My Take on the News

Netanyahu Zigzags on Shabbos Issue

The religious community in Eretz Yisroel is constantly beset by new concerns. First there was the issue of the draft law, which still requires an immediate solution. The community is also waiting anxiously for the Supreme Court’s decision concerning the Reform movement’s claims to the Kosel, and the municipal elections throughout Israel, which will have a major impact on religious services in every city, are rapidly approaching. To add to all this, an old issue has been reawakened once again – the issue of chillul Shabbos in the public sphere.

In the past, it was the Israel Railway company that decided that Shabbos was the day to perform maintenance and construction work. The same decision has now been made by Netivei Ayalon, the company that manages the Ayalon Highway. The highway is an extension of Highway One, which connects Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv. At the entrance to Tel Aviv, the road becomes the Ayalon Highway. The highway traverses the city of Tel Aviv, with several exits within the city, and continues outside of Tel Aviv until where the headquarters of the Mossad is located. From there, other roads lead to the north – to Netanya, Herzliya, and other cities, up to Haifa.

The Netivei Ayalon company recently decided to renovate the highway, and the construction was scheduled to take place every Shabbos over the following six weeks. It was to begin this past Shabbos and to continue through the last Shabbos of Tishrei, including the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and Shabbos Shuvah.

The company’s reasoning was simple. Since there is less vehicular traffic on Shabbos, the work performed on that day would cause the least interference to the steady flow of traffic. From their standpoint, Shabbos is the best possible day to close half the highway. (Each stage of the construction will require the road to be closed in one direction.)

All of the chareidi politicians decried the scheduled construction, writing against it in the chareidi press.

At first, the Ministry of Transportation claimed that the issue was not their concern, since Netivei Ayalon is a private company. The Ministry of Labor and Welfare, which is responsible for issuing permits for work that is performed on Shabbos, did not respond to the protests. But then the Minister of Transportation, who considers himself a potential successor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, took the unusual step of ordering Netivei Ayalon not to perform work on Shabbos. He seems to have learned from experience. Two years ago, when the railway company decided to schedule its own maintenance work on Shabbos, he was the target of the public outcry.

Naturally, the minister’s decision drew fierce condemnation from the secular left. Yair Lapid announced that the country is being “held captive” by the chareidim, who rule the government. The secular press also featured strident headlines attacking the chareidi community. Netanyahu himself released a statement asserting that it was “unreasonable” for the Ayalon Highway to be closed for construction during the week. He is already wary of being portrayed as pro-religious in advance of the coming elections.

 

Elul in Meron and Meoras Hamachpeilah

We are already in the middle of Elul. If you visit the Kosel during this time, you will not believe your eyes. Thousands of people converge on the holy site every night for Selichos. Sephardim have been reciting Selichos since Rosh Chodesh Elul. In Yerushalayim, there are two places that are focal points for thousands to recite Selichos every night: the Kosel and Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim. People go to these sites from all over the country.

The situation at another holy site, the Meoras Hamachpeilah, is utterly absurd. One portion of the site, Yitzchok’s Hall, is closed to Jews throughout most of the year. However, it is opened for Jews for a few days during the period of Selichos. Last week, the entire site was closed to Jews altogether, since the Muslims were celebrating a holiday of their own.

Meanwhile, renovations at the kever of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron are nearing completion. The site has been refurbished to the tune of 20 million shekels. The Minister of Finance made sure to have his picture taken together with a check in order to make sure that he would be credited for the renovations. Even though it wasn’t his own initiative, he did accede to the appeals for funding for the valuable project.

 

A Chareidi City Under Siege

Now for the rundown of this week’s news. First of all, the usual problems have not abated. Prime Minister Netanyahu is still under investigation. He was questioned almost two weeks ago for the eleventh time, but after the interrogation, he released a statement claiming that the case – which deals with his relationship with Shaul Elovitch – had completely collapsed. The police responded with a statement of their own denying his claim.

Then there is the issue of the draft law, which is still on the table. According to many experts, it is the only issue that has the potential to bring down the current government and to lead to early elections. Still, Netanyahu is radiating optimism. He believes that a formula can be found that will allow the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel to support the law, but that will not cause Avigdor Lieberman or Yair Lapid to oppose it. Lapid’s support for the bill is necessary in order for it to be approved in the vote that must be held at the beginning of the winter session. As you may recall, the Supreme Court’s deadline for the new law to be passed is on Chanukah.

The country’s attention is also still focused on the contaminated streams in the north. Dozens of people have been hospitalized with symptoms of leptospirosis, including many who were vacationing in the north during bein hazemanim. The government has decided to fill the streams with clean water in order to purge them of the dangerous bacteria. Minister of Health Litzman recently announced that the situation is under control. We can only hope that he is right.

The last piece of news is something that is all too illustrative of the realities of life in Israel. Last week, there was a period of several hours when it was impossible to enter or leave the city of Modiin Illit (also known as Kiryat Sefer). This took place due to an accident on the road leading into the city, which rendered the road impassable for four hours until it had been cleared. Of course, it is simply absurd that there is no other way to enter or leave the city. Can you show me any other city, anywhere in the world, that has one single entrance?

One more thing: The American consulate in the city of Haifa has closed. So if you were planning to go there in order to extend your American passport, you will have to cancel your plans and go to Tel Aviv instead.

 

Surrendering to Terror Brings More Terror

The conflict between Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett has been stepped up another notch. It began with an apparent agreement with Hamas. Even though Israel does not negotiate with terrorists, it does conduct discussions through intermediaries – in this case, Egypt. Therefore, there has been a dialogue whose purpose was to restore some calm to the south and to relieve the residents there of the nightmare of constant missile attacks. No one denies that that is a worthy goal and that the government owes it to its citizens to pursue that objective. The question, though, is what price the country should be willing to pay – and whether that price might eventually lead to an escalation in terror as Hamas attempts to extract more concessions from Israel. That is precisely the question that the heads of state must address whenever they negotiate for the release of hostages, such as passengers on a hijacked plane or soldiers who fall into captivity. If the price is too high, there is always the fear that their concessions may lead to additional terror attempts. That is precisely what Naftali Bennett argues.

Bennett claims that Lieberman has chosen a surrender that will lead to war. “His hesitation and delusional belief that dialogue with the residents of Gaza will lead to Hamas’s downfall and will bring greater security to the residents of the Gaza envelope are a complete distortion of reality and utterly irresponsible,” Bennett insisted. And his criticism did not end there. “The same Lieberman who said that he would bring down Hamas and liquidate Haniyeh has now given them a prize at the expense of the security of the State of Israel. The weak policies that he is leading, under the guise of responsibility and pragmatism, are enabling Hamas to burn the south and to dictate to its residents when they should go down to their shelters. Surrendering to terror will only bring more terror.” These are very harsh words, and hardly a normative way for one senior minister in the cabinet to speak about another.

If you expected that Lieberman, in typical form, would respond to Bennett with an attack of his own, then you were right. Regarding the issue at hand, he declared, “We are not speaking with Hamas, but we will not tell Egypt or the United Nations not to try to restore calm.” He also added an attack on Bennett himself: “Bennett is not talking security; he is playing politics of the lowest possible kind.”

 

Elor Azaria Asks for a Gun Permit

Meanwhile, the terrorists have not given up. The attempted murders of civilians, soldiers, and police officers have become routine. There was an attempted stabbing of a police officer in the Old City of Yerushalayim. The incident occurred on Rechov Chagai. The perpetrator was an Israeli Arab, a resident of Umm al-Fahm, who was leaving the Har Habayis when he attacked the police officer. The Arab was shot and killed, and his community in Umm al-Fahm is now claiming that he was mentally disturbed and should not have been shot to death. Another incident occurred on the border of the Gaza Strip, where a terrorist armed with a rifle and grenades opened fire on a group of Israeli soldiers and was also shot to death.

Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Internal Security, recently announced that any volunteer in a rescue organization – especially policemen – will now be automatically entitled to a permit to carry a weapon for self-defense. In a notice published in many newspapers, the ministry announced a new policy stipulating that gun permits would be automatically issued to former members of combat units in the IDF and police force, officers holding a rank of captain or higher, and volunteers in the appropriate units in the police force, MDA, ZAKA, and United Hatzalah. This was actually an indirect government recognition of ZAKA and Hatzalah. Erdan explained that in many cases, terror attacks have been prevented by civilians. In an era of lone wolf terrorism, he added, it is very important for ordinary civilians to be armed. Experts predict that this will place about half a million additional firearms in the hands of ordinary citizens.

On that note, do you remember Elor Azaria? He was the soldier who shot and killed a terrorist and was sent to prison for his actions. Azaria lives in Ramle, and he applied for a license to own a gun. Now, there seems to be a good reason to deny him a permit, since he is considered a convicted killer. On the other hand, as a soldier in the army, he is entitled to a weapon. Moreover, he is constantly being threatened. He regularly receives threatening letters (one of which came with a bullet from a machine gun) and messages. The police denied his request. Azaria filed a complaint with the internal investigations department of the police force – not because they denied his request, but because they publicized the fact that he had been turned down because he was considered “dangerous.” Azaria argued that the announcement was injurious to him and was also illegal.

 

Hashem Will Have the Last Laugh

This week, while I was driving from Geulah to my home in Givat Shaul, I could not help but make a striking observation as I listened to a news program on the radio. On Rechov Malchei Yisroel, which I had just left, the unique atmosphere of Elul filled the air. It is hard to explain, but there was a tangible sense of awe and spiritual elevation. Yet the news anchors on the radio seemed to be living in a completely different world; they were utterly detached from our reality. They spoke about President Trump and about Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot of the IDF, and about the investigations being conducted in Lahav 433. Having just left Geulah, I could not help but feel that these were issues of no consequence whatsoever. And then they began discussing the draft law, and their commentary showed that they do not have even the slightest inkling of how the chareidim think. While my thoughts were focused on Elul, they were mired in their earthly perspectives.

The radio hosts tried to interpret the decisions of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah in political terms, based on their own backgrounds and understanding. “Who will guarantee the chareidim that they will manage to pass the draft law in the next Knesset?” they asked rhetorically. “Who can even guarantee them that they will be part of the coalition? Shas needs to consider the fact that they are hovering just above the electoral threshold,” they added knowingly. But they completely failed to comprehend the way the chareidi parties work. They speak an entirely different language; the electoral threshold does not influence their decisions in the slightest.

At that point, I found myself passing the television building – the building that was the onetime home of Israeli television. It is located across from the intersection of Malchei Yisroel and Sarei Yisroel Streets.

In the past, that building struck fear into every heart. There was only a single television station in Israel and it held the entire country in its grip. The staff of that station felt that they ruled the country and they could cut down any public figure at will. Eventually, though, they themselves faded away. Today, the building hovers on the skyline like a ghost. I am sure that the day will come when a yeshiva will be built there and it will become the site of Torah learning. With that thought, I turned off the radio.

 

Rubashkin at the Kosel

Another story this past week involved Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin who spent several days on a whirlwind trip to the homes of various gedolim. Those visits were arranged by Yated publisher Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, leader of the campaign for his freedom.

One of the first places that Sholom Mordechai visited was the Kosel Hamaarovi. It was impossible not to be moved by the sight. “How long has it been since you were here?” I asked him.

“Eleven years,” he replied.

Sholom Mordechai visited the home of Rav Yitzchok Yosef, the Rishon Letzion. I joined him on Motzoei Shabbos and waited with him outside the home of the mashgiach, Rav Don Segal. When Rav Don arrived, accompanied by a large group of talmidim, he was pleased to see Sholom Mordechai, but he motioned to indicate that he could not speak. Rav Don practices a taanis dibbur throughout the month of Elul. He shook his visitor’s hand and smiled his typical captivating smile, did not utter a word.

Our next stop was the home of the famed mashpia, Rav Noach Chefetz. Rav Chefetz is a talmid of the Yeshiva of Ponovezh, a renowned talmid of Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, a well-known orator and a famed baal machshovah. For decades, he presided over a community in Tzefas, where he served as a rebbe of sorts. In recent years, he has been ill and is generally bedridden. On this Motzoei Shabbos, Sholom Mordechai sang and danced at his bedside while clutching the tzaddik’s hand. The rest of the people in the room joined in the singing, even though many of them were not familiar with the tune. Sholom Mordechai told me that he danced and sang the same niggun every Motzoei Shabbos while he was in prison.

“You danced alone?” I asked him.

“No, I danced with Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz,” he replied. That is, they sang together over the phone. Sholom Mordechai danced in his prison, while Rabbi Lipschutz danced in his home in Monsey. That is considered dancing together, isn’t it?

