Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

My Take On The News

Maamorei Mussar

The main story this week, of course, is the holiday of Purim. This year has brought us Purim meshulash, which means that we will be celebrating three days of Purim in Yerushalayim.

This week, I received a copy of a new sefer titled Be’er YisroelMaamorei Mussar V’Hashkafah, which is drawn from the shmuessen of Rav Yisroel Kleiner, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Bais HaKerem and one of the foremost talmidim of Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro. Rav Yisroel Kleiner mirrored his rebbi’s style of learning and his devotion to the Torah of Brisk; he was also one of our generation’s greatest paragons of humility. He published articles on hashkafah and general hadrocha under an assortment of bylines (including “echad harabbonim”) in a number of noted publications, including Az Nidberu, Digleinu, and various publications of the Satmar community. People often spoke with admiration about his articles, without even being aware of the author’s identity. It is universally acknowledged that he was a world-class Torah genius.

As a bochur, I learned in Yeshivas Bais Hakerem, and I will never forget the sight of the rosh yeshiva reciting Neilah while connected to an intravenous line. He suffered from a kidney disease and required constant infusions of fluids into his body. I will always miss his weekly shiur kloli, a half hour of intricate chiddushim delivered in rapid succession, to the point that it seemed that no human intellect could be expected to follow the shiur. We would listen to the recordings of the shiurim time and again, struggling to comprehend his teachings and asking questions repeatedly until we finally understood them. And I can never forget the shmuessen he delivered at seudah shlishis. He would walk to the yeshiva from his home on Rechov Tzefaniah and would catapult us to lofty heights with his words. We considered ourselves fortunate to be hearing these shmuessen as night was falling, as the gathering darkness served to conceal the shame that spread across our faces as we listened to his rebuke. He was a man of truth, and both his reproof and his love for us were absolutely truthful and genuine.

He once painted a vivid verbal picture of a young child scampering under a table, tugging on the tablecloth, and picking up a pot cover. Holding the pot cover with both hands as if it were a steering wheel, the child declares that he is driving to Bnei Brak—and he truly believes that that is what he is doing. That, the rosh yeshiva explained, is the power of imagination. We laughed heartily at the mental image, and then Rav Kleiner continued, “How does that capacity for imagination disappear when the child is nine years old, or fourteen, or nineteen?” Suddenly, we all fell silent; we understood exactly what he was trying to convey. “It doesn’t disappear,” the rosh yeshiva declared. “We are all still living in worlds of our own making.”

Rav Elazar Menachem Shach once excoriated residents of the secular kibbutzim with the cry, “What makes you Jewish?” In our case, Rav Yisroel Kleiner forced us to confront a similar stark question: “What makes you bnei Torah? Are you just allowing your imaginations to deceive you?”

The new sefer, which was released in honor of Rav Kleiner’s fifth yahrtzeit, transported me back to those shmuessen, when we were compelled to face the unvarnished truth. The sefer consists of 82 maamarim on the weekly parshiyos and the moadim. Every maamar is a powerful, completely candid shmuess that virtually takes hold of the reader and shakes him, opening his eyes to the reality of life.

The Ten Sons of Haman and the Israeli Supreme Court

In the Purim spirit, I would like to share a few of Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s pithy comments. During a moment of merriment, Rav Ovadiah once remarked, “Chazal tell us that when Adar arrives, our joy increases. The word Adar is an acronym for the name ‘Rabbi Aryeh Deri.’ When he enters a room, everyone feels joy.” On that note, I would like to congratulate Aryeh Deri on the occasion of his birthday this week….

On another occasion, Rav Ovadiah quipped, “The Gemara says that the names of the ten sons of Haman should be read in a single breath. Why is this necessary? To prevent anyone from running to the Supreme Court and having their execution overturned!”

Parenthetically, Rav Chaim Solovietchik is quoted as explaining that the custom for the entire congregation to recite the names of Haman’s sons is based on this halacha. That is, one cannot fulfill the requirement for the ten names to be recited “b’neshimah achas” (in a single breath) solely by listening to the baal korei.

On another note, the megillah relates that Achashverosh ruled over 127 states. The Midrash adds that 100 of those countries were located on the continent, while the other 27 were islands (similar to Manhattan). Rav Ovadiah Yosef added that the megillah itself alludes to this. The posuk states that Achashverosh imposed a mas (tax) on the land and the “iyei hayam” (the islands of the sea). The gematria of the word mas is 100, while the numerical value of the word iyei is 27. Thus, the posuk reveals that 100 of the states under his rule were “on the land,” while 27 were on the sea.

Rav Ovadiah made another comment on the same posuk that recalls our earlier observation about Amalek: Miracles are symbolized by the letters mem and samech, which were miraculously suspended on the Luchos. (Both the final mem and the letter samech are completely closed, and the letters engraved on the Luchos were carved through the entire stone. Hence, the center of each letter was miraculously suspended in place, even though it was not connected to the Luchos.) The megillah tells a story that is replete with miracles, but if a person wishes to blind himself to the truth, he can pretend that those miracles were purely natural events. A person can argue that Mordechai merely “happened” to overhear Bigson and Teresh plotting to assassinate the king, and that he simply “happened” to understand their language. Of course, it would only be natural for Mordechai to relay this information to Achashverosh and for the king to be grateful to Mordechai for saving his life. Thus, the entire story can be stripped of any meaning and read as nothing but a series of random yet fortuitous events, rather than a miraculous tale of hashgocha protis. Even when Achashverosh became furious with Haman, it could be understood as a natural result of his love for Esther and his gratitude to Mordechai. Achashverosh himself tried to convey that exact message: that none of the events of the megillah were indicative of Divine Providence in any way. This was precisely the philosophy of Amalek. Hence, the posuk states that “the king placed a mas on the land”—in other words, that he tried to take the letters mem and samech, which represent miracles, and to transform them into something ordinary, mundane, and connected to the earth.

This was a philosophy that Achashverosh learned from Amalek’s precedent. And what gave Amalek the audacity to attack Bnei Yisroel in the desert? They were able to do that only because they tried to interpret the splitting of the Yam Suf as a natural event, just as many people today try to attribute the creation of the world to a random explosion. The posuk alludes to this by concluding with the words “and the islands of the sea.” This hints to the fact that Achashverosh was preceded by Amalek, who tried to reframe the miracle at the sea as a natural occurrence.

Rav Elya Ber’s Insight

The megillah states, “Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends all that had happened to him, and his wise men and Zeresh his wife said to him…” (Megillas Esther 6:3). There is a peculiar shift in the wording of this posuk, which begins by referring to Haman’s advisors as his “friends” and concludes by describing them as his “wise men.” What is the reason for this?

When I was a talmid in the Yeshiva of South Fallsburg, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel explained that this posuk provides us with an insight into the nature of reshoim: When they discover that one of their “friends” has lost his standing, their friendship evaporates instantly. It is clear that Haman’s confidants understood that his power was waning; the megillah goes on to state that they warned him that his downfall was bound to continue. Thus, as soon as they learned that Haman would no longer be the same powerful man, they became merely his “wise men,” since they no longer had any interest in friendship.

Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Brazil, one of the roshei yeshiva of the Brachfeld branch of Yeshivas Mir, passed away last year. He was the author of a fantastic sefer on Megillas Esther that offers brilliant resolutions to many questions on the megillah. One year, on Purim, I called his house while I was inebriated and marveled at the brilliance of his sefer. Then I asked a question of my own: At the beginning of the posuk quoted above, the megillah states that Haman spoke to “his wife Zeresh and all his friends,” placing Zeresh before his confidants. At the end of the posuk, when they respond to him, the order is reversed. A similar reversal takes place in an earlier posuk (5:10), where the megillah first states that Haman summoned “his friends and Zeresh his wife,” and then relates that “Zeresh his wife and all his friends said to him.” In that case, Zeresh’s name appears after the mention of Haman’s confidants at first, and then her name precedes them at the end of the posuk. “Has the rov ever heard this question?” I asked.

Rav Avrohom Yitzchok answered my question, but by the time Purim ended I had forgotten his answer, and I was too embarrassed to call again and ask him to repeat it. Unfortunately, it is now too late for me to pose this question to him again.

Murderous Lies

One can understand, albeit with difficulty, the reasoning of the people who are hesitant to receive the coronavirus vaccine. After all, those of us who took the vaccine were also uncertain about it. What I will never understand is why some people are obsessed with proving to the world that the vaccine is deadly. The self-assurance with which this message is trumpeted is itself a sign that its bearers cannot be trusted, because the only thing that anyone knows for sure is that we really know nothing with absolute certainty. I would understand if the opponents of the vaccine advertised their concerns about it, but their vehement insistence that the vaccine should not be used is impossible to accept. Everyone is allowed to have doubts, but no one other than a posek may issue a definitive ruling. And the gedolei Yisroel here have already made it clear that everyone should receive the vaccine.

Unfortunately, some people have tried to turn the issue of vaccination into a hashkafic battle. They proclaim dramatically that there is a “religious war against the botei midrashim, Talmudei Torah, and educational institutions under the guise of [fighting] corona.” They decry the “wanton sin of forcing [people to receive] dangerous vaccines, which is committed by the leaders of the heretics in our Holy Land, who are scheming to eliminate us with their lowly plots and nefarious ruses.”

Last month, a young married man who is a close friend of mine collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. His name (albeit slightly misspelled, and with the added title of “hagaon hagadol”) appeared in a pamphlet in which the writer begs readers to daven for him. Once again, the writers claim that the patient “collapsed after receiving the vaccine.” This is completely untrue; he did not receive the vaccine, and in fact he was a recovered corona patient. “Don’t you suspect anything when you hear about people who have been murdered by the vaccine every day?” the writers demand. They insist that the media is hiding information, Pfizer is a “criminal company,” anyone who takes the vaccine is expected to die from it, and the vaccine itself causes the coronavirus.

The following is a true story: There is a certain doctor in Yerushalayim who is also a talmid chochom and has maintained a highly successful medical practice for the past forty years. He treats many of the American-born residents of Yerushalayim, as well as many gedolei Yisroel. One of his patients recently asked him if he should receive the vaccine, but the doctor refused to answer his question. “Ask a rov,” he said. “I don’t want to decide who is right.” The patient asked a rov and was told to take the vaccine. When he arrived at the clinic where the shots were being administered, there was a long line of people waiting to be inoculated. One of the people ahead of him on the line was the doctor himself.

Has the Time Come to Ignore the Secular Media?

When it comes to the coronavirus, the secular media in Eretz Yisroel seems to be waging a vendetta against chareidim. The media is constantly exaggerating the chareidi community’s breaches of protocol and inciting the nonreligious public against them. The chareidim, for their part, have been trying to find ways to respond to their claims, to refute the lies and to suppress the incitement. But perhaps the time has come to ignore them altogether. Perhaps the religious community is playing into their hands by responding to their libelous claims. Perhaps the time has come to admit that they will never be won over and that the chareidi community must reevaluate its strategy.

Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu was interviewed at length on a news program that is considered particularly hostile to him. It is universally agreed that he was highly successful in that interview; even his opponents were frustrated by his performance. I won’t go into the details of the interview, but I will point out something else that he said recently. In response to the massive levayos of gedolei Yisroel, Netanyahu pounded on a table and declared forcefully, “This must stop!”

Well, he is absolutely right. We are taught that the deaths of tzaddikim are more tragic than all the 98 admonitions in the tochachah in Sefer Devarim and the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. Indeed, the levayos must end immediately. Therefore, all I can say to Netanyahu is “Amen!”

Panic in the Knesset as Snow Begins to Fall

Last week, it snowed in Eretz Yisroel.

I have mentioned in the past that my apartment affords me a view of the section of the Yerushalayim-Tel Aviv highway near the entrance to the city. I enjoyed watching the snow pile up on the road; however, I found it less pleasurable to watch as the traffic came to a halt and cars were unable to enter or leave Yerushalayim. But even with the roads at a standstill, you can count on Israelis to find a way to bring their children to see the snow. Then again, perhaps the adults were using the children as a pretext to indulge themselves….

Purim is in the air. But as much as we are feeling it, it is still unclear what sort of restrictions we will be facing on Purim. Our problem, which is also our good fortune, is the fact that the government doesn’t exactly understand what Purim is about.

In any event, Yerushalayim was paralyzed by the snow. In the Knesset, for instance, I can tell you that on Wednesday afternoon, as soon as the first few snowflakes made their appearance, there was a mass exodus from the building. In a matter of minutes, hundreds of cars disappeared from the parking lot!

Even Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted to the snow. The last time it snowed in Yerushalayim, Netanyahu released a video that showed him purportedly having a snowball fight with his children. This time, it seems, someone has grown up—either Netanyahu or his sons. The latest picture simply showed the prime minister standing with his wife against the backdrop of the snow. (As I once put it, Binyamin Netanyahu is famed for being the husband of the prime minister’s wife….)

That picture actually evoked some strong reactions. Seemingly unbeknownst to Netanyahu or the photographer, two things were spotted in the background of the photograph that the public found very surprising. First, there was a pair of gas canisters, which are virtually nonexistent in Israel today. Most homes have central gas systems, yet the prime minister’s residence is apparently not equipped with that simple amenity. Moreover, the gas canisters were exposed in a way that seemed to border on life-threatening. In addition, the picture showed a set of window bars that were covered with rust. The prime minister’s residence appears to be in a pathetic state. Many people marveled at this commentary on Netanyahu’s character: If he lives under such primitive conditions, how can anyone accuse him of pursuing an exorbitant lifestyle? At the same time, it is possible that Netanyahu did notice that these things would appear in the background. In fact, he might even have deliberately posed for the picture in front of those items, which would make this more of a political stunt than a reflection of his wholesomeness.

Speaking of Netanyahu, the prime minister has finally received a call from President Biden. According to the official reports, both parties described it as a friendly conversation.

Is Trouble Ahead for the Right-Wing Bloc?

This week, the Central Elections Committee approved the slates of all the parties that are currently running in the election. There are a grand total of 39 parties, most of which you have never heard of and will never hear about again, such as the Human Dignity party, the party that calls itself “I and You,” the Pirates party, and the Bible Bloc Party.

As for the more realistic contenders in the election, the situation is as follows: The Likud party, led by Netanyahu, has been gaining strength. Naftoli Bennett’s party, Yamina, is losing popularity and heading toward the single digits in its projected number of mandates, in a more accurate reflection of its true power. The second largest party is still Yesh Atid, which seems poised to preserve the 18 mandates that it currently holds. Gideon Saar’s party, New Hope, is holding on to its projected 13 mandates. The Joint Arab List, headed by Ayman Oudeh, is expected to receive nine mandates, while Shas is projected to earn eight, UTJ is expected to receive seven, Yisroel Beiteinu is likewise polling at seven mandates, and the Labor party, headed by Merav Michaeli, has been shown receiving six mandates. The Religious Zionist party, headed by Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, is polling at five mandates, while Meretz, headed by Nitzan Horowitz, and Blue and White, under Benny Gantz, are each shown receiving four Knesset seats. In light of the current picture, it is not certain at all that Netanyahu will actually be able to put together a government, even if he receives Naftoli Bennett’s support.

United Torah Judaism hasn’t actually begun its campaign yet, but they really have no reason to launch an actual campaign. The party has an internal list of regular voters, and they barely ever try to target the general populace. At the same time, Gafni and Litzman are continuing to visit the gedolei Yisroel to seek their guidance. This time, the coronavirus will make it very difficult for the gedolim to attend the major rallies held in advance of the election. Shas, on the other hand, has launched a vigorous campaign targeting the traditional sector in Israel.

In other election-related news, the Central Elections Committee disqualified an Arab woman candidate who occupied the seventh slot on the Labor party’s list. This woman has made statements in the past that were viewed as supporting terror, and the committee accepted that as a reason to disqualify her. The committee voted against her by a narrow margin, with 16 votes in favor of the disqualification and 15 against. The two representatives of UTJ on the committee (Avrohom Weber and Avrohom Yustman, whom I interviewed last week) abstained from the vote. Naturally, they were following the guidance of their rabbonim in doing so. In any event, the Supreme Court is likely to overturn the committee’s decision and reinstate her candidacy. Such things have happened in the past.

No Vote for Shas, No Credit Card

You may find this hard to believe, but I heard it myself. One of the employees in the Knesset approached me before Maariv one night and told me that he wanted me to listen to a recorded message on his phone after davening. I expected it to be a joke of some sort, and I was quite surprised by what I heard. The recording featured a man’s voice intoning gravely, “To my beloved children and my sons- and daughters-in-law, I would like to make the following unequivocally clear. Any of you who do not vote for Shas can expect your credit cards to be locked. Do not come and ask me for anything. There will be no purchases on my tab and no gifts at all for anyone who does not vote for Shas.”

After I heard the message, which was apparently circulated within the man’s family, I looked at him and asked, “Is this serious? Are you sure it isn’t a Purim joke of some kind?”

“It is absolutely serious,” he replied. “This was a message that my father-in-law sent to all of his children.”

The Professor from the Lederman Shul

You certainly remember Divrei Siach, the pamphlet published every week by Rav Yitzchok Goldknopf. Rav Goldknopf recently began including rare photographs of Rav Chaim Kanievsky in the publication, many of them from years ago. He has asked his readers to share any background information they possess about the various pictures, and to submit any rare pictures that they might find in their own homes.

A recent issue of Divrei Siach contained a picture of the late Professor Alvin Radkowsky, a senior nuclear physicist who worked for the American army. Toward the end of his life, the professor began davening in Bnei Brak and developed a relationship with the Steipler Gaon and later with Rav Chaim Kanievsky. When I read about it, I felt a pang of regret for the fact that I never had a chance to meet the professor and to write about his fascinating life story. The article revealed that he passed away exactly 19 years ago, in February 2002. To think that a mispallel in the Lederman shul had also been an advisor to the American army! It would certainly make for a fascinating story.

This week, a letter from the professor’s daughter appeared in Divrei Siach. I will quote it here:

“I received the issues of your publication from the weeks of Parshas Vaera and Parshas Bo, when you asked your readers to identify the picture of my father, Professor Avrohom Yitzchok (Alvin) Radkowsky, and then you wrote about his life. We appreciate your desire to honor our father, but I would like to correct certain factual errors…. My father was never involved in ‘integrating the atom bomb into seafaring vessels.’ In fact, he never worked on the atom bomb at all. He engineered the first nuclear reactors, which were intended to produce electricity and were used partly for the propulsion of the ships in the American navy. He also worked on the first nuclear reactor that was intended to produce household electricity in the United States. My father never studied in university in the United States, although he did teach nuclear physics at Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University in Israel. He did travel to America and to other countries from time to time in order to promote his inventions in the field of nuclear physics, but he didn’t do so on a weekly basis. As far as I am aware, during the Steipler’s lifetime, my father davened with him at the Mogen Avrohom minyan in the Lederman shul, not at the vosikin miyan. It is possible that he transferred to the vosikin minyan after the Steipler’s passing, in order to join Rav Chaim.”

I am sure you will agree that this letter makes the entire story even more fascinating.

The Scientist from Ramat Gan

My research has shown that Professor Radkowsky was a nuclear physicist, one of the developers of the first nuclear submarine, and a native of Elizabeth, New Jersey, who earned his academic degrees at George Washington University. From 1938 until 1972, he worked in the nuclear research division of the American navy. In 1950, he became the chief scientist in the division and was responsible for building the reactor used in the first nuclear submarine, which was launched in 1954. He won many awards for his work in America, and in 1972 he moved to Israel and settled in Ramat Gan, near the city’s border with Bnei Brak. He was in the habit of walking from his home every Shabbos to daven with the Steipler.

Professor Radkowsky would say that he had two loves: Gemara and science, lehavdil. He claimed that learning Gemara is the best possible preparation for success as a scientist. He was a scientist of renown in his own right, but he was extremely reticent. He hardly ever spoke about himself, but he was highly accomplished. He may have been the chief developer of the Nautilus, an American nuclear submarine, and he developed the nuclear reactor that is used in American aircraft carriers. He studied under Professor Edward Teller, who was also Jewish and is known as the father of the hydrogen bomb. Radkowsky completed his doctorate under the guidance of another Jewish physicist, Professor Karl Herzfeld, and went on to earn worldwide acclaim in the scientific community.

After moving to Israel, he taught in Tel Aviv University, which was near his home in Bnei Brak, and in Ben Gurion University. He chose his second workplace because it was only a few minutes away from the center for nuclear research in Dimona; that is all that I am allowed to write about it. Radkowsky kept a low profile and avoided media attention. Until the end of his life, he worked to ensure that the nuclear reactor would be clear of radioactive materials. But for our purposes, what is most important is the fact that from the time he immigrated to Israel in 1972 until his death in 2002, he lived near Bnei Brak and maintained a close connection to the Steipler and to his son, Rav Chaim Kanievsky (and, to a certain extent, to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman). That would make for an amazing story!



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