Our Hearts Are in Surfside
In spite of all the troubles we are facing here in Israel, we are all preoccupied by the tragedy in Surfside. It is utterly mind-boggling, another tragedy on a scale that we cannot yet fathom, especially since the total death toll is still unknown. Of course, every moment that passes without living survivors being found only serves to intensify the pain. Many names have been publicized for davening, and we are all davening to see many survivors brought to safety. But for now, fear and anguish have enveloped all of us. We may be here in Eretz Yisroel, but for now, our hearts are in Surfside.
Last Thursday, there was a tragedy here in Israel as well—not on the same scale but every death is akin to the loss of an entire world. The victim, 14-year-old Nechemiah Aharoni, was found lying lifeless in a pit filled with water near Beit Shemesh. Nechemiah, a talmid in Talmud Torah Sukkas Dovid in Beit Shemesh, was the oldest of eight children. His class had set out on a trip on Thursday, which ended with a picnic in a park in the Eucalyptus Forest near Beit Shemesh, around 4:00 in the afternoon. When the boys boarded the buses for the return trip, Nechemiah told his friends that he had forgotten something at the picnic site, and he ran back to retrieve it. When he did not return after a few minutes had passed, a search began. Dozens of volunteers joined the search effort, while the rest of us davened for his safety. Unfortunately, by the time he was found, he had already passed away.
One of the rescue personnel related, “When we reached the spot, we saw the boy, who had been pulled out of a reservoir of water. He was unconscious, without a pulse, and was not breathing. We examined him, but there were no signs of life and we had no choice but to pronounce his death.” Of course, everyone is demanding an explanation for the existence of open pits filled with water in the park, without any warning signs in the vicinity. But those questions will help only to avert future catastrophes.
By now, you are probably aware that an Israeli delegation has traveled to Florida to assist in the search and rescue efforts. The Israeli team consists of soldiers from the Home Front Command and volunteers from United Hatzalah. In collaboration with El Al, they left Israel on motzoei Shabbos to travel to America. The same plane carried President Reuven Rivlin, who was making the trip to America for a series of meetings in New York and at the United Nations, as well as to meet with President Biden in the White House.
Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz to Join Meron Inquiry Committee
On a related note, this Sunday (in the middle of the fast of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz) the government finalized the appointment of a state inquiry commission to investigate the tragedy in Meron. The chareidi parties were opposed to such a commission, whose function is mainly to find people to blame for the tragedy. For the religious community, assigning blame isn’t the first priority; their main objective is to prevent additional tragedies. But the government did not accept that argument. Instead, they decided to designate an ordinary commission of inquiry, which is headed by a retired judge (usually from the Supreme Court). And the chareidim were not very happy with that. After all, how much can a secular judge understand about Meron?
Chief Justice Esther Chayut of the Supreme Court was responsible for selecting the members of the committee. This Sunday, exactly two months after the tragedy, Chayut announced her choices: former Chief Justice Miriam Naor of the Supreme Court, Major General (res.) Shlomo Yanai, and Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz.
Upon presenting the committee, Justice Chayut declared, “The government’s decision to establish an official commission of inquiry shows that the tragedy that occurred, along with the risks that exist at similar events, is a subject of vital importance to the public that must be investigated. The government’s decision also calls for the committee to make recommendations about the proper way to hold mass events in the future, mainly in places of religious worship, and especially with regard to Lag Ba’Omer festivities in Meron and in its infrastructure…. Jewish tradition has it that today, the seventeenth of Tammuz, is the day when the walls of the city of Yerushalayim were breached. Let us hope that this commission, whose members are being appointed today, will bring about correction and stability both from a social standpoint and for safety in the future. I would like to thank you, the member of the committee, for accepting this complicated task, and I wish you much success.”
Chayut spoke highly of Miriam Naor. “She has a wealth of experience and judicial knowledge,” the chief justice explained. “She served for many years on every level of the judiciary, and she judged some of the most complicated cases in the history of the state.” Regarding Karelitz, she said, “He has copious knowledge and practical experience in the fields of planning and construction. He has served as a member of the Tal Commission, which was tasked with formulating an appropriate arrangement for the military draft for bnei yeshivos, and he has extensive knowledge of the religious experience associated with the hillula of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.” Rounding out the introductions, she noted that General Yanai “has served in the past as the head of the Southern Command and the director of the Planning Division of the IDF, and has extensive knowledge in the areas of logistics and construction.”
A Third Victim of the Karlin Tragedy
Unfortunately, Meron is not the only tragedy that has continued to make headlines. Last weekend, Eliyohu Krepel of Beitar Illit passed away in Hadassah Hospital at the age of 39. Krepel was the third fatality from the collapse of the bleachers in the new Karlin bais medrash in Givat Zeev on Shavuos. The first two victims, 13-year-old Meir Gloiberman and 23-year-old Mordechai Binyomin Rubinstein, perished in the collapse.
Krepel had been hospitalized since the catastrophe. After he had been sedated and intubated for many days, his condition had seemed to be taking a turn for the better, but this did not last long. Tragically, he suddenly began to deteriorate again and finally succumbed to his injuries.
Eliyohu Krepel was a baal teshuvah who came to Eretz Yisroel from Ukraine as a youth. He began taking an interest in the chassidus of Karlin before leaving Kiev, and became part of the chassidus upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel. He lived in Beitar Illit, which is home to a large community of Karlin chassidim.
Many chassidim from the community sat at Krepel’s bedside during the days since the disaster, providing any assistance they could. After his death, his friends told the media, “He was a yungerman with an outstanding personality, quiet yet captivating, who performed many acts of chessed in the community. He was always the first to volunteer for any communal activity, and he always pitched in with a radiant smile. Even though he lived in solitude, he never complained about his situation; he simply lived quietly and modestly.”
Another friend from Beitar added, “Our community is in absolute shock. We were all happy to hear that he was recovering, but then there was a sudden turnaround and he passed away.”
Reb Moshe Weiss, who took Krepel under his wing, shared the details of his unique life story: “When we came to Ukraine in the early 1990s, Eliyohu was one of hundreds of children who showed tremendous thirst to live as Jews and to come to Eretz Yisroel, even though they had been deprived of Jewish lives for decades…. He built a life for himself as a proud Jew in Israel. He learned Torah, earned a living, and quietly dispensed tzedakah. His loss has been a painful blow to all of us.”
Bennett Sends a Message to America
Of course, the Iranian threat remains a source of great concern. Israel is worried about Iran’s nuclear program, and is even more concerned that America under President Biden will not deal with the threat strongly enough, especially after the election of the “hangman from Teheran” as Iran’s new president.
On Thursday, a graduation for 39 new air force pilots was held at the Chatzerim air base in southern Israel. These ceremonies are customarily attended by the prime minister and the defense minister, who deliver boastful speeches. This time, it was also attended by President Reuven Rivlin, in one of his final official appearances before the end of his term.
Prime Minister Naftoli Bennett (it is still hard for me to link the title to the name) did speak, and he discussed the Iranian nuclear threat. “We would have preferred for the world to understand that such a violent and fanatical regime—which elected as its president the hangman from Teheran, who is prepared to starve his people for years in order to achieve his nuclear military goals—is the type of regime with which no one should make a deal. Unfortunately, that is not the case.” Bennett went on to make an interesting statement: “We will continue consulting with our friends and having discussions with them out of full mutual respect, but in the end, the responsibility for our fate rests solely in our hands; it is not in anyone else’s control…. Our beloved state was not built with ease. We paid an unbearably heavy price as a nation; we were forced to give up the lives of our sons and daughters. We have a responsibility to protect this precious country from any harm.” And then came the conceited part: “The sophistication and determination of the other side have increased, but our enemies know from our deeds, not from our words, that we are much more determined and much more sophisticated than they are, and we will not hesitate to act as the need arises.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz referred to the aerial attack on the nuclear reactor in Iraq forty years ago. “It is as if the past 40 years haven’t happened,” he said. “We now have a murderous and dangerous enemy in Iran, which is building a terror network around the State of Israel and is attempting to obtain a nuclear weapon that would threaten the entire region. We are in contact with our friends, the Americans, but as the prime minister said, if it becomes necessary, we will act as we have always done. We will remove and avert any threat with our own strategies and at our own initiative. Of course, we will exercise full professional and diplomatic responsibility.”
Hoping for the Geulah
Anyone who is aware of the events of the past year can certainly discern that the middas hadin has descended upon the world. Any person who does not view the events of this year through this lens is making a terrible mistake. As the Rambam teaches us, when a calamity occurs, it is our responsibility to cry out to Hashem and to understand that it is the result of our own misdeeds. If we do this, then our troubles will be taken away. But if we attribute it to “the way of the world,” then we will have committed an act of cruelty, and we will only bring additional misfortunes on ourselves; may Hashem protect us.
This week, a certain talmid chochom wrote a brief letter to me to illustrate how we should react to the disturbing events of the past year. “We have always been worried about car accidents,” he began, “and we tried to avoid traveling by car or even crossing a street when there was a car on the horizon. Over the past year and a half, we have tried very hard not to be in places where too many people were present. Since Lag Ba’Omer, we haven’t gone near any areas that seemed excessively crowded. The Arab violence led us to avoid shopping in stores that employ Arab workers, and we refrained from hiring Arab workmen. Since Shavuos, we have avoided heights and have made sure to stand on firm ground. It always seemed that we would be safest at home, but the sinkhole outside Shaare Zedek made us realize that even our homes might not be very safe. And now we have a prime minister who is completely untrustworthy. We can rely on no one, other than our Father in Heaven.”
A person must adopt the proper perspective on the events unfolding around us—and that perspective must acknowledge our total dependence on Hashem.
The Novice Prime Minister
Last Monday, when I entered the Knesset building through the side entrance (known as the Aravah entrance, or door 24), I was accosted by a group of hysterical bodyguards who began screaming at everyone in sight. “Go inside immediately!” they barked, frantically ordering people away from the door. “Do not stand near the doorway!”
At first, I thought that they had discovered a suspicious package that might have been a bomb; the standard procedure in such situations is to clear the area of any bystanders who might be injured by an explosion. But then I heard the sirens that used to herald the arrival of Bibi Netanyahu’s motorcade. This time, it was Naftoli Bennett who was arriving with his convoy of cars. He pulled into his parking spot and then emerged from his car while his bodyguards continued driving away everyone in the vicinity.
As I watched Bennett clamber out of his car, it suddenly hit me: This man is now the prime minister. It is frightening. No one talks about this, because there are things that can be thought but not said, but there is a general sense that he lacks the capabilities and talents that are necessary for the job, and he certainly doesn’t have the political backing that is imperative for a prime minister. He is essentially a prisoner in his own position. He isn’t truly prime ministerial material; he has no experience, and he is too rash.
This week, I came across a political cartoon that portrayed the current situation in Israel with stunning accuracy. The cartoon showed Bennett sitting in a toy car, with Lapid and Lieberman actually steering the vehicle. Another cartoon showed Bennett and Lapid in a lifeguards’ hut, while Netanyahu warns bathers approaching the beach, “If I were in your place, I wouldn’t go into the water right now.”
Not long ago, I thought that the government’s rise to power could be explained by the adage of Chazal about reshoim who seem to be enjoying success in this world. In light of the recent bungled corona testing at the airport and the government’s amateurish handling of Iran, however, I take it back; they are simply reshoim. Even temporary success seems to have eluded them. The current government, like the rest of this period, is part of a general pattern of Divine concealment and midas hadin. The outrage expressed by the chareidi parties, the Likud, and the Religious Zionism party is entirely justified; indeed, Naftoli Bennett has betrayed his natural allies. But that does not exempt any of us from the responsibility to perform a cheshbon hanefesh at this time, to make a reckoning and to understand where we have gone wrong and why Hashem brought this situation upon us.
Responding Too Late to a Corona Outbreak
The new government has already come under scathing criticism from the secular media and medical experts for dragging its feet on handling the coronavirus, which has begun to rear its head again. I mentioned last week that dozens of new cases of the virus were detected in two secular strongholds: the cities of Modiin and Binyamina. In each case, the disease was spread by a family returning to the country from abroad. The government’s critics argue that the airport should have been closed immediately, or at least that all arriving travelers should have been tested rigorously. But neither of those things happened.
I am not much of a maven on the variants of the disease, but the media recently reported that testing of the sewer system in Ashkelon had created fears of a “hidden outbreak” of the Indian strain of coronavirus in the city. According to a report from the Health Ministry, the number of confirmed cases in Ashkelon—of which there are fewer than fifteen, according to the latest official statistics—is relatively low in comparison to the findings from the sewer system. At the beginning of the week, the Indian strain was also detected in the sewers of Yerushalayim. This sounds fairly frightening.
Meanwhile, in light of the increase in daily confirmed cases, the Health Ministry announced that the requirement to wear masks in enclosed spaces has been reinstated, beginning this past Friday at noon. On Thursday, the day before the mask mandate was resurrected, 227 Israelis tested positive for the coronavirus. At the same time, the number of hospitalized patients has remained stable and low. The 227 positive diagnoses were out of a total of 41,331 tests performed on that day, and in spite of the sharp increase in infections, there has been virtually no change in the number of hospitalizations. In the entire country of Israel, there are 48 people hospitalized with coronavirus at this time, with 26 patients are in serious condition and sixteen connected to ventilators.
Professor Nachman Ash, the country’s coronavirus czar, has warned that the localized outbreaks in Modiin and Binyamina have begun spreading to other cities. “We have outbreaks in the area of Kfar Saba and Kochav Yair, signs of the beginning of an outbreak in Ramle, and other cases in smaller communities,” he reported. “This is definitely something that can develop into further eruptions, and we are monitoring situations such as the morbidity in Herzliya. I cannot say with certainty that we are facing a general outbreak in Israel, but there are many places where we need to regain control.” He called on all Israeli citizens to carefully evaluate the necessity of traveling abroad, and he added that this is not the time to travel with children who are not vaccinated. He also expressed his ire at quarantine violators. These comments were not directed at chareidim; one can only imagine the outpouring of fury that would have taken place if the new cases had been detected in Bnei Brak or Yerushalayim, and if the travelers from abroad who flouted the rules of quarantine had arrived from Brooklyn.
Blasting the New Government
It isn’t pleasant to mention this, but there is no avoiding it: The new Israeli government has not only imposed a boycott on the religious community and the political right—while still claiming to be a government of “healing and unity”—but has also turned its back on the periphery of the country and on the entire Sephardic community. A recent newspaper headline declared, “They Have Forgotten Us on the Periphery.” The first person who dared to raise this point was Dudi Amsalem of the Likud party, who dubbed it a government of “Ashkenazic tzfonbonim”—a derisive term for Israelis reared in north Tel Aviv with pampered lifestyles. Former minister Orly Levi (the daughter of David Levi, the famed Likud minister from Beit Shean who served as Menachem Begin’s deputy) also delivered a vehement and anguished speech on the subject, as did MK Keti Sheetrit. I will quote the latter.
“Their mouths speak vanity and their right hands are right hands of falsehood,” Sheetrit proclaimed, citing a posuk in Tehillim. She continued, “This week, the greatest deception and fraud in the history of the State of Israel has gotten underway…. This is a wicked government that speaks about uniting and healing, but actually discriminates against entire communities. It is a government in which over two million voters are not represented in the coalition…. They call it a unity government, but this bogus unity means the complete exclusion of millions of Likud voters from the periphery, Mizrachi Jews, traditional Jews, chareidim, and people from the settlements or religious Zionists—in short, all the good, loyal citizens whom the finance minister wanted to cart off to the garbage dump in wheelbarrows. As far as this government is concerned, the nationalist camp—our community—represents primitivism, boorishness, simple-mindedness, and darkness. Or, as one of the coalition members put it, ‘We are white and you are black.’ This arrogance is their essence.”
“Who said that?” Meir Cohen asked.
“MK Ram Ben-Barak of Yesh Atid,” Sheetrit replied. “They claimed that we, the nationalist camp, are dividing the nation, but the reality is that they are the ones who are intensifying the divisions among us. They are the ones who are promulgating hatred.”
We Were Warned
This government is a blight for the State of Israel. The only thing on which they could agree was to designate a commission of inquiry to investigate the tragedy in Meron—not that anyone was fooled into believing that this government has any concern for the chareidi community, which suffered from the disaster. It is a government that spells trouble in every way.
Sometimes, on rare occasions, it is correct to say “I told you so.” And this is one of those occasions. The Israeli voters who abandoned their parties deserve to hear that message.
Less than four months ago, just before Pesach, when the election campaign was in full swing, some voices within the chareidi community began to suggest that it was time to “punish” the chareidi parties and their leaders for their perceived failures. This was a foolhardy and myopic suggestion, which failed to recognize that the entire community is in the same proverbial boat.
The Israeli Yated Neeman had a creative idea: They produced a mock newspaper illustrating what might happen if the chareidi parties lost their political clout. In a show of creativity, the fictitious headlines were stark and chilling: “Education Minister Michaeli to the Knesset: Beginning Next Year, No Government Funding for Schools That Do Not Teach Full Core Curriculum.” “Nitzan and Zilber [two anti-religious figures in the judicial system] Appointed to Supreme Court.” “Dayanim to Be Appointed Only After Hearings in Women’s Organizations.” “Minister of Religious Affairs Gilad Kariv at Ceremony Appointing Male and Female Reform Dayanim: ‘We Will Give Equal Status to Reform and Conservative Botei Din.’” “Ministry of Immigrant Absorption to Open Rapid Conversation Stands at Ben-Gurion Airport.” Finally, the last fictitious article quoted Moshe Gafni scolding the chareidi public, “We warned about this, and people laughed. The voters were complacent; people were angry about the lack of buses on Purim and about the fines for illegal gatherings during the pandemic, but this is what their decisions have brought upon us.” Amazingly, these fictitious headlines included some announcements that were virtually identical to statements that were later released by the current government. Thus, the religious community was warned—and apparently failed to heed that warning.
Of course, the situation today doesn’t exactly mirror the newspaper’s predictions. Razvozov is not the Minister of the Interior, after all—although, incidentally, he told me that he wears tefillin every day. At the same time, it is conceivable that the Education Ministry might cut funding to schools where the secular core curriculum isn’t taught. And the government has already opened a division for the Reform movement in the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. The new Minister of Religious Affairs has also begun trying to change the composition of the panel responsible for appointing dayanim so that the secular members will be able to outvote the rabbonim. The new government has been in power for a very short time, yet many dire predictions have already come true. Let us hope that this the government itself will come to an end within an equally short span of time.
Citizenship Law Divides the Government
I haven’t even touched the topic of the current tensions in the Knesset, about which I could write volumes. This government, which rests on the splintered shards of political parties, is struggling to remain on its feet. Every disagreement gives rise to contention and division within its ranks. The Citizenship Law is only one example. The Arabs, of course, announced immediately that they would not support the law, and the Arab minister from the Meretz party likewise declared that he could not support it. For lack of an alternative, the government appealed to the opposition for its support—and they were flatly turned down. The opposition informed them pointedly that they had no intention of cleaning up the government’s messes.
The Citizenship Law, in a nutshell, is a law that prevents Israeli Arabs from marrying Arabs from other countries and automatically conferring on their spouses the right to settle in Israel. There is already a law to this effect on the books, but it was passed as a temporary measure that must be extended every year. The time has come to extend it once again, but the government has been struggling to assemble a majority for that purpose, and the squabbling within the coalition has caused a delay in extending the law. That is very embarrassing for the Israeli parliament.
The Knesset has been plagued by other conflicts as well. Every disagreement, even about the most minor issue, causes a crisis within the exceedingly fragile coalition. Perhaps I will write a separate article about this situation.
What the Scientist Cannot See
Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach famously said that he was capable of seeing Hashem even in a slice of an orange. A knowledgeable person explained to me that an orange slice, and even a single seed within it, contains an enormous amount of information. After all, the seed can be planted and develop into an entire tree; all the information it needs for that purpose, so to speak, is stored within its seed.
I will never forget my interview with Professor Ephraim Katzir at his home at the Weitzman Institute of Science. Professor Katzir, the son of a rov, was a scientist and onetime president of the State of Israel. I made this point about an orange and asked him, “If you see that the world has a Creator, how can it be that you don’t observe His mitzvos?” I was following the example of Rav Uri Zohar, who once challenged Professor Dani Gur, a world-class cardiologist, “Don’t you see the existence of the Creator in every bypass operation you perform?”
Katzir replied, “You are right, but I am a scientist. For a scientist, anything that he cannot see with his own eyes or through a microscope does not exist.” At that moment, as I sat in his living room, I did not know how to react, even though I was certain that his answer was senseless. Now, however, I have an answer. Not long ago, the Sanzer Rebbe quoted a similar statement made by another scientist and responded rhetorically, “What about your own intellect? If it can’t be seen with a microscope, does that mean that it doesn’t exist?”
I remembered all of this after coming across an article this week about some recent scientific discoveries: Researchers have learned that plants are capable of hearing. “When the evening primrose hears the buzzing of a bee, it quickly produces sweeter nectar,” the article asserted. “When it hears a bat, however, it does not do the same thing.” Apparently, plants are capable of storing information and even adjusting their reactions to the type of information they receive. And they are also capable of collaborating with each other. The researchers also discovered that sunflowers can calculate the amount of time during which they received light from a particular source, and then tilt their stems in order to receive the exact amount of light they require.
What amazes me the most, though, is that these researchers have been exposed to the wonders of Hashem’s creation, yet they have not been inspired to make changes in their own lives as a result.