Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

My Take on the News

The Sights of Sukkos

There are many things that I could write about. I could write about the Supreme Court, for instance, which is always breathing down our necks – or, perhaps more accurately, is always holding a proverbial gun to our heads. I could also write about the never-ending investigations into Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. Before the Yom Tov had ended, Netanyahu had already learned, from information leaked from within the police force, that he is scheduled to be called in for questioning again. This infuriated him, and he immediately launched a blistering attack on the police, who responded with even harsher words of their own. It is quite unpleasant, not to mention problematic, for the prime minister of the country to be openly battling the police.

I could also write about Israel’s international standing, and especially about the support received from President Donald Trump against the United Nations, and particularly against UNESCO. Trump decided that America will withdraw from that extremely anti-Israel body, and Netanyahu chose to follow his example. Israel, of course, knows how to play the hero when it has the backing of the United States.

As I said, I could write about many things, but I find it most enjoyable to write about Sukkos.

Boruch Hashem, we had a very uplifting Yom Tov here in Eretz Yisroel. I attended many events over the course of the chag, and I had the good fortune of experiencing the simcha of the Yom Tov in several venues. First and foremost, there was Birkas Kohanim at the Kosel, a tradition that has grown to become a massive event every Chol Hamoed. The Kosel plaza was packed with people, with the crowd stretching to the metal detectors near the bus stop. It was impossible to reach the davening area, unless you pulled your tallis over your head and shouted that you were a kohein. Then the people moved aside to permit you to pass through. On Hoshanah Rabbah, as well, the Kosel plaza was overflowing with thousands of mispallelim. Every year, I draw renewed inspiration from this sight. This is the Jewish nation in its purest form, without any polls or elections to divide the people.


A Sukkah Under a Roof

As I have written in the past, I feel that the many sukkos that grace the porches and yards of our country are the greatest indication of our nation’s religious character. This year, someone sent me a picture of a sukkah that was built in the city of Givat Shmuel, near Bnei Brak. The picture shows the sukkah standing on a balcony, but with an overhang above it; the balcony on which it stands is beneath the porch belonging to the family’s upstairs neighbor. I asked the person who took the picture, who lives in the building across the street, to get me the phone number of the sukkah’s owners. I decided, once and for all, to try to find out what goes through the mind of a person who builds a sukkah that is completely invalid according to halacha and even proceeds to sit inside it.

I was prepared to hear any of a variety of answers. I was certain that the sukkah did not belong to a religious family. Presumably, the owners were traditional Jews who wanted to feel the atmosphere of the Yom Tov. Perhaps they would even admit that they knew that the sukkah was posul, but they would argue that it afforded them a sense of the Yom Tov atmosphere.

I also considered the possibility that the parents might not be religious at all, and that they might tell me that they had a child in a “Torani” school and they had decided to build a sukkah for that child’s sake. It wasn’t the end of the world if the sukkah was beneath a roof, I imagined them saying. The most important thing was that their child, who had learned about Sukkos in school, should see that they had respect for the things he had learned. A third possibility I envisioned was that the sukkah might belong to a family of Reform Jews, who would explain to me that the world is changing, and that the standards of earlier times are no longer relevant, and that it doesn’t really matter if a sukkah is built beneath an overhang. For each of the scenarios that I envisioned, I tried to develop a cogent response. But the answer I received was the one response that I had never anticipated…

At first, I considered visiting the family and seeing what type of people they were, but I didn’t have an opportunity to travel to Givat Shmuel, so I simply called them. Their answer was so innocent and sweet that I practically swallowed my tongue. After a few polite words of introduction from my end of the line, and after I had made my statement, the father explained that they were traditional Jews, and he said, “You must be kidding. I don’t believe it. My sukkah is posul? Why?”

