Thursday, April 27, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Tazria-Metzora (17th day of Omer)
2 Iyar 5777/ April 28, 2017 - Avos Perek 2

I feel blessed and privileged to have many wonderful rabbeim and mentors who have had a strong impact upon my life. I have learned from them not only how to learn Torah, but also how to live my life within the guidelines and blessed confines of a Torah lifestyle.
One of those rabbeim was my eleventh grade rebbe, Rabbi Aryeh Feuer. His meticulously designed shiurim, his ability to get lost in thought when asked a question, and the way he explained deep ideas, had a profound influence upon me.
Over the years, I have maintained a relationship with Rabbi Feuer. He was present at our chasuna in Lakewood, and was at the brisim of our sons.
Rabbi Feuer is a talmid of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, and has a very close relationship with the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Schechter shlita. Throughout eleventh grade, whenever Rabbi Feuer quoted "my rebbe" it was understood that he was referring to Rav Aharon.
This week, I attended the chasuna of Rabbi Feuer’s daughter. Rav Aharon, who requires a wheelchair for mobility, was there. Despite his apparent weakness, his smile was as radiant as ever.
For me the highlight of the night was watching my rebbe dancing with his rebbe. Rav Aharon was mostly being supported by Rabbi Feuer, as he held his hands with noticeable joy and a smile upon his face. Rabbi Feuer’s eyes were tightly closed, during what was obviously a deeply emotional moment. It gave me an interesting feeling of connection - a personal link to prior greatness.
In March 2013, the New York Times published an article entitled “The Stories That Bind Us”. The article seeks to understand the age-old question of what holds families together? “What are the ingredients that make some families united, strong, resilient, and happy, while others are in disarray, fractured, broken, and fragile? Why are some families functional and others utterly dysfunctional?”
The article quotes the research of Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, who concluded that those who know a lot about their families do better when facing challenges. Children have the most self-confidence and resilience when they have a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. 
Dr. Duke therefore recommends that parents pursue opportunities to convey a sense of history to their children.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Rabbi of Boca Raton Synagogue, writes: “When I saw this article and read about Duke’s research, all I could think of is the Pesach Seder and the wisdom our sacred tradition. This new research simply affirms what we knew and have practiced for millennia. When we sit at the Seder and tell the story of our people, our children feel part of something larger than themselves. When they hear our personal stories of ups and downs, bitterness and sweetness, they feel part of something larger and greater than themselves. They don’t see their own circumstance in a vacuum or feel the need to face their challenges alone. When they see themselves as part of our collective history and our family’s personal narrative, they are encouraged, strengthened and uplifted.”
I would venture to add that, as Torah Jews, we actually have two senses of tradition that we connect with. Our initial connection is with our physical, nuclear family - our biological roots. That is what we celebrate and revitalize on Pesach. The korbon pesach had to be eaten with a pre-arranged chaburah (group), which consisted primarily of one's family. Redemption and hope for the future can only occur when we are able to create and foster strong families.
But we also have another component of connection, and that is the tradition of Torah transmission, from rebbe to student.
For those raised in Torah observant homes, there is an obvious overlap between these two senses of tradition and connection with the past. One’s parents are an obvious vital link to one’s spiritual past. But being part of the transmission of Torah traverses our biological families. Our rabbeim and Torah teachers ensure that we are a link on the continuing chain or Torah transmission.
My older brother, R' Yitzie, is a student or Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt'l. Like all of Rav Leibowitz's talmidim, he is proud to recount how he is part of the tenth generation of Torah transmission (rebbe-student) from the great Vilna Gaon. Such knowledge infuses a person with an equal sense of pride and responsibility.
Like Pesach, the Yom Tov of Shavuos, also celebrates and revives our personal story. However, while Pesach reconnects us to our physical past, Shavuos reconnects us with the story of our spiritual past.
Father to son represents one unbroken chain, while Rebbe to student represents an equally unbroken chain. The intertwining and confluence of those two chains is what has maintained our eternal nationhood, the Torah people, from Sinai until the end of time.
It's a story that transcends all time and place, a story we must never forget.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum        

Thursday, April 20, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shemini (10th day of Omer)
25 Nissan 5777/ April 21, 2017 - Avos Perek 1

Did you ever notice that the Yom Tov of Pesach seems to be inextricably connected to fires? Kashering our kitchens for Pesach necessitates burning out embedded chometz taste (whether with haga’lah or libun), we burn our chometz, matzah is baked in an extremely hot fire, and the Korbon Pesach was roasted. On the second day of Pesach, the Korbon Omer was offered, consisting of roasted barley. 
The truth is that it connects beyond Pesach to Pesach Sheni (also roasted), Lag Baomer (bonfires), and Shavuos, which celebrates the awesome revelation atop Har Sinai at the time of Mattan Torah, which included fire and thunder.
The Yomim Tovim of Tishrei on the other hand, are deeply connected with water. On Rosh Hashanah, we recite Tashlich by a body of flowing water, before Yom Kippur we immerse ourselves in a mikvah, on Succos we shake the Daled Minim, which require water for their growth and represent all plant life. Throughout the holiday, we are constantly vigilant that it not rain while fulfilling the mitzvah of succah, the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah celebrated the water libations on the Mizbeiach, and at the end of Succos we bentch Geshem.
Even the parshios read during the Shabbosos surrounding those Yomim Tovim, fit with this theme. Pesach time we read the parshios of Korabnos, offered on the fires of the mizbeiach. Right after Succos, we read Parshas Bereishis which notes that nothing grow until man prayed for rain, followed by Parshas Noach which discusses the great flood.
There’s another interesting distinction: Twice a year, shortly after washing our hands at the beginning of a Yom Tov meal, we recite another beracha. On Pesach we recite borei peri ha’adamah upon the vegetable eaten as Karpas. On Rosh Hashanah we recite borei peri ha’etz upon the fruits of the simana milsa (most famously, the apple in honey).
The most obvious distinction between fire and water is that fire flames upwards, while water flows downwards.
How do these themes connect with the avodah and spiritual focus of these Yomim Tovim?

As their Afikomen present, our older children requested a trip to a Yankees game. Thanks to their Uncle, we were able to procure tickets to a game on Chol Hamoed. [Suffice it to say we had enough for two minyanim for maariv in our section alone.]
My children also informed me that part of the experience is listening to the pregame sports talk during the drive to the stadium. A caller into the sports show we were listening to was griping about the fact that Boston Red Sox fans have been gloating in past years that they have had more success than their archrival Yankees.[2]  The host replied that if you’re comparing the entire storied history of the Yankees, then the Red Sox, or any other team for that matter, can never compare. No one holds a candle to the Yankee dynasties and Baseball giants of Gehrig, Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Jackson, and Munson.
However, if you’re looking at the last decade, the Red Sox have had some edge over the Yankees.[3] One of the points noted was that while the Yankees have constructed a new, beautiful stadium, there was something lost from the nostalgic lore of the old Yankees Stadium. As nice as the new stadium is, and despite the fact that it carries the same name, the bottom line is that it is not the field where Ruth, DiMaggio, and Mantle belted their homeruns.
The Red Sox however, were able to preserve their home, Fenway Park. It was a tremendous expense to renovate the old park, but they were able to refurbish it in its entirety. In the words of one journalist: “It should be preserved for no better reason that that, so our children and their children can go to the park and say: That’s the mound where Babe Ruth pitched; that’s the box where Ted Williams swung his bat; that’s the foul pole Carlton Fisk homered off…

There are two ways to foster a sense of newness – by creating something brand new, or by refurbishing/recreating something that is already in existence. Both have their benefits and both have their place.
 Sometimes the best way to have a fresh start is by completely walking away from the past, and beginning from the ground up. At other times, it is better to preserve the foundation and structure that have already been created, albeit with a fresh beginning and a new start.
The Yom Tov of Pesach represents the birth of Klal Yisroel. G-d removed us from the womb of Egypt as it were, and formed a new nation.
When a fire rages it consumes and ultimately destroys whatever is in it. But after it is extinguished, the ground is extremely fertile and malleable to new growth.
Water on the other hand, does not destroy what’s in its path, but rather washes away whatever is attached to it, so that all that is left is the essential structure itself.
In terms of avodah (practical service to Hashem) fire represents passion and excitement, the emotional flaming of the heart which surges towards its creator with love and devotion. It manifests itself in a sense of zerizus, alacrity, emotion, enthusiasm, and passion to serve Hashem.
Water represents humility and nullification. Water will flow wherever it is allowed to, and will only cease to flow when it’s path is obscured. It is the symbol of anivus – self-nullification to a greater force.

Imagine a Jew who decides to leave the path of Torah, G-d forbid, and engages in a life of sin for many years. One day he is inspired, and wants to return to his roots. The first thing we tell such a person is put on tefillin, say shema, and begin to daven. In other words, jump in to a life of kedusha. Nourish your spiritual self with mitzvos and Avodas Hashem that will re-awaken your nascent soul. 
Only after he has accustomed and reacclimated himself to living a Torah lifestyle, at some later point, can he make a reckoning of his past mishaps and rectify his sins so that he can grow even more. When he has sufficient connection, and will not become depressed or dejected by his past, at that point he will be able to face his past. Doing so will not only serve to help him right his past wrongs, but more profoundly to utilize his past mistakes as a springboard for further growth. 
On Pesach when we recommence our journey as the Jewish Nation with a sense of mission into the deserts and wildernesses of life, our avodah is symbolized by a raging fire. It is the fire of excitement to do G-d’s bidding, and not hold anything back. At that point, we are too raw and spiritually immature to confront the idolatrous lifestyle from which we have emerged.
Our role then is to immerse ourselves in acts of holiness, and to build ourselves with a focus on positive action. We begin this odyssey at the Seder when we perform myriad mitzvos and sanctify everything we do. We then immediately begin counting the Omer, representing our gradual yet consistent step by step ascent towards reaccepting the Torah on Shavuos. It is a process of fiery passion and enthusiastic religious zeal.
The Yomim Tovim of Tishrei on the other hand, are a time of revitalization, a time to recommit ourselves to our own selves. By now, we have matured enough along our path of growth, to be able to look back and confront the past which we have until now been running from. With proper teshuva, our past becomes a springboard for greater closeness and growth[4]. Tishrei is about purification through nullification, a process of humility, symbolized by water.[5] 
A vegetable emerges from the ground as a new growth, representing brand new growth - a nutritious food emerging from the dirt of the earth. That is the symbol of Seder night. A new nation has emerged from the ashes and from nothingness. We have burst onto the scene and are setting out to make our mark.
A fruit however, grows on a tree which produces new fruit each growing season, after an entire winter when it was completely barren. Fruit represents renewal. That is the symbol of the holidays of Tishrei, a process of self-analyzation, when we seek to right our wrongs, and recommit ourselves to who we are and to what we can and must accomplish.
Pesach has fired us up. It is the beginning of a path that will take us to Sinai, and then beyond.

   Enjoy your Schlissel Challah -
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

[1] The following is a thought which I contemplated and developed, with siyata deshmaya, throughout the course of Pesach this year. It’s longer than the average “Musings”, so I am calling it a ‘Reflection’.
[2] For those who are unaware, Yankees fans and Red Sox fans detest each other
[3] I interject with a disclaimer and reminder that the opinions expressed here are of the radio show host, and do not necessarily represent the views of this writer…
[4] The Yomim Noraim are a time of teshuva out of fear, which mitigates the severity of sins committed. Then we progress to Succos, which is a time of teshuva out of love, which transforms sins into merits.
[5] I am grateful to my friend, Rabbi Yanky Oppen, who when I shared this thought, suggested that I see the Sefas Emes, Pesach 5646. The Sefas Emes explains that rain descends from heaven which is a symbol of G-d blessing descending into this world. Our role is to subjugate ourselves to His blessings, and that is what water symbolizes, and that is the symbol of the months of Tishrei. Nissan however, is the time of growth, symbolizing our responsibility to perform our service to Hashem, that is symbolized by the waving of the Omer.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Tzav – Shabbos Hagadol
11 Nissan 5777/ April 7, 2017

On one occasion, I was speaking to my Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Schabes, about the challenge of constantly strengthening our emunah and bitachon. When I mentioned a certain popular book about emunah. Rabbi Schabes suggested that instead we learn the Sefer “Mitzvas Habitachon” from Rav Shmuel Hominer zt’l.
There are two components necessary in building one’s faith in Hashem. The first is to believe that Hashem is omnipotent, that there is nothing beyond His purview and capabilities. He created the world, and can manipulate it at will, for the sake of anyone of anything, and it does not require any exertion for Him to do so.
The second level entails believing that although G-d can do anything and everything, He won’t always do so. Undoubtedly G-d can effortlessly and instantly bail any person out of financial hardship, cure the harshest disease, and solve the deepest emotional scars. However, G-d often does not do so, and we MUST believe that His not doing so is for the best, although it may not seem that way to us[1].
In fact, sometimes when one strengthens himself in ingraining within himself complete faith that G-d is “kol yachol” (omnipotent), he has a harder time accepting that G-d doesn’t always fulfils his prayers in the manner he desires. After all, if G-d can, why doesn’t He? It takes a far deeper level of bitachon to accept that there is a reason for everything, beyond what our finite minds can comprehend.
My rebbe’s point was that although popular books about emunah contain many beautiful lessons and stories, they don’t teach about true bitachon, because every story has a beautiful, often incredible, ending. All those heartwarming stories strengthen us in regard to the first component of faith, but they do little in regard to the second, deeper component of faith. It is extremely challenging to see good people suffer, and to hear heartbreaking stories of lives torn apart, especially when it happens to people who daven with incredible devotion.
Rav Shmuel Hominer’s small, yet incredibly profound, sefer on bitachon drives home the message that there is more to life than what we see. It’s all for the best, and it is within our ability to live life with that feeling of security, even when the events of life leave us feeling deeply pained.
In a certain sense, it’s easier to believe in G-d when terrible tragedy strikes c’v, than it is to believe in G-d when dealing with minor commonplace frustrations of life. When terrible tragedies occur, we are so baffled that we have no recourse but to believe that it must be the work of a G-d whose ways are imperceptible to us. But when we deal with life’s minor frustrations, or when we feel that someone less deserving has been blessed with more than us, it becomes harder to believe that it’s not a celestial oversight. At that point, we may like dancing with Tevyeh in the field, looking heavenward and asking, “Would it have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?!” 
After we eat matzah and marror at the Seder, we eat Korech. It is a commemoration of the opinion of the great Hillel, who would wrap the meat of Korbon Pesach with matzah and marror.
I tell my students each year that especially if Hillel used both types of marror – lettuce and real horseradish - it was quite a delectable sandwich, of matzah, lettuce, freshly roasted meat, and some freshly ground horseradish to give it a kick.
On a symbolic level, korech symbolizes the faith of a Jew. We combine the korbon pesach, the ultimate symbol of G-d’s love and miraculous intervention on our behalf, with the matzah, which symbolizes both servitude (‘poor man’s bread’) and redemption, and the marror which symbolizes the time of greatest divine concealment, when we felt despondent and forlorn.  
For one who has real bitachon such as Hillel, all of life – the good, the bad, and the ugly, becomes wrapped together in one delicious meal. Even while consuming the painful marror such a person is able to feel a sense of security with the knowledge that all is in the Hands of Hashem, who loves him, and only seeks his best.
Pesach is the night of emunah – not just for the glorious and good, but even for the more bitter aspects of life. It is a night of divine protection, that traverses all personal pain and sorrow. Every aspect of our lives is ‘wrapped up’ in the Hands of the Divine.
May we all be able to appreciate its sublimity.

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

[1] The morning after writing this essay, as I was saying Vayevorech Dovid (toward the end of Pesukei Dezimrah), it struck me that perhaps both of these levels of emunah are conveyed in this beautiful paragraph:
The first half of the tefillah (a quote from Divrei Hayamim I, chapter 29) describes G-d’s limitless abilities, how He possesses infinite abilities, and can strengthen anyone; there is nothing G-d cannot do. Then we state that for having the ability to feel connected to that Supreme Being, we are thankful.
The second half of the prayer (a quote from Nechemiah, chapter 9) states that G-d is the one and only, who controls the celestial world, the earth, seas, and everything in between. Perhaps that part of the prayer is alluding to the fact that the manner in which G-d runs the world is beyond our comprehension. Despite the fact that G-d can strengthen anyone and provide limitlessly, He does not always do so. Because we are not privy to all the secrets revealed in the upper worlds, of which G-d alone is the lifeforce and sustainer, we cannot understand why G-d acts as He does.
It makes sense that the prayer then continues by describing the uncanny spiritual rise of Avrohom, because “You found his heart to be faithful before You”. Avrohom endured ten grueling tests, during each of which he did not understand why those events were happening. Yet he did not lose his faith or perspective that all G-d does is for the best. That was the reason G-d elevated him from the individual Avrom to Avrohom, “father of the masses of nations”.