My Take on the News

Celebrating Pesach Without Leaving Home

Naturally, our main topic this week is coronavirus. There are other issues to discuss, but it is impossible to ignore the disease that holds the entire world hostage. This week some of the restrictions in Israel have been eased. Over the past two weeks, we were not permitted to form minyanim even in public spaces, but we have now been allowed to daven in the streets once again. We may not be returning to our shuls, but at least we are not limited to organizing minyanim from our porches and balconies. We are now permitted to daven in the open, in groups of no more than 19 participants, while wearing face masks and maintaining a distance of two meters between mispallelim.

Until now, we all davened from our respective homes, and it was extremely bizarre. Imagine a Yom Tov davening with every member of the minyan standing on his own porch, while the shaliach tzibbur occupies a different porch or stands on the street below. It was difficult, it was sad, and it was historic, but we accepted the decree with happiness, since we are obligated to be happy on a Yom Tov. The gedolei Yisroel instructed everyone to abide by the government’s instructions and to refrain from subterfuge or from grasping for loopholes in the regulations.

It was not an easy Yom Tov. The constant reports of more people falling ill and more funerals taking place created a sense of despondency.

Hostility Toward the Chareidi Community

Our distress was heightened by the fierce accusations hurled at the chareidi public. The chareidim were a topic of discussion everywhere, and the hostility was expressed in actions as well as words. The government implemented a series of progressively more stringent regulations, which included a lockdown in chareidi areas—meaning that the residents were not permitted to leave their homes. The rules imposed on chareidi areas were significantly more stringent than those that were implemented in the rest of the country. It was ostensibly for the benefit of the communities themselves, but it created an oppressive feeling.

The city of Bnei Brak was completely closed; no one was allowed to leave or enter. The same was done in the chareidi communities in Yerushalayim. Prime Minister Netanyahu blamed it on “the situation.” He explained to the chareidi government ministers that the infection rate in these communities was too high, and there was no other way to preserve their health. This led to a very unpleasant atmosphere during the holiday of Pesach, not only because of the closure itself but also on account of the general antipathy to the chareidi community. I wrote a separate article regarding the incitement against the chareidi sector and the brutal, merciless behavior of the police toward chareidim.

One of the results of this situation was that family Sedorim on the first night of Pesach were sharply curtailed. Netanyahu called on the public to conduct the Seder only with the members of their nuclear families. Elderly people were forced to spend the Seder night in solitude, while young couples also had to change their plans. These were things that we had never dreamed we would see.

Preparing for Lag Ba’Omer in Meron

Every year, I report on the preparations for the Lag Ba’Omer events in Meron. There are extensive preparations for the hadlakos held by all the major chassidic courts, with additional bonfires being added every year. For instance, there is the hadlakah over which Rav Elimelech Biderman presides, and another hadlakah held by Rav Shlomo Amar. You may recall that it has been an annual tradition for me to interview the Minister of Religious Affairs about the subject, as well as to solicit information from Rabbi Yosef Schwinger, the director of the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites. I have visited Meron with the late minister Dovid Azulai and last year traveled to the site with his successor, Rabbi Yitzchok Vaknin.

Today, the question is: What will happen this year?

There is no reason for me to visit Meron to witness the preparations today; I wouldn’t find a single living soul at the site. Someone who was in Meron at the beginning of this week confirmed that there were no people there at all. By now, the government has permitted us to daven in minyanim of up to 19 people, but that happened only on Sunday, and this person visited Meron on Sunday. He reported that they have begun preparing for tefillos of small minyanim, but only in the open areas. It will not be possible to enter the tziyun itself.

So what will happen on Lag Ba’Omer? Of course, the traditional hadlakos cannot be canceled altogether. The same thing that will happen, l’havdil, on Yom Hashoah (this Tuesday), Yom Hazikaron (next Tuesday), and Yom Haatzmaut (next Wednesday) will take place on Lag Ba’Omer: There will be events without audiences.

The Competition Begins

On Sunday, the first meeting concerning the preparations was held in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Of course, Yitzchok Vaknin and other senior figures in the ministry participated in the conference, along with Rabbi Yosef Schwinger and Rabbi Yisroel Deri (whom you may recall from previous years as the supervisor of the northern region for the Center for Holy Sites). Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, who is the rov of the Kosel and other mekomos kedoshim, and is therefore responsible for Meron as well, also participated in the meeting, as did the representatives of the Ministry of Health and the police force. One of the participants was Micha Toubol, whom I interviewed last year. At the time, he told me that he hoped it would be the final year that he would bear responsibility for the annual success of “Operation Meron.” It seems that his hope was not fulfilled.

At the end of the meeting, the Minister of Religious Affairs announced that the number of participants in the hadlakos would be limited, and access to Meron would be restricted to visitors who receive approval in advance. Tents will not be permitted to be erected in the area this year, and the identities of the participants in the hadlakos will be determined in advance, in accordance with the rules set forth by the Center for Holy Sites. He added that he had asked Oded Palus, the director-general of the ministry, to prepare a proposal that would facilitate the observance of the traditional hadlakos while maintaining adherence to the regulations issued by the Ministry of Health. “It is important to us to continue the centuries-old tradition of the kindling of bonfires at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai,” he asserted.

The plan calls for hadlakos to be held in four designated areas, and each to be attended by the relevant rebbi or admor and only ten other participants. Each hadlokah will continue for about an hour. Efforts will be made for every hadlokah to be held at the same time that it is traditionally conducted each year. The events will be broadcast live in a manner approved by the rabbonim and admorim involved. The broadcasts will also be featured on the chareidi radio stations (Kol Chai and Kol Baramah), which carry live broadcasts of the events every year. No one else will be permitted access to the vicinity of the tziyun, all hachnossas orchim activities will be suspended, and the tziyun will not be open to the public. The only VIPs who will be granted access to the area are those whose presence is necessary in order for them to perform their functions. No upsherin celebrations will be permitted.

At the end of the meeting, Rabbi Yosef Schwinger declared, “A major effort is being made to preserve the traditions of hadlakos that, for some of the admorim, have been passed down from previous generations. The hadlakos in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai have been organized in Meron under the most difficult circumstances. I am happy to have the privilege of being a part of preserving these traditions even during these challenging times.”

As you can imagine, various groups have already begun vying for the exclusive permits to hold their hadlakos in Meron.

Mourning the Tragedies in America and Europe

If anyone ever doubted the fact that our world is a global village, the coronavirus has made it abundantly clear. Something happened in China—and perhaps, thanks to Trump, we will know exactly what it was—and people throughout the world have been contracting a virus and suffering from illness as a result. Some of them, unfortunately, have also passed away. Here in Eretz Yisroel, it does not seem to be a full-fledged plague, but we are well aware of what is happening in America, especially in New York and New Jersey, as well as what is taking place in Europe. Some of the niftarim are also being brought to Eretz Yisroel for burial, and we weep along with the mourners.

The pictures of the corona victims from all over the world are regularly published in the Israeli press. Every few days, we open our newspapers to find an entire page filled with tiny pictures, indicating that dozens of people have died. It never fails to elicit tears.

When Pesach arrived, we were reeling from the news of the passing of the Novominsker Rebbe zt”l. Every death is tragic and every niftar has a family that mourns his passing, but when the victim of the virus is a gadol, the magnitude of the loss becomes even greater, and it becomes a communal tragedy. This past week, as we read about the deaths of Nodov and Avihu in Parshas Shemini, I came across several maamarei Chazal discussing the deaths of tzaddikim. There is a reason that these deaths are mentioned in the Torah reading of Yom Kippur: Like Yom Kippur itself, the passing of a righteous person generates atonement. In Eretz Yisroel, we also suffered the loss of gedolei Torah, including Rav Eliyohu Bakshi-Doron, the former Rishon Letzion and chief rabbi. Perhaps I will write about him next week.

The Unpublished Interview

I met the Novominsker Rebbe on a number of occasions. I attended the chanukas habayis of his yeshiva on the outskirts of Boro Park, but I also had several opportunities to meet with him personally, thanks to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Braun zt”l. Rabbi Braun was the founder of a special school for Russian immigrant children growing up in America. He played the roles of father and mother to these children, cultivating their growth and educating them as observant Jews, and even marrying them off. He was blessed with great affluence and, along with a partner or two, he used his wealth to sponsor this outstanding kiruv work. His school, which was located on Benson Avenue, was known as Elite, and his spiritual patron was the Novominsker Rebbe. The Rebbe encouraged him to open the school, monitored its development, cared for its students, and worked hard to prevent it from closing down even when it was in dire straits. Rabbi Braun’s wife, Elky, is a sister of Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus zt”l, and before the family moved to Lakewood, I had the good fortune of staying in their home in Flatbush during my visits to America along with my close friend Reb Eliyohu Yitzchok Pincus. As a result of my acquaintance with Rabbi Braun, I became familiar with his school. Now that he is in the World of Truth, I have no doubt that Rabbi Braun is being showered with enormous rewards for every moment of his dedicated kiruv efforts and for pouring his heart and soul into his students.

I once had the opportunity to accompany Rabbi Braun to a meeting with the Novominsker Rebbe in his home. It was a simple home, yet it was majestic in its own way. I remember noticing the pictures of the Rebbe’s predecessors in his modest living room. We sat there for a long time, as the Rebbe listened to Rabbi Braun speak about the developments in his school and the hardships they were facing. I asked the Rebbe a number of questions, and he answered me graciously. Before we left, the Rebbe said to me, “I understand that you write for a newspaper in Eretz Yisroel. I would like to make a request of you. I honored you as a guest, and I answered all of your questions, but please do not publish this conversation as an interview. Publicity is anathema to me.”

Naturally, I honored his request, even if it meant the loss of an excellent scoop.

The Novominsker Rebbe and an Estranged Youth

In February 2007, I attended a festive event at the Elite school, as part of a contingent of visitors from Eretz Yisroel. That was when I first met the Rebbe personally. During our conversation at the time, he remarked, “Dealing with estranged youths should be the top priority of the chareidi and religious communities throughout the world.”

During the course of the event, the Rebbe tested the students. Their knowledge of Yiddishkeit brought him visible pleasure.

“Do you wear tefillin?” the Rebbe asked one young man.

“I try,” the young man replied. “I am not successful in doing so every day.” The boy explained that he had enrolled in the school only a short time before, and he had never even been aware of the existence of tefillin before his arrival. “Rabbi Braun bought me my tefillin,” he related, “but there is no pressure here. Give me time.”

The Novominsker Rebbe smiled, but he exclaimed, “But why not every day? Don’t you know what a privilege it is?”

The young man was shocked by this reaction. After a moment, he regained his bearings and said, “All right, Rebbe. I promise I will put on tefillin every day.”

Upon hearing that, the Novominsker Rebbe was overjoyed. He kissed the young man, and in his speech later in the day, he discussed the subject of tefillin. He also spoke about the Bais Hamikdash, the battle against Amalek, the concept of Olam Haba, and the meaning of being Jewish. I can still hear his concluding words: “We didn’t come to this world in order to make lives for ourselves here. Every Jew has a mission: to do the Will of his Creator.”

Noach Dear’s Kind Heart

I received word that Noach Dear passed away. The news of his passing brought me back to a point in time at least 40 years ago, when I was a young man in the town of Beer Yaakov. There was a certain family in the town with a very close relationship with my father zt”l, who was the mora d’asra of Beer Yaakov. They were a simple Sephardic family with little in the way of material assets, but they were blessed with prodigious yiras Shomayim. If affluence were to be gauged by middos and devotion to Hashem, though, they would be considered extremely wealthy. One of the girls in that family was a student in my father’s seminary, and she later went on to receive a position as a teacher there. My father brokered her shidduch with an outstanding yeshiva bochur who went on to become a phenomenal educator.

The couple settled in Beer Yaakov and had a baby girl, who was diagnosed with a kidney defect. At that time, about 40 years ago, this was practically a death sentence. Somehow a connection was made between the family and Noach Dear. Noach proceeded to make this child’s well-being into the subject of his life’s work. The end of the story is that the girl is alive and well today, and she is a great source of nachas to her parents.

I can still remember Noach Dear visiting Beer Yaakov to meet with the family. Naturally, he almost visited my father, who was both the rov of the town and the founder of its seminary for girls. Even then, many years ago, I made sure to take a picture of our distinguished visitor and to publish it in an Israeli newspaper. I cannot find that picture now, but it is somewhere in my archives. I remember, though, that Noach Dear had many zechuyos. He was a kindhearted man who was deeply affected by the suffering of others. Now that he is in the Olam Ha’Emes, I am sure that he is also reaping the fruits of his prodigious acts of chessed.

From a Hospital in Houston to Burial in Israel

I felt a close connection to two levayos that took place in Eretz Yisroel, even though the circumstances did not permit me to attend them. One was the funeral of Zevulun Wicholder, who passed away in Boro Park and was brought to Eretz Yisroel to be buried. It was not a simple matter for him to be transported here, and I believe that Reb Yossel Tabak was heavily involved in the arrangements. You may also be aware that Reb Yossel himself, along with his distinguished brothers and sisters, sat shiva on erev Yom Tov following the passing of their righteous mother.

