Ehud Barak Calls for Civil Rebellion
There seems to be no end to the dizzying events unfolding here in Israel. In the realm of politics, in the economy, and in international affairs, things are moving at the most rapid of paces.
Perhaps I should begin by discussing the anti-government protests. These flames have recently been fanned by a man who served as a prime minister for a very short time: Ehud Barak. It is said that Barak was not only the prime minister with the shortest reign in Israeli history but also the most abysmal failure of anyone who held that office, with the possible exception of Yair Lapid. This past motzoei Shabbos, Ehud Barak called on the people to begin a civil rebellion. If you think that was an absolutely outrageous thing to say, I can assure you that you are not alone in making that assessment.
Protests against the judicial reform were held at dozens of locations throughout the country this past motzoei Shabbos. The more Netanyahu caves in to demands of his opponents, the greater their appetite grows. The prime minister recently capitulated on the issue of the Knesset representatives on the Judicial Selection Committee, agreeing to allow one representative from the coalition and another from the opposition. This only led to stormier protests, as the agitators hoped to exact even more concessions from him.
Ehud Barak spoke at a demonstration in Haifa, and this was where things seemed to take a dangerous turn. “We will win,” Barak declared, “because we have no other land and we have no other way. We are determined, and we will save democracy. We are fighting for the soul and the future of Israel. It won’t be easy or quick, but we will fight as a family for everything that is precious to us, and we will win. We are determined, and we will save democracy.
“You managed to halt the coup at the last possible minute,” Barak continued addressing the protestors, “with your demonstrations in the streets and with the warnings from the pilots and soldiers. On the night when Gallant was dismissed, Netanyahu folded and we won the battle. Netanyahu understands that if he makes another attempt to pass a law for the judges to be judged, he will run into a metal wall. But we haven’t yet won the war. The instigators of this putsch haven’t yet given up. Netanyahu is moving from a legislative blitz to the salami method. It is the same goal and a different method. Netanyahu has always needed and still needs time, at any price. He needs time to pass the budget, time to calm the passions at home, time to receive an invitation from the White House, and, above all, time to erode and weaken the protests. My conclusion is that this is no time for a break. We cannot give in to illusions; we must increase the protests and end the dialogue [in the president’s residence] immediately. For that purpose, the protests must increase to the point of civil rebellion. There must be nonviolent civil disobedience. The script for a civil rebellion has already been written by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others. I call on the citizens of Israel to prepare to act, and when the call comes, to answer it. We will fight, and we will not be afraid of anyone or anything.”
Barak’s words led to an outpouring of anger and objections. One person in the Likud party even speculated that Barak’s comments would have been considered treasonous in any other country and would have been grounds for execution. But the media, of course, is portraying him in a favorable light.
The Secret Vote in the Knesset
As you may have inferred from the previous passage, the Knesset will have to choose its representatives on the Judicial Selection Committee this week. This issue has attracted significant interest and has given rise to plenty of discord. The Knesset selects two representatives to sit on the committee, and it has always been accepted that one of those representatives is drawn from the coalition while the other is chosen from the ranks of the opposition. This is a gentlemen’s agreement, since the representatives are selected by a secret vote; however, these are the rules that the Knesset tries to observe. This time, there was a debate within the Likud party as to whether these rules should be followed. Justice Minister Yariv Levin argued that there was no reason to give a gift to the opposition, whereas Netanyahu was in favor of choosing a representative from the opposition as always, for the sake of preserving calm.
I should point out that this is also the time when the Knesset appoints its representatives on the committee that selects dayanim for the country’s botei din. The Knesset is entitled to two representatives on this committee as well, and the government also selects two ministers to serve there. The Bais Din Hagadol is likewise represented on the committee. The identities of the two Knesset representatives are very important to the religious parties. The liberal elements in the government always try to see to it that more liberal or progressive dayanim are chosen, and the religious parties make every effort to thwart those plans. Rav Elyashiv and Rav Ovadiah Yosef both waged uncompromising battles on this very issue for many years through the representatives of their respective political parties, Degel HaTorah and Shas. The two gedolei Yisroel were very concerned about the future of the botei din in this country; as you may be aware, both of these illustrious rabbonim served personally on the Bais Din Hagadol at one time.
Draft Law to Expire in Two Weeks
Another issue that has been preoccupying the prime minister this week is the future of the draft law, as the clock is rapidly ticking toward its expiration date. The current draft law was struck down by the Supreme Court, which ordered the government to come up with an alternative bill. The court demanded a law that would meet with the approval of the judges, meaning that it would contain elements such as draft quotas and sanctions—exactly the provisions that the chareidi parties are not prepared to accept. The legislators are trying to come up with some sort of law that will somehow satisfy the Supreme Court justices yet will also be acceptable to the chareidim, but that is an extremely difficult proposition. This is exactly the reason that the chareidi parties were in favor of the override clause, which would have prevented the Supreme Court from overturning a law passed by the Knesset.
The chareidi representatives have been urging Netanyahu to move forward with a new draft law; however, it is almost certain at this point that the entire issue will be delayed until the Knesset’s winter session. On Sunday evening, Netanyahu held a special discussion with the charedi parties concerning this highly volatile issue. You may recall that the chareidi parties were eager to pass a new law known as the Basic Law: Torah Study, which would anchor the exemption from the draft for bnei Torah in a piece of legislation much less vulnerable to judicial interference.
The chareidim initially insisted that a new draft law would have to be passed before the state budget could be brought to a vote. However, that is no longer a possibility. At this point, they are demanding only that progress be made on the law. This is an issue that affects not only the chareidim but the entire government; the Supreme Court set a deadline for the Knesset to pass a new law, and that deadline will be reached in two weeks. At that time, the current draft law will expire, which ostensibly means that the state will be legally required to draft every eligible citizen, including yeshiva bochurim. This certainly won’t happen, but there is also no question that it would be better to avoid reaching that point altogether. To make matters worse, we are already aware that some individuals are getting ready to file a petition with the Supreme Court for yeshiva bochurim to be drafted on the very day that the existing law expires.
Demands for Ben-Gvir’s Resignation
Another issue that has been pervading the headlines here in Israel is the volume of murders within the Arab community. While many media outlets have been focusing on the criminal aspect of this situation, I would like to examine it from a political standpoint.
The frequency of homicides in the Arab sector has reached such mammoth proportions that the prime minister was forced to discuss it at the beginning of this Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “We are determined to fight this phenomenon, and the crime organizations above all,” he announced. “To do that, we will have to integrate the Shin Bet in a focused effort. I believe that this is precisely the move that needs to be made; it is the only way to change this trend quickly and to provide a fitting response for the citizens of Israel. Our government has allocated a large budget to allow the police to employ thousands of additional officers and to establish a national guard, but all of this takes time, and we do not have time. The murders in the Arab sector have become a statewide plague.”
The prime minister’s idea of involving the Shin Bet in the fight against organized crime met with mixed reviews. But that displeasure is dwarfed by the much greater controversy over whether Itamar Ben-Gvir is fit to continue serving as Minister of National Security. Some have accused Ben-Gvir of failing to live up to his responsibilities; his detractors hold him at fault for the lawlessness in the Arab sector, although others prefer to point the finger of blame at the commissioner of the police force. There is much debate as to whether Ben-Gvir should step down now, or whether he should dismiss the police chief rather than giving up his own post. This controversy has attracted enormous attention in the media, along with the repeated reports of murders within the Arab community.
Ben-Gvir, for his part, is furious. He feels that his enemies have been using the recent events as a pretext to attack him. Does it make a difference that Ben-Gvir has been personally targeted by the Shin Bet for many years? What about the fact that the police have pressed criminal charges on him on multiple occasions in the past, most of which ended in exoneration, for holding public demonstrations or other offenses? Ben-Gvir is irked by what he sees as utter hypocrisy on the part of the left, which has been constantly hounding him. Last Sunday, the front-page story in Yediot Acharonot was an article with the headline, “Ben-Gvir, It’s Too Big for You. Go Home.” Yisrael HaYom, Yediot Acharonot’s competitor, featured a similar headline on its front page: “The Fight Against Crime Is Too Big for Ben-Gvir.” In this case, at least, the phrase was grouped with several other headlines that appeared on the cover page. But there is no question that Ben-Gvir is coming under heavy fire in the media.
Marking Israel’s 75th Birthday in Washington
The strained relationship between Israel and the United States is another topic that refuses to fade from the public agenda and that constantly spawns new headlines. One recent noteworthy incident was triggered by the vice president of the United States, who delivered a speech at an event at Israel’s embassy in Washington marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. While her speech was warm, enthusiastic, and admiring of Israel and the Zionist spirit, what caught everyone’s attention was when she mentioned the American government’s stance on the judicial overhaul in Israel.
The event at the embassy was highly impressive. The reception was attended by 2000 guests, including dozens of congressmen, senators, and other high-ranking officials in the American government. The attendees also included many foreign ambassadors, including Arab diplomats, as well as prominent members of the Jewish community, important figures in the business world, representatives of civilian society in Washington, and many reporters. This was the first time that an event on this scale has ever been held in Washington in honor of Israel, and the Israeli embassy reported that “the scope of participation and the fact that the vice president chose to attend the entire event attest to the close bond between Israel and the United States.”
For the most part, Vice President Harris’s speech expressed admiration for Israel. She commented that she had collected donations for the Jewish National Fund as a child in California, for the planting of trees in Israel. She spoke about America’s obligation to promote Israel’s security and about the importance of strengthening the alliance between the two nations, which she described as an unbreakable bond. She also spoke about the two-state solution, about the unprecedented security assistance for Israel that she has always supported, and about the American government’s commitment to expand the Abraham Accords and promote further normalization of relations with Israel in the Middle East and beyond. She promised that America would continue to fight anti-Semitism throughout the world, and she described Israel as a nation “filled with innovators, entrepreneurs, and visionaries.”
Foreign Minister Cohen Attacks VP Harris, Then Instantly Folds
Regarding the judicial overhaul, Harris said, “Under President Joe Biden and our administration, America will continue to stand for the values that have been the bedrock of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which includes continuing to strengthen our democracies, which, as the ambassador has said, are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances, and, I’ll add, an independent judiciary.” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who was visiting Asia at the time, remarked semi-humorously in response, “If you ask her, she wouldn’t even be able to tell you what the reform is about or what is bothering her about it.”
Cohen could never have anticipated the magnitude of the backlash to his statement.
The foreign minister’s full statement was actually much longer: “I would respond to her as follows: I, too, support an independent and strong judiciary, but not one that is all-powerful. The judges in the United States do not have veto power over who will replace them. We need a judicial reform that will strengthen the public’s faith in the government; that is the goal that we are pursuing. I would also like to say in passing that my principles are the following: The coalition should not appoint the judges alone, but at the same time, the judges should not have veto power. I think that we and the Americans see eye to eye on these things. I can tell you that if you ask her [Harris] what is bothering her about this reform, she won’t know how to answer that question. I have visited a number of places and heard criticism, and I asked them all, ‘What exactly is troubling you?’ but no one was able to answer me. I don’t know whether she read this bill, but I suspect that she didn’t.”
Tom Nides, the American ambassador to Israel, was furious. The Americans viewed Cohen’s comments as severely disparaging to the vice president, a friend of Israel who is also an experienced and senior prosecutor and legal expert who is very familiar with the judicial reform. Furthermore, Harris was also merely repeating the same things that the Biden administration has been saying for some time. In fact, her presence at a celebration of Israel’s statehood was meant to convey the message that the bond between the two countries is still strong, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu hasn’t yet received an invitation to visit the White House.
Nides demanded a clarification from Eli Cohen, and he received it within moments. “I have great respect for our ally, the United States, and for Vice President Harris, who is a great friend of Israel,” Cohen wrote. “The judicial reform is an internal Israeli issue, and we are in the process of engaging in dialogue and reaching a consensus. The State of Israel will remain democratic and liberal, as it always was.”
Nides responded, “The story is behind us.”
Israeli Ministers Targeted by Protestors in Manhattan
But that was not the only incident to mar the festivities in America. The ceremony in Washington was also attended by MK Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset Constitution Committee and one of the leaders of the judicial reform effort. Rothman was relentlessly hounded by protestors during his visit to America. I assume that you have already heard about the incident in Manhattan: Rothman and his wife were walking down the street in Manhattan and were pursued by a large number of protestors. One woman shouted at him through a megaphone next to his ear, and he grabbed the megaphone from her. In this case, everyone felt that his actions were justified and that the protestors had crossed the bounds of acceptable behavior. In fact, the New York Police Department investigated the incident after a complaint was filed against him, and they chose to close the case. There was also a distressing incident in which a protestor broke through the ranks of Nir Barkat’s security entourage at a hotel in Manhattan. Many people claim that if this had happened to an American government official, the perpetrator would have been shot before he managed to make it past the bodyguards. Israel’s government officials are clearly being subjected to persecution on their trips abroad.
Rothman’s woes weren’t limited to the encounter with the megaphone-wielding protestor. At the ceremony in Washington, a woman turned to him and declared, “We are not going to let you destroy our lives here as well. Weren’t you told not to come? Why are you here?” Later on, during Harris’s speech, Rothman was heard reacting to a woman who accosted him and insisted that he hadn’t been invited to the event. “Are you insane?” he asked her. “Who do you think you are?” Turning to the people around him, he added, “This woman thinks that the country belongs to her!”
After the event was over, people began questioning whether Rothman had been invited. The Israeli embassy in Washington quickly released a statement addressing the issue: “Immediately before the event, the Foreign Ministry notified us that MK Rothman had informed them that he was planning to come to Washington, although the embassy was not aware of it, and that he had asked to be invited to the event at the embassy. The Foreign Ministry office requested an invitation for him. Naturally, the embassy contacted the Knesset member and invited him to the event. We are chagrined that the public attention for this event, which brought much honor to the State of Israel, is focusing on the question of MK Rothman’s presence. The Israeli embassy is not a political body, and we ask not to be drawn into a political debate. The embassy represents the State of Israel is a statesmanlike manner and relates accordingly to the elected representatives of the Israeli public.”
Who Will Be the Next US Ambassador?
To round out my discussion about the state of Israeli-American relations, let me briefly touch on three more topics.
First, as I have mentioned in the past, Ambassador Tom Nides will soon be leaving his position. The search for a replacement is underway in Washington, and the identities of the candidates, all of whom are Jewish, have already been leaked to the press. Unfortunately, as you are probably aware, Jewish politicians are sometimes worse for Jewish interests than others. It is possible that the next ambassador will be a woman, which would make it a historic appointment. The current female candidates for the position include Susie Gelman, Kathy Manning, and Jane Harman. If the ambassador is a man, then it will be one of the following: Robert Wechsler, Steve Israel, Ted Deutsch, Amos Hochstein, Mark Ginsberg, or possibly Aaron Keyak. I invite you to check for yourselves if any of these people would give us cause to celebrate if they are appointed to the position.
Second, Ambassador Nides discussed the security situation in Israel for the first time this week. Addressing an annual forum, he said, “Security is the most important thing. We are working together, and as President Biden said, we will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons.” The ambassador added, “Israel is going through a historic period now, and people are calling me and asking what will happen with its democracy. Democracy is alive and kicking in Israel, and everyone needs to appreciate that.”
Finally, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a comment at the beginning of the cabinet meeting this week about his recent conversation with Secretary of State Blinken: “I spoke with Anthony Blinken on Thursday, and we had a long discussion about a series of topics, with Iran chief among them. We discussed the military and intelligence collaboration between the United States and Israel, which is at an all-time high. I emphasized once again that our position is that returning to the nuclear deal will not benefit anyone. I stressed that no arrangement with Iran will be binding on Israel, with or without an agreement, and we will continue to do everything necessary to defend our country.”
Commemorating the Legacy of Rav Ovadiah Yosef
It isn’t often that I have the opportunity to be moved or inspired by anything that happens in the Knesset. For the most part, the proceedings in Israel’s parliament are colorless and lackluster. Last week, however, there was an unusually meaningful moment, when the Knesset unanimously approved a law to preserve the memory and legacy of Rav Ovadiah Yosef.
In my view, the most important aspect of the new law is a clause requiring students in schools to be taught about Rav Ovadiah. I have no doubt that this will lead students in the secular school system to gain some knowledge about Yiddishkeit as well, and that alone will make the entire endeavor worthwhile. After all, Rav Ovadiah himself used to lament that there were a million children in Israel who did not even know the words of Shema Yisroel.
When he presented the law to the Knesset, MK Yosef Taib could not conceal his emotion. “Mr. Speaker, my colleagues in the Knesset, and honored ministers,” he said, “I am honored to present to you a very important and necessary law calling for the memory and legacy of the greatest man of our generation, the Rishon Letzion Rav Ovadiah Yosef of blessed memory, to be preserved and commemorated.
“This is both a privilege and an obligation,” Taib continued. “It is indeed a great privilege for me to present this important bill, which deals with preserving the memory and legacy of Maran, the Rishon Letzion. It is also an obligation, for it is our duty as legislators to enact a law preserving the memory of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, with the goal of teaching the coming generations about his immense accomplishments, allowing them to learn from his conduct and to understand his legacy, with the purpose of creating a connection between Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s generation and future generations. The main purpose of this law is to preserve the memory of his life’s work, his vision, and his legacy, along with his leadership and accomplishments…. Rav Ovadiah was a spiritual leader of tremendous stature, a posek and guide to the masses. Most of his halachic rulings were published during his lifetime in the 52 seforim citing his brilliant and illuminating piskei halacha…. The rov’s seforim, which encompass all the topics contained in the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, can be found in almost every Jewish home and in every shul in Israel and the Diaspora.”
I was certain that Taib would speak about Rav Ovadiah’s profound concern for the children of Israel, and I was not disappointed. “Rav Ovadiah’s greatest concern, the priority that was closest to his heart, was seeing to it that the children of Israel would receive an education following the path of our great ancestors,” he said. “He desired for every Jewish child in the State of Israel to recognize and know about his Jewishness, and to study Tanach, Judaism, and Jewish tradition. He also strove to strengthen the Jewish identity of the State of Israel. I think that this law, which will establish a day of remembrance for Rav Ovadiah Yosef and his legacy in schools throughout the State of Israel, will contribute a good deal to the education of the coming generations and to shaping the State of Israel and its institutions in accordance with the rov’s vision and legacy. Passing this law will make it possible for his goals to be achieved by promoting educational activities and the teaching of moral values in state institutions and schools, through stipends provided to students and support of public institutions that are involved in achieving the goals of this law, and through additional activities to preserve the legacy of Rav Ovadiah Yosef.”
Forty members of the Knesset were present for the vote, and all forty of them voted in favor of the bill.
Rav Gershon Edelstein’s Hespeidim
Every week, I read Darkei Hachizuk, the weekly newsletter whose contents are culled from the shiurim of Rav Gershon Edelstein. This week, I felt a pang when I observed the abbreviation after his name that indicates that he is no longer with us. Rav Gershon’s Tuesday shiur may have ended, but there is no end to his teachings. This edition of the newsletter contained three hespeidim that Rav Gershon delivered at various points during his lifetime. I presume that the editors felt that Rav Gershon’s tributes to other gedolei Yisroel were equally applicable to him.
In a hesped for Rav Shach delivered in Cheshvan 5762/2001, Rav Gershon said, “The gadol hador never rested or sat in silence; he did many great things and succeeded in them due to his tremendous mesirus nefesh for Torah and chessed…. His yiras Shomayim, his fear of sin, his tzidkus, and his tefillos were astounding…. His entire life was filled with toil without rest, and now that he has gone to his eternal rest, we are left mourning the loss of his great influence…. Even during his illness, he toiled in his davening and in his thoughts. Anyone who visited his home could see that he was constantly involved in avodas Hashem and that his mind was constantly preoccupied by thoughts of kedusha.”
Rav Gershon also mentioned the immense importance that Rav Shach attached to learning mussar: “He even asked in his tzavaah for others to think about mussar, and he valued the study of mussar very greatly, for the poskim state explicitly that it is an absolute obligation. One cannot attain yiras Shomayim or observe the entire Torah without contemplating and learning the works of mussar.”
Rav Binyomin Hatzaddik Pays Tribute to Rav Gershon
Hespeidim for Rav Gershon are being delivered throughout the country, and many fascinating stories have been coming to light. Much has been said about Rav Gershon’s power to exercise restraint in the face of personal affronts. It is said that Rav Elya Lopian claimed that he wasn’t certain if he suffered from a volatile temper, since he never faced a challenge in that respect; he was always honored in the yeshiva and never had to deal with a potential trigger for anger. Rav Gershon, however, faced many such trials, and his forbearance was legendary. One of his talmidim added that Rav Gershon did more than just disregard affronts to himself; he encouraged everyone else to think positively about others, including those who had wronged him.
Rav Binyomin Finkel, mashgiach of Yeshivas Mir, delivered a hesped for Rav Gershon in the dining room of the Bais Yeshaya building, where he told the bochurim about an incident that occurred forty years ago: “I was in Bnei Brak, and I met Rav Gershon on his way to the yeshiva. My father [Rav Aryeh Finkel] and Rav Berel Povarsky were close talmidim of Rav Gershon, and I said to him, ‘If my father had known that I was going to see you, he would certainly have asked me to send regards.’ Rav Gershon replied, ‘Send my regards back to him. And I would like you to know that you have a cousin in the yeshiva who is learning very well.’ This added comment is telling in its own right,” Rav Binyomin remarked.
Rav Binyomin also related that he once traveled to Bnei Brak in a taxi together with Rav Gershon, who kept up a conversation with him for most of the journey. Rav Gershon did not content himself with merely exchanging pleasantries; he made sure to have a substantive conversation with his traveling companion. That conversation touched on various issues pertaining to chinuch, Rav Binyomin recalled, and Rav Gershon told him about a bochur who had been learning in a very extreme and peculiar way. This bochur was given proper guidance, he said, and then integrated beautifully into the yeshiva. “One should never give up on a bochur or attach a stigma to him,” Rav Gershon explained. “A rebbi must guide every talmid and steer him to the correct path. It is important to educate every bochur in the way that is most suited to him,” he added.
Another hesped was delivered in Chanichei Hayeshivos in Neve Yaakov by Rav Isser Zalman Rosenthal, who related that Rav Gershon’s son-in-law, Rav Issomor Garbuz, was once present at the rosh yeshiva’s Shabbos table and began repeating the drosha that he had delivered in shul. Rav Gershon interrupted him and began telling stories about the Ponovezher Rov instead. He explained to his son-in-law, “These bochurim [the other guests at his table] want to hear stories about gedolei Yisroel. They have enough time to speak in learning with me in the yeshiva.”
Rav Gershon frequently quoted the mishnah in Pirkei Avos that states, “Eat bread with salt and drink water in small measure…. If you do this, you will be happy in this world, and it will be good for you in the World to Come.” After quoting this mishnah, he would repeatedly say, “It will be good for you in this world? Yes, it will!” He would then explain this idea in a variety of ways.
At the hespeidim delivered in the Yeshivas Ponovezh, Rav Chaim Peretz Berman said, “A person who toils over the Torah will be happy. A person who has excellent middos will be happy. A person who is satisfied with very little will be happy. And someone who has all these virtues will be the happiest of all. Rav Gershon can be described with the words ‘ashrei yoladeto,’ for he was the product of ‘ashrei,’ the word that denotes true happiness and satisfaction.”
Only the Four Amos of Torah
This past Shavuos, I spent Yom Tov in Bnei Brak rather than at my home in Yerushalayim. Before the Yom Tov began, while I was sitting on a bench on Rechov Chazon Ish and observing the hustle and bustle in the street, I noticed a pair of matching signs on two buildings bearing the words, “This Torah will never be exchanged.” I have been to that spot hundreds of times, and I had never noticed the signs before. I am still curious as to who placed them there.
After I visited Bnei Brak on Pesach, I wrote about the drashos delivered by Rav Yitzchok Shmuel Schwartz in the Chisda shul of Poalei Agudas Yisroel. Once again, I davened there this past Yom Tov, although I was disappointed to discover that the rov and his sons had left Bnei Brak to spend the holiday with the Sanzer Rebbe in Netanya. In his place, two of his brothers, Rav Mordechai Schwartz (a rosh kollel and author of the sefer Pri Mordechai) and Rav Avrohom Schwartz (one of the leading testers for the organization Veshinantam) delivered drashos over the course of Yom Tov. Their speeches, like those of the rov, were extraordinary masterpieces of Torah.
Here is one fascinating thought that they shared: The Gemara states (Brachos 8a) that since the day the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, Hashem has nothing in this world other than the four amos of halacha. The Gemara adds the word bilvad (“only”) to stress that Hashem has nothing more, so to speak, in His world. The yetzer hora often tries to entice a person to involve himself extensively in mitzvos and acts of virtue in the hope that these pursuits will prevent him from devoting time to learning Torah. For this reason, the Gemara stresses that Hashem has only Torah in this world, and nothing else.
I would be remiss if I did not make mention of Rabbi Chaim Bernstein, the dedicated gabbai of the shul whose hard work is visible in everything that occurs there. When I thanked him for the shalosh seudos, he responded humbly, “The kesubah refers to those who ‘stand on the side’ of the chosson and kallah. The most important thing is to stand on the side. I try to stay out of the way and not to interfere.” Nevertheless, another member of the community told me that Reb Chaim is extremely dedicated to the shul. He also shared some information about the Schwartz family: “There are 14 Schwartz brothers altogether, and all of them are outstanding talmidei chochomim. Their father was a brilliant dayan and posek who passed away in the middle of answering a halachic shailah. He was the rov of Laniado Hospital and was very close to the Shefa Chaim of Sanz-Klausenberg.”
I later spoke to the mara d’asra by phone, and he filled in some of the details of the story: “It was on the night of Shabbos of Parshas Vayishlach. My father had just left the tish, and a talmid chochom named Rav Yechiel Baum came over to him to ask a shailah: If there is writing on a cake, is it possible to cut the cake if you cover the letters? My father told him that the Maharash Halevi wrote a teshuvah about this subject, which is quoted by the Mogen Avrohom. As he was speaking, he collapsed and passed away.” When I quoted a chiddush that his brother had shared about the mitzvah of oneg Yom Tov, Rav Schwartz knew exactly what I was referring to. “There is a nafka minah regarding yaaleh v’yavo,” he said instantly. “But I don’t know why you should be so surprised about this idea; it is the topic of the first siman in the teshuvos of Rabbi Akiva Eiger!”