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A Holy People

In Pirkei Avos (3:1) we learn: Akavya ben Mehalalel says: “Consider three things and you will not come to sin: know where you came from, where you are going to and in front of Whom you will have to give a reckoning. You came from a putrid drop; you are going to a place of dust, worms and maggots and you are going to give a reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He.”

Akavya ben Mehalalel’s sharp directive to consider one’s very inauspicious origins will bring a person to humility, which is a prerequisite to acquiring yiras shomayim and sanctity according to the famous Braisa of Reb Pinchas ben Yair quoted by the Mesilas Yesharim. Likewise the prospect that one’s physical destination will be in a place of dust, worms and maggots should dispel any vestige of pride. And the knowledge that we will have to give a reckoning in front of the King of Kings should make us afraid to sin.

A later mishna (3:18) quotes Rebbe Akiva. ‘He used to say: “Beloved is man because he was created in Hashem’s image. It shows a greater love that he was told that he was created in Hashem’s image. Beloved are the Jewish people who are called the children of the Omnipresent. It shows a greater love that they were told that they are called the children of the Omnipresent. Beloved are the People Israel who were given a precious utensil (the Torah). It shows a greater love that they were told that they were given a precious utensil.”

This Mishna make a person feel his own importance. “I am created in the image of Hashem. I am from a People who are children of Hashem and we were given the Torah, the precious utensil of Hashem. This is strange. Was Rebbe Akiva unaware of the evils of pride, alluded to by Akavya ben Mehalalel in the first mishna? Or that humility is the prerequisite to sanctity? It is even stranger because it was precisely Rebbe Akiva’s humility which enabled him to become so great as a previous essay explained.

In his commentary on Pirkei Avos, the Abarbanel explains that there is a dispute between the two mishnas. Akavya ben Mehalalel felt that the best way to avoid sin is by encouraging extreme humility. We should know our gross origins, our disgraceful physical destination and that each puny man, is going to have to stand up in front of the King of Kings to give a reckoning. Without a shred of pride we should inevitably become obedient and G-d-fearing. This view is borne out by the behaviour of the young nazir from the south, described in Nedarim 9b who defeated his yetzer hora by telling him “Why are you so proud in a world which is not yours; in one who is going to become insects and worms?”

However Rebbe Akiva felt that this approach may work for some people including himself but many other people will respond negatively. They will be unmoved by such a warning and are more likely to say “Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Yeshaya 22:13). He held that it is more effective to show people how great they are and what good stock they come from. ‘Tell them that they are aristocracy, Hashem’s children and then they won’t want to sin.’ And Rebbe Akiva could bring a precedent for this attitude from the words of Yirmiyahu Hanavi, when he had to rebuke the people and tell them to do teshuva. He prefaced his words with the most beautiful praise of the people. “Zocharti lach chesed ne’urayich… I remember the kindness of your youth, and the love you showed to Me by coming after Me into the wilderness, a desolate and unsown land.” (Yirmiyahu 2:1). Yirmiyahu clearly felt that if the people were to improve they must think positively. They come from such good stock ‑‑ it is such a shame that they are sinning. Their sins are only skin deep. Such a great people who showed such faith in Hashem earlier will surely want to reclaim their noble heritage and their loving closeness to Hashem so they will do teshuva without delay. My late rebbe, Reb Moshe Schwab זצ”ל of Gateshead Yeshiva said that today we have to use the approach of Rebbe Akiva.

Yom Kippur is the day for teshuva from all our aveiros bein adam l’Makom and bein adam l’chaveiro. Amongst those who are shomer Torah umitzvos most aveiros are from the bein adam l’chaveiro category – between man and his neighbor. It has been said that most of those aveiros are between spouses. Within a marriage the possibilities of not honoring each other, not being always sensitive to each other abound. Sometimes a facial expression can upset a spouse. We may be tired or pre-occupied and we don’t always listen to each other as well as we should. These are all aveiros bein adam l’chaveiro for which we have to ask forgiveness and do teshuva.

This itself is remarkable and a source of pride. At a time when murder and cruelty are so common that they are not even reported in the newspaper, when even mass murder only gets a few lines on the back pages, we are doing teshuva for a lack of sensitivity to another human being! Who is like Your people, Israel? A unique nation on Earth. But this is our heritage.

