Friday, May 17, 2024

My Take on the News

Cruelty Beyond Comprehension

I am still dazed by the personal accounts that were published in honor of Yom Hashoah, observed in Israel last Thursday. The recollections of the horrors of the Holocaust are impossible to assimilate. One person was interviewed and described how a large number of people were crammed into a train that took them from their ghetto in Hungary to Auschwitz in Poland. They traveled under those conditions for four days, with no food, no water, and no air. When they arrived at Auschwitz, they were taken out of the train cars and ordered to stand in a line, where some were chosen to live and the others were sent to die. And for those who lived, the nightmare was far from over…

One article took us back to the days of the Eichmann trial, when the writer, K. Tsetnik (a pen name for Yechiel Dinor), revealed his identity for the first time at the witness stand and collapsed in the middle of his testimony. It took him four months to recover in the hospital from that ordeal. “When he came into the room, it became very crowded,” his wife said, “because another six million Jews had come with him.”


The Kastner Controversy

This year, in addition to the public spat between Binyomin Netanyahu and Yuli Edelstein, which I wrote about last week, there was a debate surrounding Dr. Yisroel Kastner. He was a Jew, a Zionist, and a member of the Vaad Hatzolah in Budapest during the Holocaust. He was responsible for saving Jews from the Nazis, but that is where the controversy regarding him begins. Some view him as a righteous man who saved Jews from death, while others feel that he was a profit-seeking opportunist who took money to bribe Nazi officials and may have pocketed some of the funds for himself. In 1952, a religious Jew wrote that Kastner had collaborated with the Nazis. Kastner filed a libel suit in response, but his efforts backfired, serving only to tarnish his name. In June 1955, the District Court exonerated the defendant and called Kastner “a man who sold his soul to the Satan.” Kastner was murdered in Tel Aviv. Some said the murder took place on Ben-Gurion’s orders. The Supreme Court heard the case after his death and declared that Kastner was innocent of the charges that had been leveled against him: collaborating with the Nazis, indirectly causing the deaths of many Hungarian Jews, and abetting the Nazis’ acts of theft.

Kastner has a granddaughter named Merav Michaeli, who is a member of the Knesset. This year, she decided to take advantage of the annual Yom Hashoah ceremony to clear her grandfather’s name. Every year, the Knesset holds a ceremony known as “Every Man Has a Name,” in which government ministers and members of the Knesset take turns ascending to the podium and reading off the names of victims of the Holocaust from their own families. It is a very simple event, without any fanfare or special effects of any sort. The participants simply read off a list of names, one after another. When a minister reads the names of his father’s brothers, who were children when they were murdered, and when another reads the names of his murdered relatives, one of whom is his namesake, the Holocaust becomes much more immediate and frightening. When people speak about the “six million,” it is more difficult to digest that enormous number. But when the victims are given names – for instance, when someone speaks about Moishele, his Aunt Hinda’s son – it makes the tragedy seem much closer.

This year, Merav Michaeli decided to light a candle in her grandfather’s memory and to speak about him. This led to a major uproar, and the Knesset made sure to clarify that she was acting on her own accord, and her actions were not part of the official ceremony. It was just another day in the State of Israel…


The Klausenberger Rebbe, An Angel Among Men

In honor of Yom Hashoah, the new television station, “Kan,” ran a documentary about the Klausenberger Rebbe. The Rebbe was a man who defied comprehension. He had lost his entire family, his wife and 11 children, in the Holocaust. It is astonishing that he was able to survive that crushing tragedy, but he did much more than that. He went on to rebuild his own life and to restore the lives of an entire generation.

On that note, allow me to share the testimony of one of his gabbaim, which appeared several years ago in a publication of the Sanzer chassidus: “The Rebbe almost never mentioned his martyred children Hy”d, but listen to this heartrending story. It was at the wedding of one of the Rebbe’s children. On the afternoon of the chuppah, I was present in the Rebbe’s chamber, along with his gabbai… Suddenly, it happened. The Rebbe began to speak in a quiet voice, and he said, ‘You know, if my dear son, mein Lipa’le, was alive, he would be such and such an age today…. If my Chaim Hershele was still alive, he would be … and my Sima Brocha … my Boruch’l … my Chanale….’ And so the Rebbe went on enumerating all of his children, his eleven sons and daughters, Hashem yikom domom, and calculating the ages they would have been on that day. Reb Yehoshua Weissenblum [the gabbai] was unable to watch the terrifying scene, and he turned to the window and began sobbing. My own weeping grew more intense with every name that the Rebbe uttered, and my eyes were filled with tears. The Rebbe’s voice also cracked and broke, and he began weeping without cease. Oy, it was a fearsome scene that I could not bear to witness. Apparently, the Rebbe wanted to invoke the names of those holy souls on the day of his rejoicing. Suddenly, we saw him collapse onto the sofa in the room and his shtreimel slipped off his head. For over twenty minutes, his entire body was racked with horrendous sobbing.”

For several years, I have been reading the weekly publication of the drashos and shiurim on the parsha of the Klausenberger Rebbe. The breadth of his knowledge was extraordinary. His shiurim encompass every topic and include fascinating stories, vertlach, and mussar ideas.

Here is one small taste of the Rebbe’s teachings: “Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of thinking that they deserve for Hashem to bestow only good things and kindness upon them, without contemplating whether they have actually done anything to be deserving of it. The story is told of a person who complained to a tzaddik about the hardships in his life. He related that he struggled to eke out a living, working day and night until his strength was depleted, and he barely had any time to rest. He concluded, ‘I am suffering so much in this world. If I at least knew that I would have Olam Haba, I would feel much better.’ The tzaddik replied, ‘I am surprised at what you have said. It is a kal vachomer: If, as you yourself have said, you are toiling day and night for the sake of this world, and you still have not acquired it, then why would you think that you will have anything in the World to Come, when you haven’t lifted a finger to attain it?’”


My Own Namesake

I am a grandchild of the Holocaust. That is, I am not a survivor myself, but my mother endured its horrors.

Hershy Pollack was four years old when he was murdered by the Nazis, ym”sh. He was a small child with curly blond hair, who had already learned the Alef-Bais. Those monstrous brutes showed no mercy to any man, woman, or child. They wanted to rid the world completely of the Jews, whom they did not consider deserving of life itself, and certainly not of any mercy. That was their “Final Solution.” The more I think about it, the more I find myself filled with rage and frustration: How could any human being murder an infant in cold blood? How could a German officer, dressed in the finest uniform, take a revolver out of its holster and fire a bullet into the head of a Jew who was pleading for his life?

If Hershy Pollack hadn’t been murdered, he would have been 77 years old today. He would have been a father, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather. But he was murdered at the age of four. Even if he had survived the war, it is possible that he would never have remembered his childhood home. His family, the Pollack-Appel family, lived in a town in the Marmorus region of Romania. It was an area that was conquered repeatedly. It was part of Czechoslovakia at one point, then part of Romania, and then part of Hungary.

His older sister, who watched as her brother was taken to the ovens in Auschwitz, remembered much more than that. She remembered little Hershy, who was the delight of the family, and she also remembered her parents and her other siblings. All of her family members were murdered there, with the exception of one sister, whom her father had exhorted her to guard with her life. She, the older sister, was 16 years old in Auschwitz; she was the oldest child in the family. And she remembered everything: the shrubbery that surrounded their spacious home, the living space in the home, the Yomim Tovim celebrated in their large living room, the expansive porch, and the room where the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe stayed. (The Rebbe of Seret-Vizhnitz lived in a nearby city and used to visit the adjoining towns. When he came to their town, as the most prestigious family in the community, they had the privilege of hosting him.)

She remembered the local shul and school. And she also remembered the journey to Auschwitz, the wooden platform on which she slept in the barracks, and the expression in her mother’s eyes as she was taken away to be killed. She remembered her father being separated from her and insisting that his children, if they survived, must remain Jewish. She remembered the temptation to take her own life by touching the electrified fence, thus escaping from the nightmare in which she was living. She remembered the barking of the dogs that had been trained to maul Jews to death. She remembered the shrill whistles of the arriving trains and the thunder of the bullets fired from the watchtowers or by the guards on the forced marches. She remembered it every single day of her life, and she remembered it even more vividly at nights. That woman, the sister of Hershy Hy”d, was my mother a”h.

If there is a concept of a child who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, then I am such a person. I am the progeny of survivors who were scarred by their experiences. I read about the things that happened “there,” and I still cannot believe it. Yet I grew up with a mother who lived through it. For decades, she seemed to have taken an oath of silence – for our sake – but in the last few years of her life, that wall of silence softened. She didn’t tell us much, but she said enough for us to understand that we had two mothers: the one who had raised us and the one who survived Auschwitz. We learned from her the meaning of Jewish vengeance. She taught us how to view the things that had happened, what to think and when to remain silent.

Until her death, she pined for little Hershy. I am named after him.


A Foolish Quarrel and an Ill-Advised Letter

Once a solution was found for the ceremony marking the transition from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Haatzmaut, and the prime minister was tapped to deliver a speech as one of the torch lighters, Zionists were able to breathe more easily. This is the State of Israel, where even a speech from the prime minister must be the subject of a two-week public quarrel.

Let me quote to you from a letter written by the speaker of the Knesset, which was sent to the members of the Knesset at the beginning of the conflict: “In recent days, there has been renewed discussion about the suggestion made by Minister Miri Regev, chairwoman of the Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies, to implement fundamental changes in the traditional torch-lighting ceremony held on Mount Herzl. If this comes to pass, it will be the first interference since the founding of the state in the most significant official event on the yearly calendar, an event that many view as a sort of sacred Israeli ceremony. If the Knesset is not the sole government body represented at the event, then, to my chagrin, neither the Knesset nor its members will be able to participate.”

Edelstein’s letter to the Knesset continued, “Since we have been working together in this parliament for a long time, I feel obligated to explain my decision to you. You certainly understand that I am not doing this for the sake of my own honor. It is for the honor of the Knesset, to prevent discord in Israel. The torch-lighting ceremony has deliberately never been made the exclusive province of one sector or another of Israeli society. It is so beloved precisely because it reveals something that we occasionally forget in the passion of our daily interactions: that our society is a single mosaic of humanity, whose massive accomplishments stem from the spirit of unity that infuses it. Therefore, it is specifically the Knesset – where the representatives of every man and woman in Israel are gathered together, and where all of the sectors, ethnicities, and stripes of Israeli society are represented – that has traditionally led this special ceremony with unity, dignity, and honor. I have no doubt that if the national character of the ceremony is removed, the flames of those torches will fan the flames of discord between all of us, in the conflicts that are begging to be put to rest. Therefore, we cannot be party to this.”

His proclamations were lofty, but they were also hollow. Was it suddenly acceptable to boycott official ceremonies? As far as I am concerned, it was a contemptible letter indeed.


Another Step in the Battle Against the Supreme Court

Two of the most significant issues this week were subjects of concern last week as well. One of those issues is the rising tensions in the north, which includes not only the mass slaughter and the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but also the collaboration between Iran and Syria on the development of nuclear capabilities. Israel, as a country, cannot understand how Vladimir Putin, the leader of a large nation, can possibly be working together with Assad. It may be understandable from people such as Erdogan of Turkey and other enemies of Israel, but why does it make sense for Putin? I won’t write about this, since there are people who understand much more than I do about the subject. But the military operation in Syria, which has been attributed to Israel, is liable to inflame tensions in the region. And that is a cause of some concern here.

