My Take on the News

A Shavuos at the Kosel Unlike Any Other

The summer has begun, but if we thought that the coronavirus was behind us and we could safely and healthily turn the page, we were wrong.

I will get to the topic of coronavirus soon, but first I would like to tell you about Shavuos. We returned to our shuls after a long absence, and it was a very emotional occasion. It is no small matter to return to our usual seats in our usual shuls after we had been displaced for nearly two months.

Netanyahu announced on motzoei Shabbos that people have become lax about observing the Health Ministry’s guidelines, and there has been an increase in the number of infections. He warned that if the situation continues, the government will have to impose a series of restrictions once again, including a ban on davening in shuls—may Hashem protect us! We have now seen that the gedolei Yisroel were right when they said that we should continue davening in impromptu minyanim, since we haven’t yet reached the optimum situation.

Every year, davening at the Kosel is the highlight of the holiday of Shavuos. As I wrote last week, permits to visit the Kosel were distributed by a lottery this year. I feel, however, that this system didn’t work very well.

In any event, the Kosel Heritage Foundation reported that a total of about 15,000 men, women, and children visited the Kosel over the course of Shavuos and Shabbos. Perhaps I should add that it was only 15,000 people, in contrast to the much larger volume of visitors in an average year. The foundation also reported, “Some of the people who received permits to come to the Kosel for neitz did not arrive, and it was therefore decided to allow other mispallelim to enter the Kosel plaza during this time. Thousands of additional people continued arriving at the Kosel every hour and filled the davening areas in keeping with the guidelines. The Kosel Heritage Foundation would like to thank the Israel police force for helping regulate the flow of visitors to the Kosel Hamaaravi, as well as the public for obeying the guidelines and thus making it possible to protect the health of the public.”

Fifteen thousand is an exceedingly small number of mispallelim. In an ordinary year, the Kosel receives between 50,000 and 70,000 visitors on Shavuos day, this year we had a “two day Yom Tov, as the one day of Yom Tov was followed by Shabbos. It is a very sad situation.

Clinging to the Kosel

There are some people who would never forgo davening at the Kosel even on an average Shabbos, much less on the holiday of Shavuos. In the past, I wrote an article about the various minyanim at the Kosel. There are some people in my neighborhood of Givat Shaul who walk to the Kosel every Shabbos, such as Rav Tikochinsky, Reuven Pol, Ahrele Weingarten, and Rav Mordechai Feldstein. For Rav Mordechai, davening at the Kosel every Shabbos is something he cannot live without.

Of course, he was there on Shavuos as well. This time, he davened in a special minyan in our neighborhood, which was organized at neitz by Rav Tikochinsky, and then they walked to the Kosel. They didn’t have tickets but decided to make the trip anyway and to hope that they would be permitted to enter the plaza. “People always want to go to the Kosel,” Rav Feldstein told me. “There is nothing new about that. But the sight of people coming to the Kosel while wearing face masks and carrying bottles of water from their homes, because they were afraid to drink the water at the Kosel, was something I had never seen before. People walked all the way to the Kosel carrying everything they could possibly need, including food and drink for Kiddush. People waited for over an hour in the blazing sun, because they were not permitted to enter the plaza until a capsule at the Kosel had emptied.”

Rav Feldstein has been visiting the Kosel every Shabbos and every Shavuos for the past 34 years, but this year he was amazed by what he saw. “Think about it,” he said. “If a Sephardic person, for instance, came to the Kosel and wanted to daven in a Sephardic minyan, he would have to wait for a very long time until one of the capsules emptied and a Sephardic minyan was organized. And the same was true of a chassidish or Litvish minyan. Yet people persevered and waited with great dedication to be allowed entry.”

“You davened before you went to the Kosel,” I pointed out.

“True,” Feldstein confirmed. “But I walked all the way there, carrying everything I could need.”

“Was the Kosel plaza truly empty?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The Kosel Heritage Fund reported that there were 15,000 visitors over the course of two days: Shavuos and Shabbos. That means that on Shavuos itself there were only about 7000 visitors. And that is very sad. Every year, there are 1000 visitors from the chassidus of Ger, since Shavuos is the yahrtzeit of one of the rebbes of Ger. This year, there wasn’t a single spodik in sight.”

“Why didn’t you try to enter the lottery?” I asked.

“I don’t relate to the Kosel as an optional experience; it is a vital need for me. I knew that I would have to come, regardless of whether I won the lottery.”

Rav Feldstein had many fascinating observations to share from his visit to the Kosel on Yom Tov. For instance, he described the dedication of Moshe Chabusha, a famous paytan who is also a regular visitor to the Kosel. “He davens with us at our neitz minyan,” Feldstein related. “He has a sister who also comes to the Kosel every Shabbos and prepares coffee and tea for the mispallelim.” It is possible that Rav Dovid Weisenstern, who distributes thousands of cups of coffee and tea every morning to visitors at the Kosel, does not come on Shabbos. “On the days when the Kosel was completely closed to Jewish visitors,” he added, “she disguised herself as an Arab and went to daven at the Kosel. Such is the mesirus nefesh of a Jewish woman who insists on coming to the Kosel every morning!” he concluded.

Ignorance in the Press

An article describing the “conversion” of a gentleman named Mark Kirichenko began as follows: “The holiday of Shavuos has many names. It is known as the festival of water, the festival of Matan Torah, and the festival of cheese. But one of the most important elements that it represents is that of the festival of gerim.” The festival of water? The festival of cheese? I could not believe my eyes.

As for the subject of the article, Kirichenko’s pure desire to convert was quite touching. I had the sense that he had developed strong passions for Yiddishkeit and that he wished to take the appropriate step of converting, but something about the path he had chosen was wrong. “I was born to a secular family in Ashdod, in a neighborhood populated entirely by Russian immigrants,” he related. “After my grandmother became sick with cancer, part of my family become chareidi, and I began experiencing traditional Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim.” At his bar mitzvah, Kirichenko discovered that he could not receive an aliyah or count toward a minyan. He found out later that while he was Jewish in the eyes of the state, he was in fact not a Jew by halacha.

“Last year,” the article relates, “Mark decided to finish the process he had started, but in a slightly different form. He contacted the people of Giyur K’Halacha, a network of alternative botei din that offer conversions without the oversight of the Chief Rabbinate, and he completed his conversion. ‘In Giyur K’Halacha, I didn’t have to lie,’ Mark said. ‘I was able to convert, and then to go and learn more.’” I didn’t quite understand the meaning of that last statement, which seems to be hiding something of which we cannot approve. The unpleasantness of this article is heightened by the comment of one of the founders of Giyur K’Halacha: “We must create the possibility of an inclusive, attentive, and respectful giyur that will provide an answer to our national challenge, that will draw converts close to Judaism and will strengthen the unity in our nation.”

Those are nice words, but again, it appears that the pathway to Judaism espoused by “Giyur K’Halacha” is not exactly in keeping with halacha.

Two Hundred Corona Cases in the Hebrew Gymnasium

Now let us return to the story of the coronavirus.

Over the past two days, dozens of new confirmed coronavirus patients have been discovered and it seems to be concentrated in schools. Another heavy concentration of new infections was in the recreational establishments of Tel Aviv.

If the Knesset is a microcosm of the country, then the Knesset has also been preparing for the additional wave of corona cases that appears to be descending upon us. On Sunday, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Knesset sent a letter instructing every person who enters the Knesset building to follow the Health Ministry’s guidelines, including wearing a face mask and maintaining a distance of two meters from other people. He also asked any Knesset employees who felt ill to be tested for the virus before coming to the building.

Weeks ago, during the severe outbreak in Bnei Brak, the Sergeant-at-Arms asked all the employees who lived in Bnei Brak to refrain from coming to work even if they had been recognized as essential workers. He also advised the members of the Knesset who live in Bnei Brak (Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Asher) to refrain from coming to the Knesset. His decision at the time sparked a deluge of criticism and resentment. As it turns out, he has adopted a similar stance, albeit somewhat less drastic, regarding the chiloni areas where the virus has reappeared. “In light of the contagion in the Gymnasium school in Yerushalayim,” he wrote in his most recent letter, “I would like to ask anyone who has a family member who has been placed in home isolation due to contact with a confirmed coronavirus case in the Gymnasium school to refrain from coming to the Knesset until the end of the isolation period.” The Hebrew Gymnasium school in the neighborhood of Rechavia in Yerushalayim has been hit by a particularly severe outbreak; it is rumored that 200 students and faculty members from the school contracted the virus.

Partitions in the Knesset

I can reveal to you that quite a few coronavirus cases have also been discovered in chareidi communities. The new patients include a talmid in Talmud Torah Darchei Yosher in Modiin Illit, a preschool teacher in the neighborhood of Ramat Elchonon in Bnei Brak, a yeshiva bochur in Yeshivas Ponovezh L’Tzeirim, and a group of eight yeshiva bochurim in Yeshivas Maayanei HaChochmah in Telz Stone. This had the potential to lead to another campaign of incitement against chareidim, who would be accused of disregarding the national health guidelines and spreading contagion throughout the country. One can only imagine what would have happened if 200 corona cases had been discovered in a particular chassidus or yeshiva. But this happened instead in the Gymnasium school, and there are more cases of coronavirus in the chiloni sector overall. The virus has also been identified in the Katzir school in Cholon and in an assortment of clubs and other recreational establishments in Tel Aviv. And this exposes the hypocrisy of all the people who claimed that the chareidi community was at fault for spreading the coronavirus. No one is blaming the chilonim now for disregarding government regulations.

Meanwhile, in the Knesset, the maintenance staff installed partitions on the conference tables in every party office in the building, in order to allow the members of the political parties to meet with each other without violating the guidelines.

And on a related note, I read in a newspaper that the deputy health minister has explained the reason for the slow pace of coronavirus testing. It isn’t that the Ministry of Health is unprepared to conduct tests, he asserted; the problem is that the public is not coming forward to be tested. “The health care system is capable of performing 15,000 tests every day,” the deputy minister is quoted as claiming, “but only about a thousand people come to be tested in a day. Anyone who wishes to be tested for coronavirus may do so through his health fund.”

I am not sure if he is correct about that; I believe that the health funds have not been willing to administer tests simply because patients request them. After all is said and done, the tests have a price tag. But there was one thing that I could not remember: Who is the deputy health minister?

A Poll That Infuriates the Left

We cannot let a week go by without some political news. A poll released last Friday has been infuriating the political establishment. The poll was commissioned and publicized by Radio 103 and shows that the Likud—in other words, Binyomin Netanyahu—would amass 41 mandates if elections were held today. Yair Lapid’s popularity has risen, as the poll shows him receiving 14 mandates, while Benny Gantz would get 12. The Joint Arab List would remain stable with 15 mandates, Shas would retain its nine seats in the Knesset, Yamina would rise to nine, and UTJ would receive one more mandate, for a total of eight. Yisroel Beiteinu and Meretz would each receive six mandates. According to this poll, the right-wing bloc (consisting of the Likud, Shas, UTJ, and Yamina) would have a clear and unequivocal majority of 67 mandates, in spite of recent events—including Netanyahu’s indictment and the beginning of his trial.

And that is not all. Another question was posed to the respondents in the poll: “Do you believe that Netanyahu has been framed?” This question was based on Netanyahu’s unprecedented accusatory speech in the court (discussed in a separate article). In an ideal situation, most of the respondents would answer that they did not believe this to be the case. After all, who would think that a government would fabricate trumped-up charges against its own prime minister? This should be utterly inconceivable. Yet 42 percent of the respondents agreed that the criminal case was baseless.

Just think about that: Almost half of the citizens of the State of Israel believe that the country’s judicial system has developed a false criminal case against its prime minister. Another 11 percent are undecided, and only 47 percent of the citizens responded that they did not believe that Netanyahu had been framed. In other words, less than half of the citizens of Israel believe that the judicial system did not frame the prime minister. Should it come as a surprise that the entire left, the Ministry of Justice, and probably the Supreme Court as well are aghast at the results of this poll?

Pointless Motions to Topple the Government

After a long reprieve, the Knesset has once again begun hearing motions of no confidence against the government. These motions were submitted by all the parties of the opposition, each in its own unique style. Yesh Atid condemned the current government for its excessive number of ministers and deputy ministers, the Joint Arab List called it “a government of annexation and unemployment,” and Yisroel Beiteinu railed against the government’s defense policies and the lack of a multi-year plan for the IDF. Meretz, meanwhile, tersely summed up its objections by referring to the government as “a corrupt, bloated, and annexing government.”

Of course, these motions were completely pointless. Not only were they defeated by a vast majority, they never had a chance of being passed in the first place. Even if a member of the coalition hadn’t been present for the vote, it would take a majority of 61 votes to topple an existing Knesset, which is completely impractical in the current government. Personally, I would have advised the coalition to leave the Knesset altogether while the opposition wallowed in their pathos. Let them pass their motions with a majority vote of 40! Nothing will come of it anyway, and after a few rounds of this, the entire process of submitting a motion of no confidence would turn into a farce.

A Flawed Analogy

Last week, someone in the national religious camp penned an article accusing the chareidim of having done “nothing of substance” to force Netanyahu to include Yamina in the government. The right-wing party is currently in the opposition, although Netanyahu announced yesterday that he is still waiting for them to join him and that he is holding on to the portfolios that are most important to them. The opinionated writer added, “That being the case, why should the chareidim complain about the Lapid-Bennett pact?”

In my mind, this is complete nonsense. I believe that the chareidi parties actually did everything in their power, including giving up important portfolios, in order for Yamina to join the government. Netanyahu himself also seems to have been determined to include them. (Not that I can understand why….) Moreover, the chareidim were not the source of the idea to exclude the right from the government, whereas Bennett himself, when he forged his alliance with Lapid, was responsible for exiling the chareidi parties to the benches of the opposition. And that is a major difference.

But that is not all. Even more than that, Bennett and Lapid themselves were guilty of many deplorable acts after they forged their pact. They inflicted great harm on the Torah world and the bnei yeshivos, harassing the innocent community of bnei Torah and inciting the rest of the country against them. And they have never been forgiven for those acts of evil.

Angry Mobs Don’t Listen to Reason

We have been following the recent events in America with great trepidation. I have no doubt that the name of George Floyd will occupy a prominent place in the history books of the United States. As soon as I saw the picture of the police officer leaning on him, I was certain that the incident would not end well. Now we have been seeing images of the rioting, the looting, and the violence, and it is quite frightening. Even more frightening is the fact that people are trying to exploit these events to wrest the presidency away from Trump, as if he caused someone to be racist. Soon enough, someone will accuse Trump himself of having committed the murder. Trump is correct when he reminds the angry mobs that their violence will not bring justice, but angry mobs do not tend to listen to reason.

This may not be very encouraging for you to hear, but the same thing happened here in Israel when an Ethiopian youth fell victim to police brutality. The police tend to be too quick to pull the trigger when they are dealing with Ethiopian youths; that is an undeniable fact. The police in Israel like to use force, especially against the weaker sectors of the population—Ethiopians, Arabs, and, unfortunately, chareidim. So while the Arabs and the chareidim lower their heads, weep, and protest only a little bit when these things happen, the Ethiopians take to the streets every few years.

Before the recent election, all of the political parties tried to ingratiate themselves with the Ethiopian sector. And Prime Minister Netanyahu did it even after the election. First, he appointed Penina Tamno-Shatta, an Ethiopian immigrant, to the position of Minister of Immigrant Absorption (and also managed to induce her to leave Yesh Atid and join the ranks of Blue and White in the process). He also tapped an Ethiopian MK who had defected from Blue and White to the Likud even before the election to serve as the Deputy Minister of Internal Security and to function as the government’s liaison to the Ethiopian community.

When an Arab Is Killed, Everything Is Different

On a very similar note, last weekend Israeli police accidentally killed an Arab from East Yerushalayim. The police officers involved in the event claimed that they had thought that the victim was a terrorist, although they later discovered that he had been mentally disturbed. Of course, the police came under fierce criticism for their mistake. On Sunday, an opinion piece appeared in Yisroel Hayom bearing the title, “Police Must Learn to Identify People with Disabilities.” The secular media has suddenly remembered that the police have a problem in their dealings with people with disabilities.

When the chareidi community voiced their pain and revulsion at the behavior of the police toward their own members, on the other hand, no one paid attention to them. Do you remember Yanky Rosenberg, the boy who was viciously beaten during a demonstration near the draft office in Yerushalayim? The police ignored the bystanders who shouted that Yanky was disabled. They even ignored Yanky himself, who cried out that he was from Seeach Sod. The religious community was appalled and demanded that the police reassess their policies, but nothing came of it. Another incident has taken place since then, but once again it failed to lead to any kind of improvement.

This time, however, it was different—because the victim was an Arab. True, the fact that there was a death is another difference, but the public is outraged only because he was an Arab. The proof is that Shirael Chaburah was also killed by the police, but his death did not prompt outraged opinion pieces to appear in any newspapers. Shirael Chaburah was killed in Rosh Ha’Ayin exactly one month ago, after attempting to stab a police officer. After his death, it was revealed that he was a mentally disturbed young man, and that his family had called the police to the scene.