I explained the reason, and I pondered what Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev would have said about this man. He was surprised and saddened, and then he said, “It’s a shame. Maybe next year I will build a sukkah downstairs.” That is not a simple solution either: This family lives on the seventh floor of their building, and it would certainly be difficult for them to have their sukkah on the ground level – aside from the fact that they would violate the Yom Tov every time they take the elevator to and from their sukkah.


Arba Minim in Eretz Yisroel, Courtesy of American Donors

Before Sukkos, the Shuvu network distributed 2,500 sets of Arba Minim to thousands of students in 50 of the network’s schools, in 18 different cities in Israel. The families of these children are respectful of religion, but not to the point that they would have purchased the Arba Minim.

This is neither the time nor the place to write about Shuvu, with which you are probably familiar, but I should note that the network today serves not only new immigrants to Israel, but also families who have lived in the country for years. The parents of Shuvu’s students are interested in scholastic excellence – and Shuvu’s schools always win first place in the Education Ministry’s nationwide tests on mathematics and English – along with a little bit of Yiddishkeit. At the very least, the parents do not mind if their children learn about their religion in school along with their secular studies. In most cases, the schools’ influence ultimately leads these families back to their roots.

The administration of Shuvu relates that during the months of Elul and Tishrei, their 70 elementary schools, high schools, and preschools throughout the country put their thousands of students through intensive lessons about the Yomim Tovim and their respective practices. There were tefillah and Selichos gatherings held for the students and their families, along with shofar blowing sessions, Kapparos, and Tashlich. A prize was awarded to every student whose parents signed a note confirming that he or she had attended tekias shofar. In many of the schools, the students, their parents, and the school administrations organized joint activities. One of the most noteworthy such activities was the trip organized by the sixth and seventh grade students from Be’er Sheva, along with their families, who traveled to the Kosel for davening and Selichos. At the Bnei Shuvu school in Tel Aviv, the students also took an early morning trip to the Kosel for Selichos and Shacharis. The school in Nazareth Illit, meanwhile, organized a trip to various kivrei tzaddikim, including davening at the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai in Meron and at the kever of Rav Yehuda Bar Ila’i. Over the course of the Yom Tov of Sukkos, hundreds of students were hosted in the sukkos of various Shuvu faculty members throughout the country.


Moved to Tears by Shmueli Ungar

On Sukkos here in Israel, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of heavily attended shiurim over the course of Chol Hamoed. In my own neighborhood of Givat Shaul, for instance, there are three shuls where shiurim are held every day. Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Chevron, spoke at several venues in Yerushalayim. In Givat Shaul, he delivered shiurim in two different shuls. Rav Asher Weiss also made several appearances.

Lehavdil, there were also a number of performances by popular singers, which were also part of the festivities of Sukkos. The B’Lev Echad organization, which assists families coping with illness, organized one event in Yerushalayim featuring several well-known performers. You may recall that I have written in the past about the tremendous boost that this organization gives to the parents and siblings of sick children. The Chol Hamoed event took place in a hall in Yerushalayim, and the participants could not help but be filled with excitement. At one point, only a person with nerves of steel could avoid being moved to tears. This was when Shmueli Ungar, in the midst of entertaining the hundreds of audience members with his singing, suddenly left the stage, gathered a few sick children around him, and began singing passionately, “Ribbono Shel Olam, geb mir ah bissele ko’ach!” It was a moment that sent chills through my body, and I found myself weeping as well.

There was also a musical event at the Binyanei Haumah convention center for men, where the star performer was Mordechai Ben David. At one point, Mordechai Ben David became so emotional that tears flowed from his eyes. This was during the song “Hineni Rofei Lach,” and if I am not mistaken, he was likewise moved to tears by the same song during his performance at the B’Lev Echad event this past summer, in Peres Park in Cholon. The song is drawn from a posuk in Sefer Melochim: “So says Hashem… ‘I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears, and behold, I will heal you.’” The audience was also deeply moved when he sang the words, “Yehudi tzarich lehaamin shekol mah sheHashem oseh hakol letovah – A Jew must have faith that everything that Hashem does is all for the best.”

It was a truly uplifting Yom Tov, and it is unfortunate that it has ended. It is difficult to bid farewell to such meaningful days. As I have commented in the past, there is no other place in the world where the digital screens on city buses display the words “moadim l’simcha” during a Jewish holiday. There is no other place in the world where a vehicle driving on a busy boulevard can be carrying palm branches on its roof and no policeman will contemplate ticketing the driver. True, there were some cities in Israel where municipal inspectors fined people for building sukkos on “public” property, and there was even a fine issued to a vendor selling Arba Minim on the street. Those fines, however, were quickly canceled, and the mayors of the cities apologized for the misunderstanding.


Police Brutality Caught on Camera

Let us move on to some other subjects.

Two years ago, two Israeli police officers beat an Ethiopian soldier named Damas Pikada. This is a fairly routine occurrence, but this time they were caught on camera. The Ethiopian community took to the streets to protest Pikada’s mistreatment, and the entire country was horrified by the images of the beating. When a loathsome act is filmed, it becomes shocking, but as long as it remains unseen by the public, malice feels free to rear its head. The uproar over the incident grew more intense. Incredibly, the investigation against the police officer who beat Pikada was closed by the previous attorney general, although the officer was dismissed from the police force. Damas Pikada then received a privilege enjoyed by very few citizens: He was invited to visit the prime minister’s office. Pikada continued his military service and became an officer in the army. Meanwhile, the story of the beating refused to die down, and a petition was filed against the closing of the investigation. The current attorney general has now announced that he is considering reopening the case.

It wasn’t Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision, though, that reminded me of this episode. Rather, it is the fact that it proves that only if a crime is filmed does an average citizen stand a chance against police officers guilty of wrongdoing. If not for that video, no one would have listened to Pikada or believed his version of the events. In fact, it would not have been surprising if Pikada himself had been indicted on charges of assaulting a police officer. In that scenario, he would have been punished for a crime he did not commit; at the very least, he would have been forced to drop his own accusations against the police. That is how they operate: They beat civilians and then charge them with attacking police officers. In the end, the victims are advised to drop their complaints, since they will not be believed anyway.

That is precisely what happened last year on Lag Ba’omer, when two Yassam police officers viciously attacked a religious Jew. If I understood the story correctly, the two were serving as security guards, and an argument erupted between them and the civilian. The police then took the man to a secluded spot and proceeded to beat him with terrible cruelty. It was saddening to read that when his yarmulka fell off and he asked them to return it to him, they stomped on it instead. These were two Jewish police officers, Guy Ohayon and Yoav Pundaki. Why would they do such a thing?

The two police officers conducted their beating in a secluded spot out of fear that their actions would be recorded. Nevertheless, a portion of the episode was indeed filmed and was broadcast on television. That is probably what led to a more serious investigation into the incident, and to the criminal charges that were pressed against the two. I presume that if the chareidi complainant had not been equipped with video footage as evidence of his claims, the case would have been thrown out immediately. That is precisely the experience that has been shared by those who filed complaints against the police before him, including myself – and including Damas Pikada. Every year in the past, we have complained that the police in Meron have used violence against tens of thousands of religious people, but it has never gotten us anywhere. This time, though, the two officers were brought to the Shalom Court in Rishon Letzion, where they faced criminal charges. Now we can only wait and see if the court will convict them and, if so, what sentence it will impose on them. Someone must continue monitoring this case, at least so that it will serve as a warning to any police officers in the future who may think that they can abuse and mistreat innocent citizens as they please, especially if they are chareidi. Or Ethiopian. And that leads me to one more question: Why hasn’t the prime minister invited the chareidi victim of police brutality to his office as well?


Government Ministers as Mouthpieces

Sometimes, I find myself reacting with disbelief to certain things reported in the news. Some of those stories make me wonder how the ministers of the government would respond if they were asked about the incidents. For instance, there was a report about a man who was arrested on Shabbos by two teams of police officers after he allegedly dropped the shells of watermelon seeds on a sidewalk. In another incident, a man drove through a tunnel near the Kosel, whether deliberately or unintentionally, and was charged 7.33 NIS for using the road, in addition to 40.94 NIS for driving in an unauthorized location. In total, he was charged over 55 shekels – for using a road that is no more than 200 meters long. I wondered if the relevant ministers – Gilad Erdan in the first case and Yisroel Katz in the second – would dare to acknowledge the incidents with a shrug of their shoulders, blithely dismissing the notion that there had been any official wrongdoing. As it turned out, they did just that…


And here is a parliamentary query that was submitted by Yigal Guetta: “It has been reported that Amiran Ben-Ouliel, the main suspect in the Duma arson, who is being held in custody until the conclusion of the proceedings, was placed in solitary confinement for seven days after he refused to enter a cell where chillul Shabbos was taking place on a regular basis, and where he himself would have been forced to violate the Shabbos. Is this true?”

The question was short and to the point, and Erdan, the minister responsible for answering it, made no attempt to deny the facts or to apologize. He merely parroted the Prison Service’s version of the events: “Based on the information I have received from the Prison Service, inmates are assigned to cells on the basis of a range of characteristics and based on considerations of security, information provided by intelligence, and the needs involved in the handling of prisoners. Efforts are made to take the limitations and desires of all prisoners into account as much as possible, to the extent that those desires do not conflict with other needs. That being said, there are no legal restrictions that prohibit housing shomer Shabbos prisoners together with those who do not observe Shabbos. That decision, in the event that it is necessitated by circumstances, is made at the discretion and on the authority of the official empowered to make those determinations.” All of this meaningless blather ignores a very simple point: There should be a rule that shomer Shabbos prisoners should be entitled to separate cells.

But his response did not end there. “Regarding the prisoner who is the subject of your query, I was told that in light of a judicial decision that created an urgent need to find a place for him to be held, the Prison Service was forced to place two prisoners together until a different solution could be found. The prisoner adamantly refused to be placed in that cell, an act that constitutes a violation of prison discipline, and he was punished by being placed in a separate cell until a different cell could be found that would satisfy him.”

This is blatant doubletalk. Was he placed in a separate cell as a punishment, or until a different cell could be found? And what was the unspecified “judicial decision”? Erdan’s official response seems to be nothing but an unabashed attempt to obscure the truth with flimsy excuses. Indeed, perhaps that is exactly what it is.


Under Constant Monitoring

We all know what the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos says: “Know what is above you: An eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in a book.” Great men have already taught us that the purpose of modern technology is to concretize these concepts for us. One hundred years ago, this concept seemed to defy explanation: How could any of our actions be immortalized? But with the advent of the camera, the cassette tape, and the video recorder, the Mishnah’s statement became much more real to us. In a few years, perhaps someone will even invent a machine that can record thoughts. I believe that someone will yet come up with a device that can “fax” human beings: A person will enter the machine in Yerushalayim and emerge from it in New York.

Today, with the developments of modern technology, we all understand what it means for all of our deeds to be recorded. And as we will see, it is now possible for other people to be aware of our exact location at any moment. Here is an interesting story: A certain man from Israel recently traveled abroad. The only people who knew about his trip were his travel agent and his family members. As he waited in the airport before boarding his plane, after he had completed his rounds of the duty free shops, he received a message from Pelephone, his cell phone company, inviting him to sign up for service overseas. The man was surprised. Was the cell phone company monitoring his location?

As it turned out, they were.

The man contacted a member of the Knesset, who submitted a query on the subject to the Minister of Communications. This is the response he received: “In order to provide cellular service, a communications network must ‘know’ the location of the device at any point in time. The network is designed with a set of automatic functions, and when those functions are performed for a person who is located in the airport, a text message is automatically sent to his device… If the system detects that the user of the device is in the vicinity of the airport on a daily basis, it will not send an SMS… The company does not actively initiate monitoring of its customers’ locations, since the network automatically knows the location of a device at any given point in time, whether it is in Israel or out of the country… When the network determines that a subscriber is not in the country, he will automatically receive an SMS informing him that if he hasn’t yet purchased a call package, it would be worth his while to do so…” Therefore, Minister Ayoob Kara concluded his response to former MK Guetta, the Ministry of Communications has no intent of changing the situation. Rather, the ministry will continue to monitor the companies’ activities and to ensure that no misconduct takes place..

This simply adds to the lessons to be learned from modern technology: Not only are all of our actions recorded, but our locations at any given moment are likewise tracked and monitored.

And then there is another point. MK Yigal Guetta, who recently resigned from the Knesset, filed over 100 parliamentary queries. That is a massive number. The queries dealt with a variety of subjects, some pertaining to individual cases while others were of a public nature. One of his questions was the following: “We recently read that a certain government minister [Guetta did not identify the minister by name, since it wasn’t relevant to the question] promised Nadia Cohen, the widow of Eli Cohen, that the efforts to retrieve his remains would be renewed. I would like to ask: Is that really true?” The response, which came from Yariv Levin on behalf of the government (or, more accurately, the prime minister), was just as terse as the question: “In response to the query that was submitted on this subject, I would like to inform you that the efforts to retrieve the body of Eli Cohen z”l have never ceased.”


Haaretz Backs the Reform Movement

It happened quietly, under the radar, but still with uncharacteristic daring: Prime Minister Netanyahu took some steps against the Reform movement. The Reform representatives asked to meet with him on his recent visit to America and Netanyahu refused. He also accused them of dealing duplicitously with him, and asserted that the Kosel compromise was actually a veiled effort for them to obtain government recognition. There is no doubt that his refusal to meet with them was, from their perspective, a virtually unprecedented move, especially from their “good friend” Bibi. In response, the Reform Jews of America have now received backing from their fellow movement members here in Israel – and from the Haaretz newspaper.

Haaretz recently published an article about the Supreme Court case dealing with the Kosel. The title of the article deals with the main development: “Government to Inform Supreme Court Today That It Will Not Reverse Freezing of Kosel Agreement.” That agreement, designed and advocated by Attorney General Mandelblit, was a plan that we followed blindly, with the backing of several rabbonim who feared that the alternative was losing everything. After we retracted our support for the plan, the government informed the Supreme Court that the compromise had been frozen. That meant that the Supreme Court would not be able to rely on the government to reach a compromise; instead, it would have to make its own decision. At the moment, it isn’t clear if that decision will be good or bad; all we know is that we ourselves will not be responsible for the outcome. Our hope is that the Supreme Court will limit its intrusion, especially on a subject that is so deeply symbolic and so sacred.

The article in Haaretz is only 50 lines long, and only one third of the text deals with the government’s response, including an excerpt of the position it will relay to the Supreme Court: “The [court’s] request was brought by the attorney general to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and after weighing the matter, he has decided not to bring up the subject for additional discussion by the government of Israel.” After a few more words, the article moves on to discuss the Reform movement’s reaction.

The next two thirds of the article are dedicated to the responses of the Reform and Conservative movements, as if the opening lines were meant merely as a means of providing a platform for those movements to express their positions. The director of the Reform movement attacks Netanyahu, accusing him of “continuing to demonstrate disdain for millions of Reform and Conservative Jews,” and decries the “heavy-handed conduct of the government.” The director of the Conservative movement is more restrained and diplomatic; he merely voices his support for the agreement, which he considers “logical and obvious,” and expresses sorrow over the fact that the prime minister did not force his chareidi partners to return to the agreement. “The government’s response reflects fear,” he insists. We will not argue with them; for many years, it has been our practice to refrain from sitting at the same table as these movements, even for the purpose of arguing with them.

Perhaps the Reform movement could serve as a model of perseverance for us. Their next move was to enlist seven United States senators to write a letter to Netanyahu about the controversies surrounding the Kosel and the issue of conversion. In the letter, the senators expressed their concern that the government’s actions might lead to tensions “between the two peoples.” Haaretz, of course, made sure to publicize the letter in Israel, with a headline in its Friday edition announcing in large print: “Jewish Senators Against Netanyahu: ‘He Is Withholding Equality from Non-Orthodox Jewish Movements.’” Haaretz’s relationship with the Reform movement is like the connection between Yisroel Hayom and Netanyahu.

The government’s response to the Supreme Court was approved after that letter was received, and despite it. That indicates that Netanyahu has adopted a determined stance on the subject. It seems that the rift between him and the Reform movement is steadily widening. Or perhaps they have simply become outcasts in his eyes since he discovered that their influence is limited. We all know that the government demonstrates favor to people only for its own sake; any government official will be kind when it benefits him, but he cannot be trusted to stand by his “allies” in their time of need. At times, the government has felt the need to curry favor with us; at other times, it has been the Reform movement. Either way, when the government does not stand to gain, no one should expect any favors from them.


Gratitude at the Kosel

At the entrance to the Kosel plaza, Nir picked up a cardboard yarmulka bearing the logo of the Kosel Heritage Foundation. He moved rapidly toward the front of the plaza, to the Kosel itself, and then he turned to a young man in a hat and jacket who happened to be standing beside him. “Are there any specific perokim of Tehillim that a person should say when he wants to thank Hashem?” he asked.

The bochur sized up the man standing before him. Nir was dressed in jeans, a brand name sweater, and expensive shoes. He hardly looked like a ben Torah. If he had to guess, the bochur decided, he would presume that the man was a hi-tech professional from Raanana, or perhaps a lawyer from Ramat Hasharon.

“There are many perokim that can be used for that purpose.”

“Two or three are enough for me,” the man responded.

While Nir was reciting his kappitlach of gratitude with tears in his eyes, the bochur hurried over to a Lev L’Achim volunteer who was visiting the Kosel at that moment. “There is someone here who would certainly be pleased to be offered the services of Lev L’Achim,” he said.

The yungerman from Lev L’Achim waited until Nir had finished his Tehillim, and then he approached him. “I see that you are thanking Hashem for something,” he said. “If you would be interested, I can offer you a weekly shiur, or a visit to our midrashah. Perhaps I could even offer you a chavrusah. Where do you live?”

Nir laughed loudly in response, and the yungerman stammered apologetically, “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to pressure you or offend you….”

To his surprise, the Lev L’Achim volunteer found himself enveloped in an embrace. “Do you know why I am thanking Hashem?” Nir asked him. “I came here with my wife to thank Him for the yungerman from Kiryat Sefer who was sent to us by Lev L’Achim two months ago, and who has been learning with us every week ever since.”


Kittels in Prison: The End of the Story

One final note: In the past issue, I wrote about Maasiyahu Prison and about the fact that the Prison Service treats every inmate as an absolute zero until he proves that he deserves better. In response, someone asked me to find out if it was indeed true that religious prisoners had been barred from bringing kittels into the prison on Rosh Hashanah. The answer was slightly complex. It seems that the Prison Service officials were actually intimidated by Dovid Azulai, the Minister of Religious Affairs, who insisted that every prisoner was entitled to a kittel. At the same time, they had to maintain their own pride, and they refused to withdraw their order prohibiting kittels from being brought into the prison. Nevertheless, since they understood that it was an order that smacked of cruelty and that could work against them in the future, they decided to purchase kittels at their own expense for inmates who desired them.

That should give you an idea of the type of people we are dealing with.



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