Friday, October 28, 2016

Parshas Bereishis 5777

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Bereishis – Mevorchim Chodesh Cheshvan
Tishrei 5777/ October 28, 2016

On Simchas Torah morning, after the Kiddush ended, I carried our three-year-old son Dovid beneath the canopy spread atop the bimah, for Kol Hane’orim (the special Aliyah for all children who aren’t old enough to recite the blessings on the Torah on their own). When the Aliyah ended, all the adults began to sing hamalach hagoel. I noticed the look of confusion and nervousness in Dovid’s eyes, as he tried to understand why we were singing his bedtime song in shul.
As soon as we finished, he shared with me his logical conclusion: “Abba, the Torah is going to sleep!” It made sense considering that the Torah which had been open moments earlier was now closed and covered with a small blanket, just like Dovid when he goes to sleep.
We relate to the Torah not merely as a guide book of laws, but rather as a living entity – a “Toras chaim”, which, in turn, infuses us with vitality and life.
Every morning we recite the birchos haTorah, thanking Hashem for imparting to us His holy Torah. There is a unique halacha regarding the recitation of those berachos: If one removes his tallis after shachris and chooses to put it back on a few hours later, he recites a new beracha when doing so. Similarly, each time one sits down to eat a meal in a succah on succos he recites the special beracha of Leishiv Basuccah. One can recite that beracha a few times throughout the day. However, one only recites birchas HaTorah one time in the morning. Even if one goes to work and doesn’t have a chance to learn from a sefer until the evening, he does not repeat birchos haTorah when he sits down to learn later.  [Most opinions state that even if one takes a significant nap during the day he does not recite a new birchas haTorah upon awakening.]
Tosafos (Berachos 11b) explains that, unlike all other mitzvos, there is no definitive time when we are commanded to engage in Torah study. Rather it is an all-encompassing mitzvah that we are obligated in constantly. Furthermore, every nuance in the life of a Jew contains halachos, and therefore, one is always involved in Torah, even when not actually studying its texts.
On Simchas Torah morning, as I was walking to shul with our bar mitzvah son, Shalom, I recounted to him an experience I had several years ago. It was during the winter and I was visiting a rebbe of mine in Highland Park, NJ for Shabbos. As we were leaving his home for the fifteen-minute walk to shul, my rebbe told me that each Shabbos he walks with his neighbor to shul and they review the content of the gemara they learned that week while they walk.   
I must admit that I was a little bored as I listened to their discussion, because I was not familiar with that particular gemara. But it definitely left an impression upon me. One of them would relate a question or answer from the gemara, and then the other would add another point which the other had missed, and so it continued all the way to shul. I was impressed at how they maximized their time in such a beautiful manner.
I suggested to Shalom that, being that we had reviewed the same gemara he had learned in yeshiva a few times over Succos, we could try to review the content of the gemara too. He agreed, and it was the most fulfilling and productive walk I had in a very long time, even though my feet weren’t happy with the walk.
This past Chol Hamoed I had the zechus to help facilitate a community-wide learning program. It was a most magnificent sight to see over fifty boys learning with fathers and chavrusos each morning of Chol Hamoed, before heading out on their daily trip.
Quite a few fathers noted how enthralled they themselves were with the program and how much it enhanced and transformed their Chol Hamoed.
The Torah never sleeps. As we state in Shema: “And you shall teach them to your children, and speak in them, when you are sitting in your home, and going on your way, and when you lie down, and when you wake up.”
If we feel sluggish it is only because we are the ones who must be asleep.
The beautiful Yomim Tovim of Tishrei have awakened us from our spiritual slumber and reenergized us. Now our job is to make sure we don’t fall back to sleep.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hoshanah Rabbah – Erev Shemini Atzeres 5777

Hoshanah Rabbah – Erev Shemini Atzeres
21 Tishrei 5777/ October 22, 2016

"Abba, the power is out in half of the rooms upstairs!"
While trying to prepare derashos for Rosh Hashanah, that's not what I wanted to hear. But I headed upstairs to try to figure out the electric issue. I happen to be as adept with electric as I am with aerodynamics, but I do know that if the power isn't working you check the fuse box in the basement. When after flipping every switch in the house a few times yielded no results, I called my neighbor, Meir.
Meir is one of those people who genuinely enjoys helping others. I told Meir that I didn't want him to come over; I only wanted to ask him his advice about the situation.
Perhaps it was his love of chesed, perhaps it was his concern that I was going to electrocute myself, but he told me he would stop by on his way home. So at 10:30 pm (on his way home!!) he arrived and began surveying the situation. Within a few minutes he realized that one of the lights plugged in upstairs had a frayed wire. As a protection, the circuit kept shorting and wouldn't stay on. He unplugged the faulty wire, went back down to the basement and again flipped the switch. This time the power instantly came back on.
This past week, as I was putting the schach on my succah, when I placed my hand on top of the gutter on the roof next to the schach, I realized that the gutters were full of water. The rainwater obviously wasn't draining. I've often thought about how great it would be to have a private mikvah, but not in the gutters on my roof.
Determined not to bother Meir, I checked the bottom of the drainage pipe and saw that it was clear. There must be something blocking on the roof. I stood on a chair and reached up to see where the hole was, so I can try to stick a pole down to clear the way. As soon as my hand touched the top of the pipe, I found that something was situated atop the drainage pipe - a moldy tennis ball. As soon as I lifted it, all of the water in the drain rushed down the pipe and was empty within seconds.
When I walked back into my house to tell Chani what happened, she immediately said (what she often says when things like this happen in our home) "I smell a musings coming. Something about how our hearts are blocked up!" That was not what I wanted to hear while I was dripping wet and holding a moldy wall. However, I am starting to think she has the gift of prophecy.
On Rosh Hashanah, we spend the holiday trying to ensure that our connection with the Source of Life, is vibrant and strong. We reaccept upon ourselves the yoke of His Majesty, and recommit ourselves to living up to the lofty expectations He has set for us in His Torah.
If the wire is frayed the connection is faulty and that spiritual power will not ignite within our souls.
Then on Yom Kippur as we try to achieve at-one-ment, we seek to clear away the debris of our past mis-deeds, to ensure that there are no spiritual blockages that hinder our future growth.
Great analogies for the avodah of these two elite holidays. But what about the celebration of succos, you ask.
The Almighty has provided us with an experiential lesson for that too:
The ice maker in our freezer has a lever that gets pushed up when enough ice has been produced, to signal the mechanism to stop producing ice. But the mechanism in our freezer somehow became dislodged, so the freezer continued producing ice, even as it overflowed the bucket and spill over into the rest of the freezer. Whenever someone opened the freezer, ice cubes went flying.
Ice cubes are a wonderful thing, and helps us enjoy our drinks that much more. But when the mechanism that signals the machine to stop producing is broken, they become a nuisance at best.
Succos reminds us that all of the pleasures of life are there for us to enjoy, as long as we keep them within healthy limits. So long as we control our conveniences and they don't control us, we can benefit from them. But when there are no limitations those same conveniences develop a mind of their own, dragging us helplessly along.
Within the spiritually blissful confines of the succah, our food, drink, and sleep are holy. Four mundane Species become holy objects that promote extreme joy and celebration for a week.
This reminds us that within divine parameters all of the physicality of this world is a conduit for growth. That is one of the timeless lessons of succos.
We often think that when Succos ends we return to our homes simply because the mitzvah of succah is over. But in truth, the holiday of Shemini Atzeres presents us with the most formidable challenge of all - to bring all of the lessons of the entire month of Tishrei, and especially Succos, back into our homes.
It is to ensure that the connections we established Rosh Hashanah remain vibrant, the passageways we cleared Yom Kippur remain open, and the message of the succah returns with us into the comforts of our homes.
And to lock it all in we dance with the Torah - which is the ultimate medium to help us maintain that growth throughout the year, and throughout our lives.
You'll forgive me for ending here, but I think Meir is here to fix our ice cube tray.

Chag Sameiach & Freilichen Yom Tov,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Friday, October 14, 2016


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Haazinu
12 Tishrei 5777/ October 13, 2016

Once upon a time, there was a family named The Staums, who resided at 3 Landau Lane in Spring Valley, NY.
This wonderful family was thrilled to spend its summers at Camp Dora Golding in East Stroudsburg, PA, where Rabbi Staum served as a division head. Due to the fact that the Staum family was temporarily residing in East Stroudsburg, they had their mail forwarded from the end of June until the beginning of the final week of the camp season at the end of August.
This year, when the Staum family arrived home after another wonderful camp season, their mail again began appearing in their mailbox, just as they had arranged. And they lived happily ever after… until the following week.
After a few days they realized that their mail had stopped being dropped off. The mailman would pass by their home and simply drive by.  So they called the Post Office, and after a mere fifteen frustrating tries, decided to go down to the Post Office in person.
At the Post Office a real live person agreed to look into the situation. He returned a few minutes later and explained that there was a simple logical explanation for why the Staums had not received their mail. It seems Walter, their usual postman, was on vacation when they arrived home from camp. His temporary substitute received their request to stop forwarding their mail to East Stroudsburg and did so. But when Walter returned from his vacation the following week, he didn’t realize that they had returned (their two cars in front and children running in and out, etc. apparently weren’t a good enough indication). So he resumed forwarding their mail.  
Thus their lost mail was somewhere in limbo between East Stroudsburg and Monsey. They are still awaiting the grand return of that week’s mail.
It would seem that this whole ordeal was just an annoyance that the Staums had to deal with, and, aside for not receiving some invitations, bills, tzedakah solicitations, and calendars for the new year, it’s not such a big deal. Or so you might have thought!
However, during that fateful week of mistakenly forwarded mail, the Staum’s secondary insurance mailed them a standard letter about a bill they had paid. But that envelope stated that it was not to be forwarded. As soon as the insurance company received the returned letter, they came to the immediate conclusion that the Staums no longer had a valid home address, and they promptly cancelled the Staum’s insurance… the day before Mrs. Staum gave birth to twins!
So as they received Mazal Tov wishes from near and dear, the Staums also began receiving substantial bills from the hospital – somehow those did arrive in the mail.
“No big deal”, you’d think. “Just call the insurance company and explain their mistake.” But speaking to bureaucrats is far worse than speaking to a brick wall. And so the Staums await a trial hearing before the insurance company’s judge, hoping that his/her honor will admit to the inanity of the situation and have the insurance company cover the bills they should be covering, so that the Staums, and their twins, can again live happily ever after.
That whole story is an introduction to the following question: What is someone’s address? Where does one really live?
Is it the place where your mail arrives at, and the place where all of your stuff is, or is it more about the place where your family is located, and the place where you feel secure and settled?
During the Yom Tov of Succos, we demonstrate that it is the latter. We depart from our homes that contains ‘all of our stuff’, the one which is listed as our address, so that we can seek residence in a flimsy succah with our family, basking in the security of the divine beneath the schach.
Succos reminds us that despite the fact that we feel secure and protected in our homes, essentially it’s not our roofs or our security systems that afford us any security. It is only G-d, who is impervious to the fallacies and follies of bureaucrats, and is also above the influence of temperamental and untrustworthy candidates, that can grant us any modicum of serenity.
It is only with a firm knowledge and resolve in that truth that anyone can truly live happily ever after. 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
Chag Sameiach & Freilichen Yom Tov,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Monday, October 10, 2016


Erev Yom Kippur
9 Tishrei 5777/ October 11, 2016

It seems that, aside for the wave of penitent emotions, the High Holy Days also arouse a certain level of nostalgia.
I mentioned last week that during my formative years, my family lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We davened in the legendary Polisher Shteible, where not only my father and grandfather davened, but where even my great-grandfather davened during the years he was living in New York.
The atmosphere of the Shteible is impossible to describe to one who has never experienced it. Antique seforim lined the shelves, and aged wooden tables and benches sat atop the dusty tiled floor. The distinct smell of herring, kichel, and "bromphen" was ever palpable. I remember the two elderly kohanim who duchaned - both sang different tunes, equally off key.
 Everyone who davened in the Shtieble was a personality in his own right, with his own idiosyncrasies - each worthy of his own Musings.
One particular memory that I often think of at this time of year was from the middle of mussaf on Rosh Hashnah and Yom Kippur. The gabbai, R’ Ezra, would open a cubby and remove a stack of old copies of the New York Times. Then he would hastily distribute one page to every person in shul. I was quite surprised and confused - a page of old newspaper in the middle of davening?
But soon enough it became clear what the newspapers were for. The gemara states that when one kneels and prostrates before G-d during the mussaf of Rosh Hashnah and Yom Kippur, he is not allowed to do so on the ground itself, as that was the practice of idolaters. Rather he must place something between himself and the floor. The Shteible used old newspapers to serve that purpose.
Rav Shimshon Pinkus zt"l related that he had the same experience in his shul during his youth. They too would hand out newspapers during mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He also related that one year, after everyone stood up following their prostration, there was one fellow who remained down, with his face remaining pressed to the ground. At first they feared that he had passed out. But upon closer analyzation, they realized that he was reading the newspaper beneath him.
Rav Pinkus commented that there may not be anything wrong with reading a newspaper article, but not at that moment! At that lofty awesome moment when we demonstrate our complete submission before G-d in a manner unparalleled during the rest of the year, it's not a time to be focusing on anything other than one's complete commitment and devotion to G-d.
Rav Pinkus added that Shabbos each week, as well as every Yom Tov throughout the year, are times of spiritual connection with G-d, on an unparalleled level. We have to ensure that our behavior during those holy days is befitting their sanctity. Things which may be perfectly acceptable, and even necessary, on regular weekdays, may not be fitting during those elite times.
As the great day of Yom Kippur is upon us, and we seek ways to elevate our service to Hashem, perhaps we can give thought to a matter that is a particular challenge for all of us:
There is much good that we do with our cell phones, and they help us in so many ways. But how often do we take them out to look at them during davening in shul, during family meal times, or at any time when we are conversing with another person. It has become so commonplace that we hardly even realize that we do it.
During moments of spiritual, or even personal connection, let's not be the guy who is proverbially "busy reading the paper".
May we all have a G'mar Chasima Tova - a year of growth, blessing, health, shidduchim, parnasa, nachas, etc. But above all, may we all have the wisdom and insight to appreciate those gifts we are granted by giving them our full attention, and by not allowing ourselves to be distracted by the phony cyber-world.
G’mar Chasima Tova & Good Yom Tov
An uplifting, meaningful, and easy fast,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum