Thursday, January 26, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Va’era
Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Shevat
1 Shevat 5777/ January 27, 2017

This past Friday, Chani was heading to the library with our children. Being on vacation from my rebbe position at Ashar, I tagged along. (“So Rabbi, what did you do during midwinter break?” “Umm, I went to the library.” “That’s it?” “No, of course not. I also went shopping with my wife, and did carpool each day for whichever child missed their bus that morning.”)
I can’t even remember the last time I went to the library! One thing is certain; it’s definitely been quite a few years. I had to apply for a new library card, since I have no idea where my old one is (probably inside a couch or toy chest somewhere).
I have often told Chani that when I was a child libraries were free. But in the last few years, especially as our children took out more books, we constantly receive bills from the library. Chani told me that it’s a general membership fee, and I shouldn’t worry about it.
The most exciting thing about going to the library this week and getting a new card, was that the library was celebrating a hundred years (I think the librarian who helped me has been there since they opened…). In honor of the centennial celebration they were having ‘amnesty week’, which meant that all outstanding fees were waived. Although I haven’t taken any books out of the library in the recent past, certain family members have, and also left me with some fines. With the amnesty, I saved $1.50. (The fact that the new card cost me two dollars was inconsequential. The main thing was that I felt like I made some money on the deal.) 
I should mention that when my mother used to take us to the library, there was only one thing I cared about – Tintin! (Blistering Barnacles, you never heard of Tintin?) It was only when I entered High School, that I found out there were other books in the library besides the Adventures of Tintin. 
The truth is that the Jewish people have always possessed great admiration and love for the written word.
When my Bubby and Zaydei arrived at the shores of New York in the late 40s, after leaving the smoldering ruins of war-ravaged Europe, they brought with them only two suitcases. One of them contained clothing and whatever valuables they could salvage. The other was packed with seforim.
When we used to visit Bubby and Zaydei in their apartment on the Lower East Side, I was always amazed that much of the wall space in the apartment, had shelves lined with endless seforim. In fact, there was one room which literally was surrounded by two layers of seforim per shelf, covering all four walls.
I seem to have inherited my Zaydei’s love of seforim. Chani relates that soon after we moved into a new apartment during our first years of marriage, she was looking for a kitchen appliance. She climbed up to look in the cabinet above the fridge, only to find it stacked with seforim. She looked in a second out-of-reach cabinet, and found more seforim.
The Medrash (Devorim Rabbah 4:2) states: “Rabbi Elazar said – the sword and the scroll descended from the heaven intertwined. G-d said to Israel ‘If you will do what is written in this scroll, you will be saved from this sword, but if not, you will be killed by this sword’.”
On a simplistic level, the Medrash is teaching us about the incredible value of books. As long as we seek to increase our knowledge-base, we will be saved from the sword of ignorance and naiveté. But when we begin to feel confident that we know enough, and become complacent with past knowledge, we are in danger of falling prey to the piercing sword of ignorance.
The Jewish People have long been hailed as “the People of the Book”. That does not only refer to our love of books, but of our longing to learn from them and grow in our perspective, understanding, and knowledge.   
More important than the libraries that adorn our shelves, are the books we open and drink thirstily from. 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Chodesh Tov & Good Chodesh,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shemos
Mevorchim Chodesh Shevat
22 Teves 5777/ January 20, 2017

We still often find ourselves asking aloud if we really had twins a little over 16 weeks ago.
Beautiful as they are ba’h, caring for twins is a tremendous challenge. Thankfully we have had a baby nurse who has alleviated much of that challenge. Our most recent nurse, Marlene, is incredibly professional, and leaving our twins in her care has given us great peace of mind.
One day each week the nurse has off. Generally, she will go home or to family for the twenty four hours, so she could relax and catch up on some sleep.
Two weeks ago, on the last day of Chanukah, which coincided with January 1st, our family headed to Lakewood for a family get-together. Marlene was off that day, and we were taking the twins with us. Before leaving, Chani gave Marlene the number for a taxi company. Marlene called them, and after they assured her that they were on their way, she waited by the door, coat on and valise next to her, for the taxi to bring her to the bus station.
When we arrived in Lakewood, Marlene texted Chani that the taxi had never arrived. Two hours had gone by, and they still hadn’t come! Chani felt badly, and offered to call a different taxi company, but Marlene said that at that point it wasn’t worth her schlepping home, and she would just enjoy the quiet in our home. 
The next morning Chani again expressed to Marlene that she felt badly that it hadn’t worked out for her. Marlene simply and sincerely replied, “It’s okay; I believe G-d has a plan for me!”
In the words of Rambam (introduction to commentary on Avos): “Hear the truth from whoever utters it!”
Rabbi YY Jacobson related that, even though he travels a lot, after a personal experience a few years ago, he has a very different perspective about travel generally.
In his words: “A few years ago, I was heading to Ottawa for a speaking engagement. I arrived at the airport with plenty of time, but soon enough the flight was delayed, and then delayed again. After some time I came to the realization that there was no way I was going to make it there for the talk.
“I called the Rabbi who had hired me and explained to him the predicament. He was insistent that I had to figure out a way. “There are so many people coming to hear you…” I apologized a few times, but there was nothing I could do.  
After I hung up the phone, my mind was still racing, trying to think of any way I could pull it off, when I noticed an elderly chassid sitting nearby calmly learning from a sefer. I sat next to him and we began schmoozing. I asked him where he was heading, and he replied that he was heading to Ottawa to be sandek and his grandson’s bris. I looked at him surprised, “You realize that there is no way we are going to make it there before sunset, and the b’ris has to be before sunset?” The chassid nodded. I couldn’t believe it. “So you are missing your grandson’s bris, and you’re okay with that?”
The chassid looked at me and calmly replied, “Don’t you know the vort of Reb Chatzkel of Kuzhmir?” I admitted that I didn’t, and so he continued: “Reb Chatzkel explained that every morning we recite the beracha thanking Hashem, “hameichein mitzadei gaver – Who prepares the footsteps of man.” If one recites that beracha and doesn’t think to himself that wherever he ends up that day, and in whatever situation he finds himself in, is exactly where G-d wants him to be, has recited a beracha levatala!
“I wanted very much to be in Ottawa for my grandson’s bris, and I had planned on being there. But I said that beracha this morning, and now I see that Hashem didn’t want me to be there, so I have accepted it.””
If we could truly live by that mantra, imagine how much frustration, anger, and impatience we could eliminate from our lives. The challenge is that we usually cannot see how Hashem has prepared our footsteps, and what the plan is.
G-d prepares our footsteps each day. Our task is to walk in those footsteps that He has lovingly and uniquely charted for each one of us.
In 1905, Friedrich, a native of Kallstadt, Bavaria, traveled to America to make some money. After a few years he sought to return to his hometown where his wife had remained. He wrote a letter to Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, pleading with him to allow him to return. The prince denied his request, as punishment for not fulfilling his responsibility to serve in the Bavarian military forces, when he went to America. Because of that, he had been stripped of his Bavarian citizenship and was barred re-entry. 
Friedrich was forced to return to America. At the time he was undoubtedly quite dejected because of it.
This coming Friday, January 20, 2017, Friedrich’s grandson will be sworn in as the 45th president on the United States. How different would things be if Prince Luitpold had acceded to Friedrich Trump’s request!

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, January 12, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayechi
15 Teves 5777/ January 13, 2017

When I was a graduate student at Fordham University working towards my Masters in Social Work, a fellow student offered me a piece of advice: If you have the option, try not to have a professor who is overly passionate about what he/she is teaching. If the professor’s has dedicated her life to the topic being taught, you will be expected to share her excitement and the professor will be demanding in her expectations for the course.
I did have a few professors who fit into that category. One of them was for a class I took entitled, “Death and Dying”. It wasn’t about how to die, as that seemingly doesn’t require any special classes. Rather it was about exploring our own attitudes and premonitions towards death and dying, so that we can be better prepared to help clients who are facing tragedy.
It was a very powerful and emotional course, and it presented us with much to reflect upon. The professor was a noted author on the topic and this was topic was her specialty. It is obvious however, that no matter how much expertise one has in dealing with tragedy, when faced with such moments no one is immune from the raw pain and feelings of intense loneliness.   
On the final day of the course, all of us students were asked to stand in a circle with the professor to share a final reflection. When it was my turn I shared the following: “Because death has meaning, life has meaning.”
My professor was very moved by the quip, as were quite a few other students. Although it’s always nice when others think you are intelligent, to me it was a truism that I had learned years earlier in yeshiva. Chazal constantly remind us that this world is merely a preparation for a much greater world, a world of truth and bliss. As the Mishna states in Avos (4:16): “Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you can enter the banquet hall.”
There is no other religion that has the same perspective and laws about death as the Torah. On the one hand, we ascribe such holiness to the body even after it is deceased, simply because it was the vessel which contained a soul, the life-spark of G-d. Yet, we also bury the body with simplicity. We do not place it into an expensive coffin, and we do not gaze at the face of the deceased once the soul has departed. Holy and special as the body is, it still remains the mere vessel.
Since time immemorial, we have always deemed those who engage in the scared work of burying the dead as “the Chevra Kadisha – the holy group”. The mitzvah of being involved in bringing a body to proper Jewish burial is so sacred, that it is one of the greatest merits one can attain. It is the final dignity granted to a deceased.
The manner in which the body is purified, and then dressed in shrouds with such dignity, and reverence, according to the dictates of halacha, is the greatest testimony to our belief that death is not the finality of life, but rather a major transition, from one level of life to another.  
Because death has meaning, all of life – every moment of it, has meaning.
Parshas Vayechi, contains the Torah’s recording about the death of Yaakov Avinu. Yet, the Torah never actually states that Yaakov died, only that “he gathered to his people”. What’s more, the very parsha which contains Yaakov’s death is titled “Yaakov lived”. Through our good deeds, and through living for a higher purpose, we transcend the limitations of this world, and live beyond our physical years. In that sense, Yaakov lives on in all of us.
This Shabbos, our community is paying tribute to Team Shabbos, a division of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha. It is an organization dedicated to raising and promoting awareness of end of life matters according to Halacha.
It is such awareness that reminds us that because death is sacred and has meaning, our entire lives are sacred and has meaning.
Although we hope to not need their services, it is reassuring to know that they are always there for us.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, January 5, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayigash
8 Teves 5777/ January 7, 2017

One morning this past summer, I looked at my watch and noticed that the pin which represented the number 3 (my watch doesn’t have actual numbers) had become dislodged and was rolling around the inside of my watch. I wasn’t happy about it, but camp life is very busy, so I didn’t give it much thought.
The pin continued to aimlessly roll around the inside of the watch for a few days, but for the moment my watch still told the time. Within a few days however, the 3 pin lodged itself under the minute hand and my watch stopped. I gave the watch a good ol’ klopp and that was sufficient to dislodge the pin. I then reset the time. It didn’t take long before it happened again, and then again, until it knocked into the small seconds-hand, before eventually knocking off the minute hand completely. At that point I had a watch with only a functioning hour-hand. The rest of the pieces were jovially rolling around within the interior of the watch. 
I finally admitted that it was time for a repair. I sent the watch back to the company, and it arrived back fixed a few weeks later. I am happy to report that as of this writing my watch is accurately reporting the time, and all its pins and hands are where they need to be.
Someone once complained to the Chofetz Chaim that he felt overwhelmed and trapped by his Evil Inclination. He was frustrated because he felt he never had a moment’s respite from its whims and enticements.
The Chofetz Chaim replied that the internal struggle with our Evil Inclination is analogous to the old-fashioned wind-up watches. The watches had two wheels (gears) that rotated in opposite directions. It was those conflicting forces that kept the watch going, telling the correct time.
While one’s Evil Inclination pulls him in one direction, his Good Inclination urges him in the opposite direction. When one makes positive choices, and allows his conscience to dictate his behaviors, he can be the optimal Eved Hashem. As long as he is able to keep himself balanced, he can proceed confidentially, despite, or perhaps because, he is constantly struggling.
The conflicting forces of life present us with the greatest challenges. It’s not the battle of right and wrong which so befuddles us, as much as the struggle to know how to proceed in the gray areas of life, when one is unsure what is right and what is wrong.
One of the most poignant shmoozen I recall from my years in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, was delivered by the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Wolmark. It was during the time when I and my friends were just “entering the parsha” of shidduchim.
Rabbi Wolmark noted that yeshivos invest great effort to cultivate within their students a sense of ga’avah dekedusha – holy pride. It is a vital trait to build confidence in a society that often fails to appreciate the merit of Torah study. When one is a yeshiva student he must be exceedingly proud of that status, and in a certain sense he must exude that feeling of self-importance.
The challenge presents itself when yeshiva bochurim get married, and have to learn to humble themselves before their wives. They have to be able to balance their feelings of being an elite Torah student, with being a respectful spouse, which entails not conveying any sense of superiority whatsoever. In fact, Rambam writes that a husband has to honor his wife, more than he honors himself.
That delicate balance is another example of wheels turning in opposite direction. Without that balance, the pieces begin to knock into each other and chaos ensues within.
The good news is that in many cases, the situation can be rectifiable. That can happen if each side is able and willing to learn its place, and thereby come to an understanding of how to work together in harmonious peace.
Then they can be ensured that instead of becoming ticked off, they will be able to be tick in perfect balance, and right on time.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum