Visitors from Abroad
Things tend to happen so fast in Israel that I have no trouble filling this column with news every week. Monday, for instance, the infighting in the Knesset continued during a special discussion known as a Forty-Signature Debate. When the signatures of forty members of the Knesset are collected, the legislature may hold a discussion in which the prime minister is required to sit and listen to a series of speeches. In this case, Bennett was forced to sit in the Knesset and endure a barrage of criticism from the opposition.
Meanwhile, Israel received a couple of distinguished foreign visitors this week. The outgoing chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, who is leaving office after fifteen years in power, arrived in Israel for a brief visit. Route One, which connects Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim, was closed for a period of time on motzoei Shabbos due to her arrival. She attended a cabinet meeting on Sunday on the subject of Iran; she promised to continue to stand with Israel in its battle against Iran’s nuclear program. In her presence, Bennett delivered a speech that fell somewhere between the foolish and the utterly inane. The most important part of Merkel’s trip was probably her visit to Yad Vashem, where she was joined by Bennett and Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, chairman of the memorial institute. “Every visit to Yad Vashem touches me to the depths of my soul,” Merkel declared. “Germany has a responsibility to continue the battle against anti-Semitism.”
Israel also received a visit from Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the daughter and son-in-law of the former American president. The couple arrived to attend a ceremony in the Knesset marking the passage of a year since the signing of the Abraham Accords. That event was also attended by Binyomin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, along with the ambassadors of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.
Nostalgia for the Trump Era
Another visitor this week, who arrived in Israel with hardly any fanfare or publicity, was Mike Pompeo, who was one of the most powerful figures in America not long ago. Pompeo visited a winery in the settlement of Psagot, where he reaffirmed the vital role of Israel in the Middle East.
To an audience consisting mainly of Israeli “settlers,” Pompeo declared, “I had an excellent partner here. Ambassador Friedman was a bulldozer, but he also knew how to act diplomatically and delicately. We had a powerful bond based on our joint desire to tell the truth to the world. And the first truth was that Yerushalayim is the capital of Israel and that our embassy had to be moved there.” After an enthusiastic ovation, Pompeo continued, “I will never forget how the media declared that it would cause an intifada. But President Trump took the risk. That was our simple, honest declaration that we stand with Israel and with its settlements, because we are faithful to the truth.” Pompeo also spoke about what he dubbed “the most important declaration” that he made in the course of his time in office. “I declared that Israel is not an occupying force in Yehuda and the Shomron. This is the rightful homeland of the Jewish people, and it includes Yehuda and the Shomron.”
Binyomin Netanyahu attended the event, in Pompeo’s honor. When asked if he felt that he would miss the Trump administration, Bibi replied, “Will I miss it?” In other words, he already longs for the days of Trump’s presidency. Of course, it is inevitable for the people of Israel to look back wistfully on the days when Trump was in power. This week alone, we learned that the Biden administration has asked Bennett to “rein in” construction in the settlements. Under the circumstances, who wouldn’t long for friendlier faces in the White House?
A Long Winter Zman Begins
A couple of months ago, in Elul, I praised the yeshiva bochurim and kollel yungeleit who were returning to the botei medrash for another zman of intensive Torah learning. Now that the winter zman is upon us, that praise is even more richly reserved. These men and boys are beginning a full six months of immersion in Torah learning, while the rest of us stand in awe of them. Last week, I was at a wedding in Kiryat Sefer where I noticed a young man sitting off to the side, engrossed in a Gemara, while the rest of the guests enjoyed the festivities. I have no doubt that the world itself exists for the sake of people such as that young man.
At the beginning of the Elul zman of 5780, Rav Aharon Chodosh delivered a speech in the main bais medrash of the Mir yeshiva in which he welcomed the talmidim, both old and new, who were beginning the zman. His comments at the time are still potent today: “Learning must take place as part of a chaburah. It should not be every man for himself. The starting point is the Mishnah’s statement, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ There must be an ‘I,’ but then it continues, ‘When I am for myself, what am I?’ Every person must have an ani, a sense of self; without that, it would be impossible to learn. At the same time, he must feel that ‘if I am for myself, what am I?’ Companionship is vital, and then, as the Mishnah continues, he must daven to the One Who provides all wisdom.”
The mashgiach urged the bochurim to participate in davening in the yeshiva, a practice that was always very close to his heart. He also exhorted them to make sure to learn in an organized fashion and without interruption. He also urged the talmidim to learn on Fridays and Shabbosos, to make sure to learn with joy, to study mussar, and to work on developing their middos. And, of course, he mentioned the importance of proper conduct bein adam l’chaveiro. “It is important to be kind and gracious to one another and to bring joy to each other,” he said.
A bochur in Yeshivas Orchos Torah recently told me that the yeshiva places special emphasis on instructing the older bochurim to be friendly and warm to the newly arrived first-year talmidim. This policy was set by Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, who headed the yeshiva. In that spirit, let us express our own appreciation for the heroic bochurim who are once again beginning a zman in the hallowed halls of our country’s yeshivos.
The Kosel and Shabbos Are in Danger
There were several extremely distressing incidents last week. First, the Women of the Wall fomented their monthly provocation at the Kosel, where they insisted as usual on leining from a sefer Torah in the women’s section. This, of course, is a bid to introduce Reform practices at the sacred site. What was particularly saddening was the fact that they now have an ally in the Knesset. MK Gilad Kariv, who haughtily insists on using the title of “rabbi,” is an avowed member of the Reform movement. This month, he exploited his parliamentary immunity to personally deliver a sefer Torah to the ezras noshim at the Kosel. Of course, this was an act of temerity and a violation of the law, but Kariv and the Women of the Wall celebrated the provocative act—while the religious community watched sadly.
Speaking of the Kosel, the deadline set by the Supreme Court for a final decision regarding the Kosel plaza will be reached in just one month. When that day arrives, one of two things will almost certainly happen: Either the government will do nothing and the court will rule in favor of the Reform movement—since there is no doubt that that is where their sympathies lie—or the government will preempt the ruling by announcing its own recognition of the movement. Everyone expects that one of these scenarios will occur. And that, of course, is very sad.
Meanwhile, the Tel Aviv municipality has decided to increase the number of permits it issues for stores to open on Shabbos from 165 to 270. That is a huge jump when it is measured as a percentage, but the tragedy extends far beyond the numbers. Every additional store that is open on Shabbos represents another violation of the sanctity of Shabbos, another breach of the status quo, and another assault on the values held dear by religious Jews. Nevertheless, there is very little that can be done about it. This is part and parcel of the prevailing atmosphere in the State of Israel today. And while many small business owners have protested that their own livelihoods are being devastated by the move, no one seems to be interested in their plight. It is as if there is an active campaign underway to uproot Shabbos observance in Israel. Once again, that is very sad.
In yet another assault on Jewish tradition, the Minister of Religious Affairs, Matan Kahana, has announced his intent to permit marriages to take place without the oversight of the Chief Rabbinate. Until now, marriage and divorce in the State of Israel have been under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. Even if a prominent rosh yeshiva serves as mesader kiddushin at a wedding, he must still arrange the details with a religious council. That is the law, and it is precisely as it should be. But Kahana’s agenda is clear: He intends to legitimize rabbonim who are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. This is yet another tactic designed to undermine the traditional standards of halacha.