Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Erev Yom Tov Succos

14 Tishrei 5771/September 22, 2010

One of the stressors about flying is the need to have an updated passport. A number of months ago when I decided to travel to Eretz Yisroel I realized that my passport had expired. It was a cumbersome process to get an appointment at the post-office for a rush order. I also needed to have an updated picture of myself to send out with the passport application. I went to a studio where they take passport pictures and posed. They were very accommodating and allowed me to take the picture a number of times. I happen to be a relatively photogenic person and it was incredible that no matter how many times he took the picture it still was a rather lousy portrait. After two or three times, I agreed to take the best of the bunch and just be done with it.

It is something that always intrigued me. I don’t think I ever saw a passport photo that truly bore a resemblance to its bearer. To be truthful, it does look like its bearer, albeit after he stuck his finger in a socket and was struck by lightning.

The same holds true for driver’s license pictures. Why can’t anyone look half decent in those pictures? I once read a story about a woman who was pulled over by a cop and then said that she did not have her license with her. When the cop informed her that she was going to get an extra hefty ticket the woman admitted that she indeed had her license with her. She agreed to show it to the cop… if he promised not to look at the picture.

I am happy to state that I now know that answer to my inquiry. Your passport picture is exactly what you look like - after a ten hour flight replete with airline meals and turbulence, passing through security, and waiting for your luggage at the carousel.

One of the focal points of the holiday of Succos is eating and living in the succah. The gemara cites a dispute as to the source of this beloved mitzvah. The noted opinion (Rabbi Eliezer) is that the succah reminds us of the Clouds of Glory which enveloped and protected our forefathers in the desert. There is a second opinion however (Rabbi Akiva) who opines that our succos remind us of the succos (literal huts) that our forefathers lived in while they traveled through the desert.

The second opinion is quite puzzling. What made their huts so fascinating that we seek to mimic them by building our own huts and living in them during the week-long holiday?

Traveling undoubtedly takes its toll on any sane person. When one is in the midst of getting bumped off his flight, is pursuing a flight, or arguing with security about the potential danger of your tefillin, he is hardly able to concentrate and study with serenity. Throughout their sojourns in the desert, our forefathers were charged with accepting and studying the Torah, and transmitting it to their children as the initial progenitors of G-d’s Word. That hardly seems feasible when you are always traveling.

That was the greatness of those huts. Despite the fact that they were nothing but flimsy huts in a parched vulnerable desert, our ancestors were able to feel at home in those huts, so much so that they were able to learn and understand the depths of the Torah which they learned firsthand from Moshe. To be able to feel at home and in the embrace of G-d, even in the most difficult and trying of circumstances, to never look as bad as your passport picture even while traveling - that is the celebration of Succos.

In conclusion I am happy to report that I now understand the answer to my second question. License pictures are taken to resemble what you look like… just when you notice the blaring lights in your rearview mirror.

Good Yom Tov & Chag Samayach

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Friday, September 17, 2010


Erev Shabbos Kodesh/Yom Kippur

9 Tishrei 5771/September 17, 2010

“Yom Kippur… does not atone for sins between people… until he asks his (friend) forgiveness.”

--Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 2:9)

Moshe: Hey D?

Dovid: s’up?

Moshe: NM – U?

Dovid: K

Moshe: U home for Y’Kppur?

Dovid: Yeah

Moshe: Moichel me?

Dovid: OK – U?

Moshe: Yeah

Dovid: TYVM

Moshe: NP – TTYL in shul

One of the most significant challenges our generation faces is in our inability to communicate properly. We have a hard time expressing our feelings in an appropriate manner and being clear about what we are feeling or thinking.

Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein noted that much of that deficiency is because we are the email and text message generation. One can write an email to a friend and pay little attention to grammar and clarity because if the friend does not understand what was meant, he can just as easily send a second email to explain. Text messages also include coded messages. People don’t seem to speak in full sentences anymore. In fact, people don’t laugh at jokes anymore; they just say “LOL”.

I often have to remind the students in my literature class that they can not ‘text message’ an essay, e.g. “The character in the story thought s/o else would take care of it b4 he got home…”

The truth is that this all has a subtle deleterious effect - not only on our communication with others - but also in our communication with G-d. We have simply lost the ability to cry out and express our concerns and worries to G-d in our own words. But the key to Yom Kippur is being able to do just that. It requires introspection and self-analysis so that we can conjure up the words that express our deepest and most intimate feelings to G-d.

If we don’t know what we want/need, how can we pray? Truthfully we need to pray to G-d that He help us pray to Him. “G-d open my lips, and my mouth will relate your praise.”

May G-d grant every one of us the words to pray to Him that will open the Gates of Heaven to the positive fulfillment of all of our hopes and prayers.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

Good Yom Tov & G’mar Chasima Tova,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Erev Rosh Hashanah of 5771

29 Elul 5770/ /September 8, 2010

A number of years ago someone asked our (then) four year old son Shalom if he would be going to shul on Rosh Hashanah. At first Shalom replied that he was not, but when Chani reassured him that he was indeed going to be coming to shul, he looked up at her and asked in all sincerity, “Oh, so will we be bringing our scales to shul so that we can weigh our mitzvos and aveiros?”

Shalom had learned that on Rosh Hashanah our mitzvos and aveiros are weighed on scales, so he surmised that we ourselves must do the weighing. While it is an interesting thought, we are all aware that in heaven that is precisely what is transpiring.

Still, it seems that there is a ‘weighing in’ that we must do for ourselves during these days.

It’s been said that our society has a definition and game plan for ‘success’ only until one is 50 years old. Our society espouses that all that glitters is gold, and if one can achieve a position which earns him prestige, money, a beautiful home, a fancy car, and exotic vacations than he has ‘made it’. But what about after 50? Our society has no game plan for after that. Is there any value in living past 50 when one is no longer as youthful and vibrant as he/she once was?

The Torah has a far different value system. One’s value is determined based on wisdom and experience, rendering our elders our most valuable asset. Success is measured based on acquisition of wisdom and the extent of one’s character refinement.

The glorious days of penitence afford us the opportunity and responsibility to weigh in and contemplate whether we are living successful lives – as the Torah defines it.

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg zt’l noted that there is an important difference between ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ and ‘Rosh Hashanah Commitments’ (kabbalos). New Year’s Resolutions are things one accepts to do to help him feel better about himself, while Rosh Hashanah commitments are things one accepts to do in order to bring himself closer to G-d.

In a sense, New Year’s Resolutions help us be successful according to society’s definition of success, while Rosh Hashanah Commitments help us achieve success as the Torah defines it.

So perhaps we won’t be bringing our scales to shul on Rosh Hashanah to weigh our merits and sins. But we should still make sure that we do some personal weighing in to ensure that we are en route to achieving ultimate success.

Kesiva Vachasima Tova & Shana Tova Umesuka,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Friday, September 3, 2010


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshios Netzovim-Vayelech – Avos perakim 5-6

23 Elul 5770/ /September 3, 2010

Every parent has their own mode of parenting upon which their children love to reflect on and laugh about when they reach adulthood. One of my father’s classic idiosyncrasies was that when he would confiscate something from one of us he had a habit of stashing it in the first place he found. For example, on occasion we would find comic books hidden away under the fruits in the drawer at the bottom of the fridge.

But nothing beats the football story: On one occasion, my younger brother Yaakov was playing with a football in the house. My father was becoming increasingly annoyed with the frolicking and, after a few repeated unheeded requests for the ball to be put away, my father confiscated the ball and stashed it away.

That evening my mother was not home and my father was making supper. He turned on the oven to preheat, and then went about the house taking care of a few things. A few minutes later the house was filled with the terrible stench of burning rubber. We all ran into the kitchen where smoke was billowing out of the oven. My father carefully opened the door and pulled out… a deflated and cooked football, that he had placed in there hours earlier. Needless to say Yaakov was not too happy.

Although bathing suits are still drying, and August has barely ended, many yeshivos and day schools are beginning this week. As an “early year” when Rosh Hashana is two days after Labor Day, they have to get an early start. [In camp we joked that the banquet - traditionally served on the last night of camp - would have to be eaten in the succah…]

In honor of the beginning of the academic year it is worth reflecting upon one of the most oft-quoted mantras of education: Each child is unique, and has his own strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and challenges. Therefore, each child must be guided in an individualized and personalized manner [Chanoch l’na’ar al pi darko]. Every educator must remember that the most wonderful technique which ‘turns on’ and motivates one child, can be a severe ‘turn-off’ for another child.

A tray of raw potatoes, eggs, oil, and spices placed in a heated oven will become a delectable potato kugel, causing a satisfying aroma to waft through the kitchen. But put a football in the same heated oven and the football will deflate and cause a malodorous scent that disgusts all who pass by. On the other hand, try to play a game of football with a hot potato kugel and you’ll realize just how valuable that football is.

So the moral of the story is that we must understand what motivates and what deflates every child, and seek to build each one as best we can. And, if your child is playing football in the house, maybe put it in the bathtub, or better yet in the attic.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum