At the beginning of November, Rav Berland was told by Judge Joy Sakpa Shapira, of Jerusalem’s ‘HaShalom’ courtroom, that he would have to sit in jail until the very end of the court proceedings that would prove his innocence. Those proceedings could easily stretch out for two years, or even more.
Usually, the defendant is allowed to stay home pending conclusion of the legal proceedings, or at least under house arrest – particularly if they are elderly, religious, and there is absolutely no evidence against them.
But Judge Shapira had already commented at a previous hearing that: “The decision to release Rabbi Berland either completely or to house arrest during investigation is overruled, as he is a charismatic man and can have a strong influence on his surroundings”.
From that point on, it was clear that the government intended to keep Rav Berland in prison for as long as possible, despite his innocence. The Rav had already spent more than 220 days imprisoned without a trial, and his health was suffering greatly.
The Gedolei HaDor were extremely concerned about the situation involving the Rav, and arranged for a new team of attorneys to visit the Rav, who suggested a different way of getting the matter resolved as quickly as possible.
These attorneys suggested that the only way to avoid the Rav spending the next two years in prison, despite the complete lack of evidence against him, was if he agreed to a plea bargain.
Attorney Ephraim Dimri explained the situation in these words:
“The State of Israel spent 10 million shekels in order to bring him back, and from the moment that we try to leave the State of Israel with nothing to show for this, this is going to be very dangerous. The State is not going to give up on him, not the prosecutors and not the judges. That’s how it is with the State of Israel – what can you do?
“Real justice only happens by Hashem, in His Heavenly Court. Here [in Israel], don’t go looking for justice. If there was justice, Rav Berland wouldn’t have needed to spend even a single day in prison. There is no justice!”
Describing the plea bargain that would enable the Rav to be freed by Pesach at the latest, attorney Dimri continued: “This is the minimum that’s possible. We’re up against a large group of people here, including police prosecutors and his enemies from within the [Breslev] community. Because the people who caused all this enormous damage to the Rav are people from within the community, who I don’t want to name, but the Rav for sure knows their names.
“And they haven’t ceased [their activities] for a second, and they won’t rest until, G-d forbid, until they cause the biggest damage of all to the Rav – and we’re not going to let them do it! They want to take the Rav apart – and we’re not going to let them do it!”
However, in order for the Rav’s plea bargain to be accepted, and for him to be able to get out of prison within the next few months, the Israeli court required that the Rav make a public confession and full public apology. If it wasn’t ‘convincing enough’, then even with his plea bargain the court still wouldn’t have reduced the Rav’s sentence.
This appalling and humiliating ‘show trial’ occurred on Tuesday, 22nd November 2016. At the same time that the Rav debased himself by stating that ‘He would have been burnt in biblical times’, the first fires were reported around Zichron Yaacov, and in a few other places.
These fires began as Rav Berland left the court in Jerusalem to be taken back to Tzalmon prison that’s located near to Zichron Yaacov.
Shortly after the fire in Zichron Yaacov became national news (and before any other major fires had occurred in Israel), the kabbalist Rav Dov Kook from Tiveria made the following statement:
“All the terrible forest fires that are happening now around Zichron Yaacov are because of the persecution and suffering of the holy Tzaddik, Rav Eliezer Berland. The measure of justice is being weighed out primarily against us in the North, and we need to know that the terrible fires that are burning there in a few different places are because Rav Berland is being held in the North, close to Tiveria.
“The midrash says that when people persecute and shame Tzaddikim, then HaKadosh Baruch Hu brings fires to the world! All the slanderers and people who are speaking libels and falsehoods about this awesome, holy Tzaddik should be aware that soon, judgment will occur, and that there is a Judge mamash, who will reveal his [Rav Berland’s] honor and innocence to every eye.”
It was only after Rav Kook’s statement that the North really was hit particularly hard by raging fires. Fires were reported in and around a number of Northern cities including Hadera, Zichron Yaacov and the Northern metropolis of Haifa, where more than 75,000 residents had to be evacuated.
More than 250 separate fires continued to rage for more than five days across every part of Israel. While the Israeli media were quick to blame the fires on Arab terrorists, Israel’s Home Front Command stated that no more than 5% of the fires appeared to be deliberate acts of arson. The rest had occurred spontaneously, with no obvious cause.
Rav Kook once wrote that Rav Berland is a spark of Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol. Rav Eliezer HaGadol suffered tremendously to rectify to sins of his generation. And despite the fact that Rav Eliezer HaGadol was the Tzaddik of the generation and on the highest spiritual level, the Sages of that time couldn’t understand him, and actually excommunicated him. They only rescinded their decree when he was on his death bed.
As the fires continued to rage out of control, the Daf Yomi being learnt that day recounted how every place where Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol gazed used to get burnt up, as a result of his holiness. (The same was said of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and his son Elazar, when they first left the cave where they’d been hiding from the Romans and composing the Zohar for 12 years. They burned up everywhere they looked, which prompted Hashem to send them back to the cave for an additional year.)
When Rav Berland sat in court last Tuesday, and was asked his view of the proceedings, he replied with a biblical verse from Parshat Vayeshev, 38:24: הוציאוה ותשרף – which translates as ‘take her out and let her burn!’, Nishmot Yisrael as a whole are referred to in the Hebrew language in feminine form. The Rav continued, ‘in Biblical times they would burn for such sins, nowadays judgments are much lighter’ (exact wording heard from Aaron Swartz who was next to the Rav in court). That was the extent of the Rav’s statement.
Rav Berland took it upon himself to get burned by shame, instead of Am Yisrael getting burned by fire. The Zohar teaches about Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol that he would call all of the suffering of Am Yisrael to himself saying: “come my beloved friends.” According to the Zohar, if Rabbi Eliezer hadn’t done this, Am Yisrael wouldn’t have been able to survive the suffering which they were meant to endure.
Amazingly, despite the size, number and ferocity of the supernatural fires that occurred in Israel last week, no-one was killed.
On many occasions before he went into exile, Rav Berland spoke about the need to cancel out the looming decree of annihilation he could see hanging over the nation of Israel. If that judgment would have fallen on us in full measure, none of us would have survived it. By taking shame, humiliation and exile upon himself, the Tzaddik ameliorated the judgments facing Am Yisrael, and sweetened the decree.
In 5776, Rav Berland spoke repeatedly of the ‘Temple of Fire’ that was waiting to descend, with the coming of Moshiach. Maybe last week, we got the first taste of it.
Stay tuned for the latest edition of the Knishta Chada newsletter #52 in English. (see it in Hebrew here)