My Take on the News

The Police Deny Responsibility

In the midst of this sadness, the preparations for the hillula of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer continued. With regard to that, many things were still unclear as of this writing. Every agency involved is trying to prepare appropriately for the occasion, from the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites through the police, the Ministry of Transportation, and all the emergency medical organizations, as well as the organizations that are preparing food for the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Meron. Already now, before the hillula has taken place, the accusations and finger-pointing have begun.

First of all, there are complaints against the police. The commanders of the police force will always be viewed with suspicion. Everyone knows that the main objective of the police is to make it through Lag Ba’omer without incident. As far as they are concerned, that means avoiding mishaps of any sort; it does not mean making sure that the public has access to Meron. If the police feel that they have to curtail the freedom of the people to visit Meron, they will do that. It will not bother them in the least if only less people ascend the mountain on Lag. They do not consider themselves obligated to do everything in their power to enable everyone who wishes to visit Meron to do so. From their perspective, it is more important to see to it that everyone returns home in peace.

That is why many askonim and public figures protested when the police announced their plans. Those plans include “regulating” the flow of visitors to Meron by having the arriving buses stop in the Megiddo and Tzipori parking lots until other visitors leave the site. It was also reported that the police plan to prevent tickets for public transportation to Meron from being marketed on a large scale. In response to the outcry, the police quickly declared that they were being unfairly criticized and they have no interest in imposing restrictions on the public. They insist that their sole objective is to prevent overwhelming traffic congestion in Meron, which may lead to chaos.

 

The Shaimos Activists

With the approach of Lag Ba’omer, chareidi dailies in Eretz Yisroel have been carrying notices announcing the “holy call” and “urgent admonition” of gedolim against the distribution of printed materials requiring sheimos in large gatherings of people, such as Meron on Lag Ba’omer. I have always wondered what kind of people spend large sums of money in order to pay for such notices. Before Yomim Tovim, for instance, someone sponsors advertisements reminding people to perform an eiruv tavshilin. And just before Chol Hamoed ends and the final day of Yom Tov begins, we are exposed to advertisements reminding us to check our pockets.

In this case, at least, the advertisement of the “Vaad Halachah L’inyanei Genizah” contained a phone number. I tried the number, but the line was busy. A short time later, after I had turned my attention to other matters, the telephone rang. “You called us?” said the voice on the other end of the line.

By that time, I had forgotten my earlier call. “Who is this?” I asked.

“The Vaad Halachah L’inyanei Genizah,” the other man readily replied.

“Yes,” I said, “I did call you. I saw your advertisements in the newspapers and I wanted to find out who is behind this initiative.”

“Do you know Rav Bodenheim?” the man asked. I confirmed that I did. Rav Bodenheim is the founder of the Genizah Klalit, which is responsible for the large blue receptacles for shaimos that have appeared in many neighborhoods. He is also the man who convinced Avi Gabbai, during his tenure as a government minister, to exempt shaimos from the burial tax. He is a wonderful and highly accomplished activist.

“But the advertisements have the name of your organization, not his,” I said.

“He paid for the advertisements,” the man replied. “We work together. Our committee advises him and he almost never turns us down when we ask him to do something. I am certain that these advertisements cost him thousands of shekels.”

“I am familiar with Rav Bodenheim’s organization, Genizah Klalit,” I said. “But who founded the Vaad Halachah L’inyanei Genizah?”

“It was founded by Rav Micha Rothschild, may Hashem send him a refuah sheleimah.”

Rav Micha Rothschild is a wonderful person who was the driving force behind many important initiatives, including Project Achisomach.

This exchange served as a lesson to me in the lengths to which good people will go in order to caution others about potential aveiros. It was also an illustration of the debt of gratitude that we owe to wonderful people such as Rav Bodenheim and Rav Micha Rothschild. Indeed, let us pray for Hashem to send Rav Rothschild a refuah sheleimah.

 

Back to Work in the Knesset

In the political realm, things are back to normal.

On Monday, the Knesset began its summer assembly, and the coalition and opposition have already had the chance to clash over several laws, mainly the Nationality Law. We all know that this will continue until the end of the summer, when the Knesset begins its summer recess on Tisha B’Av.

This summer, the primary conflict in the Knesset is likely to revolve around the efforts to limit the authority of the Supreme Court. The chief justice of the Supreme Court has been pressuring Netanyahu to soften the law that he intends to enact (specifically, to require more than a simple majority in order to overturn a decision of the Supreme Court). To date, seventeen cabinet ministers have announced that they support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s law. And the opposition, of course, has gone wild with outrage.

