My Take on the News

Learning in the Living Room

This is it. We have begun saying Tachanun again. The month of Nissan is behind us, and we have recited birkas ha’ilanos and have davened the tefillos of Rosh Chodesh from our porches. (Even though the government has granted permission for minyanim of up to 19 people to be held in open areas, I am among those people who are elderly or fearful and still choose to participate in minyanim from the safety of an upstairs balcony.) The month of Iyar is here—the month whose name is an acronym of the words “Ani Hashem rofecha.”

As we all feared, the zman did not begin on time. Bochurim and yungerleit are learning in their homes, and it is quite bizarre. My modest-sized living room has become a bais medrash, where each of my sons sits and learns with his chavrusa over the phone. It is a historic and unprecedented experience, but it is no substitute for a true bais medrash, with all of its intensity and passion. One of my sons pointed out that now, every bochur can learn in the yeshiva of his choosing. There are no entrance exams, and there is no one to tell a bochur that he hasn’t been accepted to the yeshiva of his choice. There is nothing stopping any yeshiva bochur from calling the telephone line of any yeshiva he desires.

There is a general feeling that Hashem is continuing to subject us to a form of hester ponim. He did not allow us to enter our shuls, and now He has barred us from our botei medrash. On Shabbos, it was bitterly disappointing when a fierce rain began to fall during Krias HaTorah, at a time of year when such precipitation is highly uncommon. Our minyan hurried to cover the sefer Torah and shield it from the rain; I imagine that many others did the same. Even a single raindrop can render a sefer Torah invalid for use. It was an experience that left us feeling dejected. We are all davening for this period to end quickly, not only so that there will be an end to the sickness and death, but also so that we can all return to our regular routines. We are pained not only by the absence of our routines of work and study, but even more so by the disruption to our Torah learning and tefillos.

The Passing of Rav Yeshayahu Heber

Every passing day seems to bring new reports of tragedy. On Friday night, Yerushalayim suffered the loss of Rav Tzvi Hirsch Porush, who was in the middle of the shivah for his wife, Rebbetzin Baila Hendel. One of their sons, who has now lost both his parents, is also in critical condition in the hospital.

Every loss is tragic. We have all heard the news of the deaths in London and Paris, as well as the terrible tragedies in New York and New Jersey. Here in Israel, the tragedy that captured the newspaper headlines and even merited full pages of coverage in secular newspapers was the death of Rav Avrohom Yeshayahu Heber, who passed away on Thursday night and was buried at 2:00 in the morning. We had all davened at length for him to recover. He was considered at high risk due to his underlying medical condition. He exercised enormous caution over the past few months to avoid infection, but somehow he became ill anyway.

The 55-year-old Rav Heber from Har Nof contracted the virus on erev Pesach and remained in isolation in his home. When his condition deteriorated, he was transferred to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in critical condition, requiring oxygen in order to be able to breathe. As his condition declined further and he experienced more severe breathing difficulties, he was placed on a ventilator and sedated in the ICU.

Rav Heber is famous for founding Matnas Chaim, the organization that locates kidney donors for people in need of transplants. His organization arranged for 800 kidney transplants, which means that 800 people owe their lives to him. Rav Heber himself was a kidney transplant recipient and had personally experienced the tribulations suffered by people who must undergo regular dialysis while waiting for that sorely needed organ donation.

In 2014, Rav Heber was given the Presidential Award for Volunteering by then-President Shimon Peres. Two years later, he received an award from the Minister of Health for his volunteer work. The awards committee noted that he had worked tirelessly to change the prevailing perspective on living organ donations by recruiting altruistic donors, and that he had given new life to hundreds of Israelis suffering from kidney disease. After his passing, the prime minister and the president issued statements expressing their sorrow. On Sunday, the secular newspapers featured articles about his life and personality. Rav Heber created an enormous kiddush Hashem both in life and in death.

The Economic Disaster of Coronavirus

This week, the owner of a stall in the Machaneh Yehuda marketplace in Yerushalayim was buried after passing away from emotional distress. This man died because of the financial distress that threatened to destroy him. The nationwide closure may have had health benefits, and it may be helping to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but it also has a significant economic and emotional impact—and many professionals have averred that this is no less dangerous. This week, the government decided to implement a closure in the chareidi neighborhoods in the cities of Beit Shemesh and Netivot. In both places, the impetus for the closure was a sudden spike in coronavirus cases. One must wonder why the situation is so severe in chareidi areas.

In any event, the government has now decided to relax some of the restrictions that are in place, allowing citizens to leave their homes with greater freedom and permitting many businesses to reopen. Barbershops are now permitted to operate again (although we do not take haircuts until Lag Ba’Omer), and the government is considering allowing open-air markets such as Machaneh Yehuda to reopen.

On Sunday, a protest was held against the government in the Machaneh Yehuda marketplace. The stall owners cried out for relief from the forced closures of their businesses. “We will collapse and we won’t be able to recover, and what will happen then?” they demanded. Their cries were heard by the government ministers, who seem to have begun to feel pressure. The Machaneh Yehuda marketplace is a barometer of the situation in the country as a whole, and the government understands that the people of Israel are beginning to feel worn out from the situation.

On the other hand, the government has a responsibility to protect the health of the country’s citizens, and it therefore decided to implement a full lockdown on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. Tuesday was Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s version of Memorial Day, in which the country pays tribute to its fallen soldiers and the victims of terror attacks, and the government does not want hundreds of thousands of people converging on the military cemeteries to visit their loved ones’ graves. (This evoked the ire of many bereaved families, who announced that they plan to defy the government’s orders and to visit the cemeteries on Yom Hazikaron in spite of the regulations.) The following day, Wednesday, was Yom Haatzmaut.

Mohammed Abu Khdeir on Mount Herzl?

Once again, the government has been talking about releasing imprisoned Arab terrorists, although there is some disagreement as to how much blood a terrorist can have on his hands if he is released. It is believed that Hamas will be more amenable to making concessions in exchange for released prisoners at this time, due to the coronavirus. Hamas has also asked for the donation of ventilators to the Gaza strip to be included in the deal. The terror group is taking advantage of Israel’s feelings of responsibility to retrieve the remains of the two murdered soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, Hy”d, that are still being held in Gaza.

In reality, the government has a moral obligation to free Jewish prisoners at this time as well. The Jews in prison are no more reprehensible or murderous than their Palestinian counterparts. It should not be permitted to discriminate against them simply because they are Jewish. A senior figure in the Prison Service once said sardonically to a Jew who was imprisoned for murder, “See to it that a soldier is kidnapped, and then you can be released like an Arab terrorist.” It was a piercing comment that was at once amusing and extremely sad.

The parents of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Arab youth who was murdered by three Jews, were also scheduled to visit his grave on Yom Hazikaron. Six years ago, the Defense Ministry made the shocking statement that the boy’s family had earned a place in the circle of bereaved families in Israel. According to the indictment handed down in court, Abu Khdeir was the victim of a terror attack perpetrated by a Jewish terrorist. After his death, his name was engraved on the memorial on Mount Herzl, alongside the names of Jewish victims of Arab terror. The name was removed at the request of his family, apparently because their loathing for the State of Israel is at least as great as their hatred for their son’s murderers. They could not tolerate the sight of their son’s name etched alongside the names of soldiers in the IDF and Jews who had been murdered by Arab terrorists. But I could not understand the logic for the government’s decision in the first place. Does Mohammed Abu Khdeir have a place alongside the Jews who have been murdered al kiddush Hashem?

The three murderers, two of whom were minors, committed this heinous crime on the night of the fifth of Tammuz 5774/2014, in response to the murders of Gilad Michoel Shear, Yaakov Naftoli Frankel, and Eyal Yifrach on 15 Sivan of the same year, less than a month earlier. The two minors were given stiff sentences of the sort that are almost never imposed on underage criminals. The adult perpetrator was also given a draconian sentence that left no room for mercy or hope. Why shouldn’t these three prisoners be released as well? If the government has decided to release Arab prisoners who murdered Jews for nationalistic reasons, why shouldn’t the Jews who murdered Arabs for nationalistic reasons likewise be freed? After all, a murderer is a murderer.

We Were Spared from a Government of Evil

It is impossible to write about the emerging new government of Israel without giving thanks to Hashem. As I write about the agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu, I cannot help but think about Hashem’s kindness to us. Let us not forget that Blue and White, Lieberman, and the Arabs were on the verge of forming a government of their own. In the most recent election, the right-wing bloc failed to garner 61 seats in the Knesset; instead, it ended up with a total of 58, falling short of the minimum required for a coalition. When the final tally of the votes was announced, everyone begin to dread what would come next, and the euphoria that had followed the election, when it seemed at first that the political right had made a breakthrough, was quick to ebb. There was a genuine danger that the new government would be hostile to everything that is sacred, and it seemed that Lapid and Lieberman were about to gain the power to carry out their anti-religious agenda.

The danger was not limited to the fact that the chareidim would be relegated to the opposition, or even to the potential for the absolute destruction of everything associated with religion and complete discrimination against religious Jews in every field of influence. There was a general atmosphere of animosity that seemed poised to pervade the State of Israel. Yair Lapid is a man who has accomplished nothing other than wreaking destruction. During the election campaign, we were warned repeatedly of the potentially devastating results of a coalition between Lapid and Lieberman. Boruch Hashem, that coalition did not come to pass; the government will be a centrist-right government, and the chareidi politicians will retain their positions, including Moshe Gafni’s post as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.

The Knesset Convenes in Honor of a Druse Holiday

The Knesset is following a schedule that is unprecedented. The Israeli parliament has almost never convened on a Sunday or a Thursday, except under the most extraordinary circumstances, and it has certainly never convened on a Friday. Yet in recent days, this has become a normal occurrence. And it has nothing to do with the abundance of legislation that must be passed in order to accommodate the coalition agreement. On Sunday the second of Iyar, the Knesset’s agenda had a single item: “Greetings from the Speaker of the Knesset to the Druse members of the Knesset in honor of the festival of the Nabi Shu’ayb.” To be fair, the Knesset sitting began at 11:00 a.m., the time of day when the Knesset typically opens on a Wednesday, and concluded exactly at 11:05. Nevertheless, the sitting wasn’t brought to an official close, since the Knesset was expected to vote on new laws later in the day.

Benny Gantz, the Knesset speaker, announced, “I would like to wish everyone a safe and happy holiday. The Knesset will take a break right now, and its discussions will resume later. I apologize again for the lack of inclusion. Thank you very much.” I didn’t understand his apology. At 4:30 in the afternoon, the members of the Knesset received a message that the sitting had been concluded; there would be no further discussions that day. It seemed that confusion and disorder were reigning in the Knesset.

Earlier in the day, every member of the Knesset had received the following message concerning its schedule for this week: “Today, Sunday the second of Iyar, the Knesset sitting will begin at 11:00. Tomorrow, on Monday the third of Iyar, the Knesset sitting will begin at 11:00 with one-minute speeches. On Tuesday, the fourth of Iyar, the Knesset sitting will begin at 10:55 so that the members of the Knesset will be present during the siren. We will then mark the Day of Remembrance for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and the Victims of Terror Attacks with a speech from one member of every party. On Wednesday, the fifth of Iyar, which is Yom Haatzmaut, the Knesset will not convene. On Thursday, the sixth of Iyar, the Knesset will convene at 11:00 to hear urgent motions for the agenda that will be approved by the Knesset presidium.” The message added that the Knesset will convene on Sunday and Thursday next week as well, although I do not understand the reason.

Anticipating the Expiration of the Mandate

Actually, there is some logic to the Knesset’s augmented schedule. The coalition agreement between Blue and White and the Likud party obligates the Knesset to pass several new laws. The primary goals of this legislation are to anchor Gantz’s status as deputy prime minister in law, to make it possible to include additional ministers in the government, and, perhaps above all, to dictate what will happen if Netanyahu is convicted of crimes. For any new law to be passed, it must undergo a process beginning with a preliminary debate (if it is submitted by a member of the Knesset; however, if the initiative comes from the government itself, the bill goes directly to its first reading) and concluding with the second and third readings. Every bill is discussed in a committee between these stages. In the current situation, the bills are transferred either to the Arrangements Committee or to a special committee appointed to deal with the proposed changes to the Basic Law: The Government. Because of this, the Knesset has to be on standby at all times, so that each law can be brought to a vote of the full Knesset as soon as the committee concludes its discussions.

In order to carry out the terms of the coalition agreement, the Knesset must operate on a tight schedule. In just a few days, the mandate for the formation of a new government will expire. You may recall that Rivlin did not extend Gantz’s mandate to form a government, nor did he transfer it to Netanyahu; he simply relayed it to the Knesset itself. The Knesset has 21 days to announce that a new government has been formed, and if it fails to do so, a fourth election will be called. There will be no deliberation or discussion; the process is automatic. And we are nearly at the end of those critical 21 days.

Toothpicks in the Elevators

Last Thursday, I left the Knesset at 2:00 in the morning. The Knesset sitting actually concluded at 2:28, but I felt my eyelids drooping and decided to return home in light of the late hour. In principle, the various political parties must make sure that all of their members remain abreast of the proceedings in the Knesset at all times. Unlike the laws concerning the corona crisis, which receive the support even of the MKs who will remain in the opposition, the laws that are critical to the new government are bound to be rejected by the opposition, especially the remnants of the Blue and White party.

As I was leaving the Knesset building, I encountered Benny Gantz making his way into the building, presumably to attend a vote in the Knesset. The advisors surrounding him appeared shell-shocked, which I attributed at first to the shock of having come to power. Gantz was having a conversation with someone, and both were wearing face masks; I was able to identify Gantz by his height, but I did not recognize the other man.

I missed the moment when he placed his palm on the device at the entrance that measures his temperature. The Knesset is constantly remaining in step with technological developments. Until recently, every person who entered the building had their temperature measured by a thermometer that takes readings from the forehead. A visitor whose temperature was too high would be sent home. This has since been replaced by a device that was installed on the wall, next to the card reader that processes entry passes to the Knesset. The new device measures a person’s body temperature through his hand.

Another innovation at the Knesset can be found at the entrance to the elevators: Dozens of toothpicks have been placed in sponge-like holders affixed to the wall next to each elevator. Every person who uses an elevator is supposed to take a toothpick and use it to press the buttons. A plastic cup was taped to the wall in the elevator for the used toothpicks to be discarded. I have no doubt that the person who came up with this idea is brilliant enough to deserve a Nobel Prize.

Back to Benny Gantz: I didn’t get a chance to snap a picture as he arrived, and I prepared to go on my way. But then someone informed me quietly, “If you had been here just one minute earlier, you would have gotten the picture of your life!” It seemed that the onlookers had witnessed an incredible scene. When Gantz arrived at the Knesset, he was preceded by a police officer riding a motorcycle. I am not sure why he had a police escort; it is possible that he was returning from an official function, or it may simply be the new protocol for an official who is about to become the deputy prime minister. Gantz parked his car in the spot reserved for the Knesset speaker, near the entrance to the building, and then disembarked and approached the police officer to thank him. That was quite impressive; it is hard to catch a glimpse of Binyomin Netanyahu making a concerted effort to thank someone.

I was once present in the Knesset when the usher served a cup of tea to the prime minister. The prime minister is one of the few people who are permitted to drink in the Knesset. I noticed that Netanyahu did not even turn his head when the tea was placed before him; not only did he fail to thank the person who was serving him, but he did not even bother looking to see who had brought him the beverage. I asked the usher if he was perturbed by the prime minister’s conduct, and he replied, “This was very unusual. Most of the time, he turns around and thanks me.”

Gantz Takes a Spin

In any event, this is the story that I was told about Benny Gantz and the police officer. Gantz approached the officer and saluted him, and the officer returned the gesture. And then the unbelievable happened: Gantz said, “Can I take your motorcycle for a spin?”

The policeman was certain that Gantz was making a joke, and he nodded in the affirmative. To his astonishment, Benny Gantz proceeded to climb onto the motorcycle and began driving it around the parking lot. In a panic, the police officer shouted, “At least take the helmet!” With that, Gantz brought the motorcycle to a stop and returned it.

Incidentally, the employees of the Knesset received a letter from Gantz in advance of Pesach. The letter informed us that the building would be closed, asked us to observe the guidelines of the Ministry of Health, and added that the Knesset building would be open if any essential needs arose. There was no warmth or congeniality, nor did the missive contain a single word about the upcoming holiday. It was simply a dry, military-style set of instructions delivered by a former chief of staff. It is clear to me that Gantz will need someone at his side who will be able to relate to the employees of the Knesset in a more personable fashion.

New Laws Placed on the Knesset Table

The Knesset is putting on a show of operating at its full capacity and has even convened relatively often, including immediately before and after Pesach. In reality, though, it is all a show. At the same time, almost as an automatic reaction to the opening of the Knesset, many Knesset members submitted new bills that were nothing but photocopies of laws that had been placed on the Knesset table in previous incarnations of the government. The phenomenon of copying old bills is common knowledge and is even accepted. As usual, some of the proposed laws were highly outlandish, and some were even malicious. As of now, a total of 382 laws have been placed on the Knesset table since the inception of the 23rd Knesset. Almost none of those laws will actually be brought to a vote, and most of those that are discussed in the Knesset will be quickly removed from the agenda. As Shevach Weiss would say, these laws are merely a means of making a statement.

I examined the proposals in order to report on them to you. Yaakov Asher of Degel HaTorah introduced 27 bills, on topics ranging from a requirement for license plates for electric bicycles and scooters to exempting emergency responders from paying for parking. Uri Maklev also introduced several bills of his own. In the Shas party, Moshe Abutbul submitted several proposed laws, while Michoel Malchieli brought a total of 16 bills, even more than Abutbul, to the table. His areas of focus ranged from the period of validity of a permit for construction to a commemoration of the legacy of Rav Ovadiah Yosef.

Yair Lapid, along with a group of MKs, submitted four proposed laws. One of his bills concerns the Armenian nation, a controversial subject that once caused Lapid to become entangled in a diplomatic incident. The other three are laws blatantly targeting Netanyahu, such as a bill that would prohibit a prime minister who has been indicted from continuing to serve in his position. Meanwhile, Elazar Stern is continuing to promote his own twisted agenda, with a series of laws that would include reducing the Chief Rabbinate to a single chief rabbi rather than two and requiring kashrus supervision to focus only on the food itself, rather than taking into account issues such as the establishment’s Shabbos observance.

These bills can be brought to the Knesset for discussion only after 45 days have passed. Meanwhile, the Knesset has begun accepting urgent motions for the agenda once again. On Sunday morning, the Knesset presidium (i.e., Benny Gantz, as Knesset speaker, and his deputies) convened to discuss a large number of urgent motions that had been submitted on a wide range of subjects (including police brutality against chareidim, the failure to release prisoners due to the threat of coronavirus, and the discrimination against chareidim suffering from autism, in contrast to their chiloni counterparts). Only two motions were approved for discussion: a motion that highlighted the immediate need to expand and improve the aid package for self-employed workers (which had been submitted by MKs Mickey Levi, Samy Abu Shahadeh, Yaakov Asher, Moshe Arbel, and Merav Michaeli), and another dealing with distance learning in schools during the corona crisis (submitted by Keren Barak, Matan Kahane, Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, Uri Maklev, and Yaakov Margi). No one was able to explain the basis on which these topics were selected. Whenever I asked this question, the response was a shrug of the shoulders and an air of resignation.

Minyanim Resume

Davening with a minyan had become permissible once again in Israel. In an adaptation of the old saying, “Ein simcha k’hatoras hasefeikos,” perhaps I can suggest that there is no joy as great as hatoras hatefillos—when davening becomes permissible again.

We have been living in a topsy-turvy reality. We spent the Seder night under siege, and we celebrated an entire Yom Tov without visiting the Kosel. On Pesach, there were no shiurim, and davening was restricted to our porches. In a sense, it was the “takeout” version of Mincha and Maariv. When I caught a glimpse of one of our neighborhood rabbonim on his porch, I thought about the Shabbos Hagadol drosha that he had not delivered. I looked at the kohanim and at the men who were reciting Kaddish and were barred from going to shul. I thought about the rabbonim who wait all year for the opportunity to lead their congregations in reciting the brocha on sefiras ha’omer. There were so many things that were absent from our lives. In any event, the widespread joy over the resumption of minyanim is yet another testament to the Jewish people’s yearning to daven as they should.

Remembering “Abba Einstein” of Lodz

This week we mark the 15th yahrtzeit of Rav Abba Mordechai Berman. The 3rd of Iyar, the yahrtzeit of Rav Yeshaya of Kerestir, is also Rav Abba’s yahrtzeit.

Rav Abba Berman was a man whose genius can never be fully grasped. He was born 101 years ago and made his way from his hometown of Lodz to the Mir yeshiva at the age of 14. In advance of his arrival, rumor began to spread in the yeshiva that an iluy was on his way from Lodz, and that he would have an enormous impact on the yeshiva.

After his marriage (to the daughter of Rav Avrohom Greenberg, of the renowned Greenberg family), Rav Abba began delivering shiurim in the Mir yeshiva in America. He later founded Yeshivas Iyun HaTalmud, and he moved to Eretz Yisroel, along with the yeshiva and its talmidim, for a short time, but then he returned to America. Years later, he settled in Eretz Yisroel again.

As a young talmid in Mir, Rav Abba had two nicknames. He was known as “Abba Lodzer,” just as every young man at the time was known by his place of origin; however, he was also given the moniker “Abba Einstein.” The bochurim used to explain that the secular world had a genius named Einstein, and his counterpart in Mir was the young gaon Abba Berman; hence, they appended the name “Einstein” to his name. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, who was a bochur in the yeshiva at the time, once remarked innocently, “It is interesting that there is a bochur here whose last name is Einstein. I wonder if he is related to the famous professor.” His peers quickly explained that it was merely a nickname.

Rav Abba Berman passed away 15 years ago and was buried on Har Hamenuchos in Yerushalayim. Many renowned gaonim are considered his talmidim. Rav Yisroel Elya Weintraub was considered his talmid, as is Rav Yeruchom Olshin of Lakewood, yibadeil l’chaim. Many other talmidei chachomim strive to emulate his brilliant derech halimud, which is viewed as a derivation of the methods of Rav Chaim of Brisk.

One of Rav Abba’s renowned talmidim in Eretz Yisroel is Rav Moshe Wolpin, who maintains a kollel of outstanding yungerleit in Yerushalayim, in the building of the Chevron yeshiva in the neighborhood of Geulah. Rav Wolpin’s shiurim are considered highly reminiscent of those of his rebbi, both in their style of delivery and in the brilliance of his analyses. The yungerleit in the kollel are astounded every day anew by the brilliance and depth of his shiurim. Today, those shiurim are recorded and accessible by telephone. Perhaps you should listen to a shiur, just to understand what you are missing….