Thursday, December 14, 2017

PARSHAS MIKETZ 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Miketz
3rd day of Chanukah
Mevorchim Chodesh Teves  
27 Kislev 5778/December 15, 2017

This week, one of the non-Jewish teachers in Yeshiva related that he is surprised that there were regular general studies classes during Chanukah. He noted that generally during Jewish holidays, there is no school at all, and all Jewish businesses are closed. So why would Chanukah be different?
The truth is, that it’s not only a non-Jewish teacher who had this question. Many of my students in both schools that I am privileged to be a part of, have voiced, many rather vociferously, how bothered they are by the fact that we have classes on Chanukah. Some complain that it dampers the holiday spirit, while others use the religious complaint - how can we have general studies classes on Chanukah? When I ask those students what they would be doing if we didn’t have classes, most smile and admit that they would be ‘chilling’, but reassure me that it’s only because they need to do so to put themselves in the proper mindset, so they can fulfill the mitzvah of lighting properly.
I know of one Yeshiva which gave off from general studies classes during Chanukah. It was at the request of the students who fulfilled their pledge to utilize that time to learn Torah! That actually makes some sense!
I must admit that I do understand my students, because I had the same complaint when I was a student. I couldn’t stand having a regular day of school during Chanukah.
However, understanding why we go about our regular lives during Chanukah, is fundamental to understanding the essence of this most unique and elevating holiday.
The Bais Yosef asks why Chanukah is an eight-day holiday, and not seven days? If they had enough oil to light the menorah for one day, then the miracle was only for seven days?
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l proposed that we have an extra day on Chanukah to celebrate nature itself. After celebrating for seven days that an insufficient amount of oil could remain burning for seven days beyond its natural capacity, we celebrate the fact that oil burns ever. On Chanukah we remind ourselves that nature is a pseudonym for Hashem, that what we call natural is really supernatural, only we get used to it and fail to appreciate the miracles of nature.
Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman made the following observation: “Imagine if we woke up one morning and all the chickens were laying oranges, and eggs were growing on trees. Wouldn’t we all be in wonder and shock at the incredible phenomenon taking place?
So just because it’s the other way around, should we not be in absolute wonder and shock over the incredible miracle that eggs emerge from chickens, and oranges grow on trees?”
During Shabbos, and all of the major holidays of the year, we are transported into a different reality. We don’t do melacha, spend the day in the company of family and friends, and bask in the embrace of Hashem with special tefillos and mitzvos. It’s not a life that we could uphold in our current reality. It is in fact a portentous glimpse into the utopian world of the future. During those holy days we live an unnatural, superior existence.
On Chanukah however, life goes on as normal. We head off to work and to school and go about our regular mundane lives. It’s a regular day, but it’s not!
The days of Chanukah elevate our normal routines, and create a sense of holiness in our natural lives. We recite hallel in the morning, recite al hanisim in davening and bentching, and, of course, light the menorah. We focus on the things we should be grateful for, the miracles we take for granted every day, which include our natural abilities, our beating heart, our communities, and the freedom to be Torah observant. For eight days and nights we live our regular lives, but on a higher and more spiritually minded plane. And when it’s over, we are hopefully inspired enough to take those emotions and gratitudes with us to light and warm the cold and dark winter.
Chanukah is a weekday holiday in the sense that it elevates the weak-days, strengthening them and us.
Well, maybe not completely natural - my sister complained that at work this week, all day long her shaitel smelled like latkes. I’m not sure why she was complaining - sounds (or smells) good to me!

Lichtig & Freilichen Chanukah/Orot Sameiach
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, December 7, 2017

PARSHAS VAYESHEV 5778



“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayeshev  
20 Kislev 5778/December 8, 2017

On November 9, in Heichal HaTorah, a group of students made a small model graffitied wall, symbolic of the Berlin Wall, which divided West and East Germany for decades. Then, in commemoration of “Berlin Wall Day”, the anniversary of the day when the Berlin War was dismantled on that day in 1989, they broke down their makeshift wall.
The dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 came shortly after President Ronald Reagan’s famous quip to the Russian president: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The wall’s destruction was symbolic of the imminent downfall of what was dubbed the ‘evil empire’ and the Iron Curtain. Berliners used crowbars and chisels to tear down the wall built by the communist hammer and sickle. Families were reunified after decades of forced separation, and it was a great victory for democracy, with implications the world over.
Not all walls are detrimental however, and dismantling of walls is not always cause for celebration. Nebuchadnezzar also proclaimed, “Tear down this wall” before his legions destroyed the walls surrounding Yerushalayim and the first Bais Hamikdash in 422 B.C.E. That same call was made by the wicked Titus when his Roman forces arrived to destroy the second Bais Hamikdash in 70 C.E.
When I was in Eretz Yisroel with my son Shalom a couple of years ago, we had the opportunity to head up north for a day. We drove from Yerushalayim toward the Galil alongside the Jordanian border. Along the entire length of the shared border there is a fence, and alongside the fence is sand, so that footprints can be easily detected. The entire perimeter of the fence is under 24-hour surveillance, to protect against enemy infiltration. It’s incredible how much security and vigilance is necessary along the border of a (relatively) peaceful neighbor.
On a metaphysical level, the Jewish people erect spiritual boundaries between ourselves and the rest of the world. As we transition from the holiness of Shabbos to the weekdays each Motzei Shabbos, we bless Hashem “who separates between holy and unholy, between light and darkness, between Yisroel and the nations…” As the wicked Bila’am admiringly declared, “Behold! They are a nation that dwells in solitude!”
Those divisional boundaries do not convey a lack of respect for everyone else. It’s no different than the walls and doors of our homes which preserve and ensure privacy, but are in no way an affront to our neighbors.
One of the most important protective barriers we erect are those of morality. The Shulchan Aruch mandates that we maintain certain boundaries between genders, such as the laws of yichud and negiah, aside for the laws of family purity within the privacy of our own homes. Any thinking person realizes that those laws do not denigrate women, but in fact accomplish the reverse. They are there to prevent the objectification of women, and to ensure that women are respected for who they are, not merely for how they look.   
During the time of Syrian-Greek oppression, prior to the Maccabean revolt and the Chanukah miracles, Antiochus IV, created an all-out assault against Jewish morality and family purity. Doors were forcibly removed from homes, violating the very concept of family privacy and modesty, circumcision, the symbol of self-control, was banned, and brides were forced to be violated by the local governor prior to their wedding. It was an egregious breach of the very foundation of our national holiness.
In Maoz Tzur we state that the Greeks “breached the walls of my towers”, a reference to the breaches they inflicted in the walls of modesty we try so hard to erect around ourselves. The celebration of Chanukah therefore, is also a celebration and rededication to the laws which ensure morality and family purity.
In recent weeks, the American public has been stunned by the numerous accusations leveled by women against powerful and well-known moguls and famous personalities. The careers of the accused have been destroyed by the publicizing of the shameful and denigrating acts they committed against those women.
As we celebrate the beautiful Yom Tov of Chanukah, it’s an opportunity to emphasize to our children, and remind ourselves, that the laws of the Torah are there for our growth and greatness. Perhaps the Western World isn’t going to adhere to the laws of yichud and prohibition of negiah, but with all that’s going on, at least we should have an appreciation for the spiritual fences we invest so much in to maintain.  

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Lichtig & Freilichen Chanukah/Orot Sameiach,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, November 30, 2017

PARSHAS VAYISHLACH 5778

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayishlach  
13 Kislev 5778/December 1, 2017

During the last few weeks, I’ve received a plethora of would-be halachos that would apply if secular holidays and their symbols were actual mitzvos.
There was the discussion of the halachos of the Halloween pumpkin and the laws of hiddur, including if the pitum fell off, etc.
Then there were the various laws of the Thanksgiving turkey, including how the turkey must be prepared (cooked, fried, or roasted), how much one must eat to be yotzei, how much of the story of the pilgrims must be shared while eating, and what is the proper amount of gratitude that must be expressed.
It gets even more outlandish with the discussion of what the halachos would be about erecting a holiday tree in one’s home - when it must be cut, is a non-Jew allowed to help with the cutting, can one reuse an old tree, how high the tree must be, where it must be placed in the home, etc.
Although it may be witty, why would I even write about such nonsense? Because the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s probably true. If there would be any sort of mitzvos involving these artifacts, they would undoubtedly contain many parameters and laws, like every other facet of Judaism. But here’s the point that is often missed. Some people hear such an idea of imaginary laws, and roll their eyes thinking about how lucky their non-Jewish neighbors are that they don’t have to be bothered with such cumbersome laws. But therein lies the tragedy, and perhaps greatest spiritual danger of our times.
Why are there so many laws involved in all of our holy mitzvos?
I remember being a chosson, and planning the next time I would have the opportunity to spend the day with my Kallah. The arrangements I made weren’t just about where we would go, but also about finding little things along the way that I knew she would enjoy. The same held true about the things she did for me. It wasn’t just the gift or a packed meal, but all of the additives in the bag which I knew were made with a great deal of thought because she knew I would find them personally meaningful.
The fact is that true love and devotion is expressed in the details. Anyone can present someone else with a beautiful gift, but only someone who truly loves someone else will expend tremendous amounts of time on all of the seemingly petty details. Think about the things parents do for their children. Think about how much extra energy they expend on all of the details in their children’s life. Those details aren’t necessary for the child’s wellbeing, but the parents love their children and can hardly hold back from expressing it.
Each mitzvah that we have the opportunity to perform, is an added chance to foster and further develop our connection with Hashem. That is ultimately what Judaism is about, and that is perhaps the fundamental difference between Judaism and all other religions. It’s not just that G-d loves us, but that He desires and seeks for us to build a personal and unique relationship with Him.
Since it’s all about the relationship, there are many details involved in the proper performance of every mitzvah. Although many mitzvos can be performed on a basic level, where is the relationship building in that?
The uniqueness of laws endemic to every mitzvah, is a testament to the fact that we have a higher purpose in our fulfillment of mitzvos. It’s not merely about commemoration or symbolic rituals, it’s about deepening the connection and making it more genuine.
Those who develop an appreciation for Yomim Tovim and mitzvos cannot get enough of all the laws involved in their performance.
A woman who becomes overwhelmed before Yom Tov can view it as a Kallah who feels overwhelmed the night before her chosson comes to her home. Sure, she is stressed, but it’s because she wants so much to demonstrate to him her devotion and appreciation for him. She wants everything to be perfect for their time together. Shabbos, Chanukah, Pesach, etc. are all about the relationship.
We are fortunate to have been chosen for that special connection. The proof is in the details.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

PARSHAS VAYETZEI 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayetzei  
6 Kislev 5778/November 24, 2017

For a period during my youth my parents arranged for my sister Ahuva, and myself to take ice-skating lessons. What I remember the most is the instructor telling us to always lean forward while skating, so if (when) we fall, we fall forward, instead of on our backs. I do remember falling a lot. I didn’t quite make the US Olympics team for skating, but it was fun.
I was thinking about that class a few years ago, when we signed up our son Shalom to play in an ice-hockey league. The program was for a series of Sundays, from early autumn until the middle of the winter. The first session was on a warm eighty-degree Sunday in late September.
There is no sport that requires as much gear as ice-hockey, and we arrived sufficiently early in order to help Shalom put on all of his necessary gear. We helped him put on his chest protector, elbow and knee protectors, helmet, jersey and, of course his skates. Then he skated onto the ice with his hockey stick.
I stood behind the glass watching proudly, amazed that we had actually figured out (with some help from other parents and players) how to put on all of his gear. Another father was also watching, and we made some small talk. As he looked out on the ice, he turned to me and snickered, “Look at that kid in the shorts. I guess his parents didn’t realize that it’s cold on the ice!” I replied that some people just don’t think about these things. How silly that the poor boy’s parents didn’t think that even though it was hot outside, the ice still has to be below freezing! Then I politely excused myself and ran to call Chani, and told her that our son’s parents had neglected to bring him adequate clothing for the ice.
Chani proceeded to drive over to my parent’s house, which was closer than our house, and rummaged through closets until she found a pair of sweat pants and a sweater. When she brought the clothes to me, I nonchalantly called Shalom off the ice. When he skated off and I handed him the clothing, he was most grateful. He said that he had felt really cold on the ice, and was wondering why he was the only kid skating in shorts.
This week, we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Kislev, which means that Chanukah is on the horizon. The local Kosher supermarkets and seforim stores already have Chanukah items on display. Many have already begun to make plans for the upcoming holiday, including family parties and communal get togethers. As the coming weeks rush by, demand and prices for oil will sharply rise, and doughnuts will be on display everywhere.
In our society of blessed bounty, we do not lack any of the beautiful ancient physical customs that comprise the holiday of Chanukah. But for one who really seeks to elevate his neshama, to glean the true meaning and essence of Chanukah, the weeks before are an opportunity to mentally and spiritually prepare ourselves to understand and appreciate the eternal message of Chanukah.   
The sad reality is that many show up on the first night of Chanukah with beautiful menorahs prepared, the smell of latkes and donuts in the air, and presents wrapped off to the side, but content with the same callow understanding of the holiday that they have maintained since their youth. It’s analogous to one showing up on the ice without the gear he needs to play the game. [The better analogy would be to a player coming onto ice with a jersey and helmet but no stick or skates. Thankfully our situation wasn’t that bad.]
There is a plethora of beautiful seforim and lectures (many free on-line) in Hebrew, English, and many other languages, that help foster a far deeper appreciation of Chanukah and the emotionally penetrating lessons and message of the candles. After a few weeks of proper spiritual preparation, the hallel recited throughout the eight days will be a far more elevating experience.
Before we have the opportunity to wish each other Happy Chanukah, we should wish each other a meaningful and elevating Pre-Chanukah.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Happy Pre-Chanukah,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, November 16, 2017

PARSHAS TOLDOS 5778

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Toldos  
28 Cheshvan 5778/November 17, 2017
Mevorchim Chodesh Kislev

It was undoubtedly one of the most exciting days of my pre-married life.
In 2000, I was one of the older bochurim in the Bais Medrash program of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah. At one point during that winter, the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Wolmark, and many of the Rabbeim went to Eretz Yisroel, each for a different reason. So, I and two friends in yeshiva decided that we didn’t want to be left out. It was shortly after the resurgence of the second intifada, and plane tickets and hotels were relatively cheap. We booked a room in the King Solomon Hotel in Yerushalayim, and headed to Eretz Yisroel for a week.
One of the days we were there, Rabbi Wolmark was visiting a few Gedolei Yisroel, and graciously invited us to join him. We met at the home of Chacham Ovadia Yosef zt’l in Har Nof. Rabbi Wolmark was already there with my rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Heimowitz, and they were speaking in learning. We were enamored by the large room, filled wall to wall, and floor to ceiling, with sefarim. It is said that Rav Ovadia knew where every sefer was, and used them all. Before we left, Rav Ovadia gave each of us his characteristic loving gentle slap on the cheek, and a blessing.
From there, we packed into a small rental car for the hour-long drive to B’nei Brak. That afternoon, we had the privilege of visiting and receiving blessings from Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman shlita, and Rav Michel Lefkowitz zt’l.
When we arrived back in Yerushalayim that evening, I was still trying to process that in one day I had met four of the foremost Torah leaders of our time.
What struck me also was the fact that in the presence of Gedolei Yisroel, my rebbe was also a talmid. I still have the mental image of Rav Ovadia giving my rebbe the same loving slap on the cheek that he gave me. In front of Rav Ovadia we were both students. Being there with my rabbeim, was analogous to a father and son going to visit the saintly grandfather.
One of the distinctions of Gedolei Yisroel is their ability to relate to all Jews on their level. Tens, if not hundreds, of Jews from all walks of life, seek their blessing and guidance every day, and walk away feeling rejuvenated and invigorated.
Each Gadol also has his own approach and personality. When we visited Rav Michel Lefkowitz zt’l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovezh l’tzirim, he made us feel so welcomed. His uncanny warmth and shining countenance made us feel perfectly comfortable sitting next to him. When we stood in the presence of Rav Chaim and Rav Aharon Leib, it was with a sense of reverence and awe.
Our culture doesn’t only enjoy its sports icons and celebrities, it worships and idolizes them. Our children don’t want to just play ball like the best athletes, they want to be just like them.
We are deeply influenced by who we consider our heroes. We need to be able to explain to our children the difference between wanting to be as athletic and to play like the pros, versus wanting to be just like them in other facets of life.
It goes back to the question of what defines a hero? Is a hero someone who can accomplish physical feats that others cannot, and has therefore achieved accolades and stardom, or is a hero someone who lives his/her life for others, sacrificing personal comfort for the sake and well-being of others?
I always cherish the day that I had the opportunity to meet four real heroes, together with a couple of my rabbeim, who are also my personal heroes. People who live life always thinking about Hashem and His people. Those are people truly wish emulating.
I am sending out this essay on 27 MarChesvan, the yahrtzeit of my Zaydei, Rav Yaakov Meir Kohn z’l. It’s amazing that it’s been thirty years, and it’s amazing that he remains, and iy’H always will remain, of my foremost inspirations and role models in life. Aside from being a talmid chochom of note, based on his smile and ever-present warmth and good-natured personality, one would think he lived the happiest life and had the most comfortable youth. The truth however, was vastly different. He was orphaned and alone in his teen years, after the Nazis barbarically murdered his parents, particularly his saintly father who was the Rav of his town.
My Zaydei raised money for the young, burgeoning Bais Medrash Govoha of Lakewood in its formative years, and for Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Yerushalayim. He was the Rav of the famed Slonimer shul on the Lower East Side for over two decades. He had an uncanny ability to connect with everyone, and he was an example of one who gave of himself for others.
But personally, he was, and is, my Zaydei and a perpetual inspiration. 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, November 9, 2017

PARSHAS CHAYEI SARA 5778

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Chayei Sarah  
21 Cheshvan 5778/November 10, 2017

Someone once told me that when people ask each other how they are doing, they mean besides the fact that they’re tired. It’s as if they are saying, “I know you’re tired; that goes without saying. But besides that, how are you?”
This past week, we switched back to Eastern Standard Time. Most people were very excited by the change, simply because it meant one hour of extra sleep.
But it all depends how you look at it. In his weekly call-in shiur this past Thursday, Rabbi Yisroel Reisman encouraged everyone to take advantage of the extra hour to use it wisely. He noted that his Navi Shiur begins at 8:30, and if someone comes at 8:30 and changes his clock at the end of the shiur, he can also leave at 8:30. An hour of no cost learning.
As parents of young children, we don’t seem to share the excitement. It seems we forgot to tell our 14-month-old twins about the time change. On Sunday morning at 4:55 a.m., they were rearing to go, ready for the new day. I don’t even know if it’s legal to wake up that early on a Sunday morning in the United States. But they wouldn’t listen to our pleading and begging. 
The first of the 13 berachos recited each morning thanks Hashem, “who gave the sechvi understanding to differentiate between day and night.”
There are two opinions as to what is the definition of “sechvi”. One opinion is that it is a reference to the heart, and we are thanking Hashem for giving us the ability to differentiate between night and day. The second opinion is that it refers to the rooster, which begins its call in the wee hours of the morning, marking the end of night and the commencement of the new day.
Rav Zundel Kroizer zt’l (Siddur Ohr Hachama) notes that virtually all animals can discern the difference between daylight and nighttime. The uniqueness of the rooster is that it can sense the impending morning immediately at daybreak, when it is yet completely dark outside, and the first crack of dawn is hardly discernible.
It is for this reason that in text of the beracha we thank Hashem for giving the knowledge “to differentiate between day and between night”. Prima facie, it would seem more accurate to say, “between night and day”. However, as has been explained, the beracha is thanking Hashem for granting the rooster the ability to realize the new day even when it is still completely dark outside, and it seems like it is still night. Most of the world only recognizes the new day when the sun rises above the horizon. The rooster however, senses that the day has begun even before the sun has started its ascent.
As our clocks fall back to Eastern Standard Time, we begin a stretch of the year when most of us begin our morning when it is still dark outside. Dovid Hamelech states, “Ah’irah shachar – I wake the dawn.” Unlike the kings of the world, Dovid Hamelech began his day during the end of the night. He woke the dawn instead of vice-versa.
In a sense, this is a historical strength of the Jewish People, who have always hoped and yearned for the rising sun, even amidst the darkness.
Still, I hope that even as Hashem grants the rooster, and our hearts, the knowledge of a new day even while it’s still dark, He allows our twins to sleep, at least a little past dawn. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, November 2, 2017

PARSHAS VAYERA 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayera  
14 Cheshvan 5778/November 3, 2017

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to accompany the ninth and twelfth graders of our yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah, on the first Shabbatone of the year. The Shabbatone was held at a resort   deep in the Catskill Mountains, way up the 17, well past the bungalow colonies, and summer homes.
The lack of an eiruv was a bit challenging, but it was a great reminder of how careful we have to be regarding hotza’ah (carrying) on Shabbos. Many, if not most, of us live in communities where there are communal eiruvs, and we tend to forget of how careful we must be without one. After every tefillah and every seudah, everyone was reminded to vigilantly check his pockets prior to stepping outside.
It was a beautiful and inspiring Shabbos. The davenings, learning sessions, zemiros and general atmosphere were very uplifting. An added highlight was spending Shabbos in the crisp and clear country air, away from the distractions of home. On Friday evening, as we walked from the villa where we davened to the villa where we ate, there was minimal electric light along the path. I don’t remember the last time I saw the stars so clearly. Many of the students were excitedly pointing upwards at the Big Dipper and the North Star.  
Then, early Shabbos morning, the steep mountains facing us were covered in a fog that was visibly moving across the mountain. The sun was barely shining atop the peak, while the clouds still veiled the rest of the mountain. Over the next hour, the sun slowly spread across the mountain range. Deer grazed freely on the fields near the villa, in a stunningly serene and picturesque scene.
One of the rabbeim noted afterwards the irony between the uplifting weekend and coming back home. Throughout the weekend we connected with nature, and enjoyed the perfection of Hashem’s world in a manner we hardly appreciate. Everyone felt uplifted by the genuine and liberating experience. Then, as soon as we pulled onto the highway, we returned to a world where we confine ourselves to screens, that block out, not only nature, but also each other.
It’s often been noted that the more we connect digitally, the more we disconnect naturally. The irony is that the more we step into the world and appreciate the vastness of G-d’s creation, the more humbled we become. But the more we stick our heads into our little devices, and bury our minds in it, the more self-centered and unemotionally involved in our surroundings we become.
Dr. David Pelcovitz relates that in a survey he conducted on the greatest impediments to spirituality, he found that number one on the list is the fact that we are always rushing, and never have moments of calmness or stillness.  We never have time to reflect and think about our priorities, values, and what’s important in our lives.  In our world even when we’re alone, we’re not alone, because we are still connected to technology and surrounded by its endemic noise.
It’s impossible for us to truly connect to Hashem and to our own selves when connected to our smartphone, a friend, a song, or the Internet.  Dr. Pelcovitz notes that in Shema we say, “Ve’avadtem mehaira,” literally translated as, “you will quickly be abandoned.” The Ba’al Shem Tov interpreted those words, not as a threat but as a command: “get rid of the rush” from our lives. We need to be able to find internal serenity to enable us to refocus and turn our attention to our relationship with Hashem, and with what’s truly important and matters most.
Part of the beauty and gift of Shabbos is being able to step back from being completely immersed and overly involved in our mundane affairs. Shabbos grants us the opportunity to pull our heads of the little boxes and cubicles – literally and figuratively – in which we bury ourselves all week, and to step into the vast and beautiful world of G-dliness. In a world of tension and hurriedness, Shabbos is an island of tranquility and true connection.
We should use this priceless gift well.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, October 26, 2017

PARSHAS LECH LECHA 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Lech Lecha  
7 Cheshvan 5778/October 27, 2017

This week, Mesivta Ohr Naftali of New Windsor, NY, where I am privileged to serve as General Studies Principal each afternoon, celebrated a special milestone. They have just completed the construction of a magnificent new Bais Medrash, and it was crowned with a Hachnasas Sefer Torah.
After the dancing and singing ended with the new Torah being placed in the beautiful, newly constructed Aron Hakodesh, everyone sat down in the new Bais Medrash for the speeches. As a member of the hanhala of the yeshiva, I was honored to be seated on the lower dais. I found a seat off to the side, but within a few minutes I was asked to move to the middle to accommodate a Rav who was wheel-chair bound. I soon found myself seated directly in the center, beneath the speaker. On one side of me there were three empty seats, since no one wanted to sit dead-center below the speaker.
I think there should be a quick lesson consisting of tips and survival ideas, as well as the dos and don’ts for sitting on a dais. Despite the fact that I’m sure no one was interested in what I was doing, I felt quite self-conscious, knowing that I was in the peripheral view of virtually the entire crowd. Although the speeches were passionate and inspiring, I spent much of that hour trying to figure out what to do with my fingers and how to remain somewhat inconspicuous.  
Recently, I heard the following story:
Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurebach zt’l was a mechutan with the Kapishnitzer Rebbe zt’l. At the end of the chasunah of their children, they were both waiting outside the wedding hall for the rides that would bring them home. Immediately, one of the rebbe’s chassidim ran inside and came back with a chair for the elderly rebbe to sit on. The rebbe, however, refused to sit down. He explained to the chasid that a person needs to live his life in such a manner that at any time if a photograph was taken of him, he would be happy with how it would appear to others.
“Imagine”, continued the rebbe, “if a picture was taken of me while I was sitting and, next to me, the great Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Zalman, was standing. How shameful it would be!”
In his famous lecture, ‘Ten Steps to Greatness’, Rav Avigdor Miller zt’l, suggests that once a day a person should stop and pose, as if for a picture, to remind himself that he is constantly being viewed by the celestial courts. It is the same message that the Kapishnitzer Rebbe related to his chosid -  one must always feel that his every action matters and helps define who he is.
This is in fact what Yiras Shamayim is about - living one’s life with a real sense that he is always standing in the presence of Hashem.
Thankfully, we may not have to spend our lives on a dais in full view of large crowds, but the G-d-fearig person lives life knowing that nothing he does goes unseen or is unimportant.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

                   R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, October 19, 2017

PARSHAS NOACH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Noach/ Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan
30 Tishrei 5778/October 20, 2017

What an incredible few weeks it’s been! The tefilllos, special mitzvos, extra family time, trips, and wonderful meals are all part of what makes the Yom Tov season such an incredible experience. But, all good things must come to an end.
Following havdalah on Motzei Shabbos, after the third “3-day Yom Tov” in four weeks, we put our younger children to sleep, began the incessant loading and unloading of the washing machine, and straightening up the house.
Although none of our children complained of any such symptoms, Chani and I both felt slightly lightheaded. It was definitely a possible side effect of the whole Yom Tov experience. But to be sure we went to double check our carbon monoxide detector. It turned out that what I thought was a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector was only the former. So I plugged in a spare carbon monoxide detector from our drawer. After blinking a few times, it emitted a long relentless beep. When we tried it a second time and a third time with the same result I called 9-1-1. I told the dispatcher that we were unsure if our carbon monoxide detector was defective or if we had a serious problem. Within minutes there was a police car, fire engine, and ambulance in front of our home - all with their lights flashing.
As soon as the first emergency responder pulled up, he told us to immediately take everyone out of the house. Most of the personnel were frum Jews and we could’ve had a minyan for maariv if we haven’t already davened. As soon we carried all of our sleeping children outside, the firemen entered our home with their high-tech detector. They searched their house but found no detection of any carbon monoxide, bh.
A few minutes later, a representative of the electric company arrived and did a more thorough inspection, which thankfully also came up with nothing.
Within fifteen minutes, the block was as quiet as it had been a few minutes earlier, save for our twins who were now wide awake and ready to start their day. But, bh, all is well that ends well.
The next morning, I was teaching our Sunday morning post-shachris Mesillas Yesharim class in shul. The Ramchal writes that one of the ways one can achieve yiras shomayim (fear of heaven) is by picturing in one’s mind that when he davens he is literally communicating with the Master of the World, in whose Presence he stands, and Who is hearkening to his every word. Ramchal adds that this is particularly challenging for us because our natural senses cannot help us recognize this truth. Normally we employ our natural senses in order to viscerally experience anything. But to recognize how connected one is with G-d when he prays requires intellectual reflection.
The same reason carbon monoxide is so dangerous, is why we have a hard time realizing how incredible is our power of prayer – we have a hard time believing things we cannot physically see/experience. But just as the toxicity of carbon monoxide is real despite our inability to detect it, so too is the profundity and power of our prayers every time we turn to G-d and seek to connect with Him.
We would be wise to reflect upon that truism every time we begin to daven.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos/ Chodesh Tov & A Gut Chodesh,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

SIMCHAS TORAH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Hoshanah Rabbah/Erev Shemini Atzeres
21 Tishrei 5778/ October 11, 2017

A friend related that this year, aside from his other "kabbalos" (spiritual New Year's resolutions), he has also accepted upon himself not to get angry or frustrated if/when he "messes up". 
It's actually a brilliant and integral tactical move. 
We are all aware of how our conscience/evil inclination works against us. We resolve to become better and improve in a certain area, and pledge to accomplish certain feats that have hitherto eluded us. We set out full of gusto and momentum... until!
When we encounter that initial "until" it's usually sufficient to completely unravel us and burst our bubble. The little vexing voice tells us we already blew it, and so we might as well just throw in the towel now, and spare ourselves further aggravation. However, now that my friend had an added resolution to not allow himself to become bent out of shape when unable to fulfill his pledge, he is still keeping a resolution by not allowing it to get to him. It's a counter-tactic to keep himself going. By not allowing himself to give up, he can feel that there is no reason to give up, and to stay the course even after a slip. 
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates that he had a sign that read "confidence is the feeling you have, until you realize the problem". 
In order to ensure that one will be able to maintain his confidence, he needs to be as proactive as possible. 
This year, this piece of advice is invaluable. Undoubtedly, as we dance and elatedly celebrate the conclusion of another cycle of Torah, and set to begin anew, many will pledge to be more vigilant about reviewing the parsha each week. Perhaps it will be to be ma'avir sedra (review the parsha) which one had been derelict about until now, or to be more vigilant about learning shnayim mikra v'echad targum (twice the Chumash and once a translation), or to learn Rashi, or perhaps to undertake learning an added commentary such as Ramban or Seforno. Regardless of what the resolution is, this year is a 'resolution killer'. After the excited dancing of Simchas Torah ends and one enjoys a restful Friday evening, as he heads home from shul the following morning, he is already a parsha behind. And what a parsha it is!
Parshas Bereishis spans Creation and the first thousand years up to the flood. It also includes the primordial sin and banishment from Gan Eden, and Kayin murdering Hevel. If ever there was a parsha which needed a full week at least, this was it. Instead, in Eretz Yisroel they have a day in a half, and in the diaspora we have barely half a day. 
So as we accept upon ourselves to re-dedicate ourselves to learning the parsha each week, we should also accept to not become discouraged within the first two days of the new cycle. 
The first sin was due to the wily scheme of the snake, we should ensure that we try not to fall prey to his old tricks. 

Freilichen Yom Tov & Chag Sameiach,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

SUCCOS 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Succos
14 Tishrei 5778/ October 4, 2017

Shortly before we left to camp this past June, our landscaper did some cleanup work around our yard. That included clearing pieces of wood that had been stacked on the side of our house for quite some time, left there by a lazy worker who had done construction in our basement a while back.
Our landscaper brought the pieces of wood and boards to the top of our property, where the garbage men would be able to easily clear them away. The problem was that the garbage men did not clear it away. After a few weeks, we inquired and were informed that they do not pick up construction materials, and apparently our few pieces of wood were deemed ‘construction materials’. We were expected to bring it to some other location and to pay for its removal. There was also another unofficial option - to catch the garbage men on pickup day, offer them a few cold beers and twenty dollars, and they would be sure to take it, despite official policy.
Being that we never seemed to be there at the same time as the garbage men, those pieces of lumber sat at the top of our driveway throughout the summer. It became a real eye sore for us, especially when they were still there when we arrived home from camp.
Then, last week, a friend noted that a neighbor of ours is doing construction and has a dumpster in front of his house. He probably wouldn't care if I threw in a few extra pieces. Indeed, our neighbor didn't mind at all. So, on Thursday night, the night before Yom Kippur, I loaded those annoying pieces of lumber into the back of our van, and disposed of them once and for all.
It was a great feeling to finally be rid of the debris that had been there for months.
Someone asked me recently, what is the difference between Aseres Yimei Teshuva and the rest of the year. After all, don't we know that sincere repentance can be accomplished throughout the year? Can't we call out in tefillah to Hashem at all times?
The difference is that throughout the year, repentance is indeed attainable but it requires a far greater initiation and effort by the penitent. During the Aseres Yimei Teshuva however, there is a 'spiritual dumpster sitting on the lawn', waiting for us to cast our sins in there. Undoubtedly, casting away our spiritual debris requires sincere effort; however, it is far easier than the rest of the year when such sins need to be "carted off", and only then cast away. Doing teshuva during these days is part of the zeitgeist, and the atmosphere in the air helps us along.
The next morning, I had a further observation:
The Medrash Tamchuma (Emor, 22) curiously states that the first day of succos is the “first (day) for the calculation of sins”. The Medrash then asks why the day after Yom Kippur isn't the first day for the calculation of sins? It would seem that during the day after we have been forgiven, we have to immediately begin reckoning the sins of the new year?
The Medrash answers that during the days between Yom Kippur and Succos one is so busy readying himself for Succos and all of its endemic mitzvos (erecting his succah and purchasing his daled minim) that he has no time to sin. Therefore, it is only on the first day of Succos that one begins to calculate his sins.
When I arrived home the night after I carted off all the lumber from the top of our driveway, I couldn't fully appreciate the fact that it was gone. But the following morning, as I got into my car, and saw the empty space and how nice it looked after three months, it was a very good feeling.
During the days between Yom Kippur and Succos we are consumed with preparation for the upcoming holiday. But when the Yom Tov begins and we enter our regal succah, and are permeated with a feeling of august holiness, it strikes us that the weight of the sins we carried with us for so long, is gone. It is only then that we can fully appreciate our Herculean efforts throughout the days when we were engaged Teshuva. The first day of succos then, is our first opportunity to begin calculating all of the sins and guilt that we have divested ourselves of.
It is all part of the sublime joy of this incredible holiday, the consequence of taking out the spiritual debris and being cleansed and purified.

Freilichen Yom Tov & Chag Sameiach,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, September 28, 2017

SHABBOS SHUVA/YOM KIPPUR 5778

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh -Yom Kippur
9 Tishrei 5778/ September

In our home, we take the custom of eating challah with honey during this time of year, very seriously. If having honey is symbolic to have a sweet, new year, we aren't taking any chances of abrogating that symbolism.
In our family, the challenge is to douse the challah with the perfect balance of honey - the most that the challah can tolerate before the honey starts dripping down the sides, all over the plate and onto the tablecloth. To do so requires squeezing out the honey, and then quickly biting into the challah. If the honey pourer is not agile and quick enough, he's liable to end up with a sticky mess.
Recently, my mother gave our children a book called "Tootles" as a gift. It was a book I grew up with, but hadn't seen in many years.
The story is about a young locomotive named Tootles who dreams of one day pulling the big express. He, and the other locomotives, are taught many rules and regulations in school. But the most important rule emphasized is that they must never ever leave the tracks.
The problem is that Tootles enjoys the fields and the sunshine, and he veers off the tracks. The story relates how the engineer got Tootles to realize that if he aspires to be a famous locomotive one day, he must learn to always stay on the tracks.
The concept of teshuvah entails that we get ourselves back on track. During the vagaries of our daily routines, we sometimes stray off track. Often, it's the result of chasing the proverbial butterflies into the meadow, which causes us to veer off the straight path. Doing teshuvah requires us to evaluate how true we have been to ourselves. To "get back on track", we must be willing to let go of the negative habits we have formed.
We are blessed to live in a land of plenty. Pleasures and enjoyment abound, and there is little to stop us from indulging. This is not only true about sinful and forbidden pleasures, but even regarding enjoyments that are acceptable within reason. For example, there is no dearth of eateries of all different types, each constantly updating their menus with tantalizing new dishes
Our challenge is to learn how to have our cake, and hold ourselves back from eating it too. We have to discipline ourselves to stop trying to grab as much honey as we can, by enjoying with a proper balance.
Dovid Hamelech states in Tehilim (147:13): "For he strengthens the bolts of his gates, his sons are blessed in their midst."
The Torah imposes upon us many gates/limitations, but within those gates one can enjoy life and be elevated by its blessings. When one learns how to live comfortably and happily within those confines, his progeny will feel blessed, and will thrive as well.
The greatest life is lived by someone who remains on track and is constantly progressing towards his ultimate destination. The great day of Yom Kippur helps us recognize in which areas of life we have indulged, and must reverse course to get back on track.
So, turn your train around, stand clear of the closing doors, and proceed as planned.
Next stop: the intense joy of Succos and Simchas Torah!

G’mar Chasima Tova & Good Yom Tov
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

               R’ Dani and Chani Staum     

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

ROSH HASHANAH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Rosh Hashanah
29 Elul 5777/ September 20, 2017

One morning this past week, a photographer came to yeshiva to take pictures of the beginning of the new z’man (semester). As can be imagined, as soon as he entered the classroom, all the boys looked at him. He motioned that everyone should keep learning, and act as if he wasn't there.
The truth is that although the learning in our class has been great b’h, I can't say that every student sits upright with perfect attention at all times. But with the photographer snapping away, every student was sitting up in his seat, bent over his Gemara, finger on the place, following intensely.
The same occurs whenever a photographer comes to take pictures during davening. Suddenly, everyone seems to be davening with intense concentration, fully engrossed in every word being said.
I was thinking about it afterwards - Is it all just a ploy? Is it just a facade put up for the camera? I don't believe it is. The truth is that we all have a mental image/picture of what we would like to be. We all have aspirations to achieve certain levels of accomplishment, based on our values and goals. The problem is that in the day-to-day happenings, lethargy sets in, and we don't live up to our own ultimate mental image. Perhaps the greatest rationalization we offer ourselves is, if I allow myself a little leisure and leeway right now, it won't take away from my ultimate goal. After all, does it really matter if I'm not at the top of my game on a random Tuesday in November?
The problem is that we seem to use that same rationalization day after day, month after month, year after year. The result is that the elite mental picture we have of ourselves becomes increasingly elusive.
A picture captures a moment, and freezes it. When the photographer is taking pictures, we act as we truly want to be viewed, so that that image becomes frozen in time. It may not be who we are, but it generally is who we want to be, or at least how we want to be perceived. We act a certain way in front of the camera because that's who we truly want to be. The challenge is for us to become the person we posed as in the picture.
From Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur we try to be on top of our spiritual game. In a sense, the celestial photographer is taking a snapshot of us, based on which the heavenly courts will decide our future.
At times, we may feel that our superior behavior during these days is just a silly charade, because we can't fool G-d anyway. However, that superior behavior can encourage us to realize who we truly pine to be. We really do want to live a more elevated and meaningful life, and we really do want to be the person in the heavenly snapshot taken during these days.
Our challenge then is to constantly remember that the only way to become the person in the picture, is by taking advantage of every day, and doing our best constantly. Every random Tuesday in November indeed matters along the journey to become the greatest person we can become.

Kesiva Vachasima Tova
Good Yom Tov & Shana Tova,

       R’ Dani and Chani Staum