A Week of Mixed Emotions
It has been a difficult week here in Israel. Two weeks ago, the country observed Yom Hashoah, the official day of remembrance for the Holocaust. It is a day that always envelops the people of this country in sadness – with the possible exception of the many non-Jews who emigrated to Israel from the countries of the former Soviet Union. Those immigrants have no connection to Jews, and especially to those who were murdered in the Holocaust; in fact, they are completely apathetic to the murders of Jews. Some of those immigrants, who were presumed by the authorities to be Jewish but are actually full-fledged Gentiles, have even been discovered at times to have participated in anti-Semitic persecution themselves.
Last week, on Monday, the country observed Yom Hazikaron, the official memorial day for fallen soldiers of the IDF and victims of terror attacks. Altogether, there are 23,544 men, women, and children who fall into this category. Think about that number; it is the number of people who were killed in the course of military activities or were murdered by the enemies of our people. The very next day was Yom Haatzmaut, the day when the country celebrates its independence. Both of these days are marked in a peculiar way in Israeli society.
On Sunday night, there were many events in memory of those who were killed. In Israel, incidentally, these people are typically referred to as “the fallen.” I, however, do not understand the reason for this term. These are people who are kedoshim, who were murdered because they were Jews. The concept of “falling” has no relevance to them. I have a similar objection to the term “Shoah,” which is derived from the word “shav” and denotes something empty or meaningless. This term should not be used in reference to the heroism of the millions of martyrs who were killed by the Nazis.
The memorial events continued on Monday. On Monday morning, a siren was sounded throughout the country. Officially, every Israeli is supposed to stand silent and motionless during the siren; every year, there are people who watch for the signs of chareidim who are not standing still.
Then, at 8:00 in the evening, the celebrations began. It is a jarring transition, and it doesn’t always seem appropriate, but that is the way things are done here. One might speculate that the juxtaposition is intentional, in order to show that our independence is mixed with sadness.
Yom Haatzmaut itself is also a bizarre day. Israelis celebrate the day by going out to public parks for barbecues. Those who practice fewer “hiddurim” hold their barbecues at home instead.
All in all, it was a challenging and complex week, and a certain amount of discussion is in order concerning its events.
My Mother’s Story
Yom Hashoah, Israel’s Remembrance Day for the Holocaust, is held at the end of the month of Nissan, when it is forbidden to deliver hespeidim. As usual, there was much talk about why the chareidim prefer to commemorate the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av. It should be noted to the credit of Yad Vashem, the institution responsible for preserving the memory of the Holocaust, that it has changed its character in recent years – especially now that Rav Yisroel Meir Lau is chairman of the institution. Incidentally, that position was previously occupied by Tommy Lapid.
I have already told you about the dispute raging between Yad Vashem and several members of the Knesset, who want to bestow the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” on Jews who saved other Jews during the Holocaust. On that subject, I had an article published in Israel last week in which I spoke my mother a”h, Tova (Gita) bas Reb Avrohom Hy”d and Machla Hy”d. My mother’s maiden name was Appel; her mother was a member of a family named Pollack. My mother’s parents and all of her siblings were murdered by the Nazis ym”s. The following is an excerpt from my article:
“Lifelong hatred for the Nazis and their collaborators runs through my veins. I am named after Hershel Pollack Hy”d, my mother’s brother, who was martyred along with his parents, brothers, and sisters. My mother, who was sixteen years old at the time, endured terrible suffering in the concentration camps, where she had several encounters with Mengele ym”s. Out of a large family numbering dozens of souls, the only survivors were my mother and one uncle, Lipa Pollack zt”l, who became one of the most prominent chassidim in the Vizhnitzer community in Bnei Brak.
“She endangered her life for the sake of others on many occasions. Each of her struggles against Mengele led to another girl being spared from death. She also demonstrated tremendous heroism in the barracks, where the cruel Nazi female officers used to cast dying inmates into a corner. In the mornings, my mother would check to see which of them were still alive, and she would drag them back to their bunks. In one case, she switched places with a girl who was sleeping on the top bunk and was suffering from rain pouring onto her head. My mother’s doctors felt that that exposure to the rain caused her to suffer for the rest of her life.
“Every day was unbearably difficult, and every night was terrifying. My mother once attested that every night in the concentration camp, she heard the screams of the Nazi soldiers, the clattering of the trains, and the barking of the dogs. In the Gehinnom of Auschwitz, she didn’t feel fear; she would have embraced death. But before her father was taken away to the gas chambers, she had promised him that she would take care of herself and her sister, Aunt Malka. Most importantly, she had promised to hold on to her Yiddishkeit. In later years, as she raised her family, every child she had was another soul snatched from the fires.
“My mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, arrived in the World of Truth with cartloads of chessed and zechuyos. There were the many students she taught in the girls’ school in Beer Yaakov, for whom she made enormous sacrifices, and then there were the patients in the mental hospital in the town who became frequent guests in her home. In addition to all that, of course, there were the profound zechuyos she amassed by saving Jewish girls from death.
“One of those girls, who went on to survive the Holocaust and came to Eretz Yisroel, lived in the nearby city of Ramle. Her husband was a high-ranking officer in the police force, and the couple asked several times for permission to visit us and to bring gifts to my mother, as a show of appreciation for all that she had done during the war. My mother, however, refused to have anything to do with the woman, who had turned her back on Yiddishkeit and had ceased observing Shabbos.
“Was my mother fit to hold the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’? Of course! She was far more than righteous. On the other hand, she would have rejected the title outright, for a Jew who saves another Jew’s life is not a hero; they were doing what is expected of them as a Jew!”
Living with Miracles
We, the chareidim, are not active participants in the celebrations of Israel’s independence. This year, though, we were represented in the festivities, when the organizers decided that to include two guests from the Diaspora in the torch lighting ceremony on Har Herzl. One was Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Birthright and a patron of various national institutions. The other was Rabbi Moshe Chaim (Marvin) Hier.
Here is an excerpt of the official announcement from the ceremony’s organizers: “Rabbi Moshe Hier is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance. The Wiesenthal Center is dedicated to the goal of protecting the Jewish people and preserving the memory of the Holocaust; it has many branches, and its activities span the globe. The center works to bring Nazi war criminals to justice; in addition, it teaches the tragic story of the Holocaust in diverse communities throughout the United States, and it educates people about the lessons that must be learned from that horrible war. In addition to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, a World Center for Tolerance in the heart of Yerushalayim is currently in the final stages of construction, representing the values that the center aims to promote. Rabbi Hier served for many years as the rov of Vancouver, Canada, and has produced documentary films on the subject of the Second World War. During his speech at the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Rabbi Hier moved many people when he quoted the posuk, ‘If I forget you, Yerushalayim, may my right hand be forgotten.’” In Yerushalayim, Rabbi Hier was a highly sought-after interviewee for many journalists, and in every interview he granted, he managed to weave in Hebrew phrases such as “Am Yisroel,” “mazel tov,” and “boruch Hashem.”
It was certainly an unusual move for a chareidi Jew from abroad to be invited to light a torch at the ceremony. Another historic first took place this year at the “Chidon HaTanach” – the International Bible Quiz – held every year on Yom Haatzmaut, when the competition was won by a student from a chiloni school (albeit one from a religious family). This was a sensational piece of news, which became a hot topic of conversation throughout the country. It even led to a furor of debate over whether the Tanach “belongs” to the chareidim. The winner, Sagiv Lugasi, is a student at the ORT school in Maalot, which is practically the northernmost city in Israel. Sagiv is a bashful and highly modest young man. Of course, he received much public attention for his achievement.
Another noteworthy aspect of the day was the annual air show. This year, the show included two new Hercules planes, which were recently acquired by the Air Force from the Lockheed-Martin company in America. When the planes landed, the technicians discovered that their wings had rubbed against each other, indicating that the planes had come too close. In other words, a tragic accident was averted by an incredibly narrow margin.
Then again, we have always known that our very lives depend on miracles every day. As if to drive that point home, the director of the Shin Bet revealed in an interview in honor of Yom Haatzmaut that there is at least one attempted terror attack foiled every day in the State of Israel.
The Court Discusses Tel Aviv Again
All of the usual issues are in the news again, beginning with the Supreme Court and the controversy over Shabbos in Tel Aviv. As I mentioned in the past, the court decided to allow the Tel Aviv municipality to pass a law allowing stores to open on Shabbos in several large commercial centers. This decision infuriated many people – not only the members of the chareidi parties, but also many other good citizens of the State of Israel, who would prefer to live in a country with a Jewish character and not one that is merely an imitation of Amsterdam or Berlin. The chareidi politicians have already met with the prime minister to arrange for a law to be passed that will override the court’s decision. Meanwhile, though, a new development has come from a different direction: The business owners of Tel Aviv who are opposed to the decision have asked the court to discuss the case again. There is a provision for such a process to take place, and their request was accepted; the Supreme Court has decided to review the case once again. Meanwhile, the Minister of the Interior announced his own rejection of the proposed municipal bylaw in Tel Aviv. All of this may change the situation.
Then there is Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted of murdering an Arab terrorist, who is now appealing his conviction and his sentence. His new attorney, Yoram Sheftel (who was once the attorney of John Ivan Demjanjuk from Cleveland) has spoken out fiercely against the military court that convicted Azaria, expressing his hope that the military appeals court will accept his position. This subject is a major focus of attention here in Israel.
A Ritual of Incitement
Two days before Yom Hazikaron, a chiloni journalist wandered the streets of Bnei Brak carrying a huge Israeli flag. He hoped that the sight of the flag would provoke someone to violence, or that someone would attempt to drive him out of the city. Indeed, the video that he released shows two chareidim riding up to him on a motorcycle, breaking the pole that held the flag, and fleeing from the scene. Before long, it was revealed that the incident was staged: The two chareidim in the video were found to be acquaintances of the journalist. They had been led to believe that they were helping him film a humor video. For a full day after the facts came to life, the journalist continued to deny that he had faked the incident; finally, he confessed and was dismissed from his job.
We have long grown accustomed to this type of incitement. There are chilonim who stake out positions in Geulah or in the center of Bnei Brak, waiting with their cameras to capture footage of the few chareidim who choose to antagonize them by walking around during a siren or by stepping on a flag in full view of their cameras.
For the chilonim themselves, though, anything is permissible. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who is revered by the Israeli left, referred to the Israeli flag as a “rag.” In Tel Aviv, an “alternative” memorial service was held on Yom Hazikaron, dedicated to the deceased on both sides of the conflict: the Israeli soldiers and civilians who have been killed in Yerushalayim, as well as the members of Palestinian organizations and the Arabs who lost their lives in Gaza. And then there is this: One of the windows in my apartment overlooks Rechov Givat Shaul, while another offers me a view of the Yerushalayim-Tel Aviv highway. During the siren on Yom Hazikaron, I watched as many cars continued moving, in spite of the national custom to remain motionless while the siren is sounding. And that scene was not on the Givat Shaul side of the building.
In light of this observation, perhaps I can spare the chiloni photographers and journalists some effort. Instead of coming to the chareidi neighborhoods of Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak every Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hashoah, in order to catch chareidim in the act of ignoring the siren and to “prove” to the public that we are disrespectful of the principles of Zionism, they could simply monitor the traffic on Highway One, the road connecting Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv. They would see dozens of cars standing still, with their drivers standing next to the motionless vehicles, but at the same time they could see hundreds of cars continuing on their way, as their occupants pay no heed to the blaring siren. The only problem is that this wouldn’t be very interesting, since it isn’t in a chareidi neighborhood.
Oh, and what about the photographers themselves? For some reason, they are permitted to run around during the sirens, as they position themselves to get the best possible pictures of their chareidi subjects.
The Last Remaining Zionists
The day will soon come when we, the religious sector, will be the ones guarding the last dying embers of Zionism. All the secular trappings of nationalism will soon be lost, and the chilonim will become increasingly removed from the ideology that spawned their society. Even today, it is only the religious Zionists who celebrate Yom Haatzmaut by reciting Hallel; for secular Israelis, it is a day of wanton revelry. Their ideology has gone up in flames on the barbecue grill. The plastic hammers of years past have been taken away, and the “traditional” spray used on Yom Haatzmaut has been banned by the Ministry of Health. Now the experts have announced that even meat is unhealthy, possibly signaling the demise of the traditional barbecue. With all those things gone, what will they have left?
On Monday afternoon, a fierce “halachic” debate erupted in the Knesset shul before Mincha. The question was whether Tachanun should be recited. On the one hand, it was “erev Yom Haatzmaut,” and Tachanun is not recited at the Mincha before a holiday. On the other hand, it was also Yom Hazikaron, the most sorrowful day on the Israeli calendar. Some of the mispallelim insisted that it would be a violation of the “kedusha” of Yom Haatzmaut to recite Tachanun, and others added that Yom Haatzmaut was “nidcheh” this year, and it was the fifth of Iyar already. “Saying Tachanun on the fifth of Iyar is ‘chillul Yom Haatzmaut!” they shouted.
“And not saying Tachanun is a violation of Yom Hazikaron,” someone else said. It was clear that they were all completely confused.
On a similar note, there were several errors in the Kaddish recited by a bereaved father at the ceremony on Har Herzl. Secular Israelis often break their teeth over the words of Kaddish; I will never forget how the prime minister’s son struggled with the words. But I find this very puzzling. Even if Kaddish is unfamiliar to them and the words sound strange, they always have a printed copy of the text, complete with nekudos. What, then, is the problem? Didn’t they learn the alef bais? Don’t they know the Hebrew vowels?
Hashgachah Pratis in Beit Shemesh
On Shabbos, a yungerman named Reb Avrohom Dov celebrated his son’s bris in Beit Shemesh. The infant, now named Chanoch Henoch, had been born the previous Shabbos in Shaare Zedek in Yerushalayim. From the moment of the baby’s birth, Reb Avrohom Dov secretly harbored a desire to give the honor of sandakaus to “the Rebbe Reb Meilich” – i.e., the famed mashpia Rav Elimelech Biderman. “I have been fortunate enough to develop a close relationship with him in recent years,” he explained to me, “and I wanted very much for him to be the sandak at the bris.”
At first, it seemed that the father’s wish would easily come true. His wife planned to spend a few days in the Em V’Yeled convalescent home in Bnei Brak, which meant that the baby would be in Bnei Brak on Shabbos. Since Rav Meilich lives in Bnei Brak, it seemed that everything would work out perfectly; all roads, it appeared, were leading to Bnei Brak.
But then it became clear that things were not so simple. The father soon learned that it would be somewhat difficult – perhaps even impossible – to bring his entire family to Bnei Brak for Shabbos. The idea sounded perfect, but in practice, there were too many difficulties involved. By Monday morning, the plan had been scuttled. The decision was made that the family would stay home in Beit Shemesh for Shabbos, and the bris would be held locally.
Reb Avrohom Dov, who now resigned himself to the inevitability of a bris in Beit Shemesh, had not shared any of the earlier stages of his plan with others; certainly, he hadn’t mentioned a word to Rav Meilich himself. The rov did not have an inkling of the fact that he had ever planned to spend Shabbos in Bnei Brak and to honor Rav Meilich with sandakaus. In fact, he didn’t even inform the rov that there would be a bris in Beit Shemesh, or even that he had had a baby.
That Tuesday night, Rav Meilich received an invitation from a community in Beit Shemesh to spend Shabbos in the city. A Shabbos during Sefiras Ha’Omer is a time of great spiritual meaning, they pointed out, and it had been a long time since Rav Meilich had visited the city, which thirsted for his inspiration. His gabbaim responded, “Why did you wait until now to ask? The rov has already committed to spend Shabbos in a large community here in Bnei Brak. He will have to come a different time.”
The men from Beit Shemesh were not so easily dissuaded. “A different time,” they pointed out, “could be a very long time from now. It is almost Lag Ba’Omer, and then Shavuos will be here.”
“You are right,” the gabbaim replied, “but this Shabbos the rov will be in Bnei Brak. That is the plan; he has already made a commitment to the kehillah here.”
“But in our case, he can offer chizuk to a large tzibbur,” the askanim from Beit Shemesh persisted.
“And in Bnei Brak it will also be a huge chizuk,” the gabbaim replied. “Why should your community take precedence?”
The reason for the gabbaim’s unyielding refusal was the fact that Rav Meilich does not like to renege on a commitment once he has made it, certainly not at such a late stage, and certainly not without a good reason. Had there been a compelling reason, he might have considered changing his plans, but he would not break his commitment to the kehillah in Bnei Brak for no reason.
What would constitute a compelling reason for a change of plans? Perhaps, the gabbaim said, if someone wished for the rebbe to serve as sandak at a bris.
On Wednesday morning after Shacharis, Reb Avrohom happened to hear, that an effort had been made to convince Rav Meilich to come to Beit Shemesh for Shabbos, but the rov had declined the invitation. And then someone remarked that he had heard that if the rov had been invited to serve as sandak at a bris on Shabbos, he would have come to Beit Shemesh after all.
Reb Avrohom Dov hurried to place a call to the rov’s gabbaim, and they confirmed that the story was accurate: The invitation had been extended to the rov the previous night, but it seemed that it would not be accepted. “Give us half an hour to find out for certain,” they said, but that half hour yielded no change. “The rov will not be in Beit Shemesh this Shabbos,” they informed Reb Avrohom Dov, even before the half hour had fully elapsed.
“That’s a pity,” he sighed. “I was hoping to invite him to be the sandak at a bris.”
The gabbaim were startled. “What? To be a sandak?” they exclaimed. “Just last night, Rav Meilich said that a sandakaus would be enough of a reason for him to come to Beit Shemesh instead of staying in Bnei Brak. Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I am telling you now,” the young father replied.
And so it came to pass that Rav Meilich Biderman served as the sandak for young Chanoch Henoch, the son of Rev Avrohom Dov, and the city of Beit Shemesh rejoiced in the presence of its distinguished guest and the “hashpaah” he brought with him. Thousands of people were uplifted by his influence; hundreds participated in his tishen, and more came to his special havdolah. And all of this was in the merit of a tiny, eight-day-old infant.
Clearly, it had been decreed in Shomayim: If the baby would not come to Bnei Brak, then the sandak would come to Beit Shemesh.