Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

My Take on the News

The Supreme Court’s Latest Ruling – A Political Earthquake

In the United States, the recent upheavals have come in the form of powerful storms that have destroyed homes and even taken lives. Here in Israel, we have been through upheavals of a different kind – the rulings of the Supreme Court.

Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the law enacted two years ago regarding draft exemptions for yeshiva bochurim is discriminatory and illegal, and therefore null and void. The judges ruled that the talmidim of the country’s yeshivos must join the army as all the other citizens of the country do. They gave the government one year to prepare. The ruling was issued by an unusually large panel, consisting of nine judges. Only one judge dissented with the majority opinion, which was led by the outgoing chief justice, Miriam Naor. I will report on that further in my next report, bli neder.

To make a long story short, the judges decided that the agreement between the government and the chareidim, which specified that the chareidim would gradually begin enlisting in the army in larger numbers, was nothing more than a farce. The chareidi community has not been meeting the yearly draft quotas that were specified in the law passed two years ago, and the judges announced that the pretense could no longer be accepted. Incidentally, the law overturned by the Supreme Court was itself passed in response to a previous case, in which the court had also ruled that that all the bnei yeshivos should be drafted.

What will happen now? Well, another law can be passed. That would send the message that the law, not the ruling of the Supreme Court, is the deciding factor in this country. The court does not have the power to invalidate a law that was passed in response to a decision of the court itself. The Knesset can also pass a law limiting the authority of the Supreme Court. It might decide, for instance, that the court does not have the authority to disqualify laws passed by the Knesset.

Of course, we were in a state of shock after the court issued its ruling. In fact, the entire country was in shock. There is no question that the bnei yeshivos will not be drafted by force. They will not be dragged out of the botei medrash and thrown into prison. At an emergency meeting of the chareidi lawmakers, the unanimous decision was that the ball must be placed in Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu’s court. There is a coalition agreement that states explicitly that if the Supreme Court violates the status quo, the government must restore it. This agreement was signed by all the members of the coalition, including the Kulanu and Yisroel Beiteinu parties. That is why we all declared that the court’s ruling was Netanyahu’s problem. But the truth is that it is a problem for us as well. What will we do if Netanyahu tells us that he can’t do anything about it? One thing is clear: We may not know how this will come about, but regardless of what happens, not one bochur or yungerman will stop learning because of the state. And I say that with all due respect – which is none – to the Supreme Court.

The Modern-Day Cat

I have one small observation to make on this subject: After the Supreme Court issued its ruling, almost every politician in the country was interviewed by the media. One of the public figures who were interviewed was Yair Lapid. Over the past year, Lapid has tried to present himself as a gentleman. He has made an effort not to speak against the chareidim, realizing that if he ever wishes to become the prime minister, he will need the support of the chareidim. Nevertheless, this time he delivered a virulent, bombastic speech, filled with incitement against the chareidim. Incidentally, Lapid himself was one of the parties behind the petition to the Supreme Court, which means that his involvement in this issue extends beyond the political gain he accrues from the incitement against us.

With that, I was reminded of the story of Rav Yonasan Eibeschutz’s snuff box. The story has it that a cat was trained to serve as a waiter, and Rav Yonasan opened his snuff box and released a mouse that had been placed inside. As soon as the trained cat saw the mouse, it began chasing the creature on all fours, still dressed in a waiter’s uniform. The reason was simple: A cat always remains a cat. Likewise, after the Supreme Court issued its ruling – and it was clear all along that Miriam Naor, like her predecessor, would not begin her retirement without leaving behind some sort of anti-Torah legacy – all the enemies of the Torah emerged from the woodwork and returned to their old ways. That includes Yair Lapid, who has been playing the part of a humanitarian, and who was quick to return to spouting the hateful rhetoric of Yesh Atid.

Rav Walkin’s Annual Shmuess

Every year, I attend the annual shmuess of the mashgiach, Rav Chaim Walkin, at Bais Medrash Torah V’Halacha in Yerushalayim. This time, in addition to the usual shmuess, the mashgiach was also honored with affixing a mezuzah at the kollel’s new location. Instead of the old building on Rechov Amos, the bais medrash now has a beautiful new home on Rechov Pe’as Hashulchan. A heavy door leads to a flight of stairs, which is followed by another flight that opens into a veritable oasis. Entering the room makes one feel like a parched desert wanderer who has just stumbled upon a stream of water.

The room was bright and inviting, the air conditioned coolness a welcome respite from the blazing heat outside. The bais medrash features a pleasant little side room for the rosh kollel, Rav Yisroel Abramovsky, as well as a tea room and even a garden of sorts on the roof. It is clear that the kollel’s new home was prepared with a significant investment of money and effort.

When I arrived, the kollel was immersed in the study of the halachos of Rosh Hashanah. One pair of chavrusos was analyzing the Shulchan Aruch’s statement that “it is proper to immerse [in a mikvah] on Erev Rosh Hashanah at least an hour before chatzos.” They were struggling to understand the reason for the hour specified in the halacha. Before long, someone announced that the mashgiach was on his way, and the kollel members rose to their feet in unison.

Rav Walkin’s shmuess was permeated by his unique charm and capacity for encouragement. He covered a number of interrelated topics: the final preparations for Rosh Hashanah, the fact that man was created as a single being because every individual is unique, the importance of being pleasant and kind to others, and the great happiness that a person should derive from spending time immersed in Torah, even if he also spends a portion of the day pursuing a livelihood. This year, he emphasized the subject of bein adam lachaveiro even more than usual. For me, it was an hour of sublime elevation in the heart of the neighborhood of Geulah.

A Picture of Two Torah Giants

This week, I saw a stirring image: a picture of the Belzer Rebbe attending Selichos in the bais medrash of Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim, alongside its rosh yeshiva, Rav Reuven Elbaz. These are two men who have succeeded in changing the world, each in his own way.

I have been a chossid of the Belzer Rebbe, so to speak, for more than half my lifetime. It began when I began writing for the weekly publication Hamachaneh Hachareidi. Rav Yosef Amram Moskowitz, one of the editors of the publication who is now a rebbe himself, gave me some clear instructions at the time: “We do not refer to ‘the mishkan’ of the Knesset, but rather to the Knesset building. And we do not refer to ‘the president of Israel’; rather, he is called the president of the State of Israel.” In other words, a clear distinction was to be made between Eretz Yisroel, which is sacred, and the State of Israel, which is unholy. As a result, the word “mishkan” should never be used to describe the seat of the country’s legislature or the home of its president, even if it is often employed by other writers in that context. Belz is known as the chassidus that is open to other Jews, that overflows with love and embraces Jews of all stripes, and indeed, the Belzer Rebbe is a pioneer in the field of kiruv and has founded various organizations in Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv dedicated to the cause. Nevertheless, anyone who is truly familiar with Belz knows that it is also the most strictly, zealously closed and traditional chassidus – in a positive sense. The Belzer Rebbe is a man who succeeded in establishing a powerful empire of Torah, in defiance of the odds and of his detractors, and has led his community to become the major force that it is today.

I first met Rav Reuven Elbaz even earlier than that. As a child, I helped set up the yeshiva’s “tank” when it came to the shopping center in Be’er Yaakov. After the loudspeakers and the microphone had been arranged, and hundreds of the local residents had come to see the unusual sight, Rav Elbaz ascended to the stage and delivered his address. He was an expert at addressing an audience of that nature. He began visiting the town repeatedly, and many of the local youths were drawn to Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim, the yeshiva he had founded in Yerushalayim. In years past, the yeshiva sparked a veritable revolution in Israel – a revolution that began on Rechov Yoel in Yerushalayim and spread to Tel Aviv, Beit Shemesh, and even Eilat. The yeshiva’s publications, which were a novelty at the time, slaked the spiritual thirst of thousands of Israeli Jews, including those on the periphery of the country. Rav Elbaz inspired thousands of young men to become baalei teshuvah and to build fully observant homes of their own. He also founded dozens of other institutions. It is for good reason that Ohr Hachaim is known as the “mother” of yeshivos for baalei teshuvah, and that thousands of people attend the yeshiva’s Selichos every Elul.

That is why my heart skipped a beat at the sight of that picture – the image of the Belzer Rebbe sitting humbly on a bench in the yeshiva, holding a volume of Selichos, with Rav Reuven Elbaz beside him. As far as I am concerned, that should be the picture of the year.

Shuls Have Become Homeless Shelters

Another subject that hasn’t garnered much attention, although it is very saddening, is the many shuls in Tel Aviv that have been turned into homeless shelters – or worse. Last week, Rabbi Nosson Elnatan, a deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, published a list of shuls that are currently being used for purposes other than prayer. The news evoked a tremendous amount of consternation.

In the past, Tel Aviv was a thriving hub of Jewish life. The city was home to religious communities and to chassidishe kehillos, as well as prominent admorim. The city gradually emptied of its chareidi residents, though, and even the number of religious Jews who came to daven there every day gradually dwindled. Today, the younger generation does not use the city’s shuls, particularly those in south Tel Aviv. Those areas are now populated by Sudanese and Eritrean residents, who have taken over every corner of the city.

This has become the subject of a national debate. Two weeks ago, the prime minister visited the city to express his commitment to the residents of Tel Aviv to put an end to the foreign invasion of their city. Two days later, he paid another visit to the area, accompanied by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. The two officials traveled undercover, visiting the main areas that have come to be dominated by infiltrators. But the problem is not merely demographic, but religious as well.

The most widely publicized discovery of their visit was the plight of the Keter David shul at the corner of Bar Yochai and Mesillat Yesharim streets. This shul, which was a place of tefillah for decades, serves today as a supermarket for the infiltrators.

Only Three Dollars for a Needy Family

Another infuriating subject is the government’s attitude toward the needy segments of the population. There are hundreds of thousands of families that lack the economic wherewithal to make it through the Yomim Tovim. Within the chareidi community, many of these needs are addressed by large chesed organizations and by American philanthropists who donate funds for the use of many chareidi neighborhoods, where the communities organize large subsidized sales or distributions of goods. I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that this alone is a tremendous chesed. There are thousands of families of kollel yungeleit who can afford meat for Sukkos solely because of these endeavors.

The large-scale distributions of items for the Yomim Tovim are not limited to religious families; the goods are provided to anyone who requests them. The organizers might investigate a request to determine whether the family is truly in need, and not merely taking advantage of the chesed organization, but in principle, the doors are open to everyone. And there are quite a few such programs. Several years ago, I interviewed the head of an organization which distributes thousands of food packages in advance of every Yom Tov.

He works by collecting donations and buying products at inexpensive, wholesale prices. He also obtains donations of products from the manufacturers themselves. Before every Yom Tov, he arranges distribution baskets for the needy families on his list. Before Chanukah, the baskets include oil for the menorah, and the Tu B’Shevat distribution includes fruit for the Yom Tov. The Pesach distribution consists primarily of meat, matzah, and wine. At the beginning of the school year, the organization also distributes school supplies.

Every year, the government provides a small amount of funding to these chesed organizations. The Ministry of Labor and Welfare publishes an invitation for the chesed organizations to submit detailed lists of the number of recipients of aid packages and the contents of each package, with specific criteria set for the receipt of government funding. The government has never covered the full cost of the aid packages, but if an organization distributes 5,000 food packages, for instance, and it receives half the cost from the government, that is a significant amount of aid. There were years in the past when the ministry tried to shirk the responsibility of donating its share, claiming that it would be better to uphold the dignity of the recipients by providing them with vouchers for food through the municipal governments, rather than funding the organizations’ work. However, that was merely a pretext; it never actually worked, and the ministry ultimately returned to its former policy of providing partial aid to the organizations. This year, however, the ministry’s behavior is a disgrace. An organization that distributes packages at a cost of 150 shekels each (which are actually worth much more than that, since the contents are bought at wholesale prices) will receive the sum of nine shekels from the government – nine shekels and no more! That is the equivalent of less than three dollars.

The Mossad Never Pursued the Nazis

As the country continues opening its previously classified records to the public, the Mossad has now declassified an assortment of documents of its own, including records pertaining to the international efforts to capture Nazi war criminals. The documents in question relate to an internal review conducted by the Mossad, in which the directors of the organization spoke freely.

On September 23, 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the cabinet to convene for a secret discussion. The decision reached in the course of that session was recorded as follows: “We have decided to instruct the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations [the full name of the Mossad] to renew its search for Nazi war criminals, in particular Josef Mengele, with the objective of bringing them to justice in Israel. If it is not possible to bring them to justice, they are to be killed.” That was the cabinet’s decision, phrased in the simplest terms.

The question is why the Mossad was told to “renew” its pursuit of the Nazis. Had the efforts been stopped? If so, then when and why did that happen? The answer is terribly sad: The Mossad did not take this goal seriously. Nor was it particularly successful; in fact, it failed. Ephraim Halevi, who served as the director of the Mossad and was involved in the efforts to capture Nazis, admitted that the hunts in which he took part were not successful. In any event, the documents relate, “The efforts to punish [i.e., to kill] the criminals had ups and downs, and continued intermittently, with varying levels of intensity, from 1959 until 1991, when they were terminated altogether.”

One of the achievements on which the Mossad prides itself is the capture of Adolf Eichmann, who was brought to trial in Israel. Even in that case, though, it seems that Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad at the time, did not attach much importance to the mission until Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion forced him to deal with it. In addition to Eichmann, the Mossad’s hit list included Martin Bormann, Heinrich Muller, Josef Mengele, Alois Brunner, Horst Schumann, Walter Rauff, Klaus Barbie, Franz Murer, and Ernst Lerch. Nevertheless, the Mossad failed to make good on any of its goals. Not a single Nazi on the list was captured or killed by Mossad agents.

The documents reveal that most of the Mossad directors (in addition to Isser Harel, there was Meir Amit, Tzvi Zamir, and the agency’s directors in later years) and most Israeli prime ministers (such as Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, and Golda Meir) did not demonstrate much interest in capturing Nazi war criminals. Isser Harel made the explicit statement that he was interested in capturing only Eichmann and Mengele, and even his interest in those two was the result of pressure from the prime ministers.

Mengele Escaped Because of Yossele

And here is another secret that has been revealed: In early 1962, while the hunt for Josef Mengele, the “doctor of death” from Auschwitz, was at its height, Isser Harel ordered the search placed on hold. Instead of pursuing Mengele, he assigned dozens of operatives and investigators to focus on the search for Yossele Schumacher, the boy who was separated from his parents by his chareidi grandfather and smuggled out of the country to the United States. Harel’s order led to a massive loss of time and important information, and although the search for Mengele was later renewed, the Mossad never succeeded in apprehending him. Mengele eventually drowned at a beach in Brazil and was buried in a local cemetery.

Meir Amit, one of the directors of the Mossad, attested in the report that “the Mossad focused excessively on the pursuit of Nazi war criminals.” This statement was made despite the fact that the hunt for Nazi war criminals was not a primary focus of the Mossad. When Amit was asked about this, he replied, “I didn’t want to drop the subject altogether, but I wanted to reduce the scope of our activities.”

The report goes on, “In 1969, less than two years after the break-in at the home of Muller’s widow [Heinrich Muller was the head of the Gestapo; Mossad agents broke into the home of his widow in Munich and were arrested by German police], the Israeli government decided to stop its hunt for Nazi war criminals. On December 31, 1968, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol met with Tzvi Zamir, who had replaced Amit as the head of the Mossad. During their meeting, they agreed that the Mossad would not initiate any further efforts to capture Nazi war criminals. The only two whom the agency would continue to pursue were Bormann and Mengele.” Beginning in 1969, the report emphasizes, there was a near-total freeze of the efforts to capture those criminals.

In 1977, everything changed. That was the year the Likud won the elections and Yitzchok Rabin was unseated by Menachem Begin. Following his electoral victory, Begin summoned the new director of the Mossad, Yitzchok Hofi, and instructed him to renew the hunt for Nazi criminals. That was a typical move for Begin. A special unit was established for that purpose, and its operatives were given a list of eleven Nazis to locate. Begin personally reviewed and approved the list. During those years, the Mossad achieved some minor successes, but it was mostly plagued by failure.

Best Wishes for the New Year

Every year, I quote a selection of the new year’s greetings sent by the government ministers and members of the Knesset to tens of thousands of recipients – perhaps even millions – especially to the voters in their respective party primaries. This time, instead of quoting the words of our government officials, I will quote from some of the letters that were sent to them. For the most part, these senders also did not pay for the postage themselves.

Chaim Bibes, in his capacity as chairman of the Union of Local Authorities (he is also the mayor of Modiin-Maccabim-Reut) sent the following message: “The Union of Local Authorities wishes all of you a good year, a year of productivity, success, happiness, health, and accomplishments that will benefit the Israeli public.” The Rosh Hashanah mailing from Mayor Yonah Yahav of Haifa, meanwhile, consisted of a thick, shiny card bearing the words “shanah tovah,” along with an invitation to a reception in honor of Rosh Hashanah at the Kfar Zamir guesthouse in Haifa. The recipients had to confirm their attendance if they wished to participate, but they also had to travel back in time; the reception took place on the 19th of Elul at 3:30 in the afternoon.

A mailing from Enosh, the Israeli Mental Health Association, announces that “Rosh Hashanah is an excellent opportunity to tell you about some of the things we have done over the past year.” In fact, this organization does wonderful work in its field. The letter ends with wishes for “a good and genuinely sweet year,” signed by “the members of Enosh.” I found it stirring.

The Genesis Prize, which is also known as “the Jewish Nobel Prize” and was first introduced in 2012, has been granting an annual award of one million dollars to “an accomplished professional with an international reputation, who serves as a role model for his community and can inspire the next generation of the Jewish people throughout the world.” The first recipient of the prize, in 2014, was Michael Bloomberg. The selection committee is chaired by Natan Sharansky, and the chairman of the prize committee is Yuli Edelstein; I have no idea what the difference is between the two positions. The organization sent its best wishes to our country’s leaders written in English letters: “Shanah tovah. Gmar chatimah tovah. Chag sameach.”

The ambassadors of other countries also take advantage of the Jewish new year to convey their best wishes and to offer their hospitality. The Ukrainian ambassador, for instance, sent his own good wishes for the new year, along with an invitation to a reception to be held at the embassy on Rechov Yirmiyahu in Tel Aviv. The Chinese ambassador, who lives at Rechov Ben-Gurion 222 in Tel Aviv, sent his own best wishes and an invitation of his own as well, as did the Mexican ambassador, who lives at Rechov Hamered 25 in Tel Aviv. The latter event, though, took place ten days ago.

The Child’s Cry

In conclusion, I would like to share a brief thought about tekias shofar. Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus zt”l, the master of mesholim, once offered the following allegory: There was a particularly mischievous child who never missed an opportunity to cause trouble. One day, he was on his way home from school, where he had managed to hurt several of his classmates and break the classroom window while disrupting the class throughout the day. The boy knew that when he arrived at home with the note from his rebbi describing his misdeeds of the day, he could expect to suffer for his actions. His father always felt that there was no alternative but to potch the child as punishment for his unruly behavior, while his mother also insisted on taking punitive measures to put an end to his mischief. His siblings, too, were bound to criticize him. The child could not figure out a way out of his predicament, and as soon as he arrived at his home and handed the note to his parents, he fled to his room, dreading the punishments that lay in store for him. In his haste, though, the child accidentally slammed his bedroom door on his fingers, and a loud cry of pain escaped from his lips.

Upon hearing the cry, the boy’s parents raced to his room and found him clutching his wounded, bleeding finger. They, too, immediately let out shouts of distress, and instead of laying down the law and punishing him for his actions in school, they whisked him off to the hospital. The next few hours were a medley of stitches, pain, and injections, and the parents promised to give the boy anything he wanted, if only to make him stop screaming in pain. On the way home from the hospital, they even bought him a new bicycle.

What changed? What caused the parents to forget about punishing their child and to shower him with love and kindness instead? The answer is obvious, and it is precisely what takes place on Rosh Hashanah. When we are in the middle of being judged, we suddenly let out a cry of pain – the sound of the shofar. The shofar gives voice to the inner cry of every Jew, the “voice of Yaakov.” And like the parents in this story, Hashem cries out along with us, so to speak, when we express our pain. At that moment, the judgment is forgotten, and Hashem showers us with mercy instead.

Rav Pincus offers another analogy, as well, to elucidate the situation: Little Yankel came home from school with a note from his rebbi informing his parents that he had misbehaved in class. As soon as his parents read the note, the atmosphere in the house became dark and foreboding. His father was angry, his mother was disappointed, and Yankel trembled in fear of what was about to happen to him. After all, he was so small and his father was so big; there seemed to be no way for him to evade punishment.

Suddenly, Yankel grabbed a large, old hat belonging to his father, placed it on his own head, and began making faces – and his father began to laugh. The mood in the house was completely transformed, and the impending judgment had been avoided.

What had happened? Yankel’s father had originally planned to take him to task for his actions. Yankel would have promised that he would act properly the next day, but his father would say to him, “You made the same promise yesterday, and the day before, and last week as well.” Yankel would have promised fervently that he would truly improve, and his father would still demand, “But what are you going to tell your rebbi?” Under ordinary circumstances, this would lead to a lengthy exchange, with the father sternly demanding proof that his son was truly deserving of forgiveness. But Yankel succeeded in causing his father to smile, and that positivity awakened their bond of love. When love and good spirits are present, a single word can often accomplish what cannot be achieved through extensive efforts otherwise. In this parable, too, the old hat that causes the father to smile is an analogy for the shofar.

May we all be blessed with a good new year.



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