Thursday, August 25, 2011

RE’EH 5771

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Re’eh

26 Menachem Av 5771/August 26, 2011 -- Pirkei Avos – Chapter 6

Shabbos Mevorchim Chodesh Elul

Camp is an amazing place. In a certain sense it’s a fantasy land where a camper can spend all day with friends, have a slumber party every night, and play sports and activities all day long, without his parents hovering over him. But all good things must come to an end, and this week the camping season ended.

Last week, as is customary during the final week of camp, we ‘observed’ Color War. After three days of sports, plays, and competition, Color War reached its crescendo on its final night when the entire camp, split into two teams, participated in the Grand Sing. The highlight of the night (aside for the announcing of the scores) is the singing of the ‘alma-mater’ - an emotionally charged song which describes the memories of camp, how much camp means to everyone, and how much everyone will miss it.

It is not uncommon to see campers and staff members alike, singing together arm-in-arm with teary eyes, and sometimes outright crying. What is it that moves people to tears during the alma-mater? Is it just the sadness of leaving behind the fantasy world of camp, or is there more to it?

I believe the reason why people cry at the end of camp has to do with why children are so excited by their birthday. Ask children how old they are, and they will reply, “four and a half and three quarters”. Then they’ll you that it’s only two months and three days until their birthday. Don’t get me wrong - cake and presents are definitely fun and exciting (especially when you’re young enough to eat cake without counting calories and feeling guilty for every bite). But I think there’s more to why children are soooo excited about their birthday and wait for it all year long.

Children are excited for their birthday because it’s their birthday. On a child’s birthday he is the hero simply because he has lived another year. On his birthday everyone smiles at him, claps and sings for him, and he is the center of attention. On his birthday the child feels special for being himself! He waits all year to be the celebrated hero and ‘king or queen of the day’.

During camp the dining room, packed with approximately 700 people (and another 200 in an adjacent ‘family dining room’) is filled with a tremendous cacophony of noise. Even with the microphone’s volume raised, it is hard to hear announcements or the other ‘shtick’ being broadcasted throughout the meal. At some point during the meal, the names of all campers who have messages are announced over the microphone, so that they can come and pick up their messages. It never ceases to amaze me how, despite the fact that most campers hardly hear another word being announced, virtually every message is retrieved during the meal.

Even when someone is only half listening they hear their own name. A person’s name is the most important sound in the world, because it represents him. A noted educator once quipped that a child goes to school and sits in class all day to hear his name mentioned once!

I believe that people cry at the end of camp, not merely because they are leaving behind exciting sports, trips, activities, and fun, but because they felt special in camp. This does not mean that they don’t feel special or successful all year round. Rather, that during camp they felt a unique sense of wholeness and inner comfort. It could have been the care and friendship of one counselor, learning rebbe, or friend. But someone(s) made them feel more special, and so they cry for the imminent loss of that feeling.

We all need to feel important and special. We all need to have people who believe in us, even – or especially - when no one else does.

As we usher in the month of Elul we have to realize how special and beloved we all are. And if we can help someone else recognize their own specialness then we have given them the greatest gift of all.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, August 18, 2011

EIKEV 5771

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Eikev

17 Menachem Av 5771/August 17, 2011 -- Pirkei Avos – Chapter 5

I once had the opportunity to hear a former governor of New Jersey speak at a dinner. He quoted Ben Franklin who referred to New Jersey as ‘a valley of humility between the haughty hills of New York and Philadelphia’ (talk about a complex).

There are certain things that make you aware that you are in New Jersey. For example, you are made to feel that you are no longer competent to pump your own gas. Also, in New Jersey there seems to be signs for the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike on just about every corner. There is a certain look and feel to New Jersey communities as well.

I have noticed another phenomenon in New Jersey on a bunch of different occasions. At times I will be driving on one of the New Jersey highways when signs appear indicating a merge ahead because of roadwork. Sure enough cones appear and along with the rest of the traffic, we all begin to merge right. A half mile later, more cones appear, and again we merge, this time all the way to the right. Then we drive for about three miles in single file, at a much reduced speed, passing tens of cones all neatly lined in formation. The only catch is that there is nothing going on behind those cones. The road is closed for construction but there is no construction going on.

There have been times when I have gotten to the end of the construction area only to find three guys schmoozing and one burly fellow munching on a sandwich. Every time I have that experience (as I did again last week) I wonder if New Jersey residents realize that their tax money is being used to keep workers busy by putting out cones and recollecting them a few hours later.

The great Hillel would say (Avos 1:14), “If I am not for myself than who will be for me?” Every person is put in this world with certain things that only he can accomplish. If a person does not utilize his abilities and capabilities those accomplishments will never come to fruition.

The roads of life are full of New Jersey construction sites. There are areas that have been set aside for specific growth and accomplishments, but the workers never show up. As another Mishna in Avos teaches “The day is short, the work is long, the wages are great, the workers are lazy, and the Master is demanding.”

There’s a classic caption which says “I was put in this earth to accomplish certain things. Right now I’m so far behind I’ll never die!” Unfortunately the reality is not that way. We only have a limited amount of time – hopefully healthy and plentiful time. But if we do not accomplish what was set aside for us to accomplish, the cones are recollected and traffic quickly fills its place, and the work zone is soon forgotten.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Friday, August 12, 2011


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vaeschanan/Nachamu

12 Menachem Av 5771/August 12, 2011 -- Pirkei Avos – Chapter 4

Someone sent me a cute article which contrasts the value of something, based on who is holding it. “A basketball in my hands is worth about twenty dollars; the basketball in the hands of the NBA championship team is worth millions. A baseball in my hands is worth about six dollars; a ball in the hands of the World Series winning team is worth millions. A football in my hands is worth about fifteen dollars; a football in the hands of the Super Bowl victors is worth millions.” The article then concludes, “So put your concerns, worries, fears, hopes, and dreams in G-d’s Hands, because it all depends in whose hands they’re in.”

