My Take on the News

Difficult Times

We have been through a grueling two weeks.

Chazal tell us that Eretz Yisroel is acquired through suffering, and that concept is borne out by our experiences on a regular basis. Today, the country seems to have come to believe that Shabbos is somehow our personal agenda – the agenda of the chareidi public. The truth, however, is just the opposite: Our desire for the State of Israel to be a Jewish state is not for our own sake, but for the benefit of the general public. The state-sponsored Shabbos desecration will have no impact on our communities in Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim; however, the country as a whole will be severely harmed if it is robbed of its Shabbos day. A famous moshol of the Chofetz Chaim speaks about a storeowner who fell on hard times. Even though his business was suffering and many of the shelves in the store were bare, there was always hope that his business would recover. However, when the storeowner removed the sign identifying his store, it became clear that the business had reached the end of its existence. In the same vein, giving up Shabbos means that one has reached the end of a certain road. That is why we passed the Supermarket Law, a law whose efficacy is not entirely certain. We were even forced to give in and accept the exclusion of Eilat and of any convenience stores attached to gas stations, and we came under a barrage of criticism from every possible direction nonetheless.

At the same time, we are also anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding the Kosel Hamaarovi and the draft law. These are difficult times for religious Jewry in the State of Israel.

Regarding the convenience stores at gas stations, people do not realize that the majority of those stores are actually closed on Shabbos, since the gas stations themselves are also closed. Even the convenience stores that are open on Shabbos would not be subject to the law, since they are located not in cities, but in regional councils. This is not the place to go into detail on that issue. And even though we gave in to the exclusion of Eilat from the law, that doesn’t make much of a difference either. Today, the municipal bylaws in Eilat prohibit businesses to operate on Shabbos in the city, yet all the stores there are open on Shabbos anyway. The reason is simple: The city does not enforce the law. That means that the new law would have had no impact on Eilat in any event, even if it hadn’t been excluded. Eilat is considered the most secular city in the State of Israel, although there is plenty of Yiddishkeit to be found there as well.

Thus, you can see that we are facing a very challenging situation. Nevertheless, we try to remain optimistic.

Wild Incitement Against Chareidim

It may be the middle of the winter, but the atmosphere here in Israel has been heating up. I am referring not to the weather, but to the tensions, the discord, the bad press, and the outright attacks on the chareidi public. The latest brouhaha stemmed largely from the Supermarket Law, which I have discussed at length in a separate article. There was also the law that allowed Yaakov Litzman to serve as the Deputy Minister of Health and to function in place of an actual minister. For ideological reasons, neither the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel nor the Moetzes of the Degel HaTorah party have ever approved of any chareidi politician serving as an actual minister in the government. According to the law, every government minister is responsible not only for what happens in his own ministry, but for the actions of every ministry in the government. And while a minister can generally – albeit not always – control his own ministry and see to it that nothing is done that violates the Torah, he cannot exert such control over the rest of the government. While it is true that Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Levin, a member of Agudas Yisroel, held a ministerial portfolio at one point in the distant past, that was stopped. Agudas Yisroel resigned from the government during the Ben-Gurion era; when Menachem Begin was elected, the party returned to the coalition and the government, but Levin remained only a deputy minister. Rabbi Menachem Porush was also a deputy minister, as were Rabbi Moshe Zev Feldman and Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz. Moshe Gafni and Meir Porush likewise have held positions only as deputy ministers, and have not served as full-fledged ministers.

In this government’s term, Yaakov Litzman was appointed to serve as the deputy health minister, in which capacity he acted exactly like an actual minister. The Yesh Atid party appealed to the Supreme Court against the arrangement, claiming that the law does not allow a ministry to be headed by a deputy minister. Naturally, the court accepted the appeal, and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah decided in response that Litzman should accept a ministerial position. It was the actions of Yesh Atid that caused them to change their approach.

But then the saga of nationwide chillul Shabbos began. There was the construction work on the railroad that was performed on Shabbos, and the supermarkets that were permitted to open on Shabbos in Tel Aviv. This epidemic of Shabbos desecration led Litzman to announce his resignation from the government. Even after the Supermarket Law was passed, he returned only to serve as a deputy minister. But since the Supreme Court had already ruled that this arrangement is legally nonexistent, the Knesset had to pass a law that explicitly allowed for it. That law, which was dubbed the “Litzman Law,” was discussed in the Knesset last Wednesday and was passed by a substantial majority of 62 to 38. Throughout the process, though, we were roundly condemned from many quarters. The anti-religious agitators in this country have bombarded us with a steady stream of invective.

Turnabout in the Knesset

The opposition’s struggle to defeat the Litzman bill was a stark illustration of their own hypocrisy. A week earlier, when the Supermarket Law was due to be brought to a vote, the opposition refused to allow any of its members to be paired with two members of the coalition who could not come to the Knesset: Minister of Religious Affairs Dovid Azulai, who was hospitalized in Rambam Hospital in Haifa, and MK Yehuda Glick, who was sitting shivah for his wife. In such situations, it is standard for a member of the opposition to refrain from voting in order to offset the lost votes on the coalition’s side. In this case, they refused to do so. In a desperate effort to ensure a majority vote, Aryeh Deri asked one of Glick’s friends to find out if the latter’s rov would permit him to come to the Knesset during the shivah. In response, Deri was denounced from many quarters for purportedly showing disrespect to the deceased.

For lack of a majority, the vote on the Supermarket Law was ultimately postponed until the following week. Once again, there were difficulties involved. One member of the coalition announced that she intended to vote against the bill, and another minister form the Likud party was vacillating. There was also another mourner. This time, it was MK Motti Yogev who was sitting shivah. But despite all that, the bill passed.

The next day, the Knesset was scheduled to vote on the Litzman bill. The opposition announced in advance that they would stage another filibuster, but on Wednesday afternoon they noticed that according to the attendance board, eight members of the coalition were absent. They immediately decided to forgo the votes on all of their reservations on the bill, thus triggering an immediate vote on the law itself. In response, Minister Ze’ev Elkin went to the podium to deliver a speech, and he managed to stall for time until the absent MKs had arrived. Some of the absentees were members of the Shas party, who were attending the bris of Aryeh Deri’s grandson in a simcha hall in Yerushalayim. There were also four Knesset members who were attending the funeral of Rabbi Raziel Shevach Hy”d, who had been murdered by terrorists: Naftali Bennett, who spoke on behalf of the government; Betzalel Smotrich, who had been a good friend of the victim and had cared for him after he was wounded; and Ministers Uri Ariel and Miri Regev. All four returned to the Knesset in order to vote on the bill.

The members of the coalition were outraged by the opposition’s behavior. Just a week earlier, the same people had accused Aryeh Deri of showing disrespect to the deceased by seeking to bring Yehuda Glick to the Knesset while he was sitting shivah. Yet, when it served their purposes, they were willing to exploit the funeral of a terror victim in order to win a vote.

On Wednesday evening, Yaakov Litzman was sworn in to the position of Deputy Minister of Health. Fifteen minutes later, he had already begun his ministerial duties by responding to a motion for the agenda concerning the medications included in Israel’s health basket.

The Cemetery in Chavat Gilad

The murder of Rabbi Raziel Shevach Hy”d was a horrific occurrence. Every murder is horrific, of course, but the appalling quality of this one was magnified for several reasons. Raziel was a man who lived a life of pure goodness. He was a volunteer for both United Hatzolah and Magen Dovid Adom, and he was a mohel who performed many brisos without receiving any remuneration. He was also the driving force behind Chavat Gilad, the settlement where he lived. Last Tuesday night, while he was driving home on a narrow road, his car was cut off by a van. The murderers began shooting at him from the side window of the van while they were passing him, and they continued shooting at him after they had passed his car. The front and side of his car were riddled with bullets. Raziel managed to call the emergency hotline in the Shomron and to shout that he had been shot, but his life could not be saved. He passed away after being taken to the hospital in Kfar Saba. The residents of the Shomron were shocked, not only because of the murder that had shattered a period of calm, but also because of the identity of the victim.

Raziel is survived by six orphaned children. The sound of the children’s voices reciting Kaddish was a bitter reminder of the severity of the tragedy. In keeping with the Yemenite custom, the aveilim wore tallisos at the funeral and throughout the shivah. The pictures were heartrending, showing small children wrapped in tallisos as they accompanied their father to his burial place. A few calls for vengeance were heard at the levayah, but Naftali Bennett silenced them. “Our revenge,” he said, “will come from building more homes and more settlements.” Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu visited the grieving family and told them that he is certain the murderers will be captured within a few days.

On that note, a report was publicized this week revealing the salaries paid by the Palestinian Authority to jailed terrorists. The family of every imprisoned murderer receives large payments from the PA. The more heinous the murder and the longer the sentence, the greater the salary they receive. In the case of Raziel Shevach, the implication is clear: His murderers will also be rewarded with hefty payments in exchange for their prison sentences, and they can expect to be released eventually as part of a prisoner exchange. That is the reason that some support the death penalty for terrorists. On the other hand, every terrorist knows that he risks being killed by Israeli security forces. Why should the threat of the death penalty deter them?

Chavat Gilad was founded in 2002 following the murder of a Jew named Gilad Zar. To this day, despite the residents’ pleas, it has not received official recognition. In fact, the Supreme Court has ordered the demolition of several homes in the community. The residents have been suffering from Arab hostility for many years. Some say that the community will now receive official approval, in light of the murder.

Raziel Shevach was the first person to be interred in the cemetery in Chavat Gilad, where he had asked in his will to be buried. Hashem yikom domov.

When Rav Shteinman Shed Tears

Marking the shloshim of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt”l, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of hespeidim, and new stories about Rav Shteinman’s life are still emerging. At the request of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, a hesped was delivered at the Lederman Shul by Rav Shalom Cohen, nosi of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of Shas. Rav Cohen wept bitterly during his hesped. “How is it that such a giant lived in our generation?” he exclaimed.

With the steady stream of newly revealed anecdotes about Rav Shteinman, one cannot help but realize, again and again, that he was a giant of unfathomable stature. At the same time, he was also incredibly humble. Take, for instance, the following story, which I heard this week from Rav Yehoshua Mishkovsky, and which took place in the month of Iyar 5767: “There was a menahel in a certain school who made some disparaging statements about the level of frumkeit in a different school. As a result of his words, the other school suffered some minor harm. That menahel had been close to Rav Shteinman, and after this incident, Rav Shteinman sent his talmid and right-hand man, Rav Yitzchok Levenstein, to tell the menahel that he should not come to see him anymore.”

Rav Mishkovsky continued: “The menahel asked me to come with him to Rav Shteinman and to help him explain that he hadn’t meant to speak against the other school in general terms. He had simply been referring to certain talmidim who came from modern homes. We went to see Rav Shteinman after vosikin, and when the rosh yeshiva saw us, he lowered his gaze and stared at the table in front of him. I tried to explain the menahel’s actions, but when I had finished speaking, Rav Shteinman said, ‘Ever since Kayin and Hevel, people do not get along.’ Then he made a comment with great emotion: ‘Happy is the person who can live his entire life without ever offending anyone.’ He repeated that statement again, and tears streamed from his eyes. He did not utter another word or even look up until we had left.

“After that encounter, I called my father, Rav Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky, and told him what had happened. He told me that Rav Shteinman often quoted the Chazon Ish’s statement that a person’s most important task is to make it through eighty years of life without ever offending another Jew.”

“The Food Becomes Caught in My Throat”

Last week, a matzeivah was erected at Rav Shteinman’s kever. The inscription was astonishingly terse and plain, identifying the niftar merely as “Reb Aharon Yehuda Leib” – not “Maran” or “Harav Hagaon” or “Hagaon Hatzaddik” – “the son of Reb Noach Tzvi Shteinman,” along with the date of his passing. It was also noted that the inscription was based on his tzavaah. If not for that, such a simple inscription would have been a tremendous affront to the honor of a gadol of Klal Yisroel. This week, a member of his family commented to me about it: “Only a great man could allow himself to be so humble.”

That family member added that last Teves, when Rav Shteinman returned home after his second hospitalization, his grandson, Rav Asher Shteinman, asked if there was anything he could do to help. “Is there anything bothering you?” Rav Asher asked his grandfather.

“The aveiros,” Rav Shteinman replied. He proceeded to list three aveiros that were disturbing him. First, there was an incident in which he had passed by a private yard and had detached a leaf from a bush. This saddened him, because he had no way of making restitution for the leaf, since its value was less than a perutah and he did not know the identity of the owner. The second incident happened when he was in Italy and he needed to send a letter. He affixed only one stamp to the envelope. Although the postal service agreed to deliver the letter, he worried that the stamp might not have been sufficient. “Who needs to come to a din Torah with Mussolini in Shomayim?” he remarked.

The third incident took place during his time in Switzerland, when he owned a manual hair clipper jointly with three other men. Sometime after the machine broke, the group split up and the broken clipper remained in Rav Shteinman’s possession. Years later, he encountered a child of one of those men and asked for mechilah.

The underlying theme in these incidents is the same: The greater the person, the more he understands how much purity is expected of him. Even these exceedingly minor infractions, which the average person would consider completely insignificant, stood out in Rav Shteinman’s mind as “aveiros.” That is why he asked not to be called a tzaddik, and that is the meaning of both his tzavaah and the simple inscription on his matzeivah.

Rav Aharon Leib’s son, Rav Moshe Shteinman, related that his father used to interrupt his meals to respond to questioners, and he instructed his family members not to keep his visitors waiting. The family asked him to allow himself some respite from questioners at least during the brief time that he spent eating. Rav Shteinman replied, “When I know that there are people waiting outside, I am unable to eat. The food becomes caught in my throat.”

Stone Throwing at Kever Rochel Again

Once again, the sacred site of Kever Rochel has become an embodiment of the Israeli government’s weakness and neglect. Kever Rochel is located in the heart of the country and in close proximity to the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and the other institutions of the Israeli government, yet it has been left vulnerable to constant attacks. When the nearby Arab rabble threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the kever and its visitors, the government responded by building a wall around the compound. The Arabs continued throwing stones, and the government surrounded the road leading to the kever with a wall as well. They threw more stones, and the wall was made higher. That is how Israel responds to violence.

Several months ago, after another explosive device was thrown over the wall, the Minister of Internal Security was asked if the perpetrators had been captured and how many such incidents were recorded at the site during the years 2016 and 2017. He was also asked, “Why isn’t the movement of hostile forces restricted in the area outside the walls?” This would seem to be an appropriate solution: creating a sterile zone outside the wall surrounding the kever to prevent Arab rioters from approaching the walls.

The minister, Gilad Erdan, responded, “As you know, the Kever Rochel compound is a sensitive and complicated area. It is an enclave of sorts, surrounded on all sides by areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli police, the Border Guard, and the IDF conduct extensive operational activities within the compound and outside it in order to guarantee the security of the compound and all who visit it.”

After this meaningless introduction, Erdan began to address the actual question: “According to the information provided to me by the Israel Police, there have been repeated attempts to throw explosives and other objects toward the compound. In the year 2016, there were about 53 attempts, and in the year 2017 there have been about 20 incidents thus far [as of August 16, the date the response was delivered]. The police, in conjunction with the IDF, are working through a range of methods to combat the phenomenon, including operations in the area against the rioters, the installation of various means of protection, and intelligence and investigative operations, with the purpose of bringing the perpetrators to justice and reducing these shameful occurrences. Recently, the police succeeded in capturing a group of rioters who were throwing explosives. After they were arrested, their remand was extended and criminal charges against them were prepared.”