I met Reb Zevulun when he was in yeshiva ketanah, where he was my son’s chavrusa and friend. After his passing, my son remarked to me, “He had vitality; he had greatness. He towered above everyone else; he had the perspective of a great man. He had indescribable simcha and indescribable seriousness at the same time.” This week, I learned that he was a close adherent of the Strikover Rebbe zt”l and, yblch”t, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveichik. Both were extremely fond of him. He was at once a chossid and a Litvak (even a Brisker), blending the virtues of both.

Reb Zevulun passed away at the age of 36, after spending the past three years in a hospital in Texas. He suffered through terrible hardships; we were in constant contact throughout the years. Slightly more than a year ago, when I visited America to attend the wedding of a son of Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, I was hoping to fly to Houston in order to visit him, but my plans fell through. Instead, I sent a care package to a grandson of Rav Shlomo Wolbe who lives in Texas, and I asked him to bring it to the hospital on my behalf.

Several years ago, I wrote about my experience joining an expedition organized by Darchei Miriam for cancer patients to visit Meron. It was Rabbi “Zevuli” Wicholder who was the impetus for me to participate in that trip. A few months ago, I attended a melaveh malkah at Reb Yossel Tabak’s home in Yerushalayim that was held in honor of “Zevuli,” who had come to Eretz Yisroel for a brief visit. On that night, his sons sat beside him and enjoyed the event; just a few months later, before Pesach, they tore their clothes and recited the brocha of dayan ha’emes. It was truly heartrending. Reb Zevulun is survived by five tender young orphans and his devoted wife.

Like many others, I tried to offer him encouragement, but he was always the first to share some words of solace. Even in the midst of the darkness, his harrowing illness, and the grueling protocol of treatments, he managed to find light. He always saw the positive, and he always gave hope to others around him. I find myself shedding tears as I reread his letters from recent years. “I heard that you tried to visit me during the operation,” he once wrote. “Thank you; I apologize. Let us meet in happier places.” To think that he was apologizing for being on the operating table when I arrived to visit him…. I was one of many people with whom he shared his words of encouragement and hope.

During his hospitalization, I wrote to ask him if the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel was visible. He replied, “Reb Tzvika, the light is there all the time. We simply don’t see it because of the time difference….”

I once used the word “darkness,” and he scolded me for it. “I am surprised that a charming and intelligent fellow such as yourself, who has been bringing joy to the Jewish people every weekend for decades in various newspapers, with writings about chizuk, mussar, bitachon, and emunah, could possibly invoke the idea of darkness, chas v’sholom. We know that the Jews have light; there is nothing but light. Sometimes the light is somewhat far away and it takes time to reach it, but I don’t want to hear the word ‘darkness,’ chas v’sholom. I yearn for your company; I am here in the hospital in Texas, and I will be here for Purim and afterward as well. I don’t know exactly how long I will remain here, but I will have to be here at all times, with some brief visits to New York. B’ezras Hashem, b’ezras Hashem, I want to hear only words of chizuk and light from you, without the mention of any other possibilities.”

He climbed to the loftiest spiritual heights and created a major kiddush Hashem during the course of his short life. He revealed that it is possible to set spiritual goals and to attain them, that there is no limit to the human capacity to aspire for greatness, and that a person has the ability to work on himself to the point that he becomes a paragon of sterling interpersonal conduct. He taught us how to see light and to completely ignore darkness. His passing leaves us saddened and bereft.

Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi Delivers a Hesped by Telephone

Another funeral that I did not attend was the levayah of the righteous Mrs. Manana Madeleine Maimon, who had been hospitalized in the surgical ward of Laniado Hospital and passed away on Wednesday, the seventh of Nissan. Mrs. Maimon was a righteous woman who dedicated her life to assisting her husband, Reb Yosef Menachem Eliyahu Maimon zt”l, in his efforts to spread kedushah and kovod shomayim. Mrs. Maimon was born in Nissan 5689/1829 in the city of Gabes, Tunisia, and was the daughter of Rabbi Shushan Shalom.

Several years after her birth, the family moved to France. After her marriage, Mrs. Maimon and her husband build a home based solidly on burning love for the Torah, abiding respect for talmidei chachomim, and heartfelt dedication to all that is sacred. Their sons were sent to learn in the yeshiva of Aix-les-Baines, in a highly unusual move for those times that was also an enormous sacrifice on her part. She and her husband were loyal supporters of the yeshiva and the rabbonim who headed it, particularly Rav Chaim Chaikin zt”l and Rav Gershon Kahan zt”l; the Maimon family poured their energies into supporting the yeshiva. After her passing, her family members attested that it was Mrs. Maimon’s dedication to the yeshiva that gave her the privilege of raising a family of bnei Torah and yirei Shomayim.

After her husband’s passing, she carried on his legacy and continued supporting the needy, especially those who dedicated their lives to Torah learning. She demonstrated remarkable deference to talmidei chachomim. Her sons related during the levayah that one of her defining traits was her penchant for reticence, and that she could never be heard speaking negatively about any other person. They spoke about her powerful love for the Torah and her deep-rooted desire for all of her progeny to dedicate their lives to the Torah and its mitzvos. She yearned for many years to settle in Eretz Yisroel, a dream that she managed to fulfill thirty years ago. Her seven children accompanied her; five of them live in Yerushalayim today, while the other two settled near her home in Netanya.

She was eulogized by Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi (by telephone) and by Rav Eliyahu Abba Shaul (in the cemetery), who praised her and her righteous husband effusively. The maspidim described how the Maimons used their home to bolster the yeshivos and their talmidim, contributing their own funds and soliciting donations from others to support yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel. She was also eulogized by her sons, one of whom is Reb Aharon Maimon, the doctor and artist about whom I have written in the past.

Before her passing, I was involved in making it possible for her son to visit her. I am pleased that I made the effort and that I was successful. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, visitors have been barred from hospitals; Mrs. Maimon was in Laniado Hospital in Netanya at the time, and her son, Dr. Maimon, was desperate to visit her. He tried to argue that he is a doctor himself, that his mother barely spoke Hebrew, and that she was undoubtedly wondering why her children were not visiting her; unfortunately, his remonstrations fell on deaf ears. Lacking any alternative, he asked me to intercede on his behalf, and I contacted some prominent members of the chassidus of Sanz. Ultimately, Dr. Maimon was allowed to visit his mother on Sunday morning (subject to certain limitations and for a very brief time). Three days later, she passed away.

Will the Summer Zman Begin on Time?

The chareidi community is currently focused on the question of whether the upcoming summer zman will begin on time. Rosh Chodesh, as you are aware, is on Friday and Shabbos this week. Under ordinary circumstances, we would be seeing tens of thousands of bochurim and yungerleit flocking to their botei medrash at the beginning of the zman. Due to the corona crisis, it is unclear whether that will happen now.

This topic has been a matter of great concern to the government ministers who are discussing easing the restrictions set in place by the government. Under the guidance of gedolei Torah representing the entire spectrum of the chareidi community, and in consultation with the directors of the Vaad HaYeshivos, Aryeh Deri presented a proposal to the prime minister that would make it possible for the talmidim to return to their yeshivos. At a meeting of the ministerial committee this weekend, Deri unveiled a plan that calls for bochurim to be allowed to return to yeshivos gedolos with dormitories and to remain within the confines of the yeshiva campuses, provided that they pledge not to leave the grounds of the yeshivos for a period of two months. This arrangement, he explained, was the result of the discussions among the roshei yeshivos and the Vaad HaYeshivos.

Several roshei yeshivos participated in the discussions within the Vaad HaYeshivos: Rav Boruch Soloveichik, Rav Sholom Ber Sorotzkin, Rav Yosef Chevroni, and Rav Yigal Rosen. The discussions were also overseen by Rav Dovid Cohen and received his blessing. The roshei yeshivos also consulted with Rabbi Elimelech Firer, the chairman of Ezra Lamarpeh, and with Professor Motti Ravid, the medical director of Maayanei HaYeshuah Medical Center. The ministerial committee decided that the Vaad HaYeshivos would be asked to prepare a detailed plan in consultation with Rav Gershon Edelstein. Once the plan receives the approval of all three councils of gedolei Torah (of Degel HaTorah, Agudas Yisroel, and the Shas party, respectively) and of the roshei yeshivos, it will be brought before the government for approval. At this time, nothing has been finalized, and the Torah world is certainly plagued by worry.

This reminds me of the following incident: Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro passed away on Rosh Chodesh Iyar of the year 5766/2006. I remember the final Shabbos of the month of Nissan that year, when he was on his deathbed. We knew that his condition was dire, and we wept and davened with great fervor for him to recover. The mashgiach of the yeshiva, Rav Moshe Dovid Lefkowitz, was very tense at the time. “If the rosh yeshiva survives one more day, he will recover,” he told us. “When he hears that the new zman has begun, he will regain his strength.” But the decree had clearly been sealed, and the rosh yeshiva left this world just a few hours before the bochurim arrived in the yeshiva. They arrived on Sunday morning to attend the levayah, which took place on the first day of the zman.