Wednesday, September 20, 2017

ROSH HASHANAH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Rosh Hashanah
29 Elul 5777/ September 20, 2017

One morning this past week, a photographer came to yeshiva to take pictures of the beginning of the new z’man (semester). As can be imagined, as soon as he entered the classroom, all the boys looked at him. He motioned that everyone should keep learning, and act as if he wasn't there.
The truth is that although the learning in our class has been great b’h, I can't say that every student sits upright with perfect attention at all times. But with the photographer snapping away, every student was sitting up in his seat, bent over his Gemara, finger on the place, following intensely.
The same occurs whenever a photographer comes to take pictures during davening. Suddenly, everyone seems to be davening with intense concentration, fully engrossed in every word being said.
I was thinking about it afterwards - Is it all just a ploy? Is it just a facade put up for the camera? I don't believe it is. The truth is that we all have a mental image/picture of what we would like to be. We all have aspirations to achieve certain levels of accomplishment, based on our values and goals. The problem is that in the day-to-day happenings, lethargy sets in, and we don't live up to our own ultimate mental image. Perhaps the greatest rationalization we offer ourselves is, if I allow myself a little leisure and leeway right now, it won't take away from my ultimate goal. After all, does it really matter if I'm not at the top of my game on a random Tuesday in November?
The problem is that we seem to use that same rationalization day after day, month after month, year after year. The result is that the elite mental picture we have of ourselves becomes increasingly elusive.
A picture captures a moment, and freezes it. When the photographer is taking pictures, we act as we truly want to be viewed, so that that image becomes frozen in time. It may not be who we are, but it generally is who we want to be, or at least how we want to be perceived. We act a certain way in front of the camera because that's who we truly want to be. The challenge is for us to become the person we posed as in the picture.
From Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur we try to be on top of our spiritual game. In a sense, the celestial photographer is taking a snapshot of us, based on which the heavenly courts will decide our future.
At times, we may feel that our superior behavior during these days is just a silly charade, because we can't fool G-d anyway. However, that superior behavior can encourage us to realize who we truly pine to be. We really do want to live a more elevated and meaningful life, and we really do want to be the person in the heavenly snapshot taken during these days.
Our challenge then is to constantly remember that the only way to become the person in the picture, is by taking advantage of every day, and doing our best constantly. Every random Tuesday in November indeed matters along the journey to become the greatest person we can become.

Kesiva Vachasima Tova
Good Yom Tov & Shana Tova,

       R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, September 14, 2017

PARSHIOS NETZOVIM-VAYELECH 5777


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Netzovim-Vayelech
24 Elul 5777/ September 15, 2017 - Avos Perek 5-6

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. A few years ago, on September 11, I was teaching my fifth-grade class at Ashar, and was reminiscing about that fateful and tragic day. As I was talking to them, it suddenly dawned on me that the boys sitting in front of me hadn’t been born before September 2001. When I shared that thought with the class, one boy called out without thinking, “I was pregnant at the time.” When the boy behind him said that he would have liked to have seen that, the first boy replied, “oh, you know what I meant.”
One of the things that stick out in my mind from the days and weeks after the attacks, was that everyone and everything was consumed, and completely focused on what had occurred. Not only was it a front-page story for quite some time, but even issues of business and sports magazines spoke about the events. The front page of a noted sports magazine had a quote on its front cover, “The day that sports stood still”, with a picture of an American flag draped over empty stadium seats.
The events forced the nation to consider and reflect upon its own values and ideals. The freedoms which were taken for granted, were suddenly appreciated again. In the face of heinous evil, the value of human life, unity, self-sacrifice, and compassion took center stage. Political barriers were cast aside as everyone viewed themselves simply as Americans, proud of their identity, who would not cower in the face of evil.
The shocking events compelled the entire country to step back from all of its bustling busyness and self-consumed, materialistic lives. In the quiet of the shock of what happened, Americans rediscovered latent patriotism and love for what their country stood for. 
On Tisha B’av morning, as we sit on the floor to recite the painful words of kinnos, we commence with a quote from Megillas Eicha, in fact a single word: “Shovas – everything came to a standstill!”
When the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Bais Hamikdash occurred, the bustle of life and vibrancy in the spiritual capital, came to an abrupt halt. Each year, on Tisha B’av, we step back from the busyness of our lives to reflect upon the national tragedies that have occurred throughout the millennia.
On Shabbos morning, following Kerias HaTorah, we read the haftorah, a passage from the Nevi’im. For most of the year, the passage reflects and parallels at least one section of the parsha. However, for a period of about three months, the focus of the haftorah is not primarily based on the parsha (though there are always subtle connections), but on the events commemorated during that period of the year. During the Shabbosos of the Three Weeks of mourning between Shiva Asar B’Tamuz and Tisha B’av, we read three ‘haftoros of punishment’, in which the prophets forewarned the nation of the impending doom that was imminent if they didn’t repent. The following seven weeks – from Tisha B’av until the Shabbos before Rosh Hashana – we read shiva d’nichemta, seven emotionally stirring haftaros of consolation from Yeshaya HaNavi.
This demonstrates that there is an inextricable connection between the painful days of mourning and the days of repentance. Although by now, Tisha B’av may seem like it faded into the limelight, it actually continues in a sense throughout the month of Elul. As we are readying ourselves for the great days of judgement, G-d is still consoling and comforting us for the destruction we recently mourned.
This week, Hillary Clinton published a new book entitled, “What Happened?” about her failed bid for the presidency last year. Her shocking loss was a deeply humbling experience for her. The dress she had planned to wear to her first meeting as president, she wore when she delivered her concession speech to Donald Trump.
Clinton described how after losing the election, she took long walks in the woods near her home and reflected upon what went wrong. In her book, she takes responsibility for the loss and for deeply upsetting her supporters, and discusses the mistakes she made. 
The truth is, that not only should such a book be written from the vantage point of the loser, but the victor too should reflect upon “What Happened” so that he can capitalize on what went right.
The unfortunate reality however, is that we become more reflective and introspective in the shadow of tragedy and loss. When things are going well, we have a much harder time stepping back to analyze and contemplate the reason for our success.
Perhaps that is part of why the weeks of consolation stretch through Elul. Those feelings of contrition and humility that welled up within us during the reflective moments of Tisha B’av, need to guide us into our quest for spiritual growth and repentance.
We would be wise to not only ask ourselves “What Happened” in regard to our failures and mishaps, but also regarding our successes and triumphs.     
As 5777 comes to its conclusion, we hope we can learn its lessons – for good and for better – as we anticipate great accomplishments and events during 5778.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum        

Thursday, September 7, 2017

PARSHAS KI SAVO 5777

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Ki Savo
17 Elul 5777/ September 8, 2017 - Avos Perek 3-4

This past Wednesday, parents in the Tri-state area gleefully celebrated the return of their children to school. No doubt they are thrilled that their children will be learning Torah and broadening the horizons of their mind again. But on a more practical level, after a couple of weeks of “Ma, I’m soooooo bored”, mothers were more than willing to wake up early to help send their children off to school. Now, they have a few weeks reprieve before the Chol Hamoed morning pestering begins: “Ma, where are we goooooooing today?”
On Tuesday evening, as she was going to sleep, I was talking to our daughter Chayala about beginning second grade. I told Chalaya that I remember vividly my first day in second grade. Our family had just moved to Monsey from the Lower East Side during the previous summer. For me, it wasn’t just a different school, it was a different world.
As I sat down in my seat in Yeshiva of Spring Valley that first day, I vainly tried to restrain my tears. My rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Trenk, immediately noticed my discomfort, and told me he had special medicine for someone in my situation, and he proceeded to pour a few candies into my hand. Aside for being a great rebbe, I remember the warmth and care he displayed during those first few challenging days. Within a week, coming to school became part of my routine, and those initial pangs of anxiety and discomfort dissipated.
Despite being settled in Monsey and in the yeshiva for a few years, at the beginning of every school year, I would still feel some anxiety on the first day. Truthfully, even now as a rebbe, those same feelings still crop up each year. I am confident that most students and teachers feel the same way.
Unfamiliarity always breeds anxiety and discomfort. It’s all the more so, when that unease is combined with expectations and fear of not living up to those expectations.
Last week, our oldest son Shalom began High School in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, my alma mater. At the same time, I began a new position in Yeshiva Heichal HaTorah, a prominent High School in Teaneck, New Jersey, as a rebbe and Guidance Counselor. I felt like a yeshiva bochur again when people asked Shalom when he was starting, and then asked me when I was starting.
New beginnings are exciting, but they are never easy. Accepting a new position entails learning the culture of the environment, figuring out expectations, and getting to know new personalities.
During these first few days of school I have also seen a lot of new shoes. Wearing new shoes is exciting but it’s also uncomfortable. It’s only when the shoes adapt to the wearer’s foot, that they become truly comfortable.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we begin to think about areas of our life and personality that we would like to improve upon. To do so requires change, and even minute changes make us feel uncomfortable. It helps to bear in mind that the discomfort is only temporary, because with time the change we work so hard to create, becomes part of our routine, and eventually part of our identity
So the question is are we willing to bear that temporary discomfort to experience the changes we want for ourselves[DS1] [DS2] ?
The answer depends on just how badly we want it!

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


 [DS2]k

Thursday, August 31, 2017

PARSHAS KI SEITZI 5777


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Ki Setzei
10 Elul 5777/ September 1, 2017 - Avos Perek 2

It’s hard to believe that we are approaching the first birthday of our twin boys, Gavriel Yehuda and Michael Binyamin.
As has been noted in earlier columns, their pregnancy was fraught with challenges, to say the least. About midway through their pregnancy, Chani underwent a vital procedure. I wasn’t allowed into the operating room, and she felt very alone there, despite the presence of a team of doctors and nurses. She kept her morale up by singing to herself the words recited after the bedtime Shema, “In the Name of Hashem, G-d of Yisroel: To my right is Michael, to my left is Gavriel, before me is Uriel, and behind me is Refael, and above my head is the Divine Presence of G-d.” Those words gave her comfort throughout the grueling and painstaking procedure.
We decided to name the babies Michael and Gavriel, to remind ourselves constantly that we pulled through those harrowing months with faith and the constant refrain that “Hashem and His malachim are always with us.”
After the procedure, the doctor warned us that it could conceivably cause premature labor, which could be dangerous for the babies. We prayed daily, and nervously counted as days and weeks passed. As Chani neared her seventh month, the doctor informed us that it would still be highly beneficial for the babies to remain within her for a few more weeks. However, should the babies be born at that point they could survive, though it would necessitate their spending time in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Again we prayed, and watched gratefully as the weeks passed. Despite weekly, and often bi-weekly visits to Columbia Hospital, and a very challenging summer, we made it through the entire camp season – which coincided with the beginning of her ninth month - in camp. Shortly after we returned home, the doctor informed us that he was delighted with the progress, and the time had come for them to be born.  
It was Friday night of Parshas Shoftim, the Shabbos before we knew the babies were going to be born. I was perusing the Medrash at the end of the parsha, when one particular Medrash caught my eye and made me very excited:
 The Torah instructs that prior to the Jews going to war, they must extend overtures and offers of peace to their enemy. It is only if those efforts fail or are rebuffed, that they may proceed into battle. Based on that law, the Medrash launches into a lengthy discussion about the merits of peace.
The Medrash quotes the verse (Iyov 25:2 - it is also recited at the end of most forms of kaddish) “He makes peace in His heights.” In its third explanation of how G-d ensures peace in the celestial heights, the Medrash states: “Michael is composed entirely of snow; Gavriel is composed entirely of fire. Yet, they stand next to each other and do not harm each other.”
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt’l explained that Michael and Gavriel, like all ministering angels, have unique G-d given missions. Gavriel is the angel of Divine Justice, while Michael is the defender of Klal Yisroel. Yet, their diverse missions do not at all impede their sense of unity. They both fulfill their missions with alacrity, as well as respect the mission of their counterpart, knowing that each is doing as he is instructed.
Peace is not the absence of strife, but rather a synergetic wholesomeness that entails respect.  
Seeing that Medrash that Friday night, was an incredible chizuk to us, and further encouraged us that the names we had chosen were ever so appropriate.
The following Friday, just a few hours prior to Shabbos, our twins were born, miraculously healthy and beautiful, one minute apart from each other. A week later, the next Friday, on the eighth day following their birth, we were incredibly blessed to enter them into the b‘ris of Avrohom Avinu.
It was a very emotional and special event. My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, had just arrived in Monsey a day prior for personal reasons. I was able to fulfill a dream of him being sandek at the bris of one of my sons, as he held Gavriel during his b’ris. We were then blessed that my dear Uncle, Rav Yaakov Cohn, was sandek at Michael’s b’ris.
In between the two brissim, we sang together the words “B’shem Hashem” which had given us such chizuk throughout the previous months, and based upon which we had named our sons. At the seduah following, I related the above Medrash that I had seen the previous Friday night, along with the beautiful explanation from Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky.
This past Friday night a year later, when I again came across the Medrash, it brought back a flood of memories from a year ago. It’s amazing that a year has passed.
I guess in a sense that’s what Elul is about. It’s not just about taking inventory of the mistakes we made during the previous year, and how we want to improve in the coming year. It’s also a review of the events of our lives – how G-d directed our lives, and how in tune we were to the hashgacha we experienced – for good or for better. The lessons, challenges, and blessings of the past set the foundation for our direction and goals in the future.
May it be a year of only blessings!

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum