My Take on the News

The Kosel Will Not Be Open to All on Shavuos

We have been counting the days for nearly seven weeks, and everyone is excitedly anticipating the arrival of Shavuos. Who doesn’t have fond memories of Shavuos from their yeshiva days? Who doesn’t long for those nights of intensive learning in the bais medrash?

In recent years, many residents of Yerushalayim have developed a habit of visiting the Kosel on Shavuos. They learn for a few hours and then recite Tehillim for a few hours, and then neitz arrives. Davening at the Kosel on the morning of Shavuos is a highly uplifting experience. It is followed by several kiddushim organized by various minyanim, and then the mispallelim head home, buoyed by their uplifting experience.

This year, however, Shavuos will be a bit sad. The Kosel will not be open to everyone who wishes to come. Every year, thousands of people visit the Kosel on Shavuos, but this year the number will be limited to dozens, or at most a few hundred. As you know, the Kosel plaza was closed to mispallelim for quite a while. It pained us all to see the images of the empty plaza, bereft of its usual mispallelim. Three weeks ago, the government decided to permit people to begin davening in small groups at the site, and partitions were erected to keep the groups separate from each other.

On Shavuos, as well, there will be limited access to the Kosel. Visitors will be allowed to enter the plaza only if there is enough room. For those who wish to make the trek from a distance, there will be entry permits that will be distributed by lottery in advance. Anyone who received a permit will be able to be confident that they will be admitted to the Kosel plaza. The holders of the permits will be entitled to daven in minyanim that have already been scheduled. Mispallelim who arrive without permits will have to join minyanim taking place at different times. In addition, every visitor will be permitted to come to the Kosel only for one minyan, either in the morning or at night. The Kosel Heritage Fund will be arranging for guards to regulate the flow of visitors to the Kosel in accordance with the rules.

Retaining the Torah

In honor of Shavuos, permit me to share a portion of a shmuess delivered by Rav Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Shapiro, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Shaarei Shemuos and the son of Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro: “My ancestor, the Netziv, explained that there is an orderly process for acquiring the wisdom of the Torah. First, when a person toils over his learning, he begins to understand the Torah on a simple level and to retain the knowledge he has amassed, and then he becomes capable of analyzing it in greater depth and developing chiddushim. And the reverse is also true: When a person focuses on many other things, he first loses the ability to develop chiddushim in Torah, and then his comprehension of the simple peshat is also lost. We often heard from our father zt”l that the Torah is extremely jealous of its competition, and that it does not tolerate a person’s involvement in any other matters. The key to success and growth in Torah is focusing on it exclusively; when a person occupies himself with other things, even if he continues engaging in Torah learning, the Torah removes its light from him and does not shine upon him.

“The Torah is not like any other form of wisdom,” he continued. “The act of learning it does not make a person capable of understanding it. It is only through toil that a person receives the ‘kiss’ from Hashem and enlightenment from Heaven that enables him to understand the Torah and to formulate his own chiddushim. This is not an automatic, natural result of learning. Similarly, when a person involves himself in other matters, the fact that he forgets his Torah learning is also not a natural process….”

Only in Yerushalayim

On the subject of the Kosel, here is an interesting piece of news. The municipality of Yerushalayim recently issued a joint notice along with three other entities—Moriah, the Ministry of Yerushalayim Affairs, and the Ministry of Tourism—informing the public of construction work that was to take place in the Old City. I didn’t understand precisely what they claim to be doing (“renovation of the road form Shaar Yaffo to the Kosel Hamaaravi,” although I can’t determine exactly what that means), nor did I understand the route that they were telling us to take to the Kosel, but there was one detail that I found quite charming. According to the notice, the construction work will conclude every night before the beginning of the minyanim for neitz. There is no other country (and probably no other city) in the world where “neitz” is a factor in determining the timing of construction work of any kind. This happens only in Yerushalayim.

This reminds me of the incident when I asked my children at what time Medi-Plus, a local pharmacy, would be closing for the night. My daughter, who was a small child, replied, “They close at 12:20 a.m.” I found that peculiar, but she explained, “The sign outside their door says that they close at chatzos.” Of course, the sign meant that they closed precisely at midnight, but she had consulted a calendar and had determined that the halachic chatzos was at 12:20 that night.

Here is another snippet of information related to the Kosel. To date, 869 new laws have been placed on the Knesset table. I find it both entertaining and saddening to examine the bills submitted by our country’s lawmakers. Some of the proposed laws are extremely bizarre, and some are downright deplorable. Most of these laws will never even be brought to the Knesset for discussion. But I noticed that the chareidi members of the Knesset, especially Michoel Malchieli of the Shas party and Yaakov Asher of Degel HaTorah, have learned the rules of the parliamentary game very quickly. Each of them is responsible for dozens of the new bills, many of which are quite important and laudable. One such bill is entitled “Law for the Preservation of the Sanctity of the Kosel Hamaaravi and Its Plaza.” It is always a good idea to have that bill ready on the Knesset table, in case it becomes necessary to produce it for discussion.

On that note, I should really report on all the new positions that the chareidi members of the Knesset have received. For instance, Yaakov Asher is due to take over the chairmanship of the Constitutional Committee, which is an extremely powerful and important body in the Knesset. Uri Maklev, meanwhile, has been designated the new deputy transportation minister and will be leaving the Knesset. The public will certainly benefit from his work in that capacity, but the Knesset will be losing one of its most pleasant, talented, and diligent members. I will talk about all of that another time; erev Shavuos is not the time for politics.

Netanyahu Forced to Come to Court

As you are certain aware, events in Israel unfold at a dizzying pace. A single day’s events in this country could easily fill many pages. First of all, we have been given no rest in our constant battle for our very existence. Last weekend, a terror attack against an Israeli car containing three civilians was foiled in the Shomron. A Palestinian terrorist shot at the car, but the driver had a gun of his own and fired back, and the terrorist fled. In another incident, Palestinians hurled Molotov cocktails at an Israeli bus near Chevron. There were several incidents of rock throwing, a form of terrorism that is never even reported in the news. And in another incident, the army and the police thwarted an attempt by terrorists to smuggle weapons into the country from Jordan. One does not have to be a genius to figure out what those weapons would have been used for. On top of all that, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, announced that he considers all of his government’s agreements with Israel and the United States to be null and void.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s trial began this Sunday. The prime minister asked the court to exempt him from appearing personally at the trial, but the judges denied his request. Netanyahu explained that his need for bodyguards made it complicated for him to appear in court when coronavirus limitations are in place, but the judges did not accept the argument. Of course, the state was asked to present its opinion on the matter, and it should not be difficult to guess that they opposed Netanyahu. The hearing itself was short and fairly formal. At the first session in any trial, the defendant is asked if he understands the charges against him and if he admits to them or denies culpability. It was certainly very unpleasant both for Netanyahu and for the country.

Last week, Israel suffered from a fierce heat wave. Almost two thousand fires were reported over the past two weeks, some of which were the result of arson. It is somewhat discomfiting to write this, but people even died of heat stroke during this period of extreme weather. This is something that should not happen in a modern country; it sounds as if we live in a primitive Bedouin encampment rather than in an advanced and sophisticated country in the year 2020.

Returning to Our Shuls

The most deeply moving part of last week was the return to our shuls. True, things are not quite back to normal; there are many regulations that must be followed, and every shul has a “corona gabbai” who is charged with enforcing the rules. The mispallelim must also keep their distances from each other, and only the regular mispallelim of a shul are permitted to be there. Nevertheless, we were at least permitted to return to our shuls after a lengthy absence. In some shuls, the congregations celebrated their returns with joy and dancing. Some burst into tears of emotion upon entering their shuls again.

Special Education Kids in Isolation

Do not think that the coronavirus epidemic is over in Israel. True, the restrictions are being relaxed, the beaches are open to the public, stores are reopening, and davening in shul is permitted again, but the danger still looms over us. There are even some rabbonim, such as Rav Asher Weiss, who have ruled that it is prohibited to daven in shuls at this time, even though the government permits it under certain conditions. These rabbonim maintain that the coronavirus still poses a tangible danger, and no person has the right to endanger himself.

Last week, two teachers in two different schools for special education (which serve autistic students and others with similar conditions) were diagnosed with coronavirus. As a result, all the children in those classes are now required to remain isolated in their homes. Do you grasp the implication of this story? The reason that the government rushed to allow special education schools to reopen (albeit on intermittent days) was that the parents of these children could no longer tolerate having them at home, but now they will be subjected to an even worse situation. The children have been placed in isolation, and the parents will not be permitted even to take them to a park. The danger is clearly still there. Moreover, a large number of confirmed coronavirus cases have been diagnosed in recent days. Those who fear an additional wave of infections might very well turn out to be correct, chas v’sholom.

Then there is the issue of weddings. As you know, the government initially permitted only very small weddings and then increased the permitted number of guests to a minyan. Since Lag Ba’Omer, the restrictions have been relaxed further, and the rules now permit a maximum of 50 guests at a wedding. There is discussion now about permitting weddings to be held in halls once again after Shavuos.

The Mirrer Mashgiach’s Insights

To listen to Rav Aharon Chodosh, the mashgiach of the Mir yeshiva, is to discover entire new worlds of meaning. Every event reminds him of a midrash or a passage in the Gemara, and every question that is posed to him is met with a source in Chazal. This week, Rav Aharon visited his brother-in-law, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, and shared some fascinating insights.

