Klal Yisroel in Mourning
It has been a sad week. The sadness began last Tuesday and it hasn’t lifted yet. It is hard to believe that we will no longer be able to visit the small apartment at Rechov Chazon Ish 5 to seek guidance and clarity. It is sad to think that we will no longer be able to step into that apartment and see a giant of Torah sitting and learning.
Last week, I remembered a personal experience of my own, when I brought my son to Rav Shteinman to receive a brocha. My son, who was a young boy in cheder at the time, told me one day that he felt that a brocha from Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman would reinvigorate him and inspire him to grow. “Then let’s go to Bnei Brak,” I said.
My son was shocked. “Will they really let us in to see him?” he asked. He was surprised that the gadol would pay any attention to a child of his age.
We arrived at Rav Shteinman’s apartment, and we were told that the rosh yeshiva wasn’t home. He was supposed to be returning soon, but the family expected him to be exhausted. They doubted that he would receive visitors at that time.
“We can wait for him outside, at the bottom of the stairs,” I suggested.
“You’re welcome to try,” they replied.
So we waited. And I found myself musing about the difference between a Jewish spiritual leader and, lehavdil, a powerful political figure. Would it be possible to wait outside the home of a government minister, an attorney general, or a president? If we were to stand outside the front door of any such person, we would be approached within two minutes by a security guard with a crackling radio, who would order us to leave the area. Political leaders live in completely sterile environments. Yet there we were, lehavdil, waiting for the leader of our generation to arrive, and no one said a word to us.
I was certain that Rav Shteinman would not ignore the presence of a young child, regardless of how he was feeling. I had seen him interact with children on many occasions. His face always shone when he asked them what they were learning and questioned them on the basics of Arba’ah Avos or Shnayim Ochzin. I remembered being present when the talmidim of Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon L’tzeirim visited him. Rav Shteinman was incredibly pleased to see the knowledge that they had amassed, and when they returned to their yeshiva, they had been transformed by the visit.
Eventually, Rav Shteinman arrived. He slowly climbed out of the old van that had transported him, and he made his way to the staircase and took hold of the banister. My son was standing there, but he felt such overwhelming awe that he could not utter a word. Rav Shteinman leaned toward him, took hold of his small hand, and encouraged him to ask whatever he desired. And then Rav Shteinman, the revered leader who was already almost 100 years old, listened to that small child as he spoke, despite the difference of about 80 years between their ages. My son received a brocha and the rosh yeshiva caressed his face, leading him to beam with joy.
Since that visit to Rav Shteinman, my son has experienced immense growth, and I have no doubt that the rosh yeshiva’s brocha was a major contributing factor to his development. At the foot of that staircase, at the entrance to the rosh yeshiva’s building, Rav Shteinman’s noble heart touched the heart of a child for just a brief moment – and the benefits were inestimable.
Unusual Respect from the Secular Newspapers
Rav Shteinman’s levayah was one of the largest ever seen in Eretz Yisroel. The secular media could not ignore it, and pictures of the streets of Bnei Brak filled with tens of thousands of people appeared in the opening pages of every newspaper the next day. “Taking Leave of the Gadol Hador” was the headline in Maariv, while Yediot Acharonot published a huge photograph that stretched across the full height of its front page, accompanied by a caption that related, “Two hundred thousand people accompanied Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, leader of the Litvishe community, on his final journey.” The media was uncharacteristically respectful toward Rav Shteinman.
All of the news reports noted that the city of Bnei Brak was shut down by the levayah. That is precisely what happened. The police were traumatized – as were we – by the tragedy caused by the crowding at Rav Shmuel Wosner’s levayah. Ever since then, the police have been working hard to minimize the risks at every heavily attended funeral.
After the levayah, it also came to light that the police had utilized an effective diversionary tactic. While the hespeidim were taking place outside Rav Shteinman’s home at Rechov Chazon Ish 5, with a row of ambulances standing nearby, the mittah was not in any of those ambulances. It was far away, in a vehicle near the entrance to Rechov Rashbam from Rechov Chazon Ish. Thus, anyone who thought he was accompanying the mittah was mistaken, since it was actually a kilometer away. One of the gedolim commented, when he heard about the ploy, that Rav Shteinman’s wish had been carried out: He had asked not to be escorted to his kevurah by masses of people.
At the behest of gedolim, all the large events that were supposed to take place this Chanukah, including two or three in the Binyanei Ha’umah convention center, were canceled. At the same time, the rabbonim ruled that the internal events in various yeshivos should continue as scheduled. It was not easy to be in a celebratory mood, though. Last week, on Wednesday night, was the wedding of a great-grandson of Rav Shteinman. I was invited by the other side; the kallah is a granddaughter of Rav Yaakov Edelstein zt”l, and I am a mechutan of the family. The recent loss cast a pall over the festivities.
Netanyahu Hurries to the Knesset from His Flight
The usual battles are continuing, but we have made certain accomplishments. This week, two laws were passed by the Knesset. One was the so-called “Supermarket Law,” which gives the Interior Minister the authority to bypass a municipal bylaw. This will prevent a recurrence of what recently took place in Tel Aviv. If the government of any city enacts a bylaw that threatens the observance of Shabbos, the Minister of the Interior will be able to veto the move. Dozens of MKs spoke during the discussion of the new law, and since it was clear that the law would pass by a margin of only a few votes, certain members of the coalition decided to take advantage of the situation to make their own demands. They threatened to refrain from voting for the bill if their demands were not met.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu returned from Europe and went directly to the Knesset, where he cast his own vote in favor of the bill and reprimanded the unruly coalition members. Three MKs from the Likud party were summoned to his office and emerged with chastened expressions. It isn’t too difficult to guess what he said to them.
There was another unusual story as well. The day before the vote was held, Minister of Religious Affairs Dovid Azulai was rushed to Hadassah Hospital in Yerushalayim, where he was admitted. In light of his condition, Azulai tried to find someone in the opposition who would agree to refrain from voting in order to offset his own lost vote. The opposition replied that they would not agree to any arrangements of the sort, and Azulai announced in response that he would come from the hospital by ambulance if it was necessary. Few people were aware of this, but it seems that his medical condition is not good.
The only person who agreed to break the opposition’s rules and to abstain for Azulai’s benefit was Ilan Gilaon, a member of the Meretz party. Gilaon explained that he considered it a moral obligation to accommodate Azulai’s request. As a result, he was present for the vote and abstained from voting. The final tally revealed that there were 59 votes in favor of the law and 54 against it. The Knesset sitting concluded at 5:00 in the morning. That is something that happens in the Knesset on rare occasions, mainly when the state budget is approved.
Another law that was passed was introduced by Moshe Gafni. This law stipulates that the Minister of Labor and Welfare must take Jewish tradition into consideration before issuing a Shabbos work permit. That probably implies that this has not been the practice until now. I don’t know if it will actually prevent the permits from been handed out freely, but it may achieve something.
Gafni Decries Destroyed Livelihoods
As I mentioned, the Supermarket Law was finally passed at 5:00 in the morning. Before the vote, two members of the Knesset, Moshe Gafni and Meshullam Nahari, were allowed to speak. Gafni spoke on behalf of his party, United Torah Judaism, while Nahari spoke in his capacity as Deputy Minister of the Interior. It was the Interior Ministry that formulated the law and brought it to a vote. I will cite excerpts of both addresses.
First, here is a portion of Gafni’s speech: “Mr. Speaker, ministers of the government, Mr. Prime Minister, and members of the Knesset. I would like to begin by saying that I feel that Shabbos is one of the most iconic elements of the Jewish nation. It is the source of all blessing. We exist because of Shabbos. That is absolutely clear. But we also know where we live. There is a new law, and the law does not consist of any form of coercion. There is nothing in this law that forces anyone to close their store. We are not saying anything of that nature. The law says only one thing. The ruling of the Supreme Court has far-reaching implications. This is not merely a technical issue of whether stores may be open on Shabbos. It is something that will have an impact on the entire country and on the very image of our society.
“But since my colleagues who spoke here are also liberal people, I would like to address the liberal standpoint on this issue. Let me describe the people who petitioned the Supreme Court against the Tel Aviv municipality. I spoke with a man from Tel Aviv, and he cried over the phone. I know him. He is a chiloni man, and he owns a grocery store. He said to me, ‘When Huldai [the mayor of Tel Aviv] used his bylaw to allow the grocery store next door – which is actually a large supermarket – to be open on Shabbos, he destroyed my livelihood and my family’s financial stability. I can no longer support my family after I have run this store for many years.’ There are many other people like him, in Tel Aviv and in other places as well. But no one speaks about these people; their plight does not interest anyone. There is constant talk about preserving rights – the rights of children, of families, of the working men and the breadwinners – but throughout the hours of discussion here, I haven’t heard anyone explain how they would answer these people.
“As much as I am chagrined by this, we are not asking for the stores to be closed on Shabbos. We are merely asking for it to be subject to someone else’s judgment, not just that of the local authority. This is not just a minor technical issue. It is a fundamental aspect of life in a Jewish and democratic state. But you haven’t said a word about this aspect of the problem. These [storeowners] are secular people who may even have voted for Meretz or for the Zionist Camp. You haven’t asked about them; you haven’t given them a say. You want to trample on Shabbos and to have everything open, but what will you say to the people who observe Shabbos and make their living from a neighborhood grocery store, a store that has been around for 50 years and has been passed on from parents to children? You haven’t said a word about it.
“We are asking for the simplest thing. We are talking about an issue that will have widespread repercussions throughout the country, that will have an impact on all of Israeli society. Therefore, we are asking for the issue to be placed in the hands of the state government, as it was in the past. Within the government, all municipalities are under the jurisdiction of the Minister of the Interior; that is the law. As the lawyers among you often say, ‘That is it, and no more.’”
Nahari: “What Are We Asking For?”
Meshullam Nahari spoke next. “Mr. Speaker, Mr. Prime Minister, ministers of the government, and members of the Knesset,” he began, “we see that Shabbos is so important that the members of the Knesset have lost an entire night’s sleep for this discussion. Last Thursday, I participated in a gathering for the members of a heritage tour, which was attended by 300 youths from Jewish schools in the countries of the former Soviet Union. This was part of the Heftzibah program, with which I have been working for many years. The director of the Jewish Agency, Mr. Natan Sharansky, appeared at that event and was invited to speak. He chose to speak about the period of the Iron Curtain, when Jews did everything in their power to keep Shabbos and Jewish holidays clandestinely, risking their lives rather than giving up their religion. They observed Shabbos and holidays with tremendous self-sacrifice, because they understood that these roots would enable them to withstand all the winds that threatened to uproot them. The deeper a person’s roots are, the greater is his ability to withstand the powerful winds of the world. They understood that this was the secret to our survival.
“The people here who have spoken against this law have decried it as corrupt; each has described his feelings in his own style. But the common denominator between them – at least, that is what I think – is that they do not understand the law. This law was not necessary until the Supreme Court had its say. This is a status quo that has always existed and that everyone wants to continue. As MK Nachman Shai said, every individual does as he sees fit. But how can we all live together when there are so many opposing views and every person has his own practices? For that purpose, the status quo allows us to be together, to live together in peace. Every individual gives in to the others, and the status quo is preserved. But the court took away this situation. It abolished the way that things have always been done. What we are asking is simply for the status quo to be enshrined in law, without any changes. There is no harm to the public, no coercion, no boycotts or fines. This is nothing other than a preservation of what has always been, a protection of the status quo that will enable us to continue living together instead of being at odds with each other. That is our goal.
“It is unfortunate that in this Knesset, we have grown accustomed to being condemned even for doing good things. There was a good deed that was done by MK Ilan Gilaon, an act of kindness, which is the character trait of Avrohom Avinu and the Jewish people, but it was also condemned. I want to tell you, Mr. Speaker, and I am saying this sincerely: There is no religious coercion taking place here. No one means to coerce anyone else to do anything, and no one means to harm anyone else. It isn’t necessary to look at everything through a black prism; it is important to evaluate everything with objectivity. But I want to tell you, Mr. Speaker, and you must remember this: I remember the period during 2012 and 2013 when there was a deliberate attack, a direct targeting, against a specific community and a specific form of education. Do you remember, Mr. Speaker, what happened in the educational system, when hundreds of thousands of students were harmed without any reason whatsoever? I did not hear any outcry or protest. I heard no one demanding how the state could do such a thing to those students. I am not referring to the Ministry of Labor and Welfare. I am talking about a specific case in the educational system. That was an act of coercion and a deliberate assault. The entire goal here, on the other hand, is to preserve the status quo. And when I submitted the proposal for this law, I told you that its purpose was to reinstate the status quo regarding commerce in public on Shabbos. The law was meant to preserve the balance of power between the local authorities and the state government in the way that it had always existed before the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Bremer case.”
Bremer is the name of the grocery store owner from Tel Aviv who launched the struggle. You might recall that I interviewed him in the past.
“That was our intent,” Nahari said. “There was no other intention here. We did not intend to force anything on anyone, or to make any changes in our society. It is very important for the law to be seen in this fashion and not in any other way. We must remember the time in history that we are now commemorating. The Greeks wanted to uproot our Judaism, not to destroy our bodies. They made what seemed to be logical claims, and they appeared to be interested in benefiting us. ‘We care about you,’ they told us. ‘We want to be there for you. We want to make things easy for you. We want to help you.’ But their true goal was to destroy Judaism. In these days, when we are spreading the light of Judaism, it is most appropriate for us to solidify the observance of Shabbos, which is the basis of our existence. Ladies and gentlemen, I call on everyone to vote in favor of this law.”
The Knesset speaker responded, “Thank you very much. I would like to ask everyone to be seated. We are now beginning the voting. Good morning, everyone. Please be seated. To remind you, we are voting on the first reading of the proposed amendment to the laws concerning municipal governments regarding the bylaws that govern the opening and closing of businesses on the day of rest. Who is in favor and who is opposed?” The vote was conducted, and the law was passed.
Doubletalk in the Knesset
As I mentioned to you, the Knesset sitting on Monday ended at about 5:00 in the morning – 4:54, to be precise. Over 50 members of the Knesset spoke about the proposed law. It was both enjoyable and saddening to listen to the typically restrained Meshullam Nahari, who delivered an unusually fiery speech. As the deputy interior minister, Nahari presented the law and responded to the speakers, which meant that he also had to listen to every speech. Some of the addresses were downright strange, and some were even infuriating.
At a certain point, Tamar Zandberg shouted from the podium, “You won’t dictate to me. I am no less Jewish than you are!” Nahari said something in response and Zandberg grew enraged. “Who are you to reproach me like that? You should be ashamed!”
“Who are you to speak about Shabbos?” Nahari responded.
I was present for some of the speeches, and I was likewise embarrassed by the volume and tone of voice. For example, Leah Fadida of the Zionist Camp said the following: “This law isn’t really intended to protect the honor of Shabbos or the character of Shabbos. It is simply intended to create political capital for one community at the expense of another. This is a law that is trying to take control of Shabbos and its character. But Shabbos, ladies and gentlemen, belongs to everyone.” Now, does that make any sense to you?
Fadida also quoted the Gemara in Maseches Brachos, which states that human dignity overrides a prohibition in the Torah. “That is very appropriate for this law,” she said. “You must come to your senses. The status quo is a good thing. Let us not harm each other. Let us live side by side and empower each other. And let us remove this law from the agenda.” How much nonsense can a person spout in a single speech?
It was Shuli Muallem-Refaeli who responded, most appropriately, “The status quo is for the supermarkets to be closed, ma’am!”
Lessons from Benaya the Electrician
His name is Benaya. I know that he is an electrician, and he lives in Maaleh Adumim, in Givat Ze’ev, or in Pisgat Ze’ev; I am not sure which one. He entered the Pressburg shul, along with a friend, in the middle of our daily shiur in Daf Yomi. We were in the middle of a fascinating Rashi when the two bare heads peeked into the room.
They entered the shul hesitantly and stood in the doorway. “Do you know if there is a yeshiva here that called for an electrician?” they asked.
We didn’t particularly want to interrupt our shiur, but we couldn’t turn our backs on our Jewish brethren, so we explained to them that there is a new Sephardic Talmud Torah on the floor beneath the shul, and it was possible that they were installing an electrical system. There is also a yeshiva near the shul, which is currently under renovation, and there is a kollel nearby as well. Any of those institutions might have called for an electrician, but it certainly wasn’t the shul. One of the participants in the shiur – it may have been the maggid shiur, Rav Eliyohu Yitzchok Pincus – said to them, “Come and sit with us. You can learn for a few minutes and then answer Kaddish.” At that point, the shiur was almost over.
To our great surprise, they agreed. The two electricians sat down at the end of the bench. We were in the middle of reading a passage in Rashi that discusses the Bnei Yisroel’s era of servitude in Mitzrayim. Rav Pincus read aloud, “Moshe said to Hashem, ‘You have caused evil to this nation, for now that they have no bricks, the Jewish children are placed in the buildings.’ Hashem said to him, ‘They are removing the thorns, for it is revealed before Me that if they had lived, they would have been completely wicked. If you want, try. [Moshe] took out one of them—”
“He became the wicked Micha,” Benaya interjected.
“And he went and took out Micha,” the maggid shiur concluded.
As you can imagine, we were astonished. We stared at the two. How could they possibly have been familiar with this Medrash? Benaya continued surprising us. When he saw our Gemaros closing, he announced loudly, “Rav Chananya Ben Akashya…” The two workers found kipas and put them on for Kaddish. That, I concluded, is what the posuk means when it states, “Your nation is completely righteous.” And it also demonstrates that one can never judge another person by his external appearance.
What Can We Learn from Bill de Blasio?
The young man from Bangladesh who attempted to carry out a terror attack in the Manhattan subway was both a shlemiel and a shlemazel. The “pipe bomb” he was carrying was neither a pipe nor a bomb, and all that happened was that he was severely burned. Aside from that, he managed to sow panic and cause massive gridlock in the heart of Manhattan, in addition to causing dozens of emergency vehicles, police officers, and, of course, reporters to converge on the scene.
What is important for our purposes is the reaction of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The mayor began his speech to the citizens of Manhattan and the entire world with the following words: “Thank G-d, this attack did not carry out its evil purpose. Thank G-d, the emergency services arrived at the scene quickly.”
When have we ever heard Binyomin Netanyahu express gratitude to Hashem after an incident in Israel? When has Mayor Nir Barkat of Yerushalayim expressed similar sentiments after a terror attack in his city? How could it be that the nations of the world do not hesitate to thank the Master of the Universe, but Jews cannot bring themselves to do it? They are always embarrassed or fearful. After the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, someone once suggested to Prime Minister Golda Meir that she should mention Hashem during her speeches. She replied, “If I do that, people will think we are on the verge of losing the war.” She made that statement in complete seriousness to the person who had made the suggestion. But we know that Israel, like America, needs Divine protection.
Gratitude for War
In Al Hanissim, we thank Hashem for “the miracles, the redemption, the might, and the salvations,” but we conclude that list with one more item: “and the wars.” This seems very bizarre: Why should we thank Hashem for war? And the answer is simple: Every battle builds a person.
I once asked Rav Dov Yoffe zt”l for an explanation of Chazal’s statement, “Hashem wanted to give merits to Yisroel… Therefore, He gave them much Torah and mitzvos.” Rav Dov explained that every mitzvah sanctifies a person. By the same token, every battle strengthens a person.
The Maccabim Were Not Strong
On Chanukah, the Chofetz Chaim used to stress that the Chashmonaim’s victory over the Greeks was a result of their powerful desire to sanctify the Name of Hashem. They were not motivated by a desire for power, and their courage and strength did not stem from a drive for conquest. It was solely their desire to liberate the souls of their fellow Jews and to restore the purity of Jewish observance that led to their victory. This is the idea conveyed by the prayer of Al Hanissim, which relates that the war culminated with the Jewish people entering the Bais Hamikdosh “to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.” That was their goal. They did not claim to be fighting a “milchemes mitzvah,” a war of conquest to retake Eretz Yisroel, to uphold “national pride,” or to “begin the redemption.” On the contrary, their sole interest was promoting kiddush Hashem.
On that note, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt”l once wrote, “The people call the Maccabim ‘gibborim’ [mighty heroes], but the opposite is written: The mighty were delivered into the hands of the weak. Aside from the fact that they were few in number, they were also weak, but because they risked their lives for the sake of Torah and mitzvos, and because of their mesirus nefesh for Hashem, they merited a miraculous victory.” The Maccabim were not mighty soldiers or commandos, and they served under commanders who were probably gaunt and stooped, much like the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Shteinman themselves. But they had the most advanced weaponry: their mesirus nefesh for the sake of Hashem. And that was how they achieved their supernatural victory.