My Take on the News

Shavuos – Another Rosh Hashanah

 Shavuos may be over, but its impact has yet to fade. A week has gone by, and the spirit of the Yom Tov is still palpable in the air around us. In Eretz Yisroel, we had a two-day Yom TovShabbos followed by Yom Tov – which was an unusual situation. You, of course, are accustomed to every Yom Tov being two days, though this time you had three consecutive days.

Despite the festive atmosphere, don’t make the mistake of thinking that our troubles are over. In Israel, the issue of the draft law is still hanging over our heads, and we will soon be dealing with elections for the local governments throughout Israel, a subject that is worthy of plenty of attention in its own right. But despite our woes, let us try to retain some of the sense of elevation that accompanied the recent Yom Tov.

Shavuos, in a sense, is another Rosh Hashanah of sorts, as the Gemara states (Megillah 31b), “Ezra ordained that the Jews should read the curses in Toras Kohanim [Sefer Vayikra] before Shavuos, and those in Mishnah Torah [Sefer Devorim] before Rosh Hashanah. What is the reason? Abaye says: So that the year and its curses should end.” The Gemara then questions how this logic applies to Shavuos, and it concludes that Shavuos, too, has the status of Rosh Hashanah, since it is a time of Divine judgment regarding the produce of the trees. Therefore, the tochachah in Parshas Ki Savo is read before the actual end of the year, and the tochachah in Parshas Bechukosai is read before Shavuos.

Minyanim are held at the Knesset shul several times every day. At the main Mincha minyan on Rosh Chodesh, the gabbai of the shul typically provides an array of refreshments, and davening is followed by a short drosha on a timely topic. The speaker is usually MK Uri Maklev, but on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, it was MK Yoav Ben-Tzur who spoke. He quoted this Gemara and went on to ask, “We can understand that Shavuos is also a Rosh Hashanah, but the Mishnah says that there are four times of the year that are considered like the beginning of a new year. Why did Ezra choose these two times of year – Rosh Hashanah for man and the Rosh Hashanah of the fruits of the tree – as the times when the tochacha should be read?”

To answer his question, Ben-Tzur quoted an explanation given by the Shela: “These two days represent the beginning of the year for the body and for the soul, respectively. In Tishrei, every human being is judged on his physical life. In Sivan, he is judged on his spiritual life and on his Torah learning.”

Parenthetically, a bizarre phenomenon has developed in Israel in recent years, as many secular Israelis have begun holding their own versions of Tikkun Leil Shavuos. These events make for a mixture of the sacred and the profane. Legal experts of the Ministry of Justice have taken to delivering lectures on the night of Shavuos. What sort of Tikkun Leil Shavuos could be conducted by the chiloni members of the Knesset? What type of connection to Kabbolas HaTorah can be expressed by a secular entertainer? Such people make presentations on Shavuos night.

Then again, there is a positive side to this phenomenon as well: It shows us that the chilonim are also thirsting for Yiddishkeit. We ought to be teaching them to channel that thirst in an appropriate direction.

 

Lieberman’s “Flood”

We are keenly aware of the recent dramatic change in the relations between Israel and the United States. We know that Donald Trump has crushed Barack Obama and his legacy, but there is one important question that has remained unanswered: What will the current president do if the Middle East now erupts into hostilities?

We are all aware that every gift comes with a price tag. We must wonder if Trump is preparing to collect on the debt incurred when the United States embassy was transferred to Yerushalayim.

We have recently seen the mood in our country fluctuate wildly between both ends of the spectrum – unabashed exhilaration on the one hand, and despondence mixed with fear on the other.

On the positive side, the American embassy opened in Yerushalayim, at least on a partial basis. When Trump and his son-in-law spoke – the former when he announced the cancellation of the nuclear deal, and the latter at the inauguration of the new embassy – both of them invoked the name of G-d many times. “G-d bless Israel; G-d bless America,” both men repeatedly proclaimed. Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, on the other hand, did not mention Hashem even once; he merely quoted a posuk with “universal” relevance, and he did not even bother wearing a yarmulka as he did so.

At the same time, we were left to wonder what will happen if the tyrannical madman of today decides to pull a fateful trigger. At one time, that was a title that belonged to Saddam Hussein; at another time, it was Ahmedinejad; but there is always a murderous lunatic somewhere in this region. What will happen if today’s madman decides to launch a war? With this prospect hanging over us, it is no wonder that the guesthouses and hotels of the north have dropped from 70 percent occupancy to zero. In fact, just this past week, twenty missiles were fired at Israel. Meanwhile, the Arabs of Gaza have been staging violent riots at the border, while the entire world has condemned the Jews.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu has remained exuberant and confident, proclaiming that anyone who strikes Israel will suffer a reprisal that is far more severe. Defense Minister Lieberman added haughtily, “If it rains here, there will be a flood there.” I find these pompous proclamations difficult to bear. What purpose does this boasting serve? Why does he find it necessary to provoke the nations of the world?

 

An Unusual Choice of Speakers

Recent days also witnessed the celebration of Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the reunification of Yerushalayim during the Six Day War. In the streets of Yerushalayim, a large group of youths paraded with flags. At Yeshivas Merkaz Harav, the annual Yom Yerushalayim ceremony was held, with Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and Prime Minister Netanyahu in attendance.

On the day after Yom Yerushalayim, the day of the inauguration of the new United States embassy, the Knesset sitting was closed at 5:30 in the afternoon so that all of the celebrants could return from the inauguration. The Knesset reopened at 6:30 for a festive sitting in honor of Yom Yerushalayim. The speakers were Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset; Ze’ev Elkin, the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs; Yitzchok Herzog, Yair Lapid, and Rochel Azaria.

Edelstein spoke in his capacity as Knesset speaker, while Elkin was chosen as a speaker in light of his ministerial title. Herzog was invited to speak as the leader of the opposition. But why were Lapid and Azaria invited to address the Knesset? Is it because Azaria was born in Yerushalayim and formerly served on the City Council? The same is true of MK Michoel Malchieli, who also formerly served as the chairman of the neighborhood council of Ramot and was a member of the board of directors of the Jerusalem Development Authority. MK Uri Maklev, too, was born in Yerushalayim and served on the City Council. Eichler, Litzman, and Deri are all men who have been closely associated with the city throughout their lives. What makes Rochel Azaria a more appropriate speaker than any of them? It seems likely that they were all spurned because they are chareidim, and therefore they were automatically considered to be inarticulate and apathetic to the celebration of the city’s liberation. I cannot help but wonder who decided to call upon Azaria and Lapid to speak in honor of Yom Yerushalayim.

 

Erdan Asks for an Investigation

A violent Arab protest in Haifa made one thing clear: The Arabs of Israel feel closer to the terrorists of Hamas than to the State of Israel, where they live and enjoy benefits.

One of the Arabs who was arrested during the protest was transferred to the hospital, since he sustained a broken leg during his arrest. MK Ayman Oudeh, the chairman of the Joint Arab List, wanted to visit the protestor in the hospital, but the police prevented him from doing so, since prisoners are not allowed visitors. In response, Oudeh spouted a litany of vulgar epithets at the police officers.

This took place on Shabbos, at the Bnei Tzion hospital in Haifa. Oudeh had come to the hospital to visit Jafar Farah, a militant Arab activist and resident of Haifa who heads the Mossawa human rights organization. Farah was arrested during the pro-Hamas demonstration in Haifa and was hospitalized with a broken leg. When Oudeh arrived to visit him, the police officers prevented him from entering the hospital; they explained that prisoners are not permitted to receive visitors. After the incident, Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan asked Attorney General Mandelblit to open a criminal investigation against MK Oudeh.

After he cursed the police officers at the hospital, Oudeh was subjected to a heavy dose of public criticism. Erdan accused him and his cohorts of acting as a fifth column within Israeli society. I didn’t quite understand why Erdan, whose ministry has jurisdiction over the police, would need to ask Mandelblit to open an investigation, unless the attorney general’s consent is required for an investigation into a sitting MK. In any event, I was surprised at the fact that he interceded in the first place. And I must wonder how impartial the investigation will be if the minister who is in charge of the police force has already voiced his own opinion on the subject.

As for the incident itself, it is not clear that the police officers were actually justified in their actions. Oudeh’s parliamentary immunity does not override the law that prohibits a prisoner to receive visitors in his hospital room. However, the same immunity requires that any member of the Knesset be granted admission to the hospital grounds. It is possible that the police were overzealous in their duties, and that they overstepped their authority by barring Oudeh from the hospital altogether. On the other hand, that does not justify verbally abusing the police officers. Still, I am not certain that the law is not on Oudeh’s side. He is a member of the Knesset, and the law of the land stipulates that any door – or almost any door – must be opened before him.

 

Lest you think that this incident has no bearing on us, keep in mind that if it could happen to Oudeh today, it could just as well happen to Moshe Gafni tomorrow….

 

Bibi’s Ups and Downs

Bibi Netanyahu is hated. His many foes are driven to insanity by his apparent diplomatic achievements. His opponents make all sorts of twisted arguments in their pathetic attempts to prove that he is actually worth nothing. But even his greatest detractors sometimes find that their own words end up achieving the opposite of what they intended.

The most amusing of them all is Yair Lapid. Lapid travels around the world as if he were the foreign minister of the State of Israel, and constantly tries to convince everyone that he is singlehandedly saving the country from diplomatic isolation. He repeatedly attacks Netanyahu, claiming that the prime minister is causing the entire world to despise us. But sometimes, his efforts blow up in his face

This week, Netanyahu’s enemies came up with new pretexts to attack him. First, there was a story that was reported as a “scoop” by Haaretz, which discovered that the Finance Ministry had received a request from the prime minister’s office for an armored car that would service the prime minister’s wife. Mrs. Netanyahu, along with her children, is protected by the Magen unit of the prime minister’s office, unlike her husband, who is guarded by the Shin Bet. A decision was recently made in the prime minister’s office to upgrade Mrs. Netanyahu’s car to an armored vehicle. Netanyahu responded that he is not involved in the matter at all.

In another story, Police Commissioner Roni Alshich, who has already learned that his term will not be extended for a fourth year, claimed that the prime minister is interested in appointing the police commander of the Yerushalayim district as his replacement. According to a leak from the police, Netanyahu and Yoram Halevi, the police chief in question, have already discussed the matter. That, of course, has the appearance of some sort of conspiracy. The attorney general informed Netanyahu that, as the subject of a police investigation, he is not permitted to have any involvement in the selection of the next police commissioner.

Netanyahu still seems to be riding on a wave of accomplishment, although there is no way to tell what the future will bring. So many good things seem to be happening that it is beginning to be frightening. True, the embassy has moved to Yerushalayim, but that does not necessarily mean that the future will be rosy. Just take a look at what is happening on the other side of the border in the south, or at the way that all of the countries of the world, even the friendliest ones, have been condemning Israel. May Hashem protect us.

Next month, President Trump is scheduled to announce his peace plan for the Middle East. The plan was formulated by Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. Both men are among Trump’s closest confidants; they are both known as friends of Israel, and in the past month, both have showered Israel with praises. Nevertheless, there is a sense that we will soon learn that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and Israel will soon be presented with a bill to pay for the lavish “meal” we have enjoyed. I once commented that living in this world is similar to using a credit card: We are constantly accepting more and more benefits, but at the end of every month, the bill arrives. Let us hope that Trump does not prove to be the consummate businessman, presenting Israel with a too-expensive bill.

 

A State Witness Admits That He Lied

The Knesset Legislative Committee recently discussed the case of Shlomo Benizri, but all of their talk is hardly worth the paper on which it was recorded. Those who have faith in the “rule of law” might have expected that the committee’s discussion would lead to something positive. I, however, happen to be among those who have no faith in it at all, and I believe that Benizri shares those sentiments with me.

Shlomo Benizri was a minister in the government who was accused of corruption, taking bribes, and the like. The entire case against him was built on the testimony of a single state witness, Moshe Sela, who was a good friend of Benizri and testified against him after the government promised to spare him from significant criminal penalties. Now, years after the fact, Sela has admitted that he lied.

Last week, Benizri was interviewed by Yisroel Hayom. “I was targeted because I am chareidi and Sephardic,” he asserted. The interview was long and fascinating. I found myself on the verge of tears when I read his description of Fridays in prison, which he deemed the most difficult aspect of his prison sentence. “On Friday, you know that everyone at home is already preparing for Shabbos,” he said, “and you know that you are in a place where you are really not supposed to be, and that you are missing out on so much. I would cry every Friday.” I wasn’t pleased with everything he said during the interview, though, but that is not my point.

