Thursday, March 30, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayikra
4 Nissan 5777/ March 31, 2017
Lz”n Avrohom Yosef ben Naftali Hertz a”h

Recently, I saw an article about the American classic song "Old Man River", from the 1927 musical and 1936 film classic "Show Boat". The song was composed by Jerome Kern, a secular Jew with hardly any connection with his faith.
The song contrasts the struggles and hardships of enslaved African-Americans with the endless, seemingly apathetic, flowing, Mississippi River.
"Ol' man river... he must know something cause he just keeps rolling... rolling along... I gets weary, sick of trying, I'm tired of living, fearing of dying, but ol' man river, he keeps rolling along."
Normally, an article about such a song would not have caught my eye. But that particular song evokes very strong emotions within me.
My father's father, my beloved Sabbah, was full of vitality and life. He was the consummate gentleman, with a good word and a smile for everyone.
 We grew up living just a few blocks away from Sabbah and Savta on the Lower East Side, and davened together every Shabbos. When we moved to Monsey, every few weeks on Sunday afternoons, we would return to visit.
I was eleven and a half years old when Sabbah was diagnosed with the melanoma that would consume his vitality, and eventually his life. The last time I saw him in his apartment, he was very weak from treatments, and each family member could only go into the room one at a time.
As we waited to go into his room, the television was on in the living room, and the movie Showboat was on.
Just before I went in to Sabbah, I saw and heard the song "Old Man River". Despite the fact that I only heard the song that once, I never forgot it.
Shortly after the song ended, it was my turn to go into Sabbah's room.
 In the room was only my father myself, and Sabbah. But lying in the bed, looking at me with his shining eyes, wasn't the Sabbah I knew and adored. Aside from times past when I snuggled next to him in bed, I had never even seen him lying down. Now he appeared so weak and frail. We spoke for a few minutes as I tried unsuccessfully to squelch my tears.
I only saw Sabbah one more time, in the hospital.
On the night of March 29, 1992, my twelfth birthday, my mother was holding a birthday cake for me, when she received the painful call from my father that Sabbah had passed away. It was the bitterest birthday cake I ever had.
Old Man River always symbolizes to me the river of life, which flows and rages ceaselessly. We do not control its direction, but we do have to learn how to navigate its current and flow.
Every one of us finds ourselves in different parts of the river. Our predecessors have charted the course for us and have brought us downstream as far as they could go. Then they allegorically handed over the sails to us, so that we can continue to steer ourselves further downstream, and ensure that we maintain course and not be swayed by the tempests of life.
That Old Man River has seen many things and can tell many stories. The only constant is the presence of our weather-beaten ship, which somehow continues to flow uninhibited along its epic course.
How often do we remind ourselves of the beginning of our journey, performing numerous mitzvos as a “Zecher l'yetzias Mitzrayim”. Doing so reminds us of our mission to maintain our responsibility to keep flowing until the ship reaches port.
This Friday, 4 Nissan, marks Sabbah's yahrtzeit. His inspiration and example continues to inspire our family to traverse that Old Man River, and to give our children and grandchildren, the timeless gift that our parents and grandparents gave us.
As we sit down to our Seder each year, we connect ourselves with generations past and future, who ensured, and will ensure, our continuous course along that Old Man River.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

       R’ Dani and Chani Staum            

Thursday, March 23, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei/Hachodesh  
Mevorchim Chodesh Nissan
26 Adar 5777/ March 24, 2017

