A Lag Ba’omer Like No Other
This Friday night, we will count the 30th day of the Omer. If you happen to be reading this newspaper immediately after nightfall, please do not read that number aloud… In any event, that means that Lag Ba’omer will be here in three days. Every year, the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai in Meron receives a million visitors on Lag Ba’omer. This year, however, there will be only ten visitors, or possibly a few more. The exact number is still subject to some dispute.
The Lag Ba’omer events in Meron are always overseen by Rabbi Yosef Schwinger, the director of the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites. This year, of course, the planning involved much higher-ranking government officials as well, including the prime minister himself and his “corona cabinet.”
At first, the plan was for several individual admorim to conduct the traditional hadlakos at Meron on Lag Ba’omer, each with only one or two companions. The rest of the public would “participate” via the religious radio stations or through direct broadcasts.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs, along with the Center for Holy Sites and other government bodies, then decided that the bonfires in Meron on Lag Ba’omer would be limited to four areas (Boyan, Gandi, the cave of Hillel, and the Toldos Aharon section). This meant that there would be both fewer hadlakos and fewer participants. Each bonfire would be conducted by a rov or rebbe, along with a dozen participants. I felt great sympathy for the tens of thousands of people who would not be making the trip to Meron this year. For many of the annual visitors to Meron, the experience of Lag Ba’omer is the spiritual and emotional fuel that carries them through the entire year. Nevertheless, the fact that even some vestige of the usual Lag Ba’omer festivities has been permitted is itself cause for celebration.
After the initial decisions were made, things became much more complicated. A plethora of requests were submitted for the use of the highly coveted bonfire sites, with each group promising to observe all the restrictions and social distancing guidelines that would be dictated by the government. At this time, there are only three hadlakos scheduled to take place: the bonfire of the Boyaner Rebbe; the hadlakah of Rav Shlomo Amar, chief rabbi of Yerushalayim; and the hadlakah performed by the rov of Tzefas, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu (son of Rav Mordechai Eliyahu). It is still possible that changes will take place by Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, the police have already shown up in Meron, as a large array of people have stationed themselves at various points on the mountain, and some may even have prepared to pitch tents there. There is no question that the slightest infraction in Meron will be covered feverishly in the media. And the Israeli media always looks for a pretext to report negatively on the chareidi community. We can only hope for the best.
But one thing is certain: This Lag Ba’omer will be unlike any that we have ever experienced.
Lapid’s Envy Robs Him of Reason
I know that you will find it difficult to believe this next story, but it is absolutely true. This incident took place in the Knesset and was caught on camera, even though Yair Lapid is trying to erase the facts and to confuse the Israeli public.
In keeping with the coalition deal, the law calls for Benny Gantz to become the prime minister in a year and a half. For the lamdanim among us, I would put it this way: While the appointment will take place only at that time, the “chalos” is taking place now. Benny Gantz is already officially the prime minister of Israel; he will simply begin serving in the position only in another year and a half. It reminds me of a comment made by onetime Interior Minister Dr. Yosef Borg. After his political allies abandoned him, Borg announced, “Gentlemen, the title of ‘former minister’ is something that no one can ever take away from me.”
There is one problem with this arrangement: Any law can be canceled by another law. What is to prevent Netanyahu from enacting another law in a year and a half that will revoke the law calling for Gantz to take office as prime minister? Well, the wise men of Chelm found a solution for that problem as well: The new law stipulates that a minimum of 75 votes in the Knesset will be required to repeal the law that will transfer the premiership to Benny Gantz. They were confident that Netanyahu will never amass such a large number of votes. This was reassuring to Gantz, who envisioned that Netanyahu might change the law and wrest the position of prime minister from him on the eve of the transfer of power.