The isolation that is imposed on anyone who may have contracted the coronavirus, he suggested, is reminiscent of the commandment for a metzora to dwell in solitude, but it also invokes the status of Klal Yisroel as a whole, which is called “a nation that will dwell alone” (Bamidbar 23:9). Listening to Rav Aharon speak, one can discover the depth of meaning and potential messages in everything that occurs in the world, including the coronavirus pandemic.

“Perhaps we are being shown that we are not sufficiently careful to remain a ‘nation that dwells alone,’ and that we must strengthen ourselves and separate ourselves from the customs and ways of the nations of the world, from the way they speak and dress, and to live only with the Shechinah,” he speculated. Naturally, this requires us to understand what it means to live with the Shechinah, and Rav Aharon went on to elaborate “This means to guard our speech and to serve Hashem as individuals, and to relate to Him as One. It means to increase our bitachon and to learn to live in Hashem’s shadow, so to speak. It means feeling that He protects us, and that we need not fear because He will save us from illness, even if a thousand people around us succumb to it. If we achieve the ultimate connection to Hashem, then we will reach the level at which He desires us, and He is with us in our suffering, in every situation and in all circumstances. Bitachon prevents fear; however, we must never allow it to take away our fear of harming others.

“My father zt”l [the famed mashgiach Rav Meir Chodosh] related that during the typhus epidemic a century ago, the bochurim who helped those who had been infected did not contract the disease themselves, whereas the bochurim who were afraid to help others became ill and passed away, lo aleinu,” Rav Aharon continued. “I once asked my father why it is necessary for a person to work to develop bitachon and emunah. After all, isn’t it the most comfortable thing in the world simply to cast one’s burdens on Hashem and feel no need to take responsibility for them? He replied, ‘That is true, but you must internalize that trust in Hashem. If you still feel tense and you are not serene, it is not bitachon. If you feel calm and serene, secure in the knowledge that Hashem will care for you, then it is indeed bitachon.’”

The Torah is our salvation, Rav Aharon taught. Eretz Yisroel, the land of Torah learning, has been blessed with special Divine protection, and this is especially true in Yerushalayim. The Torah is the key to all salvation; Klal Yisroel will return to Eretz Yisroel and the Bais Hamikdosh will be rebuilt in the merit of Torah learning. With this understanding of the Torah’s role as the essence of our lives, we will be prepared to celebrate Shavuos, the day of the receiving of the Torah.

A New Minister Speaks

Believe it or not, a mussar talk of sorts was also delivered this week in the Knesset, l’havdil. The Knesset convened for a special sitting so that the new ministers of the government—the largest in the history of this country—could be sworn in. The ministers and members of the Knesset were spread out throughout the room, with the MKs placed in the VIP gallery and even in the regular visitors’ gallery in order to allow them to maintain the requisite distance from each other.

The swearing-in ceremony wasn’t particularly festive, but it also was not plagued by bitterness. Listening to the speeches, I discovered that the new leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid—who knows how to speak but does not know how to do anything else—had lost his charisma. When he commented derisively that a man under indictment would not even be hired to serve as a school principal, much less the prime minister of the country, someone shouted, “Nor would a person without maturity!”

There were several speeches that I enjoyed hearing. First, the newly appointed Knesset speaker, Yariv Levin, used his speech to direct a warning at his political rivals in the nearby headquarters of the Supreme Court. “We must be very careful to maintain respect for the judiciary branch of the government,” Levin remarked. “Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s constantly increasing interference in the work of the Knesset and in its authority obligates us to stand up with determination for the honor of the Knesset, to prevent encroachment on its authority and to protect its standing.”

President Rivlin and Chief Justice Esther Chayut were present on the left side of the room while he spoke.

Michoel Mordechai Bitton, who became a government minister that day, related in his speech that he had visited the graves of his grandfather, his parents (Masouda and Eliyohu), his brother (who was killed in the army) and his cousin (who was killed in a terror attack) that very morning. And then he went on to deliver a brief mussar discourse. “One must be among the students of Aharon,” he declared, quoting Chazal. “When a person lowers himself, Hashem elevates him, and when a person elevates himself, Hashem lowers him.” When he began speaking about the Tanna Hillel, the chairman of the sitting, MK Eitan Ginsburg, asked him to wrap up his remarks.

“Mr. Chairman,” Bitton protested, “there will be only one time in my life that I enter the government of Israel.”

“But you will have many more opportunities to speak here,” Ginsburg replied.

“Give me the minute and a half that MK Margi admitted that he stole from me with his reservations yesterday, when he chaired the sitting,” Bitton pleaded.

“I took the time; I didn’t steal it,” Margi interjected.

“You will have many more opportunities to speak,” Ginsburg replied.

Bitton insisted on continuing for just a short time, but he had many things to add. Nevertheless, under pressure from the chairman, he skipped to the end of his address. “I can’t conclude without quoting Rav Shalom Mashash, who was the rov of Yerushalayim, the rov of Meknes, and the av beis din of Morocco,” he asserted. “He came to Yerushalayim and said the following: We know that the Bais Hamikdosh and the shuls today are the places that unite all of Klal Yisroel. These are the places where our families develop bonds with each other and are united as one. This creates the bond of unity between the Jewish people and their Father in Heaven, and it creates harmony among Jews as well. I pray that the Knesset will adhere to the values of Rav Shalom Mashash and will foster unity.”

A Closer Look at the Burial System

I tend to enjoy perusing official government documents, including the state comptroller’s report. There has been much talk about several topics covered in the recent report released by State Comptroller Matanyohu Engelman (who, incidentally, wears a yarmulke). However, I believe that the public overlooked one of the volumes of the report (volume 70a, 2020), which deals with topics such as the country’s ports, workers’ unions, the decision makers in the Treasury, and even the railway company. Somehow, this volume seems to have escaped anyone’s attention, even though it contains some noteworthy data.

One of the issues it discusses is the burial system in Israel, and the report reveals some fascinating figures. For instance, it notes, “In three cemeteries, which were declared closed in the past, a total of about 450 burial plots were sold, at a total value of about 141 million shekels, without the purchasers being allowed to take plots that were exempt from payment for the general public.” This item is something of a mystery to me, since I am not sure what it meant for the cemeteries to have been declared closed, but I was fascinated by the sheer number of graves and the fortunes paid for them.

The comptroller’s report addresses a large number of issues related to this topic, such as the cost of burial, the nature of the burial service provided to the public, burials of foreign residents, and the burial services in Yerushalayim and the surrounding areas. “The burial societies in Yerushalayim limit their services and the options for purchasing burial plots both posthumously and during the purchaser’s lifetime at their own discretion,” the comptroller noted. I have very little knowledge of the subject and I have no interest in going into too much detail in a public forum, but I certainly hope that the critical report will at least lead to a lowering of prices.

Changing of the Guard in the Ministry of Religious Services

The man who served as Minister of Religious Services left the world of politics after over 20 years in public service. You may remember him, since we published an interview with him several years ago. Rabbi Yitzchok Vaknin is a charming man and a yorei Shomayim who hails from the community of Yaara on the northern border. No matter how much I write about him, I feel that it will never be sufficient. I was present when he entered the Knesset for the first time, and now I have watched him leave, and I can attest that he has made it through these decades with his integrity intact. In general, a public servant’s greatest prayer is that he will conclude his time in the government no worse than when he first entered it. Rabbi Yitzchok Vaknin, on the other hand, went through the opposite process: He has done nothing but improve himself since he first joined the government. When he arrived from the north, he was a popular Shas activist and a religious man (who wore a black kippah serugah). Today, he has many accomplishments to his credit, and he is an outstanding talmid chochom. I would not be surprised if he became the chief rabbi of one of the country’s large cities.

Reb Yitzchok has always been invited to deliver a dvar Torah at the beginning of every meeting of the Shas party. His favorite sefer to quote is the Nesivos Sholom. He once visited the current Slonimer Rebbe and began speaking about the writings of the Nesivos Sholom, who was the previous rebbe of Slonim. The current Rebbe was astonished by Reb Yitzchok’s mastery of his father’s teachings.

Last week, Reb Yitzchok spoke once again at the party meeting, where he revealed what he considers to be the secret to the Shas party’s success: its unity. “It is unity that is real, not imagined!” he declared. The key to his own success, he added, was his effort to maintain set times for Torah learning. “I viewed my work as a mission,” he added. “I used to leave my house in Yaara every morning while it was still dark.” And then he added, “Everything depends on siyata d’shmaya.”

This was followed by a round of compliments. Reb Yitzchok first praised his incoming replacement, Rabbi Yaakov Avitan, who served as a rov in the south until his appointment to the position. “The Ministry of Religious Affairs is not an easy ministry to handle,” he asserted. “It is very hard to manage. But I know Reb Yaakov, and I know that he will be successful.”

Moshe Arbel related that he had been present at a program where the Knesset legal advisor addressed a group of students. “He was asked to cite an example of an outstanding and highly capable member of the Knesset who has earned respect from members of every party, and he named Reb Yitzchok Vaknin as that example,” Arbel said.

Avitan delivered a brief but meaningful speech in which he thanked the party for placing its trust in him. He also made a powerful comment about a mishnah in Pirkei Avos. “The mishnah states that Torah without melachah will ultimately lead to idleness,” he said. “Melachah means action. Torah learning that is not translated into practice will become meaningless. For instance, the Torah commands us to support a person who becomes poor. We must take that concept and put it into practice. Our job,” he added, “is to cause others to love Hashem.”