My Take on the News

The Sin of Conceit

I have told you in the past that the controversy over the Kosel was only just beginning. As of now, it appears that those words were an understatement.

The chareidi parties have rejoined the battle, probably due to public pressure, but also, even more importantly, because of the directives of the gedolim, and they have presented an ultimatum to Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. No one knows what will be the result of that ultimatum, but the objective is clear: There must be no recognition of the Reform movement. One of the demands is that there must not be two Kosels, one for chareidim and one for the Reform. That alone would send a message of equality between the two movements. For that reason, I was personally very displeased by the headlines in the chareidi media that spoke of the “Reform Kosel.” There is no such thing.

The one thing that has truly disturbed me throughout this story is the conceit displayed by Binyomin Netanyahu. He has had the temerity to do what no one else has ever dared to attempt. He has also forgotten the events of recent history: Another prime minister of this country, Ehud Olmert, was swept off the political stage by nothing but his own conceit. Olmert eventually paid the price for his arrogant treatment of Shula Zaken, the manager of his office, when she testified against him in court and brought a prison sentence upon him. Arrogance is not only a sin; it is also a trait that can destroy a person. There can be no middle ground when it comes to this trait; the Rambam rules that haughtiness is a tendency that must be eradicated completely from one’s heart. Pride blinds a person; the sense that there is no other person of importance warps his logic and robs him of the capacity for rational thought.

Recently, Netanyahu has fallen into the trap of pride. This is manifest in all of his dealings, both within the country and with other nations. From our standpoint, his most egregious and infuriating display of haughtiness was his defiant meeting with the Reform Jews. He has shown complete disregard for every conceivable boundary. It is very sad.

Speaking of Netanyahu, I have another observation to make. Adar is the month of mazel. During Adar, the mazel of the Jewish people is elevated. Chazal teach us that when a Jew has a court case with a non-Jew, he should seek to postpone it until Adar. But Netanyahu’s recent experiences seem to indicate that this is merely a general rule, but there are some people – such as Netanyahu himself – who simply have no mazel.

Netanyahu returned from a recent visit to Germany and triumphantly announced that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, agreed with his position on the two-state solution. One week later, he was showered with criticism when senior German officials announced that Netanyahu had distorted Merkel’s words. Then, twenty-four hours after his clash with Yair Lapid over who deserved the credit for the removal of anti-Israel posters in the London subways, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced in the British parliament that he was appalled by the Israeli “conquest” of East Yerushalayim. Netanyahu also sent President Reuven Rivlin to meet with Vladimir Putin in Russia, causing Rivlin to cancel a visit to Australia that had been planned months earlier, a move that offended the Australians and led them to condemn Israel’s conduct. Apparently, a person needs mazel even to have mazel.

The Heart Cannot Be Divided

It is interesting to see how the Religious-Zionist rabbonim in the State of Israel became uncharacteristically vociferous on the subject of the Kosel. Dozens of Religious-Zionist rabbonim showed up to demonstrate their support for the chief rabbis at a special gathering on the subject.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that the Chief Rabbinical Council also issued its own fierce condemnation of the new arrangement, demonstrating no fear of the prime minister. They even went so far as to insist that Netanyahu not make another move on the matter without consulting them first. “We, and no one else, are in charge of the Kosel,” they asserted. Naturally, they mean that in the legal sense as well.

After conferring among themselves, the rabbonim of the Religious-Zionist movement issued their own proclamation: “We have come today to support the chief rabbis, who are responsible for all religious matters in our holy land, and who are waging the fierce battle against those who are trying in every way to sink their claws into us with legislation that will abrogate the status quo. We protest vehemently against the crude interference in sacred matters by politicians who bow to the dictates and pressures of foreigners. The sole authority on these matters must be the chief rabbinate, as has been the case since the establishment of the state. Neither the Supreme Court nor any senior politician, no matter who he is, may dictate matters of Torah and halachah. We have heard that the rabbonim are being pressured to compromise, but there can be no compromises on the Kosel! No one has the authority to split our sacred sanctum; the heart of our people cannot be divided in two! Giving official status to the Reform movement is an act that tears apart the heart of our nation and destroys our unity; it is like placing an idol in the sanctuary. We call on anyone who values the State of Israel to stand strong in order to have this decision repealed.”

A Brouhaha Over Beards

Here is another story that stirred up a tempest in the State of Israel this past week. The army issued a new edict requiring all soldiers to shave their beards. Religious soldiers must submit a special request to the commanders of their bases, or to other officials, to be allowed to keep their beards. The officials will have the authority to decide whether to accept their requests. Those decisions will be made according to their level of religiosity. Do you think this sounds ludicrous? Or perhaps it sounds sad? Either way, you are right; it is both. This enraged many people, because the authority to decide whether a soldier is “religious” has always rested with a military rov, to whom the soldier is subordinate. From now on, that decision will be made by a secular officer. He will have to take the opinion of the military rov into account, but the decision will be his.

It all began when many chilonim in the army decided to evade the requirement to shave, announcing that they wished to grow beards. When they were told that the army prohibits it, some of them demanded to know why religious soldiers are permitted to keep their beards. Others decided simply that they, too, were “religious.” Like everything else that happens in this country, the matter was brought to the Supreme Court, and then the army announced that it would be instituting a new order. From now on, the requirement to shave would apply to all soldiers, except those who are prohibited to shave for medical or religious reasons. And a secular officer will decide which soldiers qualify for exceptions.

To make a long story short, this led to an uproar. The army realized that it had taken the matter too far, and last Wednesday it announced that the new regulations would be put on hold. Nevertheless, even if the army relented, the essential problem still exists. As I told someone this week, the problem is not in the beards; it is in the heads. That is, the problem is in the heads of all the commanders in the army today, who are trying to diminish the standing of the military rabbinate. As one of the members of the Knesset remarked, since we are already receiving military and security aid from America, perhaps we should ask them to send us some common sense for our officers as well.

The Reward for a Mitzvah

Speaking of the IDF, Rabbi Avichai Ronsky was released from the hospital last week. Rabbi Ronsky is the rov of the military mechinah and is a very important figure in Religious-Zionism. He is very close with Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education. Most importantly, he was the chief rabbi of the IDF before Rafi Peretz, who currently holds that position.

The story of Avichai Ronsky’s hospital stay began when he decided to donate a kidney to a patient in need of the organ. There is an organization in Israel known as Matnas Chaim, which encourages healthy people to donate vital organs to the sick. The organization has accomplished incredible things, and Ronsky presented himself as a candidate many times. Several months ago, he was invited to begin the donation process, which entails a series of comprehensive medical examinations. As a result of those examinations, he discovered that he had a cancerous growth in his abdomen. Had he not insisted on donating an organ, the disease would likely not have been discovered at all – or at least not until it was too late.

Last week, Ronsky went home, giving thanks to Hashem, to the professional staff of Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikvah, and to his family. He underwent two operations and then returned home for a process of rehabilitation and recovery. May he have a refuah sheleimah.

“Pack Your Things and Go Home!”

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is currently behind bars at Maasiyahu Prison, and I have something to say on the subject. Olmert is likely the most high-ranking inmate ever to be admitted to an Israeli jail. In this case, he is in Block 10 of Ramle Prison, which includes four different jails: Ayalon, Nitzan, Maasiyahu, and Neve Tirza. The prison in Ramle is a facility teeming with thousands of inmates. Block 8 of Maasiyahu Prison is reserved for religious inmates. Here, too, there are prisoners who claim innocence of any crime, accepting Hashem’s judgment but vehemently denying having broken the law.

The prisons of Israel are overflowing with prisoners staunchly maintaining their innocence – and sometimes they are right. This past week, I hosted a charming gentleman in the Knesset who had been released from prison just a month earlier. One day, the wardens rushed into his cell in the religious wing of the prison in Ramle and ordered him, “Pack your belongings and go home.” The man had already grown accustomed to the metallic, apathetic tones with which he was addressed, and he was not particularly surprised by the order. He had always believed that he would be exonerated.

“What happened?” he asked the brown-uniformed guards.

“You were exonerated in the Supreme Court,” they barked. “Take your things and go home.”

“Wait a minute,” the inmate told his jailers. “I’m not in any rush. We haven’t davened Maariv yet and I want to take leave of my friends. In fact, what’s the reason for the rush? I’ll leave tomorrow.” The guards were taken aback. Once the court had ordered his release, it was his obligation to leave as quickly as possible. The other inmates danced with joy to celebrate their friend’s release. He had been imprisoned for almost two years already, protesting his innocence and maintaining that he had been framed for a crime he did not commit, but his protestations had been met with mockery. “Three judges on the District Court convicted me unanimously,” he told me when we met in the dairy cafeteria of the Knesset, “and three justices of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that I was innocent.”

The District Court sentenced him to eight years of incarceration, and he had spent almost two years in Maasiyahu by the time he was freed. During his court case, he did not accept the lawyers’ recommendation to enter a plea bargain, refusing to confess to a crime he did not commit. Now, following his acquittal, he described his experiences with surprising impassivity. “Everything is from Hashem,” he declared.

To my astonishment, I discovered that he harbors no ill will toward anyone. He merely davens that no one else should be subjected to such a fate. He is now in the process of opening an organization that will provide aid to inmates in prison. I was captivated by his noble personality.

It is really quite amazing that this incident did not make headlines, even on the national level in Israel itself. Such things do not happen every day. The lesson here is that a convicted felon isn’t always truly guilty, and a judge isn’t always right. Therefore, let us not rejoice when a “criminal” falls into the hands of the Israel Prison Services – including Ehud Olmert.

Dancing Over a Downfall

In general, I have sympathy even for people in prison. That is simply part of my nature. For many years, I have placed myself at the disposal of the inmates in the “Torah wing,” especially for the purpose of communicating on their behalf with MK Dovid Azulai, who serves today as the Minister of Religious Affairs. Many prisoners would have lost their sanity without his help. In his day, Azulai used his role as the chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee to bring some light into the darkened lives of the prisoners in that wing, and not only the observant among them. My cell phone number was recently blocked from the phones at Maasiyahu Prison. Apparently, the officials discovered that too many of the inmates were calling me. That situation was quickly resolved.

Azulai and I once tried to solicit the support of the Minister of Justice for three laws meant to benefit the inmates of the country’s prison system. One of the proposed laws would have increased the reduction of a prison sentence granted for good behavior, from one-third of the sentence to one-half, for first-time offenders. The minister greeted us warmly, but the meeting came to a rapid end. “Why should we help prisoners?” he demanded. “As far as I am concerned, they can sit in prison until they die.”

My visceral reaction was one of disgust. Aren’t at least some of the prisoners deserving of compassion?

This past week, Haaretz published a major report on the fact that Miri Regev, during her tenure as the chairman of the Interior Committee, attempted to help two prisoners identified with the Likud party. The tone of the article was highly disapproving, but in my opinion, this is to her credit. Woe to the public representative who turns his back on the disadvantaged – and who is more disadvantaged than those who are in prison?

And another thing: Along with Olmert, all the other defendants convicted in the Holyland case were also sent to prison. I was incensed by the joyous reactions of many journalists and reporters to this news. Even if – if! – the defendants were truly guilty of crimes, why should others rejoice over their downfall? I will always remember Olmert for his concern for others and his bein adam lachaveiro. What difference does it make to me if he received an envelope he shouldn’t have? The photograph of Olmert entering prison was painful to me. I know nothing about the wealthy magnates involved in the case, but I have always recoiled from the hatred of the poor for the wealthy. Let them have their fortunes!

I do know one person involved, who was an official in Yerushalayim; I am well-acquainted with his refined character. Even if the justices of the Supreme Court were to take an oath on a Sefer Torah that he is guilty, my impression of him wouldn’t change by one iota. He entered Maasiyahu Prison as a public servant of sterling character. He is a person from whom all of the country’s judges, including Rosen, could learn a good deal about honesty and integrity. In a number of months – minus one-third – he will go free.

627 Antennas in Yerushalayim

Let us now turn to an entirely different subject. About a month ago, the members of the Yerushalayim City Council appealed to the director-general of the municipality to remove the antennas (or health hazards, as they called them) located on Rechov Shmuel Hanovi in the capital. Four residents of the area, they explained, have passed away in recent years from cancer.

I do not know what the director-general responded, or even if he replied to them, but it was soon revealed that there are 18 cellular stations in the Shmuel Hanovi neighborhood. The Ministry of Environmental Protection claims that “all the stations operate properly, based on permits issued by the Ministry, in accordance with the Law of Radiation.”

The Law of Radiation stipulates that an antenna may not subject the people in its vicinity to an exposure of more than one-tenth of the threshold of exposure established by the World Health Organization as being harmless to the general populace, including children, the elderly, and the ill.

I am no expert on thresholds of radiation, but the question that troubles me is whether the proliferation of antennas creates a health hazard. Perhaps one antenna isn’t dangerous, but are two, three or four antennas in the same place hazardous to the residents’ health? Let me remind you that in the area of Shmuel Hanovi, there are no fewer than 18 antennas!

In the whole of Yerushalayim, there are 627 antennas, all with official permits. Once again, I must ask the same question: Isn’t it dangerous for there to be a large number of antennas in one area? My own investigation has revealed a number of streets that contain several antennas each. In many places, each of the four cell phone companies – Cellcom, Partner, Pelephone, and HOT-Mobile – has its own station. In some places, there are several antennas belonging to the same company in a single area. Cellcom, for instance, has an antenna at Rechov Hamarpeh 10, and another one at Rechov Hamarpeh 11. There are cell phone antennas in every hospital in the city, as well as in the Knesset and even on Har Hazeisim.

If there is an antenna on Rechov Pines 15, or Rechov Rabinowitz 33, or Rechov HaMem Gimmel 7, how did it get there? It may be that a single family installed the antenna in its home and is receiving payment for it, or that it was installed on the roof and the entire building reaps the pecuniary benefits. Whatever the reason, though, this is a frightening phenomenon.

A Brother’s Dedication

In conclusion, here is a moving story from my visit to the offices of Darchei Miriam on Rechov Zichron Yaakov in Yerushalayim, in the building next door to Rav Uri Zohar’s home. The headquarters of the chesed organization sounds like the dispatch center of a busy taxi company.

“Who is on Shmuel Hanovi?”

“Can you take a passenger to Ein Kerem?”

“Is there anyone at Alyn?”

The organization presides over hundreds of car trips each day and thousands every week. Every trip means another ailing person being taken to or from an outpatient treatment, or the companion of a patient traveling to the hospital and back. The organization’s volunteers live in an ocean of blood and pain. In general, a driver must be reserved one day in advance, but Darchei Miriam tries never to turn anyone away, even someone who calls to ask for an immediate ride.

When I arrived, one of the volunteer drivers was sitting in the office, allowing himself a brief rest between one emotionally draining trip and another. His distress was evident in his demeanor. I soon learned that his most recent drive had stirred his emotions.

“I drove a new patient today,” he said simply.

A “new patient” meant that another person had joined the Darchei Miriam “family.” another individual had become bound to the hearts of the organization’s volunteers, who treat every patient like a family member. A new patient is another drop in their river of tears and tefillos. This time, it was a young boy just a bit shy of his bar mitzvah who lives in a community near Yerushalayim. He is currently undergoing treatments at Hadassah Ein Kerem. The drive to the hospital was long enough for an intimate conversation to take place and for the volunteer to share in the boy’s suffering. That type of personal bond is part of the aid that the volunteers of Darchei Miriam offer to the patients they assist, following in the footsteps of Rav Yisroel Weingarten zt”l, the organization’s founder. In any event, the driver was shaken by the thought of the grueling process that lay ahead of the boy.

As the driver and his passenger were passing Moshav Orah, his cell phone rang. The volunteer listened as an unfamiliar voice emanated from the speaker. “Hello, I’m an avreich who would like to volunteer. I don’t have a car, but I would like to know if there are other things I can do for people who are sick, aside from driving them.” The caller explained that he had taken it upon himself to volunteer for the organization as a zechus for a family member who had been diagnosed with the machlah that week. He wished to volunteer on Thursday night every week. The driver, Chezi, gave the caller the telephone number of the office, advising him to sign up there. “There are plenty of things you can do,” he assured him.

After that point in the trip, the young passenger sat silently until they arrived at the hospital. Then he turned to the driver who had brought him there – and who is scheduled to transport him many more times in the future – and asked, “Do you know who that man was?”

“No,” Chezi replied.

“He was my brother.”