Articles

Eretz Yisroel

After sixteen years in Glasgow, my wife and I had to consider our options. The shul had declined and its future was unsure. Also there was no longer a class for our eldest child who was still at home. Our boys were at yeshiva but we really didn’t want to send away our teenage daughter. I had tried for a couple of jobs in London but my reputation as a “right-winger” went against me. Rumours had spread that I teach Hilchos Shabbos in my drashos. I did, but in separate shiurim and not in my main drasha in the shul Shabbos service. I had also become used to being independent. Making that clear that I would not just do a shul committee’s bidding didn’t help my chances. So I began to think of coming to Eretz Yisroel. Good people were warning me that I must consider three things before making a decision. Firstly I would never get a job as a rabbi in Eretz Yisroel. You can’t take “coals to Newcastle” and you can’t import rabbis to Eretz Yisroel. Secondly it is very difficult to have your children accepted in the schools and thirdly it is very difficult to find a suitable apartment. With these three issues at the back of my mind, my wife and I set off on our ‘pilot’ trip.

We rented an apartment in Bayit Vegan with our two children who were still at home, for a month while we looked around. We enjoyed being there, but weren’t making progress in finding employment. At one point an ex-Glasgow kollel member invited us to his son’s bris which was going to take place in Beit Shemesh and so we decided to go. Some of the other guests asked what we were doing in Eretz Yisroel and I told them that we were thinking of moving to Eretz Yisroel but in the meantime we were just looking around. Someone said that it so happens that just on that day the local Beis Yaakov was interviewing girls for the next year and if we’re thinking of coming here, we might as well apply. We did and our girls were accepted on the spot. However the menahelet realized that the older one was fourteen and said she was too old for her school but it so happened that a new senior school was opening and was also doing interviews that day. She offered to call and say that some new olim are coming over with their daughter. We hadn’t decided we were coming and hadn’t even thought of Beit Shemesh but it seems that hashgacha was pushing us in that direction. We went to the senior school and again our daughter was accepted on the spot. Neither of our daughters could speak Ivrit but people were saying that they would pick up the language quickly. Without even applying, our daughters had been accepted in the schools. So at least one of the three warnings was disproven. But what about the other points? We decided to come back for Shabbos.

We were staying in the Kirya Chareidit, a strictly chareidi section of old Beit Shemesh. On that Shabbos there was a demonstration against a new branch of McDonalds which proclaimed that it would be open on Shabbos. It was arranged that the tzibbur would daven musaf outside the restaurant. The Chief Rabbi of Beit Shemesh was there with other rabbonim and a large crowd. It was a strictly peaceful demonstration and later we heard that the management had changed their policy on Shabbos opening. On the way back I happened to meet a friend whom I hadn’t seen since my Yeshiva days. The usual conversation followed with the question of what we were doing in Eretz Yisroel and in Beit Shemesh. Again I told him that we were just “looking around. ” He asked if I had time after Shabbos to speak to him. It transpired that they were moving to a new apartment in a few months’ time and he had promised his present landlord that he would find a strictly chareidi tenant to replace him. “Was I interested?” I told him that it was a distinct possibility but I’d confirm it when I knew for sure. That was two of my potential problems down with one to go, arguably the hardest. What am I going to do in Eretz Yisroel? Can a rabbi come from Chutz Lo’oretz into a place of talmidei chachomim and get a job as a rav? Unheard of!

Over Shabbos I had davened in a shul called Zichron Aharon. It had a history. Rav Aharon Pfeiffer zt”l was in the process of bringing a group of chareidi Jews from South Africa to settle in Beit Shemesh. Tragically he was niftar when the plans were well advanced and most of the group never came. Those who did, joined existing communities. Some of them named a shul in his memory and davened there. Hence the name – Zichron Aharon. The Rov of the shul was a tzaddik and a talmid chacham originally from America called Rav Chananya Posner. A few days later one of the gabbaim rang me up. He had heard that we were thinking of moving there. He explained to me that their Rov was often away and they wanted to appoint a deputy rav who would take over when the rav was away and give regular shiurim even when he was there. “Would I be interested?” “But you don’t even know me,” I protested. “We have already made enquiries. You’d be perfect for us.” This was incredible. The three reasons which we were told would make our aliya plans very problematic had all been sorted out within days. And if that bris wasn’t the day it was…. And I hadn’t met my old friend at the demonstration…. And if I hadn’t davened in that shul…Talk about hashgacha pratis.

My congregation eagerly awaited my return and my decision. Would we be leaving them after sixteen years? After consulting my rebbes, Rav Mattisyahu Salamon shlita and the Gateshead Rov, Rav Rakow zt”l who both gave me brachos for success, I told the shul we were leaving.

The next three months were extremely busy. Our girls started to learn Ivrit. My wife had to prove to the Jewish Agency that she was Jewish! I gave up certain insurance policies which would not be valid in Israel. And we had to sell our house. The property agent estimated that we might get £120,000 for the house, of which 2% would go to his company. This was good news as this was just price of an apartment in Beit Shemesh. “Even if you sell it privately, we still get our percentage. Please sign this form.” I signed but my wife, who was a joint owner of the property, was just with a lady congregant at that time and couldn’t be disturbed. “No problem. I’ll come in tomorrow for her to sign because without her signature it’s not legal.”

That evening I rang our lawyer and told him that we were leaving and we’d need his legal help to sell the house. “You’re leaving?,” he asked. “Yes, to Israel. That’s why we need to sell our house.” “That’s interesting – I’m thinking of moving into your area. How much do you want for the house?” “We are hoping to get £120.000,” I replied, relying on the estate agent’s estimate. “I’d love to buy it. £120,000 is a fair price. The deal’s done.” I guiltily phoned the estate agent the next day. “We’ve sold the house!” My wife hadn’t signed on the agreement giving them their 2%. I offered to pay him for his trouble. “That’s okay,” he said bravely. “Some you win. Some you lose.” “Another handy stroke of hashgacha pratis,” my wife and I agreed.

The Old Age Home arranged a farewell event and it was quite emotional. I sang for them an old favourite, “When I was just a little girl…” which they loved. Even more emotional was my final visit to Hutcheson’s Grammar Primary school where I had taken the Jewish assembly for fifteen years. Over a thousand children sang “We’ll see you again but I don’t know when.” The shul offered to make us a farewell party but shul hall wasn’t big enough because we knew so many people. Only the hall of the Giffnock shul was big enough, but my shul didn’t agree to that. So we said that we will make our own farewell party and invite them and representatives of the different organization with which we were connected. I arranged for a guest speaker to come up from Manchester, two musicians from the Old Age Home and left the rest up to the caterer. “But how many should I cater for?” she asked bewildered. “I’ve got no idea.”I said. “let’s guess at 180. The evening was a great success. Representatives of different organisations gave my wife and me certificates and presents to honor us and I sang Adon Olam to the tune of Old Lang Syne.[1] How many came? About 180!

I won’t bore the reader with the myriad details of our packing up and arrival in Eretz Yisroel. I will just mention that the Ashdod Port went on strike just when our shipping container arrived. It was difficult to manage without our belongings. I also wanted my sefarim because I had already started giving shiurim. Not only were the port workers striking, but the shippers charged a fee for storing containers which they refused to deliver. The strike was lasting weeks. The Israeli Prime Minister got involved with no success. I davened, “I lift up my eyes. From Where will my help come?” I did my hishtadlus and wrote them a letter. I mentioned that we were new olim and we really needed our things. If they would, by any chance, release our container, they would be blessed with every blessing from Heaven. I posted the letter and continued davening. The next week our door bell rang. Three big Israelis stood there with a large lorry. “It’s your container,” they said. “That’s amazing,” I thought as I directed them to which room the boxes should be put. After they finished, I thanked them profusely and after, summoning up some courage, I asked them whether they had put Tefilin on today. They admitted that they didn’t normally put tefilin on but they would today in my house. “In honor of the miracle,” they said. No other container left the port. Only ours.

But after pleasure comes business. They looked at the hundred shekels I was offering them as a tip and said, “What’s that?” They more or less demanded five hundred shekels as a tip in addition to the bill from the port. It came to 1620 shekels. I translated it back to pounds. £270. That was quite a large unexpected expense. Just at that moment my wife came in with a letter which had just arrived. It was from the Prudential Insurance Company from which I had recently resigned. It read: Dear Mr Fletcher. Following your resignation from our insurance scheme, we have pleasure in sending you this check, which according to our calculations, is the amount we owe you. “That’s nice,” I thought. “I didn’t know about this.” And how much was the check? £270. “Wow,” I thought. “Totally amazing hashgacha pratis. The exact amount I need at this moment. What a wonderful welcome to Eretz Yisroel”

This is also printed in my latest sefer, The Hidden Light. Rush out to buy the sefer, whilst stocks last!

 

[1] A traditional sentimental song written by the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns. The first line is ‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot..”

Bonnie Scotland

According to a small advert in the Jewish newspaper, Queen’s Park shul in Glasgow was looking for a rabbi. At the time I was busy teaching privately in Manchester but the possibility of taking such a position did register in my mind. I wrote to the shul saying when I might be able to come up for a Shabbos and more or less forgot about it. A few weeks later I received a call from the Chairman of the Shul to confirm that I would be coming for Shabbos with my wife. I thought to myself that even if they were interested in employing me, these places usually take months to decide so I went ahead with our planned move to another rented apartment in Manchester. Still, I did make some enquiries about the shul. It was apparently a large community which had seen better times. Jews moved to that area of Glasgow from the overcrowded Gorbals. Now they had begun to move further south to the leafy Giffnock area some years previously. The kollel led by Rabbi Mordechai Bamberger was in the newer area, but it had a school where our children could go. I made further enquiries: a previous candidate for the job had been asked how he viewed the main event of the shul calendar – the Chanukah dance. He had apparently banged his hand on the table and said, “If I am rabbi of this shul, there will be no Chanuka dance.” His candidacy was summarily terminated — I was decided to respond differently. I also studiously avoided mentioning my kollel years in Amsterdam, since I didn’t want to appear too right wing. I certainly didn’t want them to hear about the ‘kohen story’ which was unlikely to advance my career in the Orthodox but not too frum circles where I saw my future career.

We spent Shabbos Parshas Hachodesh in Glasgow and we actually enjoyed it. The shul put us up in a local hotel which was pleasant enough when we weren’t within daled amos of the hotel bar on Friday night where the locals were still being mekayem “ ad delo yoda”   a full two weeks after Purim! We ate with Rabbi Bamberger’s family although we didn’t tell the shul that. I thought that the spectre of me being associated with him would not help my chances.  The shul itself was beautiful. The architecture was classic Romanesque rather the shapeless boxes which is the style of many modern shuls and a high dome towered majestically over the aron kodesh. The marble façade of the aron kodesh was exquisite. Round pillars decorated the men’s section rising up to the high roof and the ladies’ gallery upstairs went round the shul on three sides. We found it that it was supposed to be a copy of the famous Bevis Marks shul in London which is supposed to be a copy of the even more famous ‘Esnoga’ shul in Amsterdam. Of course the main thing is the people and they seemed friendly enough. How willing they were to advance in their Yiddishkeit was another story, but a job like that would give me a platform to educate the community in various ways and could be a stepping stone to other jobs in the future.

There was no fire and brimstone in my trial sermon. I chose the topic of loving our neighbor as ourselves to avoid ruffling any feathers. I even made a joke about the big clock right opposite the pulpit which “was clearly designed to make sure the rabbi wouldn’t speak for too long!” The meeting the next day went better than expected. As I had been warned, the first question was about the shul Chanuka dance. I joked that I knew how waltz myself which pleased the committee who promptly offered me a five-year contract. What happened with the Chanukah dance we will see shortly. In the meantime I agreed to start just after Yom Ha’atzma’ut (to avoid any early differences of opinion) and we had the frustration of moving in Manchester which couldn’t be changed even though we knew we would be moving to Glasgow shortly after.

We settled in Glasgow and met many wonderful people. Rav Rosenzweig, my Rosh Kollel from Amsterdam had given me excellent advice. “Don’t make any comments on what goes on the shul for at least six months. They were doing that before and it’s not your responsibility. First devote yourselves to the needs of the congregation. Visit the sick, comfort the mourners, show them that you’re a mensch. After that you can possibly make improvements.” I followed that advice and everything ran smoothly. It seemed that there was always a “sha’as hakosher“; gradually certain things I wanted to change like waiting in the Summer until after plag hamincha before davening maariv were rectified without argument. As Chanukah came closer, the issue of the dance came up. They assumed I would be there. I told them that I could not ban it, as I had made no objection at my interview, but I would not be able to attend. “But it will be much nicer if the rabbi is there,” they argued. I apologized but explained that I cannot attend a mixed dance. Closer to the time they reminded me that they really wanted the rabbi to attend. I repeated that as an orthodox rabbi I cannot attend. Then I said “If you want me to arrange a different Chanuka event which I can come to, I will do so with pleasure.” “You mean you will do all the organizing and create a program which the congregation will enjoy?”, they asked me. “Yes,” I replied. And so I ordered food and drink, music, a man singer, a quiz and everyone enjoyed it. The following year I did the same, arranging many more events, outings, guest speakers, a programme of shiurim for men and women etc. This continued all the years I was in the shul. And they never brought up the question of a Chanuka dance again.

After our first five years, the congregation voted for me to be given a new unlimited contract. They could always give me three months notice but unless there was something really major my dismissal would never be on the agenda for discussion. However shortly after that, there was a problem, a serious disagreement. I wouldn’t back down and indeed nearly lost the job. But on the other hand it created an opportunity which I would never have had otherwise. An elderly lady congregant passed away. Usually, in such situations, I went round to the house, spoke to the family to enable me to prepare a nice hesped and give all the guidance and help I could. This time the family said, “Don’t come round to house. We’ll see you at the cemetery.” “But how can I prepare a hesped if I don’t come round to speak to the family?” I protested. “What could be the problem with me coming round?” So they let me come and there was no problem. I spoke to the widower, found out some nice things to say about the deceased and went home to prepare for the funeral the next day. Before shacharis, one of the regulars whispered something in my ear. “This family had major problems with the previous rabbi when their daughter wanted to get married. Look into it.” What I found was not pretty. I now understood why they wanted the funeral without me talking to the family. Apparently this lady had had a “quickie” conversion many years ago which wasn’t recognized by the London Beis Din which authorizes these matters. When the daughter wanted to get married in the shul, there was trouble. “But in the end the Beis Din allowed it,”, the son-in-law later told me triumphantly giving me a letter from the London Beis Din which they had kept for all the years since for just this occasion. I read the letter. Yes. The London Beis Din allowed the marriage but only on the condition that the bride underwent a new conversion with their approval. This proved that the mother’s conversion was never recognized. Now the deceased was a member of the shul and my contract said that I must officiate at all members’ funerals. But the lady wasn’t Jewish and I could not recognize a non-existent conversion which the London Beis Din had rejected. The whole community became involved. The son-in-law pointedly told me that he was friendly with the richest person in the shul. “What’s that got to do with it?” I said, thinking of the pasuk “Do not fear any man,” (Devarim 1:17). I was accused of  breaking the terms of my contract and many other things. I received a letter of criticism from the shul committee not for my decision which they couldn’t object to, but because of what they claimed was a lack of compassion in the way I spoke to the family.  I received another letter containing a horrible curse. In the event, the shul found a chazan who agreed to officiate at the funeral a few days later. Fortunately I also had supporters. These were not necessarily the more religious members but those who recognized that I had always done everything I could for the congregation. I had proved over the years that I was a “mensch” as Rav Rosenzweig had advised me and so they supported me even though they “didn’t agree” with some of my “extreme” opinions. The family never forgave me, but eventually I realized that I had to explain in a way they could accept.  I told them that I would have lost my license from The London Beis Din, which would mean that I could not officiate at weddings. The congregation needed me to do that, so they grudgingly acknowledged my point of view.

A couple of years later some of those who had opposed me joined the shul committee and soon afterwoods they came to a ‘financial’ decision that the shul could no longer afford to pay my salary and I would have to leave. I knew this was just a cover for their antagonism towards me but they managed to convince enough people that the shul membership had gone down (although attendance had actually risen during my tenure) and there was no alternative. Certain members were still arguing on my behalf but the shul lawyer had my dismissal letter on his desk ready to post. My opponents tried to create “facts on the ground” and the Jewish newspaper, already planning their headlines for their next edition, rang up to confirm that I had received a letter of dismissal. I strongly denied having received any letter knowing that any wavering on my part would result in the community being told of my dismissal and from there it would be very difficult to go back. Discussing my situation with a colleague, he suggested I try to get the Chief Rabbi, then Sir Jonathan Sacks to intervene. And he did. His office sprang into action, calling the shul’s acting chairman at work to tell him not to do anything until the matter had been discussed with the Chief Rabbi. He “wasn’t available.” They rang again. He “wasn’t available” After a third rebuff the Chief Rabbi’s Office sent a fax. The acting chairman couldn’t deny receiving the fax and the letter from the shul’s lawyer was never sent. Although the shul still claimed that they couldn’t afford to pay me, a compromise was reached and I became officially ‘part-time’ with a reduced salary. I was still the rabbi, despite the best efforts of certain people. These were not the people who usually participate in the davening or my shiurim and we continued as before, except for my reduced salary. But now I didn’t have to be at shul on Friday night and Shabbos Mincha so we were able to move to leafy Giffnock, where the kollel and the more observant sector of the Jewish community was, with many advantages, especially for my wife and children.  Although we now had a forty-minute walk to shul on Shabbos morning, I spent the time telling stories to my children which they always enjoyed especially the ongoing series about the “Chopliver Rebbe.” We would remain in Glasgow for another ten years without any more threats of dismissal.

I did have a problem of supplementing my salary but that problem became an opportunity. I opened up my own Adult Education Centre with independent funding. I gave shiurim throughout the Glasow community and people from within and outside the community supported me. Before each Rosh Hashana, I printed a brochure, I offering big non-Jewish organisations like the Royal Bank of Scotland an opportunity to wish the Jewish community a prosperous New Year which they were happy to do for a bargain £100 full page advert. So now I had the “best of both worlds.” I still had my job but was financially independent of the shul. This gave me more freedom to do as I wanted. Retrospectively it was clear that my refusing to bow to the friend of the “shul’s richest man” to bury that non-Jewish member became the source of my future success. And when I eventually decided to leave, I would have more freedom to do so. But that’s another story.

 

 

The Cohen

We were in our kitchen in Amsterdam when the letter arrived from the Rotterdam Jewish Community. We were expecting it. We had spent a very successful Shabbos in Rotterdam following an invitation from the Jewish Community. Their rabbi of many years had passed away and they were having difficulty finding a suitable replacement. One rabbi was appointed but had quickly resigned “for personal reasons.” So the post was vacant. I was learning in the Kollel Chacham Zvi in Amsterdam and was the acting rabbi of a small shul, the Gerard Dou shul named after the street where the shul was situated just near the local Albert Cuyp market. I had learnt to speak Dutch which has similarities to Yiddish, had some rabbinical experience and was recommended for this post in Rotterdam. My wife and I had enjoyed our Shabbos in Rotterdam and I spoke in the shul and in the local old age home. The community’s reaction was very positive and the committee had already invited me to a meeting to finalize details of the contract. They explained why the previous rabbi had left after a short time and they wanted to proceed with me. So now the official letter had arrived containing, no doubt, details of the proposed contract. However, the letter contained a surprise. It was brief and to the point. “We heben besloten van u diensten geen gebruik te maken.” “We have no need for your services.” Somewhat taken aback and a trifle disappointed, I turned to my wife and said, “They obviously heard about the kohen. That’s the only explanation of this sudden change in their attitude.” Indeed, through the proverbial grapevine, I heard. It was because of the kohen. What was the story of the kohen?.

……………………………………………………………………….

The Gerard Dou shul mentioned earlier was a very special shul. Walking down the market street, one could easily miss it. Only a Magen David on a window on the third floor revealed its identity. The difficulty in realizing that a beautiful shul lay behind the non-descript external walls was the reason for its unique wartime history. It was the only shul in Amsterdam not discovered by Holland’s Nazi occupiers. At a time when tragically most of the Jews in Holland were sent to concentration camps, many were hidden by non-jewish families, a few like Anne Frank, (Hyd), made their own hiding places and amazingly three Jews hid in a room behind the Aron Kodesh in the Gerard Dou Shul. They remained there undiscovered until the day of liberation. In the first years of the Kollel Chacham Zvi, the avreichim took turns on Shabbos to attend the Gerard Dou Shul and give a drasha. This is how my close connection with the shul began. It was Parshas Vayechi and I arrived for my occasional visit on behalf of the kollel. The problem was that the baal koreh had not arrived. Who could possibly lein the parsha without any preparation? As it happens it was my barmitzvah parsha and having leined the parsha on my barmitzvah thirteen years before, and several times since, I was ready to step into the breach. One of the gabbaim, Meneer Van Veen, said that I would be paid the standard twenty-five guilder fee for leining but I said that it wasn’t necessary. However, the next day a huge mouth-watering chocolate cherry cream gateau was delivered by the local kosher bakery, in lieu of payment. The gabbai wasn’t finished, though and having seen that I was able to lein, began calling me regularly to do so, “because he didn’t have anyone else.” If by Thursday night there was still no-one else, I would go and lehn but would always refuse payment. Hence the freezer full of chocolate cherry cream gateaux which the Fletcher family could never eat fast enough to keep pace with their arrival. Eventually I became the permanent acting rav of the shul on behalf of the kollel.

The other two gabbaim were Mr Rozenberg z”l, old timer who suffered from deteriorating Parkinson’s Disease and a young member of the shul, Fred Hochheimer, a local pharmacist whose presence in the shul lowered the average age of the congregants by at least five years to approximately seventy-five years old. On my first visit to the shul Mr Rosenberg had already made his presence felt by stepping out as I walked up to the pulpit and whispering in my ear, “Mr Fletcher, seven minutes!” Apparently this was the maximum amount of time allowed for the drasha in the Gerard Dou Shul.

But now the exciting part of this story, details of which circulate in the Amsterdam community until this very day about thirty years later – the story of the kohen.

The Gerard Dou shul was always regarded as an independent shul attended by people who for their own reasons did not want to attend the more official shuls where the officially-appointed rabbonim maintained control. A group of would-be converts came, as well as various unafilliated people. Everyone was made welcome and no questions were asked. The congregation always had a beautiful spread of cakes for the Kiddush which took place in the very room where those three Dutch Jews had hidden years previously. The atmosphere was always friendly. However friendliness and tolerance can sometimes create problems; where do you draw the line? One of the occasional congregants was a middle-aged Dutchman, Mr Sam de Jong.[1] Unfortunately he had married a non-Jewish woman but still liked to keep up his Jewish connection by occasionally coming to shul. Of course Gerard Dou, with its open door policy, was where he liked to go. Another detail was that Sam de Jong was a Kohen. The gabbaim never gave him the first aliya usually reserved for a Kohen but occasionally gave him ‘acharon.’ To call up such a Jew for an aliya after the first seven aliyos is a leniency which some allow, to avoid ill-feeling. So nothing was said and polite friendship was the order of the day…..until Shevuos.

Shevuos is, of course, the Yom Tov we celebrate the Giving of the Torah. Many Jews stay up all night studying the Torah to show their love for the Torah. I also wanted to stay up learning and asked the gabbaim of the shul if they could manage without me for one day. They kindly agreed. So for that first day of Yom Tov there was no rabbi in shul. Was that so terrible? Can’t a shul manage for one day without a rabbi?

There is an English expression, ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play.’ The absence of the rabbi on that one day set in motion a series of events which literally cost someone his life. Mr de Jong was in shul on that first day of Shevuos. And he had noticed that the rabbi was not there. He then did something he had never dared do before – he went up to duchan. As most people know, outside of Eretz Yisroel on a normal day there is no duchaning. Only at Musaf on Yom Tov is there duchaning. All the kohanim of the shul go up to the aron kodesh, turn to face the tzibbur and give the traditional priestly blessings. However not all kohanim go up to duchan. A kohen who has married out does not duchan. He has done what is regarded as the most serious act of disloyalty to the Torah, marrying and setting up house with a non-Jewish woman . But on the first day of Shevuos, when the rabbi was not there, Sam de Jong decided to duchan. To the consternation of the tzibbur he went up and joined in with other kohanim. And it seems that he liked the idea. By the time I was back in the shul on the second day of Yom Tov and it was time for duchaning, Mr de Jong, draped in a tallis which made him almost unrecognizable, went up again. I was unsure what to do. I was, after all, just an avreich from the local kollel. Was it important enough to have a public fight? So I said nothing. Mr de Jong enjoyed his ‘victory.’ He had duchaned even in the presence of the rabbi. It was now a fait accompli. Of course I raised my objections with the gabbaim but what could be done? Have a physical fight in the middle of the shul?

The summer moved on but the issue was not forgotten. Mr de Jong was looking forward to the big one, the Yamim Nora’im. I consulted more senior Rabbis from the community. What should my approach be? The senior rabbonim of the town advised, “You have to tell him, Rochel bitcha haketana,[2] that he is not allowed to duchan .” But Sam de Jong had tasted victory on Shevuos and was not going to give up. Tefila and tzedaka he might consider but teshuva was not on his agenda. Shortly before Rosh Hashana, I was told. “Do not have a physical fight but you must stand your ground. If he insists on going to duchan you must make a public announcement that one of the kohanim is not authorized to duchan according to the Chief Rabbinate of Amsterdam and the tzibbur should only listen to the other kohanim.” And so it was. On the holy day of Rosh Hashonoh Sam de Jong refused a last minute plea from me to back down and the announcement was made. The davening continued. I had done what I was told to do. Mr de Jong had duchaned but he naturally had been embarrassed by the announcement.

Now the whole community became involved. Many criticized me. “He embarrassed a Jew in public –an unforgivable offence.” Others spoke in my defence, “Mr de Jong was going against the Chief Rabbinate of Amsterdam. What other option was there?” The debate was animated; the real question was ‘Who is in charge? Have the rabbis the right to control what is done at least in the shuls?’

The next and final battle was scheduled for Yom Kippur. If Mr de Jong goes up to duchan again despite his previous embarrassment, he will have won. The announcement had already been made. Should a private security firm be hired to block Mr de Jong from the aron kodesh? That wasn’t practical. But maybe Mr de Jong would back down. Maybe desecrating Yom Kippur to prove his point was something even he would not want to do. I called a meeting with the gabbaim for during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva to see what possible options there were. The shul and the community waited tensely for Yom Kippur. Who was going to come out on top, the rabbinate and halacha or a serious transgressor? The honor of Shomayim was at stake.

The conclusion was as shocking as it was devastating. That is why they are still talking about it in Holland thirty years later. Before the scheduled meeting in the shul I received a call from the gabbaim. “The meeting’s off. Mr de Jong has just suffered a massive heart attack and died. He won’t be duchaning any more. And before long the Jewish Community of Rotterdam had also heard about it and they changed their plans. A rabbi who, if you defy him, you get instant punishment from Heaven was not the type of rabbi they had in mind.

[1] The name has been changed.

[2] In other words with the same absolute clarity that Yaakov Avinu had told Lavan that he wanted to marry Rachel, not Leah.

A Month of Rejoicing? – Part 3

As we approach Tisha Be’Av, our tefilos for the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash deepen in intensity. But what chance have we that our tefilos will be answered, if we don’t listen to our nevi’im who told us the causes of its destruction?

In this week’s haftora, Yeshaya HaNavi gives a very powerful rebuke to the Jewish People. “Children have I raised and exalted, but they have rebelled against me.” “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? When you come before Me, who asked you to trample on My courtyards? Bring your worthless meal offering no longer. It is an incense of abomination….My soul detests your Shabbos, your New Moons and your festivals. When you spread your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; even if you intensify your prayer, I will not listen.”(Yeshayahu 1:2-18)

What did we do wrong? It seems we were bringing korbonos according to halocho. We were observing Shabbos and Yom Tov with every stringency. What could possibly explain this awesome punishment — that Hashem does not want our mitzvos? That He does not answer our tefilos? Yeshaya goes on. “Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.” Because of our callous disregard for the weaker members of society, Hashem says that we are “trampling on His courtyard” and “He hates our observance of Shabbos and Yom Tov.”

The Torah warns us, “You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in land of Egypt. You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you dare to cause him pain, if he should cry out to me, I will surely hear his cry….” (Shemos 22:20-23)

In nineteenth century Russia, the poor, orphans, defenseless and downtrodden were the victims of communal unethical behavior under Czar Nicholas 1. The Czar had instituted the cantonist system in which a quota of child conscripts would be taken by force from each community to join the Russian army.   Many of the children later died from malnutrition, beatings, disease and loneliness. Did the rich members of the community volunteer their children? Of course not. They organized Jewish kidnappers called chappers who stalked the streets in search of defenceless Jewish children, sons of widows or the poor, delivering them to the Russians for a fee. This aroused fury among poorer Jews against the rabbinic leadership who seemed to turn a “blind eye” to this disgraceful practice and later led to rebellion against the Torah itself whom the Jewish leadership represented. These dissatisfied people were now easy prey for secular Zionism and Socialism. (Triumph of Survival pp. 164-165, Rabbi Berel Wein). We see the long-term consequences of unethical behaviour within communities and we can understand better why Yeshayahu should be so strong in his rebuke.  “Hashem abhors the Shabbos of a Jew who observes every stringency, who brings korbonos with great care about his ritual purity and davens with great fervour but is uncaring towards the widow, orphan and others who cannot defend themselves. And Hashem will not listen to his tefilos, certainly concerning rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash.Lomo li rov zivcheichem?– “Why do I need your korbonos?….your trampling on My courtyards.”

Unfortunately a small number of reshaim threaten the spiritual and physical wellbeing of defenceless victims in our communities. But when the victims cry for help, committees of askonim make it their business to defend the criminals, in flagrant breach of explicit halachos which allow a community to do whatever is possible to protect themselves from those who threaten them. (Choshen Mishpat 388:12) They defame the victims and anyone who tries to help them. Often they resort to physical threats not only to the victims but to their children and grandchildren. Letters with forged rabbinic signatures appear on shul notice-boards. Amazingly, these people find supporters who succumb to financial and other threats, leading them to work on behalf of the guilty rather than defending and helping the innocent. They ignore the Torah’s warning that when innocent victims cry out, Hashem hears their cries. And we, forgetting Yeshaya’s warning, sometimes wonder why Hashem doesn’t answer our cries.

Yet Yeshaya comforts us that all is not lost. ‘If our sins are like scarlet, they can yet become white as snow. Even if they are as red as crimson, they can become white as wool.” Communal determination to right the wrong, to change direction, to transfer our allegiance from the criminal to the victim can alter Hashem’s perception of us. “He can restore our judges as at first and our advisers as at the beginning. Zion can be redeemed with justice and those who return to her with righteousness.” And Chodesh Menachem Av can be indeed transformed finally into a month of rejoicing.

 

My new sefer The Hidden Light is now in all good sefarim shops.

A Month of Rejoicing? – Part 2

Mutual respect between Jews who have different hashkafos concerning the State of Israel was our theme last week. The Netziv pointed out that a lack of respect between Jews who followed different derachim in avodas Hashem was the cause of the churban bayis sheini. Changing this destructive attitude could make us worthy of a new Beis Hamikdash and a transformation of the month of Av to a month of rejoicing.

A step in this direction would be a clear understanding of the background of the different hashkofos, with the understanding that each side has a strong foundation. We must be wary of distortions of the original hashkofos, which can lead to extreme positions, which none of our original Gedolim would have approved.

Since we are talking about Gedolei Yisroel – we must accept that there cannot be a clear-cut source in Shas or Poskim that some Gedolei Yisroel knew about but others had forgotten. It must be that they differed about the applicability or interpretation of the sources which others brought. All Gedolei Yisroel have great ahavas Yisroel and do only what they feel is best for klal Yisroel. Yet, as in the Sanhedrin of old, there is room for different opinions. We must also realise that it is not relevant to this discussion whether there should have been a Jewish State. The international community including The Soviet Union and America and the United Nations all decided to create a Jewish State with the encouragement of mainly secular Jews, all for their own reasons. The question was how religious Jews should relate to the new State.

Agudas Yisroel saw the great need of the moment to protect the rights of religious Jews living in the Jewish State as well as try to influence the State as a whole to be more Jewish than its secular founders had planned. Because the secular Zionists wanted a united voice at the United Nations, they agreed to the famous status quo agreement which said that Shabbos would be an official day of rest. Besides the issue of kedushas Shabbos, this would enable religious Jews to find employment. Kashrus would be observed in all government institutions and crucially the new government would allow an independent religious school system. Later, the leaders of Agudas Yisroel did not see voting in elections and involvement in the political process as any form of acceptance of Zionist ideology. As their spokesman explained in 1948, “The Zionist movement was a voluntary organization and we did not support it because it did not recognize the authority of the Torah. It is quite a different case with a state to which everyone belongs de facto. This is the difference between a state and a movement. In a state, for example, should we not participate in the elections, it would mean relinquishing our basic rights and even assisting the secularists to rule over us with even greater strength.”[1] The Steipler Rov zt”l in Krayana D’Igrassa (203) strongly supported the approach of Agudas Yisroel in this matter.

Although this policy of Agudas Yisroel has been the basis of the growth of the religious community in Israel to today’s unprecedented level, it involves a risk that we can be influenced and that we ourselves would begin to see the State as the source of our protection. In the worst case, we could fall to the level decried by Yirmiyahu haNavi in this week’s Haftorah “ They have forsaken Me, the Source of living waters, to dig for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns which do not hold water.” (2:13). It is up to us to strengthen ourselves never to forget that only Hashem is our Saviour and to fulfil the pasuk, Boruch Hagever asher yivtach B’Hashem vehoyo Hashem mivtacho.

The Satmar Rebbe certainly had halachic objections to the views of Agudas Yisroel as he wrote in Yoel Moshe but it would appear that he also placed an emphasis on the dangers of their approach. If we were to be involved in voting and in the Knesset and especially accepting government funding, true Torah hashkofa would inevitably be compromised. He also placed great emphasis on the danger that we might think, “My strength and might of my hand has achieved for me this wealth.” (Devarim 8:17). Therefore he told his followers to have nothing to do with the State, not to vote and not to receive any funding from the State. This would be the only way to maintain the purity of our hashkofos.

This is truly a machlokes l’shem shomayim; we should be able to respect both opinions even if our tradition is one rather than the other.

This second attitude contains a risk that opposition to the State can be so strong that one develops a lack of concern for the people who live there. Although the Rebbe himself had great ahavas Yisroel and no doubt davened not only for their ruchnius but also for their safety in times of war, others can become so extreme in their antagonism of the State that they do not daven at all for the over six million Jews who live there, even if they are in danger. Some even support Israel’s enemies who would like nothing more than to carry out a second Holocaust (chas vesholom). Surely nothing could be further away from the Rebbe’s holy intentions.

To be continued.

 

[1] A History of Agudas Yisroel by Joseph Friedenson P. 47.

A Month of Rejoicing?

The parsha tells us that he was a hero. He knew what to do when even Moshe Rabeinu had forgotten. He was heavily criticised by the court of public opinion. But Hashem praised him and gave him a very special reward. “Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Hakohen removed my anger from the Jewish people and … behold I give him my blessing of peace.” (Bamidbar 25:11-1). Pinchas realized that what was happening was not only unacceptable but potentially disastrous. The precedent of Zimri, the Prince of Shimon marrying a Midianite princess could have led to a national spiritual and physical tragedy. Someone had to do something, fast. When he reminded Moshe Rabbeinu that “haboel aramis kanaim pogim bo” – the penalty for the sin of Zimri was instant death, Moshe Rabbeinu told him to carry out the punishment himself. Pinchos did so with zeal. He ignored the danger he was putting himself in and did what he had to do. What a hero! What a tzaddik! What a rôle model. So what’s the problem?

In last week’s parsha, Bilaam asked tamos nafshi mos yesharim – to die like the yesharim. (Bamidbar 23:10) Who are the yesharim and why did Bilaam want to die like them? The Netziv (ibid) explains that yashar refers to the characteristic of kindness bein odom l’chaveiro. Bilaam did not aspire to be a tsaddik or chassid, which he knew he could never achieve. But surely everyone can aspire to be kind to others. This is not a specifically Jewish concept. It is the basis of a functioning society. True, chessed in Jewish terms goes a lot deeper but Bilaam, as he contemplated his plan to uproot the Jewish people, had a pang of conscience and intimated that he would have preferred to die a yoshor, with acts of kindness to his name.

In his introduction to Sefer Bereishis, the Netziv says that Sefer Bereishis is also called Sefer Hayashar because in it we see how our Avos lived with a desire to do good to all people. Avraham Ovinu invited idol worshippers into his home. He davened, even argued with Hashem to save the people of Sodom despite the fact that they represented a way of life diametrically opposed to his.

In Parshas Haazinu (Devarim 32:4), Hashem is described as tsaddik veyoshor. The Netziv says that this is a prophetic acceptance and tzidduk hadin that Hashem will later destroy both Batei Hamikdash. Hashem was a Tzaddik when He destroyed the first Beis Hamikdash because the people were guilty of avoda zoro, shefichus domim and gilui aroyos (Yuma 9b). He was a Yashar when He destroyed the second Beis Hamikdash because the people were guilty of Sinas Chinam. (ibid) The Natziv says, “The people were tzadikim and chasidim but were not yeshorim. Because of the sinas chinam in their hearts, if anyone differed slightly from their way of yiras Hashem, they suspected that they were tzedukim and apirkorsim. This attitude eventually led to no less than shefichas yomim,. We describe Hashem as being yoshor because He cannot tolerate such tzaddikim. Even though what they do is leshem shomayim, their behavior destroys society.”

Sometimes we hear the claim that they are merely following the example of Pinchas, who fearlessly and unhesitatingly showed zero tolerance to Zimri. The difference is that what Zimri was doing was unquestionably a grave sin and Hashem had given specific instructions for dealing with it. This can in no way be compared to physically attacking somebody who adheres to a different path in avodas Hashem following his own Rebbe. The Netziv says that such behaviour destroys our society and makes us unworthy of a Beis Hamikdash.

It is well known that our great Gedolim differed in their approaches to the State of Israel. All were against the concept of a secular Jewish state. The Chazon Ish, the Steipler Rov, Rav Shach, Rav Eliyashiv and many Rebbes all decided to work within the system to fight for the rights of Torah and the Torah-observant citizens of Israel and encouraged people to vote in elections so that their representatives should be able to fight the Government at the highest level. Others led by the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Wosner, Rav Moshe Sternbuch and many other tzaddikim consider this forbidden and they refused to be involved in national elections although the Satmar Rebbe was lenient in local elections. These are two ways both led by great rabbonim. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim. It is not for us to say who is right and who is wrong. But based on the Netziv we have quoted, we can see how wrong and dangerous it is to attack those who follow a different but acceptable path in avodas Hashem. We have unfortunately seen how sharp words have led to violence and the consequences can be tragic. We all have much to do within our own path of avodas Hashem. With mutual respect, ahavas habrios, and excellence in midos bein odom l’chaveiro we can achieve so much more. We can even merit the transformation of Av to a month of rejoicing and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.

My new sefer The Hidden Light is now on the shelves and selling “like hot cakes.”

Bilaam’s Tear

The best-known posuk of Parshas Balak is the praise and blessing Bilaam gave to the Jewish home. “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisroel.” Chazal say that eventually all the curses Bilaam, the one-eyed soothsayer, gave to the Jews were fulfilled except for this pasuk which will always be a blessing. (Sanhedrin 105b). It seems that even Bilaam did not really mean to curse the Jewish home. He was genuinely impressed. But what was it about the Jewish home which impressed him so much? Was it their sanctity and purity? What would Bilaam, who was famously ‘married’ to his donkey, know about sanctity and purity? Rashi says that he noticed that the entrances of their tents were not opposite each other. But was this unique? Non-Jews also want privacy. “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” is an English proverb. What impressed Bilaam so much?

Some suggest that not having entrances opposite each other indicates a more significant aspect of Jewish life than a desire for privacy. We do not look at our neighbor to decide what we should be doing with our lives. We are part of a grand orchestra, each of us playing our own instrument to create beautiful harmony, as we read in the final chapter of Tehilim, “Some praise Him with the blast of the shofar, some with the lyre and harp. Some praise Him with a drum and dancing, some with the organ and flute. Some praise Him with clanging cymbals, some with resonant trumpets.” We are all in different situations; we all have different strengths. For each of us to succeed in our mission we need to focus on what we have to do, not what our neighbor has to do. Bilaam thought that everyone’s purpose is the same, that everyone is in the same rat race pursuing money, power and honour. There is only one winner. Maybe this is what impressed him about the Jewish home.

Another implication of the entrances of their tents not being opposite each other which might have impressed Bilaam was that the people did not check what possessions their neighbor had in order to be desirous of acquiring the same thing. The Jews are careful not to covet, in the words of the posuk, “the wife of his neighbor, his man-servant, his maid-servant, his ox or his donkey or anything which belongs to his neighbour.” Even Bilaam would have appreciated the damage that jealousy causes to a person. You are never happy with what you have. You buy what you cannot afford. Your nights are spent imagining how your life would be so much more enjoyable if you had what your neighbor had. Your days are spent working ‘like a dog’ to be able to buy a similar thing. When you finally acquire it you find out that another neighbor has a newer model and the cycle of jealousy begins again. “The Jews must enjoy life much more than me,” Bilaam would have mused.

Other aspects of a Jewish home would have impressed him. For instance, their observance of Shabbos, Hashem’s gift to the Jewish People. We may not appreciate Shabbos fully if we live in the Western world with its concept of a week-end. If they do not keep Saturday as special maybe they keep Sunday or even Friday. They do this because of Jewish influence. When the Torah was given, everybody worked non-stop. There was no concept of a Sabbath and no reason to mark the end of the week. A month or a year has some astronomical significance but not a week. This is still the case in some parts of the world. When Bilaam saw that the Jewish people worked for six days, even if that only involved going out to find the mon, but rested on the seventh day, this was an eye-opener. “What a good idea,” he must have thought. To work non-stop, day after day is soul-destroying. Without Shabbos, we become machines. Work becomes our master. Deadlines and customers rule us. When we say to an insistent customer on Friday afternoon, “We’ll see to it next week. Shabbos is coming in and there’s nothing to talk about,” we are in charge. We have regained our humanity. Bilaam could not have appreciated the spiritual aspects of Shabbos, reconnecting with Hashem, davening, learning. But he might have appreciated a chance to be a man rather than a machine. It is not for nothing that we say in Shabbos davening, “Those who experience Shabbos have merited life. Those who love her words have chosen greatness and honour. ”

On the subject of honour, Bilaam might have noticed how members of a Jewish family show each other honour. A Jewish husband is taught in the kesuva that he must honour his wife. He has to pay special attention to speak respectfully to her, (Yevomos 62b). He must not create an atmosphere of fear in the home. (Gittin 6b) Even on a busy Friday afternoon, when he wants to check whether his wife has tithed the vegetables or prepared the eiruv, he must speak softly to her. (ibid). At the same time a Jewish wife will show honour to her husband. Her husband sits at the top of the table. He is the head of the household – the captain of the ship. “What beautiful harmony there is in a Jewish home,” Bilaam may have thought. “She treats him like a king and he treats her like a queen.”

And then he may have noticed the children honouring their parents. They speak with love and respect. They don’t contradict, demand or argue. A mere hint from their parents and they run to bring them what they need. And they all sit round the table discussing insights on the weekly parsha and then sing together. The parents also show so much love for their children. Each child, no matter what number in the family, is a tachshit – a precious jewel. And isn’t that the elderly grandfather or grandmother? The family are looking after them with such devotion.

“This is incredible,” Bilaam must have thought.” Where I come from it’s every man for himself. Everyone is shouting, demanding, never satisfied. Our wives are our chattels. They’re not happy and we’re not happy. And the children? Don’t ask. As soon as they’re old enough, they’re away, only calling when they need more money. When we’re old, the ‘lucky’ ones get put in an old age home. The rest are left to cope by themselves, relying on the government to pay their winter heating bills. If you’re old and ill, the hospitals consider you worthless. A big sign “DO NOT RESUSCITATE” is hung on the end of your bed[1].

Bilaam might have noticed the quiet optimism which reigns in a Jewish home. They are full of faith and trust in Hashem. In the worst situations they say “All is for the best.” In the best situations they are full of praise to Hashem. They are happy people. They have beautiful families. Everything that Bilaam was lacking, they had. And so Bilaam, in the middle of cursing the Jews, in the height of his desperate quest to achieve the wealth and honour which he knew would bring him no happiness, bereft of all love except for his donkey, took a careful look at the Jewish homes and, in a rare moment of honesty, admitted, with perhaps a tear in his one eye, “ The Jewish home is indeed beautiful. Ma tovu oholecho Yaakov – How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov. And for once, he meant it.


Rabbi Fletcher is the mechaber of Do You Know Hilchos Shabbos? Do You Know Hilchos Brachos? Do You Know Shas? (Brachos-Pesachim), Dancing in our Hearts, The Hidden Light and many Torah articles. If you want to buy any of his sefarim or want to join his mailing list, please write to rabbimfletcher@gmail.com


[1] Sometimes this is halachicly correct and appropriate. I am referring to times when it done out of lack of respect for the patient and without considering the sanctity of life.

Mad Dogs and Jews

Last week in Beit Shemesh, a wild dog somehow found its way into a block of flats near the edge of the town. The residents were petrified. No-one could get in or out. The dog wasn’t even barking but no-one was prepared to challenge it. Maybe it hadn’t eaten supper yet! Frantic calls were made to the municipal authorities to send the official dog-catcher. Yishai arrived eventually and calmly captured and removed the animal, to the cheers of the residents. Was this an incident best forgotten or can we learn something from it?

The later sections of Mesilas Yesharim discuss aspects of avodas Hashem which are way beyond the spiritual level of most of us, in the area of fear of Hashem and in particular fear of sin. This applies both to the past and to the future. We find that some of our greatest ancestors were never satisfied with their level of avodas Hashem, thinking that perhaps they had fallen short in some way. This section about fear of the past is probably not for us at all. We would be continuously worried and would not achieve simchas chaim which is so necessary for us and our children. However, we can aspire to the concept of fear of sin in the future, even if we don’t reach the highest levels.

Let’s talk about the ideal first and then discuss some practical ramifications for our lives. The concept of sinning against Hashem should be abhorrent to us. After all, He provides us with everything; how can we possibly think of going against Him? Our vulnerability is clear. He can turn off the supply of blessings in a moment and then where would we be? To challenge Him would be akin to an ant defying a human. We can blot out its life in a moment. It is laughable even to think of defying the Source of our life. The stupidity of challenging our Creator is multiplied much more if we think of the punishment we could incur. An ant might die instantly and that is the end of its existence. But Hashem can punish us in this world or the next while we continue to exist. We could be liable to severe punishments in untold ways. With this in mind, logic would tell us to run a mile from any risk of sin.

How can we bring this concept to life? We could imagine meeting a wild animal in the street. How terrified we would be. Running away is not an option but if there was a chance of taking refuge in a nearby building, what a sigh of relief we would give, especially if there was a door we could lock behind us.

To really feel such horror at the possibility of sinning may be a high madreiga. But we should at least feel the importance of avoiding coming close to sinning. If we know that a certain group of people are constant loshon hora speakers, we should look for another circle of friends. Another group discuss politics bein gavra l’gavra. We should move to another part of the shul or maybe a different shul altogether. It is natural to want to be one of the crowd. One who fears sin may have to consider changing his or her crowd.

Clear sources in the Torah warn us to stay far away from the possibility of sin. A nazir who is forbidden to drink wine may not even go near a vineyard. (Shabbos 13a). Tzitzis are supposed to remind us to keep all the other mitzvos of the Torah. (Bamidbar 15:39). The posuk says (Vayikra 18:6) “Do not come close to immorality.” Hilchos Yichud forbid a man to be alone with a woman who is not his wife. This is a vital fence against immorality. Although there are certain leniencies in halacha, they should only be used in emergencies and with the guidance of a rav. Parents should warn their daughters, who may not realise how vulnerable they are, never to be alone with a man other than a father or brother.

The residents of the block of flats in Beit Shemesh who felt up close the fear of a wild dog can use the experience to strive towards feeling the same fear when they are close to sinning. One must escape and lock the door securely, to make sure to keep far from sin even if others are unfortunately succumbing. And the rest of us, who just read about it, can also imagine the fear of being there, in order to strive towards this madreiga of yiras cheit. For Jews, no experience should be wasted – not even an encounter with a mad dog.

To Love And To Fear Your Name

The first section Parshas Chukas is the parsha of poro aduma. However, it would appear to be in the wrong place. Moshe Rabeinu learned the details of the poro aduma before Matan Torah and long before the episodes of the spies and Korach. Why is it not mentioned until now?

In Parshas Shelach, we read about the sins of the princes of the Shevatim, who said that Hashem could not overcome the Canaanites. On the other hand, Rochov in the Haftora had no doubts whatsoever: “I know that Hashem has given you this land. We are fearful of you and all the people of the land are broken in spirit before you.” How could a simple Canaanite woman like Rochov have a clearer understanding than the nesi’im, the cream of Klal Yisroel? Korach was also a baal ruach hakodesh. How could he have thought that his challenge to Moshe Rabbeinu would succeed?

In Parshas Vayera, when Avrohom Ovinu was about to sacrifice Yitzchak, the malach told him, “Now I know that you fear Hashem.” (Bereishis 22:12). The Netziv asks why the malach described Avrohom Ovinu as fearing Hashem rather than loving Hashem, as the novi Yeshayahu described him? (41:8). He answers that although fearing Hashem is a lower level than loving Hashem, someone might lose his fear of Hashem on reaching the level of loving Him. Hashem had indicated before that He was open to hearing Avrohom Ovinu’s opinion about His plans and was even prepared to change His plans, if need be. (Bereishis 18:23). Avrohom Ovinu might have thought it reasonable to argue with and challenge Hashem. Such closeness could lead to cheshbonos coming into his mind not to do the rotzon Hashem. Ahava mekalkeles es hashura – love sometimes causes a straight line to be crooked – one might do illogical things. After Hashem told him to do the Akeida, Avrohom Ovinu might have put forward many reasons not to sacrifice Yitschak, his only heir, but he didn’t. He simply accepted the rotzon Hashem. This is why the malach called Avrohom Ovinu one who fears Hashem, recognising that, despite the fact that you love Hashem, you haven’t lost your fear of Him.

A moshol to illustrate this balanced relationship: a loyal servant feared the king and did everything the king asked without delay. He rose through the ranks until he became the king’s trusted private assistant. The king even invited him for working lunches and encouraged the servant to comment on his plans. One day the king told the servant that a neighbouring country was threatening to attack, with thousands of troops ready to invade. He told the servant to take one hundred of his own soldiers and confront the enemy. Despite the suicidal nature of the plan, the servant immediately stood up, asking when he should begin. As he reached the door the king called him back. “Well done! I was only testing you. Despite our closeness, you still fear me and are ready to follow my commands without question.”

This may be the meaning of our request in Ahava rabboh every morning, “l’ahava uleyira es shemecho” – to love and fear Your Name. Even if we have reached the level of loving You, we should still fear You.

Those who challenged Moshe and Aharon – the nesi’im, Korach and his cohorts were great people who had reached a high level of ahavas Hashem. Unfortunately they no longer had the same fear of Hashem that they used to have. Precisely because of their love and the closeness to Hashem which accompanied it, they made cheshbonos – perhaps Hashem would be pleased to hear their opinion, even if they argued with Him. “Love can make a straight line crooked.” This was their undoing.

Rochov only feared Hashem. She and all the other Canaanites had heard how Hashem had taken the Jews out of Mitzrayim and split the Yam Suf with amazing miracles. They trembled. As Rochov said, “We are broken in spirit before you.” With Rochov there was no love for Hashem, no cheshbonos, no possibility of arguing, just total submission.

Reishis chochma yiras Hashem. (Tehilim 111:10) Fear of Hashem is the foundation of a Jew. There are higher madreigos such of awe of Hashem and love of Hashem but fear of Hashem must always remain. This was Avrohom Ovinu’s achievement and this is what we ask for in Ahava rabba, ‘ to love and (still) fear Your Name.’

Perhaps this is why Chukas follows Shelach and Korach. After the nesi’im and Korach sinned, despite their high madreigos, the Torah is telling us to get back to basics: “Zos chukas Hatorah” as Rashi says. “This is a gezeira from Me and you have no permission to question it!”

Continuing the Momentum

A week is a long time in politics, as Theresa May will agree, downsizing from her dream of a super-majority to hoping that the Irish Unionists will keep her afloat. However, whether it will be a soft or hard Brexit, Mrs  May or someone else in No 10, the pound is up or down, there is one constant. And this is the subject of this article.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (3:1) says, “Think of three things and you will not come to sin: where we came from – a  putrid drop, where we are going to – a place of worms, and in front of Whom we will have to give judgment – before the King of Kings.” All the mefarshim explain that the author of the Mishna, Akavya ben Mehalalel is advising that we need to heavy dose of humility to avoid sin. An arrogant person is very likely to sin because, in his eyes, he is far more important than anyone else, even Hashem. Merely thinking of our humble origins, our inauspicious subterranean future and what might be a very difficult encounter with our Maker is just the right medicine to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Interestingly, Rebbe Akiva, a few mishnas later (3:18) seems to have a different opinion. He encourages us to consider our very privileged situation, created in the image of Hashem, being called Hashem’s children and being the recipients of a very cherished utensil – the heilige Torah. Rather than making us more humble, it is likely to have the opposite effect – boosting our feeling of self-importance. Did Rebbe Akiva not agree with Reb Akavya’s prescription for spiritual health – humility? Did he also not accept Rebbe Levitas’s advice to be “very, very humble.” (Ibid 4:4)? Indeed the Abarbanel sees these different mishnas as offering different avenues to spiritual health. Of course Rebbe Akiva knew of the importance of humility. “Hashem said that He and an arrogant man cannot live in the same world,” (Sotah 5a). But often, reminding a person of his great importance that he is created in the image of Hashem and that he is one of Hashem’s children will have more effect in raising his spiritual behavior than reminding him of his humble origins. It is simply unthinkable for people of our pedigree to sin. As Yirmiyahu (2:1) reminded the people before rebuking them, “I remember your great kindness and love when you followed Me into the barren wilderness.” For people of our yichus, sin should be unthinkable – es passt nisht.

The story is told of a talmid of one of the biggest yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel who was feeling low. He couldn’t find a chavrusa and didn’t even have a fixed place to learn. One morning he sat down, opened his Gemoro and, with little enthusiasm, began studying. Soon someone came up to him and said that he was sitting in his seat and he should move. This was too much for the talmid who decided there and then to leave the yeshiva and join the army. He quickly put on his jacket and left the Beis Hamedrash, ready to jettison the religious life he had lived up until then. On the way out he was spotted by a son of Reb Mechel Yehuda Lefkovitz, who noticed that the talmid’s jacket wasn’t straight. He went up to him, oblivious of the spiritual volcano which had just erupted in the talmid’s mind and pointed out the bent collar. As he gently straightened out the collar, he said to the young man, “Es passt nisht for a talmid chochom like you to walk around with an untidy jacket.” The talmid who at that point was almost outside the Yeshiva stopped in his tracks. “A talmid chochom?  No-one has ever called me that before.” He felt very encouraged by this passing comment and decided that his decision to leave the Yeshiva had been rather hasty. With new determination he returned to the Beis Hamedrash and to his Jewish future.


We brought last week the view of the Abarbanel that whereas Akavya ben Mehalalel’s prescription to avoid sin was to remind us of our humble physical origins, Rebbe Akiva’s method was to remind us of our noble spiritual origins, that we are created in the image of Hashem and called Hashem’s children. By this method we feel that it is beneath us to sin.

It is, however, possible to say that there is no argument between the Tana’aim.  Akavya ben Mehalalel is addressing an arrogant person, who needs a lesson in humility to avoid sin. We say to the baal ga’ava. “Who do you think you are? You came from a putrid drop. Your future neighbours will be worms and maggots. And, unless you improve you’re going to have to endure a very difficult judgement with the King of Kings.” Rebbe Akiva, on the other hand, is talking to someone who is despondent, with little self-confidence. He sees himself as a failure. He needs a boost. “Remember that Hashem created you in His image. You are one of His children. And Hashem Himself gave us His heilige Torah to learn.” Perhaps this will inject into him some kosher pride which will help him succeed in the future. Or, as my son-law Itzik Fekete suggested, we all need both lessons, using the educational tool of smol doche, yemin mekarev. (the left hand pushes aside, the right hand draws near). We all need to be reminded of our lowly origins to gain the vital tool of humility in our avodas Hashem. But we also need to feel our special connection with Hashem to encourage us to steig, to live in an uplifted way, appropriate for a member of the spiritual aristocracy.

Or perhaps we could suggest yet another approach, different from the classic commentaries. It could be that Akavya ben Mehalalel, rather than promoting humility by reminding a person down of his lowly origins, is in fact doing exactly the opposite, building us up as Rebbe Akiva does. But he uses a slightly different method.

The Chovos Halevovos in Sha’ar Cheshbon Hanefesh teaches the concept of spiritual self-examination. He mentions thirty-two different areas which we have to consider constantly if we are to serve Hashem correctly. The first is whether we are sufficiently thankful to Hashem that He created us from nothing. This was a pure kindness of Hashem in order to provide us with happiness in this world and the next. Secondly we have to thank Hashem constantly for giving us a healthy body to house our neshomo. Thirdly we have to thank Hashem for giving us a brain with a high level of intelligence so that we can do what we need to do. Fourthly we have to thank Hashem that He gave us the heilige Torah which is the key to our success both in this world and the next. Fifthly we have to consider whether we are doing our utmost to learn the Torah etc.

Now, let’s return to Akavya ben Mehalalel. He says that if we want to avoid sin we must follow the advice of the Chovos Halevovos. We have to be supremely happy and grateful that Hashem has seen fit to transform us from a putrid drop to a living person. He has given us a physical body of amazing complexity to house our neshomo and He has endowed us further with a healthy mind without which we could not function at all. And He gave us the holy Torah to help us live in the correct way in this world to gain access to the World to Come. Consideration of Hashem’s great kindness will encourage us to do whatever we can to thank Him and to use what He has given us only for Avodas Hashem. For example, how could we use the amazing blessing of a healthy tongue to speak loshon hora?

At some point our physical ‘clothing’ will be discarded into the ground, a place of worms and maggots, but our neshomo will move on to a great new world, more beautiful than we can imagine. The pleasure of one hour in the World to Come is greater than all the pleasures of this world (Pirkei Ovos 4:22). The more we have achieved in this world, the greater our pleasure will be in the next world. We will be judged. Wonderful! This shows that we have a job to do and assuming we succeed, a beautiful future awaits us.  Animal and birds do not have to face judgement because they have no responsibilities and no future beyond their physical death. We, however, have an important task to do and a purpose to our existence. The fact that we will be judged testifies to our eternal destiny — this should be a source of great happiness. Consideration of these three things, says Akivya ben Mehalalel, will surely inspire us to strive to the highest madreigos. He and Rebbe Akiva are giving us the same message in different ways. We must know how special we are. We have been created as Jews which is the key to us earning all the rewards and pleasures of this world and the next. Shevuos may be over but consideration of our amazing destiny will surely enable us to continue our spiritual momentum into Tammuz and beyond.