 

Even the Trip Was a Miracle

After leaving Rabbi Chefetz’s home, we visited MK Yisroel Eichler. The main purpose of the visit was to thank Eichler for his constant efforts on behalf of Sholom Mordechai. It was late at night when we arrived, and the men in the bais medrash of Belz had just finished filing past the Belzer Rebbe to greet him. Eichler hurried to his son-in-law’s home, where he had arranged to meet with the visitor from abroad, and where sheva brachos were being held for his grandson.

In his conversation with us, Eichler recounted a story that was told by Rabbi Chazan, one of the Jews who persisted in learning Torah in the Soviet Union despite the threats of the KGB. Rabbi Chazan once related that the Jews in Russia used to daven for two things, the fall of Communism and the arrival of Moshiach, but they believed in the latter as the likelier of the two. The collapse of Communism seemed like a dream that could not possibly be realized. “When it happened,” Rabbi Chazan related, “we all felt that the arrival of Moshiach must be imminent, and that it would pale in comparison to the miracle we had just experienced.”

Eichler was alluding to the fact that Sholom Mordechai himself had experienced astounding miracles.

During the hours that I spent with Rabbis Lipschutz and Rubashkin on that Motzoei Shabbos, I was astounded by the outpouring of love from the Israeli public for the famous Jewish ex-prisoner, who has become one of the embodiments of Hashgochah Protis, unswerving emunah, passion, and absolute trust in Hashem. Even we, the Jews of Eretz Yisroel, were stunned by every detail of his experiences. Here was a man who had performed so much kindness for others, yet had encountered the harshest treatment of the justice system. Strangers who recognized him in the street hurried over to shake his hand and, of course, to have their pictures taken with him. Over and over, he was congratulated for having created a kiddush Hashem.

 

Tefillin in Auschwitz

Elie Wiesel was one of the most famous survivors of the Holocaust, a Nobel laureate and a public figure. Wiesel was born in Sighet to religious, Yiddish-speaking parents; his mother, like most of the Jews of Romania, hailed from a family of Vizhnitzer chassidim. He was known for his friendship with Rav Menashe Klein, the mechaber of Mishneh Halachos; it was a friendship that began in the barracks of the death camps.

Wiesel was brought to the ghetto along with the Jews from Sighet. From there, he was taken to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister were murdered immediately, while he and his father suffered through the forced labor and vicious torments that were the daily lot of prisoners in the camps. During the death march to Buchenwald, Wiesel’s father passed away before his very eyes. His memoirs of those years of horror, which were written in Yiddish, have been translated into numerous languages and have made a major contribution to preserving the memories of the Holocaust. Wiesel received many awards for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also founded organizations for the purpose of commemorating the Holocaust and channeled large sums of money to charitable causes. He passed away in Sivan 5776/2016.

I recently read a fascinating story about Wiesel in a newly published book in which the author, Chava Rottenberg, describes her parents’ experiences during the war. Mrs. Rottenberg is a daughter of Rav Sholom Dovid Horowitz, who was a pillar of the Jewish community in Antwerp. Both Rav Sholom Dovid and his wife suffered indescribably during the war. For six years, his daughter relates, the Nazis’ torment sucked the life out of her father, until he was finally thrown onto a pile of corpses in Bergen-Belsen. Little did they know that they would never defeat his spirit. Rav Sholom Dovid survived the death march but remained a veritable walking corpse. Two months before the liberation, his daughter relates, the holiday of Purim arrived. There were piles of dead bodies everywhere, and the bitter end that seemed to await all of the surviving prisoners hovered ominously in the air. Their liberators were drawing close, but death was on its way as well. As they were marched past a bombed-out house, Rav Sholom Dovid spotted a small saccharine pill on the ground. He picked it up and presented to his friend, Hershel Prutzel, as mishloach manos. The other man accepted the gift with a gaunt, trembling hand and immediately returned it as mishloach manos. Then the two tearfully expressed their wishes that they would be fortunate enough to greet their rebbe on the following Purim. As much as the Nazis tried to dehumanize them, no one could rob them of their hope.

This is merely a prelude to the story that I found so fascinating.

Rav Sholom Dovid’s experiences in the Holocaust were strikingly similar to those of Elie Wiesel, and the life he led after the war is a clear sign that even a person who has lived through the greatest darkness can become a beacon of light. His experiences can also give us an idea of man’s capacity for greatness. We must recognize the heights that were reached by the previous generation, for it places a tremendous responsibility on us as well.

For instance, Mrs. Rottenberg’s book describes the incredible self-sacrifice that her father and other Jews displayed for the sake of the mitzvah of tefillin. Her father’s good friend, a boy named Gesundheit, managed to smuggle his tefillin into Auschwitz, where he hid them in a hole in the ground. Other Jews, including Rav Sholom Dovid – who was 18 years old at the time – risked their lives on a regular basis in order to wear the tefillin, to feel a taste of the Divine Presence in that nightmarish camp, behind the barbed wire and in full view of the smoke rising from the crematoria.

The end of the story occurred years later, in Davos, where the Horowitz family used to travel for vacations. “During a convention of the World Economic Forum, my father went to Shacharis one morning and a man asked to lead the davening,” Mrs. Rottenberg relates. “He said that he had a yahrtzeit. He removed a folded yarmulka from his pocket and placed it on his head. My father listened to the davening in astonishment. It seemed like a davening from a different world and a different time. After the tefillah, my father approached him, shook his hand, and asked his name. ‘I am Elie Wiesel,’ the other man replied. My father told him a little bit about himself, and Wiesel filled in a few words that he could not say, and the two began to weep at the parts of the story for which they had no words at all. They had been neighbors in that gehennom, where they were placed in adjoining barracks, and both of them saw the images of their suffering before their eyes – the barracks, the wooden platforms where they slept, the hunger….

“And the tefillin. Somehow, they realized in astonishment that they had both worn the same pair of tefillin that had been concealed beneath the earth. They both belonged to the same group of hardy souls who dared to defy the Soton that danced in Auschwitz and to remain free in spirit. My father said, ‘It may very well have been those tefillin that I wore with mesirus nefesh that gave me the privilege of being saved.’ Elie Wiesel thought for a moment, then touched his yarmulka and said, ‘Thanks to those tefillin, I have the privilege today of meeting my G-d once again.’”

 

Putting the Shofar in Perspective

Rav Shimshon Pincus once offered the following moshol to explain the mitzvah of shofar: There was a young child who was an incorrigible troublemaker, who never missed a single opportunity to engage in mischief. One day, he returned from Talmud Torah after a record day of misbehavior: He had hit several children, he had broken a window, and he had disturbed his entire class throughout the day. When he showed his parents the note from his rebbi, which detailed all of his misconduct throughout the day, their wrath was not long in coming. His father felt that the only option was to treat the child to a good spanking, and his mother added that he would have to receive a punishment severe enough to prevent him from ever repeating such awful behavior. Even his siblings were furious with him, and the boy found himself wondering how he could ever extricate himself from his predicament. He hurried to take refuge in his room, dreading the punishment that awaited him … and then, without realizing it, he accidentally slammed the door on his finger, and a shriek of pain escaped from his lips.

Upon hearing the scream, his parents rushed to his room and gasped in horror at the sight of the bloody, mangled finger. Suddenly, their plans to punish him were forgotten. They rushed him to a doctor, their hearts filled with worry, and they watched in anguish as he suffered through painful injections, stitches, and the rest of the medical treatment. They promised him the most lavish rewards to calm him down from his screams, and they even bought him a new bicycle on their way home.

What happened to the judgment that lay in store for the child? This is the same thing that can happen to us on Rosh Hashanah. When we are in the middle of being judged, we let out a cry of pain – a cry that emerges through the shrill tone of the shofar. The shofar’s wail expresses the innermost cries of every Jew, the “kol Yaakov” – and as soon as the Jewish people cry out here on earth, Hashem, as it were, cries out in Shomayim as well, just as the mother in the parable is deeply moved by her son’s screams of pain. With that, the judgment is abruptly terminated. That, Rav Pincus explained, is the meaning of the shofar.

This is one approach to understand the power of the shofar, but Rav Pincus offered another analogy as well. Once again, he spoke about a young boy who returned home with a note from his rebbi relating that he had misbehaved in class. His parents were furious, and the child began to cower in fear. What could he do to escape from the punishment that loomed in his near future? Suddenly, the boy had an idea: He quickly grabbed one of his father’s old hats, placed it on his own small head, and began to twist his face into various amusing expressions. His father immediately began to laugh, and the punishment was suddenly forgotten.

That, Rav Pincus said, is another way to understand the significance of the shofar.