On Purim morning, I reached for a sefer off one of the shelves in my office, and, to my surprise, the whole bookcase collapsed. It wasn’t because I had drunk anything, as it was too early for that. The bookcase wasn’t exactly of the strongest quality (Walmart special) and was bearing more weight than it could hold. After someone had knocked into it a day earlier (one of those ‘tenants’ who live in our home, consume our food, time, and resources, and bear our last name…), it didn’t take much movement to cause the whole thing to buckle.
Two days after Purim we were hit with a massive snowstorm. Even after our driveway was plowed, I still had to shovel the top and sides of the driveway. It was quite a struggle to get our cars up and out of our steep driveway.
The following morning, I felt quite achy. No doubt it was the result of the shoveling from the day prior, and straining muscles that had not been used in some time.
Afterwards, I was thinking about the disparity between these two experiences, and how it relates to our lives, particularly as parents.
On the one hand, we all fear pushing our children too much. We live in fear that if we ask them to do the dishes at the wrong time, we might cause them to rebel and live on the streets. If we ask them to help set the table for Shabbos, they may storm out and go off the derech. While that may be an exaggeration, it does symbolize the fear every parent feels deep down in today’s day and age.
On the other side of the spectrum however, is the fact that if we do not teach our children responsibility by giving them (read – compelling them) opportunities to contribute to the family, such as household chores, and imposing other demands, and setting proper guidelines, those “muscles” will atrophy. Lack of rules and responsibilities unwittingly breeds entitlement and spoiled children, who feel they have everything coming to them. Such children are whiney, obnoxious, and unpleasant to be around, especially towards their well-meaning, overly-doting, parents
This leads us to wonder - towards which direction do we lean? Of course, our goal is the golden median, wherein we exert just the right amount of pressure, without overdoing it. But is it better to err on the side of exerting more pressure or by taking more of a hands-off approach?
The Gemara Bava Basra (21a) advises us to “Stuff it into him like an ox.” Most children do not learn responsibility from osmosis. For their own growth and maturity, they need to feel a modicum of pressure, in order to foster a sense of responsibility. The fact is that we seek to provide so much for our children, but they need to feel responsible to ‘give back’. That is the only way they can become productive, pleasant, and grateful people.
It’s generally far easier to just do something ourselves, than to ask our children to do it. It may be a struggle to get them to perform chores in the first place. Then, when they finally do them, we often feel sorry we asked in the first place. All of that notwithstanding, the fact that they have to contribute to the family and are held accountable for it, is an investment in the growth of the child.
Ironically, experience has proven that it is far more likely for a child to become rebellious if he/she was not parented enough, than if he/she is “overparented”. The underlying message conveyed to a child who is expected to contribute is that his contribution is valuable and necessary. It also teaches healthy responsibility.
The only way to be a happy person, is if you can give, and not only take.
More than any other holiday, Pesach, and particularly the Seder, is devoted to educating our children about our values and beliefs. Aside for ardently teaching through stories, parables, and lessons, and more importantly through our personal example, we need to maintain accountability, to ensure that our children live up to the standards we wish for ourselves and for them.
Then we can be confident that they will be able to shovel away the debris of their deficiencies without it wearing them (or their parents) out.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Chodesh Tov,

       R’ Dani and Chani Staum            

Thursday, March 16, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Ki Sisa/Parah  
19 Adar 5777/ March 17, 2017

“So Rabbi, bottom line, what’s the deal with drinking on Purim? What’s the message we are supposed to take from this unusual law?”
That was the question I was asked by a sincere and thoughtful congregant last week. I first replied that I once asked Rav Reuven Feinstein what is the simple explanation for the strange vernacular of the gemara in conveying that there is a mitzvah to become intoxicated on Purim “until he cannot differentiate between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.” Rav Reuven replied that the law has no simple meaning. It was “written in the spirit of Purim”. [That doesn’t mean it’s a joke, but rather that it was written in the unusual “out of the box”, yet lofty nature of Purim.]
I then told the questioner, that when one is about to begin drinking he (hopefully) hands over his car keys. He realizes that under the influence of alcohol he will not have proper judgement or perspective to drive. He therefore, places himself in the hands of someone else who will be able to care for him and ensure that he is safe.
During the unfolding of the Purim story the unexpected became the norm; whatever seemed to be happening prima facie, ended up being exactly the opposite. Therefore, the Yom Tov of Purim is a poignant reminder that ultimately, we are not in control over our lives. Undoubtedly, we are responsible to do our part, to ensure that we have always invested the requisite effort and fulfilled our responsibilities, but what the consequences of our efforts will be is totally out of our hands.
The last few months have afforded us plenty of reminders of the veracity of this concept, with a few incredibly surprising, last second shockers. Most profoundly was the election of President Trump and the upheaval that it caused. In the world of sports, if someone walked out two minutes before the end of the Super Bowl, he would have been shocked the next morning when he was informed of the outcome.
And, for those of us on the East Coast, how about the recent weather? It was a relatively mild winter, and February set records for warmth, with temperatures surging into the upper sixties and even hitting seventy degrees. Yet, I am currently typing this while a blizzard rages outside, burying the Monsey area in well over a foot of snow. [I think it’s raining in Lakewood.] On Purim itself, just two days ago, despite beautiful sunshine, the weather was below freezing.
The underlying message? We are not in charge!   
Psychologically, the source of tragedy and comedy is essentially the same – irony. When the irony works against us we cry, such as on Tisha B’av. The Navi writes (Megillas Eichah) that no one believed that the great and beautiful metropolis of Yerushalayim, and the Bais Hamikdash, could be destroyed.
However, when the irony works to our benefit, we laugh and revel in the great salvation that transpired. That is the source of the extreme joy of Purim.
Purim gives us an unparalleled boost of chizuk. A good friend recently quipped that “Moshiach is so far away. Look at how much pain there is, and look how dis-unified we are.”
I replied that at the time of Purim things seemed even more hopeless. Our nemesis had successfully prevailed upon the anti-Semitic king to agree to mass genocide. There was nowhere for the Jews to run or hide. Yet within three days of the decree, Haman was dead and the turnabout was set in motion.
Rav Moshe Shapiro zt’l explained that the source for the salvation of Purim came about from our enemies themselves. Therefore, the worse things seemed to be, the better they actually were, beneath the surface. He then adds, “Clearly, the ultimate redemption will not occur through gradual changes but by an instantaneous inversion… The inversion will be so complete, the contrast so sharp, that we will be compelled to laugh… One who seeks to invert, the greater the contrast is the stronger the inversion is… This is not something we have the capability to bring about. Only the Divine can turn things around in such a manner.”[1]
Purim was a living example of how it can happen, and a chizuk that somehow it will happen again.
Until then, we need to remind ourselves that after doing our part and fulfilling our responsibilities, we need to ‘hand over the keys’ to our loving Father in Heaven, and to fulfill whatever role and responsibility He places us in.

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

[1] Adar: Reversal of Fortune, Volume 1, Issue 7 (Shekalim 5765), Reflections: Thursday evening lectures of Rav Moshe Shapiro, (written by R’ Moshe Anteby)

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Teztaveh/Parshas Zachor - Erev Purim  
12Adar 5777/ March 10, 2017

“So I was on a roll — I was an executive with a nice salary, annual bonuses and stock options, all the perks. Everything was on track…
And on Monday, January 7th, 2008 at three o’clock in the afternoon, in a small conference room on the top floor of our building, the President of the company wanted to have a quick meeting with me which wasn’t unusual since he was my boss, but the meeting turned out to be even more brief than expected. 
He fired me. 
And I’ll never forget how his words just sucked the breath right out of me. And I left the conference room in a dazed state and I went home and curled up in my bed in the fetal position for three hours. And while I could go on in vivid detail about how I felt, what it did to my self-esteem, my finances and so on. What I now realize is while that event created the greatest amount of discomfort I had ever felt, it was that discomfort, the departure from my ordered life that forever changed it for the better.
You see, friends, what makes you comfortable can ruin you, and what makes you uncomfortable is the only way to grow…”
--Bill Eckstrom (TED talk – University of Nevada)

Almost every one of us has ‘skeletons in their closet’, things from our past that we would like to keep buried and hidden. In addition, there may be facets of our personalities that we try to keep beneath the surface. But, like it or not, those components of ourselves, affect us and are very much part of us. The question in life is do we run from our past or do we seek to embrace our past and utilize it to grow by incorporating those vulnerabilities into who we become.   
In the Purim story, Haman enacts a decree calling for genocide and complete obliteration of the Jewish Nation. It is a vile, hateful, and nefarious decree. Then, within three days Haman is dead, hanging on the very gallows he constructed for Mordechai. However, all is not well, because the evil decree has not been annulled.
Esther breaks down in tears before Achashverosh and implores him to annul the decree. Achashverosh is not forthcoming, replying “Something written in the name of the king, and sealed with the ring of the king, cannot be repealed.” However, the king allows them to pass another decree, which allows them to defend themselves.
While the actual details of the Purim story may be a matter of history, the challenges, emotions, and lessons of the story are contemporary. Par for the course of being human means that we have deficiencies, vulnerabilities, character defects, and mishaps. At times, we beg G-d to remove those challenges and deficiencies. We become weary of our internal struggles and wish that we could just be free of their shackles.
The nonverbalized response from on high is that our challenges are “written in the name of the king, and sealed with the ring of the king” and therefore cannot be repealed. However, it is within our ability to fight back and to defend ourselves from that internal strife. In fact, it is our mission and responsibility to do so. In so doing, we become greater and far more valuable people.  
            The incredible joy of Purim lines in the turnabout. All the energy invested in the destruction of the Jewish Nation, ended up being the vehicle of our enemies’ destruction and our elevation. When one is able to transform negative energy into positive energy that is a tremendous accomplishment, and a source of great celebration.
On Purim, we could not run from our adversaries; we had no choice but to face them and overcome them. Purim reminds us of the power of transformation. Instead of running from our past, we need to turn around, face those skeletons, and utilize those challenges to propel us to greater heights, in which we can help others as well.
“V’napoch Hu” – the inversion of Purim is not merely one component of the story. Rather, it is part of the essence of the holiday. It is the ability to reclaim the past and use it as a stepping stone for the future. Our ancestors merited it back then, and we have the ability to draw from, and to capitalize on that spiritual energy every year.
You see, friends, what makes you comfortable can ruin you, and what makes you uncomfortable is the only way to grow!

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Freilechen Purim & Purim Sameiach,

           R’ Dani and Chani Staum        

Thursday, March 2, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Terumah
5 Adar 5777/ March 3, 2017

A colleague once suggested that whenever an opportunity arises to discuss hashkafa (Jewish philosophical outlook) with students, I should grab the chance. Last week the gemara we are learning in class (perek Hakonais) mentioned the concept of melachos Shabbos, the categories of forbidden labors on Shabbos, so I used that as a springboard to discuss some Shabbos laws.
During the discussion one boy made a reference to playing basketball on Shabbos. I replied that playing an intense game of basketball was inappropriate on Shabbos. Even if there is no concern of carrying (because there is an eiruv) and therefore no problem of actual chilul Shabbos (outright desecration of Shabbos), it still is zilzul Shabbos, “cheapening” the sanctity of Shabbos.   
When I said that, one of my students muttered loudly “It’s forbidden, like everything else on Shabbos. So exactly what are we supposed to do?”
It was a strong comment, and it made me rethink how to present the concept to twenty-first century American kids. After a moment’s thought I related the following:
On Friday night after Shemoneh Esrei, in the paragraph that begins Magen Avos, we state, “Before Him we will serve with fear and trepidation.” It seems strange that on a day of “Ahava V’ratzon - Love and Favor” we mention feeling fearful and awestruck.
I continued: “In a few years, with the help of Hashem, when you get engaged, you will visit the home of your kallah for Shabbos for the first time. Your future in-laws will bend over backwards to treat you royally, and there will be a general feeling of great excitement in the home. They will roll out the proverbial red carpet and honor you in any way they can. You too will be extremely excited and will revel in the honor being accorded to you. And yet, you will also feel a measure of apprehension and nervousness. You will be wary not to tarnish the elite image they have of you, and you will want to make sure that their joy in welcoming you to the family is well-founded.
“Although you will feel somewhat inhibited since you have to act more nobly than you would otherwise, it will be well-worth the sacrifice, to have the opportunity to spend Shabbos with your kallah, and to be welcomed in to her family with open arms. 
“Every Shabbos, we are elevated and united in the embrace of the Divine, as it were. It is a day filled with love and closeness. If one can realize that, it is inevitable that he will also feel a sense of awe and trepidation so as not to desecrate that holy atmosphere.”
I then added one more point: “When you are courting your kallah, you will hardly be able to do enough to honor her and to express your excitement to be marrying her. You will want to know her favorite restaurants and foods, and exactly how she likes them. You will want to know her hobbies and what she enjoys, and then you will seek to capitalize on that knowledge in ways that appeal uniquely to her. You will not be able to stop thinking about her no matter what you are doing, and you will hardly be able to do enough to profess your complete devotion to her.
“If you understand that Shabbos is like our kallah, excitedly awaiting each week for us to lovingly welcome her in, keeping the myriad halachos has a different connotation. The laws and restrictions are no longer what we have to do, but what we want to do.”
I suggested to my students that they purchase one of the sets of hilchos Shabbos in English, so that when they have a question regarding hilchos Shabbos, they can look up the halacha for themselves, and understand some of the background behind the halacha.   
Psychologists say that when parents are setting rules in their home, it is best to involve the children in the parameters of the those rules. This is accomplished when parents sit down with their children and ask questions like, “When do you think is a fair bedtime?” or “Which chores would you like to contribute to the family?” Although, ultimately the parents have the final say and at times must exercise that parental authority, the more the child feels part of the process the more he/she will respect the rules.  
In regards to halacha too, when one understands the basis and logic of the restriction, it is far easier to adhere to it, and want to adhere to it, than if it is simply presented as just another prohibition.
I concluded by telling my student that if Shabbos is so overbearing for him that he will c’v hate it, then he is better off playing basketball. However, he should at least be aware that doing so is not ideal. He should aspire for a deeper appreciation of the great day, when he will realize on his own that playing an intense game is incongruous with the sanctity of Shabbos.
In general, we should not be satisfied with just going through the motions and doing what we must do. Such observance is monotonous, at best. The goal is for us to feel connected and elevated through every facet of Avodas Hashem.
When Haman sought to convince Achashveirosh of the detriment of the Jewish nation, he began his diatribe by saying, “Yeshno am echad- there is one nation”.
The Gemarah (Megillah 13b) explains that “Yeshno” means “Yeshinim – sleeping”. Haman was alluding to the fact that the Jews were sleeping in their performance of mitzvos.
Kesav Sofer explains that although the nation surely observed the mitzvos, they were doing so lethargically and unemotionally, as if half- asleep. They weren’t derelict in their actual observance, but they were remiss in the manner and attitude with which they approached it.
The salvation of Purim occurred when they ‘woke up’ and reignited the spark of passionate devotion in every aspect of their observance – (Esther 9:16) “Light, joy, gladness, and preciousness.”
That is why the holiday of Purim is such an incredibly joyous and emotionally-charged day. It commemorates a time of national revitalization, when we ‘came back to life’, and rediscovered our inner fire, which continues to burn strongly within every one of us.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum