Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

My Take on the News

The Pilot is Our Father

We are approaching the Day of Judgment. Everything else pales in significance when we recognize that our very lives are at stake. Rav Shimshon Pincus once commented that there is a common misconception about the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. People tend to think that we are guaranteed to continue living unless we are found deserving of punishment, but the truth is the exact opposite: Every year on Rosh Hashanah, we must be granted life anew. Our “visas” for life in this world, so to speak, expire at the end of the year, and we must be granted permission anew to remain in this world. Rav Pincus explained this idea with the analogy of a car that must be refueled. A person would be mistaken to think that the car can continue running indefinitely unless the fuel is emptied from its tank. Rather, the fuel is depleted from time to time, and it is necessary to refill the tank when that occurs. On Rosh Hashanah, our “fuel tanks” become empty and we daven for Hashem to “refill” them.

We are taught that a person must always view himself as being exactly balanced between good and evil. He must imagine that if he performs one mitzvah, it will tip the scales of Heavenly judgment in his favor. Likewise, a person should view the entire world as being evenly balanced, so that his next action will decide not only his own fate, but the fate of the rest of the world as well. Every individual, even you or I, has the potential to determine the fate of the entire universe.

This is a daunting reality, yet we have good reason to be calm: The Judge Who will determine our fate is also our Father in Heaven. There can be no greater reassurance than that. Nothing can calm a man who is heading toward his own trial as much as the knowledge that the judge is his own father. On that note, there is a famous allegorical story about a little girl who was seated on a plane as it prepared for takeoff. All the passengers around her were anxious about the upcoming flight. Some were perspiring and some seemed on the verge of panic. Only the little girl remained perfectly calm, even toying with her seat belt as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “How can you be so calm?” someone asked her.

“Simple,” she replied. “The pilot is my father!”

Elor Azariya and Rosh Hashanah

As a case in point, let us examine the trial of Elor Azariya. That trial, which is being carefully watched by the entire country, is an incredible example of how even the bleakest situation can change dramatically for the better.

It all began with the shooting of a terrorist in Chevron. The media has presented it as a case of a murderous soldier who shot a terrorist who had already been wounded, either out of vengefulness or due to hatred. Even if that is what happened, one can understand why a soldier would shoot a terrorist who hasn’t definitely been neutralized. One must also understand the natural reactions of a soldier who is placed under such intense pressure and possibly facing mortal danger. Nevertheless, the chief of staff was quick to condemn Azariya’s actions, proclaiming that the IDF cannot act like a gang of thugs and that the soldiers must be taught moral values. The public accepted his perspective, and it seemed that Azariya’s fate was sealed. It was apparent that the judges had also been influenced by those statements.

But then Avigdor Lieberman became the new Minister of Defense, and he expressed an entirely different attitude. He declared that every person must be considered innocent until he is proven guilty, and he decried the oppressive attitude that might lead to every soldier needing an attorney at his side at all times. With that, the atmosphere began to change.

Next, the chief pathologist of the State of Israel came on the scene. Professor Yehuda Hiss was the head of the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Abu Kabir (a neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv); the reasons for his departure from that post are not relevant to this story. Hiss was one of the sworn enemies of the chareidi community in Eretz Yisroel. Religious and traditional people alike were actually afraid to die, fearing that their bodies would end up in his institute, where the organs of deceased people were plundered. But that, too, is not our topic. In the case of Elor Azariya, Hiss presented his professional opinion that the terrorist was already dead when Azariya shot him, meaning that the soldier was not responsible for his death.

This past week, two more officers in the army, Dani Bitton and Uzi Dayan, testified in Azariya’s favor. Dayan is a former member of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit and commanded the operation to rescue the hostages from the famous Sabena hijacking. The testimonies of both officers managed to tilt the case even further in Azariya’s favor.

On the witness stand, Uzi Dayan said, “If a soldier at a checkpoint has the impression, in his subjective opinion, that the driver of a car is attempting to run him over, he is permitted to shoot the driver regardless of whether he knows that the person is a terrorist.”

Justice Sitbon asked, “Are you saying that terrorists must be killed?”

Dayan replied, “The blood of terrorists is on their own hands.”

“But when is that not true?” Sitbon pressed. “When would you not be allowed to shoot and kill a terrorist who is alive?”

“When it is against orders,” Dayan replied. “If I say that no one should shoot without my approval, and then someone shoots, he would have to explain why it was necessary.”

Dayan added in the course of his testimony, “When I rescued the Sabena hostages, I didn’t shoot a terrorist who was holding a grenade. After I took away her grenade, I had four bullets left, and I had to go on and stop the other terrorists. My commanding officer wasn’t pleased that I hadn’t shot her. It depends on the situation on the ground, and it also depends on your own experience.” Dayan then addressed the judges: “I wish you success in this case. There are many confused and worried people who are watching you and waiting for your decision. This issue is the subject of public debate. That is why your decision is going to be very important.”

At the beginning of this affair, it seemed clear that Azariya was doomed. He was even supposed to be kept in jail until the trial was over. Now, the prevailing impression is that Azariya did not disobey orders or commit a criminal offense, and it seems most likely that he will be exonerated. The moral of the story is that a person should never lose hope.

Memories of Rav Chanoch Henoch Karelenstein

Every year during Elul, I remember Rav Chanoch Henoch Karelenstein zt”l, who passed away during Elul 5759. Two years earlier, when he was already ill and barely capable of walking, he climbed the 61 steps to my apartment (in a building without an elevator) and insisted that I have the word “Elul!” printed on the front page of the newspaper for which I was writing at the time. Of course, he wanted me to add a few words about Elul as well. He hoped that the inspiration that my readers would derive from it would be a zechus for his recovery. I told him that nothing of the sort had ever been done by a newspaper. Why would a publication meant for news print the exclamation “Elul!” on its front page? People would laugh at it, I maintained.

Rav Chanoch remained insistent. “You will set a precedent, and others will emulate you in the future,” he said. As always, he had the foresight to anticipate the results of his actions. Ever since then, I repeat Rav Chanoch’s cry of “Elul!” every year, in one form or another, as if it were his tzavaah. Someone once asked me, “Don’t you get tired of doing this every year?” I replied, “Does Elul get tired of coming every year?”

Rav Chanoch was a remarkable man, whose rabbeim had foreseen him becoming one of the gedolei hador. He was truly unique. In Elul 5752, a yeshiva letze’irim known as Heichal HaTorah Mitzion opened in Yerushalayim, with Rav Chanoch at its head. The yeshiva was under the aegis of the head of the yeshiva gedolah of the same name, which was founded by Rav Tzvi Kushelefsky. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach gave his blessing to the yeshiva after familiarizing himself with every detail of its operation. That process was an example of the tremendous care that Rav Shach exercised with all such matters. After he had made his decision, in order to show his enthusiasm for the yeshiva, Rav Shach offered to serve as its president.

Before that yeshiva opened, Rav Karelenstein was a rosh yeshiva in the town of Yerucham in southern Israel. A delegation of bochurim, parents and other parties traveled to Yerucham to offer him the position in Yerushalayim. Rav Shmuel Pinsky, who made the connection at the time, relates today that Rav Shach insisted on investigating Rav Chanoch personally, and what he discovered led him to shower the rov with glowing praise. “Rav Shach said that he had a tremendous sweetness, he loved his talmidim, and he knew how to ignite love for the Torah within them. We knew that he would truly blossom in Yerushalayim.”

A talmid once told Rav Chanoch that he was pained by the fact that he felt no desire to learn. Rav Chanoch replied, “I was once visiting Rav Dovid Povarsky when a bochur came and told him that he had the same problem. Rav Dovid embraced the bochur and said to him, ‘I am so envious of you. It has been 40 years since I have experienced the beautiful feeling of learning even without having a desire for it.’”

A Rebbi Who Built His Talmidim

Rav Yisroel Meir Cohen, a talmid of Rav Karelenstein, is one of the most well-known yungeleit in Kiryat Sefer today. He is a Lev L’Achim activist and the founder of the midrashot of Lev L’Achim in the city of Ramle. Last Pesach, I interviewed him and asked my readers to daven for him. Rav Chanoch was his rebbi during his first year in the yeshiva in Yerucham. Years later, he shared his recollections of Rav Chanoch’s relocation to Yerushalayim.

“We admired him greatly. From our point of view, he was on a par with the gedolim. I personally gained tremendously from his influence. He helped me very much to develop in learning, as well as in a general sense. I was very bashful, and he summoned me to his home one day and told me that he had decided the bochurim should deliver chaburos. I expressed my approval of the idea, and then he said, ‘You will be the first.’ I protested that it was impossible for me, that I couldn’t do it, but he helped me prepare my first chaburah, and he personally came to hear it. Of course, that was both a tremendous encouragement and a major show of kavod for me. He also asked the older bochurim of the yeshiva to attend. I will never forget that occasion. I recorded the chaburah, and I went to Yerushalayim on that same day so that my father could listen to it and hear Rav Chanoch interjecting questions as I spoke. Rav Chanoch built up his talmidim, boosting them to tremendous heights.”

The young Yisroel Meir Cohen used to take detailed notes of his rebbi’s daily shiurim. He was overjoyed when Rav Chanoch asked for a copy of his notes to prepare another volume of his sefer, Chok Hamelech.

“One day, he gave me a gift: two volumes of Chok Hamelech with a warm personal inscription. I remember that we used to visit his home every week for an oneg Shabbos. His wife would prepare delicious food for us. She was like a mother figure to all of us. Whenever we needed something, we would visit them at home. Rav Chanoch would tell us stories about the gedolei Yisroel, and he would share questions with us that he had asked Rav Shach, who was his rebbi, and Rav Elyashiv, who was his relative. (Rav Chanoch’s rebbetzin is a granddaughter of Rav Aryeh Levin.)

“He was like a king to us,” Reb Yisroel Meir continued. “He had a regal bearing and appearance. Now that I have reached the same age that he was at the time, I have come to understand even more clearly that he was light years removed from us.” That is a sentiment that was shared by many. Rav Chanoch was 34 years old when he left Yerucham. He passed away at the age of 42. The greatness he attained is even more impressive when one considers his young age at the time.

“When he left for Yerushalayim,” Reb Yisroel Meir went on, “the yeshiva formed a circle around the car that was taking him. We blocked the entire main street of Yerucham; we felt that we couldn’t allow him to leave us.” He added that Rav Chanoch maintained contact with his former talmidim, both those who remained in Yerucham and those who went elsewhere. “We visited him in Givat Shaul, and he took interest in all of our lives. He came to our weddings; he was like a father to us.”

Rav Chanoch passed away during Elul 5759, just a few days before Rosh Hashanah. I still remember the heartrending hesped delivered by Rav Don Segal, as well as the bitter tears shed by Rav Chanoch’s father, Rav Tzvi Karelenstein zt”l, over the passing of his only son. I will quote just one powerful line from the end of Kuntres Eitzos Lizkos Badin BaYomim Noraim, the sefer Rav Chanoch authored for the benefit of his Jewish brethren: “When a person strives during the month of Elul, before the Yomim Noraim, to evoke mercy for him in judgment, that alone is a mitzvah and a source of merit in its own right… May we see the fulfillment of the tefillah of Rav Yishmoel ben Elisha: ‘May it be Your Will that Your mercy will overcome Your anger, and Your mercy will overpower Your attributes.’”

Eli Cohen, the Jewish Spy

Last week, a young Palestinian girl was shot by soldiers at a checkpoint after possibly attempting to commit a terror attack. There were other attempted terror attacks, and there were horrific fatal car accidents. In addition, a bochur from Boro Park who was learning in the Belzer yeshiva in Bnei Brak tragically passed away. The Heavenly Hashgachah was evident in his petirah; he died the painless, peaceful death of a tzaddik. His rabbeim related that he was a ben aliyah on an extraordinarily high level.

And there was another sad story in the news as well. This story actually took place 51 years ago, but it came to the public’s attention last week because of a video publicized by the rebels in Syria. I am referring, of course, to the public execution of Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who was hanged in a city square in Syria. The video shows his execution, and it shows his body being loaded afterward into a military van. His widow, Nadia Cohen, who lives in Cholon today, was interviewed by the Israeli media and related that she could not bear to watch the video.

Years after his death, the Israeli government is still trying to find a way to have his remains brought back to Israel. This would be a last act of kindness to a man who was prepared to risk his life for his country. (There are those who claim that his country was not nearly as devoted to him, and that he was sent on his final trip to Syria even though it was clear that his cover had already been blown.) There is hope that his body will indeed be retrieved. If it is in the hands of the rebels, the likelihood is greater.

The Last Meeting

Another news story this week, of course, was Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu’s visit to New York, where he delivered a speech at the United Nations and met with President Barack Obama. This was their final meeting during Obama’s presidency, although it is possible that they will meet again when he is no longer in office. Netanyahu invited the president to play golf at his home in Caesarea, but it is not clear if Obama will accept that invitation. The two are not exactly friends, nor have they ever been. Many people in Israel believe that the relations between an Israeli prime minister and an American president have never before been so strained. Obama has been offended several times by Netanyahu’s attitude of superiority, and Netanyahu has likewise often been pained by Obama’s rigidity.

In Israel, there are two groups of political commentators: those who like Netanyahu and those who do not. The latter group, to be honest, is larger than the former. The prime minister’s detractors stressed the fact that Netanyahu and Obama did not meet privately. Each was accompanied by a large entourage. They also pointed out that Obama’s words were carefully scripted and designed to avoid causing political damage to Hillary Clinton. At the same time, he did not fail to mention his belief that Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace. Netanyahu disagreed with that comment.

I myself was once a guest of the American government. This took place in my youth, when I was invited to join a group of “young Israeli politicians.” We were given a tour of the United States, which was interesting, but the time we spent in Washington, learning about the United States government, was even more interesting. We saw that things look different from Washington, and I felt that I had derived a better understanding of Rav Shach’s insistence that we avoid antagonizing the nations of the world, including America, which is a kingdom of chesed. We in Israel are naturally dependent on American military and financial aid, as well as on the international backing of the United States. Soon, we will have to get used to a new president, whoever it will be.

My “Man of the Year” from Rechov Zichron Yaakov

As always, Israel’s journalists are busy choosing the “man of the year.” In the past, this was a much more widely publicized project, but even though less attention is paid to it today, it still exists. Some publications choose a single man of the year, while others choose one person in each of several categories: There is a “man of the year” in economics, another one in politics, and so forth. Personally, I have never liked the phenomenon. I have always felt that the colleagues of those who are selected will be pained by their own exclusion. Causing distress to another person is undesirable at any time during the year, but especially before Rosh Hashanah.

The chareidi media has also adopted this practice, but the complications are even more problematic in their case. Is it truly proper to select a politician, regardless of his talents, as the “man of the year”? Is such a person truly a role model to be emulated? Several years ago, when I was asked to participate in the project, I chose an oligarch who had fallen into ignominy: Arkady Gaydamak was my “man of the year.”

Several months ago, I noticed someone who I felt should be the “man of the year.” It wasn’t that he had set any records; it was simply that he seemed to represent everything there was to say about the year 5776. I was on Rechov Zichron Yaakov in Yerushalayim. The street was mostly empty, and this man was rummaging about in a large garbage dumpster. He was an ordinary-looking man, neither young nor old, wearing ordinary clothes and a yarmulka, but removing one garbage bag after another from the dumpster and examining the contents of each. Whenever he found food in the garbage, he took it. I took a picture of the man, and it shows him wearing a wristwatch. Without a doubt, he was an ordinary person by any measure.

Last week, a fundraising event was held in Tel Aviv for an organization that provides food to needy children. The chairman of the organization, a journalist named Nissim Meshal, commented at the event that the attitude toward the poor on Israel is practically criminal. A hungry child is needy, he declared, but so is a hungry adult. And when an adult goes hungry, his children generally need food as well.

Last week, the charitable organization Latet released a report on poverty in Israel. “Over 200,000 families in Israel suffer from a lack of nutritional security,” the organization announced, using its typical euphemism for poverty.

A poll conducted on their behalf by a research institute revealed that one out of every five citizens in Israel lacks “nutritional security,” suffering from a lack of food due to financial distress. Nineteen percent of Israeli citizens relate that their financial situation prevented them from eating “balanced meals” over the past year. Fourteen percent of those questioned (who represent a sampling of the general public) said that the food they had purchased was not sufficient for their needs, but that they did not have enough money to buy more. The Ministry of Welfare responded by asserting that it does not believe the organization or its report. A reassuring response, indeed…

As we approach the Yomim Noraim, we pray to be inscribed in the Heavenly book of sustenance.

Making a Cheshbon Hanefesh

Every year, I quote some of the shanah tovah greetings that are sent by various elected officials, at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer, to the members of the Knesset and the ministers of the government. These greetings are often sent to every possible official, from the senior officers of the Jewish National Fund to the deputy head of the municipal council of Umm-el-Fahm or Rishon Letzion, whatever the case may be. Almost every official who has the right to use public money for this purpose will permit himself to take advantage of that entitlement, sending his best wishes for the new year to numerous recipients.

In general, I like to quote the more bizarre shanah tovah greetings, such as those that bless the recipients with a “year of recycling” or express the sender’s wishes for an improvement in the employment terms for workers. This year, I will focus instead on the shanah tovah greetings sent by a couple of female members of the Knesset.

Yael German, who held a ministerial position in the previous government, wrote, “As the new year begins, it is my wish that we will all have the strength to fight for the things that are truly important and valuable, without fear and without showing favor.” MK Shuli Muallem, meanwhile, wrote a shanah tovah greeting that I found stirring. She related that she is always moved by the tefillah of “Hineni he’ani,” in which the shliach tzibbur finds fault with himself. “This tefillah inspires me to make a cheshbon hanefesh,” she relates. “I ask myself if I have made the voice of the people heard. Over the past year, have I established the foundation for Hashem’s Throne in the world? Have I used my strengths for the sake of the Jewish people, Eretz Yisroel, and the Torah? I pray this year to fulfill the words of the Zohar Hakadosh that a Jewish person must focus above all else on loving Hashem’s people and awaiting His redemption.” She goes on to quote the piyut “Eis Shaarei Ratzon,” which is recited by Sephardim before the sounding of the shofar. The words are unfamiliar to Ashkenazim but are deeply moving and express a plea for the final geulah to come.

May the new year be a good one for us all.

Rav Nosson Tzvi’s Rosh Hashanah Message

I will conclude by quoting Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, in a shmuess he delivered in the branch of Yeshivas Mir in Kiryat Sefer. The ideas themselves are simple, but it was profoundly inspiring to hear these words from him and to watch as he struggled with every movement.

“Rav Shmuel Rozovsky asks a famous question: Why do we mention the word ‘melech’ in the brachah of ‘Refoeinu,’ unlike in any of the other brachos? He answers that this word alone is a reason for the tefillah to be accepted. The closer a person is to a king, the more the king will respond to his requests. Thus, it is yet another reason for Hashem, who is the true King, to answer our prayers.

“The halacha states that a person may recite Krias Shema even with his chest exposed, yet it must be covered when he recites Shemoneh Esrei. What is the difference between Shemoneh Esrei and Krias Shema? Presumably, there is a simple difference: During Shemoneh Esrei, a person is considered to be ‘standing before the King.’ Therefore, he must be fully covered, so that he demonstrates respect for the King’s presence.

“There are two days of Rosh Hashanah, and they are days of tefillah and Divine compassion,” Rav Nosson Tzvi continued. “We must not waste these days. We must take advantage of every moment to serve Hashem and to declare His Kingship. Our thoughts must constantly focus on the idea of ‘ein od milvado,’ the fact that there is no power other than Him. If we contemplate this, then we will be judged favorably. I remember from my youth that in the Mirrer Yeshiva, there was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim named Rav Katz, who observed a taanis dibbur for 14 years. On Rosh Hashanah, he used to sit with a large Gemara open before him and a small machzor on top of it. He would sit and learn the whole time in order not to waste a single moment on Rosh Hashanah.

“The posuk states, ‘For this mitzvah that I am commanding you is not hidden from you, nor is it far; it is not in the heavens or on the other side of the sea.’ This posuk teaches us that if it were far away from us, in the heavens or across the sea, we would have to make the effort to attain it. Every person must ask himself if he truly has enough mesirus nefesh to do that. The Ramban quotes two explanations of this posuk. One is that it is referring to the Torah, while the other is that it refers to teshuvah. Hashem has performed a great kindness for us by making it so accessible to us, but that also places a responsibility on us, for the Torah says that teshuvah is very close to us. May we all be zocheh to achieve this, to recognize that Hashem alone rules the world. Then we will be granted a kesivah vachasimah tovah.”

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