Meanwhile, polls have been creating tensions between various coalition members, especially between Netanyahu and the leaders of the two of the other major parties in the coalition, Naftali Bennett and Moshe Kachlon. The results of the latest polls are not too surprising, with the exception of the success of MK Orly Levi-Abekasis, who is projected to win eight seats in the next Knesset. That revelation shook up the entire political system, although it is difficult to believe that this prediction will actually come to pass.

In his opening address for the summer assembly, Netanyahu presented his plans and objectives for the coming season. It was a festive sitting, as usual, though the situation now seems to do little to justify that festive mood.

 

The Religious Prisoner’s Plight

Last Monday, the Knesset Finance Committee discussed the budget of the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority. According to a newspaper report, MK Yisroel Eichler decried the lack of funding for a rehabilitation program for religious prisoners. He claimed that it has been professionally proven that religious rehabilitation programs are the most effective, yet it is precisely those prisoners who suffer from discrimination. The lack of such programs is not merely the result of shortsightedness; it is actually a flagrant violation of the rights of religious prisoners, who are human beings entitled to the same rights as any other prison inmate. That is precisely what Eichler said during the committee session: “At this time, there is much talk in the president’s residence and in the Ministry of Justice about the option of clemency for rehabilitated prisoners. A prisoner who has not gone through rehabilitation does not meet the criteria for clemency. Religious rehabilitation does not exist in the prisons, and prisoners who seek rehabilitation in a suitable religious framework have found that no such program is available to them.”

This is a very serious problem, and it affects not only the potential for clemency, but also a prisoner’s access to furloughs, pre-imprisonment rehabilitation (in which the convict goes out to work and sleeps in his home), and even the standard reduction of a sentence by one-third. Many prisoners who are released after serving two-thirds of their sentences are required to undergo “rehabilitation.” For most of them, that means joining a group program. For instance, if a person has shown a tendency to steal, he is enrolled in a program in which he is taught to respect the property of others. Most of these groups are secular in nature, and they tend to include activities and group projects that would be halachically forbidden to a religious prisoner. Another obstacle for religious inmates is the fact that they would have to transfer from a religious wing of a prison to an ordinary wing in order to participate in these groups. If a prisoner objects to transferring to a chiloni wing, he may lose the opportunity to participate in the rehabilitative workshops and thus be forced to serve his full sentence. A third problem is that rehabilitative hostels exist for Arabs and chilonim, but not for chareidim.

Although the newspaper report singled out Yisroel Eichler for his efforts on this subject, it is actually MK Yitzchok Vaknin who has taken it upon himself to work for this cause. He is considered the “father” of religious rehabilitation. Once, when he brought up this subject in the Knesset, Minister Chaim Katz said to him gruffly, “Go get money from the Treasury on your own!” On the other hand, when the hostels for Arabs were closed, the Arab MKs exploded in outrage, and the Ministry of Welfare – under Chaim Katz himself – immediately provided the requisite funds. This time, as well, Vaknin has entered the picture and is using his power to promote the cause of religious prisoners. Moshe Gafni, the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, has announced that he will relentlessly advocate for them as well. Nevertheless, Yisroel Eichler is an expert at drawing public attention to issues of importance; that is why the newspaper focused on him.

Incidentally, when Eichler referred to the “president’s residence,” he was careful to use the Hebrew term “beit hanasi,” rather than the more formal “mishkan hanasi,” which is a commonly used term. When Eichler and I worked together for the weekly magazine Hamachaneh Hachareidi, the editor insisted that the word “mishkan” not be used in reference to the president’s residence or the Knesset building. And he is absolutely correct about that. Since that time, I have learned never to use the word “mishkan” in reference to a secular institution.

 

Sefirah Beards in the Knesset

There was a time when it was difficult to find a minyan of people in the Knesset shul who refrained from shaving during Sefirah. The few people who observed the halacha and grew “Sefirah beards” felt out of place. Even more than that, others would whisper behind our backs, “What happened? Did someone die? Are they in mourning?” Finally, they would pretend to remember and exclaim, “Oh, it’s the Omer!”

Today, though, many Knesset employees can be found sporting Sefirah beards. In fact, those who do shave during this time are the ones who feel discomfort; they even sometimes feel the need to apologize for their appearances. Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset speaker, refrained from shaving during Sefirah for many years, but changed his practice during the past two years. He explained that he received a p’sak from a rov that, as the Knesset speaker, he is “obligated” to shave.

