The Glorious Season of Simcha
Once again, we are about to celebrate the Yom Tov of Sukkos. Every Yom Tov is delightful, but Sukkos is an especially uplifting time. It is the holiday of simcha, when we absorb emunah and bask in the company of the holy ushpizin, and when we hold the arba minim together, symbolizing the fact that all of us, from the most pious and devout members of Klal Yisroel to those who are furthest removed from our Torah, are bound together as members of a single nation. Sukkos is also a time to visit with family. This year, boruch Hashem, that privilege hasn’t been withheld from us. And the days of Sukkos also present an opportunity to visit gedolei Yisroel. Everyone seems to find somewhere to go to seek a brocha and imbibe the spirit of the Yom Tov.
Every community also has shiurim in honor of the Yom Tov. As Chazal tell us, the Yomim Tovim were given to Klal Yisroel only so that they could engage in Torah learning. Last Pesach, as you may recall, I quoted portions of the schedule of shiurim posted in Beis Knesses Torah U’Tefillah in Neve Yaakov. Throughout Yerushalayim, there are dozens of shiurim delivered by roshei yeshivos and leading rabbonim over the course of the Yom Tov. Of course, many have the practice of visiting the Kosel on Chol Hamoed, which is another source of spiritual delight. The plaza is invariably filled with a wide range of visitors, with headgear ranging from streimels to cardboard yarmulkas. The residents of Yerushalayim stand and pour out their hearts in prayer alongside their brethren from the remotest parts of the country, as the air itself seems to be saturated with kedusha and fervor.
Perhaps most notably, Sukkos is a time of year when the glory of Klal Yisroel is revealed. In any city in Eretz Yisroel, one can find sukkos lining the streets of even the most secular neighborhoods. These sukkos may not have been designed with hiddurim in mind, and some of them might barely meet the criteria for halachic validity, but one thing is certain: They are a sign of the average Israeli’s desire to observe the mitzvos of the Yom Tov. Every Jew, regardless of his level of observance, feels drawn toward Hashem and His Torah at this time of year. And we must all consider ourselves fortunate to be members of such a nation.
Maasiyahu and Gilboa: A Study in Contrasts
The entire country has been talking about the escape of six security prisoners from Gilboa Prison in the south. Until just a few days ago, such a feat was considered unimaginable. The prison authorities take every effort to prevent inmates from escaping, yet the floor plans of the underground areas of the prison were freely available to anyone. The terrorist murderers who escaped from behind bars didn’t even need to make too much of an effort to carry out their getaway.
No one was actually shocked by the security prisoners’ escape. It is no secret that security prisoners are coddled in Israel’s prisons. These incarcerated terrorists effectively become the masters of their prisons; the wardens obey their instructions and carry out their orders. Even worse, they live under conditions that are all too comfortable.
For the sake of comparison, let me give you a glimpse into the situation in the religious wing of Maasiyahu Prison. Most of the inmates in that wing were moved to a different prison for Rosh Hashanah in response to a renewed outbreak of coronavirus. Security prisoners, in contrast, would never be moved against their will; no one would dare transfer a terrorist in response to an outbreak of the virus. Even now, when the escapees’ fellow prisoners were transferred to different cells after the escape, the prisoners set fire to their new cells in protest. And the differences do not end there. Prisoners in the Torah wings must fight every year for the most basic religious accommodations, such as the right to possess arba minim and to eat in a sukkah, not to mention receiving kosher food, spending the night in shul, wearing a kittel, and so forth. Arab terrorists, on the other hand, have their own cell phones in every prison. Religious Jews in prison must fight for hot plates on Shabbos; in Gilboa Prison, meanwhile, the terrorists have entire kitchens at their disposal.
The escape of the six terrorists from Gilboa Prison seems to have resulted from a series of oversights and lapses. Accusations are bound to be hurled in every direction, and there will be demands for senior officials in the Prison Service to be dismissed. And on that note, I must point out something that I was told by a prison inmate this week: Since Katy Perry was appointed as the new commissioner of the Prison Service, there has been a major shift in the agency’s attitude toward inmates in the prisons. The average inmate has begun to feel like a human being rather than a number. It would therefore be lamentable if she were dismissed in response to the escape.
