Thursday, May 30, 2024

My Take on the News

A Visit to the Kosel

I have been to the Kosel.

Nothing compares to a visit to the Kosel before Rosh Hashanah. The sights and sounds give a palpable sense of reality to the month of Elul and the imminent arrival of Rosh Hashanah. I recited Tehillim and davened Maariv during my visit, but I also sat down on a chair, leaned on a shtender, and simply looked around. I saw chiloni men arriving, hesitantly approaching the large sacred stones, placing their hands on the Kosel and resting their heads on their arms as we do during Tachanun, praying from the depths of their hearts. I have no way of knowing what they were davening for, but it was a moving sight.

I always find it fascinating to gaze at the people who come to the Kosel. Very often, I witness a juxtaposition of opposite extremes – a young soldier standing beside an elderly Yerushalmi, or a Sephardic man and a chossid, or a Litvak and an elderly Yemenite. There are chilonim in colorful clothes standing beside chareidim in hats and jackets. Jews come to the Kosel to daven and to weep, and I enjoy looking around the plaza, taking notice of the different people and pondering what they might be davening for. On this particular visit, I noticed a yeshiva bochur reciting Tehillim in a lilting voice in one corner, while two Sephardic bochurim sat beside him, learning from a sefer that I did not recognize.

Near the mechitzah, I saw a large group of American bochurim listening intently to a man who was addressing them. I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying, but I heard him mentioning a Kli Yokor, the month of Elul, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and teshuvah. I asked one of the yungeleit who was accompanying the group what was happening, and he explained to me that the boys had just arrived from America that day. These were bochurim who had not been successful in their yeshivos back home and came to Israel to learn in a yeshiva known as Gevuras Yitzchok. The yeshiva, which is located in the Har Nof neighborhood of Yerushalayim, has a program tailored specifically for the needs of such talmidim. The rosh yeshiva, Rav Michoel Schon, was there as well. The boys davened Maariv after listening to the speech and I was captivated by the sight of the rosh yeshiva as he davened.

I would advise you to visit the Kosel, but do not come by car; it is utterly impossible to find a place to park. The narrow road leading to the Kosel is congested to the point that you will be driven to insanity by your slow progress, and when you make it to the end of the road, the policemen at the bottom will not allow you to stop there. The result is that you will find yourself driving to an endless distance away from the Kosel, and you will not find a parking spot even then. I must warn you that the bus service to the Kosel is also extremely poor.


Netanyahu in Vilna

Prime Minister Netanyahu recently traveled to Lithuania, where he managed to milk his visit for the maximum public relations benefit. He had his picture taken at the kever of the Vilna Gaon, in a shul where hundreds of people were applauding him, as well as while he was walking down a street in Vilna (on Shabbos, which is the reason he was not traveling by car at the time). Nevertheless, after Netanyahu returned to Israel, he came under a barrage of condemnation from organizations of Holocaust survivors. They decried the fact that he had praised and honored the Lithuanian people while completely ignoring their actions during the Holocaust. To make matters worse, he also received word from the police that Case 4000 had not been put to rest, after all. After his latest interrogation, Netanyahu had claimed that the case collapsed. It seemed that he had proven to his interrogators, who claimed that he had bribed Shaul Elovitch, that the website owned by Elovitch had not only failed to limit its attacks on Netanyahu, but had actually taken its hostility toward the prime minister to a higher level. The police responded by announcing that the case had not been closed. On the contrary, two more individuals are now suspected of bribery: Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and his son, Avner.

Netanyahu has another headache: the ongoing negotiations over the draft law. Ultimately, Netanyahu himself will have to find a way to satisfy both Agudas Yisroel, which is demanding changes in the law, and Lieberman and Lapid, who are resisting even the slightest alteration to its text. It was recently announced that an agreement had been reached. I will report to you, bli neder, when the developments become clear.


Temporary Israeli Consulate to Open in Uman

Tens of thousands visit Uman in the Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah every year. Uman is the location of the kever of Rav Nachman of Breslov, who promised that anyone who makes an effort to visit his grave will not be prevented from doing so and will be saved from gehennom. On that note, an interesting story took place this week. There is a certain Breslover chassid who was forced to declare bankruptcy and became subject to the jurisdiction of Hotzaah LaPoal, Israel’s debt collection agency, which took responsibility for seeing to it that his creditors were paid. Once a case is transferred to Hotzaah LaPoal, the agency takes charge of every cent that he manages to bring into his bank account and decides how his income is to be divided among his creditors. The person himself is left only with the barest minimum for living expenses and is not permitted any luxuries, including traveling abroad. In this case, the chossid asked for permission to travel to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, and the collection agency denied his request. He appealed to the court, and the agency’s representatives explained to the judge that the trip was considered a luxury, since it was for the sake of a religious experience and they were concerned that he might run away. The judge rejected both arguments: If the debtor runs away, he pointed out, his creditors will be able to collect from his guarantors, and as for the argument that the trip was unnecessary, the judge ruled that traveling to Uman does not have the status of an extraneous pleasure trip. In effect, it was a slap in the face to the officers of Hotzaah LaPoal.

Here are a couple of other tidbits that relate to Uman. First, the Israeli government has opened a temporary consulate in Uman, whose purpose is to assist Israelis visiting the Ukraine at this time of year who are in need of consular services. Second, the army has decided that it will not take any steps against yeshiva bochurim who travel to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, even though the timing of the Yom Tov this year will cause most of them to spend more than seven days out of the country. A yeshiva bochur who receives a draft deferment is generally not permitted to leave Israel for more than seven days of the year, with the exception of bein hazemanim. Nevertheless, the army decided this year to be considerate of the situation and not to penalize bnei yeshivos who spend Rosh Hashanah in Uman.

Finally, United Hatzalah will be establishing a medical clinic and a facility that is virtually a mini-hospital in Uman for the benefit of the many visitors. Let us hope that their services will not be needed.


Constant Change in Municipal Politics

Municipal elections throughout Israel are rapidly approaching. There are several religious cities in the country, and the chareidi political parties (Agudas Yisroel and its component faction, Shlomei Emunim, as well as Degel HaTorah and Shas) have always negotiated agreements among themselves regarding who will hold the office of mayor in the various cities (such as Beit Shemesh, Elad, Beitar Illit, Rechasim, and Telz-Stone). Without going into all the details, I will tell you simply that it has now become clear that the politicians are not always happy to fulfill the agreements that they signed five years earlier, during the previous municipal elections. At this time, almost all of the agreements in every locale have been annulled, and we are constantly hearing about new settlements that have been reached.


Arab MKs Incite Against Israel in the UN

Last week, I wrote about the verbal sparring between Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Both politicians are on the far right of the political map and are battling each other for votes in the right-wing sector, and each of them would like to portray himself as being more extreme than the other. It seems that Bennett’s public criticism had an effect on Lieberman, who announced last week that he has no involvement in the country’s dealings with Hamas. That was a statement that was difficult to believe, since the Minister of Defense is more likely than anyone else in the country to be aware of the situation and to be giving instructions. The press quoted a “senior official in the army” (the term usually used for the chief of staff when he asks not to be quoted by name) as denying the truth of Lieberman’s statement: “The Minister of Defense is not only very familiar with the agreement being developed with Hamas in Gaza, but is also an active partner in everything that is happening.”

The Minister of Defense also ordered the Erez Crossing on the southern border reopened, as a result of the relative quiet in the Gaza strip. The crossing had been closed a week earlier, in response to violence perpetrated by the Arabs in Gaza. The reopening was in response to a request from the Egyptians, who are leading the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas. Netanyahu’s policy is that Israel does not negotiate with terrorists, but the country also does not prevent other intermediaries from promoting quiet. In my view, that seems to be a correct approach.

Meanwhile, the battle has expanded to another front – in New York. A group of Arab members of the Israeli Knesset have launched a joint initiative with Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, to convince the UN to pass a resolution condemning Israel and denouncing the Nationality Law as a form of apartheid. I wrote at length about the Nationality Law two weeks ago, and I tried to explain what it is (the answer: almost nothing), why it has infuriated the left (which is very unclear), and why it is being used against the government and Netanyahu (which is not a surprise). The Arabs are pushing for the resolution to be passed soon, and the timing, as far as they are concerned, could not be better: All of the world leaders are supposed to be arriving in New York soon for the next session of the UN General Assembly, including Trump and Netanyahu.

The actions of the Arab MKs evoked fierce condemnation in Israel. Netanyahu used it as a basis for attacking his political rivals on the left. Yuli Edelstein suggested that they would be better off joining the parliament in Gaza. Yariv Levin slammed them as traitors to the country. But I imagine, based on what I know of the Arab MKs, that they are sitting in New York and laughing uproariously. Their official response was that they were not responsible for the initiative, that they are simply assisting the Palestinian representative, and that criticism of the state is not necessarily treason.


Arba Minim from the Ministry of Agriculture

Last week, the Ministry of Agriculture released an announcement that it is prohibited to bring sets of Arba Minim into Israel. The announcement is somewhat misleading, since the law actually prohibits bringing any fruit or vegetable from another country into Israel. The concern is that foreign produce might be contaminated with organisms that would harm the local crops and cause irreversible damage to agriculture in Israel. It is actually a criminal offense to bring these items into the country.

The ban on bringing foreign produce into a country is in force in every country in the world. On one of my visits to America, as I was about to leave Kennedy Airport, I was frightened when a couple of police dogs suddenly began taking an interest in my suitcase. The policeman told me the dog was sniffing for fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, I managed to make it out of the airport in peace.

In another incident, when I returned to Israel from a trip abroad, the customs agents decided to inspect my suitcase and were thrilled to find two bottles of whiskey; the law permits bringing one bottle into the country. I told them that there had been a special sale in the duty free store and I pointed out that the two bottles were in a single carton. The inspector allowed me to keep the extra bottle, but apparently felt that he couldn’t let me get off scot-free, because he chose to confiscate … a banana. I had brought a banana home to show my family how the fruit is sold in Boro Park – individually wrapped in plastic, the way pineapples are sold in Israel. I still have a copy of the slip that I signed to confirm that the Israeli customs agents had taken my banana.

Back to our story: The notice from the ministry concludes by stating that visitors are permitted to bring a single esrog into the country, and that any visitor wishing to bring his own set of Arba Minim should coordinate in advance with the “Service for the Protection of Plants and Inspection at the Ministry of Agriculture.” In that case, I wondered, why did they write that the Arba Minim are banned? The announcement could have stated simply that it is permitted to bring the plants in question into the country, as long as there is proper coordination. Furthermore, if the ministry’s staff can inspect a single esrog to allow it into the country, it should also be possible for them to inspect several hundred esrogim.


Segulos for the Yom Hadin

Twenty years ago, in Elul of the year 5758, Rav Chanoch Karelenstein came to my house. Despite his weakened condition, he climbed the many stairs to my apartment (which is in a building without an elevator) to make a request: He wanted me to have the word “Elul” printed in large letters on the front page of the Israeli newspaper for which I was writing at the time. “As you know,” he said, “I am ill and I need zechuyos. I am asking you to please print a powerful headline, on the front page of the newspaper, to grab everyone’s attention.”

I hesitated, protesting that it was not the standard practice. He did not deny that fact, but he remained adamant. “Then do something that isn’t standard,” he said. “It will be zikui harabbim. That is my request. Besides,” he added with a laugh, “after you do it, it will become the standard practice. Everyone will follow your lead next year.”

And so I did it. On the front page of that newspaper, between two political stories, the word “Elul” appeared in large letters. Since that time, there isn’t a single newspaper that hasn’t announced the arrival of Elul every year. Rav Karelenstein was always ahead of his time. He was a brilliant, innovative man who was always involved in zikui harabbim.

I remember accompanying him during his illness as he visited shul after shul in Bnei Brak. Everywhere we went, he left a few of his famous kuntreisim – on Chanukah and Purim; Pesach, Sefiras Ha’omer, and Shavuos; Sukkos and Simchas Torah; and his kuntres of tips for a successful judgment on the Yomim Noraim. The kuntreisim were always published anonymously and left for public consumption as a gift from the author. He passed away in Elul 5759.

I can never forget the mournful hespeidim, Rav Don Segal’s heartbroken cries, and the anguish of his father, Rav Dov Tzvi Karelenstein, who was shattered by the loss of his “Kaddish.” We all felt that the next gadol hador had been taken from us. Thousands of people who had benefited from his support and whose lives had been illuminated by his influence suddenly felt orphaned.

This year, Rav Chanoch’s kuntres for the Yomim Noraim has been republished by his sons. As the introduction beautifully explains, Rav Chanoch was a veritable walking treasury of Torah wisdom, whose knowledge spanned the entire Torah – halacha, mussar, and aggadah. “With the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his insight,” the introduction states, “he compiled and published these seforim, in order to bring merit to the public and to open the gates of light before them….”

The new edition of the kuntres, which includes a detailed table of contents and expanded index, contains a dedication in memory of Rav Simcha Shlomo Levin, Rav Chanoch’s father-in-law and the son of Rav Aryeh Levin. I recall that when the Levin family sat shivah, they were visited by many of the gedolim of our generation, including Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and ybl”c Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

Rav Chanoch’s kuntres expresses his wishes for a shanah tovah umesukah, a new year that will be both good and sweet for his readers. Hashem does only good, but we daven that we will not only know that He is good, but will actually feel the sweetness of His Providence.


A Peek into the Past

Everyone enjoys spending time on different activities during bein hazemanim. Some people like to read books, others enjoy relaxing on the beach, and still others volunteer for organizations such as Darchei Miriam. For my part, I enjoy leafing through old newspapers. It can be fascinating, edifying, and sometime entertaining as well. For instance, I came across a notice from many years ago, in which Rabbi Menachem Porush invited his friends to the bar mitzvah of his son Meir.

Then there was this news article, which was published in Hatzofeh in the year 1955: “Today, awards for excellence will be distributed to talmidei yeshivos. The event is held by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and will take place at Beit Knesset Yeshurun.” The article goes on to explain, “This year, the Ministry of Religious Affairs received 70 essays containing chiddushei Torah written by talmidim in the country’s yeshivos. The awards committee designated a special group of reviewers to evaluate the essays, and 23 prizes were allotted. There are three types of prizes, and the sums range from 50 to 150 lirot.” The committee met at the home of Rav Herzog, the chief rabbi of Israel. The Minister of Religious Affairs at the time was Chaim Moshe Shapira. The identities of the contestants remained concealed from the committee members until they had chosen the winning essays. The names of the winners are listed in Hatzofeh, and some of them bear mentioning here. The list includes Avrohom Genechovsky of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Moshe Meir Pereg of Yeshivas Shaar Hashomayim in Yerushalayim, Shlomo Fisher of the Mir Yeshiva, Shmaryohu Arieli of the Mir Yeshiva, Zalman Boruch Lev of Yeshivas Ohel Torah in Yerushalayim, Chaim Rizi of Yeshivas Bais Zvul in Yerushalayim, Avrohom Yitzchok Deutsch of the Ponovezh Yeshiva, Avrohom Yitzchok Toker of the Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, Michoel Borenstein of the Ponovezh Yeshiva, a bochur named Stachelberg from Yeshivas Knesses Chizkiyohu in Kfar Chassidim, and Avrohom Benedict of Ponovezh Yeshiva.

Ashreichem, talmidei chachomim.


Kiddush Hashem in the News

This week, I noticed two stories in Maariv, both on the same page. The first story dealt with the expenses faced by parents of children returning to school. “The cost of returning to school has jumped by 16 percent,” the newspaper noted, adding that “one-third of parents report that they have difficulty contending with the expense, which can reach as much as 2,200 shekels.” The article is accompanied by a large picture of children preparing packages for the Chasdei Naomi chesed organization to distribute to needy families. The packages consist of schoolbags containing all the supplies that a child could need for the new school year. Rabbi Yosef Cohen, the director-general of Chasdei Naomi, is quoted as revealing that chareidim spend much less than chilonim on these expenses. “Nowadays,” he added, “if a child goes to school with an old backpack, regardless of how intelligent he is, the experience will be seared into his consciousness and his heart.” It was an important article on an important topic, and it revealed a noteworthy fact: As usual, a chareidi organization is at the forefront of providing for the needs of the less fortunate.

The other article that caught my eye dealt with an initiative launched by the Ramat Gan municipality, which offers cash incentives for hiring employees who are deaf or hard of hearing. That is certainly a praiseworthy idea. The news was announced by Amnon Botz, the director-general of the municipality, along with Rabbi Shimon Levi, the director of the organization known as Shmaya. Rabbi Levi appeared in a photograph accompanying the article, along with Botz and the mayor of Ramat Gan. Once again, it is a chareidi organization and rov who have fought for the rights of the disadvantaged members of society. Chasdei Naomi and Shmaya have created a kiddush Hashem.


An Imitation Challenge

This week, I met a grandson of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, and I told him that I know someone who recites a mi shebeirach exactly as Rav Ovadiah used to do so, to the point that it sends a chill up my spine. This reminded the grandson of a story.

A group of Sephardic yungeleit once complained to Rav Ovadiah that someone was mimicking him. The rov, as usual, was immersed in learning and paid no attention to them. They repeated their statement several times, until the rov finally looked up from his seforim and said, “So what?” These yungeleit, in their zeal to defend the rov’s honor, insisted that the mimicry was disrespectful and perhaps even disgraceful. They wanted the rov to give them a written letter, or at least oral instructions, for the imitations to be stopped, but Rav Ovadiah remained unperturbed.

When his visitors did not let up, Rav Ovadiah asked his grandson to intervene. The grandson himself disagreed with the yungeleit’s objections, and he told his grandfather that the mimicry was meant in good spirits and was not intended to mock the rov. “What does he do?” the rov asked, and the grandson replied that the man imitated the mi shebeirach that Rav Ovadiah recited after his shiur. At that point, the rov grew impatient with the discussion and ordered his visitors to leave the man alone. “He means well,” he added, “but you should tell him that it isn’t a great accomplishment to imitate only the mi shebeirach that follows the drasha. Instead, I would like to see if he can mimic the entire drosha itself!”


Setting the Record Straight on Rav Chaim’s Taanis Dibbur

In Divrei Siach, the weekly pamphlet published by Rav Yitzchok Goldstoff, I came across an interesting exchange. A bochur once asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky if it was appropriate to engage in a taanis dibbur during Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. He suggested that it might be preferable not to deviate from normative behavior, pointing out that the Chazon Ish wrote strongly in a letter that one should behave in a normal fashion. Rav Chaim replied, “A taanis dibbur is a good thing.”

The publication goes on to cite the oft-repeated account that before his marriage, Rav Chaim practiced a taanis dibbur either throughout the month of Elul or during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, but after his marriage, the Chazon Ish instructed him to discontinue that practice, since a husband must converse with his wife. Nevertheless, when he was asked about this, Rav Chaim averred that it was not true. “It is true that I used to engage in a taanis dibbur during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah,” he said, “but I stopped before I got married. I saw in yeshiva that it wasn’t feasible to continue the practice, such as when the rosh yeshiva came to speak to me, so I stopped doing it.”



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