Everyone knows that small children always steal the show, but the sight of small children beginning to learn Chumash is something truly exceptional. It captures your heart and opens a wellspring of tears.
This past week, I found myself at the community center in the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, Yerushalayim, for the Chumash party of my grandson, who attends Talmud Torah Avnei Shlomo – named for Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l – in Givat Shaul. We sat on plastic chairs, we gazed at the primitive “crowns” adorning the little boys’ heads, and, somehow, we were deeply moved. From that vantage point, all of the politicians in the world, even Obama, seemed so small. In fact, they were small.
On the subject of small people, one of the grandfathers was asked to speak, and he told a story from his own experience as a child in cheder: “Our rebbi brought us to Lakewood during the last year of Rav Aharon Kotler’s life. We didn’t know Yiddish and Rav Aharon didn’t know English, but it was enough just to see him. One of the children jumped up and asked for a brachah to become a talmid chochom. Rav Aharon asked his interpreter what the boy had said.
“When it was explained to him, Rav Aharon stood up and said emotionally, in Yiddish, ‘It is impossible to receive a brachah to become a talmid chochom. In order to be a talmid chochom, you have to sit and learn, and learn, and learn!’ The boy didn’t understand the words Rav Aharon was saying, but he could see that the gadol hador was very emotional. The interpreter translated for him, and to everyone’s surprise, the boy shouted in English, ‘I will learn and learn and learn, but I also want a brachah!’ Rav Aharon asked for a translation again, and when he heard the explanation, he smiled and gave the boy a warm brachah. Today, that boy is one of the greatest talmidei chachomim of our generation.”
At the Chumash party, the rabbeim’s love for their young charges was clearly evident. Rabbi Yitzchok Krishevsky, despite his advanced age, climbed the steps to the stage over and over to reassure a child who was overly nervous or to straighten a lopsided crown. Rabbi Ephraim Fisher remained constantly focused on the children, with both his eyes and his heart. Another rebbi, Rabbi Shmuel Herring, was in charge of the singing and demonstrated a remarkable level of talent. The mashgiach, Rabbi Aryeh Fein, delivered an address that left everyone open-mouthed with admiration. It was an exhilarating hour – or, to be more precise, three hours and twenty-five minutes – of pure, sublime elevation.
Like the children, the rabbeim, and all the parents and other grandparents, I found my heart aflutter with emotion. I remarked to the menahel, Rabbi Shlomo Levin, “You attend these events every year, so I imagine you are not as emotional as I am.”
Rabbi Levin disagreed. “This is my 15th year participating in a Chumash party and I am just as emotional as I was the first time,” he asserted. Indeed, it would be very sad for all of us if he were not.
In his speech, the menahel related the story of a melamed who was once offered a position teaching small boys. Since he was a veteran educator with many years of experience, he took the offer as an affront. He felt that he “deserved” to teach a class on a much higher level. In his distress, he went to Rechov Raavad in Bnei Brak to consult with Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l. Upon hearing the story, Rav Shach said, “Children are like stars in the sky. They appear small, but those who know the truth are aware that every tiny star is, in actuality, massive in size. Sometimes, it can be larger than the entire earth.” The message was clear: Every cheder child can be as important as an enormous star. One simply has to see it. And woe to all of us if we do not see it.
A New Sefer Torah for the Knesset
In all likelihood, you will read this week about the Sefer Torah that was ushered into the shul in the Knesset building. Last Tuesday, a dignified, perhaps even historic, ceremony was held, attended by government ministers, Knesset members, ambassadors, and rabbonim. The Sefer Torah was donated by Gavriel German Zachariev, who holds the title of Vice President of the Jewish Congress of Russia.
Exactly one year ago, a ceremony was held in the Knesset to mark the writing of the letters in the Sefer Torah. I attended that event and reported on it at the time. Now, one year later, the Sefer Torah was brought into the shul in another festive ceremony. The event was scheduled to commemorate the liberation of “the hundreds of thousands of partisan Jewish soldiers and ghetto and underground fighters who risked their lives to fight the Nazis and their collaborators.” Zachariev himself chose the date and designated it as a day of remembrance. As a result, there are events every year in which he plays a starring role, one that is well-deserved. This year, the date is even more significant, since it marks 70 years since the liberation.
According to the plan for the event, speeches were to be delivered by the Speaker of the Knesset, under whose aegis the event is taking place; Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, in his capacity as the chairman of Yad Vashem; and Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the rov of Moscow, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, and a good friend of Zachariev. On the morning of the event, Zachariev felt ill and sent his brother to take his place.
In truth, there have been three different Sifrei Torah donated at three different events. Last year, there was one event at the Kosel, another at the home of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and a third at the Knesset. This year, too, one Sefer Torah is to be donated to the Kosel, another to Rav Chaim’s home (this being one of the most mehudar Sifrei Torah ever written, with the entire writing having been supervised by Rav Chaim’s household), and the third to the Knesset shul.
It should be noted that the Sefer Torah that has been donated to the Knesset will not remain there. The legal advisor of the Knesset, Eyal Yinon, a former kippah-wearer, has announced that the Knesset is not permitted to accept gifts. In fact, he made the same announcement last year, but the organizers kept that information to themselves. It is almost certain that the Sefer Torah will be transferred to a different location within a very short time. Zachariev’s associates are already seeking an appropriate place. If you know of anyone who is interested in receiving a Sefer Torah written to a high standard, please call Zachariev.
In any case, the event was fantastic. It is doubtful if any such event has taken place in the Knesset for many years, if one ever did at all.
The Lawyer Who Owes an Apology
Since it exploded onto the scene several months ago, the Ronel Fisher scandal has been growing increasingly complicated. First, senior officials in the police force were exposed as being guilty of corruption, and now the scandal has widened to include judges as well. Fisher is an attorney, a journalist, and a media darling, with close ties to countless powerful figures. He was arrested a few months ago and then released to house arrest, and it seemed that the scandal would end there, like many other episodes that have begun with a great ruckus and concluded with piercing silence. But that was not to be the case.
Last Monday, a high-ranking official who held the rank of police superintendant, which is the police equivalent of a major general in the army, and who recently resigned on his own volition, was questioned in connection with the case. A gag order prohibits releasing his name, but the State of Israel is so small that it was inevitable that the entire country would know his identity, even without the newspapers reporting it. Several months ago, I saw that very official leaving the home of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, accompanied by an askan in the chareidi community. I was told that he had come to ask for a brachah. At the time, I was quite surprised, as the man was not known for being particularly close to the chareidi community. Now I understand better.
I have known Ronel Fisher since his days as a senior journalist and the number-one investigative reporter in Israel. He spent many days in the Knesset. He once published an investigative piece on the subject of silicon in milk, which evoked a major outcry. Another of his reports, which revealed that blood donated by Ethiopian immigrants was being secretly discarded, stunned the country. I watched with my own eyes as Fisher conducted an interview that led to an IDF spokesman being dismissed two days after he was appointed to his position. Fisher had a unique weapon: his stammer. It gave him points, creating the impression of hesitancy and softness, and it evoked sympathy and compassion in others. His interviewees often discovered only after the fact that the supposed poodle had turned out to be a Rottweiler. I didn’t like his methods, but we had a certain relationship over the years, until he left journalism to become a well-known and highly successful attorney.
I called him after his first arrest. My experience has taught me that in secular society, once a person has been arrested or questioned by the police, he will immediately lose all his friends and be plunged into social straits that can shake the foundations of his life. When such things happen, I feel compelled to offer encouragement, and that is what I did for Fisher. I called his office and left a message, and he returned my call very quickly. We spoke for a long time, as I tried to offer him some reassurance. I also gave him a piece of advice: He should ask Rabbi Uri Zohar to forgive him.
The background to that suggestion is the following: Fisher began his career as a journalist about 35 years ago, rising to fame on Rabbi Zohar’s back. He was asked to interview Rabbi Zohar, who was known for refusing all requests to be interviewed. But Fisher came up with a ploy: He pretended to be interested in becoming religious, and Rabbi Uri Zohar took him under his wing and spent many days with him. I believe that Fisher even slept in the Zohar home. Rabbi Zohar even went so far as to ask his own rebbi, Rav Zilberman zt”l, to give of his own time for Fisher. Finally, Fisher returned to his editors with the great journalistic “accomplishment” that catapulted him to fame. Rabbi Uri Zohar, meanwhile, was deeply offended. “Many years have passed,” I told Ronel, “but it isn’t too late for you to pick up the phone and ask him to forgive you.”
Fisher did not take my advice, but he did ask me to pass on a somewhat contrite message. He also asked me to tell Rabbi Zohar that everything that he had been told, both by Rabbi Zohar himself and by Rav Zilberman, was not in vain. To this day, he claimed, he still has a certain amount of “Yiddishkeit” from those experiences.
Since that phone call, Ronel Fisher has sunk deeper and deeper into a legal quagmire. The police cracked the code of his cell phone, and the scandal rose by several degrees, to the point that a former Tel Aviv district prosecutor was also arrested. It is possible that a number of investigations have been opened, closed, or seemingly closed on Ronel’s suggestion. Personally, I wish all the best to Fisher and I believe in his innocence. At the same time, I would advise him once again to approach Rabbi Zohar after his release and to beg for forgiveness.
Unanswered Questions About Israel’s Greatest Spy
Fifty years ago, on May 18, 1965, Eli Cohen was executed in Damascus. His death took place on Tuesday, the 16th of Iyar, 5725. I have recently been researching his life and his death, and I have found myself with many unanswered questions. For instance, before his last departure for Damascus, Eli Cohen felt that he was in danger. On his last trip back to Israel, he was identified by SwissAir workers, who were surprised to see the man they knew as a businessman with close connections to the Syrian leadership on a flight to Tel Aviv. Did Eli Cohen sense, and did his handlers know, that he had been discovered? When he was dispatched to Damascus for the last time, under pressure from his superiors, was Eli Cohen actually being sent to his death?
Also, after the greatest intelligence agent in Israeli history was hanged, did he receive his due from the country he served? For instance, six years ago, the municipality of Bat Yam decided to establish a museum in his memory. Did that actually happen? What has the State of Israel done to remember him? What has been done for his neshamah? Some will say that shuls were built and Sifrei Torah were dedicated to his memory, but the truth is that those things were done by the family or other nongovernmental bodies. What did the state do? And now that his fiftieth yahrtzeit has arrived, would the date have gone unnoticed if his name was Trumpeldor?
Hypocrisy and Demagoguery
The headline on the front page of Haaretz was highly unsettling: “Finance Ministry Warns Israel on the Road to Bankruptcy.” The newspaper went on to warn, “According to projections made by the Ministry of Finance for the coming 45 years, if Israel does not increase the integration of chareidim and Arabs in the workforce, both Uncle Sam from Tel Aviv and the state itself are bound to go bankrupt.” This article is based on an analysis conducted by an economist working for the Finance Ministry.
A newspaper article like this is a form of incitement. The impression it creates is that the Arabs and chareidim are somehow at fault for Israel’s economic situation, if it is bad. It is a type of libel and a distortion of the facts. It is akin to a murderer killing his mother and then asking for clemency on the grounds that he is an orphan. It was the previous government that caused the chareidim to stop working. The newspaper article is a case of both hypocrisy and demagoguery: The previous Minister of Finance spoke highly of encouraging chareidim to join the workforce, but his words were nothing but empty talk. Not only did he do nothing to aid chareidim and chareidi society, but he even took many harsh steps whose effects caused many women, chareidi and non-chareidi, to be forced to leave their jobs. This claim is backed up by ample documentation, by laws that were passed in the Knesset, and by many unfulfilled government commitments.
Here are some figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics: Employment of chareidi males rose by 16 percent over the 12-year period from 2002 to 2013, while the employment rate among Jewish males rose from 78 percent to 85 percent during that time. Among Jewish women, the employment rate rose from 66 percent to 79 percent, while the rise among Arabs was from 65 percent to 75 percent among men, and from 16 percent to 33 percent among women.
Furthermore, for those women who have no desire to use the teaching certificates they have earned — after all, how many teachers can be integrated into the workforce? — new programs have been established to provide training courses and job placement, mainly in the highly sought-after field of hi-tech. Parenthetically, you may be surprised to learn that chareidi men and women entering the hi-tech field have been known to display extraordinary capabilities. They cannot afford to pay for the training themselves, so it is sponsored by righteous Jews who are troubled by the economic plight of many chareidi families. One of the main organizations — and perhaps the only organization — behind the courses and training programs is known as Temech. Of course, the government is expected to contribute to the cost, considering that it promised funding to Temech, but that funding has not actually been provided.
This past week, Yaakov Margi raised this issue, bursting the Tel Aviv bubble and exposing the discrimination against chareidim. Margi brought up the subject of Temech and questioned why the government hasn’t been funding its work. Mickey Levi, a member of the Knesset from Yesh Atid who served as Deputy Finance Minister in the previous government, shouted, “In the previous Knesset, there were 300 million shekels allocated for vocational training and placement!” But that only makes the question sharper, since it indicates that the previous government decided to allocate funds only to job assistance for men, but not for women. Moshe Kachlon, the current Minister of Finance, agreed to allow the issue to be handled by the Labor and Welfare Committee. Perhaps Temech will find a source of support there for its efforts to create employment opportunities for chareidi women.
A Refund from Heaven
We will conclude with a story of Hashgachah Pratis. This is a story about an avreich who lacks the funds he needs to provide for himself and his family, yet seems to be the happiest man in the world. If his usual state of serenity and cheerfulness ever seems to be eclipsed by a cloud, you can be certain that it has nothing to do with his tight financial situation, since his family is content to subsist on the bare minimum. From his children’s perspective, a simply tea biscuit is a royal delicacy, and on Rosh Chodesh they receive it with a dab of chocolate spread. Their main meal generally consists of bubbelach, which are both inexpensive and satisfying.
The avreich in this story has trained himself to eat little, and in addition to overcoming his yeitzer hara, he has also conquered notch after notch on his ever tightening belt. People compliment both him and his wife on the weight they have lost, not realizing that it is the product of many days of fasting or subsisting on a bare minimum of food – sometimes by choice, a product of his tzidkus, and sometimes for lack of anything to eat. Or, to be more precise, for lack of money to purchase food.
But there are two expenses that he will never forgo: his fixed monthly donations to two tzedakah organizations. He knows that the gedolei Yisroel have promised that the donors of both organizations will be blessed with all good things, especially in ruchniyus, and he considers his monthly donations to their work to be sacrosanct. Although the donations are automatically billed to his credit card every month, this yungerman sets aside a sum of cash from his kollel stipend equal to both donations, taking care not to use the money until he is certain that the standing orders have been honored. This, even though the credit card company has always honored them in the past.
His problems began when his credit card company informed him that it would no longer be sending written statements by mail, mainly for the purpose of saving paper and adopting an environmentally friendly approach. Every customer was required to provide an e-mail address where their statements could be sent. Our yungerman has no e-mail address at all, and when he called the company to ascertain his options, he was told that he could access the website of “Leumi Card” and use his personal code to access his own account, where he would be able to review all of his credit card statements. But this option was untenable, since his rebbi, Rav Ezriel Auerbach, whose directives he follows to the letter, advised him not to use the internet at all.
This week, our avreich had no money left in his home. After searching in every last nook and cranny of the house, he discovered that all he had left was the money he had set aside to cover his two monthly donations. His situation was particularly dire, since his monthly credit card charge after Pesach, which is automatically deducted from his bank account, had been 1,500 shekels higher than he had estimated – a small fortune, from his perspective. The yungerman himself had no recollection of spending that much money, and he feared that his wife might be frightened or even come to tears if he asked her about it. He had no reason to assume that it was an error, though, since the bank is usually correct. The pain of bringing his children to their babysitters without food was almost unbearable, and he considered, just this once, using the money he had set aside for tzedakah. After all, it was virtually certain that the credit card company had already charged his card for the donations, and if his standing orders had not been honored, he could always return the sum at a later date. On the other hand, he was reluctant to violate his longstanding kabbolah. Consulting with other yungeleit, he was told that he could use his credit card to receive a printout of all the month’s charges at an ATM. He made his way immediately to the bank and received the report in seconds.
As he looked at the printout, he found himself smiling and frowning at once. He had gone shopping before Pesach at one of the large chareidi grocery stores, where he had spent 1,182 shekels. He still had the receipt in his possession. He was well aware of the exact sum, since he recalled making an ironclad decision, while he was in the grocery store, that he would spend no more than 1,200 shekels, no matter what. Yet, as he gazed at the credit card statement, he found that there were two charges for the sum of 1182 shekels, presumably a mistake on the part of the grocery store. The extra charge had caused him to frown, but at the same time he was relieved at the indication that he was owed a refund of 1,182 shekels.
He ran to the grocery store and approached the manager with the statement. The manager quickly ascertained that the customer was correct, and he was indeed owed a refund. An instruction was issued to the credit card company to refund the extra payment, and the man received a gift of three toys from the store for his three children. The toys were little more than small knickknacks, but they were still fairly cute.
Our hero returned to his home, pleased as usual with his lot. “Nu,” he said, summing up his experience, “if not for the kabbolah I made that I would never use the cash until I was certain that the donations had been charged to my credit card, I would never have discovered that I was charged double for my groceries. Thanks to my dedication to my kabbolah, I gained 1,182 shekels. As the posuk says, Hashem protects the foolish.”
That is all true, but perhaps it would have been more appropriate for him to quote the posuk which states, “Hashem protects all those who love Him…”
“Many years have passed,” I told Ronel, “but it isn’t too late for you to pick up the phone and ask Rav Zohar to forgive you.”
He also asked me to tell Rabbi Zohar that everything that he had been told, both by Rabbi Zohar himself and by Rav Zilberman, was not in vain. To this day, he claimed, he still has a certain amount of “Yiddishkeit” from those experiences.
“If not for the kabbolah I made that I would never use the cash until I was certain that the donations had been charged to my credit card, I would never have discovered that I was charged double for my groceries.”