An Apology from the Army
Speaking of prisons, I have observed that the chareidi members of the Knesset seem to be the only people who look out for the interests of prison inmates. The secular media praised Moshe Arbel and Yinon Azulai, for instance, when they fought to uphold the dignity of a prisoner who was led through a public area with his hands and feet shackled, in violation of the law. Uri Maklev is also known as a champion of prisoners’ rights, and chareidi inmates constantly seek his assistance.
Of course, this isn’t the only area in which the chareidi MKs come to the aid of the underdog. It can be fascinating to read through the chareidi parties’ files and to review the many parliamentary queries they have submitted on various topics. (I say this about all the chareidi politicians, although some are naturally more active than others.) This past summer alone saw hundreds of queries submitted about a wide range of issues. The chareidi political leadership has its finger on society’s pulse, and the MKs toil to root out injustice wherever it occurs.
In one case, MK Moshe Arbel stood up for a group of yeshiva bochurim who were treated in an appalling fashion at the Tel Hashomer draft office. In a query dated June 23, Arbel wrote, “Yesterday, on June 22, chareidi youths who were ordered to report to the bnei yeshivos department at the Tel Hashomer draft office arrived to find the offices closed, with a makeshift sign in the form of a trash bag on which someone had scrawled in marker, ‘Today, June 22, 2021, the office will be closed to chareidim. Sorry.’ It is intolerable for these young men to be summoned to the draft office from Yerushalayim, the north, or the south, and to find out only when they arrived that the office was closed and that they had to return home. They did not receive advance notice of this fact, nor did anyone give them the basic courtesy of having an official representative present to explain the reason for the change in schedule and to tell them that they would have to reschedule their appointments. This is especially disgraceful in light of the way that the boys were informed that they would not be received in the offices—with a handwritten message on a trash bag, in a flagrant show of disrespect for their time and dignity.”
Arbel should be applauded for standing up for the bochurim. Of course, his query immediately made waves at the draft office itself, since the defense minister, who is required to respond to such queries, automatically contacted the office for details about the situation. The minister, Benny Gantz, claimed that the Vaad Hayeshivos was notified in advance about the closure of the office and should have relayed the information to the bochurim. As for the handwritten message on the trash bag, Gantz explained, “I have been informed that after the matter was investigated, it was determined that the bag was placed in a window at the draft office, but it was not put there by the unit staff.” It sounds as if he was covering up for someone, but at least there was an apology. One can at least hope that someone at the draft office has learned a lesson—although we may never know who that person was.
When Silence Is Preferred
All this talk of bnei yeshivos at the draft office reminds me of another topic. I have mentioned in the past that I do not understand the provisions of the new proposed draft law, and I don’t want to do what I believe many others have done—to write about it without actually understanding it. I have read many articles on the subject, and I have struggled unsuccessfully to understand them. When I failed to make heads or tails of them, I concluded that the problem doesn’t lie with me; rather, it is the writers themselves who don’t understand the bill. But I have another reason for avoiding discussion of this issue: I believe that it is actually best to write as little as possible about these matters. That sentiment is based on my own past experience in an incident involving Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach.
When I began working in the Knesset many years ago, I was determined to tackle an issue that had troubled me since my own days as a young yeshiva bochur. At the time, any yeshiva bochur who wished to leave the country was required to receive official approval from the army. Without confirmation that the army had approved his trip, a bochur would not be able to pass through passport control at the airport. In addition, the army placed strict limits on those permits. A yeshiva bochur would be permitted to leave Israel only once every three years until the age of 20. Between the ages of 20 and 23, a bochur would be allowed to leave Israel once every two years. Once he reached the age of 23, a bochur could be permitted to leave the country once a year, but that was the limit. And the restrictions didn’t end there; there was a cap on the amount of time that a bochur would be permitted to spend out of the country on any trip. If he delayed his return for too long, he would automatically forfeit his legal status as a yeshiva bochur. In a nutshell, it was a very complicated and burdensome matter.
As an intrepid young Knesset employee, I was determined to change this situation, and I introduced a parliamentary query in the name of a chareidi Knesset member demanding an explanation for these rules. Why shouldn’t a yeshiva bochur be allowed to leave the country for a short trip whenever he desired? And if a bochur wished to learn in a yeshiva outside Israel (as I myself had done; I was a talmid both in Lakewood and in South Fallsburg), why shouldn’t he have the ability to do so? Why should his time out of the country be limited?
Two weeks after I filed this query, I received word that Rabbi Yechezkel Eschaik, who served as Rav Shach’s right-hand man, wanted to speak to me about an urgent matter. I hurried to meet with him, and he asked if I was the author of the parliamentary query about overseas travel for yeshiva bochurim. When I confirmed that I had written it, he said, “Rav Shach wants you to withdraw it immediately.” Naturally, I complied. Rabbi Eschaik added, “Rav Shach asked me to tell you that no comments or questions should be raised on the subject of yeshiva bochurim and the army.”
When we met again and the crisis had passed, Rabbi Eschaik made sure to fill me in on a number of guidelines that Rav Shach had given him for my work in the Knesset in general, with particular emphasis on the subject of yeshiva bochurim and the draft. As for the troublesome parliamentary query, he explained that Chaim Yisraeli, the renowned aide to numerous defense ministers, had visited Rav Shach and explained the damage that would result if he was required to explain to the entire Knesset why yeshiva bochurim were prohibited to leave the country. Eschaik repeated Yisraeli’s explanation to me, but I will not divulge it here. Even mentioning it in the pages of this newspaper has the potential to cause harm.
Nothing Left to Do but Daven
Two weeks ago, an Israeli newspaper carried a headline that read, “The Holidays Are Approaching: Huge Crowds Attend Selichos at the Kosel and Around the Country.” The article was accompanied by a picture of a large crowd of mispallelim at the Kosel. Personally, I found this to be a sign of ignorance on the part of the editors. Were they unaware that Sephardim, who make up a large portion of Israel’s populace, have been reciting Selichos since Rosh Chodesh Elul? Tens of thousands of Sephardic Israelis have gathered throughout the country every day to recite Selichos, including the traditional tefillah of “Adon Haselichos” with its well-known melody. Kabbolas ol malchus Shomayim was also performed at the freshly dug grave of Barel Chadariah Shmueli, the soldier who was shot on the Gaza border and succumbed to his wounds several days later. But apparently, all of that escaped the attention of the editors of this newspaper.
In the same publication, I spotted another large headline that ran the entire length of a page and read, “There Is Nothing Left to Do but Pray.” I began to grow optimistic, wondering if this meant that we were entering the yemos haMoshiach. After all, since when does a secular Israeli admit to the need to pray? The full quote appeared in the body of the article: “We will wait and see what happens. I hope it won’t be too difficult and that we will make it through this in peace. All we have left to do is to pray.” Before I could become too excited, however, I saw that these words were not uttered by Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz regarding the coronavirus, or by Naftoli Bennett concerning recent security issues, or by any other Israeli public figure. Instead, it was a comment from a resident of Louisiana regarding Hurricane Ida, which was reported by the Reuters news agency.
Desecrating a Shul Isn’t a Specific Class of Crime
Once again, a shul in Israel has been desecrated. First, the carcass of a treife animal was left at the entrance to a shul in Petach Tikvah, and now a shul in the Shapiro neighborhood of Tel Aviv was been defaced with swastikas. This has become such a common phenomenon that we are no longer shocked when it happens, although we should always be utterly appalled when such incidents take place.
In the past, a parliamentary query (submitted by a member of the Shas party) once exposed the lamentable fact that the police do not classify the desecration of a shul as a separate category of crime. The questioner had asked how many shuls were defaced or ransacked over the course of a five-year period and how many of the perpetrators were brought to justice. The Minister of Internal Security revealed in his response that an attack on a shul falls under the broader category of “desecration of a holy site,” which includes crimes against places of worship of any religion. Amir Ohana, the minister at the time, admitted that this was improper and advised the Shas party to take action to change the law so that the desecration of a shul would be considered a separate class of crime. He even promised to offer his personal support for such a measure in the Knesset.
Toward the end of Ohana’s tenure, in response to a question submitted by MK Moshe Abutbul, the minister reiterated that there are three categories of hate crimes: desecrating or damaging a holy place (which includes both shuls and the houses of worship of other religions, lehavdil), publishing hateful comments, and engaging in hate speech. He added, “I have instructed the police to assess the possibility of adding a subcategory to the crime of desecrating a place of worship, so that the crimes can also be classified based on the religious affiliation of each place.” If the police agreed to that, it would be possible to procure specific statistics about crimes perpetrated against shuls. Ohana added, “The police were told to present their recommendations, accompanied by detailed explanations, by the middle of March 2020.” Personally, I would be interested to know if this actually happened.
A New Sefer on Mesillas Yeshorim
This week, I received a copy of a fascinating newly released sefer, from which I would like to quote a story about Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev. But first, let me begin by introducing the sefer itself.
The Mesillas Yesharim states that “man was created only to derive pleasure from Hashem and to bask in the radiance of His Shechinah.” The commentary Chovas Ha’adam elaborates on this: “When a person acquires a general outlook on life with the understanding that the purpose and goal of his entire life is ‘to derive pleasure from Hashem and to bask in the radiance of His Shechinah,’ to achieve closeness to Hashem, then it will be very difficult for the yeitzer hara to entice him with the empty pleasures of this world, since he will have much greater and loftier aspirations. One must always remember that man was created not for petty things, but to achieve lofty levels of closeness to Hashem.” In the accompanying notes, the author adds, “One of the great mashgichim today was raised in a home in which his father was estranged from Yiddishkeit, but he himself benefited from siyata diShmaya and was saved from the abyss. Hashem orchestrated events in his life to lead him to Yeshivas Mir, where he grew to become a gadol in Klal Yisroel. During his time in yeshiva, his father once sent him a letter in which he wrote, ‘I have already accepted that you will not become what I hoped for you to be, but at least learn an occupation of some kind so that you will have a means of making a living.’ His son wrote in response, ‘I am dealing with the problems of the world, and you are troubling me about my own petty parnossah….’”
The commentary Chovas Ha’adam on Mesillas Yeshorim was written by the renowned mashgiach Rav Don Segal. It is a masterpiece of mussar that needs no introduction; this commentary on Mesillas Yeshorim is the type of sefer that appears once in a generation. Of course, I delighted in reading the fascinating stories contained in this volume, which could serve as the basis of an entire sefer in their own right. For example, here is a brief anecdote cited to illustrate the power of the yeitzer hora: “The late Rav Yirmiyah Fried, one of the renowned talmidei chachomim and masmidim of the Ponovezh Yeshiva, was once walking up the hill to the yeshiva as usual. It was a cold and rainy day, and he had already reached an advanced age at the time. One of the roshei yeshiva noticed him and exclaimed, ‘Reb Yirmiyah! Must you make this effort even on a day like today?’
“Reb Yirmiyah replied, ‘The yetzer hora already made that argument to me, and I refused to listen to him!’”
Rav Levi Yitzchok’s Silent Debate
Another fascinating story on this subject concerns Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. “One year,” Rav Don Segal relates, “I visited Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach on Taanis Esther to discuss a certain sugya. When I arrived, we began conversing about other matters, and when we had finished that discussion, I told him that I had come to speak in learning. Rav Shlomo Zalman exclaimed, ‘Do you see how powerful the yeitzer hara can be? As long as we were talking about other matters, I felt no fatigue on account of the fast. But as soon as you told me that you wanted to speak in learning, I began feeling tired and weak. That being the case, I must ask you to open a Rashba immediately! Let us begin!”
Since we are approaching Simchas Torah, I will quote another remarkable story that appears in the sefer, this one relevant to the Yom Tov itself: After Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev became a chosson, he davened together with his father-in-law on Simchas Torah. Rav Levi Yitzchok was a young man and the bais medrash was filled with talmidei chachomim, yet they chose to call upon him to lead the tefillah of Atah Hareisa. Rav Levi Yitzchok began approaching the amud, then turned around and retraced his steps. A few minutes passed and he began walking toward the amud again, but then he backtracked once again. After he made a third attempt and returned to his original place once again, he made no further efforts to walk to the front of the room.
His future father-in-law, who was standing beside him, was mortified by the chosson’s peculiar behavior and began entertaining doubts about the shidduch. After davening was over, he asked Rav Levi Yitzchok to explain his actions. The chosson replied, “When I started walking toward the amud, the yeitzer hara said to me, ‘Look at this, Levi Yitzchok! The bais medrash is filled with talmidei chachomim who are older than you are, yet you are being honored with leading Atah Hareisa. Do you realize what an illui you are? Do you realize what a tzaddik you are?’
“I responded to the yeitzer hara, ‘Who asked you to come? They called Levi Yitzchok ben Rav Meir to come to the amud. What are you doing here?’
“The yeitzer hara replied, ‘What do you mean? When you learned Torah, I learned it with you. When you davened, I davened with you. Whenever you did a mitzvah, I was there with you. I am your partner in every sense, and when you are called up, they are calling me as well!’
“That is why I returned to my place,” Rav Levi Yitzchok continued. “Then I tried to go to the amud again, but the yeitzer hara followed me again, so I came back. After my third attempt, when he followed me once again, I said to him, ‘If this is the way it is, then neither of us will go!’”
“A person should always be aware,” Rav Don Segal comments, “that the yeitzer hara accompanies him on every step he takes!”
My Discoveries on Rosh Hashanah in Bnei Brak
I once had an encounter with Rav Yaakov Edelstein that resulted in two miracles. I had approached the rov to ask for a brocha for a person who was terminally ill, and Rav Yaakov agreed to give his brocha to the patient. He also instructed me to recite perek 103 of Sefer Tehillim, which describes Hashem as “He Who cures all your maladies.” Sure enough, the sick man recovered from his illness, which was the first miracle in this incident. The second miracle is the fact that I have gone on to recite the same kapittel every day throughout the intervening years. I have always been puzzled by one particular posuk in the perek, which states, “Like the distance between east and west, He has distanced our sins from us.” I never fully grasped the meaning of this analogy.
This year, I spent Rosh Hashanah in Bnei Brak. One of the first discoveries I made upon arriving in the city was that it can take just as long to drive from the Coca Cola factory (at the city’s entrance) to Rechov Chazon Ish as it takes to make the trip from Yerushalayim to Bnei Brak itself. I also discovered that the Seret-Vizhnitz bais medrash, which I sometimes enjoy frequenting, was deserted during the Yom Tov, since the entire community had gone to spend Rosh Hashanah with the rebbe. I was happy to find that the Poalei Agudas Yisroel minyan was a solemn and uplifting experience. This was a transformation that could be credited to the mara d’asra, Rav Yitzchok Shmuel Schwartz. According to one of his peers from yeshiva, Rav Schwartz completed the entirety of Shas as a yeshiva bochur and is “a tremendous gaon and a baal middos.” On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, he delivered a fascinating drosha based on numerous sources and replete with profound and lucid insights. At some point, the man sitting next to me whispered in my ear, “Come to his shiur on Pirkei Avos, and you will be astounded.” The rov was also an outstanding shliach tzibbur.
At one point in his drosha, he cited a comment of the Chasam Sofer that answered my longstanding question. “Chazal tell us that if a man presents kiddushin to a woman on the condition that he is a tzaddik, she is considered mekudeshes even if he is known to be an absolute rasha. This is because a person can transform himself in a single moment. The posuk states, ‘Like the distance between east and west, He has distanced our sins from us.’ If a person is standing in the west and facing toward that direction, he will see only the west, but the east will be hidden from him. The entire world will be behind him. However, if he merely turns around, the world will be revealed to him. Such is the power of a single pivot.” That vort, in my mind, made the entire trip worthwhile. The rov’s son also showed me a peirush on Tehillim titled Siach Sifsoseinu, from which I will quote in the future.
For a while, I enjoyed my anonymity as a stranger in an unfamiliar community. Then, while I was enjoying a cup of coffee during the kiddush, the son of Rav Yerachmiel Schneider exclaimed, “You are Tzvi Yaakovson!”
At Mussaf, I davened at a Ponovezh minyan. After davening, someone sounded the full set of tekios once again. I was somewhat troubled by this, as I feared that the baal tokeia might have felt slighted. On our way home, I remarked to my father-in-law, “I wonder how the baal tokeia felt about the fact that someone insisted on sounding the tekios again.”
He laughed. “The baal tokeia, who is the rov himself, is the person who blew the shofar again. This was done in order to satisfy the shitah of Rashi.”
Herzog in Jordan and an Acquittal in Israel
There has been plenty of news this week, and I will briefly touch on a couple of the main stories. First, the new president of Israel, Yitzchok Herzog, made a secret visit to Jordan and met with King Abdallah, but I am not certain that the king of Jordan was actually doing a favor for Israel by agreeing to meet with Herzog. It wasn’t long ago that the king met with Prime Minister Bennett, and I suspect that these meetings have much more to do with Jordanian interests than with any benefit for Israel. After all, we often discover that Israel has made concessions to Jordan (including increasing its water supply) in exchange for their showing the courtesy of agreeing to meet with us. In this case, Herzog publicized the meeting—after the fact—with a terse statement revealing only that he had discussed the Shemittah year with the king of Jordanian and that the country had agreed to export produce to Israel. That, at least, sounds interesting. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to procure any more details about the meeting, but I imagine that Herzog had that discussion at the request of one of the badatz organizations in Israel.
In other news, the juvenile court in Yerushalayim has acquitted five youths who were charged with incitement at an event that was dubbed “the wedding of hate.” This was a wedding held in Yerushalayim in December 2015, shortly after the arson attack in the village of Duma that took the lives of several members of the Dawabshe family. The young Jewish suspects were detained and tortured at the hands of the Shabak; the defendants, including the chosson himself, had been filmed dancing with pictures of the arson victims, as well as stabbing a picture of the baby who died in the fire and attempting to burn the picture. The guests at the wedding included current MK Itamar Ben-Gvir. In its recent ruling, the court accepted the prosecution’s contention that the youths’ actions were morally wrong; however, it ruled that their behavior did not meet the threshold for a criminal offense.
To sum it up, it was a terribly drawn-out judicial process that resulted in a resounding acquittal.
My Unanswered Halachic Question
Luach Shanah B’Shanah is a publication produced through the endless toil of its talented editors, Rabbi Tzvi Roth and Rabbi Yisroel Elul. The luach, which has made a major contribution to knowledge of halacha among the general public, features halachos pertaining to every important date on the calendar: Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, other fast days, and so forth.
Parenthetically, I should note that the luach has not provided me with an answer to a question that I have struggled for many years to resolve. While we know that a left-handed person holds the esrog in his right hand and the lulav in his left, I have always wondered how he should arrange the hadassim and the aravos. Should the hadassim be placed on the left side of the lulav and the aravos on the right, so that the aravos will be adjacent to the esrog as they are when held by a right-handed individual? Or should a left-handed person arrange the three minim in the normal fashion, with the hadassim to the right of the lulav and the aravos on the left? Some people have claimed that my question is completely groundless, but I have found it discussed by various halachic authorities. Unfortunately, this particular issue isn’t addressed in the luach.
At the same time, the luach does contain a wealth of other interesting halachic discussions. For instance, it deals with the issue of whether a lulav is kosher if it grows on a palm tree that does not produce dates. (The answer: It is.) It also points out that a person cannot exempt himself from the mitzvah of sukkah by deciding to take a trip on Chol Hamoed.
The halachos in the luach are culled from the seforim of Rav Ovadiah Yosef and of his son, Rav Yitzchok Yosef, who has also supervised and encouraged the entire project. The luach includes an enthusiastic letter of approbation from Rav Yitzchok himself, along with a haskamah from Rav Moshe Tzadkah, rosh yeshiva of Porat Yosef (who rarely issues haskamos) in which he praises the luach’s editors as “yungeleit who are outstanding in Torah and yiras Shomayim.” He adds that the luach includes information drawn from the writings of Rav Yitzchok Yosef, “from whom no secret is hidden.”