Thursday, January 28, 2016

Parshas Yisro 5776

Among the vast collection of jokes that I have heard from my father over the years is the following:
There was once a British fellow, a rich American, an Indian, an imbecile, and an Israeli sitting together in a diner. The Brit turned to the quadro and said, "excuse me gentlemen, what is your opinion about the meat shortage?"
The rich American replied "what is a shortage?"
The Indian replied "what is meat?" The imbecile said "what is an opinion?"
The Israeli asked "mah zeh excuse me?"
Are Israelis rude?
After having the zechus to spend almost two weeks in eretz Yisroel with our son shalom, in honor of his bar mitzvah, I have spent much time pondering this question. Well, I didn't have to really ponder the question. I had a few occasions when I was given the opportunity to ponder the question. Like when I asked a cab service if I can make a reservation and told them when I needed it for, and the dispatcher abruptly replied that they don't have then and promptly hung up.
Or when I had set myself up in a seat in one of the shteiblach where we went to daven (which have minyanim every fifteen minutes and basically have open seating). An elderly gentleman then walked in and placed his tallis bag where I was without saying a word to me, basically signaling me to move.
Or when asking people for directions and they make that unexplainable noise with their tongue clicking the roof of their mouths, which seems to imply that your question is pathetic or irrelevant, but really just means that they don't know.
To answer the question we need to look at the opposite end of the spectrum and ask if we Americans are too sensitive and wimpy. I recently saw an article in The Atlantic which discussed the negative  fallout of the western worlds efforts to maintain political correctness. The result is that we are breeding a society of adult babies who can't handle the slightest offense, real or imagined.
This issue trickles down to our approach to child-rearing in which parents unwittingly overprotect their children and in so doing unwittingly steal from them the opportunity to learn how to get by in a highly competitive and often judgmental world. Childish banter is often called bullying with disastrous results, both for the labeled "bully" as well as for the labeled "victim". (This of course doesn't discount the problem of real bullying that at times exists and is a serious issue.)
So what defines rudeness and what defines over-sensitivity?
The answer of course depends on perception. To us Israelis may indeed at times appear rude and abrupt. But living in the world they live in with the challenges that are part of their daily life, what would happen if they were more like us wimpy Americans?
And would we not be better off as a nation if we could adopt some Israeli bravado? Wouldn't it do us well to be able to not care about petty comments or perceived insults?
What would we give for an American tour-guide to tell a few kibitzing teens during her lecture that they are welcome to go outside if they don't find her interesting, but they may not talk while she is talking? [This actually happened at a tour we attended this week.] I wonder what would happen to a rabbi if he tried that in shul where a congregant was talking during davening? He may find himself looking through the rabbinical classifieds the following week.
To be honest, I didn't appreciate when the dispatcher rudely hung up on me, or when the elderly men wordlessly told me to move. However, I did recognize that that they didn't mean any offense.
Perhaps we can find some happy middle ground - a mixture of Israeli bravado and American manners. This way the dispatcher would wish me a pleasant evening before he slammed the phone down and made a sarcastic comment.

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Good Shabbos from Yerushalayim!
Dani Staum

Thursday, January 14, 2016


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Bo
5 Shevat 5776/ January 15, 2016

It’s perhaps the most rabbinic word in the dictionary. If a person has aspirations to become a rabbi, aside from knowing halacha and how to develop a practical lesson from the parsha, he’s gotta be able to pronounce the word and say it with ease: Vicissitudes! This one word is appropriate in virtually any setting – births, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, anniversaries, tragedies r’l, etc. The vicissitudes of life refer to life’s ups and downs, its uncertainties, anxieties and misgivings, all of which are all part and parcel of life. 
How do we deal with those vicissitudes? The answer lies in what everyone seems to be looking for and cannot get enough of – chizuk! With a good dose of chizuk we feel energized and revitalized to deal with whatever life throws at us. Chizuk can come from anywhere or anything. Sometimes it’s hearing a song with lyrics that ‘speak to you’, at times one can feel chizuk from seeing a sign or store, reading something, etc.
One of our greatest sources of chizuk is quite overlooked. The gemara relates that during the era of prophecy the Jewish people boasted tens of thousands of prophets. However, only those that were applicable to the ages were recorded in the canon of Tanach. The words of the Prophets are as applicable today as they were when they were uttered by those great personages three thousand years ago.
The problem is that things have not changed much. Just as our ancestors didn’t want to hearken to the prophet’s message then, so do many of us not pay much attention to the words of the Prophets in our time. How many people are remotely familiar with the timeless, glorious prophecies of Yeshaya, Yirmiyah, and Yechezkel? How many people can even list the names of the twelve prophets that compose sefer Trei Asar?  
After the attacks on September 11th, I heard a lecture from a noted talmid chochom in which he strongly encouraged people to begin learning Nach (the Prophets and the Writings) regularly. I hearkened to that advice and try to learn a few minutes of Nach each morning. While many of the prophecies are painful to learn, there are many that are incredibly heartwarming and encouraging. The Prophets’ stirring words of consolation and hope can literally melt a heart of stone. In my personal study of Nach, when I encounter those prophecies I literally feel a stirring of emotion within me.   
Each week our Chazal enacted that we read a portion from the Neviim which connects with the weekly parsha. There does not seem to be an end to the vicissitudes of life. But each week we have the opportunity to hear the Prophets speak to us, and with their guidance and chizuk we can learn to navigate and contend with all that confronts us.
There is an oft-quoted bad pun that states that our yeshivos don’t sufficiently emphasize Nach because they are non-for-prophet institutions. The truth is that we are the ones who are really forfeiting the greatest profits by neglecting the study of the Prophets.    

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

720 Union Road • New Hempstead, NY 10977 • (845) 362-2425

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Va’era
Mevorchim Chodesh Shevat   
28 Teves 5776/ January 8, 2016

Periodically at a simcha the waiter will give the guests a choice about what kind of soup they would like. When the waiter asks me if I would like vegetable soup or broccoli soup, I often reply that broccoli is a vegetable too, so it’s really a choice between vegetable or vegetable soup. At times the waiter will smile, sometimes he will simply repeat the choices, and other times he will stand there in absolute confusion wondering why he accepted to do my table. Choosing soup is serious business. 
I recently attended a wedding where the waiter pouring the soup only got some in the bowl. The rest went down the sides of his ladle and onto the dress of the women he was serving. When the woman’s husband showed the waiter what he had done, the waiter replied “This is not my table. I am only doing a favor for your waiter.” 
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few weeks ago I met a friend who I haven’t seen in some time. He related that he is currently the assistant rabbi in his shul. I congratulated him and told him that he will probably have the opportunity to become a full fledged rabbi somewhere soon. He replied in all sincerity “I want to do whatever G-d has in mind for me.” I was very impressed with his reply. It was simple and yet so profound.
Not too long after I was meeting with the hanhala of Mesivta Ohr Naftali, where I serve as principal, and we were discussing a challenging yeshiva-related issue. After debating the issue and discussing our options for some time, the room became quiet as everyone weighed our options. The Rosh Yeshiva then asked out loud, “Okay, what does Hashem want us to do?” Then he repeated our options and we charted out what we felt was our best plan of action.
In our own home we have been consumed with bar mitzvah planning, b’h. As anyone who has ever made a simcha knows well, a simcha comes with many headaches and a tremendous amount of planning and attention to details. Chani and I were discussing one such sensitive issue and were having a hard time making a final decision. Chani turned to me and asked “What does Hashem want us to do?”
At first, I didn’t even realize how many times that question has been posed recently. It was only once I began writing this brilliant essay that I realized it. I’m hopeful that if I keep hearing it from the good people who surround me, perhaps it will eventually begin to penetrate.
Belief in Hashem does not exonerate one from personal responsibility. It does not give one license to say ‘well this is what was supposed to happen, and it’s not my fault’. In fact, the very opposite is true. We are obligated to do all in our ability to ensure that we have done all G-d expects from us. There are undoubtedly many times when we are simply unsure what Hashem wants from us. It’s during those times when we turn to our rebbe or Torah guide, and of course to Hashem in tefillah for the wisdom and insight about how to proceed.
As our bechor, Yaakov Meir Shalom, concludes his thirteen years of basic-training and becomes a full ledged solider in G-d’s army, we hope and pray that he will live his life with this mantra in mind. We hope he will never be afraid to face reality, and never cower from responsibility by claiming that “it’s not my table.” Rather, he will live his life by always asking himself “What does Hashem want from me right now in this situation?”   

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

720 Union Road • New Hempstead, NY 10977 • (845) 362-2425