Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

My Take On The News

Elul is Here

Well, here we are. The weeks of the summer vacation have passed in the blink of an eye. It seems like just yesterday that it was the night after Tisha B’Av and I was debating whether to return my copy of Kinnos to its place at the top of my seforim shelves, or to emulate the tzaddikim of Yerushalayim who place their Kinnos in shaimos every year, having complete emunah that the Bais Hamikdash will be rebuilt before the next Tisha B’Av arrives. Or, to give you a very different picture of how I have been spending my summer, just a short time ago I was perusing the newspaper advertisements that offered a wide range of vacation getaways. Full disclosure: In the end, I remained in Givat Shaul, where the main attractions every day are the minyanim for Mincha and Maariv in the Zupnik shul. Of course, I had a chance to meet the American bochurim in Yeshivas Ner Moshe who did not return to America for the summer break. Some of those bochurim came to my home on Motzoei Shabbos for Havdalah.

And now Elul is upon us. This week is Shabbos Mevorchim, and the tension in the air is palpable. The transition from bein hazemanim to Elul is quick and jarring. Therefore, my friends, let me repeat the cry once again this year: Elul is here. As the novi asks, can a shofar be sounded without striking fear in our hearts?

A Moshol from Rav Shimshon Pincus

On the subject of Elul, I once heard a fascinating moshol from Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus to explain the impact of the shofar.

Today, Rav Pincus is perhaps much more renowned than he was during his lifetime. His seforim have achieved incredible popularity, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. I once discussed this phenomenon with Rav Yaakov Hillel, who was a close friend of Rav Pincus, and he commented that both Rav Pincus’s life and his death completely defied any natural explanation—and the same is true of the enormous degree to which his Torah has spread throughout the Jewish world since his petirah. Rav Yaakov felt that the car accident that claimed the lives of Rav Pincus, his wife, and his daughter was the result of Hashem’s desire to shake up His world.

I once joined Rav Shimshon’s son, Rav Eliyahu Yitzchok Pincus, on a visit to the headquarters of Shalhevet in Boro Park, where I met Rebbetzin Leah Gottlieb. The rebbetzin showed me the collection of hundreds of cassette tapes with recordings of Rav Pincus’s lectures, and I was surprised to discover that there was hardly any video footage of his speeches. I knew that one of his drashos had been filmed at an Agudah convention, and we later managed to locate the video at the offices of Agudas Yisroel in Manhattan. At the Shalhevet office, Rebbetzin Gottlieb pointed to an old sofa and said, “This is where Rav Pincus used to sleep when he was in America.” Although he sometimes stayed at the home of his sister, Rebbetzin Braun, in Flatbush, Rav Pincus spent many other nights in the office of Shalhevet, which served as his base of operations while he set out to speak to audiences throughout the United States. Those shiurim later became the basis of the published seforim containing his Torah.

Rav Pincus was a master of mesholim. When he used a moshol, it always blended incredible profundity with uncanny appeal. Above all, every moshol was a remarkably precise fit for the message it conveyed. And one of his famous mesholim deals with the shofar of Rosh Hashanah.

Rav Pincus painted a vivid verbal picture of a child returning home from school and showing a note from his rebbi to his father. The rebbi had written that the child’s behavior in class was abysmal, and he asked the parents to punish their son appropriately. The child confessed to causing havoc in class, and his parents ordered him to go to his room while they discussed the nature of the punishment he would receive. The child had no choice but to retreat to his room in trepidation, knowing that he would not be able to escape the consequences of his misdeeds.

Suddenly, a dreadful scream pierced the air. The child’s bedroom door had slammed on his hand and he was bleeding profusely. The frightened parents rushed the child to the nearest emergency room, and in the midst of their panic and confusion, all thoughts of the child’s mischief and well-deserved punishment disappeared from their minds. All they could think about was the injury to their beloved son.

The sound of the shofar, Rav Pincus concluded, is like the child’s scream. We know that Hashem is aware of all of our sins, but the wordless blast of the shofar awakens His mercy and caring, which override His intent to punish us for our misdeeds.

Fears Abound as Infection Rates Rise

The two dominant issues in Israel today are the coronavirus and the state budget. We will begin with the news relating to the pandemic.

Something bad is definitely happening in Israel. After the country seemed to be in excellent shape, and it appeared that we had completely emerged from the pandemic, there was a clear regression. We have witnessed a steady rise in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, along with the number of hospitalizations.

The chareidi community, at least, has not been hit hard by the latest wave of corona; however, we are all still concerned for the welfare of the entire country. The only positive thing that can be said is that the chareidim haven’t been targeted with the usual incitement and vicious charges of spreading disease. At the same time, the situation in the country as a whole is quite frightening. To make matters worse, the virus seems to have made inroads into the chareidi community in recent days. Dozens of confirmed cases were detected in a chareidi summer camp and in several areas populated by the religious community. And that is a real cause for concern.

Prime Minister Naftoli Bennett has called on the entire country to take the vaccine, but there are still many people who do not want to be inoculated. It was reported last week that a minister in the government—the woman who serves as Minister of Education—refused to receive the vaccine, which led to some harsh exchanges with her colleagues. Rumor has it that this woman has drawn so much antagonism that Bennett is thinking of removing her from her post.

At the same time that Bennett called on all the citizens of Israel to be vaccinated, he also called on all citizens above the age of 60 to receive a third dose of the vaccine. This week, we were inundated with pictures of senior citizens receiving the third dose—led by Netanyahu himself, along with Moshe Gafni and Aryeh Deri.

Negligence and Oversight in Tackling the Pandemic

Recent polls have shown that the Israeli public feels that Bennett is not capable of handling the pandemic correctly and that he has done a poor job of providing vaccines. Most of the public believes that Netanyahu handled the pandemic much more appropriately—a view that I believe is confirmed by the results. The mere fact that Ben Gurion Airport has remained open, with tens of thousands of Israelis arriving every day after traveling to dozens of other countries, seems to be a massive oversight on the government’s part. Bennett is clearly afraid to take drastic steps that will anger the public. There is no way to gauge how many people who were infected with the coronavirus have entered Israel in recent days.

One thing that especially infuriated the public is the fact that tens of thousands of Arabs recently flew from Israel to Turkey to celebrate a Muslim holiday. Based on the contagion level, Turkey should technically be a red country, but the government didn’t want to antagonize the Arabs (after all, the Arab parties are propping up the current regime) and therefore it didn’t make an official declaration to that effect. The official change in status will be made only after all the Arabs have returned from their pilgrimage. Meanwhile, this week the government announced only that travel to Turkey is now prohibited—of course, after all the Arab travelers had left. Nevertheless, the same government is already working out ways to cause hardships for the Breslover chassidim who intend to travel to Uman for Rosh Hashanah.

Not long ago, the requirement to wear masks indoors was reinstated on a Friday. On that same day, there was a parade in Tel Aviv. The Minister of Health today, who is a leftist with strong connections to the Tel Aviv scene, did not want to antagonize the parade participants by imposing a mask mandate during their event. Instead, he decided that the mandate would go into effect only at 2:00 in the afternoon, two hours after the parade was due to end.

You can certainly see why most of the Israeli public has very little faith in this government, especially concerning its management of the pandemic.

The Abbas Tax

It is no secret that the government promised the staggering sum of 53 billion shekels in funding to the Arab sector over the course of the next five years, in an assortment of budgetary items, in order to entice the Raam party to join the coalition. The support of the four members of Raam was all that Bennett, Lapid, Saar, and Lieberman needed in order to receive a vote of confidence from the Knesset. While it’s true that the Likud party also tried to include Raam in their own right-wing coalition, they were ready to rely on the Arab party only for external support, not to include it as an outright member of the coalition. In addition, the Likud never offered to make such sweeping concessions to Raam. It is Bennett and his cronies who have given Mansour Abbas the immense clout that he wields today.

The current government has surrendered to Raam not only on a financial level, but in every other sense as well. Whenever Raam decides to oppose a potential law, the government caves in, which is precisely the reason that the Citizenship Law failed. This week, a political cartoon depicted Naftoli Bennett lying on the floor while Mansour Abbas rests his feet on him. From his position on the ground, Bennett asks obsequiously, “Will there be anything else?”

The money that will be channeled to the Arabs will have to come from somewhere, and the Finance Ministry has been cooking up an abundance of plans for bringing more funds into the state coffers. One such idea was the decision to harm working chareidi mothers by canceling the subsidized day care for families in which the father does not work. The true result of this move, however, will be that the mothers will be forced to leave their jobs. The Finance Ministry might have thought that they would induce kollel yungeleit to go out to work, but the opposite will happen instead: The wives of the country’s yungeleit will be forced to stop working. But Finance Minister Lieberman is not troubled at all by that pesky fact.

Slashing the day care subsidy was only the first of a series of moves by the Finance Ministry. The next step was instituting a variety of new taxes—a tax on disposable dishes, a tax on sweetened drinks, a tax on fruits and vegetables, and a tax on consulting with doctors. They also called for the discounts on public transportation to be abolished and for a toll to be charged for entering the Gush Dan region. A cursory inspection reveals that the people who will suffer the most from these new decrees are the weaker sectors of society … and the chareidi public.

This week, it was reported that the price of electricity is also scheduled to rise. This will come as a blow to every Israeli citizen—and once again, the poor and the chareidim will suffer more than anyone else. Binyomin Netanyahu reacted by calling this the “Abbas tax,” since the increased cost of electricity is a direct result of the government’s commitments to Abbas. The Israeli public is highly disgruntled, and for good reason.

A Budget with a Hefty Price Tag

It is important to understand that the state budget is a vital component of the government’s security. The ability to pass a budget is usually a measure of the government’s stability and control of the country. For a government such as this one, passing a budget is an immensely difficult proposition, since the coalition rules by a margin of a single vote. The government was initially formed by a majority vote of 60 to 59, and that means that any lone Knesset member or government minister who decides to revolt can easily block the budget from being passed. The law also states that if a budget is not passed by a specific deadline, the government must be dissolved. This was a major source of headaches for Netanyahu in his time, when his partners in the Blue and White party dug in their heels on numerous budgetary issues.

In order to pass a budget now, Finance Minister Lieberman will need the votes of the entire coalition, including Mansour Abbas and his party. He also has an interest in procuring the support of the Joint Arab List, which isn’t actually bound to following the government’s lead. The problem is their support comes with a price tag; he will have to pay each and every one of them for their votes. Ironically, Lieberman was highly outspoken against the Israeli Arab community in previous election campaigns, and now he has been reduced to pleading for their support.

Nor does Lieberman have any guarantee that his efforts will actually help him. No matter how many concessions he makes, the budget might still fail. Several government ministers have already announced that they will vote against the budget unless their respective ministries receive an increase in funding. One of those ministers is Nitzan Horowitz, the Minister of Health, who has let it be known that he already disapproves of the government’s policies and that his party, Meretz, feels uncomfortable as a member of the coalition. If he does not receive the funding he desires for the Health Ministry, Horowitz is threatening to bolt. Likewise, Penina Tamno-Shata of the Blue and White party, who heads the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, decided that if the government doesn’t allocate funds to bring the entire Falash Mura community to Israel, she will vote against the budget.

To make a long story short, the government is going to have to give out plenty of prizes in order to get the budget to pass.

Now, there is a chance that the government will manage to get past this hurdle. In the end, all the disagreements might be smoothed over and the budget might be successfully passed. Once a budget is passed, the average government can usually be expected to survive for at least a year (or two, in the event that a two-year budget is accepted by the Knesset). This time, however, it is widely believed that the government’s days will be numbered even if it manages to push the budget through the approval process. This is not a government that appears capable of surviving for long.

And let us say “amein” to those predictions.

Outrage in Avivim

This week, a delegation of farmers visited the Knesset to protest one of the government’s reforms. The new government has introduced a plan with the stated purpose of lowering the prices of fruits and vegetables. However, Israeli farmers believe that it will be a deadly blow to their livelihoods.

One of the farmers who spoke briefly in the Knesset is a man named Shimon Bitton, whose absolute authenticity impressed me. Bitton explained that his chicken farm in northern Israel is akin to an “Iron Dome” for all of us. He explained that if the farmers leave the vicinity of the border, the entire country will suffer bitter consequences. If the IDF is forced to enter the abandoned areas, he added, the cost will be even greater.

I spoke with Bitton privately, and I learned that his family has lived in Avivim, on the northern border, since the aliyah from Morocco in 1963. “I am sure you are familiar with the area of Tzefas and Meron,” he said. “Avivim is in that area.” Bitton explained that his parents came to Israel from Morocco and settled in Avivim (possibly because the government gave them no choice in the matter) and that he was the first child born there.

“Were your parents also farmers?” I asked.

Bitton laughed. “In Morocco, everyone was a farmer,” he replied. “There were no high-tech workers there.”

In Avivim, his parents raised chickens and sold eggs. They also raised apples, pears, and peaches. Shimon Bitton himself has carried on the family tradition of tending to fruit trees. He grows plums, nectarines, peaches, pears, apricots, apples, and kiwis, each in its respective season. But his primary occupation is raising chickens. Many of the residents of Avivim are involved in similar pursuits. And he is furious with the government.

“This government, led by the finance minister and agriculture minister, has issued a death sentence against agriculture in the State of Israel and against the settlements in the north. By opening the market to imports from hostile countries such as Turkey and Ukraine, and by giving an advantage to imported produce, they have condemned the domestic farming industry to death. If you ask me why, I will explain it to you.”

Of course, I asked him to elaborate.

“The competition is unfair, since the market is stacked against us,” Bitton explained. “Farmers in Turkey receive water for their orchards almost for free, while we have to pay two shekels per cubic leader of sewage water. That accounts for almost five percent of the cost of the fruit we sell.”

“But the government is trying to bring the prices down,” I pointed out.

“That is a very good objective, and we support it as well,” Bitton replied. “We, the farmers, sell our produce as cheaply as we can. The government should be dealing with the rising costs instead of harming us. Tell me,” he said, “how much do you pay for nectarines or pears?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “My wife shops for fruit.”

“When I harvest nectarines in my orchard, I sell them for five shekels per kilogram,” he revealed. “In the store, you buy the same nectarines for 20 shekels per kilo. I sell grapes for ten shekels per kilo, and you pay 25. Kiwis are sold from my farm for seven shekels for a kilo, and you pay 30 shekels in the store. And when I sell eggs for 45 agurot apiece, you pay a full shekel for each.”

“Where does the rest of the money go?” I asked.

“It goes to the supermarket chains,” he replied. “We insist that the government should be dealing with the supermarkets first. If they do that, you will see that the prices of fruit, vegetables, and eggs will fall.”

The farmers came to the Knesset in order to enlist the support of the other parties against Finance Minister Lieberman. “Lieberman doesn’t even know where Avivim is, nor is he familiar with Kadesh Barnea or Tzofer in the Arava,” Bitton said acidly. “He has never experienced farming and has no idea what it is about.”

Bitton revealed that he is a namesake of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai. “When my parents arrived in Avivim, they were pleased to discover that they were living near Rabi Shimon’s kever. I was their first child, and they decided to name me Shimon after the great Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.”

A Wedding at the Prima Palace

There were many noteworthy events this bein hazemanim, but I will settle for reporting to you about two or three.

Last Thursday, most of the country spent some part of the day away from home. Some people traveled to the north while others journeyed to the south—and for my part, I made my way to the Prima Palace Hotel in Yerushalayim to attend the wedding of Dovid and Hadassah Hartman. The righteous Dovid Hartman hails from the Machzikei Hadas community in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is a very small community, but all of its members are very special people, among them the Katzenstein, Samson, Kahan, Gutterman, Winkler, Heiman, and Knepelmacher families. Reb Dovid is an outstanding talmid in Yeshivas Mir who is known for his tzidkus and nobility. The wedding brought together multiple generations of the extended Machzikei Hadas family.

The Danish community prides itself on punctuality, and I made sure to arrive on time. The chosson was seated at the front of the room, with Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi beside him. “I have been davening in the yeshiva every morning for the past 40 years,” Rav Ezrachi remarked to me, “and I believe that Dovid hasn’t missed a single Shacharis since he came to us!” Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, the rosh yeshiva of Mir, arrived next, exuding boundless joy over his talmid’s simcha. The rosh yeshiva served as mesader kiddushin and guided his talmid through the chupah procedure, while his rebbetzin did the same for the kallah. I was told that the rosh yeshiva and his wife relate to Dovid as if he were their own son. That, too, speaks volumes about the world of Mir.

At the wedding, I met a very personable man by the name of Reb Alexander Rosenbaum. When I introduced myself, he became enthused. “I learned in Be’er Yaakov in the yeshiva’s early years,” he revealed. “I attended your father’s shiur!” He explained that he lives in Australia and that he had come to the wedding in honor of the kallah’s family, who are likewise from Australia. His father, Rav Moshe Shmuel, moved from Pressburg to Melbourne, where he served as the shochet and a leader of the community. With this insight into the kallah’s background, I discovered that this shidduch brought together two families that had preserved their respective commitments to Yiddishkeit under the most difficult circumstances and had achieved incredible things. May the chosson and kallah be zocheh to build a bayis ne’eman b’Yisroel.

Nesanel’s Greatest Joy

I also found myself at a bein hazemanim event arranged by the B’Lev Echad organization, where a very special child named Nesanel experienced the greatest joy of his life.

Nesanel has always jumped with joy whenever he heard the song Mizrach, but he never dreamed that he would have the privilege of singing it together with Lipa Shmelczer. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened. On the evening of the event, facing a crowd of thousands at the Yamit 2000 amphitheater, Nesanel joined Lipa on stage, while tears welled up in many eyes in the audience. He also had a chance to sing along with Avraham Fried, who embraced him.

B’Lev Echad’s annual event offers special children (children with Down’s syndrome, autism, or other disabilities) and their families a chance to relax and enjoy an exceptional outing. Every special child becomes the hero of his family at these events, as his siblings know that he is their ticket to admission to a fun-filled, unforgettable experience. I couldn’t help but be reminded of an incident that took place at an event held by Zeh Lazeh, an organization run by Rebbetzin Rottenberg for the benefit of widows and orphans, when a child stood outside the event and watched somberly, saddened by the fact that he himself wasn’t an orphan and therefore couldn’t participate in the fun.

I could have written volumes about this special event held for special children and their families. The event featured a wide assortment of treats for the families, including boat rides, swimming, prizes, sweets, and performances by Lipa Shmelczer and Avraham Fried. I could easily have found a father to interview who would tell us all about the benefits of the event for his family. I could also have written at length about the enormous investment of effort required for the event, about the massive logistical work and about the dedication of B’Lev Echad’s indefatigable crew of volunteers, headed by Reb Dovid Weitman. What is most noteworthy about the event, though, is what it teaches us about our community—about the many people who excel at giving to others, without fanfare or publicity and purely l’sheim Shomayim. B’Lev Echad, along with other organizations such as Zeh Lazeh and Ezer Mizion, embody the Jewish ideal of sharing the burdens of others, opening one’s heart to those who are suffering and doing everything in one’s power to alleviate their distress—while expecting nothing in return.

For anyone who does not have a child with special needs, it may be impossible to truly appreciate the benefits of the summer camps or special events for these families.

I was at the event, and I spoke with the parents and watched the volunteers at work. The volunteers of B’Lev Echad are yeshiva bochurim who have sacrificed their bein hazemanim vacations in order to lend a helping hand to families struggling with unfathomable burdens. And that is yet another testament to the incredible character of our community.

A Week of Sanity for Struggling Families

I also had a chance to observe the summer camp program run by Mesugalim, a relatively new organization that serves the families of children with special needs. Mesugalim was founded by Avi Mimran, a fairly well-known chareidi media personality who is the father of a child with special needs. In a heartbreaking comment about his own child, Mimran once remarked, “Just think about what it means that I have a son who will never even know how to embrace me.”

There were six separate summer programs organized by Mesugalim for children and youths at various points on the autism spectrum. The programs served a total of 600 campers, with 700 staff members tending to their needs. This afforded 600 families the chance to have an eight-day respite. Chaim Walder composed a special song that gives expression to the feelings of these children and their families: “Life is like the waves. Sometimes it is calm, and sometimes there is a storm. But deep in the ocean, there is a wave that is alone, that cannot move or flow. It yearns to reach the shore…”

The counselors at the Mesugalim programs, like the volunteers of B’Lev Echad, were yeshiva bochurim who were willing to forgo their own vacations in order to assist the children. Amazingly, some of the children in the program had multiple personal counselors, since they required 24-hour supervision.

The father of one of the children in the summer camp remarked to me, “What Mesugalim does for us is simply to ease our burden. Every child with these conditions and complications has a father, a mother, and siblings, and every day is like Gehinnom on earth for them. Mesugalim provides activities around the year, including getaways and programs for mothers and children, and in the summer vacation it organizes this massive camp program.” At long last, the families were able to endure a week of quiet, whose restorative effects can be nothing short of lifesaving.

One Country, Two Languages

On the afternoon of Tisha B’Av this year, after he had spent the morning reciting Kinnos, a yungerman received a call on his cell phone. When he answered it, the voice on the other end of the line said, “Shalom, I am calling from your health fund.”

The woman spoke with a Russian accent, and the yungerman was somewhat suspicious of a caller who would greet him with the word “shalom” in the middle of Tisha B’Av. “What can I do for you?” he asked.

“We wanted to speak to you about expanding your medical coverage,” the caller replied. “Do you have a minute to discuss it?”

“On Tisha B’Av?” he exclaimed incredulously.

Tisha what?” the woman asked. The tone of her voice made it clear: She was genuinely not even aware of the existence of Tisha B’Av.

On a similar note, Amnon Levi is an Israeli journalist who enjoys covering the chareidi community as if they were some sort of quaint relics from a bygone era. This week, he interviewed a chareidi journalist and questioned him about the community’s interest in the vacations of gedolei Yisroel. The journalist revealed that pictures of the gedolim on vacation are even published for the community to see under the title “B’neos Desheh.” He employed the Ashkenazic pronunciation for the phrase, and Amnon Levi repeated quizzically, “B’nois?” He had no idea what the word was supposed to be. Even when it was explained to him, he still did not know that the phrase was drawn from a posuk in Sefer Tehillim.

To drive my point home, here is one more anecdote: MK Shlomo Karai of the Likud party mentioned in one of his speeches in the Knesset that he had hired a gardener to perform some work at his home before the arrival of the Shmittah year. Eitan Ginsburg of the Blue and White party, who was chairing the Knesset sitting at the time, was surprised to discover that gardening work will become prohibited by halacha in another couple of months.

All three stories lead to the same conclusion: The language and mindset of the chareidi community are completely foreign to the chilonim. We are simply worlds apart. The religious sector is incensed by Minister Matan Kahane’s plan to reform the kashrus industry, but the chilonim do not understand what is wrong with it. This past Monday, I listened as Knesset speaker Mickey Levi angrily rebuked someone who had referred to the current regime as a “treife government.” Having no familiarity with the term, he assumed that it was some sort of obscenity. Perhaps someone should try to explain to him that it simply means the opposite of “kosher.”

The chareidim and chilonim in Israel speak two different languages. They are almost like two different nations, completely incapable of understanding each other.

 

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