Wednesday, May 12, 2021

My Take on the News

Broadcasting and Leaks

The Israel Broadcasting Authority, which has been responsible for radio and television programming since the State of Israel was founded, has ceased to exist. In its place, we now have the Public Broadcasting Corporation, which also produces programs for both radio and television. This was a dream of Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu which has now come true. Is the prime minister happy now? Will the media truly be more balanced? If only that were the case…

Meanwhile, the latest leaks from the police investigation surrounding Netanyahu indicate that the investigation is about to end, with a recommendation for indicting the prime minister on the charge of receiving gifts. Netanyahu is not worried. There have always been leaked reports of this nature, and in most cases they have turned out to be untrue. Furthermore, the police can make recommendations as they see fit, but the decision ultimately rests in the hands of the state prosecutor’s office, and they are much more cautious.

Incidentally, the Adelsons from America delivered testimony to the police this past week. It is almost certain that they made every effort to avoid incriminating Netanyahu, who is their close friend.

Past eek also saw the release of the state comptroller’s report. The comptroller, retired judge Yosef Shapira (or, more precisely, Yosef Chaim Shapira, although he does not use his middle name) delivered his annual report to the Knesset speaker. One of the subjects addressed in the report was the field of kashrus supervision in the State of Israel. I will not go into detail about it, but I will note that the report does not paint a positive picture of the chareidi sector and the chief rabbinate.

Rushing to Preempt the Supreme Court

This week, Israel celebrated Yom Yerushalayim. The chareidim do not celebrate it, but it is still an emotional time for many, who recall the liberation of the Kosel and the Old City of Yerushalayim. This year, the date is even more meaningful, as it marks a major milestone, the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation.

In honor of the occasion, a number of transcripts were recently released from classified sessions of the cabinet before, during, and after the Six Day War. The transcripts make for a fascinating read. I will share some of their contents, bli neder, in my next column.

Also in honor of Yom Yerushalayim, some statistics concerning the city were released. At the end of 2016, the population of Yerushalayim was over 883,000, including 324,000 Arabs. Most of the city’s residents are religious, a fact that is clearly indicated by the makeup of its schools. During the scholastic year of 5776, there were 75,000 students in the city’s elementary schools, out of which there were 49,000 in chareidi schools, 13,000 in state religious schools, and 12,000 in secular public schools. The difference in numbers is astounding.

And then there is the story of the Kosel agreement. Chareidi representatives are still refusing to give in on the subject. Fearing that the Supreme Court may issue a ruling before a law is passed to prevent that, they have been urging the prime minister to accelerate the process. The leaders of the chareidi parties – Aryeh Deri, Yaakov Litzman, and Moshe Gafni – recently met privately with Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, the rov of the Kosel, along with the chief rabbis of the country. Even if the Supreme Court makes its decision quickly, and even if the justices rule in favor of the Reform petitioners, we hope that the law will be passed first to render their decision irrelevant.

Total Collapse in Meron

We were all infuriated by the complete collapse in Meron on Lag Ba’omer. How long can we go on making the same dire predictions, year after year, and then witnessing the same painful scenes of people desperately vying for seats on packed buses in order to return home safely?

I was there, and I witnessed it with my own eyes. At krias haTorah last Monday, several of the mispallelim in the Zupnik shul in Yerushalayim bentched Gomel. A few other men raised their eyebrows in surprise, wondering what the occasion for the brocha was. I, however, laughed inwardly. Presumably, they had returned from Meron on Lag Ba’omer unharmed – and that is no trivial matter.

It had been many years since I last visited the tziyun of Rav Shimon bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer. I have always been concerned about the crowding at the site. This year, my worries turned into an undeniable reality. The entire journey, from Yerushalayim to the shuttles, to Meron itself and then to the tziyun, was arduous beyond compare. Perhaps the young and hardy have the ability to make it through all the stages of the journey, but it is not for the old and weak such as myself. And then a visitor has only a few seconds at the tziyun, if he is considerate of others. Still, those few seconds can make the entire trip worthwhile.

I was highly impressed by all the chesed and rescue organizations that were operating in the area. I was also struck with admiration for the work of the people from the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites. On the other hand, I was very displeased by the behavior of some of the police officers. True, it isn’t appropriate for visitors to stand next to the tziyun for lengthy periods of time, disregarding their waiting brethren who wish for a few seconds to approach the kever on their own, but some of the visitors were literally manhandled by the police. I watched as police officers, male and female alike, shoved mispallelim brutally.

With the help of some wonderful people, I managed to find a spot on the bleachers during the hadlakah of the Boyaner Rebbe. At that point, I understood something that I have always been told: Until a person has actually witnessed the hadlakah, he will never truly understand what it is about. From my position on the bleachers, it seemed that the heavens themselves were only a short distance away. I felt that I had been lifted to an incredible spiritual height. I felt privileged to be there for the experience.

At 4:00 in the morning, I stood for a short time in the VIP arrivals area. The dignitaries drove up through the forest, making a right turn to enter a makeshift parking lot and then emerging from their vehicles to head for the tziyun on foot. The Minister of Religious Affairs, Dovid Azulai, arrived in a silver Skoda, and the policewoman stationed at the junction was unsure as to whether he should be permitted to enter. Azulai is an extremely unpretentious person, and many fail to accord him the respect he deserves. In contrast, Yisrael Katz, the Minister of Transportation, arrived in a convoy of six cars, all of which were allowed to pass without the slightest hesitation. The Katz motorcade was asked to drive straight, then to make a right, and to enter the community of Meron. The Shin Bet agent accompanying them wanted to turn left instead, but the policewoman refused to allow it. She glared at him threateningly, contacted her superior, and stood her ground. Even the honored minister himself, who opened the window of his own car to intercede on his underling’s behalf, was unable to change her mind. The policewoman ordered all the cars to drive toward the community, and they had no choice but to comply. Perhaps she wanted the minister to watch with his own eyes as thousands of people waited to board the nonexistent buses, many of them scrambling through the windows of the few buses that arrived.

I hope that this will be the last year that the police are “surprised” by the throngs of visitors arriving in Meron. Let us hope that the arrangements will be taken out of the jurisdiction of the police next year and will be transferred to more intelligent parties. Let us hope that new roads will be paved, which will be wider and easier to navigate – for cars, but especially for people.

Ambassador Friedman Enters His Post

Before President Trump’s visit, but after the embarrassing argument over the Kosel, the new American ambassador to Israel arrived in the country. Ambassador David Friedman traveled directly from the airport to the Kosel Hamaarovi, together with his wife and daughter, and made the brocha of Shehecheyanu. That alone was a message.

“It was a long trip, and we are a little tired,” the newly arrived ambassador told journalists. “We wanted to go directly from the airport to the holiest place in the Jewish world. Of course, I prayed for the well-being of my family, my children and grandchildren. I also prayed for the president and I wished him success, especially in his upcoming trip. I hope that all of you wish him success as well. It will be an incredible trip, and I recited the brocha that we say when we reach a milestone. May G-d bless the United States and the State of Israel.”

The next day, Friedman formally presented his credentials to President Rivlin. In his speech, Friedman said, “Serving the United States as its ambassador to Medinat Yisrael is the greatest honor of my life. I pledge to you to do all that I can to strengthen and enhance the relationship between our two great nations, which is not only unbreakable, but without limits as well.”

Naturally, President Reuven Rivlin, who is a seventh-generation resident of Yerushalayim, took the opportunity to speak about Yerushalayim as the “capital of Israel.” The president is known for his love of the city. He always adds the phrase “with a brocha from Yerushalayim,” in his own handwriting, to his correspondence. And on this occasion, he called upon the United States and the nations of the world to recognize Yerushalayim as the official capital of the State of Israel. “Next week,” Rivlin said, “we will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Yerushalayim and the Jewish people’s return to the Kosel Hamaarovi. But Yerushalayim has been Jewish for much longer than the past fifty years; it has been our capital since the time of Dovid Hamelech.” He added that Israel is waiting eagerly for the upcoming visit of President Trump, who is the symbol of the unbreakable bond between the two countries. “We look forward to working together with the government in order to figure out together how to advance the peace process and to build trust between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.

Friedman also met with Netanyahu immediately after his arrival, and the prime minister expressed his appreciation for the ambassador’s visit to the Kosel. “I know that you visited the Kosel, and we all appreciate that deeply,” Netanyahu said.

“There is no other place I would have gone,” the ambassador replied.

“It was a powerful gesture of solidarity,” Netanyahu said. “We are looking forward to greeting President Trump. We would like to work together with you and with the president in the coming years to strengthen the great alliance between us.”

Friedman replied, “And so we will.”

Personally, I would not be surprised if Friedman’s visit to the Kosel was not meant as a political statement, but rather simply so that he could daven. He did recite a perek of Tehillim, as well as the brocha of Shehecheyanu, which he explained is the brocha that every Jew recites upon reaching important milestones.

The Kosel – Not in Israel?

A minor diplomatic tempest erupted during the preparations for President Donald Trump’s visit, although the uproar ended fairly quickly. It began at a meeting between the Israeli and American teams working on the preparations for the presidential visit. The Israelis asked for the president to be accompanied by Prime Minister Netanyahu on his visit to the Kosel, but the Americans refused to allow it. This led to an argument between the two teams, and ultimately to raised voices. Finally, two officials from the American consulate in Yerushalayim told the Israelis, “We would like you to leave. We want to be alone here. We can’t be here with official Israelis; this isn’t your territory. This is part of the West Bank. This is a private visit of the president, and it has nothing to do with you; it is none of your business.”

The Israeli team was shocked. They replied vehemently, “What you are saying is utterly unacceptable, and we reject it completely. This is a sacred site under Israeli sovereignty.” With that, the two groups parted ways.

Of course, this led to an “incident.” Even worse, it seemed that the American team was doing everything in its power to belittle Netanyahu and to make him seem unimportant. Netanyahu asked for permission to speak alongside Trump during the latter’s visit to Masada, and the Americans refused. A request was made for Trump to come to the Knesset, but that was refused as well. And then the Americans refused to allow Netanyahu to join Trump on his visit to the Kosel. They consented to only one thing: for President Trump and the First Lady to make a private visit to the prime minister’s residence in Yerushalayim.

President Trump has every right to determine the itinerary for his visit as he sees fit. But it is a terrible insult to say that the Kosel Hamaarovi is not part of Israel. This is even more shocking in light of Trump’s claims that he plans to move the United States embassy to Yerushalayim. President Trump quickly announced that the American team’s comments do not reflect his views, and that they do not represent American policy during his term.

Second Thoughts About the Embassy

Meanwhile, tensions are continuing to simmer regarding the transfer of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented on the subject last week, “The president was correct when he chose a deliberate approach of understanding the issue, listening to input from all sides in the Middle East, and understanding the implications of this step in the context of a peace initiative, whatever those implications may be. As you know, the president has recently said that he wants to invest major efforts in understanding whether we can promote a peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians. Therefore, the president is being very careful to understand how this step would affect the peace process.” Tillerson was asked if Trump would delay moving the embassy if the peace process moved forward. He replied, “The president will receive reports from both sides of the talks, but mainly from Israel, as to whether they believe that it would help or hinder the peace process. The president is acting on this subject in a very measured way, and that is a good thing.”

Is that a hint that Israel itself is preventing the embassy from being moved to Yerushalayim, whether out of fear that it would spark a new intifada or out of the concern that the gesture would come along with new sanctions that would outweigh any benefits it offers? I believe that is the case. It isn’t only the secretary of state who has hinted to this. Many Israeli officials, including some in the prime minister’s inner circle, have indicated the same thing. Of course, Netanyahu had no choice but to respond to those allegations, which he did last Monday at the beginning of the Likud party’s meeting in the Knesset.

Netanyahu said, “My consistent and unequivocal stance is that the United States embassy, and the embassies of other countries as well, must move to Yerushalayim. I have presented that position in my meetings with leaders from America and the rest of the world, as well as with the diplomatic corps of the State of Israel, and even in the offices of the Likud party.” But despite of Netanyahu’s public statements, we have no way of knowing what he said behind closed doors or in private discussions. For some reason, many do not believe him.

Is Israel Against Moving the Embassy?

A member of the Likud party itself actually asked for further clarification on the subject. Yehuda Glick is a Knesset member on the Likud list who is also obsessed with one thing: the Har Habayis. That obsession, which is both politically and halachically problematic, nearly cost him his life, as he was the victim of a murder attempt by an Arab in response to his views. Last Wednesday, Glick submitted an urgent parliamentary query regarding the ban on members of the Knesset visiting the Har Habayis. After he had received a response, he used his right to ask an additional question.

“Mr. Minister,” Glick began, “let me move on to a related subject. Fifty years have now passed since our victory, the greatest victory of the Jewish nation ever to take place, the greatest victory of justice in all of history. It has now been fifty years, and our sovereignty over Yerushalayim is still in doubt. I will give you only three small examples of this. First of all, there was a government decision that the offices of the government would be built here. This is the time to lay the foundations and to begin construction on the new office of the prime minister. Secondly, in the neighborhood of Armon Hanetziv in Yerushalayim, the United Nations has been blatantly violating the law, mocking us and advancing Palestinian interests, while we remain silent and accept it. The third point, which is very worrying: In recent days, time after time, there have been reports even from the United States that the government of Israel has been asking President Trump not to move the embassy to Yerushalayim.”

Tzachi Hanegbi, the minister who was responding to Glick on behalf of the government, was incensed. “Excuse me for criticizing you in public,” he said, “but you yourself spoke in public. You have suddenly begun taking every article that appears in a newspaper and adopting it as fact. A little proportion is in order. Does it seem logical to you that the Israeli government would ask Trump not to move the embassy to Yerushalayim? Is that something that you can classify as being anything less than absurd? Yet you are validating the report by making it part of your query in the Knesset. Have a little self-control!” In terms of the reports themselves, Hanegbi asserted that they were untrue. “It never happened,” he said. “Every Israeli and every Jew, regardless of their political party, has a connection to the capital of Israel. We all want the entire world to recognize Israel’s capital, even though we could live even without their recognition. We have been successful for 3,800 years, and we will continue that way forever. We would like every embassy, especially that of our closest and strongest friend, the United States, to be in Yerushalayim, the capital of Israel.”

Under the Mountain

When I was young, I was a talmid at Yeshiva Zichron Moshe of South Fallsburg, where I learned under Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel. The yeshiva was recommended to me by Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood. I had already met Rav Elya Ber in Eretz Yisroel, and I felt that it would be a good idea for me to learn under him. Throughout the year that I spent there, I absorbed his influence in every possible way. He is a very special individual, whom everyone knows to be an outstanding gaon.

Rav Elya Ber delivered a daily shiur, but I would like to cite a question that he raised during his weekly shmuessen at seudah shlishis on Shabbos. At that time of the week, the hour of raava deraavin – great Heavenly favor – Rav Elya Ber spoke about mussar. He always began his shmuessen with a powerful question, which he resolved with an ingenious explanation.

In one of those shmuessen, Rav Elya Ber presented a question regarding a famous passage in the Gemara about Mattan Torah. The Gemara states (Shabbos 88a) that Klal Yisroel accepted the Torah under duress. Hashem lifted Har Sinai above their heads and threatened to bury them where they stood if they refused to accept it. The Gemara then adds that this gave the Bnei Yisroel a valid claim to avoid being punished for transgressing the mitzvos: Since they had been coerced to accept the Torah, their commitment wasn’t binding. Nevertheless, they accepted the Torah willingly in the days of Achashveirosh, generations later, and that commitment obligated them for the future.

At first glance, the Gemara’s statements appear straightforward enough. At the time of Mattan Torah, when the Jewish people knew that the alternative to accepting the Torah was death, they had no choice but to accept it. That gave them the right to argue that they hadn’t accepted the Torah willingly and there was no justification for punishing them if they violated the Torah’s mitzvos. In the days of Achashveirosh, though, the Jews renewed their acceptance of the Torah willingly and therefore lost the ability to avoid being punished for their sins.

Rav Elya Ber pointed out that in the days of Achashveirosh, as well, the Jews were in mortal danger. In fact, the Gemara states that Achashveirosh’s act of giving his signet ring to Haman was more effective in causing the Bnei Yisroel to repent than were all the exhortations of the 48 nevi’im. Consequently, when they accepted the Torah again at that time, it was likewise motivated by the fear of death. Why was this considered any less of a commitment made under duress?

Rav Elya Ber answered this question with a lengthy discourse based on a distinction drawn by the Ketzos Hachoshen between the prohibition of worshiping avodah zarah and the prohibition of using the wood of an asheirah tree for medicinal purposes. A person who violates the halacha to save his life receives a different punishment for each of these sins, and the Ketzos Hachoshen differentiates between a case of direct duress and an incidental need to violate a prohibition. That is to say, there is a difference between a person who is threatened with death by an armed assailant if he refuses to worship avodah zarah and a person who will die of sickness or for some other reason if he does not commit an act of avodah zarah. At Har Sinai, our very act of declaring, “Naaseh venishma,” was considered an act produced by coercion. In the days of Achashveirosh, though, the situation was different: Had we not engaged in teshuvah and accepted the Torah again, we would have been killed by Achashveirosh and Haman, but that does not mean that the acceptance itself was coerced.

I don’t know if I have correctly explained Rav Elya Ber’s shmuess, which he delivered over 35 years ago, but the sweet taste of his words still lives with me to this day. I wish all of you a gut Yom Tov. May you absorb all the wonderful influences of Shavuos, which is often defined as the Rosh Hashanah of Torah learning.

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