The Hakafos We Will Never Forget
None of us will ever forget Sukkos of the year 5781, and we will certainly never forget this year’s Simchas Torah. Unlike many of my neighbors, I did not spend Simchas Torah in my usual shul (Pressburg). Fortunately, there were regular minyanim taking place in the street beneath my home.
Of course, the ban on hosting guests or being hosted in another person’s home was also difficult for all of us. Sukkos is, in a sense, the Yom Tov of visiting others. Every year, I entertain dozens of guests in my sukkah, and visit many other people’s sukkos. This year, it was categorically forbidden to host anyone. Several Israeli public figures, including the director of the Shin Bet, were caught hosting their children in their homes and were criticized harshly for their actions. There was also a prohibition, which is still in effect, for any Israeli citizen to travel more than a kilometer from his home.
The greatest difficulty, of course, was posed by the hakafos on Simchas Torah. On the night of Simchas Torah, I davened in an outdoor minyan. It was little more than a vague commemoration of the standard Simchas Torah dancing. I was especially pleased to be honored with leading the hakafah of “oizer dalim.” I have received that hakafah in Pressburg for many years, and someone else at the minyan apparently revealed to the gabbai that I had a “claim” to it.
Chol Hamoed Without the Usual Trappings
This year, Chol Hamoed Sukkos did not feature any of its usual trappings. There were some who violated the laws, triggering police involvement and leading to some ugly clashes. By and large, the regulations were observed.
At the same time, there was a highly moving event at the home of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, which was broadcast live, both on video and over loudspeakers, to all the residents of Bnei Brak. It was deeply stirring because everything that involves Rav Chaim is stirring, and because almost all the rabbonim of Bnei Brak participated in the event. Above all, though, there was a heightened level of emotion due to the reports that Rav Chaim had contracted the coronavirus. Everyone has been davening for a speedy recovery for Rav Shmaryohu Yosef Chaim ben Pesha Miriam.
Of course, all of Klal Yisroel is united by a genuine interest in Rav Chaim’s well-being. Even the secular political leaders have made public statements to that effect. Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote, “I wish a complete and fast recovery to the gaon of Torah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky. I join with all the people of Israel in praying for the rov’s health.” Benny Gantz released a public statement asserting, “Our hearts and prayers are directed for the recovery of Rav Kanievsky, who tested positive for corona. I wholeheartedly wish him a refuah sheleimah and absolute health.” At least Netanyahu and Gantz can agree on one thing….
During Chol Hamoed, I visited the Kosel Hamaaravi. Don’t ask how I managed to get past all the roadblocks, not to mention the electronic gates at the entrance to the Kosel parking lot. (Actually, that last part was the easiest; the police officer at the entrance to the Kosel opened the gate for me without asking a single question. He probably assumed that if I had made it all the way there, I must have been a very important person.)
It was incredibly disheartening to see the Kosel plaza so empty on Chol Hamoed. On an ordinary Chol Hamoed day, there are tens of thousands of people at the Kosel at any given time. When I was there, I saw only three other men, presumably residents of the Jewish Quarter. In principle, the Kosel was completely closed to visitors. And that is another reason that we will never be able to forget Sukkos of the year 5781.
Will the Winter Zman Begin Normally?
The big question now is what will happen at the beginning of next week, when the winter zman begins. Roni Numa, one of the leading figures in the fight against Covid and the man responsible for Bnei Brak, has projected that the zman will not begin on time at all. He expects that the bochurim will remain at home rather than returning to their yeshivos. Of course, that will make for a very sad situation. On the other hand, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that he instructed the Home Front Command to prepare for the “academic year” to begin in yeshivos with the capsule program in place. (Gantz is not familiar with the concept of a zman). The capsules are not an ideal setup, and the yeshivos will not be able to accommodate all of their talmidim in capsules, forcing many bochurim to stay home (which is a tremendous problem in its own right, although this isn’t the place to discuss it). But that is the lesser of two evils.
This Sunday, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, the head of Chinuch Atzmai, instructed all the schools in the network to have their students participate in remote learning. In a letter to the principals, Rav Sorotzkin wrote, “Following the instructions of our rabbonim and in keeping with the decisions of the medical authorities and the official announcements at this time, it is required to resume remote studies.” While the chiloni students throughout the country will be participating in classes over Zoom, the chareidi children will be taught over the telephone. It is very difficult, and it is very saddening.
The Incitement Continues
Meanwhile, the coronavirus is continuing its record spread. New cases are being recorded at a rapid pace, as the rates of intubations and deaths have also been rising. But we do not need the statistics to inform us of the situation; we can see it for ourselves in the streets, on the mourning notices posted on our neighborhood walls, and in the announcements in the press reporting deaths. The chiloni media is continuing to report that the infection rates are highest in the chareidi community. While this fact is accurate, there are several reasons for it. One is the fact that the rate of testing is also highest in the chareidi sector; when there are more tests, there are bound to be more cases detected. If the same percentage of chilonim were to undergo testing, they would probably find that the infection rate was the same. Of course, there is also the fact that chareidim live in more densely populated communities, but we will not revisit that issue now.
Interestingly, although the number of corona cases in the chareidi community rose, the number of intubations and deaths has remained the same as in the general populace. What does this signify? First of all, it is a sign of Divine chessed. Second, it is possible that many of the infected people in the chareidi community are younger and therefore less susceptible to harm from the virus.
But none of these facts interest the chilonim at all. Their incitement machine is operating at full blast, and the secular press is even producing caricatures of chareidim that evoke the most appalling anti-Semitic imagery. Personally, I have grown tired of hearing the constant accusations that chareidim are responsible for spreading the coronavirus.
Sometimes the incitement crosses every possible red line. This week, for instance, there was a very clear double standard in Yediot Acharonot. On one page of the newspaper, an article covering the chiloni protests against Netanyahu was accompanied by the legend, printed in large letters, “The Time Has Come for All of Us to Join the Rebellion.” This was a show of unequivocal support for the protestors, who have egregiously violated the law against public gatherings. It is still permitted to demonstrate, albeit under restrictions, but they have ignored all the restrictions and do not observe the Health Ministry’s guidelines. On the very next page, the newspaper featured a picture of chareidim celebrating Simchas Torah, with a caption describing the festivities as “Hakafos in Violation of the Law.” There was no encouragement here—only opposition. And then there was another spurious allegation: that chareidim were deliberately contracting the virus in order to be placed in coronavirus hotels. “Chareidim Flock to the Hotels,” one headline announced stridently, insinuating that the chareidim were happy to become ill and to be placed in isolation in order to receive a free hotel stay. It was appalling!
Professor Ravid’s Verbal Slip
During Chol Hamoed, we were “treated” to a mouthful of invective from none other than Professor Motti Ravid, the director of Maayanei HaYeshuah Hospital in Bnei Brak. I know Professor Ravid, and he is usually a very polite person. He is an international expert on the health issues caused by the combination of high blood pressure and diabetes. I once visited him as a patient and found him to be superlatively gracious. At the end of the appointment, he refused even to take a cent from me. But now this mighty man has fallen.
In a radio interview, Ravid declared, “This is truly one of the wildest incidents ever to take place in the history of the State of Israel. Until today, there has never been an entire community that ignored the law in this way and killed people with their actions. I don’t understand the connection between religion and what they do. They have been taught for years to take everything and to give nothing. There is no connection between faith and religion and the things they do…. The population of Bnei Brak is different. Most of the people try to observe the rules, but very many of them do not exactly succeed, because the city is very crowded, and that crowding is a way of life with no alternative…. There are chassidish neighborhoods in Bnei Brak where the residents completely ignore the regulations. It doesn’t help to talk to the rabbonim; there is complete disregard for authority today. The rabbonim have lost control. Their chassidim understand that there is no coercion, and therefore they do as they please.”
Ravid’s comments were shocking. After all, as the director of Maayanei HaYeshuah, he has certainly observed the chareidi community’s extreme caution regarding the coronavirus. And how could he have labeled the chareidim as a community of takers? He is surely familiar with the vast range of chessed organizations run by the community, which assist secular Israelis as well. It was very saddening to hear these sentiments, and the fallout was inevitable. Although the professor apologized and insisted that he hadn’t been referring to the chareidi community as a whole (and the truth is that even in his original interview, he had pointed out that he was not making a general statement about chareidim), there was no choice but to sever his connection with Maayanei HaYeshuah Hospital. The hospital administration soon released a statement notifying that public that Professor Ravid would no longer be serving as the hospital director.
The Rotten Fruits of Incitement: Police Brutality
There are many reasons that we cannot afford to ignore the widespread anti-chareidi incitement, but one important reason is the effects of this phenomenon on the behavior of the police. Israeli police officers regularly turn into wild beasts when they encounter chareidim. True, there are some chareidim who break the law, and the police are responsible for enforcing the law, but the manner of that enforcement must be changed. Violence, especially brutal violence, should be completely off limits. The police certainly should not be venting their rage on citizens who have committed minor infractions. Even if some chareidim caused a police officer’s prejudice—even through shouts of “Nazi,” which generally come from small children who do not understand what they are saying—and even though violence on the part of protestors, or illegal gatherings that endanger the lives of others, should be condemned, the actions of a uniformed police officer who behaves like a common criminal are even more deplorable.
If you are imagining that the police cannot possibly have committed such egregious misbehavior, I must inform you that these are the facts. Today, everything is documented on video. Nothing can justify the sight of a police officer hurling a bucket at the head of a small child. Nothing can justify the fact that a high-ranking policeman threw a chareidi youth with disabilities (again) into a wall and then dealt him a ringing slap, after which another police officer drove his knee into the child’s face. When these videos are publicized, the police always respond that the events were taken out of context and that the videos do not show the full story. They always claim that their victims threw stones, spat at them, or assaulted them. These claims are false (a fact that is sometimes, albeit not always, proven beyond doubt), but even if they were true, it would not give a police officer license to act like a vicious animal. Unfortunately, this is what is happening in the streets of Israel today, and it is a result of the wild incitement against chareidim.
Any claims that the police make in their own defense can be easily refuted. We have all seen how secular protestors or violators of the coronavirus regulations in Tel Aviv are treated with kid gloves. But the more the police are criticized for their soft stance toward chiloni scofflaws, the more they take a harsh stance—against chareidim!
Poll Results Sow Despondence in the Government
I could write volumes about the events in Israeli politics, although anything that I choose to write about could easily become irrelevant within hours. On a general note, everyone agrees that the alliance between Netanyahu and Gantz is not working. Their relationship is plagued by mutual suspicion and possibly even enmity. And the polls merely serve to spread salt on these open wounds. According to recent polls, both Likud and Blue and White would lose several mandates in an election held today, while Yamina, headed by Naftoli Bennett, would rake in a record 20 mandates or even more. There is room for skepticism about the accuracy of the polls, but these results were enough for both Netanyahu and Gantz to sink into despair.
The polls also indicate that if Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, and former Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot form a new party, it could earn ten or more mandates. This party’s success would likely come at the expense of Blue and White, as well as Yesh Atid. That might be good for the chareidim, since anything that undermines Yesh Atid would benefit them. Huldai has already announced explicitly that when the next election comes, he will “be there.” From a chareidi perspective, Huldai himself is undesirable; however, sometimes the politicians who seem to be the worst turn out to be good for the community.
Meanwhile, Assaf Zamir has resigned from his position. You probably have never even heard of him; until now, Zamir, a member of the Blue and White party, served as the Minister of Tourism. When he announced his resignation, he declared that the government lacked purpose. Some believe that he actually resigned because he plans to run for the position of mayor of Tel Aviv; he arrived in the Knesset from the Tel Aviv municipality, and it is believed that he does not want the aura of failure to cling to him when he returns to local politics. But regardless of his motive, this is certainly part of the paralysis that has taken hold of the government as a whole.
And the government has indeed been paralyzed. For instance, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is supposed to convene at the beginning of every week to determine its positions on the various laws presented in the Knesset, but it has not met for the past two months. And that is only one example. Another example is the government’s indecision over the state budget. This issue, which nearly caused the government to fall, still has not been resolved. So the current government is barely standing. Its main function—and possibly its only function—is to deal with the coronavirus crisis, and it hasn’t been very successful even at that.
The Knesset Begins Its Winter Session
The Knesset began its winter session this week with the usual “festive” sitting, although it was difficult to see anything particularly festive about it. As usual, the president was in attendance. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Esther Chayut, sat in the VIP gallery. Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered a speech, as did Knesset speaker Yariv Levin. In keeping with the Knesset regulations, the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, was also permitted to speak. Of course, everyone’s comments were entirely predictable. Perhaps I will dedicate an article to this subject next week. Many people believe that this will be the final season of the 23rd Knesset and that we will soon be heading to elections. On the other hand, they have been saying the same thing for almost an entire year….
For the chareidi parties, this is a difficult time. They are responsible for preserving the funding for yeshivos, for instance, but it is very hard to do that when the state budget hasn’t been approved. Even more important is ensuring that bnei yeshivos remain exempt from the draft. This is an issue that has never been resolved. The Supreme Court is continuing to insist on a law that will satisfy its requirements. Of course, the court is constantly standing guard to ensure, in its words, that chareidi youths do not receive preferential treatment. The result is that the chareidi parties must come up with a law that will please the court while ensuring that Torah learning continues in the yeshiva world. There hasn’t been much discussion on this subject, which is a good thing, but the problem is actually a ticking time bomb.
A Fire in Nof HaGalil and Attempted Terror in Chevron
Israel suffered from intense heat over Chol Hamoed, which resulted in several fires. One of the blazes erupted near Modiin Illit, causing major apprehension in the city. Another major fire was near Nof HaGalil (the city known until recently as Nazareth Illit).
The fire led to the evacuation of dozens of chareidi families from their homes in the city. Nof HaGalil has welcomed new chareidi residents; the mayor, Ronen Plot, has been a strong proponent of the growth of the city’s chareidi community. Plot is a familiar figure in the Knesset, where he served as director-general of the Knesset before he was elected to his current mayoral position. He is an extremely personable fellow. During the recent crisis, he led a veritable military operation, with tremendous efficiency, to contend with the fires. He made sure that all the residents who could not return to their homes were provided with food, drink, and a place to sleep. Plot is now demanding that the government recognize the area as a disaster zone, which would make the city entitled to special funding.
“The government will have to assist us in the distribution of food and drink during the coming days,” Plot asserted. “This is an area that has been struck by a natural disaster, and the state must take responsibility for it.” He began describing the damage caused by the disaster to the city’s residents. “One of the residents of the city, an older woman who subsists on a senior citizen’s stipend, lives in a home that was severely damaged by the fire. ‘My house has no roof, and winter is coming. Where will I live?’ she asked me. And she is absolutely right. This woman doesn’t have a penny to her name.”
The disaster also gave the chareidi community an opportunity to shine. Among the thousands of families who were forced to leave their homes were dozens of chareidi families. Shortly before Shabbos, the displaced families were taken in by many other religious families. The outpouring of kindness was a true kiddush Hashem.
I must also mention once again that our enemies are still scheming to murder Jews. On the second day of Chol Hamoed, an Arab was apprehended with a knife on his way to the Chevron area, where he was planning to carry out a murderous terror attack. In another incident, three terrorists attacked an IDF vehicle with Molotov cocktails; boruch Hashem, there were no fatalities. The soldiers opened fire at the terrorists, wounding one of them. In yet another incident, IDF soldiers were forced to enter Ramallah in order to extract another group of soldiers, who had entered the city to arrest suspected terrorists and had been confronted by hostile Palestinian policemen. There has been plenty of action on this front as well!
Tefillos for Tzvika Fligelman
Reb Tzvi (“Tzvika”) Fligelman is a malach in the guise of a long-suffering man. He looks like a human being confined to a wheelchair, but there is no question that he is an angel. Due to the circumstances, he has been staying at his parents’ home in Givat Shaul rather than learning in yeshiva with his fellow bochurim. The Fligelman home is the location of the Bais Vaad program; Tzvika organizes occasional shiurim and shmuessen in his home. Most of the gedolei Yisroel have been guest speakers in Tzvika Fligelman’s program. Their speeches have been compiled into the many volumes of two series of seforim, Eretz Hatzvi and Bais Vaad.
This week, I received a copy of a letter that Tzvika circulated to his friends in Yeshivas Kol Torah, many of whom are 30 years younger than he is. “To my dear friends,” he began, “it is hard for me to think that I will begin the Elul zman of 5780, the beginning of my 33rd year in the yeshiva, at home without you. I am sure that you will also find it difficult to be without me. But this is what Hashem decreed upon us on Yom Kippur of 5780, and I am confident that everything Hashem does is for our benefit.” Tzvi Fligelman, who endures suffering more profound than almost anyone else in our generation, is also suffused with the most powerful emunah. His sincere belief that all that Hashem does is for the best would put many of us to shame. “I will end with a tefillah,” his letter concludes. “I ask one thing of Hashem; this is what I shall request—that I dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life, in the right-hand corner of the bais medrash of Yeshivas Kol Torah, and that I will soon have the privilege of expanding my chochmah and Torah learning in serenity. May I be pursued by goodness and chessed throughout the days of my life, and may I dwell in the House of Hashem for all my days.” These are the words of a bochur (who will soon reach the age of 50) who is trapped in a body that he is barely capable of moving. His spirit, however, has remained strong, and his life is an unending song of thanks to Hashem.
Another letter begins, “As we approach the end of the summer zman—during which, unfortunately, we did not have the privilege of learning together in yeshiva, on account of the coronavirus—and since I long for the company of my friends, I would like to share with you an idea that occurred to me during these days.” The letter proceeds to wax eloquent about the requirement to give thanks to Hashem for every breath that one takes. “The words ‘You preserve it within me’ [from the brocha of Elokai neshoma] refer to the breath that Hashem gives us constantly, at every moment of our lives. That is why a person fulfills his obligation even if he recites the words ‘mechayeh hameisim’ instead of ‘hamachazir neshamos.’ When we give thanks for ‘our neshamos that are entrusted to You,’ we must also keep in mind our neshimos, our ability to breathe.”
On Rosh Hashanah, I had the good fortune of davening in Pressburg along with Reb Tzvika Fligelman. He was brought to the shul and placed in his own capsule, where he gazed heavenward with an expression of rapt devotion. I watched as he davened with enormous fervor.
He was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Let us daven for his complete recovery.
It Began with a Knock at the Door
The following story was told to me by an indefatigable Lev L’Achim activist:
“Experience has taught us how to differentiate between a definitive ‘no’ and a tentative one, how to distinguish between a person who is hostile to religion and one who harbors an inner yearning for Yiddishkeit. We have learned not to be deterred from our holy work and to remember that there is a spark of holiness within every Jew that awaits a connection to his roots. We have learned all this from knocking on hundreds of doors of hundreds of chiloni homes.
“When we first met Eliran, he announced that he was not interested in what we had to offer, and he began slamming the door shut, as if to resist the temptation to give in and invite us into his home. But something about the tone of his voice implied that he was merely hiding his true interest.
“This took place at the end of the year 5770. We were a group of yungaleit from Neve Yaakov who had heeded the call of Lev L’Achim and joined the volunteers in the organization’s ‘house call’ project. We traveled in pairs, knocking on doors in secular neighborhoods without the faintest idea of who lived in each home or what sort of people we would encounter. They might be young or old, parents with children or elderly couples, or even fresh immigrants. It made no difference to us; we reached out to everyone equally. When the teenaged Eliran opened the door, we caught a glimpse of the living room behind him. Based on the pictures on the walls, we surmised that it was a fairly traditional family. We would later learn that while Eliran’s father was almost completely estranged from Yiddishkeit, the mother had a much closer connection to religion. This is a fairly common phenomenon. Before coming to the door, Eliran had clearly been engrossed in a television program.
“‘Shalom,’ my partner greeted him.
“‘Shalom,’ Eliran replied with an air of indifference.
“‘Would you like to hear a chiddush about the parshas hashavua?’ my companion asked pleasantly.
“‘No!’ the boy replied, clearly flustered. ‘I am not interested at all.’ His gaze radiated resistance, and the door began to close gently but firmly as he seemed to be drawn back to the screen that awaited him. Suddenly, however, he stopped and said, ‘All right, come out to my porch.’
“We followed him as he traversed the living room. The porch offered a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape. He produced a cigarette from somewhere and leaned against the railing. We had a brief conversation, and my partner quoted a mishnah in Pirkei Avos, raised a challenging question, and then offered a satisfying answer. Eliran listened.
“‘That is all,’ we said. ‘Would you like us to come back next week?’
“Eliran indicated his agreement.
“As we were leaving, Eliran’s mother approached us. ‘I was brought up in a religious home, and I would be happy for my children to hear Torah lessons,’ she said.
“We began visiting the family on a weekly basis and we developed a relationship with Eliran, who was approaching draft age and planned to join a paratroopers’ unit. We also became acquainted with his younger brother. A few months went by, and then we arrived one day to find that only Eliran’s brother was present. ‘Eliran is in Pisgat Zeev,’ he informed us. ‘Someone informed him about a shiur that is delivered there every night. He refuses to miss it.’ We were sorry not to see him, but we were happy that he had developed a connection to the Torah’s light.
“We met again at a siyum in Pisgat Zeev. Eliran had undergone a metamorphosis. He told us that he was no longer planning to join the army. He would be learning instead in Yeshivas Ohr Shraga in Bayit Vegan, on the advice of his maggid shiur in Pisgat Zeev. During bein hazemanim, we met in the shul near his home. We were told that he had become a stellar masmid, learning for many hours every day.
“Eliran had become a different person. He had traded in his colorful garb and kippah serugah for the standard attire of a ben Torah. He dressed in black and white, sporting a hat and jacket, with peyos protruding prominently from behind his ears, and, most importantly, with a joyous light radiating from his eyes. And he had another surprise in store for us. ‘I have become engaged,’ he announced.
“‘To whom?’ we asked.
“‘A tzaddeikes from the seminary,’ he said. ‘Her father is a yungerman in kollel.’
“Who would have imagined that all this would begin with a single incisive vort on Pirkei Avos? Who would have imagined that a simple knock on a door would begin a process that would turn a young man’s life around completely? Here was a youth who had been headed toward a career as a paratrooper in the IDF and had become a dedicated kollel yungerman who was perpetually immersed in learning. We will never forget those moments when he wavered between his television program and granting us, the visiting yungerleit, a few minutes to share a dvar Torah with him. The fateful decision he made that day marked a turning point in his life.
“I am certain that there are thousands of others like him,” the kiruv activist concluded, “all of whom have seen their lives turned around completely because of Lev L’Achim. Their new lives can be credited to the entire organization—the kiruv workers who knock on strangers’ doors, the directors of Lev L’Achim, and the organization’s donors. Ashreichem!