The response of the prosecution, which was quoted at the end of the article along with several other reactions, was a statement that I found outrageous. “It should be emphasized that even if Sela had not signed an agreement to become a state witness, there was enough evidence in the case to bring about Benizri’s conviction,” they asserted. “The court emphasized that in the majority of the cases in which Benizri was convicted on serious charges, Sela’s testimony did not play a central role. Even in the cases in which it was a central component, there were very significant external factors that reinforced it, and it was combined with other incriminating testimonies.”

This explanation sounds like blatant doubletalk. Could Benizri really have been convicted without the testimony of the state witness? If that was the case, then why did the government grant such lavish benefits to Sela? His debts were erased, he was relieved of financial obligations, and was even awarded a salary. If his testimony wasn’t critical to the case, what was the purpose of all that? In fact, if the government paid him millions of shekels for the sake of testimony that it didn’t really need, then that should have been a criminal act in its own right, and the person responsible for making that decision should be forced to pay the price.

I am convinced that the prosecution’s claims are entirely disingenuous. Without Sela, there would have been no case against Benizri, and no conviction at all. The government paid Sela handsomely, because they knew that they had to entice him to incriminate their prey.

They claim that Sela’s testimony wasn’t “central” to the case, that they did not actually need his testimony. But then they immediately add, “Even in the cases in which it was a central component, there were very significant external factors that reinforced it, and it was combined with other incriminating testimonies.” In other words, they admit that there were some instances in which the testimony played a central role. At least in those cases, now that Sela has admitted that he lied, Benizri should be exonerated retroactively. In fact, this entire statement is inherently contradictory. How can they claim that Sela’s testimony played a central role, and then add in the same breath that there was other evidence that supported the conviction? With all due respect to that supporting evidence, it cannot possibly have had any substance without the testimony itself. After all those logical contortions, then, the prosecutors admit that there were some charges for which Sela was a central witness. In short, even according to their own admission, Sela’s testimony was the determining factor at least in part of the trial. Now that Sela has admitted that he lied, how do they justify convicting Benizri on those charges? They have no good answer to that question.

And as you know, the police today are still making use of state witnesses. This time, it is Netanyahu who is their target.

 

Condemning the System

Let us return to that debate in the Legislative Committee. I enjoyed MK Yitzchok Vaknin’s comment: “According to the Torah, this person is a false witness, and his testimony should not have been accepted at all. In Benizri’s case, the court said that his testimony was a central factor in the conviction, and the witness received a tax exemption amounting to millions of shekels. For two years, he received a salary for his testimony and thus saved his family. How can that testimony have been accepted? If the witness was lying throughout the case, then how could the entire system have been based on his word? You should all be losing sleep over that. I understand that the system wanted Benizri’s head, and that it also wants David Bittan’s head, but we are obligated to investigate and not to allow the testimony of a state witness to become the basis of a conviction.”

Yulia Malinovsky (a member of the Knesset on behalf of Yisroel Beiteinu) also voiced withering criticism of the criminal justice system: “When I served in the Ukrainian police, I saw a person who would sit down with a criminal and could cause him to say anything they desired. Every police force in the world uses the same tools. That is their modus operandi in Ukraine, and it is the same in the United States. If you put me in a detention cell, close my bank account, and threaten my children with starvation, I will even admit that I killed Arlozorov. Those conditions can cause a person to say anything. You are exerting inappropriate pressure on witnesses, and that means that you don’t know how to work. As long as you use these tools, it indicates that you are weak and you do not know how to perform your jobs.”

Uri Maklev also railed against the judicial system. “If your name is Benizri and you are a Sephardic government minister, the entire system is silent! It is very unusual for a state witness to retract his testimony. A state witness is not the type of person whom we would expect to be a man of conscience. It is a repugnant thing to try to save oneself [by incriminating someone else]. The system has not proven itself.”

 

More Precious Than All the Gold and Silver in the World

This week, I attended an event that would be inspiring for anyone, but especially for a grandfather: the Chumash party of one of my grandsons. There were many things that impressed me about the event, but above all, I was amazed by the array of distinguished people at the front of the room. Is there anywhere among the nations of the world where prestigious judges or government officials can be found attending a party for their six-year-old grandsons? Yet a row of prominent rabbonim sat together on a simple wooden bench: Rav Tzvi Levi, mashgiach of Kol Yaakov and, in this context, grandfather of Moishe Menachem; Rav Yitzchok Yerucham Borodianski, grandfather of Yossi; Rav Chaim Walkin, grandfather of Shmulik; Rav Yaakov Hillel, grandfather of Yaakov Toledano; Rav Eliezer Markowitz, grandfather of Shimon and one of the roshei kollel of Kollel Bais Meir, who had come from Bnei Brak; and Rav Isser Leizruk, grandfather of Chaim.

The event took place at Talmud Torah Achiezer, in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Yerushalayim. Achiezer is a wonderful school whose faculty members pour their hearts and souls into their talmidim. There are three classes in the grade, bli ayin hara, taught by three highly qualified rabbeim: Rabbi Rosenkrantz, Rabbi Shlomo Turek (along with his dedicated assistant, Rabbi Mordechai Tigerman), and Rabbi Avrohom (Avreimi) Turek, Reb Shloime’s nephew. All three are Slonimer Chassidim. The rabbeim greeted the guests with broad smiles, along with the menahel, Rav Chaim Leib Auerbach, and the mefakeiach, Chanoch Drori, both of whom are also highly accomplished educators. Also in attendance was Reb Yosef Graz, who bears the burden of supporting the school.

Among the parents, emotions were running high. Fathers stood on their tiptoes so that their young children could see them. I watched a few men wipe away tears as they listened to the angelic young boys sing the names of the parshiyos, followed by the words “chazak, chazak, venischazeik” to the tune of “Tov Li Toras Picha.” The original words to the tune were also sung in Yiddish. “It is better to learn the holy Torah than to have all the gold and silver [in the world],” dozens of small voices chanted in unison.

We discovered that Rabbi Avreimi Turek is not only an excellent teacher, but a skilled orator as well. He shared with us the motto of the mefakeiach: “‘How much’ is less than important than ‘how well.’ But that is not to say that quality comes at the expense of quantity.” He also shared another pithy insight with us: “A mechanech has to study a child first; only then will he be able to teach him.” While I doubt that he meant this, I felt that it made for an interesting interpretation of the phrase “lilmod ulelameid”: One must first learn about a talmid before it is possible to teach him.

Reb Avreimi told us a story about a wealthy childless man who offered a hefty sum to a man from Yerushalayim in exchange for one of his sixteen children. Feeling that he had no choice but to accept the deal in order to support the rest of his family, the Yerushalmi agreed to the terms. Nevertheless, when the “buyer” arrived to select the child he would take, the deal turned out to be more difficult than the Yerushalmi had imagined. The wealthy man pointed to each of the Yerushalmi’s children in turn, but the man shouted each time, “No! You can’t take him! He is one of a kind!”

“Every talmid must be viewed by his rebbi as unique,” the mechanech concluded. “The rebbi must feel that every boy is one of a kind, that he has no others like him.”

 

Is the Supreme Court Learning its Place?

Esther Chayut, the new chief justice of the Supreme Court, is not a woman who has had success handed to her on silver platter. Chayut, an only child of Holocaust survivors, grew up in a transit camp in Herzliya, from which she made the laborious climb to the presidency of the Supreme Court. Today, she is locked in constant combat with a government minister whose views are far removed from her own. As of now, everyone is interested in her position on the court’s credo of “hakol shafit,” the idea that everything is subject to judicial review. The country’s attention is also focused on the ongoing conflict between the judicial branch of the government and the other two branches. Will Chayut continue the tradition of the Supreme Court undermining the authority of the Knesset, to the point of overturning laws that are passed by the country’s legislature? Will she have the temerity, as her predecessors did, to overrule decisions made by the cabinet with regard to security (such as deporting terrorists), administrative issues (the privatization of the country’s prisons), and financial issues (such as the budget for the border fence)?

The Supreme Court recently rejected an appeal of two frequent visitors to the Har Habayis who had been ordered by the police to refrain from visiting the site. Michael and Shlomo Yedidya Puah, the subjects of the order, petitioned the court against the police (primarily Yoram Halevi, the police commander of the Yerushalayim district, and Doron Turgeman, another local police official) and against the state. Their appeal was rejected by Justice David Mintz, a British-born newcomer to the court who is an alumnus of Midrashiat Noam and Yeshivas Har Etzion. The two petitioners demanded to understand why Arabs are permitted to hold picnics, to play ball, and to perform their own religious rituals on the Har Habayis, while Jews are barred from engaging in their own special religious practices at the site.

Judge Mintz quoted a Mishnah: “When Bais Shammai saw that it had caused danger, they ordained that every person should take [the Arba Minim] in his own home.” Based on this Mishnah, he concluded that freedom of religious worship is not an absolute right, and that the government is entitled to restrict certain activities on the Har Habayis. He added, “It appears that this should be subject to the discretion of the executive branch of the government, and the court tends to avoid interfering with its decisions, if it is involved at all.” Mintz was joined in his ruling by Judge Fogelman and by Chief Justice Chayut.

I do not know what Justice Minister Shaked feels about the Har Habayis, but I am certain that she would have enthusiastically agreed that the court should not interfere with the decisions of the other branches of government. I must wonder if this decision of the court is a harbinger of things to come.

 

Rav Nissim Toledano’s Memory Lives On

This week, current and former talmidim of Yeshivas She’eris Yosef gathered in the yeshiva, along with other talmidim and admirers of its former rosh yeshiva, Rav Nissim Toledano, to pay their respects to his memory. Six years have passed since Rav Nissim left this world, but my memories of him have remained as sharp and clear as ever. He was like a malach in human form, clearly existing on a lofty spiritual plane, yet he was able to relate to the simplest person as if they were equals. I had the privilege of enjoying a close relationship with him simply because we lived together in a small town, where all the frum families maintained close ties with each other. My father, the mara d’asra of the community, used to refer to Rav Nissim as “rabbeinu hagadol,” in recognition of his greatness. In fact, it was my father who made the connection between Rav Nissim, who was a yungerman in Ponovezh and a talmid of Rav Shach, and our community. That is how Yeshivas She’eris Yosef came to be established in Be’er Yaakov.

During my youth, I was responsible during bein hazemanim for bringing Rav Nissim from his home to the main Ashkenazic shul in the town for Shacharis every day, and for escorting him back to his home at the conclusion of davening. On Shabbos during bein hazemanim, Rav Nissim regularly made the long trek to the shul, even after it became extremely difficult for him to walk. At the Kiddush after davening, he generally shared a vort on the parsha. I remember one of his insights: In the tefillah of Nishmas, we first declare that it would be impossible for us to properly sing the praises of Hashem, even if the various parts of our body were capable of enormous feats. However, we then go on to declare that the organs of our bodies should indeed give praise and thanks to the Master of the Universe. Aren’t these two statements contradictory?

Rav Nissim explained that the latter part of the tefillah refers to expressions of praise and thanksgiving that burst forth from our hearts on their own accord. The tefillah does not mean that we engage in the act of giving thanks to Hashem. Rather, it means that the various organs of our bodies automatically burst into song to praise Him, as the posuk states, “All my bones shall say, Hashem, who is like You?”

On the week of Parshas Noach, Rav Nissim commented that it was “his” parsha. The word “Noach,” he explained, was an acronym for “Chacham Nissim.”

I visited his home many times, and on each occasion, Rav Nissim insisted on plying me with food and drink. He and his rebbetzin, Rabbanit Sarah, may she live and be well, catered to their guests with absolute devotion. At the end of every bein hazemanim, I used to bring my sons to Rav Nissim to receive his advice for the upcoming zeman. Naturally, we attended all of his family simchos, and he attended ours. When my father passed away, Rav Nissim delivered a hesped and commented that he felt as if half of his own body had been torn away from him.

Rav Nissim was a world-class gaon, who played a major role in restoring the glory of the Sephardic community of bnei Torah. Even as a young man, he bore the weight of communal burdens that other rabbonim, even those who were much older, did not dare take on. He taught thousands of talmidim, including such well-known figures as Rav Shlomo Moshe Amar and Rav Yosef Chaim Sitruk. Six years after his petirah, he is still sorely missed.

 

Remembering Rav Uri Kellerman

Another yahrtzeit we marked this week was the 25th anniversary of the passing of Rav Uri Kellerman, a world-class talmid chochom.

In the year 5704 (1944), the Ponovezher Rov came to the Lomza Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah, which served as a bastion for the foremost lamdonim and bnei aliyah in the country, and gathered a handful of talmidim to serve as the nucleus of the yeshiva he planned to establish. Rav Shmuel Rozovsky answered his call and came to the yeshiva along with a group of select talmidim: Rav Gershon Edelstein, Rav Yaakov Edelstein, Rav Chaim Friedlander, Rav Yudel Frank, and Rav Moshe Ziskin. The youngest member of the group, who joined them at Rav Shmuel’s behest, was his beloved talmid, Uri Kellerman.

Rav Yaakov Edelstein once spoke about Lomza and about Rav Uri. “At that time,” he said, “there was a bochur named Reb Uri Kellerman who was learning there. He came from a poor family, and his father did not have enough money to pay for someone to learn with him. As a result, he asked Rav Yosef Rozovsky if he could join the private shiur that he delivered to Rav Chaim Friedlander. Rav Yosef demurred, claiming that he was obligated to his talmid and that he would not be able to learn with another bochur in addition. Reb Uri asked to be allowed merely to listen while he taught Rav Chaim, and Rav Yosef agreed to that, albeit on the condition that he would not ask any questions… Reb Uri, who later became a great man, sat silently and listened…”

Rav Yaakov did not mention the fact that Reb Uri “paid” for this privilege by being assigned to bring the seforim needed by the pair from the ozar haseforim. At the same time, Reb Uri also learned with Rav Yaakov’s brother, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, who became his rebbi. In Ponovezh, Reb Uri became known for his powerful intellect, his remarkable hasmodah, and his sterling middos and integrity. Despite his young age, he was considered an authority in many areas. Over time, he rose to even greater prominence, to the point that none of the members of the group were willing to deliver a chaburah without receiving his approval first. Even the most formidable talmidei chachomim in the yeshiva, such as Rav Shlomo Berman and Rav Berel Povarsky, delighted in engaging in Torah discussions with him and often presented their chiddushim to him. Rav Dovid Katz of Haifa related that the weekly slot that he received for presenting his chaburos to Reb Uri was on Wednesdays … at 12:45 in the morning.

In Iyar of the year 5715 (1955), on the advice of the Chazon Ish, the yeshiva of Kfar Chassidim relocated to Rechasim. On the day of the inauguration of its new premises, the yeshiva was plunged into mourning by the tragic passing of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Noach Shimanowitz, the brother-in-law of Rav Mishkovsky, who served as mara d’asra in the community and mashgiach of the yeshiva. Rav Mishkovsky traveled to Bnei Brak to seek the gedolim’s recommendations for a new maggid shiur for the yeshiva. As a result, the young Rav Uri Kellerman found his way to Kfar Chassidim and began a new chapter in his life, becoming a highly admired marbitz Torah who left a powerful imprint on the talmidim of the yeshiva and the community of Rechasim. When Rav Elya Mishkovsky passed away, Reb Uri assumed responsibility for the yeshiva and the community. That marked the beginning of the longstanding close friendship between the Yoffe and Kellerman families, as the two young rabbonim worked side by side, transforming both the yeshiva and the community.

If Rav Kellerman were still alive today, he would be 93 years old. There is no question that he would have become one of the foremost gedolim of our generation. When Rav Uri passed away at the young age of 68, it had already become clear that he was destined for greatness; he was often described as a “leader,” a “daas Torah,” and a man who was unique in his generation. He was known for deriving unparalleled pleasure from Torah learning, to the point that the Torah became practically absorbed in his blood.

Rav Uri’s style of chinuch did not involve reprimanding his students, nor did it involve embracing them. He simply taught by personal example. He was known for his powerful tefillos and the meticulous care with which he attended to every detail of davening. Once, during bein hazemanim, Rav Uri was present when a young man led the davening at an overly rapid pace. After davening had ended, Rav Uri approached the bochur and informed him that he was seeking a chavrusah for the study of halacha during bein hazemanim. The young man was delighted with the idea. Rav Uri chose to learn the halachos of chazaras hashatz.

Throughout his life, Rav Uri embodied the traits with which Torah is acquired: reverence, fear of Hashem, pure joy, and, above all, humility. He quoted “my master and rebbi, Rav Shmuel” in almost every shiur, even when it seemed that he himself had developed the majority of the chiddush he was presenting. Rav Uri was once asked to deliver a shmuess, and he attributed the content of his presentation to the sefer Lekach Tov. A talmid who was present for the shmuess later looked it up in the sefer, where he discovered that the idea was cited in Rav Uri’s name.

When he attended events in the yeshiva, Rav Uri made sure to enter through a side door. He made every effort to avoid having others stand up out of respect for him. In the bais medrash itself, he sat in the center of the room, rather than at the front. At his levayah, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid Mann zt”l, commented that there were two clear signs that Rav Uri had passed away: First, he was in the mizrach, and second, he was not silencing any of the people who were praising him.