A Matter of Life and Death
Bittul Torah is pikuach nefesh. Torah learning is no less vital for our lives, and perhaps even more so, than the doctors in their hospitals and the soldiers on the IDF’s army bases. That is the message of my column this week, and it is also the takeaway from the coronavirus that has turned life in the State of Israel upside down. It is also something that the Israeli public should understand from the fact that the chareidi community waited eagerly for the instructions of the gedolei Yisroel, and that when the gedolim gave the order to return to the botei medrash, they complied without hesitation—in spite of the instructions of the prime minister and the Ministry of Health.
On Sunday night, in light of the situation, when the gedolim decided that learning should take place in smaller groups, everyone followed their directions. And if there were bochurim who were forced to return home for lack of space in a dormitory, they followed those orders as well. But every decision was made by daas Torah.
All of this was far from easy, but we have only our gedolim and the Torah to guide us. Our Torah learning is all that we have. You will read more about that later in this column. But that, as far as I am concerned, is the most important message this week.
A Backyard Wedding
On Monday afternoon, I attended the wedding of Mordechai Rosenblatt and Esther Tomback at the home of a certain Rav Kleinman in Bayit Vegan.
I am not sure if I have ever been at a wedding that took place in an afternoon. (It is possible that I attended a wedding on a Friday afternoon many years ago, in keeping with the custom of Yerushalayim in the previous generation, but that is all.) Then again, I don’t remember ever seeing a virus sweep through the country and disrupt every aspect of our lives as the coronavirus has done.
One week ago, when the government announced its ban on gatherings of over 100 people, the father of the kallah, Rabbi Avrohom Tomback, realized that his wedding plans were bound to be disrupted. He called the management of the Beis Yisroel wedding hall, where his simcha was scheduled to take place, and they agreed to seat the men and women in two separate areas. This would enable him to double the number of guests at the affair: Instead of 50 men and 50 women, the wedding would accommodate 100 men and 100 women. At that time the government was allowing 100 people to be in a room. Of course, there was some debate over the consequent increase in the price, but the management made every effort to accommodate the baal simcha. They also agreed that each group of guests would remain at the simcha for only a short time. The first set of one hundred guests would leave fairly quickly, making way for the next hundred to attend.
On Thursday evening, Rabbi Tomback visited several wedding halls and observed the proceedings in each. Sure enough, the guests were attending each simcha in shifts. The owners of each hall had prepared sets of cards for the guests who were permitted entry, in order to ensure that they would not exceed the maximum. Every guest who left the hall would give the card he had received to the next attendee who was waiting to enter. The police even showed up at several weddings to ensure that the number of guests did not exceed the legal cap. Rabbi Tomback decided to follow this example at his own simcha on Sunday evening. It was somewhat disappointing, but he knew he would have to contend with the new reality.
But then came motzoei Shabbos, and everything changed. All of his careful planning to divide the guests at the chasunah into two groups, his extensive negotiations with the management of the hall, and his efforts to notify his guests that they would have to attend in shifts turned out to have been wasted. The prime minister made a dramatic announcement that the ban on gatherings had been tightened, with the limit set at ten people rather than one hundred. Now it was clear that the wedding would not be held in a hall; in fact, it was questionable if it would take place at all. Since the rabbonim ruled that weddings should not be postponed, Rabbi Tomback decided to hold the simcha in his own yard. The official instructions seemed to permit larger gatherings outdoors. It was later discovered that this wasn’t exactly true, but the wedding had already been arranged.
This week, in fact, hundreds of impromptu weddings were held in private courtyards throughout Israel. On Wednesday, my good friend Rabbi Avrohom Zaibald of Lev L’Achim celebrated the marriage of a child; the wedding had been scheduled to take place in the Tamir hall in Yerushalayim, but it was held in his own backyard in the Pagi neighborhood. The police showed up at several of these weddings and issued fines in some instances, although they merely dispensed warnings in other cases.
In America what happened by us last week is taking place this week. May Hashem quickly rid us of the virus.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner on Handshakes
After Rabbi Tomback had begun making plans to hold the wedding in his own home, he was approached by his neighbor, Rav Moshe Kleinman, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Ateres Shlomo in Sdei Chemed, who served until recently as the mashgiach of Yeshivas Ateres Yisroel. Rav Kleinman also lives in an apartment in Bayit Vegan, but he is fortunate enough to have an enormous yard, where he offered to host the Tomback-Rosenblatt wedding. He suggested that the seudah should be held for an extremely limited number of participants in the Tomback home, and the guests would then return to his yard for dancing. Naturally, both mechutanim pounced on the opportunity.
As I mentioned, I attended the wedding, and it was an incredibly special experience. I told the two fathers that every person who attended the wedding would never forget it. The major question that hung in the air was whether to shake hands at the simcha.
The mesader kiddushin was Rav Benzion Hakohen Kook, who teaches in Yeshivas Meiras Shemuah in Ashdod, where the chosson learns. You may be wondering why the rosh yeshiva himself did not serve as the mesader kiddushin. Well, the answer is that in this case, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Nochum Rosenblatt, is also the father of the chosson. He decided that it would not be appropriate for a father to serve as mesader kiddushin at his son’s wedding, and he honored Rav Benzion with the task.
I have known Rav Benzion Kook since the years when we learned b’chavrusa at the yeshiva ketanah in Beer Yaakov. We have maintained a close friendship throughout the intervening years. Rav Benzion is a highly distinguished man, a well-known marbitz Torah and gifted orator, and the head of a bais horaah. He is also known for having maintained a close connection to Rav Elyashiv for many years, and he authored a series of kuntresim on halacha based on his rebbi’s rulings. I suggested to Rav Benzion that even if we could not shake hands, I should kiss his hand, in keeping with the customary practice of Sephardim. He laughed and said, “Don’t you remember your sister’s wedding, which was attended by Rav Yitzchok Hutner?” I remembered the wedding, but I confessed that I did not understand the connection. Rav Benzion explained, “At that wedding, Rav Hutner objected when people shook his hand. He asserted that there is no source in Judaism for a handshake; it is a custom of goyim. Nevertheless, he said, there is a source for the custom of kissing the hand of a rov.”
When the brocha of shehakol bara l’chvodo was recited at the chuppah, I contemplated the fact that even the corona virus was created for Hashem’s honor. There is much that can be learned from the corona pandemic of 2020.
As the chosson and kallah were danced to the yichud room—with one of the rooms in the apartment designated for that purpose—the sounds of celebration rose to a thunderous volume, especially as the crowd sang the words “hatov ki lo chalu rachamecha.” The members of the band, who had come with virtually no advance notice, poured their hearts and souls into the music, but they asked me not to take pictures; they feared that they would be fined for violating the law against large gatherings.
A Dramatic Announcement on Motzoei Shabbos
On Friday, rumors began to circulate that a dramatic announcement would take place on motzoei Shabbos. There was wild speculation in advance of the announcement; some people conjectured that the prime minister himself had contracted corona, while others expected him to announce a complete shutdown throughout the country, similar to what has been taking place in several cities in Italy. On motzoei Shabbos, we learned that the new restrictions would not be quite as extreme as that, but that the rules would become much stricter.
Netanyahu’s tone was more somber than ever. “We are in a war,” he asserted, “but we can win it.” He pointed out that other nations were imitating the steps that Israel had already taken to contain the virus; in effect, he was boasting that he had once again identified a threat before anyone else. Beginning on motzoei Shabbos, he announced, all places of recreation would be closed, and any person who could work from home was expected to do so. Schools, preschools, day care centers, and special education programs would all shut down. Netanyahu asked the public not to panic and rush to the supermarkets in droves; he assured the country that the country’s supply of food would not be depleted. But his assurances made no difference; on motzoei Shabbos, supermarkets throughout the country were filled with panicked shoppers.
“We are still in the midst of an international crisis,” Netanyahu said, “but Israel’s situation is fairly good, relative to other countries in the world. Our main battle is for life itself; we must fight for public health. President Trump has announced a state of emergency in the United Sates, and the stock exchange has been fluctuating rapidly. One after another, other countries have been adopting the same decisions that we have made. Our efforts are paying off.”