Last Monday, while the laws were still under discussion in the relevant committee, Yair Lapid dropped a political bombshell. “The Likud has 59 seats, and we have 16,” he announced. “Together, we have 75. Whenever Bibi decides that he doesn’t want to go through with the rotation—and he certainly will not want to go through with the rotation—all he needs to do is come to me and say that he wants to restore the original law. And I have something to say to this committee, in front of the cameras: We will say yes. We will agree to restore the laws to their original form, and you will have to deal with it. Why is that? Because we respect democracy, and these dreadful laws that embarrass and shame us must be abolished, because you are passing these laws for purely personal reasons.”
Everyone was shocked by Lapid’s announcement. It was the clearest possible demonstration of the power of hatred to overcome reason, and the capacity of envy and the lust for power to erase all rational thought. Yair Lapid had stated for the record that he would be willing to supply the votes needed to keep Benny Gantz out of the office of prime minister! Even Yvette Lieberman, who is hardly considered the resident tzaddik of the Knesset, was astounded. “I was surprised to hear Lapid’s promise to save Netanyahu at Gantz’s expense,” he remarked. “I hope that the comment was meant as a joke, or that it was taken out of context.”
Lapid later tried to claim that he hadn’t been serious. But when he spoke, it was clear that he meant it. Presumably, he realized afterward that he had shot himself in the foot with that statement. But it was a lesson to us about Yair Lapid’s nature—and about the power of hatred.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
The Ministry of the Interior has been playing a quiet yet significant role in the battle against the coronavirus. For one thing, the ministry has been responsible for carrying out all the government’s decisions regarding the Israelis or non-Israeli Jews who insist on coming to Israel in spite of the current situation. Moreover, the Interior Ministry has also been overseeing the hotels designated for coronavirus patients. Perhaps I will be able to let you in on some secrets in the future and you will be astounded by what has been happening there. The person who was assigned by the Minister of the Interior to oversee these projects is my good friend, Yehuda Avidan. He has been telling me things that are simply unbelievable. Everyone is talking about setting up an investigative commission when the time is right, but I believe that an awards committee should be established instead, to give recognition to the people who have been spending countless sleepless nights working to benefit others. This week, at the entrance to the Interior Ministry in Yerushalayim, I saw a large sign giving thanks to all the medical personnel who have been battling the coronavirus and working to protect the patients. Personally, I think there should be some words of appreciation for the many other people who have toiled selflessly and tirelessly to assist all the people who have been affected by this disease.
On another note, the coronavirus crisis has given rise to a major question: To what extent must the public reaction to the chareidi community’s decisions be taken into account when it makes decisions? Take the matter of the opening of the new zeman, for instance. In chareidi society, it is considered crucial for yeshivos and kollelim to resume their operations. As in the Gemara’s parable about the fox and the fish, the Torah is our source of life. That is not to say that anyone belittles the importance of safety and health, but if it was possible for the new zeman to begin in a few places without any risk, that was certainly a good enough reason to demand official permission. On the other hand, Yair Lapid has whipped up plenty of negative publicity against the chareidi public in response to the opening of the zeman in certain yeshivos.
There is also the matter of the bonfires in Meron. Even Tzachi Hanegbi reportedly demanded, during a meeting of the coronavirus committee, “How can we permit bonfires on Lag Ba’omer but prohibit family members from visiting the military cemeteries?”
The Streets of Netivot
The Pesach edition of Marveh Latzamei, a weekly publication with Torah-related content, featured an interview with Rav Shlomo Sahalo, the rov of the Ethiopian community in Kiryat Malachi. It was a fascinating interview, and there was one comment in particular that deserves further attention. “There were some refugees whose identity was revealed, and they were placed in prison,” Rav Sahalo related. “To date, there are seven Jews sitting in prison in north Sudan. They have been languishing behind bars for forty years. We have spoken with every possible authority over the years and have asked for help in securing their release, but our efforts have been in vain.”
Forty years! Who is to say if the prisoners are even still alive? I would imagine that the time has come to make a renewed effort to secure their freedom.