The Gemara in Taanis 10b says that a person who goes from a place where they are not fasting to a place where they are fasting, in response to a local danger, has to fast with them. It may not concern him personally but he should empathise and fast with those at risk. Besides, it would show a lack of sensitivity to eat in front of others who are hungry. The Gemara goes on to say that if a resident of a town which was fasting forgot and ate, he should not join the other residents of that town for the rest of the fast. Why not? It is not derech eretz. People who are feeling weak and hungry will feel worse, when they see this one who looks and feels well because he has eaten. The Gemara says that Yaakov Avinu had enough food for his family even during the famine. But if the Canaanites were suffering from hunger and they had to go to Egypt to buy food, it would distress them if Yaakov’s family did not go as well. So he sent his sons to Egypt, even though was no real need, and despite the danger, to prevent any extra anguish to the local population. The Gemara also says that in a famine one should eat the minimum even if one has ample food. We have to feel the pain of others. Even though those other people are unaware of what we are doing, the Torah teaches us to train ourselves to suffer if others are suffering. To do otherwise reflects a lack of concern for another person’s plight and is unacceptable.

Chavivin Yisroel shenikra’u banim l’Makom, shenitan lohem kli chemda – how beloved are the Jewish people that we are called the children of the Omnipresent and that we were given this precious gift of the holy Torah. We have such wonderful sources to learn from and be inspired by. We have such high standards to aspire to. We want to try harder. We want to increase our bein adam l’chaveiro and the place to start is in our own homes with those nearest and dearest to us. This will inevitably lead to greater sensitivity to others, even strangers.

Rebbe Akiva said, “Ashreichem Yisroel …In front of whom are you becoming pure and who is purifying you? Our Father in heaven, as it says, “And I will sprinkle on you pure water and you will become pure.” (Yechezkel 36:25) and it says, “Hashem is the mikve of the Jewish people. Just as a mikve purifies the impure, so does Hashem purify the Jewish People.

This essay is printed in Rabbi Fletcher’s sefer From Strength to Strength.

Look Down…And Bless Your People

In the parsha of Ki Sovo, we read about the vidui maaser, the declaration that one had observed the halachic requirements of mitzvos connected with tithing one’s produce.

“I have removed all the consecrated food from the house, I have given to the Levi, the stranger, the orphan and the widow….I have not transgressed Your commandments nor forgotten to praise You….I have done all You commanded me.” The next pasuk continues with a request. “Look down from Your Holy abode and bless Your People Israel and the Land which You gave us as You swore to our Fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Devarim 26:13-15). Rashi comments on this last pasuk, “We have fulfilled our obligations, now You fulfill Your obligations as it says, “If you keep my statutes, I will provide rain in the right time.”

These pesukim and this Rashi are very difficult to understand. Who can stand before Hashem and declare “I have done all You commanded me?” And if this is not enough chutzpa, as Rashi said, we then come with demands on Hashem. “We’ve done our bit, now You do Yours.”

The Mesilas Yesharim in his chapter on humility, (Chapter 22), seems to warn us strongly against just such an attitude. No matter how much we achieve we should not forget that we have certainly not fulfilled all our obligations. Even what we have achieved has been only through the kindness of Hashem who gave us the means to do what have done. Pirkei Avos (2:8) says “If you have learnt much Torah, do not praise yourself for it because this is what you were created for.” There is never an excuse for arrogance. The Mesilas Yesharim brings the case of Nechemyiah ben Chachalya who was very successful in fighting intermarriage, Shabbos desecration and social injustice. Yet the Gemara Sanhedrin (93b) finds fault with Nechemyiah for the words which he said (Nechemyiah 5:19), “Remember in my favour, O my G-d, all that I have done for this People.”

We can perhaps lighten our question slightly with a comment by the late Rav Yosef Dunner zt”l the revered former Rav of the Addass Kehilla of London in his sefer Mikdash Levi. He points out that in the text of the Pasuk (26:14) “I have done what You commanded me” the wording is “osisi kechol asher tzivisani.” (not chol but kechol). Indeed, writes Rav Dunner, a person cannot say that he has done everything (chol) that he has been commanded but approximately everything (kechol). We are still astounded, however, by the brazenous and arrogance of making demands on Hashem based on our apparently faultless observance as brought in Rashi: “We have done what we are supposed to do, now You do what you are supposed to do.”A friend of mine from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Reb Yaakov Schoeman (n.y.) suggested the following possible answer.

There is a difference between the way we must look at ourselves and the way we should look at others. The Mesilas Yesharim is talking about the way we should look at ourselves, with humility. We should never think that our deeds are perfect. Surely we made mistakes, perhaps we could have done more. If we learnt Torah this is because Hashem has given us the possibility to do so in the form of our mental abilities, memory, a supportive enviroment etc. If we have given Tzedaka this is because Hashem gave us the means to do so and we have merely fulfilled our responsibilities. Good characteristics are probably inherited, we perform mitzvos because of the good education we received or good influences which we have been in proximity to, etc. We do not have to negate our achievements but we should put them in context.

However we should not look at other people’s achievements in this way. If they have learnt Torah we should try to be inspired by them, learn from their diligence. If they have good characteristics we should try to emulate them. Whatever others have achieved should be played up not down. Even if there are imperfections with others we should assume they are done by mistake. If we are not sure, we should give the benefit of the doubt, etc.

The Jew who asks Hashem for a blessing in the pasuk, is not talking about himself. Rashi uses the words “We have done what we should have done” Concerning himself he would have spoken with more humility. But he is looking at the achievements of the People as a whole. Concerning others, he sees only perfection. He sees Jews faithfully tithing their produce and bringing the first fruits to Yerusholayim. He sees Jews making sure that orphans and widows are looked after. He sees Jews rising early go to a shiur and learning again in the evening after a hard day’s work. He sees acts of kindness, bikur cholim, hatzala, chaveirim, misaskim. He sees Jews in the midst of serious challenges living with emuna and bitachon. He sees a Jewish People loyally keeping details of halacha despite a galus of two thousand years. He sees holiness. And that is enough reason to beseech Hashem, “We have done so much, we have continued to believe in You and to keep Your mitzvos despite persecutions, pogroms and a Holocaust. Now, please, keep the promises You wrote in the Torah and in the Prophets and bless the Land You gave us that it should flow with milk and honey. May all the wickedness disappear like smoke, may the Tzadikim see and rejoice, may You give honour to Your People

and may the time finally come to witness utzemichas keren l’Dovid Avdecho, bimhairo beyomeinu, omein.

Taken from Rabbi Fletcher’s sefer From Strength to Strength.

Building the King’s Palace

Nissan is commonly known as the month of redemption, but the Gemoro in Rosh Hashono (11a) brings another opinion that Tishrei is the month of redemption. This seems to be confirmed by the tefila on Rosh Hashono in which we plead with Hashem, “Ten pachdecho Hashem Elokeinu al kol maasecho” – Put fear of You on all the nations. We long for the final redemption, when Hashem will give due honour to His People, praise to those who fear him … speedily and in our days.

Rav Mattisyohu Salamon shlita asks in Matnas Chaim. Why should we focus on the subject of the Geula on Rosh Hashana? We can do this every day and we do. On Rosh Hashono there are other priorities. Our future is being decided on Rosh Hashono. Mi yichye, mi yomus – Who will live; who will die, who at his appointed time; who not at his appointed time. Beitza 15a says that our income for the year is fixed on Rosh Hashono. Surely, asks the Matnas Chaim, the main focus of our tefilos should be pleading for Hashem’s mercy for ourselves. Yet instead, we concentrate on accepting that Hashem is the King and on our hopes that soon everybody else will also accept Hashem as King. Our personal tefilos, zochreinu l’chaim etc are squeezed in at the beginning and end of the tefilos. Would not the reverse emphasis be more appropriate?

The Matnas Chaim answers with a parable. A king once employed a builder to build a magnificent palace for himself and his household. He wanted it to be ready as soon as possible and sent the contractor to the builders’ merchant for the bricks, timber, screws and all the supplies for the new palace. Knowing that there would be a queue, he wrote a note to the manager to give priority to this particular builder because he was working for the king. The other builders protested when he jumped the queue but the manager explained that they needed materials for their own needs but this builder is working for the king. He must be served first.

We all have our own needs, explains the Matnas Chaim. We all want to live and to enjoy good health and a comfortable income. If we want these things for our own benefit and enjoyment we will not receive preferential treatment. However, if we want health and strength in order to learn Torah, to do mitzvos, to sanctify Hashem’s name in the way we live our lives, we can hope for a better reception. If we argue that it is a chillul Hashem when resho’im who don’t even believe in Hashem seem to rule the world, our tefilos are even more likely to be accepted. And if we express our desire for a world where every person is G-d-fearing, so that Hashem’s name is magnified and sanctified, that we want the world to be a huge palace appropriate for the King of Kings, then like the royal contractor builder in the parable, we will move to the head of the queue. We all need life, health and material goods. But if we need them to build Hashem’s palace we will be granted priority in obtaining all the materials we need to do our job.

And if we realise that the day when Hashem’s glory is revealed and the whole world accepts Him as the Creator and King of the Universe is very close indeed, we will daven even harder. The Chofetz Chaim in Tzipiso LiYeshua says that we have already arrived at the stage of world history when the final redemption is imminent. He says that all the signs of the time of redemption mentioned in the last Mishna in Sotah have been fulfilled. “Chutzpa will be in abundance, truth will be lacking, those who fear sin will be despised, Jews will leave the way of the Torah.” The Chofetz Chaim asks, however, that the Mishna seems to contradict the pesukim in Parshas Nitzavim (30:1-3). There we read, “When all these things happen to you, the blessing and the curse … and you return to Hashem Elokecho with all your heart and with all your soul … Hashem will gather you from among all the peoples where He has scattered you.”(30:1-3) These pesukim indicate that the redemption will occur only after we do teshuva! The Chofetz Chaim answers that there will be two groups of Jews. One group will be as described in the Mishna in Sotah – lacking any fear of sin, ridiculing loyal Jews. The second group will be those Jews who despite everything still cling to the Torah. Even if they could enjoy an easier life elsewhere, they live in those places where they can best educate their children to Torah. It is precisely their determination despite all the challenges and mockery from anti-religious Jews and non-Jews, that Hashem will notice and consider this to be the best possible fulfillment of “Returning to Hashem, you and your children with all your heart and with all your soul.” The Chofetz Chaim says that the conditions for redemption, both in the pesukim and the Chumash are not contradictory but complementary. They have now all been fulfilled and the time of the redemption is imminent.

This is what we must remember as we daven on Rosh Hashono. Our deepest desire is to devote our lives to building “Hashem’s palace.” This is why we need all the materials necessary such as life, good health etc. And this new epoch in world history may already be within a hairsbreadth of happening. Our sincere and heartfelt davening might just make the difference so that it will be during this New Year of 5778 that the “Tzaddikim will see and rejoice, the Yeshorim will exult and the Chassidim will sing in joy” and Hashem’s will rejoice with all of us as He rejoiced with our fathers as written in our parsha. (ibid :9).

Towards a Successful Rosh Hashono

The best-known section of Ki Sovo is the Tochacha – warning us what will happen if we do not keep the mitzvos of the Torah. The low voice of the Baal Koreh hints to our trepidation of the fulfilment of the prophecies, many of which we have already witnessed. It would appear to be a timely preparation for Rosh Hashono, when we will again accept on ourselves ol malchus shomayim. The severe consequences of failing to keep Hashem’s commandments is surely the best incentive we could have to accept all our obligations. However, is this really the case?

Megila (31b) asks why Ezra arranged that we read Parshas Ki Savo before Rosh Hashana. Abaya answers, “Tichleh shana vekloloseho – that the year with its curses should end.” We want to look forward to a new year of blessings. Why didn’t Abaya answer that Ezra wanted us all to feel fearful of transgressing Hashem’s Torah and therefore be ready to accept Hashem’s kingship on Rosh Hashono?

The answer can be found on small cardboard boxes which we sometimes see. “SMOKING KILLS” is written in bold letters on every packet of cigarettes yet we see people, who presumably don’t want to die, calmly smoking cigarettes. Why do people still smoke? Why do so many of our teenagers begin smoking? The answer is because people say, “It won’t happen to me.” Hundreds of thousands of people die from lung cancer but “it won’t happen to me.” We can read the pesukim, hear the baal koreh reading the Tochacho, in hushed tones, we can know that such things have happened to others in our lifetime, but none of this impinges on our preparation for Rosh Hashono. Why? Because we say, “it won’t happen to me.”

What will make a difference? Perhaps a more positive approach – Tichle shana vekloloseho – May next year be full of blessings and not curses… Blessings encourage us. We like blessings

Perhaps concentrating on the section before the tochacha would be more effective. “If you will keep My mitzvos, you will be the foremost nation. You will be blessed in the city. You will be blessed in the field. I will bless your children, your cattle and your produce.” “Now this would be useful,” we think. “Our children certainly need a brocho. An increase in salary together with growth in our investments would help pay a few bills. And if everybody treated us with great respect when they see that we are members of the Jewish People, that would be the icing on the cake.” And if it costs me the effort to resist listening to some juicy loshon hora, it’s well worth it.

The concept of reward is a constant theme in Sefer Devorim. Parshas Ekev (7:12-16) speaks at length about the reward for even minor mitzvos and, again, later in the section which we read as part of our krias shema (11:13-15). In Parshas Re’eh (12:25) the pasuk says that we and our children will be greatly rewarded for not drinking blood. Rashi says that if we merit a great reward when we desist from drinking blood which we consider disgusting, how much more so if we desist from sins which we have a desire for. In Parshas Ki Teitzei (22:7) the pasuk says that if we send away the mother bird before taking the eggs, we will be blessed with long life. Rashi again expounds: If we receive a great reward for a mitzvah that costs us nothing, how much more so for more significant mitzvos. And in this week’s parsha of Ki Sovo, the section about reward precedes the section about punishment.

The reward of observing Hashem’s mitzvos is given to us both in this world and the next. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 9:1) explains that the real reward is in the World to Come but, if we keep the mitzvos, Hashem will grant us an interim reward of peace, good health and financial security to enable us to keep more and more mitzvos. Thus we will earn more and more reward in the World to Come. And one hour of reward there is more pleasurable than all the pleasures of this world. (Pirkei Avos 4:17). Michtav M’Eliyahu (1:4) explains that this means that one moment of pleasure in the World to Come is greater than all the pleasures of this world compressed into a single moment.

Just think. For saying brochos with more care, for a friendly hello to a lonely stranger, for counting to ten and calming down rather than getting angry, the rewards are literally out of this world. It’s a no-brainer. Let’s go for it!

The currency of the interim reward may not be pounds, shillings and pence. It may come in the form of physical and mental health, a reasonable income and protection from people who would be happy to harm us, given half a chance. But these are just what we need to enable us to do more mitzvos. According to some mefarshim, the rewards mentioned in the Torah are physical forms of spiritual pleasures which we will enjoy in the World to Come. All in all, keeping mitzvos is the best investment we could possibly make.

Someone might argue that this acceptance of mitzvos is lo lishma – not for pure motives. Our response would be that firstly, we shouldn’t think we are wiser than Moshe Rabeinu who did encourage the Bnei Yisroel with promises of reward, as we have seen. And secondly, Chazal say, “Mitoch lo lishma ba lishma.” From doing mitzvos for insincere reasons one will come to do them for sincere reasons. So let’s put at least put one foot forward – towards a successful Rosh Hashono.

Mazeltov, Mazeltov, Mazeltov – The Triple Bris

A joyous atmosphere pervaded the Beis Hamedrash recently at an unusual, almost unique simcha – a triple bris of three quadruplets, the fourth being a little girl. Of particular interest to the erudite tzibbur who attended, was how many brochos would be said. Would the mohel and the father say one brocho on all three brisim or would they say separate brochos for each bris? In the event, to the surprise of some, a separate brocho was said for each bris. To understand their surprise, we will look at the background to the question in our sources. Another apparently small difference from what normally happens at a bris was that after the first and second bris the tzibbur sang Hamalach hogoel osi…which, although it is a beautiful pasuk and most appropriate, I have never witnessed before. Was this someone’s idea to add atmosphere to the simcha or was something deeper involved?

The Mishna (Chullin 86b) says that if one shechts one hundred deer in one place, one performs the mitzvah of kisui hadam (covering the blood) once; with one hundred chickens in one place, one performs kisui dam once. However if one shechts one deer and one chicken there is a dispute: Rabanan hold that there is only one mitzva of kisui dam, whereas Rebbe Yehuda holds that one does two separate mitzvos of kisui dam. The Gemoro says that even Rebbe Yehuda agrees that one says only one brocho. Most rishonim understand that this refers to both the brocho on the shechita and kisui dam. Even though he covers the blood between the two shechitos, it is not considered an interruption since one can theoretically shecht with one hand and cover the blood with the other. Rashi understands that the gemoro is only refering to the brocho on the shechita but a shechita would be considered an interruption for the brocho on kisui dam. However everyone agrees that where there is no mitzvah of covering the blood, e.g. after shechting a cow, one brocho suffices no matter how many cows one shechts.

This is confirmed in the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 19:2): “If one is shechting any number of animals and birds, one says one brocho for all the shechitos.” The same is written about searching for chometz; (ibid. O.C. 432:2) “With one brocho one may search a number of houses,” and hilchos mezuza (ibid Y.D. 289:1, Ramo) “Someone who fixes two or three mezuzos says one brocho for all of them.” Why should hilchos milah be any different? Indeed the Mordechai (Chullin 657) says that in the case of twin boys having their bris on the same day, the mohel should say one brocho on the two brisos and the father should say one brocho for his two sons. Even if there are two mohelim, one of them should say the brocho on the other’s behalf and the second mohel should say the brocho “ … asher kidesh yedid mibeten..” which will fulfill the obligation for the two babies. So writes the Rosh (Teshuvos Klal 57) and other rishonim. The Rosh adds that if two chasonim and kallos celebrate sheva brochos together, also, only one set of sheva brochos should be said for the two couples. In all these sources, the rishonim say that if one spoke in between the shechitos etc on a subject unconnected with the mitzvah, one would have to say a new brocho. One should be careful to avoid speaking and causing an unnecessary brocho.

However the Tur (Y.D. 265) brings the view of the Baal Ha’itur, who disagrees. “When there are two babies in shul for their bris, seeing that one cannot do the two brisos simultaneously one should make a separate brocho on each bris.” The Prisha says that the Baal Ha’itur seems to contradict himself because in hilchos shechita the Baal Ha’itur wrote that one says one brocho on a number of shechitos. The Prisha suggests that possibly it is usual to shecht a number of animals one after the other which is not the case with bris mila. The Shach (Y.D. 265: 15) later rejected this suggestion of the Prisha.

Although the Bach seems to favour this view of the Baal Ha’itur, the Beis Yosef says that the halocho is like the majority of other rishonim who require only one brocho for the two babies. He adds that in the case of twins, the father should change the wording of the brocho to “lehachnisom bebriso…” (to enter them into the covenant…). He adds further that if the mohel didn’t know about the second baby when he said the brocho on the first or he talked about an unrelated matter after the first bris, he should say a second brocho. All this is written clearly in the Shulchan Aruch. (Y.D. 265:5) The Ramo adds that brocho to bless and name the children is also said on both together and one should say, “… kayem es hayelodim” (preserve the boys). However if the custom is to light a candle in honour of a bris one should light two candles for the two children (or three for three children!) With all this in mind we can go back to our simcha with the quads including three boys. Why were separate brochos said for the different brisos against the psak of the Shulchan Aruch and most of the rishonim?

The answer can be found in the commentary of the Shach (ibid). He writes that people usually speak about unrelated subjects between the brisos especially when there are delays, so it has become the custom to say separate brochos on two brisos. The Shach brings the Maharshal, who is of the same opinion. Quoting the Bach, the Shach says that one shouldn’t bring the second baby until the first bris is over, in order to make a bigger interruption. Interestingly the Pischei Teshuva (ibid:10) brings an old custom that after the first bris one says the posuk Hamalach hogoel osi..” which is a halachic interruption so that a second brocho is definitely required.

We can now understand why at this recent triple bris, the tzibbur sang “Hamalach”. It was not only a beautiful enhancement of the simcha, but was also a way of ensuring that the brisos were done according to all opinions.

Rabbi Fletcher is the mechaber of Do You Know Hilchos Shabbos? Do You Know Hilchos Brachos? From Strength to Strength, Dancing in our Hearts and the recently published The Hidden Light.

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.