It’s not always what is said that matters, as much as how it is said. Educational guru Rick Lavoie notes that the statement “My son did not break the window” can have five different interpretations depending on which word is stressed: “My son did not break the window” means my son didn’t do it, but someone else’s son did. “My son did not break the window” means my son didn’t break it, but my daughter did. “My son did not break the window” means he absolutely didn’t do it! “My son did not break the window” means he didn’t break the window, he just dented it. “My son did not break the window” means he didn’t break the window, but he broke the door.

It also matters who the speaker is. The Mishna in Avos (4:24) states that Shmuel Hakatan would say “With the fall of your enemy, do not rejoice…” The commentators question why this statement was attributed to Shmuel, if in reality he was only quoting verbatim from a verse in Mishley (24:17-18)?

One answer given is that, while it may be true that Shmuel was only quoting from Mishley, the verse took on new meaning when it was stated by the humble and unassuming Shmuel Hakatan.

In a similar vein, I recently quoted an anecdote from Rabbi Aryeh Rodin of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Dallas, Texas. When I asked Rabbi Rodin for some quick rabbinic advice he related what his rebbe, Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz zt’l, told him years ago, “Do not tremble before any man”. There too he was only quoting a verse (Devorim 1:17). But the context and circumstance of how the verse was quoted gave it new meaning and a new dimension of understanding.

Two people can pray and say the same words, but their words may be worlds apart depending on the level of their emotion and fervor. It may be the same words but those words can have vastly different meanings depending on how they are said.

This idea also has tremendous significance in the world of education. It’s not what we tell our children as much as how we tell it to them. How passionate are we about the Yankees and Mets and the Giants and Jets? On the other hand, how passionate are we about tefillah and Shabbos?

We determine our own value systems - and that is in our hands.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Friday, August 5, 2011


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Devorim – Shabbos Chazon

5 Menachem Av 5771/August 5, 2011 -- Pirkei Avos – Chapter 3

I was asked why I have not made any mention of the horrible Leiby Kletsky tragedy that the Jewish world is still reeling from. The answer is quite simply that I have nothing to say. In fact, for all of the pages and pages of articles written, and all of the speeches delivered, about the tragedy and its aftermath, essentially, nothing has been said. There are unquestionably words of consolation, words of reflection, words of concern, and words of chizuk that have been said and must be said. But in regards to the actual tragedy and trying to make sense of it, at the end of the day, there is nothing to say.

In truth, we are painfully aware of other moments which have rendered us speechless:

When a scion of the saintly Abuchatzeria family is stabbed by a fellow Jew this week in his heart which beat with love for his people while engaged in his Holy Work, there is nothing to say.

When five members of the Fogel family were brutally murdered this year in cold blood in the glow of the holy Shabbos candles, there was nothing to say.

When the holy students of Yeshivas Merkaz Harav were killed atop their blood-stained volumes of gemara right before a special meal in honor of Rosh Chodesh Adar, there was nothing to say.

When Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who had devoted their lives to teaching and disseminating Torah, were ruthlessly killed in Mumbai, there was nothing to say.

When Nava Appelbaum was killed in a nefarious suicide bombing just hours before her wedding, together with her father in a café in September 2003, there was nothing to say.

When six million Jews - including one million pure children - were tortured, gassed, and burned while the world remained silent during the Holocaust, there was nothing to say.

When pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, executions, blood libels, and mass murders occurred throughout the millennia of exile, there was nothing to say.

And when our holy Bais Hamikdash, the symbol of our pride and grandeur, was reduced to charred rubble, and our holiest and greatest leaders were exiled in shame and humiliation, there was nothing to say.

The final lamentation that we recite on Tisha B’av - אלי ציון - contains the refrain, “Lament O Zion and her cities, like a woman suffering from labor pains, and like a maiden wrapped around in sackcloth, (lamenting) the (tragic death) of the husband of her youth.”

Our deeply rooted pain cannot be expressed in mere words. There is only one way to express ourselves - with tears, the expression of our souls! Tisha B’av is a day of tears, and through our tears we connect with the deepest recesses of souls. Tisha B’av is a day of tears for all the pain that our nation has suffered, individually and collectively.

In truth, there is one thing to say. In the face of all our untold and innumerable suffering we rise and proclaim, “Yisgadel V’yiskdesh shmay rabbah – May His Name that is great, be exalted and sanctified.” We were endowed with the role of being G-d’s Chosen People with all that it entails. Through all of our tears and pain we have never forfeited that responsibility.

We mention many tragedies on Tisha B’av and we say many words. But when all is said and done, in exile we have no way of sorting out and logically understanding the myriad tragedies and sufferings we have been made to endure. When we conclude the recitation of all of the Lamentations on Tisha B’av we immediately proclaim, “Ashrei – Praiseworthy are those who dwell in Your House.” Despite all we have just mentioned we are still proud and privileged by our destiny. And then, after proclaiming that “Uva l’Tzion - A redeemer shall come to Zion” we rise and proclaim, ““Yisgadel V’yiskdesh shmay rabbah – May His Name that is great, be exalted and sanctified.”

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum