My Take on the News

Israel Shows Its Religious Side

Sukkos has arrived. We have been waiting for this Yom Tov for an entire year. I don’t know what Sukkos is like in America (even though I did spent the Yom Tov in America once), but in Eretz Yisroel you can sense the Yom Tov in the air. Can you imagine a bus in America bearing the message, “Chag someiach lekol bais Yisroel”? I am sure that that is unique to Israel. I don’t need the annual surveys to tell me how many Jews in Israel are observant or traditional. On Yom Kippur, our country shuts down completely, and on the Yom Tov of Sukkos one can find sukkos even in the most secular areas.

Then there are the portable sukkos, which are transported from place to place and offer secular Jews an opportunity to enter a sukkah and to hold the Arba Minim. This is an offer that few people refuse. Those who do turn it down are generally among the million non-Jews who were imported from Russia by Yitzchok Shamir.

I always enjoy shopping in the special markets set up in advance of Sukkos. In every city, the municipality designates an area to be used for the sale of Arba Minim. Many of these markets also feature sukkah decorations. If you visit any of these places, you will find many simple Jews, even without yarmulkas, examining the wares and selecting decorations for their sukkos. It is a time that highlights the special nature of the Jewish people.

No Kittels in Prison

Sukkos is defined by the Torah as a time of joy, and that is certainly reflected in the atmosphere that exists in Israel on the Yom Tov. There is something about Sukkos and Simchas Torah that defies explanation, something that gives rise to tremendous joy.

At this time, though, I would like to ask you to think about the unfortunate people who are languishing in prison. True, some of them have done things that were wrong, but aren’t they entitled to compassion? Didn’t we ourselves just beg Hashem to forgive us for our own sins, to let us start again with a clean slate? Moreover, there are people in prison who don’t belong there. There are plenty of examples of such people – Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, for instance. Every passing day magnifies the injustice that was done to him. We are constantly learning about more and more about the case that was fabricated against him. But I am referring to the situation here in Israel.

Dovid Azulai, the Minister of Religious Services, paid a visit to Maasiyahu Prison before Rosh Hashanah this year. The officials in charge of the Prison Services did not conceal their complete lack of regard for a government minister. They delayed responding to Azulai’s request for a visit, they allowed him to visit only a portion of the prisoners he asked to see, they didn’t allow his aides to accompany him, and – worst of all – they insisted on having a guard accompany him at all times. It was like a scene out of Soviet Russia. It is possible that the prison officials wanted to wear him down; Azulai’s visits to the country’s prisons are a source of headache for them.

This year, the Minister of Religious Services discovered a new regulation: The prisoners were not allowed to bring kittels into the prison. Why not? No reason was offered. It was an order from “high up.” And it was utterly inexcusable. What could be dangerous about a kittel? The prison officials in Israel are always strict about anything having to do with religious matters. If a prisoner wants to sleep in a sukkah, he must get down on his knees to beg for it. If he asks to immerse in a mikvah before a Yom Tov, even Yom Kippur, the prison officials have a good laugh at his expense.

Their disdain extends to judges as well. This week, the court ordered the Prison Service to compensate Vadim Moldovsky, an inmate in Ayalon Prison, for the prison’s violation of a court order that Moldovsky was to be allowed to use a computer “under certain conditions.” Moldovsky is a worker in the hi-tech industry who felt the need to maintain his skills. However, the Prison Service ignored the order of the District Court. This led to a furious reaction from the Court: “The defendant [i.e., the Prison Service] decided to take the law into its own hands and acted contrary to the clear, unequivocal orders of the court. It is unacceptable to have a situation in which a public entity entrusted with preserving the rights of prisoners will blatantly ignore the orders of the court.” Nevertheless, the actions of the Prison Service speak for themselves: It can and does ignore anyone it pleases. And if this is how the Prison Service relates to a judge or a government minister, one can only imagine its attitude toward an ordinary prisoner. To these soulless officials, a prison inmate is nothing more than an object to be spurned.

Unreasonable Rigidity

But that is not all. Two weeks ago, a religious inmate asked permission to use one of his allotted furlough days to attend the bris of his grandson. Unfortunately, the request was submitted during the first quarter of his sentence, when a prisoner is not officially entitled to furloughs, even for the sake of attending a family simcha and even if the break will be deducted from his allotment of vacation days. The Prison Service responded heartlessly, “You still have two days left in the first quarter of your sentence!” There wasn’t a trace of compassion or consideration for the man’s circumstances.

Two days earlier, a different prisoner asked to be allowed to attend his son’s wedding. He had only eight months left to serve in his 28-month sentence, but he was not entitled to furloughs because he never confessed to his crime. His request was also denied, but he appealed to the court, which heard the case on the very same day and granted his request. At 6:00 in the evening, the man was released from prison, hurriedly dressed, and rushed to his son’s wedding in Kfar Chabad. Had he not appealed the decision, he would have been locked in his cell while his own child was brought to the chupah in his absence.

Two days later, a third prisoner was turned down when he asked to be released from prison for a few hours – either as an additional furlough or at the expense of a future one – to be able to spend some time with his wife, who was sitting shivah. He received an appalling answer: “She is sitting shivah, not you. When she dies, you will be able to leave.” Those were the exact words of the official response.

The problem is the underlying attitude: As far as they are concerned, a prisoner is an absolute zero, entitled to nothing until he proves otherwise. But that attitude is exceptionally cruel. Why, in fact, shouldn’t a prisoner be entitled to furloughs during the first quarter of his sentence? And in exceptional circumstances, why shouldn’t he be allowed to use a future vacation day even if he hasn’t reached the designated time for furloughs? In fact, why shouldn’t a prisoner be released temporarily for an exceptional need even if it is at the very beginning of his sentence? And why should such a release ever have to come at the expense of a future furlough? Who decided that the Prison Service should be so rigid and unyielding? Who decided that their job is to make life as difficult as possible for prisoners?

Why was Ehud Olmert, for instance, barred from attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah at the Kosel? Who decided that the bar mitzvah of a son is enough of a reason for an inmate to leave prison, but not the bar mitzvah of a grandson? And what is the reason for that? We actually submitted a proposed law on the subject, but we were told that it was unnecessary, since the Minister of Internal Security has the authority to allow a prisoner to attend a grandson’s bar mitzvah as well. The problem, though, is that the minister is refusing to use this authority; that is why a law is necessary. We believe that it shouldn’t be merely an option or an act of compassion to release a prisoner for this purpose; it should be mandated by law.

At the end of the month of Nissan, a religious prisoner from Rechasim died in Ayalon Prison. According to eyewitness accounts, the prisoner was screaming for hours that he was suffering from chest pains, and he demanded medical attention. He had a history of cardiological problems, but the wardens ignored his cries. It took a long time for an ambulance to be summoned. It is quite apparent that the man died because of the negligence of the prison officials. An investigative commission was formed; undoubtedly, it will simply bury him again.

I visited Maasiyahu Prison a couple of weeks ago to see a former aide to the chief rabbi of Israel who was sentenced to five years in prison for giving courses in Judaism to soldiers and police officers. This is not the place to go into the details on that subject. However, I will note that a terrible injustice has been done to him. I returned from my visit feeling despondent. This country has taken an innocent man and sent him to languish in prison. We met in a tiny, airless room, where the chairs were bolted to the floor. It seemed to me that reason itself had been shackled and locked away in the prison. Everything about the place was terribly rigid and inhuman.

Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, in his final ruling as a Supreme Court justice, actually sent the Prison Service into a tizzy. The judge quoted the ruling of a European court that it is considered cruel and unusual punishment to force a prisoner to live in an area smaller than three square meters. The Israel Prison Service admits that half the inmates in the country’s prisons today do not have three square meters of living space. The three judges on the panel issued a scathing condemnation of the Prison Service and ruled that the amount of living space per prisoner should be raised to a minimum of 4.5 square meters within the next year and a half. The judges advised the service to begin relieving the crowding immediately by granting early release to more prisoners, and by allowing inmates to be freed for good behavior after serving half of their sentences, rather than two-thirds. That is the explanation of the headline that appeared in Haaretz this week: “Erdan Advances a Law to Cut Prison Sentences in Half.” I suspect that many of the prisoners who will be released are people who should never have been imprisoned in the first place. When we daven, let us have these people in mind.

The Supreme Court Has Taken Over the State

The Israeli Supreme Court is continuing to dictate to us how we should live, and to reduce the power of the Knesset step by step. It should come as no surprise that there are many calls to curb the court’s authority through legislation. As you are aware, the court recently ruled that the law exempting yeshiva bochurim from the draft is unconstitutional, and it gave the government and the Knesset one year to change the policy. As far as the court is concerned, all of the bnei yeshivos in the country should be drafted. If there is a law stipulating that the draft will be implemented gradually, the court feels that the law must prove its effectiveness, which did not happen in the case of the law that it overturned. Perhaps I will discuss this in greater detail in the future.

Another decision of the Supreme Court was on the subject of kashrus. The court decided that a business owner may claim to be selling kosher food even if he does not have a kashrus certificate from the Chief Rabbinate. However, he must stress that he is responsible for his own kashrus, and he must list the ingredients of the foods he sells. In the very same decision, the court rejected the requests of certain private chiloni organizations to be entitled to issue kashrus certificates of their own. The court appears to have taken the middle ground in this case. Nevertheless, it has aroused the ire of the chief rabbis of Israel, who have demanded that a law be passed to bypass the court in this regard as well. The concept of a law bypassing the court is another issue that could use some further explanation, which I will provide at a later date.

Then there is the court case regarding the soccer games on Shabbos. I wrote about this conflict last week in detail. Since that time, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu was afraid to sign a Shabbos work permit for the soccer industry, and the court convened to discuss the case last Monday. The three judges – two of whom wear yarmulkas – decided that if nothing changes, the soccer players’ request will probably be granted, since the law does prohibit them to play on Shabbos without a permit.

Above all, the Supreme Court case regarding the Kosel is constantly looming over us. Reform leaders in America asked to meet with Netanyahu during his visit there, and he turned them down, informing them that he is angry at them for turning the Kosel issue into a struggle for recognition for themselves. Netanyahu accused them of trying to attain recognition “through the back door,” meaning that they hid their true intentions when they campaigned for a prayer area of their own. In response, they launched a virulent attack against him.

Meanwhile, the government has informed the Supreme Court that it does not intend to reinstate the Kosel agreement that was frozen. From the court’s perspective, that means that there is no proposal from the government on the table, while the Reform movement is demanding complete accommodation of their wishes. We must daven that Hashem will give the judges the wisdom to make the right choice.

Dealing with the Disabled

The events of this past week included Netanyahu’s visit to the United Nations, where he delivered a speech on the Tuesday before Rosh Hashanah, and his meeting with President Trump on the previous day. This seems like a fairly ordinary event, but it is a far cry from the sour relationship Israel had with President Obama. On the other hand, if David Ben-Gurion always expressed contempt for the UN when it bashed Israel, why should we attribute so much importance to it now?

Another story is the crisis concerning the disabled population in Israel, which has been going on for many months. They have been staging demonstrations for several months to demand an increase in the meager disability payments they receive from the government, but their struggle has not met with success. Last week, the Knesset held a special recess session to discuss the issue. Nothing came of it, of course, except a confrontation between Yair Lapid and Yaakov Litzman. Lapid took advantage of the opportunity to slam the government for failing to provide for the disabled, and Litzman, who delivered the government’s response, said to him, “You didn’t give them a penny when you were the Minister of Finance. Before you criticize, you should ask for their forgiveness.”

A Tragedy Before Rosh Hashanah

Tragedy struck just before Rosh Hashanah this year. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Blau, a son of Rav Dovid Nachman Blau zt”l, one of the leaders of Pe’ylim and Chinuch Atzmai, was on a trip with his family to visit the burial sites of tzaddikim in the north. During the course of their trip, his 16-year-old daughter stumbled and fell into the Jordan River. Reb Shlomo Zalman jumped into the river to save her; sadly he drowned in the course of the rescue. His daughter survived. He was 45 years old. The levayah, which began at the Shamgar funeral home, was attended by huge crowds weeping bitterly over the loss. It was an indescribable tragedy. The deceased is survived by 15 orphans. During the hespeidim, many remarkable things were said about him.

If I can, I will try to offer some words of consolation to the Miller family, whose son Chaim was killed in a car accident in Flatbush about a month ago. We heard about the accident here in Israel, and we were very saddened. Chaim learned at Yeshiva Darchei Torah, and that alone is sufficient reason for me to admire him.

I must also offer my condolences to the Tabak family on the petirah of their father, Reb Eliyohu zt”l, before Rosh Hashanah. I was fortunate enough to be acquainted with him. The last time I saw him was at a sheva brachos for his granddaughter, a daughter of his son, Reb Yossel. The most notable part of the experience was seeing the children’s tremendous display of kibbud av for their father. That says just as much about Reb Eliyohu himself as it does about his children; it is clear that he raised a magnificent family.

My rebbi, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro zt”l, used to quote a Medrash about the springs that existed at the time the world was created. A good spring, according to the Medrash, flows quietly, without noise or fanfare. Therefore, the testament to its quality is the caliber of the fruits that grow alongside it. He did things quietly, without fanfare. A great man has no need to speak too much. And if you would like to glean an understanding of his greatness, there is one place to look: his children.

To the Miller and Tabak families, I express my condolences. May Hashem grant you comfort. Rav Ovadiah Yosef once said that the greatest source of comfort to the family of a deceased person is the fact that their loved one is now in the company of the tzaddikim in the world of truth. May we share only good news in the future.

An Incredible New Book: The Emunah Reality

There is a book in English that teaches the basic concepts of Jewish faith in a contemporary style. Rav Moshe Goldstein, rosh yeshiva of Shaarei Yosher in Yerushalayim, is considered one of the foremost experts in the field of chinuch. With simple, clear language, his new book, The Emunah Reality, opens the door for its readers to understand profound and abstract concepts. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l considered him a highly skilled educator and lent his support to Rav Goldstein’s yeshiva at the time of its founding, over 30 years ago.

The book presents a large amount of information about basic principles of emunah, the nature of the neshamah, and ideas such as emes and sheker, in a clear, accessible style. Many people tend to rely on the understandings of these concepts that they developed in elementary school. People tend to think about these things only at times of personal crisis, or when they wish to influence nonreligious Jews to believe in the truth of Yiddishkeit. The flood of information to which we are all exposed is actually a threat to the formation of personal opinions, and it tends to prevent people from reexamining the basic concepts of faith. Rav Goldstein’s book takes its readers on a fascinating journey, challenging them to grasp the basics of emunah and using examples laced with subtle humor to draw the reader into its discussion of profound topics.

The superficial knowledge that many of us possess tends to interfere with our ability to actually understand things on an intuitive level. “Do you know how much is a billion?” the book asks. The surprising answer is that even if you were to spend your entire life counting, you would never reach that number. If you were to count without pausing even for a second, even to eat or sleep, it would take you thirty years to count to the number one billion. What does that teach us? This revelation should cause a person to reexamine the things that seem obvious and trivial. The book not only deals with the subject of emunah, but also elucidates the relationship between a person and his knowledge, and examines the strength of a person’s connection to Judaism. It is a challenging read, but it also makes the most esoteric concepts accessible to everyone.

The Balcony That Will Tip the Scales of Judgment

Chazal tell us that at the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah in the Bais Hamikdosh, a major accomplishment was the construction of an elevated balcony where the women could stand and watch the festivities, so that there would be no mingling of the genders. I remembered that Gemara this week when I visited Yeshivas Bais Mattisyahu in Bnei Brak. I was tempted to rub my eyes in disbelief when I arrived and was confronted by an incredible sight: an elevated platform that had been erected on one side of the bais medrash, above the heads of the talmidim learning there. The talmidim of the yeshiva call it the “gallery.” It is, in effect, a second story of the bais medrash, which was built because there was no room in the bais medrash. Not even a single shtender could have been added to the room; there wasn’t even space for a single additional bochur. And so the yeshiva found a creative way to make room for more talmidim: by placing them on an elevated platform, raised above the floor. I have never seen anything of the sort anywhere else. Dozens of bochurim were sitting in the “gallery” and learning with the utmost intensity. During my visit, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Boruch Weisbecker, was with them.

“Why is Yeshivas Bais Mattisyahu in such high demand?” I once asked one of the yeshiva’s former talmidim.

“Look at the yeshiva’s alumni and you will understand,” he replied. “If you want to know about a yeshiva, and especially about its rosh yeshiva, you must look at the talmidim. Look at the alumni; see what the yeshiva produced. Go out and see the people who are leading the transmission of Torah to the youths of our generation.”

“Who are they?” I asked.

“The former talmidim of Bais Mattisyahu,” he replied proudly. “The talmidim of the rosh yeshiva.”

I turned to one of the bochurim in the yeshiva and asked, “How do you explain the yeshiva’s success despite the austere conditions here?”

“Not despite the conditions, but because of them,” the talmid asserted. “This is the way we grow – not with a proverbial silver spoon in our mouths.” It certainly made sense to me, and in any event, he was quite serious. “For us, everything else is secondary; the Torah is the most important thing.”

I stood in the bais medrash and gazed at the bochurim immersed in Torah learning, both on the main level of the bais medrash and in the “gallery” above. This, I mused, is precisely what Dovid Hamelech had in mind when he said that his sole request of Hashem is “to dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life.” The peeling walls and rundown building belie the fact that the yeshiva is more precious than gold.

Just Five More Minutes

I will conclude with three brief stories.

During bein hazemanim, I attended an event arranged by the organization known as B’Lev Echad – a “day of fun” for the families of sick children. If I were to do justice to the organization and its work, I would have to write many pages about it. B’Lev Echad is an incredible project headed by an incredible man by the name of Dudi Weitman. Dozens of bnei yeshiva volunteered to help organize the event, which was produced to perfection, and to solicit the voluminous contributions of funds that enabled it to take place. The event included a concert with Mordechai Ben David, who moved the audience with songs from his new album (Kol Haneshamah, Tze’akah, Psach Lanu Shaar, and Hineni Rofeh Loch).

During the course of his appearance, Mordechai Ben David shared a story that he had heard from Avrohom Fried: On his way to Israel, Fried saw a young American bochur in Kennedy Airport who seemed to be in a state of turmoil. Fried approached the bochur to ask what was wrong, and the young man explained that he had never traveled by plane before, and he was extremely frightened and overwhelmed. Fried promised to stay together with him throughout the process of checking in for the flight. He accompanied the bochur as they checked in their suitcases, passed through the security inspection, and made their way to the correct gate. The bochur was overjoyed. He had never even dreamed that anyone would be so kind to him. During the flight, he approached his benefactor and told him with great emotion, “I davened that someone would help me, but I never dreamed that it would be Avrohom Fried.”

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I attended a drosha delivered by Rav Dovid Yosef. Rav Dovid spoke about the concept that a gadol can be created in five minutes. With increments of five minutes, a person can be completely transformed. The basic idea, he explained, is that we should value the “five minutes” belonging to Hashem just as much as we value our own “five minutes.” For instance, a person should not devote less time to learning Torah than he does to sleeping. What we “give” to Hashem should be no less than what we give to ourselves, with regard to learning Torah and to other mitzvos as well.

On that note, Rav Dovid shared a powerful story: “I remember that my father once came home very late from a teshuvah rally during the month of Elul, and he sat down to learn with me as soon as he arrived at home. My mother, the rebbetzin, came into the room and said, ‘I have already made dinner for you; you should have something to eat before you learn.’ My father replied, ‘You are right, but I already began learning.’ She said, ‘But the food is hot. Why doesn’t the rov take a break and come eat?’ My father said, ‘All right. I will come in another five minutes.’

“The next morning, my mother woke up and went into the room where we had learned, and she said to the rov, ‘You promised me that you would eat, but I see that the food is still on the table.’

“He replied, ‘You are right, but I said I would come in five minutes.’” For Rav Ovadiah Yosef, with his great hasmadah, three and a half hours of learning seemed like a few minutes.

And here is my final story: Two days before Rosh Hashanah, my son entered a store across the street from the Mir Yeshiva. In case you are not aware of this, there are many stores that have opened in the immediate vicinity of the yeshiva to serve the bochurim and yungeleit. Most of those stores are eateries, laundry services, and similar establishments. The storekeeper told my son that he planned to be in Uman for Rosh Hashanah, but he hadn’t bought a ticket yet. My son asked him, “Why did you wait so long? The tickets are selling for 1,000 dollars today, but you could have bought a ticket last month for 300 dollars!”

The storeowner, a Breslover chossid, replied with the greatest sincerity, “Rav Nachman said that for anyone who comes to him for Rosh Hashanah, he will repay ten times their expenses. I would prefer to spend one thousand dollars and get back ten thousand rather than spending 300 dollars and getting back only three thousand….”