Suspected Arson Around Yerushalayim
Israel is a country that produces news at a rapid pace. It is unbelievable how quickly things tend to happen here. For instance, as I am writing this article, fierce fires are raging in the vicinity of Yerushalayim, near Neve Ilan. (In case you are not familiar with it, you might be more well acquainted with the community of Telz Stone, otherwise known as Kiryat Yearim, which sits off the highway connecting Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv. Shortly before the entrance to Kiryat Yearim, there is a gas station and a turnoff to the small town of Neve Ilan.) Neve Ilan contains a large complex of studios, and the authorities feared that the entire area might go up in flames. The Metzudah winery, located in the area, burned completely to the ground. And the firefighting service claims that the blaze is the result of arson.
The flames have also reached the area of Yerushalayim, especially the vicinity of Har Nof. Many homes in the area of the blaze were evacuated. In fact, there are wildfires currently burning around the world and we cannot allow ourselves to remain indifferent to all the disasters unfolding in the world today. Thousands of people have died across the globe due to the intense heat, wildfires, storms, and earthquakes. It is all very frightening. The Chofetz Chaim taught us long ago that Hashem creates natural disasters to convey messages to Klal Yisroel. Only we, the Jewish people, are capable of understanding these messages.
Here in Yerushalayim, we can see the firefighting planes heading toward the site of the blaze. The thick smoke from the fire has even reached my home. In fact, the suffocating smoke pervaded the air even at the Kosel. A cabinet meeting was interrupted on account of the fire, and the IDF was ordered to provide assistance in any way it could.
One of the difficult decisions that had to be made was what to do with the residents of the Eitanim psychiatric hospital near the entrance to Har Nof. It was quite difficult to evacuate the patients, and some of them did not understand what was happening to them. Some of the patients tend to fly into hysteria in response to any change in their routines. The radio transmitters near the hospital were also a major subject of concern; if those transmitters are disabled, it can be problematic for the entire country. At first, the government decided to seal off the hospital in order to prevent the smoke from penetrating the wards. Before long, however, it became clear that there was no choice but to evacuate the patients, some of whom disappeared during the process. The patients who went missing were eventually found, but the pressure was enormous.
According to reports, the firefighting services haven’t yet managed to contain the flames, which have been racing through the forests around Yerushalayim and endangering homes in many neighborhoods. The residents of Ramat Raziel, Beit Meir, and Telz Stone were evacuated from their homes. Some of the houses were damaged by the fire and will have to be restored. The residents of Kibbutz Tzova are already accusing the authorities of negligence. The flames actually reached residential buildings in several areas, as the forest fire threatened Yerushalayim itself. In response to the fire, Greece announced that it was preparing to send aid to Israel, just two weeks after Israeli rescue workers provided assistance to the victims of an earthquake there. We must beseach Hashem to save us from harm!
Diplomatic Crises with Poland and America
On a diplomatic and political level, Israel is dealing with crises on several fronts. First, tensions have developed between Israel and Poland, which just passed a law concerning the return of property plundered from Jewish owners before the Holocaust. The law indirectly harms Holocaust survivors and their heirs. In what may have been a diplomatic misstep, Yair Lapid, as Israel’s foreign minister, responded to the Polish law with sharp criticism, antagonizing the Polish government.
In addition to the spat with Poland, Israel has also found itself in a conflict with the United States. President Biden demanded that the Israeli government halt construction in the settlements, and in response, Bennett ordered to cut the number of building permits due to be approved. Personally, I do not believe that he will succeed in preventing a conflict with the American government; all that he will do is engender more animosity on the right.
Another of Israel’s problems comes in the form of Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, who cannot seem to stop coming up with bizarre and twisted ideas. His proposal for kashrus reform has already drawn scathing criticism from rabbonim spanning the entire religious spectrum, and while Kahana backpedaled a bit on his audacious plan, that reversal seems to be too little and too late. Kahana has also announced that he has hatched a plan to reform the system of giyur as well, which is bound to encounter fierce opposition from anyone who is concerned about Yiddishkeit. To make matters worse, he has yet another plan up his sleeve, this one to reform the burial system. There is a shortage of burial plots in Israel, and since some people insist (and rightly so) on being buried in normal graves rather than catacombs or similar structures, the minister came up with an idea: Every niftar will be removed from his or her grave after the first year has elapsed since the burial. What will be done with the bodies at that time? Kahana hasn’t been clear about that. Perhaps he intends to have all the remains interred in a mass grave. After all, this minister and his government are capable of anything….
The beginning of Elul marks the yahrtzeit of Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Hakohen Kook. Matan Kahana visited Rav Kook’s grave on Har Hazeisim this year in honor of the yahrtzeit; in spite of his last name, Kahana insists that he is not a kohen and is permitted to enter a cemetery. In any event, he was accosted by a group of visitors at the gravesite and was forced to flee from the area, shamefaced and accompanied by his personal security detail.
Last week, I wrote at length about Kahana’s proposal for kashrus reform and the decision of the Chief Rabbinical Council to condemn it; however, I did not have a chance to tell you about the conference of rabbonim that took place last Wednesday. Hundreds of rabbonim gathered in Yerushalayim, headed by the two chief rabbis of Israel, and issued a joint statement condemning Kahana’s proposal.
Chillul Shabbos and the Interior Minister
Last week, I noted that a cursory study has shown that increasing numbers of local governments in Israel have begun turning a blind eye to businesses that operate on Shabbos. Of course, I blame this phenomenon on the government of evil that has taken over the country, and on the fact that the current Minister of the Interior is Ayelet Shaked. Even though Shaked is a member of Yamina, the party headed by Naftoli Bennett that supposedly has a national religious orientation, she is secular and besides Yamina isn’t exactly known for standing up for the causes that are sacred to the Jewish people.
Since I wrote about it last week, the issue has actually become a hot topic for debate here in Israel. Some have tried to defend Shaked by claiming that she has no authority on the matter, and that only the local governments have the ability to forestall chillul Shabbos on the commercial front. This sounds like a valid argument, but it is clearly contradicted by a simple fact: No such thing took place on the watch of Aryeh Deri, the previous Minister of the Interior. Evidently, there is indeed a connection between the minister’s identity and the erosion of respect for Shabbos.
An insightful explanation came from Betzalel Smotrich, the man who is perhaps the most ardent political enemy of Bennett and his cronies. Not long ago, Bennett and Smotrich were partners, but they have since parted ways. Today, they have drifted very far apart. In any event, Smotrich claims now that the explanation is simple: No local government has any interest in antagonizing the Minister of the Interior, who holds the local governments under his (or her) direct jurisdiction and is responsible for the bulk of their funding. If the head of a local government knows that the interior minister has a certain fundamental value, especially if it is a religious value, he will be the last person in the world to violate that principle. After all, it is in the best interests of every local government to maintain a good relationship with the interior minister. According to Smotrich, whose analysis seems to be very much on target, that is the key difference between Deri and Shaked: All the local governments were well aware that Aryeh Deri values Shabbos above all else, and therefore they did everything in their power to avoid any violation of the sanctity of Shabbos. Under Shaked, who is completely secular, it seems that this issue does not have the same importance.
I can personally attest that this thesis is sound. The interplay between the interior minister and local governments is the very reason that municipal governments, on their own initiative, decided to build shuls, mikvaos, and yeshivos during Deri’s tenure as interior minister. They knew that these were causes that were close to the minister’s heart, and they wanted to do everything possible to ingratiate themselves with him. Today, it seems that the local authorities understand that Minister Shaked isn’t the least bit concerned about Shabbos observance. And that means that the rash of chillul Shabbos is yet another of the many evils that have been brought upon us by this government.
As Covid Gains Ground, Bennett Loses Popularity
The coronavirus is still at the top of the public agenda. The ministers of the government are constantly telling us that the last thing they want to do is impose a lockdown, but at the same time, they are hinting that there will be no choice but to institute a lockdown, since the situation is steadily growing worse. Of course, the fact that the situation is worsening should not come as news to anyone. We could all have predicted it when we saw the government’s lackadaisical attitude to procedures in the airport and its utter inaction in response to the tens of thousands of Arabs who traveled to Turkey and back to Israel again, likely bringing variants of the disease with them. What should be surprising is the fact that that the current government has begun coming under fire in the media no less than Netanyahu did in his own times. And now, at least, the criticism is justified.
The newspapers are reporting that the hospitals are beginning to collapse again, and that coronavirus patients arriving in hospitals in central Israel are being transferred to hospitals in Yerushalayim. There have been reports of patients receiving inadequate care, and of large numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and cases of patients on ventilators. The media has been railing against the government for its passivity and negligence, and especially against Prime Minister Bennett. It seems that the press, like the left itself, has concluded that Bennett has served his purpose and can now be cast aside. He helped the left achieve its dream of ousting Netanyahu from power, and now they are ready to have Bennett himself removed from their sight as well, especially since he doesn’t actually seem qualified for his position.
Lieberman and Lapid have also come under heavy fire from the media. It was recently revealed that neither Yair Lapid, who holds the title of foreign minister, nor Avigdor Lieberman, the country’s finance minister, has bothered attending even a single meeting of the country’s Coronavirus Cabinet. Neither of the men has denied these reports—not that they could have gotten away with denying it. Instead, they “explained” that their functions have nothing to do with the pandemic. And if you will excuse me for saying it, that is an utterly obtuse response.
For one thing, any senior minister in the government should be expected to participate in making such important decisions, regardless of whether the business of the Coronavirus Cabinet has anything to do with his personal position. Besides, the argument that the pandemic has nothing to do with their offices is utterly specious. The Foreign Ministry is the place where Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the rest of the world are determined, and that is certainly an integral part of dealing with the pandemic. As for the Finance Ministry, every decision of the Coronavirus Cabinet is directly related to economic concerns. For instance, the efforts to avoid a lockdown are based on economic considerations. A lockdown would strip many businesses of their revenues and potentially lead to their collapse. It would also prevent people from going out to work, costing the government huge sums of money. For this, both Lieberman and Lapid were subjected to fierce verbal lashings in the media.
A Yom Tov Lockdown
The religious community is deeply aggrieved by the specter of a lockdown that has been raised by the government. If a lockdown is implemented—which seems to be a very likely scenario—then it will run from Rosh Hashanah until after Sukkos. According to Prime Minister Bennett, this is because a lockdown at this time of year will cause the least economic damage. The fact that it will cause great harm to the religious community seems not to bother Bennett or his cronies in the government. The fact that the level of morbidity is particularly low in the chareidi community, which means that restrictive measures targeting the community are especially unjustified, is ignored.
Bennett was lambasted this week for another reason as well: He called on the general public to get vaccinated, but he reacted too late to the spread of the virus. Moreover, instead of calling it by its name, the coronavirus, he has begun referring to it as “delta,” as if to imply that the State of Israel vanquished the coronavirus itself and is now facing a new pandemic. The hidden message: Bennett’s government isn’t to blame for the rise of a new medical threat.
Bennett used the word “delta” no fewer than seven times in a recent letter to the public, starting with his opening line: “I would like to share with you our national plan for dealing with the delta wave that is sweeping through the world.” The word was repeated in his very next sentence: “Let me explain the outbreak of the delta strain both in the world at large and here in Israel.” The third paragraph of his letter began with the words “our strategy to conquer the delta plague.” Later on, after explaining his general opposition to lockdowns, Bennett added, “The same is true of delta.” And then he continued, “The delta wave began before the establishment of my government” and went on to promise “more testing for delta carriers.” The pattern repeated itself in his concluding lines: “We still expect difficult days ahead, but if we act with solidarity and help each other, we will overcome the delta.”
What happened to the old-fashioned term “coronavirus”? In a move that earned him plenty of derision, and that seems to have been the brainchild of branding experts or media strategists, Bennett mentioned the official name of the pandemic only twice in the same text, and in much less prominent places. The same pattern has been evident in his recent public appearances, as he has spoken repeatedly about the “delta pandemic.”
The bottom line, it seems, is that Naftoli Bennett is not quite as smart as previously thought. He is now discovering that he has lost the protection of the Israeli media. Many believe that his political career is about to come to an end. Just last weekend, Bennett traveled to the north for a vacation, which also evoked the media’s ire, coming as it did at a time of national crisis. Some have speculated that he was on the verge of collapse and had no choice but to spend a few days away from the pressures of governance. Is this a wild theory or an accurate assessment? We may never know.
The Right Rises in the Polls
Meanwhile, Binyomin Netanyahu hasn’t lost any of his popularity. On the contrary, he seems to be gaining ground. For one thing, Netanyahu was praised by the CEO of Pfizer in an interview. Albert Bourla, the pharmaceutical giant’s chief executive officer, revealed why he chose to strike a deal specifically with Israel for the vaccine to be deployed to the entire populace: “Binyomin Netanyahu pursued the vaccines for the sake of his nation.” He added, “The country [that would receive the first large-scale distribution of Pfizer’s vaccines] needed to have a small population and a good system for collecting information. Greece was an option, but its electronic medical records system wasn’t enough.” He added that the company had considered making the deal with Sweden instead, but he was concerned that the country’s membership in the European Union and the potential affront to other European states might be problematic. “The biggest thing that became clear to me was that Bibi was on top of everything, that he knew everything,” Bourla revealed. “He called me 30 times to ask, ‘What is happening with the vaccine for youths? What are you doing about the South African variant?’ He did a very good job.”
The Israeli public is beginning to develop wider respect for Netanyahu as well. They are discovering the degree to which the media was biased against him, with its slanted and unfair coverage and blatant double standards. For instance, when Bennett took a vacation in the north and dozens of vacation homes were rented for him, no one breathed a word of protest. The government also shelled out huge sums of money for security arrangements at Bennett’s home in Raanana, but no one has complained about the high cost of his premiership. And just as Netanyahu’s neighbors on Rechov Balfour suffered from noisy protestors, there are demonstrations now being held in front of Bennett’s home in Raanana—but in this case, the media is sympathetic to his long-suffering neighbors, and the municipality has ordered the police to remove the demonstrators. When Netanyahu was the target, it seemed that the protestors could do no wrong.
Most of the media outlets aren’t even bothering to conduct polls at this time, out of the fear that the results would show that Netanyahu is the people’s choice. Yisroel HaYom, a right-wing newspaper, arranged a poll last week asking people who they favored as prime minister. Netanyahu was way ahead of everyone else with 51 percent of the vote. Lapid was far behind him, favored only by 23 percent of the voters, and was followed by Bennett with 12 percent, Gantz with 9 percent, and Gideon Saar with 5 percent. The fact that the current prime minister has the confidence of only 12 percent of the population, while the previous prime minister is favored by 51 percent, should perhaps be food for thought.
Accessibility Work Begins at Meoras Hamachpeilah
At long last, renovations have begun at Meoras Hamachpeilah. The construction at the site, whose purpose is to make it accessible to the disabled, has been promised for years, btu the government dragged its feet and danced to the tune set by the Waqf and the Arab municipality of Chevron, and the project faced interminable delays. The Arabs made every effort to prevent the work from being done. The campaign to make Meoras Hamachpeilah wheelchair accessible, which has brought disgrace on the State of Israel due to its endless delays, went through all the twists and turns of the court system as the issue was repeatedly litigated. Several months ago, the courts finally gave it their stamp of approval, and the work commenced this week when Defense Minister Benny Gantz finally gave the order for it to proceed.
But let us not get too comfortable with the new reality. As they say, it ain’t over until it’s over. Personally, I will not believe anything until I actually see the elevator.
A Captive Jew from Yemen
Levi Salaam Mussa Merchavi is being held captive by the Houthi regime in Yemen. Five years ago, he was sentenced to a prison term that should have been over by now. He was promised that he would be released, but he is still being held. Some of his family members came to Israel several years ago in a secret rescue operation, while others relocated to the United Arab Emirates.
What was Merchavi’s crime? What aroused the wrath of the Houthi rebels against him? It was the fact that an ancient sefer Torah was smuggled from Yemen to Israel by members of the Yemenite community. These people had their picture taken with Netanyahu and with the recovered sefer Torah, and those pictures reached Yemen, leading to the arrests of several Jews (and Arabs). Levi Salaam Mussa Merchavi is the only one of those prisoners who is still being held.
Of course, our enemies do not always need a pretext to despise us and to seek to harm us. Our community must do everything in its power to secure Merchavi’s freedom. But there is still a lesson to be learned here: Not every photo-op is an opportunity that we should seize. Sometimes it is much better not to make ourselves conspicuous.
Rav Shimon Galei’s Dance
Last Sunday, ma-ny converged on a hall in Yerushalayim to celebrate along with Rabbi Yitzchok Zemel, one of the outstanding activists of Lev L’Achim and the onetime right-hand man of Rav Yaakov Edelstein. I encountered hundreds of distinguished guests at the wedding, as I enjoyed every moment of the simcha.
In one part of the room, Rav Shimon Galei was dispensing brachos while a long line of people stretched out before him. Suddenly, Rav Galei noticed a bochur in a wheelchair. This young man, Chezky Kinivsky of the Chevron yeshiva, smiled radiantly from his seat. Rav Galei suddenly stepped away from the line of men waiting for him, pulled the chosson away from the circle of dancers surrounding him, and proceeded to dance with the chosson in front of the wheelchair-bound bochur. It was a picture that was worth far more than a thousand words.
Herzog in Bnei Brak
What struck me the most of President Yitzchok Herzog’s visit to Bnei Brak on Rosh Chodesh Elul, was a picture taken on Rechov Raavad, which showed his arrival at the home of Rav Gershon Edelstein. The president arrived in a procession of cars: a police vehicle followed by two identical Audis without license plates, then two Toyotas from the Unit for Protection of Individuals, and then a large police van. But even as this impressive convoy made its way down the street, the sidewalks were empty. There wasn’t a single yeshiva bochur, yungerman, or even cheder boy standing and gawking at the arriving procession. There were no curious onlookers at all.
Why Do the Fish Tremble?
The word “Elul,” as we know, is an acronym for the posuk “ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” which we tend to translate as “I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me.” This week, however, I heard a fascinating new twist on these familiar words.
I was attending a hachnossas sefer Torah where one of the speakers asked, “Why do we refer to Hashem as our ‘beloved’? Why doesn’t the posuk say, ‘I am for my Father and my Father is for me’? Wouldn’t that be a more fitting term?”
The darshan was Motti Buktzin, who is the spokesman for ZAKA. After posing this question, he explained, “When a father returns from a long trip overseas, you can expect him to arrive with a suitcase filled with gifts for his children. But a father also has questions to ask: ‘How did Dovi behave? What about Feivel? Did Yudi listen nicely to his mother?’ When a dod [literally, an uncle] arrives, however, there are no such questions. Everyone receives gifts, regardless of how they behaved. That is why we refer to Hashem as our dod during Elul—because Hashem is the ‘King in the field,’ who is available for our needs and doesn’t scrutinize us too closely before granting our requests.”
The hachnossas sefer Torah in Yerushalayim was a simcha shared by a number of participants. First, there was the ZAKA organization, which received the new sefer Torah to be loaned out for use in homes where mourners are sitting shiva. Another institution involved in the simcha was a shul known simply as “Reb Shaya ben Reb Moshe’s shul” at 22 Rechov Gedera. The other celebrants included the Lebel and Gelbach families and a group of friends. The sefer Torah was written in memory of Reb Yisroel Moshe ben Reb Yitzchok Halevi Gelbach, who passed away in his prime, and Reb Yonah Leib ben Reb Chaim Moshe Nechemiah Lebel, the grandfather of Reb Yonah Lebel, who is a resident of the building that houses the shul. It has now been six years since the passing of Reb Yisroel Gelbach, who was an incredible individual, a prodigious baal chessed and yarei Shomayim, who raised an extraordinary family. The sefer’s sponsor, Reb Yonah Lebel, was one of Reb Yisroel’s closest friends.
The magnificent shul was founded by the residents of the building and is funded by them. I make special mention of the shul’s dedicated gabbai, Reb Simcha Rubinstein, as well as Reb Zelig Krohn, a building resident who is one of the most active members of the shul and is constantly searching for ways to encourage the pursuit of Torah learning and kedushah. The sefer Torah will be stored in the shul and will be loaned to any families who request it.
The celebration featured a string of events that ended with a seudas mitzvah. That was where I heard the speech by Motti Buktzin, who also quoted a fascinating comment of Rav Gamliel Rabinovich: “In the morning davening, we recite a brocha that praises Hashem as ‘hagomeil chasadim tovim—He Who performs good kindnesses.’ But is there such a thing as a chesed that isn’t good? Why do we stress that Hashem’s chesed is good? The answer is that not all acts of kindness are done in the same circumstances. There are some acts of chesed that are performed when the recipient is suffering and miserable. The chesed of nichum aveilim is performed for a person in mourning, and the chesed of tzedakah is performed for someone who is in need. We daven for a chesed to be good for those on both ends, so that even the recipients will not need to experience suffering.”
One of the most prominent figures at the event was Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Krohn, who is virtually considered the presiding rov of the building and is known for his many acts of zikui harabbim. It was quite inspiring to watch as he danced in his wheelchair with the sefer Torah. His grandson, Zevi Krohn (the son of Reb Zelig Krohn) sat beside him during the seudah. Like the rest of the family, Zevi is a sharp-witted and intelligent bochur. “Do you know why the fish in the sea tremble during Elul?” he remarked to me. “If we could see what they see, we would also tremble in fear. Just imagine everything that we would witness in the ocean: fierce currents, sharks, and an entire world that seems to be out to get us. People go into and out of the water without realizing the dangers from which they were saved. The fish, on the other hand, can see when one person swims safely and another drowns. They see Hashem’s intervention with complete clarity; they see that there is a Supreme Power that manages the world. How could they not tremble when Elul arrives?”
Reb Leizer Gelbach delivered a fascinating speech weaving scintillating chiddushim together with details about the kedushah of a sefer Torah, the chesed of ZAKA, and the collaborative effort to honor the memory of his deceased brother. He also revealed that the event was a sort of closing of a circle: In the previous generation, Reb Yonah Leib Lebel had supported his mother, Rebbetzin Sarah Gelbach (who is nearly 100 years old today) as she raised her ten children.
Reb Leizer also spoke about the experiences of his father, Reb Yitzchok Gelbach, who was a talmid of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz in Kamenitz.
The event revealed so many dimensions of the beauty of Klal Yisroel—our people’s dedication and generosity, our caring for each other, and the sanctity of our shuls and sifrei Torah. May our Father in Heaven have mercy on us and accept our tefillos.