Thursday, August 18, 2016

PARSHAS VAESCHANAN 5776

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vaeschanan  – Shabbos Nachamu   
15 Menachem Av 5776/ August 19, 2016

During the summer of 1991, I was a camper in the intermediate division of Camp Dora Golding. One day, I got off my bed and began walking across my bunkhouse when I stepped on something that I felt immediately become stuck in my foot. I gave it a few firm tugs, but it wouldn't budge. When I looked at the thing in my foot I assumed it was an awkward shaped nail. But when I called over my counselor, he took one look at it and told me that I had a fish hook wedged in my foot. The boy who slept in the bed next to mine wasn't too careful with his fishing equipment, and that time he made the worst catch of his fishing career - me!
My counselor helped me hop across camp, all the way to the infirmary. After I got the "didn't I tell you not to walk around your bunk without shoes" speech from the nurse, she sent me off to the Emergency Room at local Pocono Medical Hospital. It took some time before they were able to extricate the hook from my foot. Thankfully after they did, they didn't toss me into the lake, like campers do in camp after they extricate their fishhook from fish they catch.
On Tisha B'Av, as on Yom Kippur, halacha dictates that we not wear leather shoes. On Tisha B'Av afternoon we go about our business including food shopping (because we all feel the need to go food shopping during a fast day) wearing crocs and flip flops. Truthfully these days it is not even unusual to go shopping in such attire. But it is more striking when we wear such footwear with our suits, kittels, and tallesim throughout Yom Kippur.
This year I had a novel thought regarding our change of footwear during these two unique days:
Every morning we bless and thank Hashem “who prepares the footsteps of man”. The beracha is based on a pasuk in Tehillim, in which Dovid Hamelech states (37:23), “By Hashem, the footsteps of man are made firm”. Throughout our lives, we make plans and try to chart the direction of our lives. This is in fact how it should be, because without anticipation and direction it's very difficult to accomplish anything. However, we must remember that ultimately we are not in charge of our fate. "Many are the thoughts in the hearts of man, but the counsel of Hashem, that is what lasts."
In thanking Hashem for preparing the steps of man, we are essentially admitting and thanking G-d for running our lives according to His Master Plan. We set out each day to fulfill our needs as we see them, but we need to remember, that our fate is not wholly in our hands.
That idea has been painfully engrained in us throughout the millennia in exile. How often has our national destiny been altered and have we been forced upon journeys and to destinations we had never planned on going to. This is no less true in our daily lives when we do not always end up where we thought we would on so many levels.
On Tisha B'Av we remove our normal footwear to symbolize that the direction of our steps in exile are not totally in our hands. We are part of a divine plan and our mission is that we try to live as Heaven dictates, even, and especially, when it counters our own plans.
There are times however, when we fail to live up to that mission, often because our ego and fears get the better of us. For that there is a second day when we remove our shoes - Yom Kippur. It is day of repentance and rectification, when we have the unnatural ability to alter our culpability for our past deeds.
In a sense, on Yom Kippur we can retrace our steps. It is a second chance to commit ourselves to ensuring that our footsteps follow the divinely chartered course of our lives.
We don't always catch what we were looking for in life. The question is what we do when we reel in the unexpected.

 Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

      R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Parshas Devorim – Shabbos Chazon 5776

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Devorim – Shabbos Chazon   
8 Menachem Av 5776/ August 12, 2016

Earlier this week someone forwarded me a touchingly beautiful and masterfully produced video, entitled "Letting Go". Narrated by Rabbi Yoel Gold, it depicts the incredible story of a man who forgave his childhood friend who was largely responsible for the death of his family during the Holocaust. The friend had stolen the visas he procured for his family at the onset of the Holocaust. The family of the man who stole the visas survived while the man who originally had the visas endured all of the horrors of the camp, and was the only member of his family that survived. The video concludes with a poignant message that we all seek to overlook wrongs done to us and forgive, and ultimately we are the biggest beneficiaries of doing so.
By the next day I had been emailed the video a few more times from different friends and family members, and everyone I spoke to seemed to have seen it too. It has already been posted on Aish.com and other major Jewish websites.
There has, in fact, been a plethora of this genre of videos that have been produced and circulated in recent years, most notably by Charlie Harary. They are highly professional and inspirational videos which contain a story or poignant timely message, with live interviews, and/or revolving pictures in the background. Each video contains a beautiful message, driven home with tremendous eloquence and professionalism.
That all led me to wonder why, if we have so many masterful presentations which resonate so deeply and create such a deep impression, do we seem to struggle so much with the very issues these videos are targeting?  If when watching the videos we all relate and connect with their message, why do we have such a hard time remembering the message in real time, when faced with challenging situations?
The simple answer is that in real life when challenging events unfold, there is no soft music playing in the background, and there is no pleasant calm voice narrating the difficult event. When there is a confrontation with a neighbor, the guy who sits behind you in shul, your boss, employee, or spouse, it arouses within you feelings of anger, resentment, and hurt. At that moment, when one is emotionally triggered, it is very hard to overlook perceived slights and insensitivities, especially when one feels he has been mistreated.
It is in those lonely painful moments, when overlooking a slight, insult, or even damage will afford him no glory, that one must be able to draw chizuk from the reservoirs of his soul, and remind himself of the incredible value, merit, and responsibility of swallowing one's pride.
Tisha B'Av has an inextricable connection with tears. It's a day dedicated to recalling our collective national pain and anguish, expressed through tears. What is the meaning behind the tears of Tisha B'Av?
We cry when our emotions defy expression. When we become so overwhelmed with inner feelings that overwhelm our very being, we shed tears. When we feel incredible grief and when we feel transcendent joy, we are unable to hold back the tears. In that sense tears make us feel very human, an expression of our vulnerability and finiteness.
The world thinks tears are wimpy and unmanly. But the Torah views properly and appropriately shed tears as an expression of humility.
Tisha B'Av is not a day of tears of despair, but rather tears of pain, longing, faith, and hope. The tears of Tisha B'Av reinforce our humanity, and strengthen our humility, which in turn reminds us that we have no recourse but to strengthen our faith in Hashem. The humility engendered by our tears allows us to recount all of the trauma and unspeakable atrocities we have endured throughout exile, and remember that G-d is infinite and that there is meaning in all of our suffering.
That humility also helps us bend our pride before others, and learn how to forgive, even when beautiful music isn't playing in the background. It's acts such as those which will transform our tears from tears of pain to tears of absolute joy.
May it be this year!

 Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

      R’ Dani and Chani Staum  

Friday, August 5, 2016

Parshas Matos-Masei 5776

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Matos-Masei   
Pirkei Avos perek 2
Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av 5776/ August 5, 2016

This week as Chani was getting ready to leave for her scheduled doctor's appointment, our almost three year old son, Dovid, said to her: "You no need to go Doctor, Mommy. I give you kiss and make it all better!"
In Dovid's mind it makes perfect sense. After all, whenever he gets a boo boo, Mommy or Abba give him a kiss and if seems to make it better (if he gets a band aid too, even better).
Why does every parent offer their young children a kiss as the ultimate panacea?
Every physical wound carries with it some modicum of emotional pain as well. When we feel hurt we crave TLC. We want to know that someone cares about our pain and that we are not alone with our hurt.
A parent's loving kiss and embrace provides that added dose of love. While it cannot take away the physical pain, the feeling of being cared for and cherished makes the pain more bearable, sometimes completely.
The greatest suffering of all is when it is borne in silence. When one feels abandoned, as if his pain and travails don't matter to anyone, that causes the deepest and most personal suffering.
Holocaust survivors have noted that one of the myriad disturbing facets of the Holocaust was the fact that almost no one outside the ghetto or the concentration camp walls seemed to care. The utter poverty and rampant disease in the ghetto, the smoke rising from the crematoria, as well as the horrible stench of burning human flesh in the camps, was unmistakable. Yet no one bat an eyelash.
The pain of loneliness magnifies all suffering exponentially.
Today the Jewish world has incredible chesed organizations. Families suffering with a sick child r'l have many resources and organizations ready to help. Their chesed is above and beyond. While they cannot change the illness, they are able to help those suffering feel they are not alone. That kiss of love is priceless.
On the other hand, I once heard from a mother who has a teen son "at risk" lament that there are hardly any resources to help her and her family cope with her familial tumultuous and painful roller coaster. What's more, people judge her and her family, and instead of compassion she ends up feeling blamed and somewhat ostracized, if even unwittingly.
The same painful truth has been expressed by divorcees.
The opening extant cry of Megillas Eichah is that the bustling city of Yerushalayim has become like a widow. Beyond the pain of destruction and calamity is the anguish of isolation. We can provide that kiss of love which breathes life into those who crave it so much.
During these days of national mourning when we contemplate redemption and focus on the pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters in Klal Yisroel, it behooves us to try to give that proverbial nonjudgmental kiss, to mitigate their suffering, if even just a little.
       
 Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

      R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Parshas Pinchos 5776


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Pinchos   
Pirkei Avos perek 1
23 Tamuz 5776/ July 29, 2016

It was an experience I hope no one ever has. It was a Motzei Shabbos at the end of October in 2004. We were living in the Blueberry Hill Apartments complex with our almost three year old son Shalom, and Chani was in her ninth month, expecting our second child. At 3 a.m. we were awakened to the piercing screams of a young girl: “Fire! Fire! Please! There’s a fire!”
Chani immediately raced to the other room and grabbed Shalom from his bed. I looked out the window and saw that the building opposite ours was on fire. We rushed outside together with neighbors from all of the apartments in the nearby buildings. It was a frightening scene as we watched flames shoot up from the top of the building. The fire department arrived within minutes and began their heroic efforts to battle the blaze.
At one point a fireman emerged from a window holding a limp older woman over his shoulder. Tragically, she was the only fatality. She did not die from the flames but from smoke inhalation while she was sleeping. It was a painful reminder of the truism that smoke kills before fire.
I often recount that tragic night to my students and campers to drive home to the idea that the atmosphere around us has the most profound effect on our spiritual and mental health. When we are surrounded by a positive and nourishing environment we are more inclined to be productive and caring. But when we are surrounded by negativity, pessimism, and insensitivity, it inevitably affects us negatively as well.  
When I first began working in education, a friend and veteran educator shared with me that one of the keys to motivation is in creating a healthy motivating educational environment where students feel excited to accomplish and to take part.
I was once discussing with a friend the merits of a certain yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel. My friend told me that the yeshiva’s rabbeim and hanhala did not pressure its students to learn per se, but rather, the pressure was “in the walls”. There was a tremendous drive to grow spiritually in that yeshiva, and that impelled the students to want to invest and grow in their Torah learning. The faculty did not need to apply added pressure, because it was ‘in the air’.
This idea comes to life every summer for me with the tremendous success of Camp Dora Golding’s learning program ka”h. Aside from the daily learning groups, it is astounding that a half hour before mincha every Erev Shabbos there are almost three hundred campers ready for Shabbos and learning in camp’s shul. Then on Shabbos itself, there are even more campers who learn voluntarily for three hours on Shabbos afternoon. It’s not just the expensive and great prizes that are raffled off, and it’s not just the massive BBQ for all who learn a certain amount. It’s more about the positive hype and excitement generated by Rabbi Sauber and the learning rabbeim.
We are now in the period of mourning for the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. The gemara in Yoma relates that the second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed because of baseless enmity between fellow Jews. Not every Jew may have been guilty, but that sense of disunity and distrust was in the air and created a spiritual toxicity. When we observe Torah and mitzvos, demonstrate sensitivity for each other, and perform acts of chesed, it’s not merely individual acts of greatness. It creates a healthy spiritual environment, one fitting for the rebuilding of the Bais Hasmikdash. 

 Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

      R’ Dani and Chani Staum