Thursday, December 30, 2010

VA’ERA 5771

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Va’era

24 Teves 5771/December 31, 2010

“Okay kids, bedtime…” Time for the nightly routine of whisking our children into bed.

I turn to our three-year-old, “Avi, what CD do you want to listen to tonight?”

I know the answer but I ask anyway to humor myself. He wants to listen to the same CD he listened to last night, and the night before, and the night before that. Some nights I’ll try to sneak in a different volume of the same singer (e.g. Uncle Moishy V’ instead of ‘Uncle Moishy IV’ just for the sake of variety). Invariably within two minutes the jig is up and I am angrily summoned back to rectify my ‘mistake’.

Is it normal for a child to want to listen to the same thing repeatedly, seven nights a week? [What’s that you say? Six nights a week because of Shabbos? Well actually, to our vexation, for the last two Shabbosos we have come upstairs after the seudah to hear the usual CD blaring because the alarm went off…]

The answer is a resounding yes; it is indeed normal. In his fascinating bestseller, “The Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the profound psychology invested into children’s television programs and why certain shows are more popular among children than others.

He quotes Daniel Anderson, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, who explains: “If you think about the world of a preschooler they are surrounded by stuff they don’t understand, things that are novel. So the driving force for a preschooler is not a search for novelty, like it is with older kids. It’s a search for understanding and predictability. For younger kids repetition is really valuable. They demand it. When they see a show over and over again, they not only are understanding it better, which is a form of power, but just by predicting what is going to happen, they feel a real sense of affirmation and self-worth.”

In other words, for young children who are struggling to make sense of the vast and unpredictable ‘adult world’, predictability breeds a feeling of comfort and security. Therefore, give a young child the choice between something new and exciting or something he is familiar with, he will generally pick the familiar.

One of the best ways to grant a child a sense of predictability is with consistency. Families that have structure, boundaries, and routines usually have children who feel safe and secure.

On the other hand, children who lack structure and consistency in their lives often feel vulnerable and insecure, both with themselves and their surroundings. In the world of education this is a truth that tragically asserts itself too often.

So, believe it or not, listening to that same CD again is indeed healthy for my child. However, I do feel that certain children’s tapes should come with a “Parental General Warning” which reads, “Hearing this tape too many times can endanger parent’s already fragile sanity (or whatever is left of it)”. If you have children, or younger siblings, you know exactly what I mean.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Friday, December 24, 2010


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shemos

17 Teves 5771/December 24, 2010

It is with great parental pride that we announce and wish congratulations to our oldest son Shalom upon losing his second tooth.

It brings back memories to when I was about his age and my friend’s and classmate’s teeth were falling out. But my teeth loved me so much that they simply wouldn’t budge. Eventually my dentist decided that he had no recourse but to begin extracting my teeth. During a two year period I had two teeth pulled every month or so. The only exception was on one occasion I had my four front teeth extracted at once. To this day I don’t like looking at pictures from that period in my life when I had no front teeth. [I liked to tell people that my parents did it to me…]

By the time I entered fifth grade only one of my four front adult teeth had descended. At that time when we finished davening in yeshiva we would wait outside our classrooms until a rebbe came around to open the classroom doors.

One winter morning I was sitting outside my classroom sucking on the zipper of my coat which was resting on my lap. I was nonchalantly fastening the hole on the zipper piece around my one front tooth and then sliding it off with my tongue. Then at one point the zipper wouldn’t slide off. After a minute of trying to dislodge the zipper, I mortifyingly realized that the zipper was stuck on my tooth.

A few minutes later when ‘a staff member from the yeshiva’ (I will leave it at that) walked by, my amused classmates told him that ‘a kid got his zipper stuck on his tooth’. The staff member - G-d bless him - proceeded to lift the coat over my head so that he could bring me to the yeshiva’s office. I still remember the feeling of ‘trying to play it cool’ as everyone we passed glared at me with a befuddled look. I trailed the rapidly-walking staff member, with my mouth open hooked to my moving coat, like a fish being reeled in.

I sat in the office for some time while the secretary tried explaining the situation to my mother. “Yes, Mrs. Staum you heard me correctly… his zipper… on his tooth… I don’t know how; he’s your son!”

My mother proceeded to call my dentist who then called me in the yeshiva office. “Hi Dani, how are you?” “Fine I gueth. But what thoud I do?” There was a pause before he replied while laughing, “I guess you should zip it up.” Suffice it to say at that moment I didn’t think it was very funny.

The strangest part of the story was that after I sat in the office for an hour the zipper suddenly became dislodged and fell out on its own. I stood up, thanked the secretary, and marched into class, as my classmates eyed me disbelievingly.

Over the last few weeks there has been much discussion about Wikileaks and the severe damage that has been caused by the publicizing of confidential facts to the public.

There is an old adage which states, “Not everything that is thought must be said; not everything said must be written; not everything written must be read; not every thing read must be thought about.”

The Mishnah (Avos 3:17) states “Seyag lachachma shesika- a fence for wisdom is silence.” The Kotzker Rebbe quipped that the “seyag- fence” around wisdom is when one has nothing to say and therefore remains silent; while “Chachma-wisdom” itself is when one has something to say and remains quiet anyway!

Of course there are many instances when one cannot remain silent, but more often than not it is an invaluable piece of advice to remember that in life it’s usually best to ‘zip it up’.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayechi

10 Teves 5771/December 17, 2010

Your browser may not support display of this image. A number of years ago I was attending a meeting with the director of an organization I was working for along with the other heads of the program. The meeting was repeatedly interrupted by the incessant ringing of the director’s cell-phone which he answered each time. After some time of this repeated annoyance I called the director from my cell-phone and asked him when he might be available to meet with us.

In a similar vein, a friend of mine told me that he was once in a popular home improvement store waiting to have a piece of wood to be cut. After waiting at the proper place for about twenty minutes, he called the store and asked to be connected to the lumber department. He asked them how long it would take for them to cut a piece of wood. The receptionist amicably replied that it would only take a minute and that he could come in at any time and they would be happy to help him. My friend then explained that he had been waiting for quite some time. A minute later an attendant arrived to cut the wood.

It’s a funny world that we live in. People often seem to have no qualms about making people wait endless amounts of time for them. But when their phone starts ringing, after one ring (or vibration/chime/note from some popular song) they answer their phone and launch into conversation.

It seems that nothing takes precedence over a phone call - nothing that is except for another phone call. With call waiting, suddenly the first phone call, which was so important a moment ago, is put on hold for the next phone call.

It was a big enough challenge when phones were attached to the wall, and even with cordless phones to follow us around the house. But today we have the ubiquitous cell phone. The head-counselor of a large camp refers to his cell-phone as his leash that connects him to his master. [His master is whoever is demanding his attention at the moment they decide to call him.] With cell-phones we have the ability disturb and disrupt anyone/anything no matter what we are doing.

What is it about phone calls that create a sense of urgency? Why do people feel the need to answer their phone even in the most inopportune places and at the most inappropriate times (e.g. during davening, or during a speech)?

I surmise that it is connected to our insatiable curiosity and fascination with the unknown. When the phone rings it could be anybody, and even if it is known who is calling, the caller can be calling about anything. A ringing phone is like reaching the dramatic climax of a suspense mystery. [If that is true it follows that most phone calls leave us with some level of disappointment.]

If that is true then not answering the phone immediately whenever it rings is an exercise in self-control, and we can all use improvement in that area.

Cell-phones also remind us to thank G-d for Shabbos - the one day when we cannot answer our phones. I must confess that my cell phone has become such a part of me that every time someone moves a chair next to me on Shabbos causing a faint vibration I reach for my cell phone. Still Shabbos provides a twenty-five hour reprieve, when we can actually talk to the people we are with, instead of talking to everyone besides the people we are with. Imagine that - in our day and age talking to someone live!

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Friday, December 10, 2010


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Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayigash

3 Teves 5771/December 10, 2010

A noted therapist once quipped that the best psychologists are not doing private consultations or helping people on an individual basis. Rather, they are involved in advertising, helping to guide and advise mega-million dollar companies how to best promulgate and publicize their product to the public. There is an incredible amount of psychology that is involved in advertising, and it is truly fascinating just how much discussion and thought goes in to every commercial, billboard, and advertisement. It is an extremely lucrative field, hence the involvement of many of the wittiest and most innovative minds.

As much as we hate to admit it, our culture has been somewhat shaped by mass advertising. We are inundated by mass advertising and it unquestionably manipulates our attitudes and thinking. With slogans like “you deserve it” and “if you don’t have it someone else will”, we are lured into believing that the latest cultures and styles are de rigueur. Those ads that we breeze by on the highway, or glance at in public places, have a profound effect on our attitude and way of thinking.

Every individual who owns a car has a little space where he can do his own advertising, i.e. on the car’s rear bumper. We have full authority to announce to the world (or at least to the car behind us when we’re stuck in traffic) whatever we desire in that space.

Some use that space to broadcast their child’s accomplishments as an Honor Student. Others use it to preach their personal religious or political beliefs. Still others feel the need to tell everybody that the car they are driving drove up Mount Washington. It is in fact a profound accomplishment and why should they not boost their car’s ego (especially after they burned out its engine getting to the top).

When Chani and I went to visit Mount Washington in New Hampshire a number of years ago, I asked the cashier in the souvenir shop if they had a bumper sticker which read, “Aint no way this car could make it up Mount Washington”. At the time the car that I drove looked like it fell off the top of Mount Washington (driving that car was like experiencing the Chanukah miracle all year round). The cashier replied that although she did not have such a bumper sticker, she was confident that everyone would realize the car didn’t have much of a chance up Mount Washington, even without the bumper sticker.

What do billboards and advertising have to do with Chanukah, you ask? More than you think. The Medrash relates that aside for all of their other nefarious decrees barring the Jews from observing Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and Milah, the Greeks also insisted that the Jews engrave on the horns of their oxen the words, “I have no portion in the G-d of Israel”.

It seems that the ancient Greeks were very privy to understanding the effect of advertised messages. As the Jews plowed their fields, goading their oxen from behind, the Greeks wanted them to stare at that message all day long. It is inevitable that staring at something for so many hours consecutively will have a profound effect on one’s thinking.

The holiday of Chanukah affords us the opportunity to battle the media’s relentless advertising campaign. For eight nights we light our small candles facing the outside world. How strange! It is the only time throughout the year that we seek to perform a mitzvah ostentatiously, for the outside world to see. I love to drive through the streets of Jewish neighborhoods in the early evenings on Chanukah with my children and look at all the candles in the windows.

The message is that if something one sees repeatedly has an effect on him in a negative fashion, it can do so in a positive fashion as well.

As we place our menorahs back on the shelves until next year we have to hold onto the message of the candles we lit for the last eight nights. There is a profound message contained in the candles. Those candles remind us that there is holy light everywhere. But to find it we have to stop looking at all the advertisements in bright, jarring, neon lights. The Chanukah candles are lit relatively low (preferably between 3-10 tefachim). We have to look more humbly, more inwards and introspectively, to find that real light. Those candles are our bumper stickers which read “I/we have a portion in the G-d of Israel.”

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Miketz

2nd day of Chanukah

26 Kislev 5771/December 3, 2010

Not far from our home is a lush and beautiful golf course. Every Shabbos morning as I make my way to shul it is still relatively early for most of the world on a weekend morning. Aside for an occasional early jogger the roads are virtually empty. That is until I arrive at the golf course. Even now as the weather is rapidly getting colder, as long as it’s not too cold and raining there will be figures on the golf course, standing in their windbreakers, swinging their golf clubs.

Truthfully those golfers make me feel somewhat uneasy. It’s Saturday morning, their day off, and it’s chilly. Why are they out there? Obviously it’s because they love the game and are excited by the opportunity to play. I make my way up to shul on Shabbos Kodesh morning wondering if I feel the same way about davening.

In this country the day after Thanksgiving has become sanctioned as a holy day, now known as Black Friday. People literally stand on line all night in order to save a few bucks and fight for a few good deals. I asked one such friend why and how he maintained his sanity all night long. He shrugged and smiled. “We brought stuff to keep busy; it was an experience.”

Chazal say that in the World of Truth we are judged based on our own actions and the actions of those around us. If when asked why we did not accomplish more during our lives we will say that we were too overburdened and emotionally maxed out, the celestial courts will ask us how we had energy and strength to do other things that we wanted to do.

I sometimes wonder if the “Black Fridayers” and the “early Saturday morning golfers” are going to get us into trouble in the heavenly courts. ‘You see they did it because they wanted it badly enough.’ Hmmmm!

Rabbi Rafi Perl, a beloved MTA (and Camp Dora Golding) rebbe, related to me that he had a friend named Mark Rosenberg a’h. [Mark worked with Canton Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of the Twin Towers, and tragically died in the 9/11 attacks]. Rabbi Perl and Mark were high-school teammates on a Young Israel basketball team.

Once during a semi-final playoff game Mark fell asleep on the bench during halftime. When Rabbi Perl woke him up Mark told him that he was very happy that he fell asleep. He explained, “When I get up to heaven and they ask me why I sometimes lacked passion and energy for learning Torah and davening, I will be able to respond that it’s not because I lacked value for those things. You see I also fell asleep during a playoff game!”

The holiday of Chanukah reminds us that we can accomplish far more than we give ourselves credit for, albeit if we put our minds to it. Chanukah is about defeating the odds and knowing that G-d helps those who help themselves. It is a holiday that celebrates the victory of quality over quantity, and mind over matter.

The ethereal light of our Chanukah candles contains a glimmer of the inner spark within us, waiting to be fueled.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

A Lichtige Chanukah & Orot Sameach,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum