Thursday, December 29, 2011


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayigash

4 Teves 5772/December 30, 2011

Jeff had always wanted to be an army-pilot and now his dream was finally becoming a reality. In another week he would set off to the army base to begin the exciting new stage of his life. Although he didn’t want to admit it Jeff was very nervous. The prospect of entering hostile enemy territory and engaging in constant combat was daunting to say the least. He knew there would be dark and lonely days ahead. Still Jeff was confident that his years of training and ongoing support from his generals and fellow soldiers would give him the encouragement to stay the course.

During the week before his departure, friends and family members gathered around him to toast him, wish him well, and tell him how proud they were of him. Most precious of all was the advice and encouragement from Uncle Barry. A former general, Barry had proven himself to be an adroit soldier. Uncle Barry spoke to Jeff about his own experiences. He told Barry that it was inevitable that he would make mistakes, which at times could even be costly. But a real soldier doesn’t allow himself to wallow in self pity. Most importantly he told Jeff that he had to learn to trust himself and believe that he had the tools necessary to succeed. Even in the bleakest situations he had to trust the monitors and gauges before him. He had all the tools he needed; the test would be whether he could access those tools in moments of need.

The conclusion of Chanukah is always somewhat bittersweet. For eight nights we gather together with our families to reflect upon the blessings G-d endows us. We sing in the glow of the dancing flames which remind us that throughout our history our flame continues to burn, despite the storms and tempests that tried to extinguish it. The beautiful customs and unique foods endemic to Chanukah add to the spirit of the holiday.

When Chanukah ends it not only marks the conclusion of this most beautiful holiday, but it also ushers in the darkest and coldest stretch of winter. Within a week of Chanukah’s conclusion is the eighth of Teves, that day the Septuagint was written. It is a day when the Gemara says darkness descended into the world for three days. Chanukah generally ends during the Christian holiday season or prior, which historically is a difficult period for Jews. The Septuagint also has much to do with the eventual writing of the New Testament, the foundation of their religion. Two days later we fast to commemorate the beginning of the siege of Nebuchadnezzar around Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash. The weeks of Shovavim, a period of repentance and introspection (during the weeks of the reading of the first six parshios (in a leap year eight parshios) of Chumash Shemos), also begin within two weeks of Chanukah.

These events do not abruptly and rapidly eradicate all traces of the joy of Chanukah. In fact the opposite is true. The holiday of Chanukah provides us with encouragement and spiritual warmth to weather the challenges of the upcoming weeks. The Yom Tov grants us the tools to find fulfillment even in darkness.

The Yom Tov of Chanukah cannot end when the Menorah is placed back on the shelf. We must continue to hear its message, feel its warmth, and see its light throughout the winter. The Menorah and the eight days of hallel and hoda’ah have given us the tools we need to plunge ahead into the months of Teves and Shevat. The only question is if we can access those tools in our moments of need.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Friday, December 23, 2011


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Miketz – Shabbos Chanukah

27 Kislev 5772/December 23, 2011

I’m typing this quietly because I don’t want my car to hear. My faithful Hyundai Sonata – may it live and be well until 120,000 and more (it’s not too far off) - is still going strong b’h. But, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s showing its age and wear and tear. It has many wrinkles, coughs a bit, and can be bit grumpy in the morning. It’s also an experience to drive down the highway. As the speedometer passes 60 it starts to feel like the car is about to take off. Passengers have voiced their annoyance that complimentary peanuts are not served.

So the other week when we were visiting my in-laws, the topic of discussion turned to car salesmen. [I don’t know why these car establishments all have ‘used’ car-salesmen. Why can’t they find new salesmen?] When Chani mentioned that she had seen a great deal advertised for a car, my father-in-law countered that the advertised deal usually refers to one specific car which is has almost no features, including no CD player or power windows. Their goal is to get you to come down to the dealership. Once they get you to ‘stick your foot in the door’ they use their wily and slimy influence to ‘interest you in something else’, luring you into spending more on features you don’t necessarily need in order to upgrade to a more expensive purchase.

The ‘foot in the door’ technique succeeds due to a basic human reality referred to by social scientists as ‘successive approximations’. The more a subject agrees to small requests or commitments, the more likely he is to continue in a desired direction of attitude or behavioral change, feeling obligated to adhere to greater requests.

This technique is the logic used in car dealerships, providing a free sample of a product, window advertising outside a store, vendors asking people to fill out an optional questionnaire or survey, and agreeing to view a brief sales presentation in order to collect a free vacation (ever go to a Timeshare meeting?...)

Sfas Emes explains that the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles was enacted to be in the doorway opposite the Mezuzah in the doorpost (most people today light in the window facing the street, but there are some people who light at the door). The Syrian-Greeks had a particular obsession with destroying doorways. The Mishna relates that they made thirteen breaches in the Soreg, the fence which was the dividing line prohibiting gentiles from proceeding further in the Bais Hamikdash. He also explains that the three mitzvos they prohibited Shabbos, circumcision, and Rosh Chodesh are ‘gateway’ mitzvos, i.e. mitzvos that lead to higher levels (see Sfas Emes, Chanukah 5642-5643).

The Torah says (Bereishis 4:7) “Sin rests at the door”. The Evil Inclination seeks merely to get his foot in the door. Once he’s in, he employs ‘successive approximations’ to expand his welcome. In our time the Evil Inclination has found ways to penetrate our homes by bypassing the doors, and we must be wary of those dangers as well.

Chanukah is a holiday when we spiritually fortify our doorways, being careful to not allow negative influences to penetrate our homes so that our homes are islands of morality and Torah values.

In the meanwhile I ask everyone to please pray for the health and longevity of ‘Sonata shel Dani’. May the miracles of Chanukah apply to my car, keeping it going well after its parts should have ceased to work.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

A happy and lichtig Chanukah,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayeshev

20 Kislev 5772/December 16, 2011

Here it is Americans; the present you’ve all been looking for: “The Hanukkah Tree Topper! Celebrate the warmth and wonder of both Hanukah and X-mas. A must have for interfaith families. Available in silver metallic coated, textured plastic, with a steel coil for easy sturdy mounting.”

A Jewish woman once told me that she and her Catholic husband work very hard during the holiday season so that their children feel privileged that they can celebrate both Hanukkah and X-mas.

The notion of trying to blend two mutually exclusive faiths is itself a tragedy. The very concept of the ‘Holiday Season’, as if insinuating that there is any remote connection between the two holidays, other than the fact that they sometimes overlap, is a sad misunderstanding.

But the fact that this befuddlement of ideals and values occurs with the holiday of Chanukah is a complete distortion of what the holiday is about.

Rambam writes, “The Chanukah candles are exceedingly beloved.” It is an unusual emotional declaration to be found in a treatise dedicated to the bottom line of the law. In fact the Rambam does not express such a strong sentiment in regards to any other seasonal mitzvah.

Chanukah is the result of the efforts of our ancestors who would not compromise on their ideals and fought to keep the Torah in its pristine purity. This was symbolized by their obdurate refusal to use any of the oil that had been (purposely) contaminated by the Syrian-Greeks.

Thus, Chanukah is a victory and holiday of separation. It was a time when our forefather pledged ‘their lives and their sacred honor’ for the right to be different, and not allow calls for equality to contaminate their existence.

Erecting a Hanukkah Bush or placing a Jewish symbol of a tree is analogous to celebrating American Independence Day by hoisting the British Flag above the White House with a little picture of George Washington on top. The whole point of the American Revolution was to sever the ties between the colonists and the English Monarchy.

Trying to merge two disparate entities is not a promotion of peace but a destruction of both entities.

Still we must not become too discouraged with how the holiday is celebrated outside the Torah-observant world. Chanukah is the holiday of light – and that includes the inner light of our souls. Somehow the Chanukah lights beckons even to the most distant Jews and tugs at their heartstrings. They may not even realize it, but somehow those little candles sear through the vapid falsities they have been taught, to keeps a spark of truth glowing within.

“These candles are holy… to praise and express gratitude to Your Great Name.”

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

A happy and lichtig Chanukah,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayishlach

13 Kislev 5772/December 9, 2011

Aside for being renowned for the famous yeshiva, Bais Medrash Govoha, and for being the residence of my in-laws, the city of Lakewood, NJ boasts its own Jewish radio station. The station 107.9 FM WMDI is all Jewish all the time 24/6. On Shabbos the station plays nothing but static throughout the day.

As we were leaving Lakewood after spending a few days of Chol Hamoed Sucos at the home of my in-laws we were interested to see how far the Jewish station would reach. At the time the station was airing a shiur on Mishnayos. We were still able to hear the shiur as we drove all the way down Squankum Drive, and even onto the I-195. Then, after a momentary dulling, the station abruptly changed programming. Suddenly we were hearing a typical FM station where someone was singing about how incomplete their life is because someone else had abandoned them… It was then that we turned on a CD.

An FM radio station actually is not limited by a certain amount of distance, but by mutual interference of another program. Most stations reach a distance of about 28 km (as regulated by the FCC). However, in areas where there is no interference, such as Wyoming, a station can be heard at a distance of 139 km. But once an interfering station begins vying for the sound on your radio, it is the program which is closer to its transmitter which will dominate.

Our soul works in similar fashion. The more connected we are to our source the clearer we will hear the ‘voice of our soul’. But as soon as we travel beyond range, we enter the airspace and dominance of other programs and the sounds we hear will be vastly different.

When the Germans invaded Russia during World War II they were determined not to make the same mistake as Napoleon did a hundred and twenty years earlier. Napoleon’s superior army was destroyed by the sheer brutality of the Russian Winter, for which the French soldiers were ill prepared. Hitler was foolishly confident that the invasion would be over long before winter. The German invasion of Russia - Operation Barbarossa – in June 1941 was initially a great success for the Germans. The Russian forces collapsed under the onslaught. But as the Russians retreated they destroyed everything in their path, a tactic known as ‘scorched earth’, leaving the Germans no supplies. The German supply lines ran all the way across the Russian border, through Poland, and back to Germany. When winter finally arrived it was one of the most brutal ever, with temperatures dipping 40 degrees below zero. Once again the forces seeking to conquer Russia were destroyed by “General Winter”.

In the spiritual world, as in the physical world, one cannot venture to far from his ‘supply lines’. It is simply too dangerous for one to expose himself to the elements. If we want to ensure that the sounds which resonate within us is that of our pure souls, we must ensure that the connection to our source is vibrant and that we don’t allow other forces to interfere.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayetzei

6 Kislev 5772/December 2, 2011

It’s not easy being a New York Mets fan these days. The Mets have become the nebuchs from Queens, the team that just can’t get it together. A billboard hanging right near the Brooklyn Bridge preaches the greatness of New York as being ‘the city that hosts six professional sports teams, and the Mets’. Ouch!

Just recently the Mets organization leaders convened to discuss what they can do to boost their hapless team. How could they get their players to hit more home runs? There are All-Star players whose annual numbers of homeruns have dropped precipitously during the last three seasons since the Mets moved to their new home at Citi-Field. Why can’t they get it Wright?

The organization came up with a brilliant solution. They decided to lower the outfield walls by seven feet, and to bring in the right field wall by 17 feet. Now fly balls that would have been caught in the outfield, or would have bounced off the wall, will be deemed homeruns. That should definitely solve the Mets’ woes.

Whenever one is faced with feelings of inadequacy or lack of fulfillment because he has not achieved his self-imposed goals, he has two options: He can either reassess his efforts and ambitions and recommit himself to meeting his goals with renewed vigor, or he can settle for the path of least resistance by minimizing his goals and allowing himself to be satisfied with what he has already achieved.

This is true in regards to all areas of life, but especially in regards to spiritual matters. It’s been said that if a child is trying to kiss a Sefer Torah as it is being carried to the bimah, it’s better to raise the child to the Torah than to lower the Torah to the child. The symbolism is that we must never rest on our laurels or compromise on our values. The Torah stands on its lofty pedestal and we must raise our standards to be in tandem with its mitzvos, even at the cost of self compromise and sacrifice.

We have to figure out a way to live by its boundaries and parameters, and at times that requires spiritual exercise and growth. But we can never cut corners to make the Torah suit our needs, or to fit our agenda.

The Mets may be enjoyable to watch (especially if you’re the opposition) but this is one lesson not to be learned. It’s always better to build your muscles than to chop down the walls.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum