My Take on the News

Bein Hazemanim Begins

Bein hazemanim has now arrived, and tens of thousands of bnei yeshivos have begun their annual vacation. Most of the yeshivos in the country arrange camp programs for their talmidim, reducing the actual vacation time to a mere few days. During these programs, the boys spend half the day learning, while the yeshivos organize a variety of activities during the rest of the day, such as swimming, hiking, quiz competitions, and lectures on interesting topics. Most of the camps organize symposiums, where various guests are invited to speak. For many years, various members of the Knesset would be invited to take part in these panel discussions, and the moderators would stir up fierce debates between them. In recent years, that practice has come to a halt, as the understanding has spread that it is not appropriate.

In the distant past, I was actually a popular moderator at these symposiums. By the end of the winter, I was already being contacted by camp organizers who wished to recruit me for their programs. A moderator is expected to recruit the panel members. Thus, the moderator himself has to deal with the headache of actually arranging the program.

One year when I led a symposium for Ezer Mizion. This wonderful organization organizes a weeklong camp for sick children every year. Each camper is assigned two counselors, each of whom is a yeshiva bochur. I was asked to organize a symposium for the counselors. There were a total of about 300 yeshiva bochurim. I suggested to Ezer Mizion that the panel discussion should take a different approach. Rav Yosef Efrati and Rav Yaakov Litzman were invited to be the guests, and I asked them to share stories from their respective experiences as gabbaim for Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and the Gerrer Rebbe. It was a fascinating discussion and the bochurim kept their guests talking until dawn.

 

The Roshei Yeshivos Lay Down the Rules

Every bein hazemanim, we daven to be spared from tragedies. Yeshiva bochurim are accustomed to spending their days in the bais medrash. They are not familiar with the rules of safety that must be observed on trips. They do not understand, for instance, that it is not always safe to enter the water at a beach, even if the surface of the water seems calm. Nor do they understand that they must bring copious quantities of drinking water on a hike, or that they cannot rely on their cell phones to work in certain areas. They forget that they must not perform irresponsible stunts while riding bicycles, especially when they are not wearing helmets. And that is to say nothing of the spiritual perils of bein hazemanim. Every year, we daven that bein hazemanim should not become a time of spiritual decline.

This year, two days before Tisha B’Av, roshei yeshivos published an open letter to the country’s yeshiva bochurim, reminding them to maintain their dignity at all times. They also called upon the bnei yeshivos not to leave the country, especially without their families. “There is no need to explain the severity of this matter and the adverse effects on those who travel to chutz la’aretz alone, without their families. Experience has shown that this type of stay in chutz la’aretz can cause a tremendous spiritual decline,” the roshei yeshivos warned, referring to the latest fad of taking short, inexpensive trips to destinations such as Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey. In addition to this letter, the roshei yeshivos arranged gatherings for yeshiva bochurim, where they were addressed by gedolim.

The letter also raised the issue of military deferment, since a bochur who leaves the country takes the risk of losing his standing as a yeshiva bochur who is entitled to a deferment.

 

Egged’s Callousness at the Kosel

This Tisha B’Av, as usual, thousands of people came to the Kosel Hamaarovi to mourn the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. Unfortunately, another familiar dynamic played out again this year, as the Egged bus company continued showing callous disregard for its customers. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people waited excessively long times for buses to arrive, and when they finally boarded those buses, they were forced to travel under terribly crowded conditions. And it was all because Egged did not deign to send additional buses to the Kosel.

One week earlier, the Knesset’s Public Petitions Committee met to discuss this issue. I was present for that meeting. Many Knesset members are members of the committee: Saeed Alharoumi, Zouheir Bahloul, Sharren Haskel, Aliza Lavie, Yulia Malinovsky, Roi Folkman, Yoel Razvozov, and Menachem Eliezer Moses. Not a single one of them was present at this discussion, though, despite its important topic – Egged’s attitude toward the visitors to the Kosel Hamaarovi. The committee session could have been titled “Egged and the Sardines.” The only MKs who were present were Michoel Malchieli of the Shas party and Yisroel Eichler, the chairman of the committee and a member of the Belz faction of Agudas Yisroel, one of the two parties that make up United Torah Judaism.

The session was attended by several askonim deeply pained by the plight of the visitors to the Kosel. One of them, a young man named Moshe Dovid Shaharabani, played a short video that caused the representatives of Egged who were present for the discussion to squirm in discomfort. The video showed passengers packing the Egged buses like livestock being herded into a corral, to the point that there wasn’t even room to stand. It was the type of scene that one might have expected to witness during a catastrophe or a war. Eichler put it well: “This is inhuman. What are we asking for? Only the basics of public transportation for human beings. We have had discussions and we have received countless promises, but we have yet to see any significant change. On the contrary, unfortunately, the situation is becoming worse. The outcry of the passengers reaches the heavens.” He identified some of the promises that Egged had made in the past and failed to fulfill, such as arranging for passengers waiting at Goren Square to be notified when the arriving buses would not be stopping there.

Malchieli likewise spoke eloquently about the situation. “The last remnant of our Bais Hamikdosh is being degraded,” he declared. “No matter how much we speak and shout about it, the situation is becoming worse every day. There is crowding at the bus stops and on the buses that is literally life-threatening. The buses skip stops or do not set out on their routes altogether. And let us not forget that many of the passengers are elderly people, children, or people with disabilities.” Once again, he said, agreements had been made and violated.

The Egged representatives claimed that chareidi protestors were to blame for the lapses in their service. They promised to begin using accordion buses, but it is likely that the situation will not improve. Even if there is a measure of improvement, it is bound to be minimal. But at the very least, the Public Petitions Committee is the right place for the public to vent its rage at the bus company and to hope for something to be done about the problem.

The committee’s spokesman announced, “At the end of the meeting, the committee discussed the preparations for the yahrtzeit of Rochel Imeinu. A representative of the police praised the committee chairman for moving up the initial discussion to this time, so that all the entities involved will be able to prepare even now. The committee spoke highly of the preparations that were made at Kever Rochel last year, pointing out that the day of the yahrtzeit passed almost without any mishaps.” Indeed, the success of the 11th of Cheshvan at Kever Rochel proves that if there is a will – along with a leader of the caliber of R’ Yosef Schwinger – nothing is impossible.

 

Shedding Light on the Mourning of Tisha B’Av

I heard a fascinating shmuess in preparation for Tisha B’Av. There are times in life, I have found, when a single shmuess suddenly sheds a new light on a familiar topic, elucidating it in a way that I had never imagined before. That is what happened in the discourse on Tisha B’Av that I heard from Rav Chaim Yitzchok Kaplan, mashgiach of the Chevron Yeshiva, who spoke in a shul in Bayit Vegan. I will give you a brief overview of his presentation.

One of the things we mourn on Tisha B’Av is the fact that we have acclimated to our situation in golus. We have come to think that there is nothing lacking in our lives, that the world in which we live is normal and that everything is as it should be. In truth, though, the fact that we have grown accustomed to our situation means that we have undergone a terrible decline. When the Bais Hamikdosh existed, we could never have imagined a life without it, without the Shechinah, the korbanos, and all the Torah that went along with it. The churban and the golus have dulled our senses and diminished our aspirations, to the point that we are capable of growing accustomed to living in a highly imperfect world while thinking that we can still lead complete lives despite the tragic losses we have suffered.

On Tisha B’Av, our task is to understand that our lives are far from perfect, that the mere fact that we have become accustomed to our current situation is tragic, and that we should truly be seeking a way to return to the condition in which we belong, in which we could not fathom living without a Bais Hamikdosh. We must regain the perspective that the Bais Hamikdosh would not merely be a wonderful addition to our lives. Rather, it would be the essence of life itself and that it is unthinkable to live without it.

The Rambam states that we are obligated to await the arrival of Moshiach – not merely to desire for Moshiach to come, but to eagerly anticipate his arrival, to recognize that our current existence is an untenable situation that will be rectified only when Moshiach arrives. Even though it is taking many generations for us to reach that perfect state, we must still wait for him, maintaining the awareness that our situation today is not as it should be.

There is a concept in halacha of a child who has reached the age of chinuch for mitzvos, yet who is not old enough to experience the aveilus for the churban. Rav Nissim Karelitz has explained that a child reaches the age of mourning for the churban when he is capable of learning Gemara with Tosafos. This illustrates Rav Kaplan’s point: When a child begins learning Gemara, he merely learns its superficial meaning, but when he begins learning Tosafos, he is able to delve further into the material and to move beyond the basic comprehension of a sugya. That is what is necessary us to mourn the churban: the ability to look beyond the surface and to see that even though we seem to be living in a world that is replete with Torah and mitzvos, there is much that is lacking from our lives today.

 

Israel Earns a Dubious Distinction

The latest OECD report has revealed that Israel has been ranked first place in the income gap among its citizens. According to the report, the top percentile in the country earns 7.22 times the amount earned by the ninth percentile. That gap is much greater than the average difference between the wealthy and poor classes in the other member nations of the OECD.

In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Of course, the poor do not have any desire to see the wealthy join them in poverty, but they would like to see themselves become less poor. It is very unfortunate that this is the only area in which Israel has outdone the other nations.

 

Nationality Law Passes, Draft Law Deferred

Now for some political news. Firstly, the Knesset began its long summer recess; the legislative body will return to work after Sukkos. I once observed that the Knesset is the only workplace in the world where you can hear people wishing each other a shanah tovah before Tisha B’Av.

Before the Knesset closed for the summer, it passed a large number of laws. Some of those new laws are highly problematic, such as the Nationality Law. The debate over this law lasted nine hours, with the members of the political left attacking it ferociously. The law declares the State of Israel to be the state of the Jewish people and contains other provisions as well.

Arab MKs were concerned that the law would prove harmful to them. Chareidim also viewed it with concern; since it is a Basic Law, which supersedes other laws, it is possible that the Supreme Court may use it against chareidi interests. This happened in the past, for instance, when the Supreme Court used the Basic Law of Freedom of Occupation to permit the import of treife meat, which had been forbidden until that time. The chareidim appealed to the prime minister, who considered the Nationality Law of great importance for his own political career, since it would enable him to prove to right-wing voters that they had no need to favor Naftali Bennett over him. The response was a letter from the chairman of the coalition, Dudu Amsalem, which assured them that if the law turned out to be detrimental to the status quo, any problems would be rectified immediately. In essence, that was a meaningless response.

The law that is most important to the chareidim – the draft law – was not approved in its second and third readings, due to the objections of United Torah Judaism to its current formulation. The chareidi MKs demanded that the law be revised before it is passed, and for lack of an alternative, the government appealed to the Supreme Court for an extension of the amount of time it was given to pass a new law. The year that the court allotted for that purpose will end on Tzom Gedaliah. At that time, all the yeshiva bochurim in the country will be deprived of their legal protection from conscription into the army. The Supreme Court has announced that it will not be quick to decide to grant an extension. This makes for a thorny situation indeed.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of political squabbles taking place in the halls of government. The epidemic of “kite terror” is continuing and has led Minister Naftali Bennett to cross swords with Defense Minister Lieberman. Sensitive information was leaked from a cabinet meeting, leading Prime Minister Netanyahu to suggest that the members of the cabinet undergo polygraph tests to expose the person responsible for the leaks. Meanwhile, Yitzchok Herzog was elected to the post of chairman of the Jewish Agency, replacing Natan Sharansky. Netanyahu had supported Yuval Steinitz for the position, but the Reform movement fought for Herzog in order to spite Netanyahu, as their relationship with the prime minister has turned sour in recent times.

 

An MK Loses His Temper

There were plenty of verbal altercations in the Knesset during the last days of its summer session, especially regarding the more controversial laws. One of those laws was the Nationality Law. Last week, MK Yoel Hasson of the Zionist Camp delivered a fiery address, claiming that the government could have been brought down if the Yesh Atid party hadn’t voted for the draft law. When he returned to his seat, MK Chaim Yellin of Yesh Atid said to him, “I don’t believe that the people are foolish enough to believe what you said.”

Hasson either did not hear him correctly or was not paying attention, and he thought that Yellin had been calling him a fool. That was enough to infuriate him. Either he has a naturally short fuse, or tensions were already running high. In any event, Hasson began shouting at Yellin, “You are calling me a fool? You are insolent! You are a liar! You will—”

“You didn’t hear me,” Yellin tried to interrupt him.

“Who do you think you are, anyway?” Hasson continued to rant. “You are an imbecile! Such chutzpah!”

“You didn’t hear me,” Yellin repeated. “There is something wrong with your ears. You should go to a doctor.”

 

The Battle Over the Shabbos Sirens

This week, the courts accepted an appeal from Rabbi Yonasan Elnatan, a member of the Tel Aviv city council, and ordered the municipality to rescind the letters it had sent to the operators of Shabbos sirens in the city. The letters ordered the recipients to dismantle the sirens, warning that if they failed to comply, city inspectors would take apart the machines themselves. If you think the city of Tel Aviv was overstepping its authority, you are absolutely correct – and the court agreed with you as well.The exact details of the incident will be discussed at length with Rabbi Elnatan himself. I have already arranged to interview him for the Yated. I also plan to ask him about another outrageous incident in Tel Aviv: A particular group tried to convince the owners of certain stores to open their establishments on the night of Tisha B’Av, and even to post large signs that will defiantly announce that the establishments are open on Tisha B’Av. The vast majority of Tel Aviv’s residents, as well as the residents of the State of Israel, were shocked by the deplorable initiative. Something bad seems to be happening in Tel Aviv. I hope to receive all the details from Rabbi Elnatan.

Meanwhile, the state comptroller warned this week that the country is not prepared to deal with earthquakes. It’s too bad that he remembered only now….

 

The Rov Reassures the Nurse

There were many unfortunate tragedies this past week – young bochurim who perished in accidents or passed away after contending with illnesses, young women who had fought cancer for several years until they lost the battle, and outstanding talmidei chachomim who passed away at relatively young ages. I would like to mention two of the people who tragically left this world in recent days.

Rav Chizkiyohu Yechezkel Shapira zt”l first became ill 23 years ago. For many years, he was a living example of both hasmodah in learning and proper davening. From morning until night, throughout every day until he took his final breath, he served Hashem faithfully, in his wheelchair and through his terrible suffering. He rose early every morning to daven vosikin and then immersed himself in learning until late at night. He was also a master of middos and bein adam lachaveiro.

Whenever he traveled by car, whether he was offered a ride by a friend or he had hired a taxi, Rav Chizkiyohu endeavored to sit in the back seat. The reason was that in order to enter a car, he had to turn his body so that his back was toward the car’s interior, and he did not wish to turn his back to any Jew, even a taxi driver. If one of his children was driving, though, Rav Chizkiyohu sat beside him. He explained that his own child would certainly not be offended – and even if he was offended, then he would certainly forgive his father if he was asked to do so…

During one of his hospital stays, a male nurse came to draw blood. Rav Chizkiyahu’s veins were already bruised from many previous blood tests, and it took the nurse a long time and many attempts until he was able to penetrate a vein. A few minutes after he had drawn the blood, he returned and said apologetically, “I dropped the vial by mistake. I have to draw blood again.” Rav Chizkiyohu did not show the slightest sign of vexation. On the contrary, he smiled at the nurse and said, “That is actually very good. It gives me the chance to meet you again!”

 

The Twists and Turns of Life

Another tragedy this past week was the passing of Rav Ephraim Kashash zt”l, mashgiach of Yeshivas Ateres Yisroel L’Tzeirim, who was in his sixties. The visitors at the shivah home were confronted by an amazing sight: Rav Kashash’s four sons sat on the floor in a room whose walls were lined with shelves holding dozens of binders, each containing notes on Gemara, halacha, mussar or machshovah, drawn from his own teachings and those of his rabbeim.

Rav Ephraim, who was a rebbi of tens of thousands of bochurim, always remained a faithful talmid of his own illustrious rabbeim: Rav Moshe Shapiro, Rav Chaim Greineman, Rav Moshe Shimon Diskin, and ybl”c Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Rav Don Segal, Rav Mechel Zilber, and his rabbeim from his time in Tifrach. It is possible that Rav Meir Chodosh may be considered his “rabbeim’s rebbi.” When Rav Yitzchok Zilber passed away on Erev Tisha B’Av in the year 5764 (2004), many commented that his life illustrated the powerful impact that a unique individual was able to have on his generation. Rav Ephraim, meanwhile, demonstrated the heights that a unique individual can attain on a personal level. Rav Ephraim was the only child of a couple who had survived the Holocaust and “pledged” their son to Torah learning. All alone, with what seemed to be superhuman strength, Rav Ephraim managed to transform himself into a giant in Torah and middos.

On my own visit to the shivah home, I peeked into one of the many binders and discovered some of Rav Ephraim’s musings following the passing of a grandchild. “The life of a human being is a journey toward a very specific, predetermined goal,” he wrote. “The body, which results from the partnership between Hashem and his parents, and the soul, which is a portion of the Divine essence from Above, take this journey together, having been miraculously joined with each other… This journey has many stations – the bris milah, gaining the ability to speak, recognizing emunah, learning Torah, accepting the yoke of mitzvos, building a home, and influencing others. Every person has his own unique journey, which comes along with steep climbs and dangerous turns, and the traveler must not allow himself to be distracted from the objective of his travels. He must not stop and become preoccupied by his comfort while he is traveling… The passing of a loved one is a station on this journey. It is the conclusion of the niftar’s journey, but it is also a way station for those who are continuing their own travels. It is a time for them to make a reckoning: Hashem has stopped us for a moment to take stock, to strengthen ourselves, to receive consolation and to continue on our way.”

Buffeted as he was by powerful emotions at that time, Rav Ephraim wrote that the pain of mourning must be used in order to reinforce the journey and to examine the route that one is taking through life. “The brocha of hatov vehameitiv when Menachem was born and the brocha of dayan ha’emes upon his passing are not contradictions to each other. Each marks a crossroads on the journey toward an ultimate end – coming close to Hashem, the Creator of all worlds…. His Hand and His Hashgochah will guide us on our journey toward Him!”

 

At the Oncology Ward in Hadassah

Last Tuesday, I arrived at the oncology ward in Hadassah Hospital in order to visit a yungerman named Zevulun (Refoel Zevulun ben Chaya Malia), whose illness forces him to go to the ward every three weeks. I remember him as twelve-year-old “Zevuli,” a charming, intelligent, handsome, and rambunctious child. He was my son’s chavrusah in yeshiva ketanah. Today, that young child has become a man, and he is not only intelligent, but a brilliant talmid chochom. When I visited him last month, I found him in Room 6. This time, he was in the hallway, taking his leave of three other visitors. He was overjoyed to see me. “You need a gabbai to arrange a schedule for your visitors,” I quipped.

 

He laughed. He always laughs, even in the darkness of his current plight. We walked down the hallway together until we reached Darchei Miriam’s room in the ward, where we sat down to talk. The large windows, the never-ending supply of coffee and tea, and the comfortable chairs and bright lighting in the room allowed him to escape temporarily from the constant pricking of needles. He spoke to me about the “wonderful days” he had experienced with Ezer Mizion in Naharia, and he heaped praise on Rav Chananya Chollak and the other wonderful men of the organization. He related that he had been offered an opportunity to write a newspaper column, but he hadn’t decided whether to accept the offer. “I have no interest in writing for the sake of writing,” he said. “I will do it only if there is some benefit from it, if it gives people strength or inspiration.”

“I noticed Rav Aharon Tauber in the ward. Why is he here?” I asked.

“He is Rav Kashash’s brother-in-law,” Zevulun replied. “Perhaps you should go into the room to say hello.”

Rav Kashash and Rav Tauber are both sons-in-law of Rav Elimelech Meller. I hesitated, unsure of whether I should approach them. It is not always a good idea to visit a patient in the hospital without knowing what to say … or when to be silent.

I noted that Rav Kashash was in one of the rooms lining the opposite hallway. Each of those rooms is occupied by a single patient; the rooms are used for those who are near the end of their illnesses. The hospital does not assign a roommate to a patient who is on the brink of death, lest another patient become frightened upon witnessing his passing. Rav Kashash was in Room 16. The nearby Room 19 housed Mrs. Chaya Levi, who passed away just a couple of days earlier after giving birth to a son. It was a historic occasion in the ward: a neshamah being escorted upon its departure from the body, with a new life being brought into the world.