In any event, Aviad Friedman wrote in his opinion piece, “Iyad al-Chalak, who was killed yesterday, has now joined the ranks of Shirael Chaburah of Rosh Ha’Ayin, Mustafa Yunis of Ara, and a chareidi youth whose parents have asked for his name to remain confidential. All of them were people with autism whose encounters with the police ended in death, all within the past two months. This cannot continue.”

In reality, there were two chareidi bochurim, not only one, who were victims of police violence. And those incidents were not fatal, boruch Hashem. But Friedman is correct regarding the other details, and his conclusion is also correct: This cannot be allowed to continue. “The police do not know how to deal with people with special needs,” he adds. “The police officers are not trained for it. They don’t know how to identify such things or what to do about them, and the results are very unfortunate.” Friedman concludes that this cannot be compared to the incident in Minneapolis, which was a case of pure cruelty, whereas the actions of the Israeli police were born of a lack of understanding. He isn’t exactly right about that, since the incidents in Israel, at least in the two cases in which the victims were chareidim, were indeed the results of pure hatred. There was absolutely no reason for the brutal violence. In conclusion, Friedman suggests that the police should learn to identify signs of mental disturbance. I cannot disagree with him, but I must add that even a person who is not mentally disturbed should not be viciously beaten.

Rav Nochum’s Puzzlement

If there is one thing we can learn from Shavuos and the practice of learning Torah throughout the night, it is that there is no greater source of simcha than Torah learning. There is a famous story about a yungerman in the Mir yeshiva whose friends observed that he seemed to have fallen into depression. The concerned yungerleit approached the rosh yeshiva, Rav Nochum Partzovitz, and asked him to speak with their friend and to try to lift his spirits.

Rav Nochum reacted with disbelief. “I know him; it is impossible for him to be depressed,” he insisted.

“But we have seen it ourselves!” his visitors protested.

“Impossible,” Rav Nochum repeated firmly. “He learns diligently all the time.”

“Yes, he is a masmid, but he is also depressed,” the yungerleit said.

“But the posuk says, ‘Pikudei Hashem yeshorim mesamchei lev—Hashem’s laws are upright and gladden the heart,’” the rosh yeshiva pointed out. “If he is dejected, then perhaps he is lacking the sense that the mitzvos are yeshorim.

This week, a yungerman presented me with a gift: a copy of his new sefer, Chofetz Chaim al HaShas. Noticing my surprise at the title, he said, “It isn’t an original work; it is a compilation.” He had collected chiddushim from all of the Chofetz Chaim’s writings and had organized them in accordance with their sources in Shas. This was obviously a sign of his encyclopedic knowledge and profound grasp of the Chofetz Chaim’s teachings, since this project would often have required him to learn an entire sugya in order to isolate a specific point that related to it in the Chofetz Chaim’s chiddushim. At the same time, he is incredibly modest: His name does not appear anywhere in the sefer; he erased it even from the effusive haskamos, and he did not include the unusually enthusiastic haskomah of Rav Chaim Kanievsky at all.

The following is an insight of the Chofetz Chaim that is cited in this sefer (on Brachos 5a) concerning the joy that is derived from learning Torah. The Gemara discusses several different strategies to overcome the yetzer hara, one of which is to engage in Torah learning. Many meforshim ask why the Gemara does not immediately present the final, most powerful option, which is to remember the day of death. The Chofetz Chaim explains, “A person can overcome [the yetzer hara] by learning Torah, as Chazal state, ‘I created the yetzer hara, and I created the Torah as its antidote’ (Kiddushin 30b). If this does not work, then [the Gemara states that] he should recite Krias Shema, meaning that he should contemplate the passage of Shema, which discusses the Oneness of Hashem, and attain the quality of yiras Shomayim, through which he can naturally defeat it…. If that does not work because of his desire for this world and its pleasures, he should remember the day of death, meaning that the time will come when he will be forced to leave the world forever…. The reason this strategy was not presented first was that it is better to serve Hashem out of joy.”

In other words, the first option, which is to engage in Torah learning, will cause one’s service of Hashem to be accompanied by joy, and it is always best to conquer the yetzer hara with simcha.