Nevertheless, Erdan could not address the suggestion of creating a sterile area around the compound. “With regard to limiting traffic on the other side of the walls surrounding the kever,” he said, “it should be noted that the area is a municipal area under the control of the Palestinian forces. Therefore, the correct bodies to address this subject are the Ministry of Defense and the IDF.”

World Class Chareidi Art

This week, I attended the opening of an art gallery. I do not know much about art, but in this case, any intelligent person could tell that the works on display were the product of a brilliant and highly creative mind.

While I don’t know much about art, I do know a little bit about people. The artist is a baal teshuvah who lives near my own home in Givat Shaul, and I came to the exhibit to show my respect for him and for his journey to Yiddishkeit.

The artist, who signs his works with the name “Yaakovi” (which is not his real name), was born in Tunisia. He moved to Paris at the age of four and he began painting at the age of eight. To date, he has created hundreds of paintings, but he has never placed any of them on display. He uses art to give expression to his inner world, as well as to convey spiritual messages. In his speech at the opening of his studio and art gallery, he admitted that his paintings have spiritual significance and symbolism. He even consented to explain the meanings of several of his works. One painting depicts a chavrusah, another shows the Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi, and a third alludes to the morning and evening of creation. Another painting, a white canvas that appears to have a gash in its center, with another image emerging from inside it, is meant to convey encouragement to bring out the spiritual potential that lies within a person. Another set of five paintings represent the five Chumashim; each painting contains various motifs from the parshiyos of its respective Chumash, along with letters that appear mostly in Rashi script. Some of the paintings include various religious objects such as tzitzis, or feature the same colors as a tallis.

Yaakovi chose the chareidi path at a young age, while he was living in France. He arrived in Eretz Yisroel about 20 years ago and leads a completely chareidi lifestyle. His children attend Torah institutions, and his eldest son is a yungerman in a kollel in Yerushalayim. “Every person is a combination of a body and a soul,” he said. “I try to give expression to the soul that exists inside me.” He expressed his thanks to everyone who had supported him in his journey and especially to his wife, who had decided after many years “to burst forward.”

The guest of honor at the opening of the gallery was Pinny Ezra, a member of the Yerushalayim city council on behalf of the Shas party, who holds the “Eastern Heritage” portfolio in the municipality. Ezra’s job brings him into constant contact with the world of chareidi culture and artwork in Yerushalayim, yet he was still just as moved as I was. “Yaakovi is another proof that chareidi art is not the least bit inferior to the offerings of chiloni artists. In fact, in some ways, it is even superior,” he asserted.

An Automated Response from Minister Shaked

Here is another amusing story from the halls of government. On December 19, the following message was circulated to all of the members of the Knesset and its employees: “We would like to inform you that on Monday, the 30th of Kislev 5778 – December 18, 2017 – the special sitting in honor of Mr. Michael Pence, the vice president of the United States, will not take place. The sitting has been postponed until Thursday, the 3rd of Teves 5778, December 21, 2017, at 4:00 p.m. In order for the sitting to take place, the Knesset committee will have to convene in order to approve it. The schedule for this Monday will be sent at a later time.” This e-mail was signed by the Knesset secretary.

I clicked on the “Reply All” option and wrote, in mock consternation, “Why? How will we deal with this?”

Several seconds later, a message popped into my inbox from the office of the Minister of Justice. “Thank you for your e-mail to the office of Minister Ayelet Shaked,” it read. “The content of your message has been transmitted for examination and to receive the response from the relevant authorities. You should receive a response shortly.”

It soon became evident to me that when I decided to share my consternation with all of the recipients of the earlier message, my e-mail had been sent to the office of the Minister of Justice as well. Apparently, every message sent to her receives the same automated response. I wonder how they will respond to the contents of my e-mail….

In any event, we have since been informed that Vice President Pence will be arriving after all, on Monday the sixth of Shevat. It seems that he will even be speaking in the Knesset during his visit. Apparently, the festive Knesset sitting will still be held.

A Glimpse of Life in the Mir

This past Motzoei Shabbos, an event was held at the Tamir Hall for the wives of yungeleit in the kollel of Yeshivas Mir. The women’s event is a very important program, and a very wise idea as well. While these women certainly are aware that there is nothing greater or more important than learning Torah – after all, that is why they are willing to sacrifice in order to support their husbands’ learning – the impact of actually witnessing what they are supporting can be inestimable.

The event consisted of two major components: a drasha delivered by Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Brazil and a video presentation. The video afforded the women a glimpse into the Torah empire of Mir in all its glory. It showed the sea of yungeleit disembarking from the fleet of buses that deliver them to the yeshiva every morning, and it contained an overview of the many thriving botei medrash that serve the yeshiva – Bais Sholom, Bais Yeshaya, Shalmei Simcha, Ner Gavriel, Pinsk Karlin, Friedman, Rappaport, and several others as well. There were also scenes from within the main building of the yeshiva. The energy rippling through each bais medrash was audible in the Tamir Hall.

It was an incredible presentation. From time to time, the camera would focus on a particular yungerman, and the radiant faces of the men immersed in learning exuded a sense of fulfillment. The women who attended the event returned home with a deeper appreciation for their husbands’ daily accomplishments, a more profound understanding of what they were achieving between the breathless race to catch their buses in the mornings and their exhausted return in the evenings. And they came to appreciate their own contributions, and the incredible endeavor in which they are partnering with their husbands, even more as well. This event is an idea that other kollelim would do well to imitate.

Officially Well-Mannered

On Monday night, at the Nof wedding hall in Yerushalayim, former minister Ariel Attias married off his son, Aharon, who is a talmid in the Brachfeld branch of Yeshivas Mir. The mizrach at the simcha, of course, was occupied by the foremost members of the Sephardic Torah world, as well as the members of the administration of the yeshiva. Naturally, the wedding was also attended by plenty of government ministers and members of the Knesset, who absented themselves briefly from the Knesset building in order to attend the simcha. The hall, which is located on the outskirts of Bayit Vegan, is very close to the Knesset, and the politicians felt the need to pay their respects to Attias, who was a member of their ranks not long ago. As Dr. Yosef Borg, a onetime minister from the Mafdal, once commented, “The title of ‘former minister’ is something that no one can ever take away from me.”

At any event that is attended by well-known public figures, there are bound to be other people who enjoy rubbing shoulders with them. In this case, a young man was standing at the entrance to the wedding hall when an official-looking car pulled up and a well-dressed, imposing figure emerged from it. Curious about the newcomer’s identity, the youth tapped another man on the shoulder and asked him, “Do you have any idea who that person is?”

“Whom are you referring to?” the man asked.

“That man over there, in the blue suit,” the young questioner said.

“That is Eli Groner, the director-general of the prime minister’s office,” the other wedding guest told him before continuing on his way.

What the young man did not realize, though, was that the man he had asked for that piece of information was none other than Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset. Any other person of Edelstein’s standing might have responded to a tap on his shoulder with an annoyed or reproachful glare, and would then have continued on his way without deigning to respond. Yuli Edelstein, however, is another story. When I complimented him on his behavior at the wedding, he said to me, “Well, why shouldn’t I have answered him?”

Only the Clothes Were Soiled

There are many parents in the world who believe that their children are prodigies. In the case of Yonah, that assessment seems to be correct. As long as he applies himself to his learning, it is very likely that Yonah will one day become known as a brilliant scholar. Today, though, he is an active, precocious little boy.

This week, Yonah was climbing on a huge mound of sand in a local park, when he invited his father to join him. “Come climb up with me, Abba!” the young boy called in excitement.

Yonah’s father, who is particularly finicky about cleanliness, recoiled at the thought. “It’s very dirty, Yonah!” he replied. “Look how dirty you are!”

Yonah looked down and shrugged. “I am not dirty at all,” he said. “Only my clothes are dirty!”

I believe that the mussar haskel is clear…