The story of the Knesset Guard is the most fascinating element of the change that has occurred in the Knesset. Until twenty years ago, the members of the Knesset Guard were required to be clean-shaven at all times. The Sergeant-at-Arms of the Knesset and the commander of the Knesset Guard both insisted that their officers appear presentable, and shaving – even during Sefirah – was part of that requirement. If a member of the Knesset Guard asked to be exempted from that requirement, he was told that the alternative was to find a different job. Twenty years ago, though, I happened to ask one of the security guards why he was shaving during Sefirah, and I was appalled when he explained the situation. I asked several members of the Knesset to join me, and we approached the Knesset speaker at that time, the late Dov Shilansky. As soon as Shilansky was informed of the situation, he announced decisively, “This will not continue on my watch!” He issued an unequivocal order that rescinded the instructions of the other two officials.

At that time, we celebrated Shilansky’s decision as an incredible victory. Today, I have a different perspective: The fact that the members of the Knesset Guard were ever forced to violate their religion is a stain on the Knesset’s record. It should surprise no one that some religious people who worked in the Knesset in the past (such as the director of the Finance Committee) felt the need to remove their yarmulkas before entering the building, or that others, such as former Knesset secretary Shmuel Yaakovson, were afraid to grow beards. Today, though, if you come to the Knesset shul, you will find that the vast majority of the mispallelim – including twenty members of the Knesset Guard – have Sefirah beards.

 

Counting the Days That Have Passed

Speaking of Sefirah, I must share an unforgettable insight that I once learned from Rav Shimshon Pincus about this mitzvah.

 The Sefer Hachinuch states that the purpose of counting the days of the Omer is to demonstrate that we are eagerly anticipating Matan Torah – “like a person who is looking forward to a specific thing and counts the days longingly.” According to this explanation, though, it would seem that we should count the days that remain until Matan Torah. However, the mitzvah calls for us to count the days that have passed. Why is the mitzvah structured in this fashion?

Rav Pincus explained that when a person counts the days remaining until he reaches a particular goal, the implication is that the days that have passed have no meaning. For instance, if a person is told that he will receive a gift after fifty days have passed, he will view the intervening days merely as a period of time that separates him from the gift he is waiting to receive. Every passing day will simply mean that he is slightly closer to the end of that waiting period.

All of the days of Sefirah, however, have meaning of their own. Sefiras Ha’omer is a time of spiritual growth and development. When a building is built, Rav Pincus explained, the builder counts every floor as it is constructed. When he completes the first floor of the building, he does not say, “Now I have only nine stories left to build.” Rather, he declares that he has built one story; he views the construction of each floor as an accomplishment. Likewise, during the days of Sefirah, we build and develop ourselves in preparation for receiving the Torah. From Hashem’s vantage point, so to speak, He could give us the Torah immediately. However, we are not ready for it until after we have completed the process of Sefirah. By counting the days that have passed, we mark the levels of spiritual preparation that we have passed through in order to prepare ourselves for Matan Torah.

 

A Mezuzah for the Embassy

In America, you probably took your government seriously when it announced its intent to transfer the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim. Here in Israel, we are not used to seeing our government fulfill its promises. When the government sends a check, we expect it to bounce. We once had a prime minister who met with the chareidi members of the Knesset and made a specific promise; he never fulfilled that promise. When asked to explain his actions, he said simply, “It is permissible to lie for the sake of the state.” That same prime minister also believed (when he headed the Lechi movement) that it is permissible to murder for the sake of the state. Another prime minister, Levi Eshkol, once told someone, “It’s true that I promised, but I never promised to keep my promise.”

It seems, though, that things are different in America. If the government makes a promise, it must stand by its word. Of course, all of the previous presidents of the United States have also promised to move the embassy, only to repeatedly sign an order delaying the transfer. But we have now heard that there will be a very distinguished delegation of American statesmen coming to Israel, including the Secretary of the Treasury (Steve Mnuchin) and about forty senators and members of Congress, among them Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham. It is rumored that the Kushners – the daughter and son-in-law of the president – will also be accompanying the American delegation, and Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, may be present as well. Even Trump himself said that he is thinking of coming. The Yerushalayim municipality has earmarked eight million shekels for the construction of access roads to the future site of the embassy in Talpiot. And it has been reported that Ambassador Friedman has already prepared a mezuzah to affix to the doorpost. There is talk of a festive reception to be held on the 29th of Iyar (May 14).

 

Twelve Thousand Pairs

The days of Sefiras Ha’omer are a time when we make a reckoning of our dealings with other people. As Chazal tell us, the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva perished during this time because they did not treat each other with respect. The Gemara does not accuse them of murder, slander, defamation, or even actively demonstrating disdain for each other. It states simply that they did not have respect for each other – and for that lack of respect, they were punished severely. Not only did all 24,000 talmidim die, but the entire world became a veritable spiritual wasteland.

Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro zt”l once pointed out that the Gemara describes the talmidim of Rabi Akiva as “twelve thousand pairs of talmidim.” Why doesn’t the Gemara describe the number in a simpler way, as “twenty-four thousand talmidim”? Rav Moshe Shmuel explained that their failure to treat each other with respect was a deficiency in the mutual respect expected of chavrusos. The talmidim of Rabi Akiva learned together in pairs, but they did not demonstrate the respect that should exist between learning partners. The Gemara states in Bava Metzia that the talmidei chachomim in Bavel used to rise out of respect for each other. Rashi explains that this was a fulfillment of the requirement for a talmid to stand up out of respect for his rebbi. Since the talmidei chachomim of Bavel used to debate with each other, challenging each other with questions and offering resolutions to each other’s challenges, they considered themselves obligated to demonstrate kavod to each other. Since it is inevitable for a person to learn at least some insights from his chavrusah, some of the halachos that govern the relationship between a talmid and rebbi apply equally to the relationship between chavrusos. And it was for that lack of mutual respect that Rabi Akiva’s talmidim lost their lives.

Rav Moshe Shmuel noted that it is very difficult for any person to view his peers as superior to him in any way. “It is human nature that even if a person knows that there are people who are wiser than he, he will not admit that a person who is standing before him is wiser than he is, for he will be too begrudging to admit that someone else is greater,” he explained. To illustrate this point, the rosh yeshiva often related a story concerning his rebbi, Rav Chaim of Brisk, who was a profound admirer of the Maicheter Iluy. Once, he related, a prestigious talmid chochom tried to belittle the greatness of the Maicheter Iluy. “Do we have a shortage of illuyim?” the man asked.

Rav Chaim bristled. “Are you the greatest talmid chochom in the world?” he demanded. “Are there no people who are wiser than you?”

Chalilah,” the other man replied. “Of course there are!”

“Then why would it bother you if one of those people is the Maicheter Iluy?” Rav Chaim shot back.

 

Ill-Advised Comments

Dr. Fadi al-Batsh, a 35-year-old electrical engineer and expert in alternative energy, was shot dead at six o’clock on Shabbos morning in Malaysia while he was making his way to a local mosque where he held a religious position. He was shot to death by two masked gunmen, who escaped immediately on motorcycles. The Arab media immediately tried to pin the blame on Israel. “Ten gunshots fired by two assassins on motorcycles ended the life of Fadi al-Batsh,” one newspaper announced dramatically. “His father blames Israel: ‘The Mossad is responsible.’” Al-Batsh was both a scientist and a murderer, who used his engineering skills to assist in the murder of Jews.

According to the rules, the people responsible for sending the assassins are supposed to remain silent, at least for a generation. They should neither deny nor confirm their role in the incident; they should simply not relate to it at all. And there is always a good reason for that. In Syria, for instance, the purpose was to prevent Assad from being angered and triggering a bloodbath. In this case, why should we antagonize Malaysia and Hamas? But senior Israeli officials, being what they are, could not help but make broad hints and even smile at the cameras, boasting about the strength of the State of Israel and its ability to hunt down murderers even across the globe. Apparently, they are in control of everything except themselves. They are simply overcome by the desire to boast of Israel’s ability to eliminate its enemies anywhere in the world. That hubris is a disease that afflicts the leaders of our state.

On Yom Hazikaron, the day when Israel remembers its dead, ten explosive devices were found hidden in the roof of a truck. The Minister of Defense was quick to boast, “The alertness and professionalism of the officers at our crossing points led to the discovery of the explosives and prevented a major attack.” Actually, it would be logical to assume that the discovery was the result of advance warnings provided by Arab informants. Why, then, did Lieberman see fit to praise the soldiers manning the crossing points? Was he attempting to divert attention from the Shin Bet’s role? Does he really think that the Arabs are so gullible? Or did he simply give in to the temptation to brag of the accomplishments of his ministry, the Ministry of Defense, which includes the Crossing Points Authority?