I have often commented that even the smallest news blurb sometimes requires no further comment. Here is something that I read this week: “As of yesterday, there were 339 cases of coronavirus in Beit Shemesh. The rate of increase in infections over the past three days has been 22 percent, and the rate of infection stands at 330.3 cases per 100,000 people. The areas in Beit Shemesh slated for closure are the neighborhoods of Nachalah U’Menuchah and Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. In Netivot, a closure will be placed on the neighborhoods of Netaim and Shalom Bonayich, as well as on Chazani, Czaban, Hatzeelah, Brosh, Bilu, and Gershonowitz Streets.” Since that article was published, a closure was also imposed on three neighborhoods in Yerushalayim: Kiryat Belz, Kiryat Sanz, and Romema. The areas were sealed off on Thursday evening at 5 p.m. and remained under lockdown until this Sunday.
I was saddened by the news from Beit Shemesh and Netivot, but the article also brought me some pleasure. Rechov Czaban is named for Rav Refoel Kadir Czaban, who hailed from Djerba and served as the rov of the city of Netivot for 40 years, as well as the nosi of Yeshivas Kisei Rachamim. His 25th yahrtzeit was marked this year; he passed away in Kislev 5755. Rechov Gershonowitz, of course, was named for Rav Reuven Yosef Gershonowitz, who partnered with Rav Yissochor Meir, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Hanegev. Rav Gershonowitz’s sister was the rebbetzin of Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, and his wife was the sister of Rav Yaakov Edelstein zt”l and ybl”c Rav Gershon Edelstein. This is also the year of his 25th yahrtzeit, which was marked in the month of Nissan.
Reading those street names was a source of joy to me. After all, in what other country can one find the names of gedolim commemorated by street names in a secular city?
Protests Against Netanyahu and the Court
Meanwhile, the fate of the Israeli government is still undecided. Netanyahu and Gantz can make any decisions they choose, and the Knesset can pass any laws it desires in order to anchor the details of the complex coalition agreement in law, but the final say rests with the judges of the Supreme Court. I am sure that does not surprise you. The court has received petitions against the coalition deal, based on arguments that some of its clauses are illegal. (For instance, one petition challenges the fact that Gantz is to be appointed as prime minister now, even though he will begin his term only in a year and a half.) A lengthy series of petitions were also filed against the mere fact that Netanyahu has been assigned to form a government. How is it possible, the plaintiffs demand, for a man who has been indicted in court to be allowed to assemble a government?
The answer to that question is simple: Netanyahu was chosen by the people. If Netanyahu, the Likud party, and the right-wing bloc had received more than 60 mandates, and if President Rivlin had received more than 60 recommendations to entrust Netanyahu with the mandate to form the government in the first place, would anyone have thought to deny him that right because of the indictment against him? How can the will of the people be ignored?
But that is precisely what the petitioners have demanded: They insist that the court must override the will of the people. And there is no way to anticipate what the judges will decide. If they have a desire to prevent Netanyahu from serving as prime minister—and there is no doubt that many of them are eager to do precisely that—then they will accept the petition against him. More than that, even if they do not rule against him on this point, they can still invalidate any clause of their choosing in the coalition deal, which might cause the entire agreement to collapse. The coalition agreement contains many details that are meant to protect the respective interests of Gantz and Netanyahu. If even one of those details is struck down, the affected party might choose to break off his partnership with the other.
I spent some time outside the Supreme Court building during the two days of its deliberations. I did not enter the building, since I loathe the place, but I stood outside. It is not far from the Knesset, and it did not take much time or effort for me to go there. During my vigil, I observed two different demonstrations. One set of protestors were demonstrating against Netanyahu and his “government of corruption.” The other demonstration was against the Supreme Court itself, which the protestors accused of taking over the state and usurping the power of the Knesset and of the people. One of the two demonstrations was quiet, respectful, and somber. The other was loud and highly vocal, accompanied by thunderous music and plenty of vitriolic rhetoric. And where was the media? Naturally, they were covering the more raucous of the two demonstrations … the protest against Netanyahu.
Will the Court Play the Role of the Scorpion?
In recent times, the Supreme Court has been more aggressive than ever in trampling on the Knesset’s authority. Last week, the court ruled that the government policy of collecting deposits from foreign infiltrators in order to ensure that they will leave the country is illegal. This came after an earlier case in which the court ruled that the government does not have the authority to jail infiltrators. The court went on to rule that the government’s use of cell phone tracking technology to locate coronavirus patients was illegal. In addition, the court decided that the acting state prosecutor was no longer permitted to remain in his temporary position, but it also barred the justice minister from appointing someone else in his place. The fourth blow came in the form of another court ruling at the very end of the week, when the justices decided that hospitals may not prevent chometz from being brought onto their premises on Pesach. As a result of all these pretentious rulings, tensions between the Knesset (the legislative branch of the government) and the Supreme Court (the judicial branch) are at an all-time high.
During a debate in the Knesset last Thursday, I heard several members of the Knesset warning the Supreme Court not to overstep its bounds. The problem is that there is enormous temptation for the judges to demonstrate that they are the true masters of the state. On Sunday, someone representing the prime minister warned the judges not to presume that they could dictate the will of the people. Chief Justice Chayut asked, “Do you mean to say that this subject [whether a person who has been indicted is permitted to form a government] is not under the jurisdiction of the court? Do you mean that we do not have the authority to rule on this?”
Undaunted, the official replied, “You certainly believe that you do. You have said that ‘melo kol ha’aretz mishpat—the entire land is filled with judgment.’” It was a twist on a posuk, reflecting the court’s philosophy that every issue is potentially subject to adjudication.
“No one ever said those words,” Chayut replied angrily.
If I may add my own two cents, I would point out that while former Chief Justice Aharon Barak might not have said this, he certainly acted as if it were true. Daniel Friedman, the Minister of Justice at the time, attacked Barak for his belief that any issue could be decided by the court. Barak might not have responded that “the entire land is filled with judgment,” but his conduct made it clear that that was his belief. And his protégé, Professor Menachem Alon, once said, “Barak maintains that ‘the entire world is filled with judgment.’ As far as he is concerned, there is nothing that is not subject to the court’s authority. There is no action we take that cannot be judged by the courts.” So Chief Justice Chayut’s indignant assertion that no one ever said those words is somewhat … well, inaccurate.
If the judges of the Supreme Court rule against Netanyahu, then the agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz will be voided. The automatic result will be a fourth election. And it is doubtful if the judges are interested in another election, since the polls show that the Likud would receive 40 mandates and the right-wing bloc would soar to a total of 66. The court may have learned its lesson from ruling against former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, which set the stage for the current unity deal and the alliance between Gantz and Netanyahu. On the other hand, there is the old story of the scorpion that stung the creature that was carrying it across the river, even though it perished as a result. The Supreme Court might take every opportunity to strike a blow at Netanyahu, even if it will only give the prime minister a boost.
Eleven Judges, Two Days of Deliberations
The petitions against Netanyahu and the unity deal were presented to a panel of eleven judges. The large number of justices on the panel is ostensibly a sign that the court is taking the matter with the utmost seriousness. Then again, the majority of justices on such a large panel are bound to be leftists. Chayut decided to dedicate two days to the deliberations, and in an almost unprecedented step, the court sessions have been broadcast live for public viewing.
On Sunday, the court listened to the petitions against permitting Netanyahu to form a government due to his indictment on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. On Monday, the court heard the second set of petitions, which opposed the coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz. On the first day of the deliberations, the court was informed of the attorney general’s position that there is no legal impediment to allowing Netanyahu to form the government. The Blue and White and Likud parties also expressed their opposition to the court’s interference in this matter. Their opponents argued, meanwhile, that the current situation is not addressed in Israeli law, since the framers of the law never imagined that a person who would be assigned to form a government would also be under indictment.
In her opening remarks, Chief Justice Chayut said, “There are eight petitions before us that bring up two main issues. First is the question of whether the task of forming a government may be entrusted to a member of the Knesset who stands accused of crimes that are a breach of moral integrity. The second question deals with the validity of the provisions of the coalition agreement signed by the Likud party and the Blue and White party for the establishment of the 35th government of the State of Israel. In light of the issues that have been brought to this discussion, we are holding our deliberations with an expanded panel of eleven justices, and the session is being broadcast directly to the public.”
Netanyahu was pleased with Attorney General Mandelblit’s position. The attorney general hinted that it was improper for Netanyahu to be tasked with forming the government, but after all was said and done, he concluded that it was not illegal. This will make it difficult for the judges to rule against the prime minister. “Despite the significant difficulties that have arisen in this regard,” Mandelblit wrote, “those difficulties do not constitute sufficient grounds for judicial intervention, which would result in the majority of the members of the Knesset being barred from initiating the establishment of a new government in Israel headed by MK Netanyahu.”
What Happened to the Judge on Netanyahu’s Team?
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trial is scheduled to begin soon. The judicial system has no regard for any extenuating circumstances. The wheels of justice turn slowly but efficiently, and they continue turning until they have crushed the court’s target of choice. It was announced in the past that Netanyahu’s legal team would include retired Justice Oded Mudrick, the judge who presided over my own trial. I was accused of bribing a senior officer in the IDF to assist bnei yeshivos. The details of my case are not important now, but I will tell you simply that Mudrick, as I expected, has not appeared among the ranks of the prime minister’s attorneys.
I predicted all along that Netanyahu would dismiss Mudrick as soon as he got to know him. I do not know exactly how it came about, but I see that Mudrick is no longer on the team. In my own case, he convicted me of “bribing” Lieutenant Colonel George Granati by preventing his wife from losing her job in the Ramat Gan municipality. The “reward” that he accused me of receiving in return was Granati’s assistance for yeshiva bochurim who had become entangled in legal difficulties with the draft authority. Mudrick was also deeply perturbed by the fact that I had advised Deri to extend Granati’s tenure when he was due to step down. I explained that Granati had been an excellent liaison between the army and the chareidi political leadership. I found Mudrick’s outrage amusing, since he himself had advanced to his position only because of his close ties with the Likud. When he did not receive an appointment to the Supreme Court, Mudrick chose to resign from the bench altogether. I was not surprised when his bid to join the Supreme Court was turned down. Let us say that I was never captivated by his charm, even when I was his deputy when he chaired an election committee.
Mudrick was recently interviewed in the press, and I found his account of his dismissal from Netanyahu’s legal team in that article. “I didn’t quit and I wasn’t fired,” Mudrick claimed. “The legal team of Navot Tel-Tzur and Pinny Rubin left the case since the prime minister could not procure funding. As Navot explained, it wasn’t only a matter of his own fees. He needed to hire a team of lawyers, and how would he pay for them? Netanyahu had recruited me separately from them, but it was clear that we belonged to the same team. When they resigned, I went to visit him in Yerushalayim. The prime minister thanked me for my help and told me that he was looking for a new legal team, and that he would be happy if I collaborated with them. But they did not contact me.” It was a euphemistic explanation for a cold truth: Mudrick is no longer wanted on the team. Pontificating seems to be his style. In his ruling in my case, the senseless verdict was buried within a mound of excess verbiage. His aspirations to join the Supreme Court and to serve on Netanyahu’s defense team were just as ill-considered as his judicial determinations.
At the end of the interview, Mudrick revealed that he had tried to convince the members of the Judicial Selections Committee to support his candidacy for a seat on the Supreme Court, but they rejected him in favor of Rubinstein and Arbel, who were preferred by Dorit Beinish. “I would not believe any of the people who were chosen if they told me that they didn’t have some high-ranking person intercede on their behalf,” he commented. “I myself met with the Minister of Justice. I told him that I could find someone to recommend me, and he said, ‘No, thank you.’ I imagine that everyone does this; it is the way of the world.”
It reminds me of the story of the bochur who sought to gain an admission to a yeshiva where he did not belong, and who had an answer to everything the rosh yeshiva said. When he was told that there were no beds available, the bochur volunteered to sleep in his grandmother’s home nearby. The rosh yeshiva told him that there wasn’t enough food for him, and the bochur promised to bring his own meals. The rosh yeshiva countered that the bais medrash was full, and the bochur declared that he would sit in the corridor. Finally, the rosh yeshiva told him that the bochurim learned in Yiddish. “I understand Yiddish,” the bochur said.
“But you clearly don’t understand this language,” the rosh yeshiva replied.
Like the bochur in that fictional story, Oded Mudrick simply cannot understand that everyone who was involved in selecting Supreme Court justices felt that his abilities were mediocre at best. That is an opinion that I share, and I am sure that Netanyahu does as well.
But this also brings us full circle: If Mudrick believes that it is the way of the world to use influential connections to one’s advantage, then why did he disapprove of my efforts to help Granati retain his position?
A Mother and Daughter Together in the Hospital
This story concerns a certain Yerushalmi family in which the family matriarch occupies a place of honor and distinction. She is a pious elderly woman of remarkable character and resilience, and her medical conditions keep her confined to her bed. She is never alone. She has a devoted Indian caregiver who is always at her side, and her eldest child and only daughter dotes over her constantly as well. In addition to her devoted daughter, the woman has been blessed with nearly a minyan of sons. Her daughter is a teacher by profession, but she spends every spare moment—before and after work, and even during her breaks—at her mother’s side. And now her mother has contracted the coronavirus.
The hospitals in Israel have gently but firmly barred all healthy visitors from their grounds. The coronavirus ward is hermetically sealed. When her mother was hospitalized, the dedicated daughter, whose teaching job has been suspended, found herself virtually climbing the walls in frustration. She had never been away from her mother for more than six hours at a time, and they had been separated for an entire week. She felt as if she was withering away, as if she was losing her sanity—and, worst of all, as if she was failing her mother. This week, the daughter herself became ill. And since she was placed in the same ward as her mother, she asked to be assigned to the same room as well. Since this past Tuesday, the mother and daughter have been together again.
The Thief’s Excuse
Here in Eretz Yisroel, we are all plagued by distress over the tremendous bittul Torah that has been brought about by the pandemic. We try to continue learning, but nothing can compare to our usual orderly sedorim in our botei medrash. The difference is as vast as the distinction between attending a hadlakah in Meron, for example, and watching it from home.
Allow me to quote the Shefa Chaim of Sanz-Klausenberg, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, lost his family, and presided over an astonishing Torah renaissance after the war. I subscribe to a weekly kuntres containing his divrei Torah, and this week’s issue contains the following quote from a shiur on Chumash delivered in 1973: “My grandfather, the Yismach Moshe, once delivered a speech on Erev Rosh Hashanah. At the beginning of his drasha¸ he lamented the fact that he had neglected his Torah learning that year. Even though it was because he was sick with malaria, Rachmana litzlan, he did not consider that to be a valid justification, since Rabbeinu Tam states in Sefer Hayoshor that the mark of a person to whom Hashem desires to be close is the fact that He does not cause the person to suffer from distractions or burdens that interfere with his service of Hashem… Even if a person neglects to learn because he is ill, he will be judged for the sin that caused him to contract that ailment and therefore to experience bittul Torah.
“This can be compared to a person who committed theft and murder and was sentenced to prison, where he was prevented from observing many mitzvos in the proper fashion. Can he excuse himself by claiming that he was forced by circumstances in the prison to neglect the fulfillment of those mitzvos? After all, he brought this upon himself by stealing and murdering, which led him to be imprisoned. Who asked him to commit those acts of theft and murder in the first place?”