Netanyahu’s Statements on Corona
The country listened intently as Netanyahu spoke. His remarks were terse but highly convincing. “This is a constantly developing situation,” he said. “I am in contact with leaders, and we are constantly trying to preempt the virus, which we have been successful in doing. We must progress as the situation progresses. We are making decisions on the move, and therefore we must roll out new decisions every day or two. It isn’t a one-time process. I anticipate that we will be able not only to overcome this crisis but also to defeat the virus. This requires all of us to adopt a new way of life for however long it is necessary, and to be prepared with new measures that will make it possible for us to slow the spread of the disease and to see to it that our medical system is able to manage the burden. Our goal is to save lives. We can win this, but it depends on the things that each of you, as citizens of Israel, must do. We must all do everything possible to avoid infecting others or becoming infected. This is an invisible enemy, and we must locate it. The first step is to locate the people who are sick, and for that purpose we are using all the means at our disposal, including digital means that we developed in order to combat terror. We have no choice; we are facing a war that requires special measures to be taken. These things are not simple matters, and it requires a certain violation of privacy. This measure was tested in Wuhan; Israel is one of the only countries that has this ability, and we will use it.”
Netanyahu was referring to the government’s intention to track citizens using their cell phones, which is a highly problematic practice. Netanyahu received approval for the measure, but it constitutes a severe breach of civil rights. It appears, though, that this is a price that we have no choice but to pay. When Netanyahu finished speaking, I felt, as every citizen in this country certainly felt, that we have arrived in a new era the likes of which we have never experienced before. And there is no way to know how bad this situation will become.
Political Squabbling and Distrust
We might have thought that the emergency situation would force the various players in the political arena to come together in unity, but that does not appear to have happened. In his speech on motzoei Shabbos, Netanyahu called on the leaders of the left to join him in an emergency government. He suggested suspending all political rivalry for a year and then picking up again in one year in the same place and resolving their differences at that time. It seems that his call fell on deaf ears, although the pressure on the Labor and Gesher parties (without Meretz) to join the government has been enormous. Even the parties’ voters themselves have been agitating for it.
It soon became known that Gantz and Ashkenazi, two of the leaders of the Blue and White party, were in favor of joining an emergency government that would be headed first by Netanyahu, but Lapid and Yaalon opposed it. Yaalon’s stance is somewhat surprising, since he is inherently a right-winger. This week, he sounded very strange when he accused Netanyahu of exploiting the corona pandemic for his own political gain. Does Yaalon have any doubt that the situation is truly a cause for concern? It was a very strange statement for him to make.
In any event, two members of Telem, Yaalon’s faction within the Blue and White party, have announced that they will not support a minority government that hinges on the support of the Arabs. Orly Levi has also made the same statement. This seems to indicate that Gantz’s government with the support of the Arabs is no longer a possibility; without those three votes, he will be left with only 58 members in his coalition.
This week, all of the party leaders came to the president’s residence to submit their recommendations for the candidate to assemble the next government. Gantz appears to have 61 recommendations, since Lieberman decided to support him as well. Nevertheless, in light of the three dissenters within the ranks of the left—Yoaz Hendel and Tzvika Hauser of Telem, and Orly Levi-Abekasis of Gesher-Labor-Meretz—it is likely that he will not stand a chance of putting together a government. President Rivlin has declared his intention to push for the formation of an emergency national government. We will see whether it actually comes to fruition.
At the time of this writing, the Blue and White party has not given up the opportunity to be tapped to form the government. Their majority will presumably give them the ability to dismiss the current Knesset speaker and replace him with a man of their choosing—and, incidentally, to oust Moshe Gafni from his position as chairman of the Finance Committee.
Netanyahu’s Trial Delayed, Caution in the Knesset
I have just received word that the swearing-in ceremony for the 23rd Knesset will be divided into multiple groups. Three members of the Knesset at a time will enter the room, take their oaths, and leave, making way for the next three. This is a scene that has never been observed in the Knesset before. Another message has also arrived with instructions on where the Knesset members are to wait their turns for the ceremony, since the ban on large groups includes waiting together, as well. It seems as if we have reached the end of the world. The inaugural Knesset sitting, where President Rivlin will deliver the customary address, will also be empty. Only Prime Minister Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, and Yuli Edelstein—the Knesset speaker whom the Blue and White party hopes to dismiss at that very sitting—will be present.
The director-general of the Knesset has issued additional guidelines in light of the corona crisis. The gym in the Knesset has been closed until further notice, and all meetings with more than ten participants have been banned. There is a frightful feeling in the atmosphere here in this building. The minyanim in the Knesset shul have also been divided, and people have been instructed to sit at distances from each other.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s trial had been scheduled to begin on Tuesday in the District Court in Yerushalayim. He requested a postponement, but the president of the District Court, who is also one of the judges, rejected his request. It was a bad feeling, but there was nothing that could be done about it. Nevertheless, as the efforts to battle the coronavirus intensified, the Minister of Justice signed an injunction ordering any non-critical judicial proceedings to be halted, anywhere in the country and at any level of the judicial system. Of course, this included the prime minister’s trial. The result was that the court announced that Netanyahu’s trial would be delayed for two months.
1500 People in Isolation in Telz Stone
As the week began, the State of Israel was dealing with two issues: corona and politics, in that order. On Sunday night, after a brief round of meetings with the various parties, President Rivlin announced that he had no choice but to task Benny Gantz with forming the next government. It is already clear that Gantz will not succeed in assembling a coalition. Nevertheless, Netanyahu and Gantz also met tonight, and both announced, for a change, that their conversation had been productive. It will be interesting to see how this develops, especially after the Knesset meets and Gantz is officially assigned to attempt to form the government, which will seemingly give him an advantage over Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has been sowing fear everywhere, in the chareidi community as well as in the general public. Several people in the religious community were recently diagnosed with the virus, and there is no telling how many people might have been in contact with them on Purim. Two weeks ago, a case of coronavirus was discovered in Telz Stone, and sixty residents of the community, mainly those who had davened in the same shul as the victim, were required to enter home isolation. This week, an entire family in the town was diagnosed with the virus, which brought the situation to an entirely new level. The head of the local council, Yitzchok Ravitz, announced that in his estimation, about 1500 people—one quarter of the population of Telz Stone—would have to be placed in isolation.
Meanwhile, a dispute has arisen over the number of tests for coronavirus administered daily. The Health Ministry has been blamed for the low numbers, and the hospitals and health funds claim that there is a shortage of supplies. At this time, efforts are being made to identify a new device that will satisfy the demand for testing. The Ministry of Health is weighing the possibility of importing a new instrument produced by Roche, which is supposed to help test thousands of samples every day. The company is approved by the American Food and Drug Administration, and the machine is capable of carrying out 4128 corona tests in 24 hours.
Bittul Torah Is Also a Threat to Life
This brings us to the most important subject: the situation in the country’s yeshivos and the primacy of Torah learning even at a time of crisis.
On Sunday night, a news report (by a journalist who wears a kippah) explained to the Israeli public that the chareidi community in Eretz Yisroel listens to rabbonim rather than to the directives of the Ministry of Health. “There is a rov named Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who has told everyone to continue learning,” the television correspondent said. The correspondent, Yair Sherki, brought his camera to a Talmud Torah in Har Nof and interviewed a father who was there with his son. The reporter asked the father if he was worried about the potential health dangers, and the father replied, “I am worried, but once Rav Chaim Kanievsky spoke, there is no reason for fear. The Torah will protect us.” The journalist then continued to the Mir yeshiva. The general idea conveyed by the piece was that the chareidi community regards the Health Ministry’s orders with disdain.
The truth is that on motzoei Shabbos, everyone was waiting for instructions from Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein. Tens of thousands of yeshiva bochurim were still in their homes after Purim, waiting to hear if they should return to their yeshivos. The yungerleit likewise waited to be told if they should return to their kollelim, and the parents of school-age boys waited to hear if their sons should return to their chadarim. Classes had already been suspended in all Bais Yaakov schools, and a sweeping order to that effect had been issued by Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, the director of Chinuch Atzmai. But it remained unclear if the Talmudei Torah, yeshivos, and kollelim would close as well.
Rav Gershon Edelstein reportedly asked, “Did the military bases close?” Some people did not understand his intent. “The army bases have to remain open; it is a matter of life and death,” someone said. “The hospitals are also still open.”
But Rav Gershon lives with a keen awareness of Chazal’s teaching that the world’s existence is dependent on the Torah. From his vantage point, an interruption of Torah learning is likewise a threat to life. For us, it is an adage of Chazal, but for Rav Gershon, it is a tangible reality. If the soldiers remained on their bases, then it certainly stands to reason that the bnei yeshivos should remain in their botei medrash. When he inquired about the military bases, Rav Gershon was not merely making a point; that was precisely his thought process. Such is daas Torah. And the same was true of Rav Chaim Kanievsky. On motzoei Shabbos, both gedolim gave instructions for everyone to return to their botei medrash, and added that they would reevaluate the situation on the following night. On Sunday, the decision was made to exercise caution and limit the size of groups of people in the botei medrash. The bochurim and yungerleit would not stop learning, but they would be divided into smaller groups.
On Sunday, two things happened. First, the police came to various yeshivos and threatened to file criminal charges. For instance, they appeared at Yeshivas Ohr Yisroel in Petach Tikvah, and Rav Chaim instructed the yeshiva to comply with the instructions of the police. At the same time, on Sunday night the prime minister met with the three secretaries of the various moatzos of gedolim and with the chairman of the Vaad HaYeshivos, and he warned them that the yeshivos were violating the government’s instructions. “If you don’t send the bochurim home, I will close the yeshivos,” he declared.
Whatever happens next, one thing is clear: The bnei Torah of this country will continue to cling to the Torah, the ultimate source of life, regardless of the circumstances.
Should We Prepare to Ride Horses and Raise Chickens Again?
So a tiny virus has created massive pandemonium. It is frightening to think of what else might lie in store for us; we can only daven that a calamity will not take place. The world may be small, but the fear is great. What will happen if there is a shutdown throughout the world? Will we return to planting our own wheat? Without commercially produced eggs, will we all begin raising chickens? Will we teach our children the aleph beis at home, as our ancestors did in the shtetls of Poland? People are hoarding laundry detergent, but who can guarantee that there will even be electricity to run their washing machines? Perhaps they should make sure to have an adequate supply of candles and matches, not to mention food for horses; after all, perhaps there will be no more gasoline for cars.
Much can be written about the corona pandemic and its messages. We live in a world that has reached the heights of progress in every area: in technology, in science, in medicine, and in international statesmanship. Yet a tiny virus, a microorganism, is threatening to shut down the entire globe. However you look at it, it is a mind-boggling, incomprehensible event. But viruses, like thunder, were clearly created for their impact on our hearts.
We are afraid; there is no denying it. A virus is spreading, and there is nothing we can do about it. This time, I am referring to the virus of hatred. The memories of the government led by Lapid and Bennett should cause us to dread an alliance between Lapid and Lieberman. We were warned about this nightmarish scenario during the election campaign, and every possible effort was made to drum up votes to counteract their influence. Some cynics claimed that all the talk about the potential for them to rise to power was nothing more than political spin, an effort to prevent the Likud from siphoning off votes from the chareidi parties. As it turns out, though, it seems that those were the last warnings before that awful scenario came to pass. That is not to say that the chareidi parties didn’t accomplish everything they could; the number of votes cast for the two parties reached record heights, although it cannot necessarily be said that the other right-wing parties mimicked that accomplishment. And that is to say nothing of Otzma Yehudit, which caused many precious votes to be lost. But there is no point now in reminding them that they were warned in advance of the harm they might cause.
What will happen now? I always recall an idea that Rav Ovadiah Yosef once shared with us. He used to quote the midrash that states that the Jews divided into four groups at the Yam Suf. Some of them wished to dive into the sea, while others advocated returning to Mitzrayim. Another group wanted to combat the Mitzrim, and a fourth group insisted that they should daven for salvation. But what ultimately happened was a scenario that no one had envisioned: Hashem caused the sea to split.
As always, we can rely only on Hashem, and He is capable of anything. Come what may, we will pin our hopes on His salvation.
Condolences for Aunt Hedy
On Taanis Esther, I escorted my cousin, Reb Yitzchok (George) Mayer zt”l from America, to his final rest. He was brought to Israel for burial on an empty United Airlines flight. He was 74 years old; I was aware of his age since I knew that he was born after Bergen-Belsen, just before the founding of the state. We had all davened fervently for him to recover from his illness; he was a beloved family member to all of us, a noble and refined man with the heart and countenance of an angel.
Aunt Hedy of Boro Park, may she live and be well, had two sons, whom she raised as a widow. Her husband, Reb Yaakov Halevi Mayer, was buried on Har Hazeisim on Hoshana Rabbah in the year 1981. Unfortunately, both of her sons have passed away. Several years ago, she suffered the loss of her older son, Yehoshua (Egon), who was a professor and an expert on assimilation. And now she has lost her second son.
Aunt Hedy has an incredible life story. Her firstborn son was born when she left Bergen-Belsen along with her husband, her parents, her sister, and her younger brother. He was named Yehoshua as an allusion to the family’s salvation. The Satmar Rebbe, who had been a passenger on the train on which they had ridden to freedom, attended the bris. The story of Aunt Hedy’s life, beginning with her childhood in Budapest and continuing with Bergen-Belsen and then her years in America, is worthy of being made into a book. I have tried several times to ask her to share her life story with me (and with my camera and recording device), but she has always demurred. Her son George founded and managed a wig business in Manhattan and was a businessman of great integrity and a generous philanthropist. He was also a dedicated family man, who honored his mother with all his heart and soul. He was blessed with an outstanding family.
Several of his grandsons have learned in Yerushalayim. Last month, I hosted his grandson “Eli” (Eliezer) Hoch, along with one of his peers from his yeshiva. Over the years, I have hosted other grandchildren, all of whom attended yeshivos in Yerushalayim. In the past, I wrote an article about a different grandchild, Yaakov Sabo, and his rosh yeshiva. The family’s story is a testament to the fact that the Torah always returns to the place where it has dwelled.
While tens of thousands of Budapest’s Jews perished in the crematoria of Auschwitz, the Mayer (or Tausky) family survived miraculously, and the youngest generation has now returned to learn Torah in Eretz Yisroel. On Taanis Esther, at the Sanhedria funeral home, I peered out the broad windows and contemplated the fact that the family’s growth had, in a sense, become a fulfillment of a Divine promise.
I make sure to visit Aunt Hedy whenever I travel to America. Every time I come to her home, I am greeted by the sight of a siddur and Tehillim on her dining room table. She does not speak Hebrew, but she knows how to recite Tehillim, and she speaks to Hashem wholeheartedly. Now, as she is sitting shiva while I am in Yerushalayim, I feel that it is particularly important to share some words of encouragement with her. She is an incredibly strong woman, as she has proven over the course of more than nine decades on earth, but even the strongest person sometimes needs someone else to share their burden. It doesn’t work very well by telephone, so I am taking advantage of these pages to send her a message.
Aunt Hedy, we share your sadness and your pain. But we want you to know, from the perspective of eternity, that you have been truly blessed by Hashem. You had two remarkable sons, and you have been blessed with grandchildren who will carry on your glorious legacy. You have given your parents the greatest possible joy, and you have exacted the greatest possible vengeance against the Nazis. Your prayers and tears did not go unanswered.
A Fateful Business Decision
In conclusion, I would like to share the following story with you: Last month, a yungerman in Yerushalayim was offered a fantastic business opportunity involving the import of clothing from Hungary. It was presented to him as a tantalizing opportunity for abundant profit, and while this yungerman had inherited a large sum of money, he lacked any meaningful knowledge about the business world. He was enchanted by the idea, but his friends in his kollel tried to dissuade him. “Are you crazy?” they demanded. “You are considering importing clothes from Hungary? Do you think you can compete with Amazon?”
As is his habit, he consulted with his rebbi, who advised him to invest half of his inheritance in the deal. “Perhaps Hashem will reward you,” he suggested. Nevertheless, some experts in the field were certain that he had been duped.
And then the corona pandemic struck the country. Suddenly, imports from China dried up, and packages that had arrived in the post office remained undelivered. The clothes he had purchased and imported from Hungary were suddenly in great demand. It was a clear stroke of hashgochah protis.