Category Archives: Israel

The Rabbinate and Its Contents

If you had to choose a rabbi (and who doesn’t?), what criteria would you use? And why? Fortunately, few people would choose a rabbi who is recognized as a “tzadik!”

This was the subject of a new survey commissioned by the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics (based here in Modiin), and the results shed light on the modern rabbinate, the modern laity, and some of the differences between the Israeli and American rabbinate. As is often the case, superficial media accounts highlighted one or two points that were not really essential to the report but did accord with the biases of those outlets.

Two important issues need to be underscored. The survey questioned only those who identify as religious-Zionists and who were classified according to varying levels of observance, and thus excluded the larger Charedi community from its deliberations. The Charedi attitudes, in a number of ways, differ significantly from those of the Dati-Leumi community. By the same token, although there is a basic congruity between the religious practices and commitments of the Dati-Leumi world in Israel and what is called “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy in America, they are by no means identical or even symmetrical. Nonetheless, there are lessons that can be learned from this study even by American Jews.

The survey questioned hundreds of men and women, of all ages, even sub-dividing them into levels of observance, on issues ranging from the intensity of their connection to rabbis, the frequency of their interactions (questions or personal), and the traits that are most important to them in choosing a rabbi with whom they would consult. What follows are the main features that I extracted from the survey and my deductions.

Those who perceive a rabbi primarily as the source of halachic guidance will be disappointed. Almost 2/3 of the respondents never ask a halachic question (never?!) or ask roughly once a year. It is surely unsurprising that 2/3 of what can be called the Dati-Lite (liberal Religious Zionist, with “flexible” attitudes towards halachic observance) never ask a halachic question. Never!  Why this is so is not addressed, but it might relate to a reduced level of commitment (the “social Orthodox,” those who observe the mitzvot because they desire to associate with or live among other observant people, will be less likely to obsess over halachic minutiae), or to a reluctance to relate to a rabbi, or perhaps, echoing the Talmud (Masechet Yoma 75), the spiritual world appears to them as a plain, all smooth and untroubled. Or perhaps they are fortunate in avoiding the halachic scrapes that arise in the kitchen, workplace or on Shabbat.

Interestingly, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is to ask a she’elah. Almost three times as many young people (aged 16-30) ask she’elot once a week than do people over age 51, and twice as many ask at least once a month. Similarly, the more observant the individual, the more likely he or she is to ask halachic questions; this makes complete sense. In my own personal survey, I have found that 10% of the people ask 80% of the questions – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Of course, 49% of respondents said that they first turn to the Internet (!) with any halachic questions. Rabbi Google might be today the leading “posek” in the world, not so much because of reliability (questions are very fact sensitive and nuances will be lost both to the site and to the questioner) but rather because one can easily hunt for the answer that is desired. As could be anticipated, the younger the questioner, the more likely he or she will turn to the Internet as the first resort, with a full 56.7 of Jews under 30 looking on-line for G-d’s word. But note that this age cohort also asks the most questions of rabbis – so it appears that they will consult Google and then, often, a real, live rabbi as well. It is important to add that more than a third of the respondents will first turn to their permanent rabbi, as opposed to seeking answers “on the street” or randomly.

While this phenomenon is regrettable, and was the source of much hand-wringing and even mockery of the modern rabbinate in some accounts, the unbiased will recognize that the same could be said of medicine, law and almost every discipline. Some doctors will tell you that patients who diagnose themselves on the Internet frequently think they have maladies that they really don’t have – and this pseudo-knowledge hampers the doctor’s ability to properly advise the patient. People will consult their physicians asking for specific medicines they found on the Internet or refuse to take other medications because of side-effects they read about, which are often quite rare. Yet, no one would say doctors are being replaced – or lawyers, accountants, therapists, etc. The Internet is not replacing the rabbi.

More good news: over 90% of respondents said they have (53.8%) or would like to have (35.5%) a rabbi to whom they can ask halachic questions. Some of the reporting actually drew the opposite conclusion, for their own reasons. Apparently, rumors of the demise of the modern rabbinate have been greatly exaggerated.

While the above addressed halachic questions, Jews have been known to ask their rabbis all sorts of questions, relying on their guidance, intuition or something else – but that is not always a good idea. Almost 2/3 of the respondents would never ask a rabbi for business or investment advice, and just as well, assuming the rabbi has no particular expertise in the area. And even if he does, the blurring of roles can cause unnecessary discomfort. (In the Charedi world, of course, this type of consultation is much more widespread.)

Sadly, 1/3 of respondents would never turn to a rabbi for guidance in marital issues, with almost half of older people (over age 51) saying they never would, perhaps reflecting the reticence of older people to open up about personal matters, emotions, etc. By contrast, only 1/5 of younger people would be reluctant to turn to a rabbi for assistance in this area, perhaps having grown up in a world in which baring one’s deepest secrets is done routinely, and often to strangers. The most common areas of consultation – in which respondents would always consult with a rabbi (aside from matters of life and death) – are family, marriage and children’s issues. Again, only 17% of older people approach their rabbis with such matters but fully 44.2% of younger people and 34.4% of middle-aged (31-50) people do so in the first instance. Additionally, 38.3% of young people will consult a rabbi for matters of personal spiritual growth, and in general, men more than women. But both sexes were equal in their willingness to consult rabbis about familial or marital questions.

Another figure that stood out was this: 37.5% would never ask a rabbi about workplace conduct matters – not professional business matters but ethics, interpersonal relations, etc., as if they desire to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But Judaism is a holistic (and holy) system, in which the Torah has something to say about every area of life.

Finally, asked what two characteristics are most important in choosing a rabbi from whom to seek counsel, only 4% stated a “rabbi known as a tzadik,” here referring, apparently, not to personal saintliness but to his ability to perform miracles and wonders and access the mystical world in order to  effect the desired objective. (I’m afraid the figure is actually higher, and clearly is higher in other parts of the Torah world.)  So what then are people looking for in their rabbinical counselor?

More than 50% chose “modesty and humility,” implying not just these wonderful traits but also the lack of a personal agenda, a willingness to admit that not all answers reside in him, and an openness to the questioner. Indeed, the second most favored quality was “a personal relationship” with the rabbi. Grading much lower were qualities such as Torah knowledge, general knowledge and connectedness. Note that the question related not to halachic queries but to general and personal advice that was sought from the rabbi.

As such, it seems clear that what people seek out most in a rabbi is the personal connection, someone who knows them for many years, has experienced life’s highs and lows together with them, and knows what makes them tick. That bond is precious, that connection is sacred, and that relationship is one that is mutually rewarding.

Far from lamenting the state of the modern rabbinate, the study revealed how a significant portion of the religious-Zionist world desires, seeks and sustains a relationship with a rabbi, and this in a secular environment that frowns on and even discourages ultimate answers to life’s questions. Of course there is much that can be improved but only the immature, the impetuous, and the agenda-driven are constantly disappointed when they realize that life itself, and the living, are imperfect. While the American-type rabbinate is not yet pervasive in Israel, organizations such as Barkai are trying to fill that niche, something that can only add to the effectiveness and success of the rabbinate and the well-being of all Jews.

 

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Who is First?

Election campaigns are so much fun that Israel is having two within the span of four months, providing daily entertainment if you sift through the vitriol. American elections are different because the dates are defined in law, unlike Israel’s parliamentary system, but they are also so much fun that American political campaigns are very, very long. Perhaps it is better said that they never end – the permanent campaign in which winning matters much more than governance. Israel’s election campaign, while unnecessary, is also mercifully short.

For all the volatility of American politics today – the endless feuding, screaming, dysfunction, real accusations, false accusations and and occasional hilarity – it is downright tame, even stable, compared to what is going on here in Israel. Having a polarized and divided society is the fate of many democracies today, which can be a strength (no group becomes excessively powerful) or a weakness (nothing really ever gets done). But to hold two elections within a few months is bizarre, especially since the electorate hasn’t changed. The configuration of Knesset seats is also likely not to change that much, although I do suspect that Binyamin Netanyahu – who just became Israel’s longest serving prime minister in history, exceeding David Ben-Gurion’s tenure – will not be the prime minister one year from now.

What is especially unusual, and somewhat irksome, is that the right-wing religious parties have fragmented into so many different groups that they are also undermining themselves, as they did in 1992 resulting in the Oslo catastrophe. I count one, two, three, four, five and maybe six parties or maybe more parties that on some level have support of the Religious Zionist community – all reflecting what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” There is the Bayit Hayehudi, the remnants of the old Mafdal; the New Right party of Naphtali Bennett, who gambled and lost when he abruptly left the party he founded to start his own. (Was it a wise move? Well, the modern philosopher, political theorist and ex-basketball player Charles Barkley once said that “the only difference between a good shot and a bad shot is whether or not it goes in.” If you shoot and miss, it’s a bad shot. Bennett shot and missed.) There’s the Zehut party, angling for a Torah state in which marijuana is legal. The Yachad party. Otzma Yehudit on the far right. The new Noam party inhabiting similar quarters. And even the Likud has a fair share of Religious Zionists in its list. And I have probably overlooked one or two equally redundant parties.

That’s a lot of parties, with nuanced differences but primarily espousing similar views, the “narcissism of small differences,” but that has and will result in cannibalizing their voting base. Bennett’s party and Feiglin’s party threw away about 5 seats, 250,000 wasted votes in April’s election. If those votes had counted, there wouldn’t have been a need to rely on Avigdor Lieberman’s party – which everyone assumed would join the right-wing coalition until he decided not to join and embarked on an anti-Torah campaign that he hopes will improve his electoral prospects. One would think that the dissipation of votes, power, and influence in the last election would engender some humility, a contraction of the parties and a willingness to work together for common goals. After all, agreement on 80-90% of the issues at hand should count for something.

What induces all these candidates and parties to run, to highlight their small differences, and then fail to work together to form a coalition? It’s old story that never ends, even if we assume that everyone is sincere.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) discusses the sad tale of Yerav’am ben Nevat who split ancient Israel into two kingdoms, reintroduced idolatry (building his own golden calves), a person who saw himself as royalty, but who also possessed tremendous spiritual potential. The Sages noted that notwithstanding that he “sinned and caused others to sin,” he was also a Torah scholar whose Torah had no defect but was completely perfect. All other scholars were before him “like shrubbery.”

And, typically of this type of talented individual, the Gemara says that, in a prophetic vision, “G-d grabbed hold of Yerav’am’s cloak (apparently in order to shake some sense into him). And G-d said, ‘repent, and I, you and King David will stroll together in Paradise.’” Together, we can perfect the world!

But then “Yerav’am asked, who goes first? And G-d said, David goes first. And Yerav’am responded, if so, I can’t. I don’t want it.” Either I go first or I don’t go at all.

Mi Barosh – who goes first? – is such a destructive syndrome. Who will lead? Who is in charge? That ailment destroys people, societies, and nations. It destroyed Korach in his time and Yerav’am in his. It makes politics so superficial and allows problems to fester and never get resolved. Yerav’am was so jealous of the Davidic dynasty hat he felt disrespected even to walk behind the true king; he had to be first.

This Mi Barosh malady is harmful to marriages, to families, to shuls and communities. It is so ancient and so commonplace that one would think we would be aware of it, recognize it, and carefully scrutinize our motivations, decisions and actions. Sadly, we don’t, and even sadder, Mi Barosh is the rule, not the exception. The multiplicity of parties in Israel, and the cavalcade of candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, all reflect this fundamental human weakness. People will give up their lives, their spiritual destiny, their families, their wealth and their friends, and all for just a little honor, or a little more honor than the next guy.

Mi Barosh underwrites – and undermines – much of the political scene today, and the results could be quite unpleasant, as they were when Yerav’am maneuvered his way into the kingship of Israel and an ensuing rift in the Jewish society. And each person understands this, and each thinks that the other should therefore give way. Mi Barosh.

If we understand this on a personal level, we will have made great progress. To understand this on a national level will take a bit longer. Maybe it is happening now with a re-configuration of leaders on the right – but perhaps it will not be fully appreciated until the exalted son of David redeems Israel and the world. The sooner the better.

 

The Intermarriage Ruckus

The Midrash Tanchuma (beginning of Parshat Balak) notes that the nations of the world were also given a prophet – Bilaam – and underscores the difference between that heathen prophet and our Moshe. “Moshe warned the people against sin, while Bilaam encouraged a breach (in moral norms) so as to destroy people’s [spiritual potential].” Moshe’s world, and his Torah, contains moral strictures and eternal guidance; Bilaam’s world is a hedonistic free-for-all that causes chaos to man and havoc for the soul.

Rav Rafi Peretz, the soft-spoken Rosh Yeshiva and current head of the Bayit Hayehudi party here in Israel, raised the ire of the easily ired by terming the intermarriage rampant among American Jews a “second Holocaust.” He was apparently unaware that using the Holocaust as an analogy to anything is the exclusive province of one secular American Jewish organization. Of course, the error in using the term, if it indeed was an error, was that it enabled his intended targets and their defenders to avoid dealing with the substance of his remarks – uttered with love and genuine concern – and obsess over the Holocaust itself. But if he had not used the analogy, then his heartfelt critique would certainly have been disregarded, so let’s get real.

The reference was otherwise unremarkable, as provocative as some deemed it. Analogies of the Holocaust to assimilation and intermarriage have been made for decades, by personalities as diverse as Golda Meir, Emil Fackenheim and scores of kiruv professionals. As I remember hearing it in the 1970’s, someone opined that it matters little “whether a soldier is killed in battle or shirks his uniform and flees the battlefield; both are lost to his nation’s war effort.” We can certainly parse the distinction – the soldier who falls in battle does so advancing the interests of his nation and dies a hero. The deserter is a cowardly traitor. There is a difference in assessment and cause – but the effect is the same. Both can no longer contribute to the country, and in that regard the analogy holds. Assimilation does give Hitler a posthumous victory and the intermarried Jews and their offspring are generally lost to the Jewish people.

So why the indignant attacks on Rav Peretz for pointing out the obvious? Well, these days, pointing out the obvious is a risky proposition, as sundry groups allied with leftist, anti-religious or progressive causes tolerate only one viewpoint: theirs. And one cannot rule out the political dimension, as Israel is undergoing another election campaign and there is an inordinate desire to besmirch the religious parties in any way possible. Just today, a veteran Israeli journalist, known for his anti-Torah views, rhetorically asked an interviewee if Rav Peretz is “chashuch” (unenlightened, in the most charitable definition), because in another fabricated “controversy” he failed to toe the PC line and oppose the only form of psychotherapy banned today for political, not practical, reasons, and despite his claim to have experienced some measure of success with it. Alcoholism and other addictions, anger, depression and the like can be treated (and not always successfully because there are always bad therapies, bad therapists, and individual free will) but only one condition under the sun can never be treated, even if a person wants to seek treatment freely, of his or her own volition. Certainly no one should be coerced into any therapy but prohibiting people from seeking help of their own accord is neither enlightened nor scientific.

And isn’t hearkening back to the culture and morality of Hellenism and ancient Rome the very definition of “chashuch?” After all, it was the darkness of Greece that the lights of Chanuka came to illuminate, to enlighten the world forever with Jewish moral ethics. That is a Jewish approach born of Jewish sources rather than modern sociological and political trends.

So who would be offended by referring to the intermarriage and assimilation as a “second Holocaust,” a “silent Holocaust,” and the like? Could it be the intermarried themselves who have already made their choices and are tenuously connected to Jewish life as it is? As noted, intermarriage lacks the coercive aspects of the Holocaust genocide even if the result is the same. But don’t they know that intermarriage is (was?) a taboo, and the death knell of Jewish continuity? Of course they do.

Politics aside, it would seem that the offended include those who defend, support and have even acquiesced to intermarriage, and number in their ranks a couple of pseudo-Orthodox rabbis, better defined as neo-Conservatives or even Modern Hellenists. There is not a Torah value that they seem to respect when it defies the zeitgeist. The defense of the intermarried as good Jews with holy souls is not just wrong but also counterproductive, catastrophic for the Jewish future. They are overly inclined to assuage the consciences of the intermarried in their modern church of good feelings and love conquers all. But what then happens to Torah and the Jewish people?

As they subtly encourage more and more intermarriage, they are blithely indifferent to one simple rule of economics: Whatever you subsidize (i.e., endorse, tacitly encourage, or reward), you get more of. Whatever you tax (i.e., penalize, oppose, disapprove and reject), you get less of. Do they want more intermarriage? Then they should keep attacking Rav Peretz and all others who refuse to reconcile themselves to this horror-by-choice. But then they will have distinguished themselves as modern Bilaam’s, the sinner’s favorite prophet because he rejects the very concept of sin. Bilaam too believed in all forms of love, free expression, and faithfulness to one’s inner compass, and completely rejected the notion of a divine morality that binds the faithful – and affords them a better, holier, more productive and happier life.

And perhaps that should be our approach, in an age in which authority of all sorts is routinely assailed and dismissed. The life of Torah provides us with the best life possible. (Those who seek it elsewhere are attempting to connect to themselves, which might provide some temporary, but not enduring, joy.) A recent study showed that people who attend religious services even once a week have a substantially lower incidence of suicide. That makes sense, because they are part of something greater than themselves and can find meaning in life regardless of whatever personal pain they experience. There are similar studies extant, worth publicizing, as it can help restore people to observance. It is unsurprising that the Torah “restores the soul” and “gladdens the heart” (Tehillim 19:8-9).

It is eerie that a Jewish think tank recently released an exhaustive study of the state of Jewry today – and the word Torah was not even mentioned. The overwhelming focus was on Jew hatred and how to combat it, as if the only reason for the existence of the Jewish people is to confound our enemies who want to destroy us. Thwarting anti-Jewish persecution is a worthy goal – but isn’t enunciating the purposes, objectives, values and uniqueness of the Jewish people, and how to advance those, an even worthier goal? We don’t live just in order not to die. We live in order to glorify G-d and His Torah.

There are many modern maladies traceable to a rejection of Torah. All the various lifestyles that people today have been forced to (wink, wink) celebrate, endorse and legitimize do not alter that basic reality. It is the Torah life and the conquest of our yetzer hara (instinctual drives) that provide us with balance and true happiness, and not our indulgence of every fantasy or passion. We should have compassion for every sinner because we are all sinners, but woe to us if we accept Bilaam’s Torah and his moral guidance. If people only realized what a Torah life truly meant, they would run to it, embrace it, and protect it with their lives – as holy and faithful Jews have done for millennia. And rabbis should never be intimidated into abandoning or concealing any part of the Torah.

It strikes me that persuading anyone to change any position today is beyond the scope of any writer or thinker. Positions have so hardened, and there is no form of human corruption that doesn’t have its ardent defenders. Sinners of all stripes take refuge in that. But sometimes it is important just to articulate basic truths, so the great majority of faithful Jews realize that the real world has not gone completely mad. It is just sort of underground – perhaps waiting for the speedy appearance of the great redeemer.

 

 

Dayenu

This is the Dayenu for President Trump, based on the simple realization that there has never been a president as pro-Israel as Trump, and it is almost unthinkable that there will ever be another. Let us count the ways, individual acts for which alone we would sing Dayenu, “it would have been enough:”

  • If Trump had only ceased calling the Palestinians “refugees,” it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only rejected the notion that the fate of the Palestinians is the crux of every conflict in the Middle East, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only halted financial aid to the Palestinian Authority to protest their diabolical “pay to slay” program, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only questioned the wisdom and viability of the two-state illusion, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only devastated ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only canceled the Iran nuclear deal and committed to thwarting an Iranian nuclear bomb, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only acknowledged Israel’s right to settle throughout its ancestral homeland, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only vetoed every anti-Israel resolution tabled at the United Nations, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only withdrawn the United States from the UN Human Rights Commission and from UNESCO for their vicious anti-Israel bias, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only unequivocally supported Israel’s right of self-defense, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only moved the American embassy to Yerushalayim, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s eternal and undivided capital, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only formally recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only routinely denounced the scourge of Jew hatred, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only said – as he did after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre – that “those who are trying to destroy the Jewish people, we will destroy them,” it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only ostracized anti-Israel voices in America, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only warmly befriended Israel’s Prime Minister and its people, it would have been enough.

That is some list, even without reciting the al achat kama v’chama that would marvel at the achievement of each of the above. It is unprecedented in the history of the relationship of the United States and Israel and the president is only two years into his administration. Of course, there have been other presidents who were “pro-Israel,” and others who were less than friendly – but there has never been a President whose support was unambiguous and influenced so many other nations around the world as this President. We should be thankful, and express our gratitude without hesitation.

Gratitude is an especially cherished virtue among Jews and particularly on Pesach when we celebrate our nation’s founding. And even if we limit the real Dayenu to the King of Kings, we do acknowledge that, as King Shlomo put it, “Like streams of water the heart of a king is in G-d’s hands…” (Mishlei 21:1).

Sure, he may tweet a bit too much and much too vividly at times, and one can quibble with a questionable policy here and there, and others can criticize a character weakness or two, but we betray ourselves and our deepest values if we do not express gratitude. Only a Trump, not beholden to the tired thinking of all the old Middle East experts and their evenhandedness, their failures, and their anti-Israel animus scarcely concealed, could have pulled this off –a re-alignment of American foreign policy.

And even if Jews are not one-issue voters, it behooves us to at least acknowledge the contrast with prior presidents – some of whom made promises they did not keep, berated Israel and Jews when new rooms were added on to apartments in Ofra and Kiryat Arba, never acknowledged (or acknowledged grudgingly) Israel’s natural, historic, religious and moral right to its homeland, embraced wholeheartedly the chimeras of “land for peace” and the “two state illusion,” urged restraint and proportionality whenever Jews were attacked and wished to retaliate and pre-empt future attacks, and were obsessed with again partitioning the land of Israel and excising its heartland from Jewish sovereignty.

Whether President Trump is guilty of the crime of obstruction of justice or the virtue and natural right of obstruction of injustice (it seems more like the latter) will be settled according to the new American custom: by the media. As for us, even Jewish Democrats should at least acknowledge these blessings and how the current administration has strengthened Israel – and regardless of the fanciful “deal of the century” coming down the road. We should not only see maror but open our eyes to the wonders of a friendship and alliance that has achieved heretofore unimaginable heights.

Sometimes we are tested with an abundance of good and not the incidence of evil. That too is a gift of Providence for which we should be ever grateful.

 

The Rishon Who Thwarted Arab Terror

      We can start with two trivia questions – trivia, but not trivial. What three word phrase in the hagada is the most frequently recited? That’s the relatively easy question. The more difficult one is this: what paragraph did Rav Soloveitchik say is the most important in the hagada? If you know the first, the second should come naturally. And it all goes to prove this amazing story, a true story entitled “how the responsum the Rashba (Rav Shlomo ibn Aderet, 1235-1310) of the eliminated the terrorists.”

     The Gemara (Pesachim 33a) states that one can only give terumah to a kohen if he is able to consume it immediately but not if it is something that he would have to burn. For example, “wheat that became chametz while it was still attached to the ground.” That means that if wheat is rained upon, the wheat becomes chamtetz even before it was harvested. But how can that be? All wheat receives rain; if not it does not grow!

     R. Shlomo ibn Aderet, native of Barcelona, asked this question (Rashba, Volume 7, Chapter 20) and he answered that this is only true if the wheat is fully ripened and doesn’t require any more nourishment. In that situation, it is as if it is already in a jug and will become chametz if rain falls on it. Indeed, this is the halacha, as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 467:5) and the Mishna Berura (467:17) adds that “for this reason, the pious ensure that their matzot come from wheat that has been watched from the time of the harvest and that they are still a little moist,” just as the Rashba required.

     Practically, this rarely presents a problem because in Israel the rainy season ends long before the time for harvest. But in 2014, there were sudden and unexpected thunderstorms across the south of Israel right before Shavuot, and that endangered the whole crop. The Badatz had to invalidate most of the wheat fields because the rain had fallen on ripe wheat. They searched and researched, and the rabbinical court in Bnei Brak found that there had been no rain in Kibbutz Sufa, adjacent to the Gaza border, quickly negotiated with them, and harvested their entire wheat field in June 2014.

    Unbeknownst to anyone, Hamas terrorists had for the previous six months dug a tunnel from Gaza under the wheat field into Kibbutz Sufa. Their reconnaissance had revealed that it was perfect cover – a large field covered by high stalks of wheat. They planned a terrorist attack on Sufa for the end of June, 2014.

    I have seen the video. Almost 15 terrorists emerged from the opening to the tunnel, and scattered in two different directions. You can sense their surprise and confusion – they had anticipated a field that was covered with wheat. Instead, they found a field that was open, flat and exposed. They ran from the opening, and then they aborted the attack, and ran back to the opening, scurrying about frantically. They made it back to the opening and started climbing down – but not before they were greeted by one IDF missile. Six terrorists were killed, seven wounded and captured. The wounded related that they knew the field was not harvested until latesummer and they did not understand why the field was harvested that year in the early summer. It was perfect cover – but they had not planned on the responsum of the Rashba!

     This was not 3000 or 2000 years ago – but five years ago. This is the law of grain that is completely dry and no longer needs nourishment. Look it up – you have to harvest the grainbefore rain falls on it. And so they did, and a great salvation occurred. True story.

     The three word phrase that occurs most in the hagada iski l’olam chasdo, that G-d’s kindness is everlasting. And Rav Soloveitchik wrote that the most important paragraph in the hagada islefichach:” “therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, extol and exalt He who performed for us and for our forefathers all these miracles.” The whole hagada, the whole seder, and the entire Pesach are designed to bring us to the point that we are imbued with praise of G-d and gratitude for the kindnesses that He has done for us and our forefathers. Everything leads to praise and gratitude – and so it is in our lives as well.

     We don’t only rejoice over the miracles done to our forefathers; if we have eyes and ears, and a mind and a heart, we will see the miracles of today as well that G-d for a nation that is not always aware of it and does not always appreciate it – but should.

   We do – and so we welcome Pesach not only for the mitzvot, the wonderful spirit and the joys of family, but because we can utilize this moment to declare His name and proclaim His deeds to the nations, with the hope and prayer that we will again behold His redemptive hand.

      Chag kasher v’sameach to all!

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Takeaways

Who holds an election – and almost nothing changes? Israel. Almost the same configuration of parties that dissolved the last government will form the next one, and hope that this time they can make it work a little longer. It is also extremely rare, to say the least, to have an election in which everyone claims victory when the results are in, but such is the case in Israel. Here are some takeaways from the results, subject to change at any moment.

  • No Netanyahu fatigue:

PM Netanyahu will soon become the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, breaking founder David Ben-Gurion’s record, which, in the tumult of Israeli politics and its mercurial populace, stood like Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive game hitting streak.

How was this accomplished? He is a unique political figure who has learned to follow the consensus and gradually shape it in the direction he wants. He also knows how to manipulate the electorate, in the classic and non-pejorative sense of dangling before moderate voters the dire prospects of an opponent’s victory as well as very subtly offering his more right-wing electorate the possibility of achieving some cherished goals. In the first category was painting the new “Blue and White” Party (a conglomeration of several parties, with a lot of generals at the top) as another leftist party. To the others, he offered – again – the prospect of a tougher hand against Hamas, no Palestinian state and a potential declaration of Israeli sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria.

Of course, when he announced the latter this past weekend, I wondered why he just didn’t declare it then, or the day before, or the month or year before. But that is how politicians operate, and he is a master politician.

Part of his allure to his supporters is that the people who dislike him are overrepresented in the media, which has hated him for over twenty years. The happy faces when the first projections were made that showed a “Blue and White” victory turned sour over the next few hours as the returns came in. The same dynamic occurred when PM Netanyahu first won in 1996 – coming from behind, so to speak, as the returns came in. And for those who remember the long, dark faces in the US media on election night in 2016 – well, it wasn’t that gloomy but it was competitive.

Netanyahu has learned to handle the media well (he ignores hostile outlets for as long as he can) and does interviews very selectively, except during election seasons. He has been remarkably successful on the domestic and international scene. There is no other national leader who is on good terms with both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Talk about collusion! President Trump sees Netanyahu as a kindred spirit, a tough leader, and in his presence, recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights after almost forty years, and to the horror (again) of the American and world foreign policy pointy heads. Putin, whom Netanyahu has visited even more than he has Trump, last week orchestrated the return of the remains of Zachary Baumol Hy”d, killed and missing in action since 1982. It was at some risk to the Russian soldiers currently occupying Syria (whose cruel, lying leaders had denied any knowledge of Baumol’s whereabouts) and tapped into something essential in the Israeli psyche: its concern for every soldier, universally acknowledged even if the execution of that value is often flawed.

Both Trump’s and Putin’s actions were warranted and justifiable in their own right – but to have both come right before the election was…no coincidence. Israelis, used to being international pariahs, reveled in the prestige and concrete achievements that Netanyahu has brought to Israel through his diplomacy and alliances. Rather than grow tired of him, the opposite occurred: the Likud won more seats in this election that in any previous Netanyahu election.

Part of this was a campaign strategy, used to great effect in 2015, that warned right-wing voters that casting ballots for small parties would dilute Netanyahu’s strength and boost the leftist or moderate parties. It worked – to the great detriment of the New Right party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, which has been emasculated.

 

  • Blue and White falls short:

One of enigmas of Israeli politics, fostered by the leftist media, is the fascination with the “new party.” Every election features some “third” party, composed of first-time politicians, who do well, only to fade in subsequent elections. Last time it was Kulanu, the previous time it was Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” (“There is a Future” – an incontrovertible contention) party. It has been a staple of Israeli politics since Yigael Yadin’s Shinui party (“Democratic Movement for Change” party; new politicians always want change, and sometimes even hope) in 1977. Their rise is meteoric, and their fall is equally so.

This year’s version was the Blue and White party, led by three former generals and the aforementioned Lapid, and it did remarkably well for a first-time party.  Several points were indispensable to its success. It was a union of several parties and thus garnered support from many different quarters. The generals, all former chiefs-of-staff, had great name recognition before a public which venerates the military, sometimes to a fault. And the party, because it was an amalgam of different personalities and policies, studiously avoided taking strong or clear positions about anything but their opposition to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s efforts to paint this group as lefties was successful only to the extent that it drove more right-wing and religious voters to him but it failed to convince the bulk of the electorate. Few of the individuals involved presented as hard-core leftists who would surrender land to the Arabs in exchange for smiles and promises. The party leader, Benny Gantz, is not my cup of tea but is impossible to demonize. I spoke to several Israelis who said they would never vote for him but they had served under him in the army, and they termed him an excellent commander.

That being said, it is hard to see what he achieved as Chief of Staff, and his conduct of the Gaza War in 2014 was harshly criticized. Moreover, Israel is enamored with generals but has not fared very well with the three generals who served as prime minister: Yitzchak Rabin orchestrated the catastrophic Oslo process, Ehud Barak pulled the IDF from Lebanon precipitously in 2000 (handing Hezbollah access to Israel’s northern border), and Ariel Sharon fomented the calamitous retreat from Gush Katif in 2005. So much for the wisdom of generals, who failed to learn that military and political/diplomatic strategy are two wholly different games.

If, as expected, Blue and White winds up in opposition, expect its dissolution at a certain point. Generals who are used to giving orders and having them carried out will find life in opposition quite frustrating. But, come next the election, expect another new party on the block, and with some of these same faces.

 

  • The New Right Disappears:

I made only one prediction before the election, and that was that Naftali Bennett would not do as well as he anticipated. It was the gamble that failed spectacularly – suddenly breaking away from the political home that he created , the “Jewish Home” party – in order to establish a party that was nationalistic and mildly religious-Zionist in nature but would appeal to nationalistic secular Israelis as well.

The problem with his theory always was that such a party already exists – and it is called the Likud, which contains on its list a number of prominent religious Zionists. If Bennett’s goal was to establish Likud B, it is quite understandable why, given the choice and the potential consequences, voters flocked to Likud A. Even if the New Right squeaks past the threshold, a more and more unlikely scenario, the party Bennett leads would have shrunk from 13 seats to 8 seats to 4 (or 0) seats. That is not a good trajectory in politics and a timely reminder of the Talmudic dictum “If you grasp a lot, you grasp nothing” (Rosh Hashana 4b).

Worse, the splintering of the right-wing parties into several groups that did not pass the electoral threshold cost the religious-Zionist camp more than 100,000 votes that translates into several more seats in the Knesset. They need to learn a little John Greenleaf Whittier rhyme: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been!” Or even a little Torah, and stop fighting over “Mi Barosh”  (Masechet Sanhedrin 102A). The quixotic Zehut party of Moshe Feiglin especially disappointed, and its advocacy for marijuana legalization most unhelpful; perhaps its proponents were too stoned to realize Tuesday was Election Day – and engendered even more wasted votes.

Bennett and Shaked are very talented individuals who did exceptional work in their respective ministries, and they should take the time to regroup, accept high-profile positions (in diplomacy or organizations), keep serving the public as they have done quite well in their previous ministries, and they will yet return to politics. Remember that the world counted out Binyamin Netanyahu in 1999 after his landslide defeat to Ehud Barak, and he even retired from politics for several years.

I heard he made a comeback.

 

  • The Two State Illusion is Dead

There is one overriding message that emerged from this election: there is no constituency to again partition the land of Israel and create a second Palestinian state (the first being Jordan). Parties who support that position barely eked out a dozen seats in the Knesset.

Leftist American Jews who remain wedded to the idea that the future of mankind depends on the surrender of more land in Israel to a sworn enemy should have a reality check. They are living in the past, man. That ship has sailed, that train has left the station. Stop waiting for it – and especially because it was a disaster in the making anyway.

I sense that Trump’s Deal of the Century was always fluid, never fixed, and should be no cause for alarm for Jews. Whatever final form it takes, it will go nowhere.

It is hard to believe, and a source of great encouragement, that Israel is in such a strong position today – militarily and economically. Certainly anything can change in an instant, and clear and present dangers lurk all around. The Haredi parties slightly increased their mandates, perhaps attributable to their growing population. But religious Jews vote for all sorts of parties and many Haredim and Religious-Zionists vote for Likud as well, itself a warning of the foolishness of diffusing into so many different boutique parties, some that make it into the Knesset and some that don’t.

 

The elections were exciting, and I hope to vote in the next one, which might some sooner than most people would think; the fissures that caused this team to disintegrate season will surely recur this season. But Israel’s notoriously volatile electorate voted – and produced almost the same configuration of parties in the next government as served in the past one.

 

Election Fever

Here in Israel, election fever has seized the population or at least some small segment of it, with Knesset elections to be held in exactly two months. As always, old faces predominate even, as per custom, palates are salivating at the rise of the next flavor of the month, a taciturn general who can lead the nation to some place it thinks it hasn’t yet been.

The greatest mystery surrounds the fate of PM Netanyahu, who – if he survives – will shortly become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, to the dismay of those diehard Ben-Gurion aficionados who still see him as the prime minister and to the utter horror of long-time Netanyahu haters. Netanyahu’s problems are not with the voters, who would surely elect the Likud again as Israel’s largest party in the Knesset. His main problem is with the Attorney-General, who seems poised to indict him on something, anything. One doesn’t have to be a Netanyahu acolyte to note that none of the accusations are for anything even remotely substantive but the product of relentless investigations that have literally gone on for years in the hopes of pinning something, anything, on him. That should ring a bell for Americans, accustomed by now to the sad reality that you can always get anyone on something, and the clever prosecutor can make the innocuous look sinister, and simple acts of friendship look venal.

Lest one think that voters might get tired of a man who has served almost a decade, Israel’s parliamentary system can enable PM Netanyahu to “win” while receiving the endorsement of barely 25% of the voters, i.e., with 75% of the people voting for some other party. Some win. Some system (!) but at least it allows almost all voices and opinions to have a hearing.

Netanyahu has vowed to run even if indicted while his critics have vowed to end his campaign if he is indicted. The AG Mandelblit may release his findings shortly before the election, an odd practice to be sure. Israel does not use the Grand Jury system for indictments so it is basically one man’s choice. Talk of “one man, one vote.” This one man – Mandelblit – can change the face of Israeli history all by himself; despite Netanyahu’s current protestations, I cannot envision a situation in which even the Likud will allow him to run while under indictment. The pressure of the media (which despise him, for the most part) would be too intense.

The flavor of the month is Benny Gantz and his new Chosen L’Yisrael (Resilient Israel) Party. The name is as awkward in Hebrew as it is in English. Gantz is the latest in a long list of generals to retire from the military, enter politics, sweep to some elective office, and flame out after one or two elections. The names of his predecessors in this pattern might be familiar to some: Yigael Yadin, Yitzchak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Shaul Mofaz, and I’ve forgotten several others. Despite these repeated attempts, the only two generals to actually attain the premiership were Yitzchak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, both of whose tenures were marked by catastrophic surrenders of territory, domestic instability and weakened security. That has not stopped the Israeli public’s enchantment with ex-generals, at least for one election.

Gantz has been a cipher to date. His military career was not especially notable and his public policy statements have tended towards platitudes, clichés, half smiles, winks and good wishes. One problem generals have making the transition to politics (besides the need to get elected) was encapsulated by Harry Truman, who said of his successor, General Dwight Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” The fantasy of the politician-general is that he will know best how to defend the homeland, whereas actually being president or prime minister requires much more than that. The new flavor has always done well, and so Gantz’s party is expected to win double-digit seats. And then he too will decline in the election after this one, to be replaced by another flavor.

By the same token, third parties claiming the center also do well – once – and then recede. Think of Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, both up, and then down, but still around. This year’s incarnation of the Labor Party is nearing defunct status. And the wild card in the Knesset is always the Arab parties, last time the third largest bloc.

The so-called religious parties present an especially intriguing narrative this election season. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked ran away from home, i.e., abandoned the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party that they started to form the Yamin Hachadash (New Yamin, or Right, party). Although their maneuver contained not a little duplicity, it was a smart political move. Bennett has always perceived himself as a potential prime minister but felt hampered by leading a party that was perceived as sectoral even as he tried to broaden it. The widening of the traditional National Religious party apparatus led to certain gains but also muted its response to the issues that naturally affected their constituency including the plight of religious soldiers in the army and the leftist’s concoction of the specter of hadata, religious coercion, which they claim threatens their way of life. More impactful? The left’s hachlana (secular coercion), which in many ways has diminished or diluted Israel’s Jewish character.

The New Yamin is taking a gamble. In essence, Bennett has responded to critics of his Bayit Yehudi leadership who accused him of creating “Likud B” by, in effect, creating “Likud B.” If his gamble succeeds, his party might eventually succeed a post-Netanyahu Likud as Israel’s right-wing party but with a greater respect for Jewish tradition that has been found in the Likud. If it fails, well, the right-wing parties can find themselves with more votes but without power or influence in government. A similar and prior fiasco produced the disastrous Oslo Accords.

The traditional religious parties, right and left, never seem to grow despite obvious gains in their percentage of the population. The Agudah party, under whatever name, never rises beyond the six seats it had in the 1980’s. For sure, many of its voters don’t vote or vote for other parties. And since many of the so-called secular parties – especially Likud – contain many Knesset members who are Torah observant, the narrow parties like the Aguda party, the National Religious party, Shas and its various permutations get stuck at a certain threshold, and then reinforce their narrow agendas by focusing only on their constituencies.

The national religious party apparatus is divided into several small groupings that make meeting the electoral threshold a challenge. But the new leadership of these parties is especially promising. Betzalel Smotrich (new head of the National Union Party) has been an especially effective and diligent legislator and is uncompromising in his support of Torah, Jewish life and the land of Israel. We need such people with backbones and ideas. And Rav Rafi Peretz, the new leader of the old Bayit Yehudi, is not a natural politician – former combat helicopter pilot and Chief Rabbi of the IDF, and long-time Rosh Yeshiva – and perhaps that can be his great strength. His humble demeanor masks a steely will, and his unabashed commitment to Torah, mitzvot, the strengthening of Jewish identity and the holiness and inviolability of the land of Israel should stabilize the Jewish Home, both the party and the country. It would be best if these, and some other smaller right-wing parties, merged and created a larger bloc that could effect a proud national-religious agenda.

Surprises await, as always. What is most impressive is that all these parties are not just vying for the perks of power (hey, that’s life) but present substantially different visions of what a Jewish state is and should be. That is a debate that affects Jewish destiny for all Jews across the world. It is also a good reminder that God runs the world His way – and also that (Masechet Makot 10b) He guides us along the way that we want to walk as well.