Thursday, May 6, 2021

My Take on the News

President Trump is Coming to Town

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu came out looking a bit petty in his dealings with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel during the latter’s one-day visit to Yerushalayim last week. Gabriel had scheduled meetings with various left-wing Israeli organizations and Netanyahu gave him an ultimatum: It was either them or him. That is, if Gabriel insisted on meeting with the left-wing groups, then Netanyahu himself would refuse to meet with them. This did not faze the German foreign minister, who went ahead with his planned meetings – and Netanyahu canceled his own meeting with the visiting diplomat in response. Gabriel reacted by asserting that the cancellation wasn’t terribly tragic. President Reuven Rivlin did meet with Gabriel, compounding the sense of awkwardness in the prime minister’s office.

Naturally, Netanyahu has been condemned from various quarters for his behavior. His critics maintain that he has tarnished Israel’s reputation. Netanyahu declared in response that he was defending a red line that could not be crossed. He also claimed that Israel’s global standing has actually been improving. As if to confirm that contention, President Donald Trump announced the very next day that he plans to visit Yerushalayim at the end of May, just a day or two after Yom Yerushalayim. Will Trump take this opportunity to announce that the United States embassy is moving from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim? And if he does announce that, what will be the stick that accompanies this carrot? In any event, an American team is already on its way to Israel to lay the groundwork for his visit.

Trump also showed solidarity with the Jewish people on his visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington in honor of Yom Hashoah, asserting that the deniers of the Holocaust are accomplices to the crimes of the Nazis. The secretary-general of the United Nations likewise spoke out against anti-Semitism. And the American ambassador to the UN sounds like a righteous gentile in her own right.

Speaking of Trump, I should note that the rabbi who spoke at his inauguration visited the Knesset this week. He’s a charming person. He will be lighting a torch at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony. Perhaps next week I will explain more about that.

Jews Staying Home in France

Is there anti-Semitism today? In honor of Yom Hashoah, a report on anti-Semitism throughout the world was presented this week at Tel Aviv University. The report was the work of the Kantor Center for the Study of European Jewry and the Congress of European Jewry. The figures do not seem to lead to any clear conclusions. Here is a quote from the report: “In the year 2016, there was a 12 percent decrease in violent anti-Semitic incidents throughout the world, from 410 incidents in 2015 to 361 in 2016. This is despite the concurrent increase in verbal expressions of anti-Semitism.” The report found that there are conflicting trends in global anti-Semitism, with the level of hatred on social media on the rise, while the number of incidents of violence has been decreasing.

According to the report, the most worrying phenomenon is a widespread sense of insecurity among Jews, stemming from the virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric that has become commonplace on social media and in public protests. “The computer is the primary tool used today to disseminate hatred and bigotry, and there are no limits on the language that is used,” the report states. The drop in acts of violence against Jews is primarily visible in France, where there has been a 61 percent decrease in anti-Semitic incidents. A similar decrease has occurred in Belgium, while Britain and Australia have each experienced an 11 percent rise in such incidents. A 45 percent increase in anti-Semitism of all forms has been reported on college campuses throughout America.

“One of the reasons for the decrease in violent incidents,” the report’s authors point out, “is that Jews have been refraining from going out in public with identifying signs such as a kippah or mageikn Dovid.” That is a particularly sad commentary on the current state of affairs. The reason for the decrease in violence in France is simply the fact that Jews have not been leaving their homes. What a solution to the problem!

Speaking of France, I should note that Yerushalayim has watched with concern as the right-wing candidate in France, who has been particularly outspoken against Jews, has received significant support. As you are probably aware, a runoff election is now taking place in France between two of the four presidential candidates: Mrs. Marine Le Pen of the extreme right, who is believed by some to be anti-Semitic, and Mr. Emanuel Macron of the Socialist party.

Anticipating a Collapse on Lag Ba’omer

This past week has been very eventful, but there is a limit to the space I can devote to every subject. We will have to suffice with an overview of some of the more noteworthy stories.

Last Wednesday night, at 12:00, the Knesset passed the “Corporation Law.” Believe it or not, this law says simply that the radio station operated by the new broadcasting corporation (“Kan”) will begin operating only in another two weeks, rather than on the fourth of Iyar. The purpose of the delay is to give Netanyahu time to make a few more appointments that he considers crucial. For that purpose, the Knesset has spent the past two days dealing with this law – despite the fact that it is on recess and that the country is in the process of marking Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron.

Palestinian terror still hasn’t left us, and there were several attempted attacks. Miraculously, these attempts at terror did not cause any fatalities. This happens almost every day.

The Supreme Court case concerning Shabbos in Tel Aviv has also remained in the news, as the leaders of the chareidi parties informed the prime minister and attorney general that a new law must be introduced soon to prevent further assaults on Shabbos observance and the Jewish character of the state. Will the government fall over the issue of Shabbos? It is certainly a possibility.

Lag Ba’omer is fast approaching, and that also connects to Shabbos. This year, the hillula will take place on Motzoei Shabbos, meaning that hundreds – or perhaps even thousands – of police officers will begin going to Meron on the Shabbos day itself. The police maintain that they are not at fault for the mass chillul Shabbos. “You light your bonfires as soon as Shabbos ends,” they argue, referring to the people who spend Shabbos in Meron, “and we have no choice but to come in the afternoon.” Consequently, it seems likely that the bonfires will be delayed until very late at night, and most of the police officers will therefore arrive only after Shabbos has ended. On Shabbos itself, only non-Jewish police officers will be sent to Meron. There are thousands of Druze police officers in the country.

On a similar note, the official school vacation for Lag Ba’omer has been changed this year from Sunday, the actual date of Lag Ba’omer, to Monday. The purpose of this is to prevent bonfires from being lit throughout the country on Motzoei Shabbos. This means that schools will be in session on Sunday, and thousands of buses will therefore be in use transporting students to and from their schools – and that means that there will not be nearly as many buses available for transportation to Meron as in other years. The experts maintain that the transportation system will inevitably collapse on Lag Ba’omer. Next week, bli neder, I will discuss the preparations for the hillula in Meron.

Dozens of Bnei Yeshiva in the Airport Terminal

Here is something I recently observed that is at least as important as President Trump’s upcoming visit to Israel, if not more so.

On Monday, I went to the airport to pick up a yeshiva bochur from Monsey who came to learn in Brisk. This is his first time learning in Yerushalayim. He has visited the country several times, but generally with his parents. It was only natural for his parents to be concerned about their son traveling alone, and he himself was likely somewhat worried as well. Since I have a good deal of hakoras hatov to his prestigious family, I decided to drive to the airport to pick him up. Well, what do you think is more important, a visit from President Trump or a yeshiva bochur coming to Yerushalayim to learn Torah? The trip wasn’t even much of an imposition for me, since I managed to convince the young man to accompany me to the annual Lev L’Achim convention in Bnei Brak. We spent a short time there, and then we made our way to Yerushalayim.

But there was one sight that I found particularly heartwarming: The SwissAir flight that carried this young man to Eretz Yisroel also contained another 20 or 30 yeshiva bochurim, also arriving from America. And more bochurim, most of them Americans, arrived on other planes that landed at about the same time. For just a short time, the airport was filled with a sea of yeshiva bochurim, to the point that it looked very much like the area around the Mir or Brisk at the conclusion of afternoon seder. Ashreichem!

Incredible Mesirus Nefesh for a Shiur

Last week was the yahrtzeit of Rav Yaakov Yosef zt”l, the eldest son of Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l. Rav Yaakov, rosh yeshiva of Chazon Yaakov and rov of the neighborhood of Givat Moshe, was a Torah genius, a master of humility, a paragon of kindness, a brilliant posek, and a man who spent his life serving the public. Even more than all that, though, he was a man who engaged in harbotzas Torah on an almost unfathomable scale and with extraordinary mesirus nefesh.

In the year 5729, Rav Ovadiah Yosef was appointed to the position of rov of Tel Aviv. At the farewell banquet hosted in his honor by the greatest rabbonim of Yerushalayim, he announced that his famous shiur at the Shaul Tzadkah shul would be given by his eldest son in his place. At the time, Rav Yaakov Yosef was only 22 years old. He was later asked to deliver shiurim in Boruchov and Yazdim, two renowned Sephardic shuls in Yerushalayim, as well. Thus began an extensive career of harbotzas Torah and kiruv that came to a close only at the end of his life.

I came across the following story in a book about Rav Yaakov Yosef: “The last shiur of the rov’s life was in the city of Rechovot, on Thursday, the 24th of Nissan, 5773, just eight days before his passing. We later asked his children how their father managed to travel out of the city so often, when he was so weak. They replied, ‘His shiurim are the greatest source of joy in his life. Who could possibly prevent him from giving them?’” The book contains a photograph from the end of that final shiur. In the picture, Rav Yaakov is gaunt and clearly wracked with pain, his skin deathly pale – yet his face bears an angelic expression. He was once asked, “How much are you required to be moser nefesh to give a shiur?” To that, he responded, “The shiur fills me with life. As long as Hashem allows me to continue, I will continue.”

The book takes us to Cairo, where Rav Ovadiah served as rov for several years and where his oldest son and his second son, the current chief rabbi, were born. It also introduces us to many of the illustrious personalities of Yerushalayim of yesteryear – mainly those of the Sephardic community of Yerushalayim. And there are many rare and remarkable photographs. It is a book that chronicles the life and times of an extraordinary person.

Regarding Rav Ovadiah’s years on Rechov Elkanah, the book has the following to say: “We should mention Yechezkel Chabah zt”l, the owner of the grocery store that sold chalvah, yeast, and yellow cheese by weight. There was also the neighborhood greengrocer, a quiet man who wore a constant smile on his face and always showed deference to talmidei chachomim. Further down the street lived Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Chacham Benzion Abba-Shaul, and Rav Boruch Shimon Schneerson, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Kochav MiYaakov, lived nearby. He and his talmidim highly admired [Rav Ovadiah] and his intensive learning, and they consulted with him regularly on matters of halacha, knowing that they could knock on his door even in the middle of the night. Other residents of the street included Rav Shimon Friedman, who was universally known as ‘Shimon Hatzaddik’; chassidishe author Rav Chanoch Glitzenstein; and Rav Simcha Shlomo Levin, son of Rav Aryeh Levin, who was reminiscent of his father in his teachings, his appearance, and his actions. His nephew, Rav Binyomin Dovid Elyashiv, author of Yad Binyomin and son of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, also lived nearby. His hasmadah and daily routine were incredibly reminiscent of his own father. Further down the street lived Rav Eliezer Nanas, a prominent Chabad chossid and a man of great mesirus nefesh, who had survived the Soviet prisons and labor camps.”

A Phone Call from Rav Yaakov Yosef zt”l

Rav Yaakov Yosefzt”l was one of the most prominent talmidim of Yeshivas Porat Yosef, and the book therefore provides us with an illuminating overview of the yeshiva itself and its faculty.

“The menahel of the yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Sharam, asked the yeshiva’s scholars to replace their ordinary attire with rabbinic garb – to wear a homburg and frock, as is customary among Torah sages,” it relates. “He never imagined how much anguish this request would cause them… Chacham Yehuda Muallem wept bitterly as he begged to be allowed to wear ordinary attire. It was only when it was explained that an ordinary mode of dress would cause observers to think that they were simple people, which would reduce the donations to the yeshiva, that the rabbonim agreed to adopt the rabbinic garb.”

Rav Yaakov once related about Chacham Yehuda Muallem, “His approach infused us with ahavas haTorah, because he explained everything with the greatest patience and worked to provide us with the best possible comprehension. He accomplished this through the style of learning taught by the sages of Porat Yosef.” Regarding Chacham Benzion Abba-Shaul, Rav Yaakov asserted, “There was no one in the world who surpassed him in the understanding of p’shat.”

After his years at Porat Yosef, Rav Yaakov went on to learn in Yeshivas Kol Torah. The book quotes his fascinating descriptions of the yeshiva, including the conduct and teachings of his illustrious rabbeim, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l and Rav Gedaliah Eiseman zt”l, the mashgiach of the yeshiva. At first, Rav Yaakov would make his way home to Rechov Elkanah every Shabbos after the seudah in order to learn with his illustrious father. However, when he realized that the mashgiach was displeased with the practice, he discontinued it.

Now allow me to add something on a more personal note. For a period of time, Rav Yaakov was a member of the Knesset. This was when the Shas party ran for the Knesset for the first time. Consequently, I had the good fortune of working alongside him in the Eleventh Knesset, during the years 5744 through 5749. He was a prolific lawmaker and a champion of kevod Shomayim and the welfare of others alike. There is a good deal that could be said about that, and I believe that this chapter of his life will be discussed in the next volume to be written about him.

In a chapter titled “The Heart of Yisroel,” in conjunction with a story about his concern for a talmid during a snowstorm, I found the following account: “On one snowy day, the rov was returning from his vosikin minyan. On the way, he called Tzvi Yaakovson, the secretary of the Shas party in the Knesset. Reb Tzvi didn’t answer the phone, and the rov left a message on his voicemail: ‘Good morning, it’s Yaakov Yosef speaking. Greetings to my dear friend, Tzvika. I just wanted to remind you of something: Twenty-five years ago, at this time of year, there was a heavy snowstorm in Yerushalayim. I was the last one to leave the Knesset building, and my good friend Tzvika drove me home. I wanted to thank you for that.’” That is how he spoke. He identified himself without appending any titles or honorifics to his name. He had the humility of a true adam gadol.

Singing in Memory of the Soldiers?

This past week, the State of Israel celebrated Yom Haatzmaut, the country’s Independence Day. Officially, Yom Haatzmaut is supposed to be the fifth of Iyar, which fell on a Monday this year. The day before, the fourth of Iyar, is the country’s day of remembrance for the fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks. Since there are some memorial events that take place on the night before Yom Hazikaron, the day is postponed whenever the fourth of Iyar falls on a Sunday, in order to avoid holding memorial ceremonies on Motzoei Shabbos. This year, too, Yom Hazikaron was postponed until Monday, and Yom Haatzmaut was therefore delayed until Tuesday.

How is this day of remembrance marked in the Knesset? The Knesset hosts a performance of male and female singers, which is supposedly “in memory” of the fallen soldiers of the IDF. It is certainly not a Jewish idea.

Ever since the State of Israel was founded, there has been a major controversy over how to relate to the country itself, and by extension to Yom Haatzmaut. There are those who view the state as “aschalta d’geulah,” the beginning of the redemption. Some gedolim maintained that the founding of the state was part of a battle against all that is sacred to the Jewish people. It was said that the Chazon Ish declared that the state would not last for many years – that is, in its secular form. The Brisker Rov reportedly said that it was founded in a moment of Divine kindness. In any event, all the secular festivities, the various forms of entertainment, the barbecues in public parks, and all the other trappings of Yom Haatzmaut are not in keeping with our spirit. In most cases, the chareidi community tends to take advantage of the legal holiday to organize a day of learning.

Yom Haatzmaut –
An Explanation

Chacham YehudaTzadka zt”l once offered a perspective on Yom Haatzmaut. Rav Yehuda, rosh yeshiva of Porat Yosef, was known as a kano’i. Regarding the subject of Yom Haatzmaut, he quoted the Gemara in Maseches Nedarim (49b), which states that Rav Yehuda bar Ilai used to keep his head bandaged every year from Pesach until Shavuos due to the headaches he suffered after drinking the Arba Kosos on the Seder night. Why, the rosh yeshiva asked, did he experience this pain for exactly seven weeks? Why was it that the pain abated precisely when Shavuos began?

Rav Yehuda explained that each of the Arba Kosos, which represent the four expressions of geulah in the Torah, corresponds to a different stage in the process of redemption. The first kos, which corresponds to the word “vehotzeisi,” refers to the end of the enslavement in Mitzrayim. With the second kos, which corresponds to the word “vehitzalti,” the essence of the Jewish people was changed from that of slaves to free men. The third kos, representing “vego’alti,” relates to the fact that Bnei Yisroel left Mitzrayim in broad daylight, rather than being forced to sneak out of the country like thieves in the night. And the fourth kos relates to the promise of “velokachti eschem li l’am – I will take you to Me as a people,” which was fulfilled when the Torah was given. It is in conjunction with Mattan Torah that the Torah states, “On this day you have become a nation.” On the Seder night, we celebrate the fulfillment of the promises embodied by the first three kosos, but the fourth stage of redemption takes place only seven weeks later, on Shavuos, the date of the giving of the Torah. Until Shavuos, we have our independence, so to speak, but we do not have the Torah.

“The fourth kos is like a postdated check, which we know we will be able to cash only in seven weeks,” Rav Tzadka explained. “We have been given our freedom, our independence, but we haven’t received the Torah. Without the Torah, independence is nothing but a major headache!

“Who needs this type of independence?” he continued. “You see, we have independence and democracy today, but look what is happening in the streets! That is why Rav Yehuda bar Ilai had a headache for seven weeks, which subsided only on the day of Mattan Torah. Once we had the Torah, the goal was in place; we had an objective to aim for and to achieve.”

Hashgachah Protis

I recently had the following exchange with a kollel yungerman.

“I have a story of Hashgachah Protis for you,” he informed me. “On Sunday night, my wife and I went to Yesh [a chareidi supermarket]. I had received vouchers from my kollel for 300 shekels to be spent at the store, and we decided to purchase some things we needed. We walked from Bayit Vegan to Givat Shaul, where the store is located. The doctor told my wife that it is good for her health to walk. Of course, that meant that it would be good for me to accompany her…”

“Where is the Hashgachah in this story?” I asked him.

“I am almost there. When we got to Yesh, the store was closed. There was a large sign announcing that it was closed because of Yom Hashoah. Brilliant, isn’t it? Anyone who saw the sign would be at the store already! They could have spared us the walk by advertising that it was going to be closed.”

“But where is the Hashgachah?” I pressed.

“We went back home,” he continued. “Actually, the number 16 bus appeared as soon as we got to the nearby bus stop. As you know, it is a bus from Bayit Vegan to Givat Shaul that comes very infrequently, especially on Yom Hashoah. It took us ten minutes to get home. Ultimately, we had gotten a nice walk out of it, so I have no reason to complain.”

“But what about the Hashgachah?” I asked again.

“When we got home, we found the vouchers sitting on our table!” he announced.

“And why does that make you so happy?” I asked.

“Hashem wanted to save us from distress,” he explained. “Imagine what would have happened if we had spent an hour making our rounds in the store and we had arrived at the checkout counter with a shopping cart filled with merchandise only to find out that we had forgotten the vouchers at home. That would have been truly distressing. Hashem, in His kindness, made sure that Yesh would be closed so that we would be spared that suffering.”

“What a perspective you have!” I marveled. “My friend, you are sweeter than honey.”

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