The Virus Does Not Kill; The Vaccine Does Not Give Life
Things are getting worse. We don’t need to see the statistics or the numbers in the newspapers in order to know that this is the case. All it takes is a simple glance at the notices on bulletin boards in our communities, with their reports of deaths and illnesses. There is dread and fear in the streets. We need no surveys or spreadsheets to make this reality clear; the facts speak for themselves. May Hashem protect us and save us.
We must take care not to be drawn into the media narrative to the point that we forget about Hashem. It was He, after all, Who brought this pandemic upon us, and we must not lose perspective. We must remember that Hashem, not the virus or the vaccine, decides who lives and who dies.
Rav Shimshon Pincus used to tell the story of a shmuess that he delivered in Johannesburg. There was a man in the audience who nodded in assent throughout the shmuess and appeared to be moved to tears. After the speech was over, the man approached Rav Pincus to ask a question. Rav Pincus asked if he had understood the speech, and the man replied, “Yes, I understood everything, except one word.”
“Which word was that?” Rav Pincus asked.
“I didn’t know what ‘der Eibishter’ meant,” the man replied.
The media explains everything based on their own narrow perspective. I can only imagine how makkas bechoros would have been reported if there had been a print media in Mitzrayim. The Ramses Post would have carried a headline in large block letters that read, “Mysterious Virus Kills Tens of Thousands of Firstborns.” The Kol Mitzrayim radio station would have interviewed a senior epidemiologist, who would certainly have insisted on banishing the Jews from the country. And there wouldn’t have been a word about the Supreme Being Who had clearly brought the disease upon them.
We are living through chevlei Moshiach. Israel has no king, and it is not clear if the vaccine truly provides immunity and if the quarantines truly isolate the virus. There are emerging signs that the vaccine is not effective against new mutations of the virus. That is quite frightening. Furthermore, the nation feels as if it is being led by the blind.
This week, a justice on the Supreme Court scolded a government representative while debating a petition against the Shabak’s digital tracking of coronavirus carriers. “If we take into account the people who didn’t challenge their quarantine orders and assume that 15 percent of them were ordered into isolation unnecessarily, then that means that almost 400,000 people were placed in quarantine for no reason,” the judge declared. The government official was silent, in a seeming admission that the judge was correct.
Shutdown at Ben Gurion Airport
I mentioned previously that the government was debating whether to extend the nationwide lockdown. They have now decided in favor of that move. The general closure will be extended for another two weeks, until January 31, and some believe that it will continue even longer. At the same time, the government decided on Sunday to close Ben Gurion Airport completely until the end of the lockdown—in other words, until January 31 or even longer, if the closure is extended. I have already begun receiving phone calls from people who were about to leave for America or were returning from America to Israel. To clear up any confusion, let me clarify that the rumors are true: Beginning on Tuesday of this week (a day or two before you receive this newspaper), it will not be possible to enter or leave Israel. According to the government press office, travel will be restricted even more than during the previous closures. Even commercial or agricultural flights will be banned from Israel. The skies will be completely closed.
Why is the airport shutting down? Because the government has reached the conclusion that Ben Gurion Airport is the single greatest hotspot for the spread of the coronavirus. Since the officials are concerned about new mutations of the virus (such as the British, South African, and Brazilian variants), they decided to shut the airport completely, with the exception of special emergency flights. Some say that even this step was taken too late, like many other measures implemented by this government. That is, even though Netanyahu prides himself on being the first to identify every problem and its solution, he is not immune to mistakes. This week, Netanyahu announced, “Other countries will close their gates as well, but we are always the first.”
The airport workers’ union responded by accusing Netanyahu of dealing a death blow to the industry.
Netanyahu’s Dispute with Israelis Abroad
At the cabinet meeting, an argument erupted over the closure of the skies. Aryeh Deri, the Minister of the Interior, argued that while the closure was justified, it is not acceptable to prevent Israelis from returning to the country. Netanyahu was not pleased with this opinion. “I said that there will be a closure, and that is it!” he shouted. But Deri did not give in.
The Minister of Immigrant Absorption was also irked. “The closure is important, but there are hundreds of olim from Ukraine who are sitting in the airport with their luggage. They no longer have homes to return to,” she said.
Netanyahu repeated the same response to her: “I said there will be a closure, and that is all.”
On that note, President Joe Biden has decided to tighten the rules in America as well. Incoming travelers will now be required to undergo a coronavirus test before boarding a flight to the United States, and they will be required to remain in quarantine after arriving in America.
If we return to the theme with which I began this article, we must remember that if Hashem does not protect us, all of our own efforts will be of no avail. We must understand that we do not run the world. This past week, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the director of ZAKA, lost his father. He was devastated by the tragedy, which came on the heels of the death of his mother two weeks ago and the passing of his brother just one month ago. All three were victims of the coronavirus. Meshi-Zahav’s father passed away before he could even complete the shivah for his mother. “We protected them like esrogim,” he declared tearfully. Once again, even if a person takes the greatest possible precautions, nothing can protect him if the decree has been passed in Shomayim for him to fall victim to the disease.
Political Discourse Hits a New Low
It is infuriating to listen as Israeli politicians take turns attacking the chareidi community in a bid to attract votes. We are constantly hearing reprehensible statements and seeing deplorable caricatures of chareidim in the press. The ceaseless slander has become more extreme than ever, as the entire political establishment seems to be hurtling toward the lowest possible depths. I constantly find myself thinking that our politicians cannot possibly sink any lower, only to find myself proven wrong. Political discourse has been dominated by the twin evils of conceit and shallowness. Here are a few examples of the shockingly shallow comments that have emanated from our political establishment of late.
Dan Harel, a former general and deputy chief of staff in the IDF (under Dan Chalutz, who presided over the Disengagement) recently explained that the chances of Benny Gantz allying with Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, are very low because Gantz is a “burden.” Is that a way to speak about another person, especially a comrade in arms?
Raanan Cohen, who was once a minister with the Labor party and is advocating for Ehud Barak to take over the leadership of the party (while Barak himself has announced that he has no interest in doing so), unwittingly explained why Barak is not the right man for the job. “We must learn from the mistakes of the recent past,” Cohen declared, “and not rely on political neophytes, regardless of how glorious their military careers may have been.” Well, was there any prime minister who was a more resounding failure than Ehud Barak?
Yair Lapid was outraged when he was accused by Benny Gantz of “hating people.” Lapid proceeded to clarify that he would consider another merger with Blue and White on the condition that Penina Tamano-Shata and Omer Yankelevitch were excluded from the party. With that statement, he effectively proved Gantz’s point.
And there is one common denominator between the left and the political center: their habits of brutally attacking the chareidim. The Meretz party, for instance, has plastered the billboards along the Ayalon freeway with large images of rabbonim, accompanied by the arrogant assertion that in a left-wing government, those rabbonim will not be calling the shots. And, of course, Avigdor Lieberman has continued his vicious campaign of incitement against chareidim.
Small Fringe Groups Give Chareidim a Bad Rap
I am pained by the need to say this, but I cannot avoid saying it, nor will it even help to hide the facts: A small group within the chareidi community has given its enemies ammunition against the entire chareidi sector. Again, this is a small group—very small and completely marginal. But as far as the chilonim are concerned, it makes no difference. From their point of view, all chareidim are the same. Even when we protest that it is wrong to paint the entire community with the same brush, those cries fall on deaf ears.
The city of Ashdod is a perfect example. There is one institution in Ashdod where 220 people learn, without observing the rules imposed by the government. The police regularly visit this place, and the tensions between the two sides often develop into violence perpetrated by both sides. (And we do not condone police brutality.) The images of those violent clashes appear in the media, and the entire country talks about “the chareidim who break the rules” and “the chareidim who commit acts of violence.” Try to explain to them that these 220 talmidim are a tiny minority among the 24,000 chareidi students in Ashdod who are all staying home during the lockdown and abiding by the regulations. No one will be moved by that!
Last Thursday, disaster struck in Bnei Brak as well, when a small group of youngsters attacked a pair of plainclothes police officers in an unmarked vehicle. The perpetrators threw stones at the windows of the car, and the officers felt threatened. The bochurim who carried out this near-lynch later attested that they had thought that the occupants of the car were thieves or criminals of some kind, since the police officers had entered their yeshiva without identifying themselves. The bochurim may have been correct, but the images of stones shattering the windows of a vehicle occupied by policemen made for some highly negative publicity for the chareidi community. And things immediately took a turn for the worse.
Deeply offended, the police marched into Bnei Brak on Thursday night for a campaign of vengeance, in an effort to demonstrate who is truly the boss. The police officers went on a wild rampage, mercilessly beating innocent people in the streets. Now, it is true that there is no reason for anyone to be in the street during a lockdown, and there is certainly no reason for children to be present on Rechov Ezra in Bnei Brak at two o’clock in the morning. But that did not justify this wild rampage by any means. Why should the police beat innocent people who had been going about their shopping for Shabbos?
And the conflict did not end there. On Sunday, a demonstration against the police was held in Bnei Brak—by a specific community once again—and one of the police officers fired his gun in the air. Of course, he had been alarmed by the shouts of the chareidim (although it was the chareidim themselves who had been beaten until that point, whereas no police officers had been harmed). There was every indication that we had reached a watershed moment. The situation was very dangerous; chas v’shalom, it seemed as if another police officer might actually shoot a chareidi Jew at any moment. Yet the police responded by claiming that “we are preparing for a scenario in which a police officer is murdered by a chareidi.” The chutzpah is appalling! Yet once again, these images only work to the community’s detriment when they are played in the media. And the anti-religious parties rejoice over every blow to the chareidim’s public image. What will happen now? We can only daven for the best.
Sifrei Torah Cast on the Floor
This isn’t the first time such a painful incident has taken place, but it is still as appalling as ever. Two shuls in Petach Tikvah—a Sephardic shul known as Ahavas Daniel and an Ashkenazic shul called Chein Hatzafon—were invaded, looted, and desecrated. In a disgraceful act of vandalism, the perpetrators went so far as to throw the Sifrei Torah on the floor. This signified that the criminals weren’t motivated by a desire for money or material gain; it was plain, simple hatred of Judaism.
My instincts suggest that these acts were the work of a Jewish heart filled with venomous hatred. Two chareidi members of the Knesset who live in the city—Moshe Arbel and Uriel Bosso—came to the shuls to show solidarity with the mispallelim, to express their own outrage, and, of course, to demand a response from the police. Both shuls are highly active centers of Torah and tefillah whose doors are open around the clock—except, of course, during the pandemic. The mispallelim who discovered the vandalism were horrified. As usual, the police claim that they are “investigating.” If I remember correctly, about three years ago, the Mikdash Moshe shul in Petach Tikvah was defaced with swastikas scrawled on its walls. At that time, as well, the police claimed that they were “investigating.”
How did the media react? Yisrael Hayom and Yediot Acharonot saw no reason to cover the story at all. Maariv, which isn’t as widely circulated, was the only newspaper that saw fit to give voice to the community’s outrage and pain. An entire page was dedicated to the story, including two pictures and interviews with mispallelim in the shuls. The article, written by Alon Chachmon, is titled “Two Shuls Ransacked and Desecrated in Petach Tikvah.” Beneath the title, Chachmon reports, “During the break-in, Sifrei Torah and tallisos were cast on the floor. One of the mispallelim declares, ‘This is an indescribable atrocity.’ The police have begun an investigation.” But Maariv was the lone voice amid a deafening silence on the part of the Israeli press.
Before we could recover from the shock of the incident in Petach Tivkah, more horrifying news arrived on the very next day: The Mevaser Shalom shul in Mevaseret Tzion had been ransacked as well. In this case, it seemed that the intruders were looking for something to steal rather than a way to vent their hate. But do these incidents have anything to do with the constant incitement against chareidim?
Whenever an incident of this nature occurs, the chareidi Knesset members make sure to file parliamentary queries to monitor the “investigations” run by the police. One of those queries included the question, “How many cases of vandalism in a shul have taken place since 2015 and how did each investigation conclude?” To that question, Minister Ohana replied that the police do not keep records of the desecration of shuls as a separate category of crime. These acts are grouped together with any other act of vandalism targeting a public building. As far as the police are concerned, a shul is no different from any other building. Well, if that is the attitude of the police toward our shuls, is it any wonder that such crimes occur? When was the last time that we heard about anyone being prosecuted for desecrating a shul, or about someone receiving a fitting punishment for such a crime?
Choosing the Wrong Emissaries
This week, I saw an interesting advertisement from the World Zionist Organization offering teaching jobs around the world to suitable applicants. The ads were directed at married couples in which both spouses are certified teachers and possess two years of classroom experience. Couples who “attach importance to the connection between Israel and the Diaspora” and who “dream about an unforgettable family experience” were invited to send their resumes to the organization. Applicants found to be suitable for the jobs would teach in schools in the Diaspora for a period of two or three years and would be officially employed by the education department of the WZO.
All of this may sound very good, but I would like to ask some simple questions: Who are the teachers who work for the World Zionist Organization? What are their credentials? What are their backgrounds, and what knowledge are they bringing to their pupils? What values and educational tools are they taking with them on this mission of education? This department could easily be a major force for kiruv. Is it possible that the organization is completely overlooking the goal that should be its main objective? Shouldn’t someone with proper Jewish priorities take it upon themselves to straighten out this situation?
I recently read a small book called Artzeich U’Moladeteich (Your Land and Your Birthplace) by David Stavrou, a correspondent for Haaretz who divides his time between Israel and Sweden. The book is billed as “a journey in the footsteps of Israeli expatriates in Europe.” Stavrou visited Copenhagen, Brussels, Berlin, and Amsterdam, finding Israelis who had resettled in each of those cities. He also spoke with local rabbonim throughout Europe. The book is a fascinating document. Allow me to quote a few lines from the chapter on Brussels, where he interviewed Alex, a former emissary of the WZO in Italy.
“As chance would have it, we met just one week after her wedding,” Stavrou relates. “Alex met her husband, Stefano, when she was working for the Jewish Agency as a shlichah in Turin, Italy. Stefano, Alex told me, is not Jewish; he is an atheist with a left-wing ideology, who hails from an Italian working-class family. They met through friends while she was in Turin and he was working at the European Commission in Brussels.
“At the beginning of our meeting, Alex told me about her own background. Her parents made aliyah from Tashkent in 1990 and lived in Netivot and Beer Sheva. Her father then emigrated to the United States and her mother emigrated to Germany, where most of her family lived. After Alex left home, she completed her army service in the Criminal Investigations Department of the military police and went on shlichut in Europe on her own. Alex was a good shlichah; she relates that she even received the Jewish Agency’s award for excellence in shlichut in the year 2010. Nevertheless, getting to know her future husband during her shlichut created potential problems. She had to hide her new relationship from her employers in the Jewish Agency and in the Jewish community in Turin, which is an Orthodox community where it is not accepted for Jews and non-Jews to have such connections.
“‘It was assimilation for its own sake,’ she said with a laugh, albeit with a touch of seriousness.”
This passage speaks for itself.
A Field of Snakes and Scorpions
This week, the yahrtzeit of Rav Yitzchok Eizik Sher, the rosh yeshiva of Slabodka, was marked. I came across two beautiful mesholim formulated by Rav Sher which I am happy to share with you.
The first moshol was introduced when Rav Sher was notified that has son had been murdered by the Nazis. Some of his talmidim in the yeshiva at the time had lost their entire families in the Holocaust and Rav Sher said to them, “If I had been told that my son is on the top floor of a building at this moment, that the building is filled with all sorts of wonderful things and that he is lacking nothing, but that the door is locked and I cannot go in to witness his happiness with my own eyes, I would still rejoice over the wonderful life he has been given. That is precisely what is happening at this moment. We believe that these kedoshim are basking in Hashem’s presence and enjoying all the delights of the World of Truth. Therefore, even though we are far away from them and the door to that world is barred before us, we should be filled with joy over the fact that they have been granted all the wondrous treasures reserved for tzaddikim in the World to Come.”
On another subject, he once shared the following vivid analogy: “Imagine that a person is sitting inside a locked room but is surrounded by beautiful flowers, and that he knows that the area outside the building is filled with venomous snakes and scorpions. Imagine how he would respond if someone said to him, ‘Why are you sitting here behind closed doors? Break out of here, go outside, and be free!’ The Torah confines a person,” he added, “but it is a fence of roses. If a person wishes to ‘go free’ from the Torah, that would mean putting himself in a place filled with perils.”
Memories of Kaminetz
My American uncle was brought to his final rest not long ago and I felt obliged to brave the threat of the coronavirus and to attend the levayah at the Shamgar funeral home. It did not take long for me to realize that I wasn’t the only person to feel that way.
My grandfather, Rav Binyomin Zev Yaakovson, had six children. There is a famous story about his encounter with the Tchortkover Rebbe. My grandfather, as a representative of the Vaad Hatzolah and Keren HaTorah who raised funds for many yeshivos, was very close to many of the gedolim of the previous generation. Many of those great rabbonim often contacted him for assistance with various matters, and many of them were personally acquainted with him. He once asked the Tchortkover Rebbe for a brocha for children, and the rebbe asked him, “How many children do you want to have?”
“The same as the number of shevotim,” my grandfather replied.
Years later, after his children had grown up and married, my grandfather met the rebbe again and reminded him of their exchange. “And how many children do you have?” the rebbe inquired.
“Six,” my grandfather replied.
“Well, Chazal tell us that the tefillah of a tzaddik accomplishes half of what is sought,” the rebbe said.
One of my grandfather’s sons was my father, Rav Moshe Menachem Yaakovson. Another was Rav Mordechai Amram Yaakovson, who served as a mashgiach in various yeshivos in Bnei Brak and was a mechutan of the Steipler. A third son was Rav Shlomo. Another son was Rav Yisroel, who has served for many years as a mashgiach in the yeshiva ketanah of Yeshivas Ponovezh. Another member of the family was Rebbetzin Miriam Bess, who lived with her husband, Rav Avrohom, in America for many years; the couple moved to Yerushalayim toward the end of their lives. Rav Gershon Bess of Los Angeles is their son. The eldest sibling in the Yaakovson family was Rav Dovid Yitzchok, who recently passed away at the age of 98.
At first, my grandfather was a rov in Hamburg, where he met Rav Yaakov Rosenheim and served as his right-hand man. From there, he moved to Munich. When the Nazis came to power, he relocated to Denmark and became the rov of the Machzikei Hadas community. When the Nazis entered Denmark, my grandfather and his community escaped across the river into Sweden, where he established the Lidingo school.
There were no yeshivos in Denmark, and my grandfather had to send his sons to learn in other countries. Rav Dovid Yitzchok learned in Kaminetz, where he was a close talmid of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz. Until the end of his life, the world of Kaminetz remained alive and vibrant in his mind; he would often tell fascinating stories about Rav Boruch Ber. For instance, he related that whenever Rav Boruch Ber received an aliyah to the Torah, he would become so emotional that he was barely able to utter the words of the brocha.
Rav Dovid Yitzchok returned to Denmark and later traveled to America to learn in yeshiva, first in Torah Vodaas and then in Ner Yisroel. My father likewise spent a period of time in Ner Yisroel, after he learned in Gateshead. Both Rav Dovid Yitzchok and my father considered themselves talmidim of Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman. My father’s semicha from Rav Ruderman is currently in my house.
After his marriage, Dovid Yitzchok settled in Detroit, where he became a school principal. He later moved to New York, where he served as a school principal in Yeshivas Torah Vodaas. When his children grew older, he moved to Eretz Yisroel and settled in Bayit Vegan, where he became a prominent member of the community. He worked for many years supervising seminaries for the Ministry of Education, where he was the only chareidi in his department. He was a dedicated follower of Rav Shach, and he also taught in a seminary in Yerushalayim. (His mother—my grandmother—also held a teaching position in the same seminary, where she primarily taught Chumash. In Germany, she had worked alongside Mrs. Sarah Schenirer and Rav Shmuel Deutschlander as a teacher of Jewish girls.)
This was the American uncle whom I, along with many others, escorted to his final rest, as that generation came to a close.
A Shailah for Tu B’Shevat
The halacha states that when a person has eaten any of the fruits of the Shivas Haminim that were grown in Eretz Yisroel, the words “al haaretz v’al peiroseha” should be recited in the brocha acharonah. If the same fruits were grown elsewhere in the world, however, the correct formulation is “al hapeiros.”
Rav Chaim Kanievsky was asked how the brocha should be formulated if a person has partaken of both types of fruit—the produce of Eretz Yisroel as well as fruits that were grown elsewhere in the world. Should the phrase “al peiroseha” be used, or should he recite the phrase “al hapeiros”?
Before I present his answer, what do you think the halacha should be? On the one hand, the consumption of fruits grown in chutz laaretz creates the requirement to recite the words “al hapeiros”; on the other hand, the fruits of Eretz Yisroel require the brocha of “al peiroseha.” It can be argued that the phrase “al hapeiros” (“for the fruits”) is ostensibly more inclusive; if one recites the phrase “al peiroseha,” it might be viewed as referring specifically to the fruits grown in Eretz Yisroel. But let us now examine Rav Chaim’s response:
“I thought that the word hapeiros should be recited, because it encompasses the fruits of chutz laaretz as well. However, my father [the Steipler] replied that one should recite peiroseha, due to the idea that ‘two hundred includes one hundred,’ meaning that this also includes thanksgiving for fruits in general. I later asked this question to my father-in-law [Rav Elyashiv] as well, and he gave the same answer.” Rav Chaim then commented, in a reference to himself, “We see that the daas of baalei batim is the exact opposite of daas Torah.” These are the words of a spiritual giant whose knowledge of the entire Torah is mind-boggling.
On a similar note, Rav Chaim was once told that a bar mitzvah boy had taken the money that was meant to be used for his bar mitzvah celebration and had asked for it to be given to the yungeleit who learn in the kollel next to Kever Rochel. The boy had included a note with the money, asking the yungeleit to daven for him to grow up to be like Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Upon hearing this, Rav Chaim immediately responded, “Rachmana litzlan.”
“What should a child be told to do if he wants to achieve greatness in Torah?” someone asked him.
“He should learn with hasmodah,” Rav Chaim replied.