Wednesday, Sep 21, 2022

My Take On The News

Purim 5782-
Bennett as Peacemaker

This week’s column could have presented a unique challenge. On the one hand, it would seem most appropriate to begin the column with the top news stories of the day—either events here in Israel or the war taking place in Ukraine, where innocent people are being killed in the course of the hostilities. On the other hand, this is the Purim edition and it is probably appropriate for the column to begin on a lighter, more humorous note. In the end, I found a way to bridge these two seemingly divergent extremes, by writing about a piece of news that sounds like a Purim joke but is also connected to the situation in Ukraine. Of course, I am referring to the fact that Naftoli Bennett flew out of the country (on Shabbos!) to try to serve as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Bennett first met with Putin and then traveled to Germany, where he delivered a report to Chancellor Scholz. This was a huge gamble.

Rumor has it that Bennett’s secret trip to Russia was coordinated in advance with the United States, and that the meeting was arranged in a phone conversation between Bennett and Putin as early as this past Wednesday. Bennett claimed that he made the trip on Shabbos because it was a situation of pikuach nefesh. Nevertheless, the fact that he traveled on Shabbos has soured the situation for many of us here in Israel. Minister Elkin, another kippah-wearing government official, joined Bennett on his trp. According to the reports in the media, Elkin drove his own private car from his home to the airport, rather than using the services of his chauffeur, in order to minimize the chillul Shabbos involved. All of this is surely absurd enough to qualify, at least partially, as a sort of Purim parody.

Part of the joke here is also Bennett’s conceit. If some miracle occurs and his mediation efforts actually bear fruit, then he will certainly deserve and receive lavish praise. However, the overriding likelihood seems to be that there was no point to this excursion. As the pundits in Israel have been saying, if Bennett is really a qualified mediator, then he should first solve the conflict between Gantz and Lapid. If only he could do that….

The pundits feel that if Bennett does not succeed, which is the most likely scenario, then this gamble might prove to have been far too risky. Some feel that Bennett’s overtures to Putin might cause the relationship between Israel and America to cool off. Let us hope that will not happen….

The Sefer Torah Leads the Way

There is one thing about this war that is certain: It has given Jews all over the world reason to lose sleep. The sight of our fellow Jews fleeing for their lives is deeply unsettling to all of us. Unfortunately, the fighting has already caused the loss of innocent lives as well. Last week, Roman Brodsky, an Israeli Jew killed in Kyiv, was laid to rest in Eretz Yisroel.

Rabbi Hillel Cohen has been keeping me informed about the people who were rescued from Odessa or Kyiv, about the long-suffering families who have been stuck there, and about the shuls that have been converted into bunkers. I have also received updates from the members of United Hatzolah in Israel who traveled to the Ukrainian border to help Jewish refugees cross the border and board flights to Israel. Along with our fears for the welfare of our fellow Jews, we also have reason to be proud. The rabbonim of the Jewish communities in Ukraine have earned the admiration of the world at large and even of the Israeli public. These men gave up their own opportunities to be rescued in order to remain with their communities—with the kollel yungeleit, the elderly, the baalei teshuvah, the youths, and above all the orphans who needed their guidance and reassurance.

We have all been inundated with pictures from the war-torn country, but one particular image stands out among the rest—a picture taken by Moishy Hamburger of a sefer Torah being rescued from a shul in the Podol neighborhood of Kyiv, a kehillah of which Hamburger is a member. At this point, the shul is located in what seems to be the area of greatest danger. The sefer Torah was carried by a yungerman named Nosson Tzvi Roth, who hails originally from Beit Shemesh and belongs to a group of dedicated men who spend the year in the pursuit of kiruv and chesed in Ukraine, under the aegis of Hillel Cohen. The group initially fled to the community’s summer campgrounds, only to discover that that area was also in the danger zone. They moved on to Premishlan and hope to find their way to safer territory, possibly in Ukraine itself but preferably outside the country’s borders.

To my mind, the image of this sefer Torah leading the way is incredibly symbolic. We are all davening for the entire community, along with its sifrei Torah, to reach a safe haven. In the meantime, the situation is very frightening. Who could have dreamed that our generation would again see the sights of Jews (and non-Jews) fleeing while their cities are shelled?

Will Israel Absorb More Non-Jewish Immigrants?

It is expected that tens of thousands of Ukrainians will be coming to Israel now. The refugees who are Jewish are certainly welcome in our country, and all of Israel is awaiting their arrival and davening for them to arrive in peace. The question, however, is: What about the non-Jews among them? Wouldn’t it be better for them to find refuge in the countries of Europe? Israel already has plenty of Ukrainian non-Jews, yet for some reason the Israeli government is eager to attract even more immigrants from the country, even if they are not Jewish. What is the logic of that?

The presence of Gentile immigrants from Ukraine and the surrounding countries has already caused enough problems for Israel. It has turned the State of Israel into a state of all peoples of the world. Is it really a wise move for Israel to take in the citizens of any country that is threatened by one of its neighbors? For those who remember, a tremendous controversy erupted when Menachem Begin decided after his election to allow 60 refugees from Vietnam to enter Israel. Since then, the dam seems to have burst; today, the country is filled with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom do not have a drop of Jewish blood in their veins.

At a committee session in the Knesset, a recommendation was made to broaden the eligibility for aliyah to include even more distant relatives of people who are passing themselves off as Jewish. The problems with this plan should be self-evident. One particular woman in the Knesset, who is herself the product of mixed ancestry, spoke strongly in favor of the plan, insisting that the government had no right to “discriminate between Jews.” The other Knesset members tried to explain to her that the potential immigrants in question are not Jewish at all, but she did not understand. After all, how could she?

Surrendering to Deception

A book was recently published in Israel by a woman who used to work in the Ministry of the Interior. As a onetime employee of the Population and Immigration Authority, she attests that the officials were often far too quick to grant citizenship to applicants. She cites examples of acts of fraud and deception that made it possible for thousands of non-Jews to obtain Israeli citizenship. And when she reported the incidents to the relevant authorities, they made no effort to deal with the matter.

“These incidents threatened the Jewish character of the state,” the author relates. “Under the guise of imagined humanitarianism, we simply gave up, allowing tens of thousands of people in search of a better life to enjoy themselves at our expense.” She affirmed that there were definite acts of deception perpetrated by immigrants. She herself had caught olim falsifying their documents, entering the country under assumed identities, and inventing fictitious families. But when she notified the relevant law enforcement agencies, they were reluctant to address the problem. “We gave in to charlatans,” she declares. “We founded a state for Jews, but we opened its doors to the entire world.”

This book is nothing less than an indictment of the Israeli government itself.

The non-Jews who entered the country created a ticking time bomb. The first waves of aliyah from the Soviet Union have already had a devastating impact, stripping the country of its Jewish values. If more such immigrants are allowed into Israel now, they will simply add to the volume of the existing non-Jewish population.

This week, the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel objected that Ukrainian refugees had been denied entry to the country. From his vantage point, his argument makes perfect sense, but from the Israeli standpoint, Israel has done enough and it is time for the countries of Europe to begin absorbing refugees. Three unforgivable lapses have already occurred: The entire world was certain that imperialism was a thing of the past, but now it seems to be alive and kicking. Israel has already been flooded by non-Jews from the former Soviet Union in previous years. Why should Israel now take in many of the half a million refugees from Ukraine? These people could easily go anywhere else in the world; why should they come here? Aren’t there enough problems in Israel as it is?

Terror Attacks and Reform Hostility

Israel’s domestic woes have not abated, including the ongoing efforts by terrorists to murder Jews. Early in the morning on Sunday, two police officers were injured in a stabbing attack in the Old City of Yerushalayim and were left with light to moderate injuries. The attack occurred shortly after 4:30 a.m. The terrorist, a 19-year-old resident of East Yerushalayim, approached the policemen stationed near one of the Old City gates and suddenly pulled out a knife and stabbed one of them. Another police officer was injured by a gunshot during the effort to neutralize the terrorist, who was killed. The two injured officers were taken from the scene to receive medical attention.

Meanwhile, the Reform movement is continuing its endless efforts to create provocations. As usual, a mixed group of men and women attempted to hold prayer services in the Kosel plaza on Rosh Chodesh (in the outer area, outside the separate sections for men and women) and tried to smuggle sifrei Torah into the plaza, in violation of the law. They have recently been abetted by the Reform clergyman who is a member of the Knesset. This past Rosh Chodesh (on Friday) they made another attempt to come to the Kosel, this time in honor of the presence in Israel of two other “rabbis,” one Reform and the other Conservative, who are considered the leaders of their respective movements in America. They also met last week with Prime Minister Naftoli Bennett. But before this group of provocateurs arrived at the Kosel, they were preempted by a crowd of thousands of seminary students, who filled the area completely and blocked them from engaging in their usual stunts.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is doggedly continuing its own battle against Yiddishkeit. After receiving a petition from a group identified with the Reform movement, which demanded that chometz be permitted on army bases on Pesach, the Supreme Court ordered the government to explain why chometz should be banned from an army base in the first place. The judges have no problem with the requirement for the IDF kitchens to be made kosher for Pesach and to be kept free of chometz, but why, they demanded, shouldn’t the soldiers be allowed to keep chometz in their rooms? And why is it banned from the premises even before Pesach? (Today, in order to make it possible for the bases to be properly cleaned and the kitchens to be kashered in advance of the holiday, the soldiers are asked to remove chometz from the premises before Pesach.) As you can see, the religious community does not get a single day’s reprieve from the Reform movement and its machinations!

How the Knesset Passes Its Time

Now let us move on to a few more entertaining items, in honor of Purim.

First, let me give you another peek into the Knesset. If I hadn’t heard this myself, I would never have believed it: The elected representatives of the State of Israel were busy discussing soccer statistics while the Knesset was in session.

It began when Alon Schuster, the Deputy Minister of Defense, was at the podium and apparently needed to pass the time while the members of the coalition hurried to the room for a vote. He decided to tell a story that would make a point, but he wasn’t quite successful in the attempt. Nevertheless, the ensuing exchange turned out to be fitting material for the month of Adar. Considering the circumstances, it was a ludicrous digression.

“MK Levin and I occasionally meet in the corridors,” Schuster began. “We usually share laments, but sometimes we are able to celebrate the achievements of the team that we both root for.”

“Are you also a fan of Hapoel Tel Aviv?” David Bittan, who was chairing the session, asked Schuster.

“When I was young, I was a fan of Maccabi Tel Aviv,” Schuster replied.

“Switching your allegiance from Maccabi to Hapoel is too much,” Bittan said reproachfully.

“In 1970, the team had Rachamim Talbi, Spiegel, and Vissoker,” Schuster said.

“No,” Bittan corrected him. “Vissoker did not play for Maccabi Tel Aviv.”

“He was in Petach Tikvah,” Schuster said. “MK Levin, who was the goalie?”

“Bejerano,” Bittan said.

“Who was the goalie in the 70s, along with Spiegel and Talbi?” Schuster asked.

“On which team?” Yariv Levin asked.

“Maccabi Tel Aviv,” Schuster said.

“Maccabi Tel Aviv has no appeal for me,” Yariv Levin replied.

“Listen,” Bittan said to Schuster, “if you switched from Maccabi Tel Aviv to Hapoel Tel Aviv, then there is a chance that you will switch from the coalition to the opposition.”

“I think that the goalie was Chaim Levine,” Schuster said.

“And you are in charge of security and intelligence?” Ofir Akunis piped up. “This means that you are not in good shape….”

Moshe Abutbul finally brought the conversation to an end by declaring, “I know one thing: that Mordechai sat in the gates of Achashverosh’s palace.” The Hebrew word for a goalie is the same as the term for a gatekeeper; this was Abutbul’s way of steering the conversation back to more relevant matters.

Caring for Cats and Dogs

As I have mentioned in the past, there is a certain woman in the Knesset who seems to have greater concern for animals than for people. This is the woman who arranged for a special budgetary allocation for street cats. In her first speech in the Knesset, she explained that she carries on a family tradition of feeding stray cats.

I have nothing against her on a personal level, but I find sometimes find her mindset to be partly amusing and partly saddening. There are human beings in Israel who are going hungry, but this woman seems to be more concerned about the cats.

In the past, I reported to you about a law that she introduced to regulate the conditions in which pigs are housed. This week, she moved on to horses and donkeys, asking for an urgent discussion about the possibility of stopping the delivery of these animals to Gaza. In the explanatory notes, she wrote, “Every year, hundreds of donkeys are transferred to Gaza. Over the past two years, there has been an increase of more than 250 percent in the export of donkeys to the Gaza strip. Horses, and especially donkeys, are sent to Gaza to suffer a cruel fate. Some of them will be worked to death, being forced to carry heavy burdens and subjected to privation and abusive treatment. Most of them will be slaughtered so that their hides can be exported to China.” For some reason, the Knesset presidium did not recognize this as an urgent topic….

The same woman later came up with yet another bill related to animals, which would prohibit placing animals in restraints. And this week, she outdid herself even further with yet another radical proposal—a ban on the sale of cats and dogs.

Another Arab Demand

MK Yom Tov Chai Kalfon, meanwhile, is even more creative. This week, he filed an urgent motion to discuss relocating the kever of Reb Nachman of Breslov from Uman to Eretz Yisroel. And more points for originality go to MK Dudi Amsalem, who submitted a motion this week titled “A Knesset Speaker Who Does Not Help the Knesset Members in Their Work and Who Uses His Position as a Political Weapon.” Amsalem also tabled a new bill this week with the title “Basic Law: The Judiciary (Amendment—Right of Standing in the High Court of Justice).” As you may remember, the subject of his “right of standing” was the issue that first kindled Amsalem’s wrath against the Supreme Court as a whole and its chief justice in particular, a topic that I have discussed at greater length in a separate article.

I often enjoy perusing the various bills that have been placed on the Knesset table. There are many different types of proposals, some of them bordering on the absurd. Nevertheless, some of the proposals are highly original and extremely worthy, such as a bill submitted this week by Uri Maklev and his colleagues in Degel HaTorah to enhance consumer protection in Israel. Azulai and Arbel of the Shas party likewise introduced an outstanding bill of their own, which would make lifesaving medications exempt from taxation. Another interesting bill came from Meir Porush, concerning the language of instruction in a school for special education. The existing law stipulates that if an appropriate institution for special education isn’t available in a child’s city of residence, the local authorities are required to make arrangements for the child. Porush’s bill would add that the child must be provided with a school where his mother tongue is spoken. Hence, if a child speaks Yiddish (or Arabic) at home and there is no school in his locality that provides instruction in that language, the local government will be forced to make some sort of arrangement for his benefit.

Another interesting bill came from the members of the Arab party Raam, who called for the government to establish an agency that will develop and oversee sites that are holy to Muslims. In the accompanying notes, the bill’s authors explain that “the government operates an official entity that develops sites that are sacred to Jews,” a reference to the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites, which is headed by Rabbi Yosef Schwinger and oversees about 120 kivrei tzaddikim in addition to other sites of religious importance. Over the past year alone, the Center for Holy Sites has received 20 million shekels in government funding. The Arabs, of course, are interested in having a similar agency of their own, to oversee the sites that are important to them. And with the growing power of Mansour Abbas and his party, I would not be surprised if this law is actually passed.

Humor in the Halls of Government

MK Yisroel Eichler recently had a pithy response to the proposal to introduce public transportation throughout the country on Shabbos. “Before the Minister of Transportation makes sure that there is transportation on Shabbos,” he said, “let her first see to it that we have public transportation during the week!”

This reminded me of an anecdote that is told about former Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. It was once suggested that the State of Israel should transition to a shortened work week of four days. Legend has it that Eshkol objected, “Just a minute; we have to take things slowly. People first need to become accustomed to working for one day a week, then two days, and so forth. They will not be able to start working four days a week all at once.”

On a different note, the Knesset recently made an announcement that sounded almost like the beginning of a joke: “The Subcommittee for the Effect of the Environment and Climate on Public Health will hold a discussion about the preparations for climate change and the consequences to health. The members of the subcommittee are Alon Tal, Ali Salalha, and Tatiana Mazarsky.” For most people, perhaps the greatest revelation that emerged from that announcement is the fact that those Knesset members even exist.

Finally, let me share an old parliamentary joke in honor of Purim. I was reminded of this little quip not long ago, when MK Chikli spoke about the “gap” between the image of chareidim presented in the media and what he learned about the community as a member of the Knesset (which came as a pleasant surprise to him). As he confessed to his own ignorance, I couldn’t help but remember this old joke: Which two points have the longest distance between them? The ego of a Knesset member or government minister and his IQ!

Right Number, Wrong Phone

Little Shiffy was sobbing inconsolably when she returned home from nursery school. She claimed that she had tried calling her mother several times during the course of the day, but her mother hadn’t answered the phone. In response to her mother’s concern, Shiffy explained that there had been nothing wrong; she had simply been homesick and wanted to come home early.

“You tried calling me?” her mother asked in a surprised tone. “I didn’t see any missed phone calls from the school.”

“You can even ask my teacher,” Shiffy insisted. “I used her phone to call!”

Amazingly, the teacher confirmed the story. “Shiffy used my cell phone several times to call home,” she told the perplexed mother.

Mystified, Shiffy’s mother asked her, “Shiffy, did you try to call our home phone or my cell phone?”

“I don’t know,” the little girl confessed. “I called you the same way that I do on Abba’s phone.”

“What do you mean?” her mother questioned her.

“I held down the number 3!”

A Vigorous Exchange

You are probably aware that I am often fascinated by yellow journalism. Poring over some old newspapers, I came across the following headline in a chareidi publication from about forty years ago: “Protest in the Knesset Presidium Over an Insult to Agudas Yisroel.” Reading the story, I concluded that this was a very dramatic way of describing what amounted to a fairly low-key incident. The Knesset presidium is a relatively marginal body consisting of the Knesset speaker and his deputies, who meet every Monday. The protest in question came from Rabbi Yehuda Meir Abramowitz, a member of Agudas Yisroel who passed away 15 years ago and was one of the most industrious chareidi Knesset members.

“At a session of the Knesset presidium this week,” the body of the article explains, “Rabbi Yehuda Meir Abramowitz, a deputy speaker of the Knesset, protested against a statement of Deputy Knesset Speaker MK H. Grossman that was offensive to the religious parties in the Knesset, the National Religious Party and Agudas Yisroel. Last week, MK Grossman released a statement to the press in which she asked Knesset speaker Yitzchok Berman to intervene to block the amendment to the law governing autopsies. In her harshly worded statement, she wrote, ‘Do we really have to do everything in order to prove the dubious accomplishments of the NRP and Shas to their unenlightened voters?’

“Rabbi Abramowitz responded strongly, ‘This was a very coarse and offensive statement to make against over 200,000 good Jewish voters and citizens of the state. It is an expression that is used by all anti-Semites. I object to the insult against a large community, and I ask that the Speaker of the Knesset voice his own protest,’ Abramowitz concluded his objection. Knesset Speaker Berman announced that he remembered that the Bundists and the Communists in Poland had used the same term, deriding the Jews as unenlightened zealots. As for the issue at hand, Speaker Berman explained that since MK Grossman was not present in the Knesset, due to an automobile accident she had experienced, the matter would be discussed at the next meeting of the Knesset presidium.”

Encouragement from the Chazon Ish

Last week marked the 20th yahrtzeit of Rav Chaim Brim, who was one of the most revered gedolim of Yerushalayim in his day. I feel a certain connection to Rav Chaim, even though I wasn’t acquainted with him. For one thing, I saw him on several occasions; his grandsons and my sons learned in the same classes in Eitz Chaim, and he used to attend various events at the cheder. In addition, Rav Uri Zohar, whom I consider a rebbi, was Rav Chaim’s talmid muvhak and attended a weekly shiur that he delivered, and he has told us many stories about him.

Rav Chaim Brim was a rosh yeshiva and marbitz Torah and was very close to the Chazon Ish. Here are a few fascinating stories, in his own words, drawn from his encounters with the Chazon Ish:

Rav Chaim Brim once related, “I remember that in the year 1948, during the war in Eretz Yisroel, the suffering became very intense, especially in the city of Yerushalayim. At that time, the letters of chizuk from the Chazon Ish were a shining light in the darkness. In his inimitable style, the Chazon Ish was able to use a few terse words to restore life and vitality to the many broken hearts. In one of his letters, which consisted of only a single line, he wrote, ‘Anyone who engages in Torah learning during these days is performing chesed for all of Klal Yisroel and is providing merits, protection, and shelter.’ His talmidim and other close associates attested that even though the Chazon Ish always learned until all of his strength was depleted, and it is known that he would sometimes collapse in the middle of learning, during those days they saw that his exertion was even greater than ever.”

“Someone once brought an esrog to the Chazon Ish to ask his opinion about a possible blemish on its surface. The Chazon Ish asked if he had a match, and the man handed it to him. The Chazon Ish used the matchstick to probe the surface of the esrog and then gave his psak. The very next day, the questioner was surprised when a messenger from the Chazon Ish arrived at his doorstep to return the match to him.”

“I was fortunate enough to witness the Chazon Ish’s tremendous love for observing mitzvos…. I once had to stay in Bnei Brak when I was unable to find a ride to Yerushalayim late at night, and the Chazon Ish, along with his brother-in-law, the Steipler, and the latter’s rebbetzin, performed the mitzvah of hachnossas orchim with tremendous pleasantness and kindness. The Steipler and his wife brought out a mattress and linens, and the Chazon Ish walked ahead of them to show them where to place it. I don’t remember if the Chazon Ish himself also carried the linens, but I do remember that the Chazon Ish personally prepared a basin with water for negel vasser in the morning and placed it next to my bed. I felt that I could not allow the Chazon Ish to exert himself for me, and I tried to object to this excessive show of respect, but the Chazon Ish replied eloquently, ‘Since when does an esrog have the right to decide what its owner will do with it?’ … In the morning, the Chazon Ish prepared a meal for breakfast that included bread, herring, and tea.

“I was once present when the Chazon Ish led the davening on the day of his mother’s yahrtzeit. When he reached the brocha of hashiveinu in the chazoras hashatz and he read the words ‘and bring us back with complete teshuvah before You,’ he let out a loud sob, like a person who truly has a need to repent. It is impossible to describe the emotions that rippled through all of us who were present at that moment.”

How Haman’s Friends Became His Wise Men

Most important of all is a fascinating vort that I heard from Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel during my time as a talmid in Yeshivas Zichron Moshe of South Fallsburg. This is an insight that I often remember, especially during the reading of the megillah on Purim.

If you examine the pesukim of the megillah carefully, you will take note of a puzzling inconsistency. After Haman returns in anger from Achashverosh’s palace, the megillah relates that he summoned “all of his friends and Zeresh his wife.” Haman proceeds to describe his wealth and prestige to this audience, and then the megillah states that “Zeresh his wife and all his friends” advised him to construct gallows for Mordechai’s execution. This is followed by the series of events that lead to Haman’s downfall, as he is forced to lead Mordechai through the city on the king’s horse. After suffering these indignities, Haman again summons his wife and friends, and the posuk relates, “Haman told Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had happened to him, and his wise men and Zeresh his wife said to him, ‘If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is from the offspring of the Jews, you will not be able to overcome him.’”

The disparity here is striking. The megillah refers to Haman’s group of associates three times as “his friends,” but then they are suddenly described as “his wise men.” In fact, this transition takes place within a single posuk. What is the reason for this change in terminology? Rav Elya Ber explains that wicked people make a show of friendship only when they feel that they have something to gain from it. As soon as they see that a person is on a downward trajectory and will never return to his former position of power, they will immediately cease relating to him as friends.

Let me add two comments. First, I should note that I heard the same idea several years ago from Rav Asher Weiss, who quoted the Klausenberger Rebbe as its source. Second, I myself noticed another interesting disparity in the pesukim. In the first posuk, the megillah states that Haman sent for “all his friends and Zeresh his wife,” placing his comrades before his spouse. Nevertheless, when they answer him, the order is inverted and Zeresh is mentioned first. In the later posuk, this pattern is itself reversed: The megillah first states that Haman told his story to “Zeresh his wife and all his friends,” placing his wife first, but when they answer him, the posuk places the wise men before Zeresh. One year on Purim, I called the late Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Barzel, one of the roshei yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Brachfeld, in the middle of the day and presented this question to him. Rav Barzel, who was a world-class Torah genius and authored a sefer on Megillas Esther, was fairly surprised by the question, but he gave me an excellent answer. Unfortunately, I was too inebriated at the time to retain his response.

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