On the very same day, I read that the phenomenon of “kite terror” is continuing. Once again, a wheat field in southern Israel was set on fire by a burning kite sent across the border from Gaza; this is the seventh such incident reported by the security forces. That leads me to a very simple question: How can anyone boast about our “undefeatable” army and its strength and power, when children from Gaza are able to set the country on fire and we can do nothing to prevent it. In the very same newspaper, I read about the hazards caused by mosquitoes in various locales, and I imagined the Arabs in Gaza somehow finding a way to introduce “mosquito terror” to the world as well. What would the IDF do? Would it send its assassins from Malaysia to combat the kite-flying children and the mosquitoes from Gaza?

 

A Beautiful Story About a Beautiful Shidduch

My daily shiur in Daf Yomi is followed by a short shiur on the sefer Chofetz Chaim. This week, one of the participants in the shiur, who is a shadchan in his spare time – or, perhaps more accurately, who is a shadchan by profession – told us a fascinating story that was relevant to the halachos that we had learned. “I concluded a shidduch this week,” he announced. “It was a truly special shidduch. But we are waiting until Lag Ba’omer for the vort.”

Everyone looked at him expectantly, waiting to hear about the “special” nature of this shidduch.

The shadchan was beaming with pride. “One of the chosson’s family members has a psychological condition,” he explained. “Everyone was certain that it would be impossible to find a shidduch for him, but I succeeded.”

“Well, how did you do it?” someone asked.

“Very simply,” he replied. “I found another family with the same problem.”

“Meaning that both sides understood that they had to settle for something that was less than ideal,” one of the other men said.

The shadchan disagreed vehemently with his assessment. “That wasn’t their attitude at all,” he said. “I understood that only a person who has the same issue in his family can understand that there is nothing to fear; it is simply an illness from which one can be healed.”

 

A Beautiful Story About a Beautiful Neighborhood

Let me conclude this week’s column with another story.

The neighborhood of Neve Yaakov in Yerushalayim is virtually a city in its own right. It is a thriving hub of Torah and chesed and is blessed with many wonderful communities, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. It is a neighborhood that is home to prestigious talmidei chachomim, accomplished askanim (including Avrohom Betzalel, Eliezer Lipa Zaibald, Michoel Malchieli, Yisroel Kellerman, Eli Yaakovi, Menachem Stern, and Shlomo Morgenwasser) and many distinguished yungeleit. The neighborhood has recently undergone a spiritual growth spurt of sorts, which has led to the establishment of several new botei medrash and shuls, including Ahavas Shalom, under the aegis of Rav Yaakov Hillel’s son; a bais medrash for the Moroccan community, headed by Rav Aryeh Levi; and a minyan for Sephardic yungerleit headed by Rav Itamar Golan.

The month of Nissan was a time of immense spiritual elevation in the neighborhood of Neve Yaakov, but it was also a time when the need for financial support for the local yungeleit reached its peak. For that purpose, an umbrella organization known as “Amaleha,” which encompasses all of the Torah and chesed organizations in the neighborhood (all of which work together in perfect partnership) held a Chinese auction for the local residents. One of the local shuls, Bais Medrash Torah U’Tefillah – which runs a network of kollelim that operate on Erev Shabbos, bein hazemanim, Chol Hamoed, and at similar times, along with an assortment of charitable programs – ran an additional auction exclusively for the members of the shul. The prizes included a microwave, magnetic toys, cosmetics, a gold ring, and vouchers for the purchase of books (from the Kulmus publishing company). The auction was a resounding success.

The winners were ecstatic. One yungerman, who won a large Playmobil set, exclaimed in excitement, “This is unbelievable! This is precisely what I promised my children for their Afikoman present, and I had no idea how I would be able to afford it!” The participant who won the microwave was equally ebullient. “My wife has been asking me for months already to save money so that we could buy a microwave!” he exclaimed.

The most inspiring reaction, though, came from the man who won the gift certificate from Kulmus. When he was presented with the voucher, he asked what seforim were needed for the library of the bais medrash.

“But you, not the shul, won the prize” protested the volunteer who presented him with his prize.

“Yes,” the man replied, “but I am within the year of mourning for my father, and I would like to donate seforim to the bais medrash in his memory.”

The people of Neve Yaakov are worth their weight in gold.