Thursday, November 30, 2017


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


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



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


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


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