

On that note, Mayor Chaim Bibes of the secular city of Modiin, who is the leader of the Union of Local Authorities and a senior figure in the Likud party, announced this week that there will be no public transportation in his city on Shabbos, and that he will not join the growing trend of operating public transportation on the Shabbos day.

Meanwhile, can you guess who decided to attack Chaim Bibes for his stance? That’s right: Yvette Lieberman, who proclaimed immediately that if Bibes continues in this fashion, the day is not far away when the secular city of Modiin will become a replica of its chareidi neighbor, Modiin Illit. The degree of hatred exuded by this man is utterly astonishing.

This Wednesday, the day this newspaper hits the newsstands, there will also be a siyum in the city of Beitar Illit, where a massive event is planned. Dirshu is holding a siyum in Yad Eliyohu, the largest venue in Tel Aviv (and possibly in the entire country), and the organization is holding another siyum in Manchester. At this point, there have been three major events. One took place on motzoei Shabbos in Binyonei Ha’Umah, which was organized by Dirshu and was covered extensively in this newspaper last week (and I am proud to say that my son was one of its organizers). On Monday, the Shas party organized its own siyum in the Arena stadium; to be more specific, though, the siyum was held by El Hamaayan, the educational branch of the Shas party, rather than by its political division, as is required by law. On Thursday evening, Agudas Yisroel of Yerushalayim held its own event, a chassidish siyum, at the same venue. The two events in Arena and the siyum in Binyonei Ha’Uma drew combined crowds of almost 30,000 people. And there is still talk of holding a siyum for the entire chareidi community—Litvish, chassidish, and Sephardic alike. The fact that it must be held in a facility that can accommodate 30,000 to 40,000 people, though, makes it virtually impossible. As I noted in the past, there have been efforts to find a suitable venue, and funding has been procured for the event, but the police have torpedoed every plan that has been made thus far. We will have to wait and see if it actually comes to fruition.

A Fall and a Message

Here is an incredible story that I heard from a precious bochur named Shmulik Cohen, who lives in Givat Shaul not far from my home and was a talmid until recently in Yeshivas Bnei Re’em. The yeshiva is located in the community of Bnei Re’em, one of the settlements in the vicinity of Kibutz Chofetz Chaim. The rosh yeshiva of his yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Friedman, recently passed away, and his talmidim from the past 30 years have been plunged into mourning. In honor of Rav Friedman’s shloshim, Shmulik asked me to share one of his experiences with the rosh yeshiva with my readers.

“I once approached the rosh yeshiva,” he related, “and I said to him, ‘I am having a crisis. I can’t go on anymore; I am ready to give up.’ Rav Shmuel tried to encourage me and said all the right things; he tried to infuse me with motivation and self-confidence, and when his words didn’t affect me, we agreed that we would speak again. A week later, the rebbetzin summoned me, along with another bochur, to come to his home urgently. Rav Shmuel had fallen, she said, and he was unable to get up. We raced to his house, which was about 400 meters from the yeshiva, and we found him lying on the floor. I saw that one of his legs was literally folded beneath him, and it did not look good. He had been hooked up to an intravenous line before he fell, and he was lying on the floor with the tubes tangled together.

“‘Rebbi,’ I said, ‘the two of us will help you get up, and you must try to stand.’

“The rosh yeshiva replied, ‘Shmulik, you can go back to the yeshiva. I will manage on my own.’

“‘But, Rebbi,’ I said, ‘you are sick. You have a fever and you are having an intravenous infusion, and you are lying on the floor.’

“‘It’s fine, Shmulik,’ he said. ‘You can go; I will remain on the floor!’

“We stared at him in shock, and I said, ‘Rebbi, this isn’t the time for jokes.’”

“The rosh yeshiva replied, ‘What is the point? I am tired of it all. I have a pacemaker, I can’t walk, my bank account is frozen and they are going to foreclose on my house, I have numerous debts and my entire body is filled with scars. I have no reason to get up; I simply want to give in.’

“At that point, I understood what he was trying to do. The rosh yeshiva was alluding to what I had told him about my own state of depression. ‘I understand the message,’ I said. ‘Now let me help the rov stand up.’

“The other bochur and I did not have to exert ourselves too much to help him to his feet. We simply took care not to cause any harm to him; after all, his body had already had much experience with illness. After he had settled himself into his chair, he insisted that we both have some refreshments. He then took hold of my shoulder and said, ‘Shmulik, my friend, you saw that I was able to stand on my own with only a small amount of help, and now I am sitting here and smiling. It is forbidden to give up so quickly! You must ask for help and find the way to rehabilitate yourself, and then you will find it easy to get back on your feet.’

“‘Rebbi,’ I replied, ‘I just came to that very conclusion on my own!’”