The battle is finally over. A yarmulke-wearing mayor has been elected in Yerushalayim. It was a close race; as bizarre as this may sound.
After all the votes were tallied, including those of the disabled, soldiers, and prisoners, these were the results: Altogether, there were 223,399 citizens who voted in Yerushalayim, out of 638,065 who were eligible to vote. There are always some ballots that are disqualified; in this case, it was only 1,676. Moshe Leon received 112,744 votes, which amounts to 50.85 percent of the vote. Ofer Berkowitz, meanwhile, received 49.15 percent of the vote, or 108.99 votes. It was not a large gap by any means.
What will happen now? For one thing, unity must be restored within our communities; everyone is calling for that. MK Moshe Gafni made a point of being interviewed over and over, and repeating that message each time, as did Uri Maklev and Aryeh Deri. At the same time, the experiences of this election might affect the UTJ list in the next election for the Knesset, which might take place earlier than expected. The question now is whether Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah will continue running together. In all likelihood, they will not split; the people have grown tired of division. But if the Litvish sector feels that it is not receiving its due again, then it is possible that the parties will run on separate lists. Until now, the chassidish community has claimed that the Litvish party would not succeed in crossing the electoral threshold on its own and has dissuaded Degel HaTorah from running independently. At this time, though, it seems that the chassidim are the ones who should be hesitant to divide United Torah Judaism into its component parties.
Hours of Suspense
Last Tuesday, at 11:00 in the evening, I heard a report on the radio that Ofer Berkowitz, the secular candidate in Yerushalayim, was leading as the votes were counted, and I began to feel faint. Many of the members of the city’s chareidi community had spent the day of the election working like maniacs for the benefit of Moshe Leon. My own children, who are generally reticent and soft-spoken, spent the day knocking on doors in secular neighborhoods and trying to convince people to vote for Moshe Leon in order to receive the brachos of the gedolim and to preserve the sanctity of Yerushalayim. Yungerleit left their kollelim to participate in the efforts; they fought for every possible vote. At night, when the votes were counted, it became clear that these efforts had been critical.
The report that I heard at 11:00, which stated that Berkowitz was in the lead, was accurate at that time. The newscasters were reporting on the votes that had already been counted. They did not know, however, that the large polling stations in neighborhoods heavily populated by Litvish chareidim had yet to be counted. But it was with the arrival of those votes, which numbered many thousands, that the turnabout took place. Around midnight, the picture began to change, until it became clear that Leon’s victory was irreversible. Even the votes of the soldiers and the disabled, which would not be counted until the following day, could not change the situation. It was a stressful time for the chareidi community, but in the end, when Leon’s victory was announced everyone heaved a sigh of relief.
The Gift of Challenges
At 9:30 that evening, I visited the home of Rav Gershon Edelstein in Bnei Brak. I had cast my ballot in Yerushalayim at 7:00, and then I drove to Bnei Brak. Rav Gershon delivers a shiur every week at that time, generally on matters related to chinuch. The shiur serves as the basis for the weekly publication Darkei HaChinuch, which is expertly written (by Reb Yisroel Cohen) and has become a cornerstone of the educational approach of tens of thousands of people, including many mechanchim.
I don’t believe there is anywhere else that I have ever seen a small living room contain so many people, from young bochurim to elderly men. A huge crowd sat in the room, everyone’s gaze focused intently on the side door from which the rosh yeshiva was supposed to emerge. He entered the room slowly, as if he was trying not to occupy any space in the world. He held a folded piece of paper in his hand, which contained an outline of the topics he planned to discuss. His eyes sparkled as he gazed at his audience, and a hush fell over the room.
Rav Gershon spoke softly. I was expecting him to mention the day’s election, as there was just a half hour remaining until the polls closed. He smiled and said, “You know, today we vote; we make a choice.” But then he segued immediately into his own topic. “Atah bechartanu – Hashem has chosen us. Hashem wants us to be the chosen people.”
For the next 27 minutes, Rav Gershon dazzled us with his enlightening words. He explained that Hashem causes people to encounter hardships in order to give them an opportunity to overcome adversity. All nisyonos create an opportunity for us to grow. “If someone interferes with your learning,” he asserted, “it is a challenge that was created for you, so that you will be able to overcome it. The person who causes the problems is a sinner and will be punished for it, but you are responsible to daven for him.” He quoted a posuk in Sefer Tehillim, which indicates that every Jew is obligated to be concerned about the welfare of his brethren.
The shiur came to an end, but no one moved until Rav Gershon rose to leave. At that moment, the hubbub began, as the assembled men began vying with each other to receive the rosh yeshiva’s brocha, or at least to catch his attention for a minute. Rav Gershon made his way out of the room, and his gabbai, Rav Mordechai Paley, tried to gently keep the crowd away. One bochur insisted on approaching the rosh yeshiva; he related that he had been readmitted to his yeshiva under very severe limitations, and he requested a brocha. The venerable rosh yeshiva, who is in his nineties, smiled and shook the hand of the young bochur. “It is possible that you need some guidance,” he said. “Come back to me when you have a chance.” The bochur, who was deeply moved, tried to kiss the rosh yeshiva’s outstretched hand. Rav Gershon quickly pulled his hand away and said, “May Hashem open your heart to the Torah.”
As the election drew to a close, I had no doubt that Leon would defeat his secular opponent – not because of the tremendous efforts the chareidi community made to promote him, but rather simply because the gedolei Yisroel desired so strongly for him to be elected. Was it possible that their brachos would not be fulfilled? I could not imagine such an eventuality.
Rav Shalom Cohen’s Prediction
“Where were you when Yerushalayim fell?”
That was the question posed by the advertisements for Ofer Berkowitz’s campaign, which were plastered on the sides of buses throughout the city. It was meant to evoke the oft-asked question in America, “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” And the message was clear: The residents of Yerushalayim were exhorted to hurry to the polls and to vote for Berkowitz, to prevent the city from falling into the hands of the chareidim. Amazingly, there were some chareidim who voted for Berkowitz. But the message went beyond that: As far as the Ofer Berkowitzes of the world were concerned, if a man like Moshe Leon – who wears a yarmulke and, even worse, is Sephardic – were to take control of Yerushalayim, the city would be considered to have fallen. That would be especially true if Leon was aligned with people who do not represent the “mainstream” world, such as Avigdor Lieberman on one side and Aryeh Deri on the other. Both politicians are known for their close ties to Leon, and both supported him through the mayoral race. Now, if those sentiments aren’t racist – albeit on a subconscious level – then I don’t know what is. In the end, Moshe Leon won; from their perspective, then, Yerushalayim has fallen. Immediately after his victory, Leon hurried to visit the headquarters of Degel HaTorah’s electoral council. The next morning found him visiting the Kosel Hamaaravi, followed by the home of Rav Shalom Cohen.
Let me give my own answer to the Berkowitz campaign’s question: When Yerushalayim “fell,” I was at the Wagschal simcha hall in Bnei Brak – after my visit to Rav Gershon Edelstein’s home – where a young man named Ariel Pinchas was celebrating his bar mitzvah. Hundreds of guests came to the bar mitzvah to pay their respects to the boy’s father, Rav Meir Pinchas, who is Rav Shalom Cohen’s right-hand man. I made sure to ascertain in advance when Rav Shalom himself would be there, and I arrived at the bar mitzvah along with the young man who had sought Rav Gershon Edelstein’s brocha earlier that evening.
At 10:10 p.m., as the counting of the ballots began in Yerushalayim, Rav Shalom Cohen began delivering a speech. He made no mention of the elections in Yerushalayim and in Tzefas; rather, he was analyzing the reason that the word “u’keshartem” appears only in two of the parshiyos of the tefillin. But then Rav Shalom demonstrated the proof of Chazal’s adage that a chacham can be more prescient than a novi. After concluding his drosha with lavish praise for the father of the bar mitzvah bochur, and after showering warm wishes on the young man, Rav Shalom concluded, “B’ezras Hashem, in another two hours we will all rejoice.” One hour later, the chareidi community was tensely awaiting the final outcome of the election, all but certain that Yerushalayim had fallen into secular hands. It seemed clear that Berkowitz had won. It was only after two hours had passed, at exactly 12:30, that the tide turned, and Leon’s victory began to become apparent – just as Rav Shalom had hinted.
The Left Fights for Berkowitz
In one of his speeches on the day before the election, Aryeh Deri spoke about the friction within the chareidi camp and asserted that “the satan is dancing in our midst.” The political left and Ofer Berkowitz’s supporters pounced on this comment as a pretext to lodge an official complaint against Deri. A complaint was even filed with the Knesset Ethics Committee. Deri explained that he was referring to the discord within the ranks of the chareidi community, not to Ofer Berkowitz, but the level of incitement continued to mount. As soon as it became clear that Berkowitz would be vying against Leon in the runoff election, the chiloni media went out of their way to promote the chiloni contender.
I read Aryeh Deri’s response to the Knesset Ethics Committee, which was delivered by his aide. “The Minister of the Interior has appointed me to respond to you,” the aide informed the committee, “that the statement under discussion was not directed at any specific person, and certainly not at a legitimate candidate for the office of mayor of a city in Israel. Rather, it referred to the division and strife that was displayed within the chareidi public. This was clarified in an interview that was given the next day on the Galei Tzahal radio station by the minister himself. He even said that he personally likes Mr. Berkowitz, and that his comment was not directed at any specific person. Therefore, in light of this clarification, there is no place for this complaint.”
A petition was also filed with the High Court, demanding that Deri be disqualified from commenting on the elections in Yerushalayim, since his position as Minister of the Interior makes him responsible for overseeing the election process. That petition was rejected. And on Tuesday night, we discovered that even though the satan had danced in Yerushalayim, he was defeated by the power of the Torah.
That night, as I stood in the Wagschal hall, I watched Rav Shalom Cohen and was reminded of the commotion that used to surround Rav Ovadiah Yosef in his day. The father of the bar mitzvah bochur was barely able to make his way through the crowd to greet Rav Shalom, as others clustered around the revered rosh yeshiva, appealing for brachos for themselves. As he made his way to the car that had been parked just outside the exit, Rav Shalom was stopped repeatedly – and he dispensed brachos with tremendous warmth.
Election Messages of the Gedolim
One thing I discovered during the recent elections is that for the gedolei Yisroel, the elections were part and parcel of the avodah of a religious Jew. The rest of us were too ignorant to see this, and that is why apathy and complacency numbed many. But the gedolim exhorted us to go out and vote. Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein traveled around the country in order to awaken the chareidi public to the task of the hour. When was the last time that Rav Chaim appeared in Haifa, or that Rev Gershon visited Beit Shemesh? But these gedolim, who hardly seem likely to be concerned about the outcome of a political election, were fueled by a sense of urgency. Amazingly, it was they who ignited passion within the chareidi public, instilling a sense of responsibility in the people and whipping up enthusiasm for what amounted to a choice between good and evil. For us, the ordinary citizens at the ballot boxes, the message was that we were not merely choosing between one candidate and another; rather, we were casting votes for the Torah itself by supporting the candidates selected by the gedolim.
Chazal tell us that even the sichas chullin of talmidei chachomim is worthy of analysis. One talmid chochom pointed out to me that when the gedolim addressed our communities in advance of the elections, they did not mention the issues that generally feature in campaign speeches, such as property taxes, land allocations, repairing sidewalks or installing playground equipment. Tens of thousands of people listened intently as they spoke, and their speeches focused much more on the essence of life itself than on the elections. The man who made this observation went so far as to calculate the number of words in each speech that related to the elections themselves, versus the number of words that they devoted to other matters, and he found that the latter greatly outnumbered the former.
On Tuesday, the 16th of Cheshvan, thousands of people came to the Tamir hall in Yerushalayim to hear the messages of gedolim. After giving his audience instructions to vote for Degel HaTorah and Moshe Leon, Rav Gershon Edelstein delivered the following message: “It is a severe prohibition to speak critically about another person, and it can awaken the middas hadin. The Mishnah states in Avos that one should judge every person favorably. If a person judges others negatively, the malochim will hear it and will prosecute him – and who can withstand Hashem’s judgment? It is important to remember that everything is min hashomayim, and that our hishtadlus makes no difference, for success is a function of our merits. Without zechuyos, we cannot succeed in any area – neither in ruchniyus nor in gashmiyus. And another thing that is important to remember is ‘Talmud Torah k’neged kulam.’ Learning Torah is the greatest possible source of merit for the person who involves himself in Torah, as well as for the entire public, for that is what creates zechuyos for the community.”
This is the message that was delivered to tens of thousands of people at an election rally. Very often, the words of gedolim are dissected and analyzed after they have spoken; many people toil to understand exactly what the gedolim meant and why they said certain things at certain times. In this case, though, Rav Gershon’s meaning was abundantly clear: Without a source of zechuyos, we will never succeed in anything, and learning Torah is the greatest source of merit. There was nothing complex about his message, nothing that needed to be carefully interpreted or elucidated. And then there is this telling statistic: Rav Gershon devoted 40 words to the subject of the election itself, yet his main message consisted of 150 words – a clear statement of his priorities.
At a gathering of roshei yeshivos in his home (on erev Shabbos of the week of Parshas Toldos), Rav Gershon conveyed a similar message. “We are in need of zechuyos in order to succeed,” he told his listeners. “What is needed now is spiritual merits. We do not need to criticize those who do not cooperate with us, whether in speech or in thought, for every word or thought of that nature is a kitrug. Our thoughts are known in Shomayim, and we do not want to create accusations; we should want only to give others the benefit of the doubt! We should not even harbor a negative thought about another person. We have already spoken about the fact that we should not think such things at all, for they are mistaken and not responsible [for their misguided attitudes]. It is possible to find a way to judge them favorably. No one can withstand Hashem’s judgment, but when a person judges others favorably, and he does not think or speak about them critically, he will have the zechus that in shomayim as well. Middah k’neged middah, he will be judged favorably. It is very important to be aware of this.”
Thus, although the election was a matter of importance, it was not a battle to be fought at any cost. The end does not justify the means; one must not seek to repair the world at the expense of one’s own middos. The tension of an election period has the capacity to cause division and strife, but a breach of bein adam l’chaveiro can be as destructive as a raging conflagration. Rav Gershon used his address at the election rally to warn his listeners to take care to respect others and not to shame them, to seek out sources of spiritual merit and to look favorably upon other people. That, he said, is the key to success, even in the voting booth. It may be a mitzvah to work for the desired outcome of an election, but that does not exempt us from avoiding aveiros in our dealings with others. A victory gained through violating the Torah’s prohibitions is one that may lead to prosecution in Shomayim, chas v’sholom. And that is what made Rav Gershon’s speech appropriate for an election rally. A mussar shmuess about the path to eternal life is equally appropriate in the bais medrash, in a private home, and in a massive gathering at Tamir – because the elections and everything associated with them are part of our religious avodah.