Friday, May 20, 2022

My Take on The News

The Righteous Drunkards of Yerushalayim

There is much to write about this week, but it seems only right for my top story to be Purim.

You may be wondering what there is to write about Purim. Shall I describe how a group of yeshiva bochurim came to sing and dance and receive the annual donation to their Tat? Is that really newsworthy?

The answer is yes; there is plenty to say about these yeshiva bochurim and their annual fundraising efforts. Every year, I find myself impressed anew by the bochurim of our yeshivos. In their drunken state, these bochurim reveal their elevated and pure souls. These are young men who drink without really knowing how to drink; they do not know not to drink two cups of whiskey at a time, and when they finally find out, it is already too late. But it is fascinating to listen to the things they say precisely at the times when they are not in control of themselves.

I am often reminded of the joke about the newlywed girl who complained to a rov that her husband did not know how to drink. The rov was perplexed by her complaint. “If he doesn’t know how to drink, isn’t that a good thing?” he asked.

The young woman shook her head vigorously. “The problem is that he drinks anyway!” she exclaimed.

(There are other versions of this story as well. The punchline, of course, is always the same.)

What is most amazing about these bochurim is that even when they are inebriated, you never hear them uttering a coarse word, nor will they speak a word of loshon hora or make a comment that might offend someone else. When the wine goes in, Torah comes out, whether it is vertlach on the megillah or even an entire chaburah on some complex topic in the Gemara. Such is the nature of our “drunkards.”

I am also perpetually awed by the Tat organizations for which the bochurim collect donations. Tat is an acronym for Tomchei Torah, a charitable organization within every yeshiva that is independent of the finances of the yeshiva itself. The purpose of a Tat is to provide for the needs of the yeshiva bochurim. If a bochur needs a new suit, a pair of shoes, or even dental treatments, he can approach the directors of the Tat with a request for funding. After his request is reviewed and the Tat determines that the need is genuine, it will provide him with the requisite funds. Every bochur who becomes engaged receives a basic package from the Tat, including a new suit, a hat, and a certain sum of money. Some bochurim also receive funding from the Tat to cover various wedding expenses, such as a band. And for some bochurim, their weddings are funded in their entirety by the Tat. In some yeshivos, there are older bochurim who are assigned to keep an eye on their younger peers and report to the Tat if there is any bochur whose shoes are torn or who needs anything else that they can provide for him. These bochurim are responsible for finding the younger boys who are in need and do not ask for help.

And that is why I find myself marveling every Purim at the yeshiva bochurim who visit my home and every other religious home in Israel. The bochurim themselves, along with their organizations, set powerful examples for all of us.

Ukraine Rabbonim Inspire Israel

The waves of assistance for Ukraine’s Jews have evoked positive reactions even from the anti-religious elements here in Israel. People who are accustomed to sowing incitement and division have suddenly begun praising the religious organizations and leaders in Ukraine who have risked their own well-being in order to save their Jewish brethren.

The rabbonim throughout Ukraine refused to abandon their communities. Some of them are still there, in spite of the fact that most of the members of their kehillos have already succeeded in escaping. Take, for example, Rabbi Hillel Cohen, whom I have written about in the past. He has already crossed the border dozens of times in order to help smuggle other Jews out of Ukraine, but he has repeatedly returned to the war-torn country, even to the city of Kyiv, in order to assist others.

Then there are the volunteers of United Hatzolah who traveled to Ukraine from Israel with food, medicine, and clothing for Jewish refugees displaced from their homes. And other heroes include the Jewish communities of Romania, Hungary, Belarus, and other countries that absorbed the masses of refugees, as well as the organizations throughout the world, including those in the United States, that assisted them.

On Thursday morning, Rav Dovid Lau paid a brief visit to Moldova in order to give encouragement to the Jewish community there, which has recently taken in thousands of Jewish refugees from Ukraine. The community has rallied to the best of its ability to help the many refugees arriving on a daily basis. Rav Lau was a guest of Rabbi Zusha Abelski, the director of the community, and Rabbi Mendy Axelrod, the shaliach of Chabad in Kishinev, the capital city of Moldova. Rav Lau met with about 100 immigrants who had arrived shortly before him and had traveled directly from the border to the main shul of Kishinev, where they were served their first hot meal after many days spent on the road and without sufficient food. The guest from Israel spoke with the refugees at length and tried to lift their spirits. At the end of his visit, Rav Lau said to Rabbi Abelski, “I am very excited to be here and to witness the wonderful work that you are doing for the refugees in spite of the enormous expense. You are an inspiration to the Jewish people and to the entire world.”

The responses of numerous Jewish communities to the crisis have created a tremendous kiddush Hashem, which has led even the enemies of religion in Eretz Yisroel to praise the rabbonim who came to the aid of Ukraine’s Jews. It is these rabbonim who deserve credit for providing assistance and succor to the refugees.

Ukrainian Embassy Appeals to the Supreme Court

Thanks to the dangerous game being played by Naftoli Bennett, the war between Russia and Ukraine has put Israel in a very precarious position. As you probably recall, Bennett offered to serve as a mediator between the two countries and flew to Russia two weeks ago on Shabbos, claiming that he was permitted to fly on the holy day because it was a situation of pikuach nefesh. By now both countries have become irate with the Israeli premier. Russia has spoken against Israel’s “war crimes,” and Ukraine has released some very harsh statements against Israel. Meanwhile, many other countries, including the United States, are incensed by Israel’s refusal to join the global boycott of Russia.

Relations between the embattled (and, lest we forget, inherently anti-Semitic) country of Ukraine and Israel are now on the rocks. President Zelensky recently asked for permission to address the Knesset on a live broadcast, and Knesset speaker Mickey Levi responded that the Knesset has begun its recess and it would be impractical to do so. Zelensky was offended and outraged. He has addressed the United States Senate and the British Parliament, but Israel was not allowing him to speak to its own legislature. He considered Levi’s explanation flimsy and unimpressive.

Another issue that is contributing to the breakdown in relations between Israel and Ukraine is the dispute over the number of refugees who should be permitted to enter the country. At first, the Israeli government announced that it would grant entry to 5000 non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees. That number was soon doubled, and additional pressure has brought the quota up to 25,000. The Ukrainian ambassador to Israel feels that the country should open its doors to the refugees without restriction. He cannot understand how a country like Israel can possibly lock its gates to people whose lives have been upended by war. The ambassador has filed an appeal with the Supreme Court against the Israeli policy. This is an unprecedented move. It is also worth noting that there are reports that the refugees were subjected to shameful treatment upon arriving in Ben Gurion Airport. However, I cannot personally confirm the veracity of these claims.

Shuvu Absorbs Ukrainian Students

We have been warned for the past few days to expect snow in Yerushalayim on Purim—the 15th of Adar, that is. On the 14th of Adar, when Purim is celebrated in Bnei Brak (and everywhere else), rainfall is expected. In fact, it is widely reported that one of the gedolim of the previous generation used to daven for it to rain on Purim in order to prevent excessive frivolity in the streets. Sure enough, it is almost always rainy and cold on Purim in Eretz Yisroel. Nevertheless, snowfall would be quite unusual; we weren’t really preparing for snow in Yerushalayim even now, until the municipality instructed all the schools to move up their Purim celebrations from Tuesday to Monday. The last few days of this week, from Wednesday (Taanis Esther) through Friday (Shushan Purim), are a school vacation, and the last day of school before Purim is typically reserved for parties and other festivities. This year, however, all the school events were moved up to the previous day. As I write these words, I still can’t tell you if the weather forecast was proven correct and there was snowfall on Tuesday. Bli neder, I will let you know next week.

But while I cannot predict the weather with certainly, I am sure of one thing: Purim will be celebrated this year in the shadow of the war in Ukraine. It is impossible not to think about the Jewish communities of the country at this time. True, most of Ukraine’s Jews have already managed to escape from the line of fire, crossing the borders to neighboring countries. This is especially true of the established communities in Odessa, Kyiv, and Zhitomir. It was very inspiring to read the accounts of their respective escapes from Ukraine, all of which were accompanied by outright miracles. At the same time, it was very saddening to hear that there are still Jews trapped in the country. And since all of Klal Yisroel is one nation with one heart, we are all pained by our brethren’s plight even as we celebrate Purim in Eretz Yisroel.

This situation has also led to another unfortunate consequence: an influx of thousands, or possibly even tens of thousands, of non-Jews from Ukraine into Israel. This massive non-Jewish population is bound to cause significant hardships for this country. Equally problematic is the fact that Ukrainian Jews who had some connection to Yiddishkeit in their country of origin are also coming to Israel now, and there is a great danger that they may lose the meager connection to mesorah that they possess. Children from Ukraine who are unquestionably Jewish are being brought to Israel and enrolled in secular schools. What will become of them?

There is a bright side, however: The Shuvu school network, at least, can be credited for fighting with all their might for Jewish children who arrived with yarmulkes to be placed in Shuvu schools (mainly in Nog Hagalil, where most of the immigrants have been placed). Shuvu has also managed to take in a few Jewish children who arrived without yarmulkes, and there is good reason to expect that the schools’ influence will lead them to return to Yiddishkeit. These children, at least, may be able to gain knowledge here in Israel that was not accessible to them in Ukraine.

Shabbos Takes Revenge

The chareidi community in Israel has been outraged by the blatant chillul Shabbos committed by Prime Minister Bennett’s office. Two weeks ago, Bennett showed his disregard for Shabbos by flying to Russia on Shabbos itself to meet with Putin in the Kremlin. This past week, meanwhile, a group of journalists received a briefing on Shabbos from his office staff.

The impetus for the urgent briefing was the outrage in the media fueled by rumors that Bennett had advised Zelensky to surrender to Russia and simply to allow Putin to take over his country. Bennett apparently felt that it was important to quash those rumors as quickly as possible (and they may indeed have been false) but his staff committed an act of chillul Shabbos to achieve that goal.

On Shabbos afternoon, the reporter who first broke the story announced that the Prime Minister’s Office had contacted him, insisting that the report was false and that Bennett had never advised Zelensky to capitulate to the Russian offensive. The reporter added that the Prime Minister’s Office had confirmed, however, that Bennett had discussed holding talks between the two sides in Yerushalayim.

By ordering the response to the media to be delivered on Shabbos, Bennett caused many members of his staff to perform melochah without any real need. This led to disgruntled reactions from many quarters. The Shas party wrote in response, “The first prime minister with a kippah is also the first prime minister to brazenly violate Shabbos and offend masses of traditional Jews, both in Israel and throughout the world, who cherish the sacred Shabbos day. The intolerable ease with which Bennett turned Shabbos into an ordinary day, all for the sake of a media briefing that could have waited several hours, deserves to be condemned and deplored. Shabbos will yet defend its honor! This is a disgrace.”

United Torah Judaism also went on record with the assertion that Shabbos can be expected to defend its honor. They postulated that Bennett’s chillul Shabbos has led him to be unsuccessful in every area, including his efforts to mediate between the warring countries.

Hard Feelings in Meron

Another source of ill will has been the government’s handling of the tziyun of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron. Many people customarily visit the site on the 7th of Adar; this year, however, the government issued an order sealing it to visitors on that day. Beginning on Wednesday evening, all access to the tziyun was blocked. It was only to be expected that this would lead to widespread disgruntlement and to confrontations between would-be visitors and the security forces stationed at the site. In addition to the guards’ presence, many barriers were erected to keep mispallelim away from the tziyun. Visitors were redirected to more distant areas, which infuriated many of them. To make matters even worse, there were electric outages at the site this week, which many believe were intentional. It seems that someone had a vested interest in making it difficult for visitors to be present there. Anyone who arrived at the tziyun last Friday found the site shrouded in complete darkness. Electricity was restored to the tziyun immediately before Shabbos, which only reinforced the impression that the authorities are doing everything in their power to cause hardships for the mispallelim.

In addition, the police erected barriers at the entrance to the settlement of Meron on Tuesday evening. All private vehicles were barred from the community, aside from cars belonging to local residents or visitors who were renting vacation homes there. All motorists were required to show their government-issued ID in order to be allowed to pass the checkpoints. The police announced, “Visitors are asked to obey the instructions of police officers, to be patient, and to limit the time spent in the town and the nearby parking lot to a minimum, in order to make it possible for others to visit the site as well.” The police claimed to be enforcing these rules in order to ensure the safety of all visitors to Meron, but it is widely believed that they are merely taking advantage of last year’s tragedy in order to keep the stream of visitors to Meron to a minimum. If this is a taste of what we can expect to see on Lag Ba’Omer, then it seems that there is trouble in store.

Sure enough, Tzvi Tessler, the man appointed by the government to serve as the project coordinator for Lag Ba’Omer in Meron, has already announced that there will be only one bonfire this year. Minister Matan Kahana revealed that he is preparing a law that will govern the new arrangements at the site, and the media has already publicized leaked information about its contents. Moshe Gafni responded to Kahana’s statement by announcing, “I would like to suggest that legal memoranda be prepared about all cultural events in Israel. For instance, there should be a law governing the time when soccer fans enter a stadium, and when the referees and athletes may be brought in. This proves that aside from generating publicity, Minister Kahana does not actually work. Instead of obtaining funding for Meron, he is preparing ridiculous laws that are appropriate only for the Purim season.”

The Knesset Goes on Hiatus

As I mentioned, the Knesset has begun its hiatus. This was actually a stinging end to a winter season replete with disgrace and shame for the current government of Israel. Even the Knesset’s final achievement, the approval of the Citizenship Law, actually came as a blow to the government, since the law passed only by virtue of the opposition’s support. The coalition failed to muster a majority on its own for this vote, due to the opposition of Raam and Meretz.

I have written about the Citizenship Law in the past. In a nutshell, the law prevents Arabs from the Palestinian Authority from reuniting with their family members in Israel and thereby obtaining Israeli citizenship. This law is generally extended every year; however, the current government did not succeed in extending it. The bill received a majority vote only after Interior Minister Shaked pleaded for support for the measure. With the passage of this bill, the Knesset’s winter assembly came to a close.

It is hard to believe how quickly time has flown. Just a week ago, after the coalition was defeated in its effort to change the selection process for the country’s chief rabbis, the chareidi representatives sang the familiar tune of “Mishenichnas Adar” in the Knesset. I doubt that many people expected this government to last for half a year, if its status can actually be called “lasting.” To be more accurate, the coalition has managed to stagger along from one blow to the next, surviving from week to week as it repeatedly puts out the fires that threaten to destroy it.

The government has no policy, no vision, and no plans. It cannot actually achieve anything, since all of its members are limited by each other and have pledged to do nothing in order to avoid rocking this extremely fragile boat. It seems that there are only two things they are actually capable of doing: remaining inactive or causing damage. And they have been extremely “productive” in the latter area. Every minister in the government, from the prime minister through the justice minister through the communications minister, has managed to wreak havoc in his or her own way. Of course, the greatest damage came from two men in particular: Finance Minister Lieberman and Foreign Minister Lapid. The latter has demonstrated a remarkable ability to wreck Israel’s relations with one country after another. The only good thing that has emerged from his tenure is that we have learned that the post of finance minister, which he held a few years ago with dismal results, isn’t the only position in which he is an abject failure.

Blocking Bad Bills

This is also probably the most aggressive Knesset in the history of this country. The government is ruled by a fragile coalition that has been willing to cross every possible boundary or red line in order to maintain its own survival. For example, it has been accepted in every Knesset term that the coalition should have a majority on every Knesset committee by a margin of one vote. The current coalition, however, made sure to have a majority of two or three representatives on every committee, fearing that one of its members might defect. With its strongarm tactics, the coalition has borrowed a page from the book of the criminal underworld to ensure its own survival.

The winter assembly was dysfunctional from the outset. For instance, the standard procedure is for a Knesset sitting to be gaveled closed at the end of a day of work, after all the topics scheduled for the day have been discussed. In this Knesset, the sittings were closed as soon as the coalition saw that they would not be able to muster a majority. This flew in the face of accepted practice and of the dictates of integrity. I would suggest that it was also a violation of the Knesset rules, but the rules actually give the Knesset speaker enough latitude to act on almost any whim.

Another unusual phenomenon this winter was the plethora of brief recesses called while the Knesset was in session. For instance, last Wednesday, after the coalition suffered a stinging defeat over the Tur-Paz bill, the sitting was halted at 7:31 p.m. and resumed only at 7:48. This is also highly unusual, but the coalition in this Knesset has stopped at nothing, including underhanded tactics, in order to achieve its aims. They have even gone so far as to block members of the opposition from presenting reservations to the bills brought before the Knesset—which means, in simple terms, that they have effectively silenced and paralyzed their opponents.

There were also some very long sittings of the Knesset during this season. Last Wednesday, for instance, the Knesset convened at 11:00 in the morning, as usual, and remained in session until 2:34 a.m. The protocols from that day were 498 pages long, with a table of contents that occupied a full 20 pages!

Of course, I must make note of the uncompromising battle that has been fought by the chareidi parties against all the foolish reforms and evil bills proposed by the government. One of the climactic moments came this past week, when the bill advanced by MK Tur-Paz to change the process of selecting the chief rabbis (thereby opening the door for more progressive candidates to be installed in the positions) was defeated in a vote that ended in a tie of 51 to 51. Similarly, the Conversion Law was not even brought to a vote, since the coalition feared that it would be defeated.

The Greatest Satisfaction and Joy

Twice this past week, I found myself awed by the immense satisfaction and joy that is the lot of those who spend their days immersed in Torah learning.

On Tuesday, the sound of joyful singing emanated from the offices of Yeshivas Tiferes Yisroel, the institution founded by Rav Yisroel Meir Druk. The reason for the sudden celebration was that the rosh yeshiva had shared another brilliant vort with his colleagues. Of course, I asked them to share the secret with me, and they explained the following: In the zemer of Kol Mekadeish Shevii, we speak about “those who love Hashem and await the building of Ariel,” a reference to the Bais Hamikdosh. However, the words of the zemer are “hamechakim b’binyan Ariel,” which translates literally as “those who wait in the building of Ariel.” Why doesn’t it use the more conventional phrasing of “hamechakim l’binyan Ariel”?

In Parshas Vayakhel, Rashi explains that the Torah places the prohibition of performing melachah on Shabbos before the commandment to build the Mishkon in order to indicate that the construction of the Mishkon may not be performed on Shabbos. Similarly, Rashi explains at greater length in the previous parshah (Shemos 11:13), “Even though you will be pressured and intent on performing this labor, do not violate Shabbos for its sake.” Thus, the rosh yeshiva explained, those who love Hashem and who are eager to complete the work on the Mishkon must still rejoice on Shabbos even in the Mishkon itself. With that in mind, the phrasing of the zemer makes perfect sense. And this insight was the reason for the rosh yeshiva’s explosion of joy.

Whenever Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro came up with a brilliant chiddush, his face would glow and he would exclaim, “How is it that you aren’t getting up to dance? Isn’t this vort worth a million dollars?”

This reminds me of a story I have certainly told in the past, but I must share it again: Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro and Rav Chaim Kreiswirth once met somewhere. If I am not mistaken, it was at the Vaad HaYeshivos convalescent home in Netanya. Rav Chaim asked Rav Moshe Shmuel, “Would you like to hear a vort that is worth a million dollars?” Of course, Rav Moshe Shmuel was eager to hear the dvar Torah, and Rav Chaim shared it with him. “Well,” he said after he had presented the thought, “was I right? Isn’t it worth a million dollars?”

“Absolutely,’ Rav Moshe Shmuel replied. “Now, would you like to hear a vort that is worth two million dollars?”

“Certainly,” Rav Chaim replied.

Rav Shapiro shared his own insight and then asked, “Well, what do you say? Wasn’t that worth two million dollars?”

“Definitely,” Rav Chaim replied.

Rav Moshe Shmuel laughed and said, “In that case, you now owe me another million dollars!”

The other incident this week that left me in awe was an encounter with a yungerman whom I found in a state of melancholy. When I asked him why he was feeling morose, he explained that his rosh kollel had presented a chiddush concerning the halachos of borer, and he had found himself unable to understand the insight with precision. His inability to fully grasp a chiddush had led him to feel dejected. That alone is a sign of gadlus! Personally, I envy this yungerman and others like him for their lofty characters. After he toiled over the sugya and finally reached an understanding, his face began to shine. At that moment, it seemed that there could be no one in the world who was happier than he was … and my own jealousy reached even greater heights.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel once said that serenity comes only from toiling over Torah learning. “Every ben Torah knows that there is nothing more delightful in the world than the experience of learning Gemara at a shtender with total calm,” he declared. Rav Nosson Tzvi went on to tell a fascinating story: “I remember how my rebbi, Rav Chaim Kamil (who passed away on 15 Adar Sheini, 5765), reacted when his only daughter was born, several years after his marriage. I was learning with him at that time, and on the day when his wife was due to return from the hospital, he asked me to come to his home in the Zichron Moshe neighborhood to learn with him, rather than learning in the yeshiva. When the taxi arrived carrying his wife, their daughter, and all the equipment that she needed, he went out to greet his wife and daughter and to help them come up to the apartment. Rav Chaim went up and down the stairs several times in order to bring all the items into his house, suffused with joy over the birth of his child. But unlike any other person, who would have spent time chattering at length about the joyous occasion, he took only a few minutes to organize everything and then hurried back to the living room and sat down to learn with the same calm focus that he displayed every day. This was true serenity. He greeted his wife and his only child with joy and tranquility, and he brought the same attitude to bear on his return to his learning. Anyone who has not experienced that type of serenity has never been truly serene.”

A Late-Night Phone Call

This week also marks the yahrtzeit of Rav Moshe Feinstein, on the 13th of Adar Sheini. Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz, who was one of the longtime employees of World Agudas Yisroel in Yerushalayim, once told the following story: “During one of my visits to the United States, my good friend Rabbi Moshe Sherer once invited me to accompany him to a meeting with Rav Moshe Feinstein. Of course, I was overjoyed at the opportunity. The meeting took place at 11:00 at night, in Rav Moshe’s home in Manhattan. About 15 minutes into the meeting, the rebbbetzin entered the room, holding a telephone receiver that was connected by a long cord to its base in the adjacent room. She handed the phone to the rov, apologizing to the other men in the room. Rav Moshe spoke briefly and clearly, and it was clear to us from his responses that the caller was asking a series of questions about simple, ordinary halachos that were not particularly urgent.

“At the time, I was a bit young and perhaps a bit impudent as well, and when Rav Moshe finished his conversation, I had the audacity to ask aloud, ‘When someone has a shailah in the middle of the night, why can’t he wait until morning?’

“Rav Moshe’s answer stunned me. ‘People can call whenever they want, even all night long,’ he said. ‘These are the foundations of the world!’

“I asked for forgiveness for my temerity, but Rav Moshe seemed unfazed, as he continued wearing his smile.”

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