A Rough Start
We have never had an Elul like this before. Tens of thousands of yeshiva bochurim and kollel yungerleit are immersing themselves in Torah learning. The fear of Covid is being set aside, replaced with the awe and reverence of the month of Elul. The name of Elul can be read as an acronym for “anu l’Kah v’eineinu l’Kah,” a posuk that expresses our complete reliance on Hashem. Today, thousands of young men are flocking to the country’s botei medrash, where they are opting to remain confined until the final shofar blast signaling the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
The coronavirus has sown devastation in our world, but it has also brought many positive developments in its wake. New shiurim have been launched, as bochurim and yungaleit have learned Torah with enormous diligence under the most trying conditions. Yungaleit in Neve Yaakov have donated the funds they received from their government grants to support Torah learning in local kollelim. During bein hazemanim, I witnessed a man learning in the basement of the Zichron Yaakov shul, and I mused that at that moment, it was quite possible that he was sustaining the entire world as it battled the coronavirus.
And now Elul has arrived. As the month began, thousands of yeshiva bochurim arrived in the country on flights from Kennedy and Newark and immediately entered their capsules. Two hundred fifty bnei Torah from Yeshivas Mir are in Ein Gedi, while 100 talmidim of Ner Moshe were placed in Kfar Haroeh. Last week, we all watched with delight as American bnei Torah flooded our country. And I received a most interesting request from Yeshivas Mir: The administration asked if I could provide them with several dozen copies of this newspaper for the bochurim to read during their isolation in Ein Gedi.
This week, a famed marbitz Torah in Yerushalayim quoted Rav Meir Stern, the rosh yeshiva of Passaic, who related the following anecdote: “Rav Boruch Ber once approached a bochur who had arrived in his yeshiva and asked him, ‘Well? How is it going?’ The bochur replied, ‘Boruch Hashem, all is well.’ Rav Boruch Ber said, ‘In that case, it seems that the zman hasn’t yet begun for you.’ The bochur was shocked by this response, but Rav Boruch Ber explained, ‘If Chazal tell us that kol haschalos kashos—all beginnings are difficult—how can everything be going smoothly for you? Clearly, you haven’t yet begun!’”
Indeed, it would not be a good omen if things were easy for us at this time. If the beginning of Elul is easy, then it is simply a sign that we haven’t truly entered the month of Elul.
The marbitz Torah who quoted Rav Meir Stern took this discussion one step further. Why, he asked, is it inevitable for every beginning to be difficult? Would it be a disadvantage for anyone if something began with ease? He proceeded to suggest that it would indeed be problematic. The way of the Torah is for every beginning to be difficult. As evidence of his contention, he cited the famous moshol of the old man sitting at the crossroads. He quoted the version which appears in Daas Zekeinim: “There was an old man sitting at a crossroads with two paths before him. One was paved with thorns at the beginning but was smooth for the rest of the way, while the other was smooth at the beginning and was paved with thorns afterward. [The old man] warned passersby to beware of the path that was smooth at the beginning, for it would be filled with thorns until the end, and to follow the path that was difficult at the beginning because it would go on to be easy. Those who listened to him, even though they exerted themselves a bit at the beginning, were able to complete their journeys in peace. But anyone who did not listen to him and who followed the path that was smooth at the beginning went on to suffer. So too, a person who sins and remains complacent will experience pleasure and travel a smooth path in this world, but when he dies, he will be sent to Gehinnom, which is filled with thorns. But a person who exerts himself in this world and studies the Torah and its mitzvos will inherit Olam Haba, which is completely smooth [and filled with] pleasure and joy.”
There are only two possible paths that a person can take in life. One is littered with hardships and entails the exertion of observing the Torah and mitzvos, but it will ultimately lead to a joyous, rewarding existence. The hardships come only at the outset—in keeping with the principle of kol haschalos kashos—but if we overcome those hardships, we will experience pleasure.
The rov related that Rav Moshe Shapiro had delivered a speech at a bris in Monsey 40 years earlier, in which he discussed Parshas Reeh and the brachos and curses it describes. Both the blessings and the curses, Rav Moshe commented, have an “address,” but the Torah gives us a mandate: “You shall seek His dwelling place and come there.” In order to receive the Shechinah, a person must toil (“you shall seek”) and remove himself from his “place,” from his preconceived notions and ingrained habits.
For everyone who has already entered the world of Elul and is experiencing the hardship of a new beginning, let it be known that it was the correct path to choose. Our world is sustained by those who choose that path, who will certainly go on to inherit both this world and the World to Come.
Then there is the coronavirus. The virus appears to have no intention of leaving us, and that is extremely dispiriting. We have been living in the shadow of the virus since Purim, and Rosh Hashanah is about to arrive. How much longer can we tolerate this? We were restricted to spending the Seder night with our nuclear families, and it appears that the situation will be the same on Sukkos. The lockdown that we experienced on Pesach, when the police did not allow people even to walk down the street from one neighborhood to another, may well be repeated on Sukkos.
The situation is not good. Over the 24 hours prior to this writing (that is, over the course of Shabbos), more than ten people passed away. That is a huge number by any measure. According to the Health Ministry’s statistics, over 100,000 people in Israel have been infected with the coronavirus to date. We never dreamed that the figures would be so high. The hospitals are trying to reassure the public that all the fatalities were people who suffered from “background illnesses,” but that is hardly encouraging, especially for someone who understands the principle of Divine hashgochah. The virus appears to be a terrible gezeirah, and we must daven with all our might for Hashem to rid us of this plague.
Professor Roni Gamzu, the national coordinator of the fight against Covid, spoke this week about the possibility of a lockdown. “It isn’t inevitable that there will be a lockdown on the holidays,” he asserted. “I believe that we can bring down the infection rate. There are four weeks remaining until then, and I want to avoid a lockdown. It is true that I spoke about the possibility of a closure because I am worried, but we must all create the possibility of avoiding it.” Gamzu was also fiercely critical about the large public gatherings that have taken place throughout the country, in violation of the Health Ministry’s guidelines. “Pictures of parties in closed areas distress me,” he said. “The police must not stand by; they must close these places. The enforcement in Israel is not good enough. Order in public is vital in order to fight corona.”
Rancor over Rosh Hashanah
The coronavirus has led to a bitter dispute over the widespread custom of traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. The director of the coronavirus project has an unequivocal opinion on the subject. Professor Roni Gamzu said, “[Going to] Uman is not the holidays of Tishrei and it is not something holy. It is a hillula or a party, and there is no need for it to be done. It can bring us closer to a lockdown. The entire government must be resolute in gaining the trust of the public and telling the chassidim not to travel to Uman at this time. It will endanger lives in Israel. I am announcing that there will be no flights to Uman, period.”
Last weekend, Gamzu demanded that the Coronavirus Cabinet order the Airports Authority to cancel all flights to the kever of Reb Nachman of Breslov in advance of Rosh Hashanah. “No one should go to Uman this year to pray at the kever of Rav Nachman of Breslov,” he asserted. “This might cause a mass infection event not only among the thousands of travelers themselves but also among the local residents in Ukraine. The government must direct the Airports Authority to ban all direct flights to Ukraine due to the health concern.” Gamzu added that he hoped that the leaders of both countries would put a complete halt to all flights to Uman this year, out of a sense of responsibility for public health.
In addition to all this, Gamzu reportedly penned an official letter to the president of Ukraine with a request for all flights to Uman to be suspended, due to the public health menace and the potential danger to human life, Israeli and Ukrainian alike. He has been heavily criticized for taking a drastic step on his own before the government made an official decision on the subject.
On Monday and Tuesday this week, the chareidi government ministers and Breslov representatives are scheduled to meet with the prime minister and to work out an agreement on the issue. Israeli leaders of the Breslov chassidus (as well as Deputy Minister Meir Porush, who feels that he represents them) believe that it is possible to find ways to limit the number of visitors to Uman and to prevent mass contagion. In any event, it has been reported that thousands of Israelis are already in Uman now. Let us hope that with Hashem’s help, no harm will come them.
Complete Lack of Trust Between Netanyahu and Gantz
Speaking of large gatherings, the huge protests against the prime minister are continuing, as the complex political situation remains unresolved. The demonstrations outside the prime minister’s residence on Rechov Balfour (as well as outside Netanyahu’s private home in Caesaria) have only become larger. The demonstrators have also become more violent. The protests have begun rioting, and the police have begun taking a harsh stance toward them. A senior police officer was recently filmed striking a leftist protestor; he has already been dismissed and is under investigation. Strangely, the police force has never been so quick or tenacious in taking action against its officers for violence against chareidi demonstrators….
The political situation in the country now is not particularly encouraging. The distrust between Netanyahu and Gantz seems to be at an all-time high, and the Blue and White party seems to be plagued by internal conflict. It has been claimed that Gabi Ashkenazi, the second-in-command of the party and the current foreign minister, is vying with Benny Gantz for the party’s leadership. The third man on the list, Avi Nissenkorn (the current Minister of Justice) has also found himself at the center of a political maelstrom, as it was revealed that he recently closed an investigation that had been opened against him. The Likud party claims that this was a conspiracy: Mandelblit agreed to close the case against Nissenkorn in exchange for the minister’s protection against the Likud’s attacks on him. Nissenkorn responded with great indignance to the allegations.
The issue that is threatening to topple the government is the state budget. The law calls for the government to be automatically dissolved if a budget was not passed by Monday, a date that has obviously passed. The opposition proposed that the Blue and White party should support a motion of no confidence against the government on Monday; and if the motion were to pass Yair Lapid would automatically become prime minister.
On the other hand, if a budget has not passed and the law proposed by Minister Hendel and MK Hauser, which would extend the deadline for passing a budget, is also not accepted, then the government will fall. As I write these lines, I have no idea if our current government will still exist at the end of the week. it is logical to assume that both sides will come to their senses and reach an agreement; in fact, Aryeh Deri and Benny Gantz met Sunday in an effort to devise a solution for the government’s current situation. But in a state like ours, anything is possible.
Thirteen Missiles and Dozens of Fires
Let us return to worldly concerns, including some of the burning issues of the day. In one case, the term “burning” should be taken quite literally. The cities of the south have been suffering under a barrage of missiles from Gaza, which have been launched with the goal of sparking fires and sowing destruction. Along with the missiles, the terrorists have also been flying explosive kites over the border. It has been quite a while since I reported on the phenomenon of kite terror, which subsided a bit, but it has increased in intensity again over the past couple of weeks. Fortunately, the terror attacks did not cause any loss of life, but the explosions created dozens of fires that destroyed thousands of dunams of fields. Over the past week, the terrorists also fired thirteen missiles in the direction of the settlements in southern Israel. Twelve of those missiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome.
The entire Hamas leadership has gone into hiding following warnings that Israel may return to its policy of targeted assassinations.
Rocket attacks heavily damaged a Sderot home and burned a local kindergarten to the ground.
“It’s a miracle,” said Shlomo Malka, whose home was hit by a rocket or Iron Dome shards while he was asleep. “We did not hear the alert at all, we were awoken by the explosion. It cut the house in two. It hit the roof of the secure room. Suddenly, we heard explosions and smelled smoke. We ran to the police station. It was only after we left that we saw the destruction.”
Meanwhile, Hamas is struggling to remain relevant by threatening to “burn Tel Aviv with thousands of missiles.” The terror organization is displeased by the prospect of further peace agreements, which could weaken the standing of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Arab world (and the Western world as well). However, they have also directed specific demands at Israel—in particular, to stop the targeted assassinations of terror leaders. Israel has been conducting secret military operations that have severely undermined many terror organizations, including Hamas.
In summary, we have no shortage of problems in our tiny state.
Funding Restored for Yeshivos and Kollelim
As of Sunday, senior officials in the Likud and Blue and White parties estimated that the probability of new elections taking place was about 50 percent, and both parties struggled to come up with a compromise to prevent that from happening. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gantz have been considering the compromise solution advanced by MK Tzvika Hauser, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, whereby the deadline for passing a budget would be extended by 100 days, and a committee would be established in the interim to discuss the new appointments of senior officials required by the coalition agreement. (Certain positions, especially the commissioner of the police force, are the subject of major disputes between the Likud and Blue and White.) Hauser has suggested that all new appointments should be frozen during the coming hundred days, as the government focuses on the battle against the coronavirus and the flu in advance of the winter, as well as the security challenges on the border with Gaza and in the north.
The chareidi parties are involved in this conflict partly because it would be problematic for them as well if the government fell, but even more so because it affects the funding for yeshivos. The parties released a joint statement on Sunday announcing their support for MK Hauser’s proposal: “The representatives of Shas and UTJ will support the compromise agreement being developed between the Likud and Blue and White, based on the Hauser Law to postpone the dissolution of the Knesset and allow for an agreement on the budget and the Arrangements Law to be approved within the time span agreed upon by the parties. Until that time, the monthly budget will be determined based on one twelfth of the annual budget of 2019, with an increase of one percent…. It is imperative to avoid an unnecessary election and to work together for the sake of the citizens of Israel in the battle against corona and flu as the winter approaches, and in the severe economic crisis that is affecting Israel.”
According to the agreement, the law will contain a clause requiring an increase of 2.5 percent in the budget for the year 2020, which will make it possible to transfer sorely needed funds to the country’s yeshivos and kollelim. The chareidi parties demanded the sum of 400 million shekels for yeshivos that the government failed to include in the 2019 budget, and according to sources within UTJ, the demand was accepted both by the Likud and by Blue and White.
Lapid’s Vicious Tongue
Two weeks ago, I witnessed a very sad scene in the Knesset, as Prime Minister Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid repeatedly took to the podium to hurl insults at each other. This took place during a discussion about the so-called “anti-Bibi law,” which would make it illegal for a person who has been indicted on criminal charges to be tasked with forming a government. Lapid spoke first in order to present the proposal, and then Bibi chose to deliver the government’s response. Lapid then invoked the Knesset regulation that allowed him to return to the podium for additional “persuasion”; after all, Yair Lapid is the last person in the world who would forgo any right to speak. The proposal was then put to a vote and struck down by a majority of 53 to 37, and Lapid and Netanyahu both returned to the podium once again, invoking their respective rights to deliver a “personal message”—a right conferred on a member of the Knesset who feels that he has been offended.
As usual, Lapid made some inaccurate statements. He claimed that the unemployment rate in Israel is three times greater than in Europe, while statistics show that the opposite is true. He also rebuked Netanyahu, who had mentioned his father, the late Tommy Lapid, “It is customary to add the words zichro l’brachah when speaking about someone who has passed away.” In fact, Netanyahu had indeed appended the phrase “zichrono l’vrachah” to the elder Lapid’s name. But that is not the issue at hand.
Netanyahu denounced Lapid fiercely. “You are a perpetual impostor,” he declared. “Without a matriculation certificate, you tried to obtain a fake doctorate. You also pretend to espouse democracy, but you are actually a dictator with an eternal hold on the leadership of Yesh Atid until the end of time. You are a phony democrat, together with your partner, Ayman Odeh.”
Netanyahu’s verbal barrage, while combative, was still within the realm of acceptable parliamentary discourse. Lapid, on the other hand, showed his vicious true colors by discarding any semblance of propriety. “The only thing that interests you is avoiding prison time!” he blared. “You lie awake at night and imagine yourself locked in a prison cell… Everyone sees the perspiration on your brow, because you know that you will end up in jail, and you are afraid of it.” I felt tears come to my eyes as I listened to him speak!
How can a human being spew such venom? This was akin to mocking a disabled person for his disability. It would take a person with a heart of pure evil to unleash such a vitriolic attack on any other human being. Does Lapid have no heart at all? Then again, he was equally brutal as a journalist. Years ago, he used deplorable language to attack a soldier named Chananel Dayan, after then-General Elazar Stern leaked personal information about the soldier to him. His behavior was utterly abhorrent!
Yair Lapid is following in the footsteps of his father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who founded the Shinui party and was one of the most aggressive and implacable foes of the religious community. On the television program Popolitika, where the elder Lapid first rose to celebrity status, he was in the habit of brutally insulting people to the point that they would burst into tears. He once mocked MK Amir Peretz’s mustache in a speech in the Knesset; the other lawmakers were horrified, while Peretz himself was on the verge of tears. And little has changed; today the Knesset gasps in horror upon listening to the biting invective of Tommy Lapid’s son. This level of audacity leads one to think that the Lapid family’s origins should be investigated. It should come as no surprise that Rav Shteinman once said that he extended his blessing to every Jew except the “Lapidniks.” Both Lapids, father and son, act in a way that is anathema to Judaism, and their vicious invective is the type of talk that could never emerge from the mouth of a Jew.
The Steipler Advises a Stuttering Bochur
Rav Eliyohu Mann, who had a close connection to the Steipler Gaon during the latter’s final years, related the following incident: “I once told the rov about a bochur who was learning in our yeshiva and suffered from many challenges and hardships because he stuttered heavily. The Steipler replied, ‘There is something that I told to someone who had a major stutter’—and he demonstrated the stutter for my benefit—‘and today he is a top-notch chazzan on Yom Kippur, who recites the entire davening, including the seder of the Avodah, and has never been heard to stammer. A stutter is rooted in the habit of speaking too quickly, which interferes with the proper flow of speech. Therefore, the solution is to speak slowly. The most important thing is also to enunciate every syllable independently.’”
I came across this story last week, when it was published in honor of the Steipler’s yahrtzeit. Upon reading it, I remembered that I had heard a similar story—or perhaps even the same one—from a certain talmid chochom who had learned in the same yeshiva that I attended. He had suffered from a severe stutter, until he suddenly began speaking normally. He claimed that it was the result of a ‘mofeis’ performed by the Steipler. This week, I contacted him and asked him to share his story again.
“I was about 22 years old,” he recalled. “I visited the Steipler and told him that I was having difficulties in shidduchim since I had been stuttering for many years. He replied, ‘I am certain that you were sent to speech therapists who told you to make all sorts of peculiar sounds with your throat.’ The Steipler mimicked those sounds, and then he advised me, ‘Pronounce every sound very slowly. Daven slowly; do not rush through the davening. Get used to speaking slowly as well; enunciate every word with care.’ He opened a siddur and asked me to read along with him, ‘Ash-rei. Yosh-vei. Vei-se-cha.’ Then he concluded, ‘If you do as I tell you, you will be able to receive an aliyah in another half a year, and you will even be a chazzan on the Yomim Noraim.”
“Is that what happened?” I asked.
“Yes, it was. Boruch Hashem.” The man suddenly burst into tears. “Forgive me,” he said. “I cry whenever I think about the Steipler.”
“I believe you have another story about the Steipler,” I said. “Didn’t he tell you to relax on the beach?”
“There was an incident like that,” he replied, “but the story involved Rav Chaim Greineman. I suffered from severe stress when I was a bochur, and I approached Rav Chaim Greineman and asked for his advice. He told me that I should go to the beach, and I made several visits there, but there was no improvement. I returned to him and he said, ‘Keep going there. Sit on the sand, breathe the air, and look at the waves.’ Then he added, ‘This isn’t my idea; it is the advice of the Chazon Ish. He used to say that every problem has a solution in nature, and the ocean is nature’s calming pill.’”
You once told me that you told this story to Rav Dov Landau.
“Yes, and he confirmed that the Chazon Ish said that.”
I thanked the man for his time, and he suddenly remembered another fascinating story. “Here is something that I never told you before,” he said. “I was about to become engaged to a girl with the family name Shemesh, but her father said that I had the mazel of fire and she had the mazel of water, and we were not compatible. He was opposed to the shidduch. I was despondent, and I went to speak with Rav Kanievsky zt”l. At that time, I was an older bochur, and I was distraught over the prospect of losing the shidduch. I told him about the situation, and he began shouting, ‘What is all this talk about mazalos? What does this Shemesh want from you? Is there anything new under the sun? What do these mekubolim want?’ When he saw that I was in tears, he added, ‘It seems that this is not the shidduch for you. Hashem will help you find a different shidduch, and you will build a bayis neeman.’”
What is it about this story that you find so impressive?
“The fact that he called the father ‘Shemesh.’ I hadn’t even told him that their name was Shemesh!”
Are you sure about that?
“As sure as the midday sun!” he replied with a laugh.