The second issue is the subject of the African infiltrators. It is the Supreme Court that has been preventing the government from acting freely on the issue. Perhaps I should explain: In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned a law passed by the Knesset, known as the Infiltrators Law, which was meant to permit the government to deport the illegal immigrants. After the court disqualified that law, the Knesset passed a more moderate version of the law, which was likewise disqualified by the court. Every step that the government attempts to take on this subject meets with immediate opposition from left-wing groups, or from self-righteous activists who claim to be defending justice. Unfortunately, they clearly have more compassion for the infiltrators from Eritrea and Sudan than for the residents of southern Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak who are suffering from them.

Last week, Netanyahu announced that the government is looking for ways to deport the infiltrators. The court hastened to announce once again that the government must refrain from doing anything that will harm them. Meanwhile, Minister Naftali Bennett – who always tries to demonstrate that he is more right-wing than Netanyahu – announced that his party would attempt to pass a law that states explicitly that it is being passed despite the Supreme Court’s opposition. As I noted previously, we would consider that a positive development, since we have likewise been trying to pass a law that will bypass the Supreme Court. In our case, it would legalize the exemption of bnei yeshivos from the draft. Until now, the Minister of Finance has opposed every bill that has threatened to undermine the Supreme Court’s authority. However, he has agreed to the bill concerning the infiltrators. As far as we are concerned, that is a good precedent.

And the matter has not ended there. Netanyahu, who is always afraid that Bennett will steal right-wing votes from him, made his own announcement this week: that he plans to introduce a bill that would strip the Supreme Court of the authority to overturn any laws.

In short, there is never a dull moment in the government of Israel.


The Barrels of Oil in Meron

Last Monday, I spent twelve hours in the north. It is only a drive of an hour and a half from Yerushalayim. At the end of bein hazemanim, many people visit the north.

During those twelve hours, I managed to accomplish many things. I davened Mincha at the kever of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai and Maariv at a shul in Rechasim. I paid a visit to a patient in Rambam Hospital in Haifa, and I even managed to console a couple of “mourners.” In this case, though, the people I visited were not mourning the death of a relative. Rather, they were mourning the loss of their dream. In fact, they were two of my children, who had traveled to the north with friends from their yeshivos to spend time in a “tzimmer.” One of my sons was in a moshav known as Alma, while the other was visiting a moshav known as Kalanit. Both had been promised beautiful vacation homes surrounded by breathtaking scenery, but the reality was nothing like the rosy picture that had been painted for them. They were promised magnificent cottages with swimming pools, but their accommodations turned out to be nothing more than converted storage rooms equipped with kiddie pools. I did my best to comfort them, and I hoped that the experience would serve as a lesson for them.

In any event, I was excited to watch the yeshiva bochurim, whose idea of a vacation was reciting Tehillim in Meron and Tzefas. I was famished when I arrived at the kever, and soon benefited from the generosity of the hachnosas orchim that operates at the site. I looked at the people enjoying a meal. They represented a cross-section of the Jewish people. There was plenty of food, as well as milk. The cups bore the logo of the organization.

And then there was the tziyun itself. I never tire of visiting it. I sat there, in the area next to the tziyun, for a long time. For the first time, I noticed that there were massive barrels of oil there, of a size that I had never seen anywhere else. I wondered who filled the barrels and how long it took to fill them.

And then there were the people. I enjoyed sitting and watching the visitors, trying to guess at their identities and the purpose of their visits. Of course, the possibilities were virtually endless. One man might be a wealthy financier; another might be a poor beggar. One might be from New Jersey, and another might be from the east. One visitor may have come to give thanks to Hashem for a successful shidduch, while another may have come to daven for an imminent operation to be successful. And the list goes on.


“Turn Right to Rav Ovadiah Yosef”

Then there was the next part of my trip – Rambam Hospital in Haifa. In general, as far as I am concerned, the hospital might as well be in a different country. In fact, I sometimes feel that I should bring my passport and some dollars in order to visit Haifa itself. It is a city that is simply far removed from the places where I usually spend my time.

According to the signs at the entrance to the hospital, the medical center has earned international recognition. Be that as it may, it does not help the families of patients who are in need of a place to stay, not to mention the patients themselves, unless they have been actually hospitalized. But in Haifa, as in many other places, there are good Jews, and there are other people who know them, and there are people who know the people who know them… To make a long story short, this chain of connections eventually led me to Rabbi Yosef Menachem (Yossi) Yeret, an indefatigable and profoundly modest baal chesed. His main job is taking care of the talmidim of the Yeshiva of Kfar Chassidim. In his spare time, he also manages the hospitality rooms of Rabbi Peretz Meir.

Who is Rabbi Peretz Meir? I had never heard the name before, but discovered that he is a Belzer chossid who hails originally from England, and today he is one of the most prodigious activists in Haifa, who runs ten guest rooms that are located adjacent to the hospital. Reb Peretz is a powerhouse of Torah, chesed, and kiruv. He is responsible for funding many shuls, shiurim, Shabbos learning programs, preschools, elementary schools, kollelim, and tzedakah funds for the needy. And I was ashamed to admit that I had never even heard of him.

But let me return to the hospitality rooms themselves. The room provided for my son, whose wife was a patient in the hospital, was the epitome of grandeur in hospitality. There were clean towels, the walls were decorated with pictures, and the room was sparkling. Even the kitchenette was equipped with every possible amenity. Another guest, who had spent Shabbos there, spoke highly of the hospitality. I have been in Haifa only once or twice in the past, but on this visit, I discovered the city’s Jewish side. These particular guest rooms have been in operation for seven years. “Hundreds of patients must have used these rooms,” I commented to Rabbi Yossi Yeret.

“Thousands, not hundreds,” he corrected me. “And not only patients, but their family members as well.”

“Thousands of people have been sick?” I whispered.

“There have also been new mothers after birth,” he replied, a subtle reminder that I should think positively.

Let me add one more observation from my visit to Haifa: I never visit the north without using Waze to direct me. I always find myself amazed by this little program. First of all, there is its tenacity. It repeats over and over, “At the roundabout, take the second exit. At the roundabout, take the second exit. At the roundabout…” Does the machine think that I didn’t hear it the first time? But its detailed information is also incredible. And then there was the announcement that it made when I drove into Rechasim: “Turn right to Rav Ovadiah Yosef.” It was worth the trip to hear that!


Pesach Greetings in the Mail

Ministers and deputy ministers in the Israeli government love to send seasonal greetings in the mail. They will take advantage of every opportunity to flood the mailboxes of their party members – and everyone else whose opinion of them makes a difference – with heartfelt warm wishes. At the end of Elul, the Knesset mail service is inundated with sacks filled with envelopes, most of which will not reach their recipients until Cheshvan. But as they say, better late than never. It is never a bad time for good wishes. And there are some government officials who never miss the Muslim or Christian holidays either. They are exempt from paying postage; the cost of sending the letters is borne by the Israeli taxpayer.

Well, Pesach is also a good time for mass mailings. Of course, thanks to the Israeli postal service, these letters from our government leaders began arriving only after the Yom Tov had ended. Deputy Minister Michael Oren penned the following greeting: “May you and your family have a happy and kosher holiday of Pesach. May our freedom blossom like a palm tree, and may our days be renewed like days of old. A happy festival of spring. Deputy Minister MK Dr. Michael Oren.”


An MK Without an Office

The Knesset will resume its work next week, with a new member joining its ranks. In an unprecedented development, this new member of the Knesset does not yet have an office of his own, even though he has been part of the Knesset for the past month (since March 12). Many people in the Knesset have been working on this issue, but Yinon Azulai still does not have an office. He was offered a storage room without windows and another room without walls. Finally, in an unusual move, he was asked to relay a request for his father to give up his own office in exchange for a small room on the cabinet floor so that Yinon will have an ordinary office.

Yinon Azulai’s father is Dovid Azulai, who holds the position of Minister of Religious Affairs. One month ago, the elder Azulai resigned from the Knesset (but not the government), allowing his son – who was the next on the original Shas list – to take his place. Dovid Azulai is a minister of the government who does not have a seat in the Knesset, just like Naftali Bennett, Aryeh Deri, Moshe Kachlon, and Avigdor Lieberman.

When I heard that Yinon didn’t have an office, I was amazed. He is typically a refined person, but I also know that when he wants something, he is capable of fighting for it with the utmost tenacity. Recently, I watched as he battled for official approval for a chareidi day care center that had been denied official status simply due to discrimination. He turned the entire Ministry of the Economy topsy-turvy in his quest for fairness. Why, I wondered, should Yinon himself be disadvantaged?

I decided to take matters into my own hands and advise him. “All you need to do is say the word to the Knesset speaker,” I told him, “and you will have an office within two minutes.” We both see Yuli Edelstein every day at Mincha. The problem should have been solved with ease. But Yinon was aghast at the suggestion. “Chas veshslom!” he exclaimed. “Don’t say a word to him!”

“Why?” I sputtered.

His response amazed me. “A few Knesset employees are working on it, and the director-general of the Knesset is involved as well,” he said, indicating that he was afraid that one of the parties involved might be reprimanded – or suffer even worse consequences – for failing to carry out his task.


The Forgotten Fish

Let me conclude with a story from Shabbos Hagadol. It is a Shabbos that is “great” in many ways – in the mitzvos it involves, the drashos that can be heard, the pressure that comes along with it, and the vast number of family getaways. This year, even though there was an entire week between Shabbos Hagadol and the first night of Pesach, many people refused to forgo their annual custom of spending the Shabbos away from home. In our own building, a visiting family stayed in the apartment on the floor below us. The usual residents of the apartment went away to their parents’ home in Mattersdorf, allowing the family of a sibling to stay in their home instead. I am not sure what any of them gained from switching apartments, but that is what they did.

On Friday night, the visitors knocked on my door in a panic. “Do you know the combination for your neighbors’ apartment?” they asked. The door to the apartment where they were staying sported a combination lock, rather than one that could be opened with a key. The visiting father and his older sons had gone to shul, while his wife and the smaller children had gone outside. They had been outside for an hour already, while the set table – and their food – awaited them inside the locked apartment.

“I remember the combination,” the man insisted, “but the door isn’t opening.” I understood the hint: They wanted to spend the evening in our apartment, at least until they managed to gain access to their accommodations. We were happy to invite them to our meal, even though there wasn’t much food to go around. “But where will you sleep tonight?” I asked.


The man shrugged. “Only Hashem knows. Perhaps we will divide ourselves among the neighbors.”

After some hesitation, we invited them to sleep in our apartment as well. The man took a quick trip downstairs to try the lock again, but his efforts were in vain. “I don’t understand this!” he exclaimed. “I am certain that the combination is 8415. When he told me the numbers, I translated the code into a word in my mind: ches mem alef hey, or ‘chemah.’ But it isn’t working, and I don’t understand why.” He was terribly distraught.

At the end of the seudah, we all prepared to go to sleep. My apartment, to say the least, i hardly spacious enough to accommodate a second family. Their discomfort and angst were visible in their expressions. Their enjoyable Shabbos had turned into an extremely unpleasant experience. It was almost midnight, and they were still locked out of their hosts’ home.

At 1:00 in the morning, there was a knock on our door. I opened the door a crack and the frightened face of our downstairs neighbor peered inside. “Do you have any idea what happened to our guests?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, ushering him into the living room. “They are right here!”

The room was instantly flooded with joy. It was as if Eliyohu Hanovi had walked into the house during Shefoch Chamoscha. All of the agonizing uncertainties of the evening had been wiped away. Salvation had come in an instant to our guests. But there was one question begging to be asked.

“What brought you back here?” I said to my neighbor. “Do you have ruach hakodesh? Did you somehow intuit that they were locked out of your house?”

“No,” he replied. “I have a fish tank in my house, and I forgot to feed the fish before Shabbos.”

“And what about the combination to your lock? It isn’t 8415, which would spell the word ‘chemah’?”

“No,” he said. “It is 8435. And the word is ‘chemlah.’”





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