My Take on the News

Everyone Is Davening – Including the Scientists

I know that I don’t have to describe the feelings we are experiencing here in Israel, because you are going through more or less the same thing. For the first week or two of the crisis, we may have imagined that the virus wouldn’t be all that devastating and that it would have little impact on the chareidi community, but it did not take long for us to realize that it was indeed a major calamity, and that it was everywhere.

We hear about an increasing number of corona cases in chareidi communities every day. We are also hearing painful news from Israel and from America. The virus is very dangerous, and it is here.

So what should we do? First of all, we must listen to the government’s instructions. By now, everyone understands it. Shuls that have never locked their doors before have been closed. Lights that have never been turned off have finally been extinguished. There is simply no choice.

Here in Israel, we are definitely feeling pressure. But we also know that everything Hashem does is for the best. The saddest moment this week came when Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been interviewed or has delivered remarks at press conferences (without accepting questions) almost every night, commented that “we are all davening, with Hashem’s help” for an end to the crisis. Before he could even finish his sentence, the interviewer interrupted him, “With the help of thee Weitzman Institute.” It was a shameful and insolent comment. Netanyahu quickly responded, “They are davening in the Weitzman Institute as well.”

With Hashem’s help, we will defeat the coronavirus in spite of the attitudes of these journalists, and in the merit of our tefillos.

The Shin Bet Is Watching

I am sure that you have heard about the chareidi community where the situation may be at its worst: the community of Telz Stone, otherwise known as Kiryat Yearim. There are many people there who have contracted the virus (it is a fairly small town, and therefore even a handful of corona sufferers makes for a relatively high percentage), and over 1500 people are in isolation. Every day, unfortunately, another case of corona is diagnosed, and that forces dozens more people into isolation. But I don’t want to write about Telz Stone, since it is not a source of pride for us.

You have probably heard that the Israeli government received permission to use “technological means” in the fight against the coronavirus. This means taking advantage of the Shin Bet’s ability to monitor the cell phones of private citizens. Using the records of a person’s cell phone, the Shin Bet can identify his location at any given time. This is generally done with a warrant and during a criminal investigation, to refute a suspect’s claim that he wasn’t present at a certain place at a particular time. In this case, the government had to secure the approval of the attorney general to use this tracking capability to locate corona patients. Some opponents of the tactic argued that it was a gross violation of civil rights, but for the time being it has been approved, and it has been working. Of course, an appeal was filed with the Supreme Court, and the court ordered the government to explain why it took such a drastic step. If the court does not receive a satisfactory response by Tuesday (the day before this newspaper is published), it will prohibit the use of these technological means.

For the time being, though, the cell phone tracking has been serving its purpose. Here is a case in point: Last week, a bochur who learns in Yeshivas Bais Mattisyahu received a telephone call from the Ministry of Health informing him that he was required to be in isolation. The reason: One week earlier, he had been standing next to a person in the Amshinov shul in Bayit Vegan who was later determined to have contracted the coronavirus. The Shin Bet had taken the patient’s cell phone number and used it to track his location over the course of the days since he was exposed to the virus. It had then determined which other cell phones had been in his vicinity and had relayed the information to the Health Ministry. Amazing!

This cell phone tracking also makes it possible to determine when a person who is required to be in isolation has left his home. It is no coincidence that the police have managed to locate all the people who have violated the rules of their quarantines. The digital tracking technology makes it possible for them to be aware of every violation of quarantine and to reach the individuals concerned.

The ministry also has access to other sources of information. For instance, my brother returned to Israel from America on the day when the government decided that anyone arriving in the country must enter a mandatory two-week quarantine. His flight, however, landed several hours before the order took effect, and the order was not supposed to be retroactive. Nevertheless, on Friday he received a telephone call from the Ministry of Health ordering him to enter isolation. They asked if he had been on that particular El Al flight from the United States, and he confirmed that he had. “But the flight landed several hours before the quarantine rule was announced,” he added.

“True,” the caller from the Health Ministry confirmed, “but there was someone on the flight who was later found to have contracted the coronavirus.”

It was later discovered that there were actually two passengers on the flight who developed the virus.

Cars with Black Flags

As of now, we are waiting for the Knesset to convene somehow. When the Knesset convenes, it will have to approve the Arrangements Committee, which is supposed to determine everything that will take place in the Knesset in the near future. The question at this time is whether the left and the Blue and White party will have a majority, or if there will be a deadlock.

The Blue and White party intends to use that Knesset sitting to dismiss Yuli Edelstein from the position of Knesset speaker and to replace him with one of their own, MK Meir Cohen, who is currently serving as a deputy speaker of the Knesset. They wanted the vote to take place last week, but Edelstein refused to permit it. I am very sympathetic toward Edelstein, of course, but this looked very bad to the public: He had been asked by 61 members of the Knesset to allow the legislature to vote on choosing a new speaker, and he had refused. Of course, his decision was challenged in the Supreme Court.

At the same time, there was a demonstration outside the Knesset. People drove to Yerushalayim in cars bearing black flags. (They chose to remain in their cars, rather than congregating outdoors, out of fear of the coronavirus.) The police tried to block the demonstrators at Shaar Hagai, but when I arrived at the Knesset last Thursday, there were hundreds of cars with black flags arrayed outside the building, their horns blaring loudly. Some people were also shouting “Democracy!” through their car windows. This is the type of scene that hasn’t been witnessed in years. This week, he may have lost his chance to realize his dream of becoming president of Israel.

Will Edelstein Be Ousted?

Due to the coronavirus, the efforts to form a unity government have been accelerated. Gantz and Ashkenazi, two of the four leaders of Blue and White, are interested in joining the government. Gantz has been guaranteed a turn as prime minister, and Ashkenazi has been promised the defense portfolio. They have both already agreed to Netanyahu’s stipulation that he must receive the first rotation as prime minister, for anywhere from a year to a year and a half. The deal is practically sealed already, since Gantz and Ashkenazi are willing to accept a unity government even if it means dismantling the Blue and White party, and even if it will place them in conflict with Lapid and Yaalon, who are unwilling to sit in a government headed by Netanyahu under any circumstances.

There is no real reason for the stubborn insistence of the latter two to refrain from sitting with Netanyahu. They cannot argue that they are unwilling to sit in a government with a man who is facing a criminal indictment; under the circumstances, it sounds like a foolish and undignified position to take. With the country in a state of emergency, does anyone even remember that there is an indictment against Netanyahu? There is no question that both Lapid and Yaalon are losing respect from the public on account of their intransigence. The Israeli people are frightened and anxious, and they cannot understand them.

Meanwhile, Edelstein hopes to benefit from the situation. The Likud party announced that if Blue and White persists in their efforts to unseat the Knesset speaker, then the efforts to form an emergency national government will be frozen. The party slammed Blue and White for waging an unnecessary political war to remove the speaker of the Knesset at the same time that the Likud itself was working toward partnership with them. They understand that if and when Gantz becomes prime minister, it will be reasonable for him to replace the Knesset speaker with a member of his own party, but why should he seek to do it now? And there is logic to that argument.

Displaced from My Office

On Sunday, I sat outside Yuli Edelstein’s office for a relatively long time, watching the gloomy expressions of the Knesset speaker and his staff. There was a meeting of the Knesset administration in the Yerushalayim auditorium at that time; it was held in the auditorium since the conference room in Edelstein’s office was not large enough for the participants to sit at distances of over a meter from each other. When they returned from their meeting, they all appeared despondent, and I doubt that it had anything to do with the coronavirus.

Now, you may be wondering why I was sitting there. Well, you will find it hard to believe: Over the past few months, I have been working out of Aryeh Deri’s office. I generally work in the Shas party’s suite, but the offices of all the political parties were taken over by the Central Elections Committee. I needed to find somewhere to work, and Aryeh Deri graciously offered me his own office. Why did he do that? Well, for one thing, he is a very nice person; in addition, he didn’t really need the room, since he has two other offices, one in the Interior Ministry and another in the Ministry of the Negev and Galil. Deri does not visit the Knesset frequently, and even when he is there, it is only for a short period of time. He is not the type to sit around and chat.

Aryeh Deir is one of three government ministers who were placed in home isolation; the other two are Tzachi Hanegbi and Betzalel Smotrich. There are four members of the Knesset in isolation: Alon Schuster and Ram Ben-Barak were first, and they were joined this week by Moshe Abutbol and Yitzchak Cohen. Cohen had been sitting shiva, and it seems that one of the visitors was later diagnosed with corona. Abutbul was exposed to the coronavirus when he accompanied his son to the emergency room in Shaare Zedek and a patient who later tested positive for the virus was present. Deri, Hanegbi, Schuster, and Ben-Barak had all been present at a meeting with a regional council head who was later found to have contracted the virus.

The Knesset director-general has ordered the closure of all the offices of the Knesset members who were placed in isolation, out of concern that the rooms might have been contaminated with the virus. When I arrived at my office on Wednesday, I found large signs at the entrance warning that entry is prohibited. This is in spite of the fact that Deri was not present in the office at any time over the past month. But regardless of how many people tell this to the director-general of the Knesset, he has remained adamant. It didn’t even help that Deri himself called the director-general to inform him of that fact. You might wonder if his decision is reasonable or just; I certainly don’t think so. In fact, in my view it is sheer audacity. But the director-general of the Knesset is the master of the facility, and therefore I will not have an office until Thursday, when Deri completes his period of isolation.

That is why I spent a long time on Sunday sitting outside the office of the Knesset speaker, which is adjacent to the director-general’s office. I was waiting for his decision. But while I was waiting, I observed the morose expressions of the Knesset speaker and other passersby in the corridor. They were all aware of the threat hanging over their heads: It was entirely possible that on the very next day, they might be sent packing.

A Bizarre Swearing-In Ceremony

Let us return to this past Monday, the day when the Knesset was sworn in. There was an invisible force that made its presence known throughout the proceedings: the coronavirus, of course. Fear was rampant in the Knesset on Monday. The public saw the images of the new members of the Knesset entering in groups of three to be sworn in, but the immensely complicated logistics involved were not observed by the outside world. Every member of the Knesset received specific instructions as to where and when to wait to be summoned to enter the room. Yaakov Asher, for instance, was asked to wait in “Knesset Members’ Cafeteria 2” at 4:10 p.m., while MK Michael Malchieli was asked to wait in the “horseshoe,” the area behind the main room of the Knesset, at 5:20. Every member of the Knesset was assigned a contact in the event of a mishap; Gideon Blasbalg was responsible for the Knesset members who were told to gather in the fleishig cafeteria, while Alon Dagan was in charge of the horseshoe.

Arrivals at the door to the Knesset were meticulously screened, and only a select few, who appeared on the lists of approved visitors held by the Knesset Guard, were permitted to enter the building. Large notices warned of the ban on gatherings of more than ten people. The cafeterias were serving takeout food only, and in order to prevent employees from gathering at the counters, the menus had been circulated by e-mail. The offerings included fried fish, roast chicken, fried chicken cutlets, dietary chicken, grilled chicken, shawarma, and vegetarian dishes. And if you are really interested, the options for side dishes were white rice, mashed potatoes, couscous, vegetables, eggplant and tomatoes, and cooked beetroot. Every employee was entitled to choose only one of the main dishes, but there was no limit on the side dishes. On Tuesday, another e-mail arrived with a different menu.

Two Religious Policemen on the Grounds of the Knesset

During the swearing-in ceremony, the only people present were the Knesset speaker, the president of the state, the Knesset secretary, a stenographer, and two ushers. That made for a total of nine people, including each set of three Knesset members who were sworn in. Yuli Edelstein read the text of the pledge over and over again, each set of Knesset members affirmed their commitment, and then they left. Of course, it took a very long time, even though none of the MKs sat in the Knesset even for a moment. The MKs also received their seating assignments, which had ostensibly been organized by computer (although it was clear that there was some sort of political agenda at work). Seats had been reserved at the government table for Yitzchok Vaknin (the Minister of Religious Affairs, even though he is no longer a member of the Knesset and he was supposed to leave his ministerial position long ago) and Moshe Kachlon (who is also not a member of the Knesset anymore and was not supposed to be the Finance Minister, although he has been seated next to the prime minister for the time being). The Blue and White party and Labor-Gesher-Meretz were assigned to the left side of the room, while the Likud and the chareidim were placed on the right (as the room is viewed from the visitors’ gallery), and the Arabs, Yamina, and Yisroel Beiteinu were placed in the center. Ayelet Shaked was thus seated next to Lieberman, and Ofir Cohen next to Yevgeny Sufa. Within the chareidi parties, Moshe Gafni and Itzik Cohen were placed side by side in the front row, with Porush, Margi, and Nahari in the second row. The third and final row is occupied by Eichler, Yaakov Asher, and Tessler, along with Abutbol, Azulai, and Arbel.

The traditional photograph of the new Knesset was canceled. All that the Knesset needs now is for Benny Gantz or Nitzan Horowitz to infect Yaakov Litzman or President Rivlin with the coronavirus, or vice versa. This is not a joke; three members of the Knesset have already been placed in isolation after being exposed to a carrier of the virus. Just imagine: In two weeks, there could be no Knesset, and perhaps no gasoline, no electricity, and no bread or water. If all the employers in the country, large and small alike, collapse due to the current crisis, who can guarantee that the country will continue to function at all?

In the Knesset shul, we davened in groups of ten; we did not even need the director-general’s orders to impel us to do that. As soon as a minyan reached the minimum of ten men, all other mispallelim were directed to a different room. Minyanim were organized one after another. “It’s like Zichron Moshe or Itzkowitz,” one of the mispallelim quipped.

Throughout the swearing-in ceremony, I noticed a pair of police officers wandering around the premises. At first, I mused that bad things come in pairs: First there was the coronavirus, and now police officers as well. But then I realized that I was mistaken. The officers were Boruch Shlopkov and Nochum Poshomanski, two religious residents of Ramot and two of the trumpeters in the police force’s band. They had played a fanfare from the VIP gallery when the president arrived, and after they had taken care of that task, they went in search of a minyan for Mincha. These two men have a fascinating story: They gave up a promising future as musicians in the former Soviet Union and moved to Eretz Yisroel to live as observant Jews. The people of Israel are fortunate to have such men among the ranks of their police force.

Focusing on Our Unique Tasks

The coronavirus has forced all of us to take a long, hard look in the mirror. It has changed our priorities and the entire world order. Things that seemed to be goals of paramount importance just yesterday have now become marginal and irrelevant. As Chazal tell us, “Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘Repent one day before your death.’ His talmidim asked him, ‘Does a person know when he will die?’ He said to them, ‘Let him repent today, lest he dies tomorrow.’” The coronavirus has helped us internalize that message.

With remarkable timing, I have just received a copy of an incredible publication titled Mitchazkim. Here is an excerpt: “The English have an unusual custom: When they travel on the subway, they all take copies of the newspaper that is distributed at the entrance to the Metro, and they open it and read it with great interest…. My friend was sitting on the train, and everywhere he looked, he could see the back page of the newspaper, which featured a picture of an angry-looking soccer player with the caption, ‘I Am a Defender.’ The same glowering face appeared on the newspapers held by all of the passengers on the train. This athlete plays on the defense for his team, and the coach had chosen to assign him to the offense, to the player’s enormous chagrin.

“My friend struggled to understand it. The task of the offense is much more interesting and important than that of the defense. Players on the offense run forward, leading the team. Why should the athlete have been disappointed?

“The answer is clear: If you are a good defender, you should not seek to become part of the offense. It is best for you to play the role at which you excel. In that way, you will contribute more to the game, and you will also realize your own potential. It makes no difference which of the tasks is considered more interesting. This soccer player simply wanted to be true to himself, and he was a defender.

“For some reason, in real life there are people who do not understand this idea. Each of us has a unique, individualized mission, which we are meant to carry out with our unique strengths and abilities. Hashem has given every person exactly what he needs in order to carry out his purpose in the world: his own parents, his friends in the neighborhood where he grew up, his talents, his abilities, and his deficiencies as well. If you are a defender, don’t try to go on the offense.”

It was an incredible message, and perhaps one to absorb as the world shakes under the onslaught of the coronavirus.

Tears in Herzog Hospital

Rabbi Elad Green, the booklet’s author, introduces its contents with a simple sentence: “Let us learn about life.” Mitchazkim, a publication that shares its name with Rabbi Green’s organization, is a thin volume that is nonetheless packed with meaningful content that has the potential to transform its readers. With his wealth of experience, Rabbi Green has put together a small compendium about the essence of life itself. He plans to produce future volumes about other topics: tefillah, happiness, emunah, ambition, and so forth.

Rabbi Elad Green is a young former talmid of Kol Torah. After his marriage, he moved to the neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel, where he came in contact with many young people seeking to draw close to Yiddishkeit. Fifteen years ago, he founded an organization known as Mitchazkim, which developed into a massive kiruv organization that has transformed the lives of hundreds of young people. Some of the former talmidim of the organization have gone on to become bnei Torah and kollel yungerleit. Today, the organization operates out of a shul and a rented apartment, serving a total of 250 youths.

The activities of Mitchazkim span the three areas of Torah, avodah, and gemillus chasadim. Before Purim—before the corona crisis—the young men visited Herzog Hospital, an institution for geriatric patients and those in need of long-term care, to entertain the residents. One of the young men was taken aback when an elderly patient began to cry. “Should we leave?” the visitor asked.

“No,” the man replied. “These are tears of joy.”

The Generals Shining Shoes

It has long been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, a political cartoon can be worth even more than that. A talented caricaturist is capable of using a few strokes of a pen to convey a thought or sentiment that is immensely difficult to express in writing.

This was certainly clear from a political cartoon that I saw last week, in which the leaders of the Joint Arab List are portrayed sitting on chairs, while the three generals of the Blue and White party shine their shoes. The cartoon shows Ahmed Tibi instructing Gantz to make sure to polish his shoes to perfection, since he has a meeting scheduled with the leader of the Palestinian Authority.

The cartoon is downright venomous, but it is also an accurate portrayal of the reality today. Indeed, three generals of the IDF have gotten down on their knees, making every effort to ingratiate themselves with Arab legislators who are their diametric opposites in every possible sense. And the fact that Tibi is shown giving orders to the generals, and explaining that he has a meeting with the chairman of the PA, conveys another chilling message: The efforts by the leaders of Blue and White to strengthen the Joint Arab List may yet be used to benefit the Palestinian Authority.

Chareidim Not Wanted in Yavneh

The fears of a secular or left-wing government being formed have yet to be allayed. On paper, the left has a majority of 61 (including Lieberman). But the coronavirus crisis has changed everything, and it seems likely now that an emergency national government will be established and Netanyahu will remain in his post. Nevertheless, the left can still create plenty of problems. Take the issue of housing, for example. The housing shortage is one of the greatest problems of our generation. I recently saw a letter written by a lawyer to Yariv Levin, the Minister of Tourism, who was conducting coalition talks. The letter writer described the development of the city of Yavneh (which is near Ashdod) and then wrote, speaking on behalf of the mayor of Yavneh, “According to information published in the media, in the context of the negotiations you are conducting with the chareidi parties to sign a coalition agreement, you have raised the possibility of pledging to designate the residential neighborhood planned in eastern Yavneh for the chareidi community. This coalition pledge (if it is made) would be an illegal act, both because it would infringe on the legal authority of the municipality to determine the character of the city and because it would be a breach of the explicit commitment of the government to the municipality, as it was determined and anchored in an umbrella agreement.” The attorney added that if the party entered into this agreement, the city of Yavneh would fight with every means at its disposal to prevent it from being carried out.

In other words, chareidim are not wanted in Yavneh. And that is just one example of the discrimination that is rampant in Israel.

A Double Standard in the Police Force

Here is a news item that speaks for itself: “Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen has accepted the recommendation of the commander of the southern district and has ordered the officers who spoke contemptuously about the Ethiopian community placed on forced leave.” The incident involved internal correspondence between police officers at the Kiryat Malachi station mocking a young Ethiopian who had been arrested. When their correspondence was revealed to the public, it sparked a firestorm of outrage. The officers were immediately suspended, without the need for an inquiry or investigation of any kind.

Yet for some reason, when a police officer beats a chareidi citizen, Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Internal Security, finds a thousand and one excuses to avoid dismissing him immediately. These incidents always require an investigation by the Machash (Police Internal Investigations Department) before the officers can be dismissed. Clearly, the chareidim in the State of Israel are even worse off than the Ethiopians.

The Unlearned Professor

I heard a remarkable story that illustrates the level of Jewish ignorance among the secular public in Israel and their thirst for knowledge: A man was about to undergo an operation, and he met with the surgeon prior to the procedure. The patient and his wife discovered that the doctor was an affable, pleasant, and highly educated man, but when the conversation turned to matters of Yiddishkeit, he turned out to be a complete ignoramus. It was incredibly sad; he held an advanced secular degree, but his knowledge of Judaism was nil.

He displayed wonder at the most basic aspects of Yiddishkeit and asked questions that showcased his complete lack of knowledge. Noticing the couple’s astonishment at his ignorance, he admitted that he was as unlettered as he seemed. “I was recently in a shiva home,” he related, “and I was flustered when they offered me a pair of tefillin to wear. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was … what do you call the morning prayer?”

Shacharis,” they replied.

“Yes, Shacharis. I ignored the offer,” he continued. “But I was pained to see that my neighbor’s children were able to put on tefillin with ease. Then again, they are Sephardim; the Sephardim are always more traditional.”

“Actually, according to recent surveys and the general consensus, most Ashkenazim are also close to tradition,” they told him.

“In my opinion, that isn’t true,” the doctor replied. “Certainly not in my area, or among my neighbors or other people in my community.” He admitted that he would be happy if his grandchildren, at the very least, had more Jewish knowledge than he did.

“Do you know how many tefillos we daven every day?” the patient asked.

“No,” the doctor confessed. “You have to understand that it simply isn’t part of my life. It isn’t on my daily schedule.”

“You know,” the patient said, “if a non-Jew heard that his grandfather had given his life to uphold a principle, whether he was from Russia, Cambodia, or the Netherlands, he would leave no stone unturned until he learned more about it. It is clear to me that you had at least one grandfather who was in Auschwitz.”

“Yes. An entire family,” the doctor confirmed.

“Then aren’t you interested in learning more about the religion for which your ancestors died?” he asked. “It was their greatest source of pride until the end of their lives. Your grandfather was killed because he was a Jew,” he added, “and you don’t even know what that means.”

The professor remained silent.

“All will be good,” the patient said, as he took his leave of the doctor. “I would like to recite some Tehillim before the surgery.”

Two and a half hours later, they met in the recovery room. “The operation was a success,” the doctor said. “And I have no problem if you want to believe that it was in the merit of the tefillin that you recited.” Yes, he confused the words “tefillin” and “Tehillim.”

May we hear besuros tovos!