By Larry Gordon
There are some big issues that usually dominate the news here in Israel. You read about them in the headlines of the daily newspapers and they are discussed all day and all night on the plethora of talk shows broadcast on radio and TV.
There is the nuclear deal with Iran and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s definitive opposition to the agreement. There are unsettled situations with Israel’s neighbors, and a peace process that is more bluster and political nuance than substance. And there are Israel’s enemies, who cannot seem to get their fill of vilifying and castigating anything to do with Israel and Jews.
And then there is the matter of a swimming pool that was installed in the Caesarea home of Sarah and Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday, I was stuck in traffic in a taxi in central Jerusalem and there was a boisterous discussion on the radio about the matter of the swimming pool and whether the government should or should not foot the bill.
The taxi driver smirked as we both listened and added his commentary to the matter. He said the whole country is a balagan, which is a nice way of saying that things are chaotic and topsy-turvy. As long as we were sitting there hardly moving, I thought I would offer a short media lecture on why something so silly and innocuous should be talked about so publicly and with so much emotion.
“You see,” I said, “your job is to drive this taxi, take people safely from one place to the other, make a nice clean living, support your family, and so on.” He nodded his head in agreement as I explained that those we were listening to on the radio were tickled that they’d found an issue that just about every listener can get emotional about. I said that if they were conducting a talk show/circus about Bibi’s pool, it was only because that is their job and that is what they are doing—their job.
What can one say from an American perspective? We have Obamacare and, here in Israel, it is about the people way too many Israelis love to hate—Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu. But when Israel needs to communicate an intelligent and important message to the world, whether he is in office or not, it is Bibi Netanyahu who is called upon.
Sure you can debate whether Netanyahu should take such an outwardly vocal stance and be critical of President Obama’s deal with Iran, but a swimming pool that cost Israeli taxpayers 80,000 shekel, well that calls for an all-out assault on the Netanyahus.
But aside from just criticizing the Netanyahus for spending money needlessly, let’s look at this situation with some levity. Where are Bibi or Sara Netanyahu supposed to go swimming if they would like to swim? They can’t go to the local Y or some public pool. They are very high-profile people who need to be conscious of their security as well as their privacy. And besides, with all the billions of dollars being spent on all kinds of things, why is it necessary to create a crisis over a $30,000 pool? That is, unless it is your job to do so.
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To Bnei Brak
Elsewhere in this issue and next issue, you will find an analysis of some questions on various topics of Jewish law that I presented to one of the leading sages of our generation, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, at his home in Bnei Brak on Tuesday afternoon. The questions were compiled by Rabbi Yair Hoffman and Rabbi Shmuel Lichtenstein together with editors of the 5TJT.
My contact in Bnei Brak is Rav Matisyahu Lessman, a great talmid chacham and a man who resides with his wife and 12 children just down the block from Rav Kanievsky. Rav Lessman spends a few weeks every year in the Five Towns, where he seeks the economic support for his kollel, which produces some of the leading Torah scholars in the Jewish world.
After spending most of the last week in Jerusalem, I had to adjust to the way things work and operate in Bnei Brak. But this is not about the teeming streets of this yeshiva and chareidi-oriented city. This is about that little corner of the world on Rechov Rashbam that is dominated by the presence of the giant shadow cast by Rav Chaim. I was told by a local that Rav Chaim studies Torah, davens, and sees people about 23 hours per day, with barely an hour dedicated to sleeping. He is in his mid-80s, and seems robust and animated.
This was the first time that I met Rav Kanievsky, though I did try about five years ago, when I went to daven at the pre-dawn minyan that he participates in daily. The issue was that there are at least a half-dozen bris milah ceremonies in Bnei Brak daily. Rav Kanievsky is usually the sandik at a few of these brissim, which means two things: Tachnun is just about never said in his shul, and, after the minyan is over, he has to race out of shul to make it to a bris.
So getting to meet with the Rav took some organizing and preparatory work. It is important to understand that, for the last few years, Rabbi Lessman has been urging me to come to Bnei Brak, saying that he would set up just such a meeting. After the last time, when I drove to Bnei Brak at 5:00 a.m. to daven with Rav Kanievsky’s minyan and watched him just leave after the davening with no opportunity to receive a berachah or even say hello, I felt unenthusiastic about doing that again.
Rav Lessman promised me that if I came to Bnei Brak—this time with my wife and two of my sons—I would not be disappointed. And we were not.
It was just past 2 p.m. when my two sons and I were led up a very narrow stairway to Rav Chaim’s study in his home. My wife was accompanied by Mrs. Lessman to meet with Rav Kanievsky’s daughter, Mrs. Leah Kolodetsky, at another nearby location. It is not that the stairway was really that narrow, but rather that there was a crush of people in the stairwell waiting for a momentary audience with Rav Chaim.
Either because we were not locals or because we had some kind of appointment, we were led through the crush, with Rabbi Lessman at the lead. Prior to getting the opportunity to speak with Rav Chaim, I stood aside and was able to watch a few others from the outside walk up to where the Rav was sitting, say their few words, receive a berachah, and move on.
Rav Lessman grabbed a chair from the side of the room and told me that, when it was my turn, he would place the chair next to Rav Kanievsky and I should sit side-by-side with him. I did just that. The Rav looked over at me as Rav Lessman introduced us. Before I could say anything, Rav Chaim looked over at me and asked in Yiddish, “Where is the beard?” I frankly wasn’t expecting or anticipating such a personal or even partially serious inquiry so I responded, also in Yiddish, that a beard is not such a big deal, and that I could grow a nice-sized, impressive beard in two weeks. When Rav Chaim heard my response, he said again in Yiddish, “Okay, so let today be the first day.”
It was my first interaction with the sagacious personage who is revered by so many around the world. Rav Chaim is the son of the great Steipler Gaon, zt’l, and the son-in-law of the late Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv. His wife, Rebbitzen Batsheva Kanievsky, was in her own right revered and respected for the advice and direction she dispensed to women who gathered in her home in this little corner of Bnei Brak.
I handed Rav Chaim the questions and he proceeded to read them, as can be seen in one of the photos accompanying this story. He issued brief but succinct answers that will be elucidated in these pages by Yair Hoffman, beginning this week and continuing over the next few weeks. Needless to say, it was quite a memorable experience, one that I am still absorbing. v
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