Thursday, June 21, 2018

PARSHAS CHUKAS 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Chukas –Avos Perek 5
9 Tamuz 5778/June 22, 2018

It’s the last thing any driver wants to see in their rear-view mirror. Yes, blue lives matter, but we don’t want to see a cop driving right behind us. I had the delightful experience a few weeks ago, when I was on my way home from a meeting one erev Shabbos.
The strange thing was that I was in the right lane and going beneath the speed limit. My mechanic had just told me that some of my tires were worn out. I had ordered new ones and they had arrived at my mechanic that day. I was planning to go to the mechanic on Sunday, so in the meanwhile I was driving extra cautiously. There was no way the cop could see that there was anything wrong with my tires on the highway. So I kept racking my brain trying to figure out what he could have gotten me on. My seat belt was closed, my break light was working etc.
I pledged some money to tzedaka if he somehow wouldn’t pull me over. For what felt like forever he kept following me, without turning on his lights and sirens. It was maddening; I felt that if he was going to pull me over, let him just do it already. Finally, I slowed down considerably, at which point the cop switched lanes and zoomed past me.
It was an annoying and frustrating experience, but one which was quickly forgotten, save for including it in this brilliant article.
I once heard an educator note that there are children who feel similarly about their parents, or at least one parent. An adolescent described that he lives his life every day wondering what his father is going to yell at him for next. He is always looking in his proverbial rear-view mirror anticipating the next criticism and harsh rebuke.
Parenting requires that parents rebuke their children on occasion when necessary. A parent needs to set boundaries and impose healthy limitations upon his/her child. Yet a parent cannot be an authoritarian either. A child cannot be made to feel that everything he does is subject to criticism.
What’s perhaps even more deleterious is when children (and adults!) maintain this perspective about how Hashem views and relates to them. Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky relates that an adolescent once told him that he perceives Hashem as being an “angry face” hovering in the sky, waiting for him to mess up so he can punish us for our misdeeds. What an awful and false perspective!
Part of emunah entails believing that Hashem loves us, despite our failings. On the one hand, one must know that there is indeed a reckoning and one is responsible for all of his actions in this world. However, one must also understand well that the judge is also his loving divine father who wants and awaits his success and growth.
This perspective is especially vital to understand as we head towards the three weeks of mourning for all the tragedies throughout the exile, and primarily for the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash.
“Like a father disciplines his son, Hashem, your G-d, disciplines you.” (Devorim 8:5) 
For any growth and healthy connection to Torah and Judaism to occur, one must understand this concept, constantly remind himself of it and deepen his understanding of it. It’s something we don’t hear or say enough - Hashem loves us and believes in us, and that love never changes or fades. It’s the same concept that a child needs to know about his relationship with his parents. He can anger them and frustrate them, but he can never get them to stop loving him!
If only we could have the same level of emunah in ourselves that Hashem has in us!

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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

PARSHAS KORACH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Korach –Avos Perek 4
2 Tamuz 5778/June 15, 2018

Living in New York unquestionably has benefits and drawbacks. But for high schoolers, living in New York means having to take the dreaded Regents exams.
Our oldest, Shalom, took his first Regents this week. For the last few weeks, I have seen in him the same anxiety I felt two decades ago when I was taking them.
Now as a principal, I see the Regents from a different perspective. At this point, for me it’s more of an annoyance than a source of anxiety.
The Regents are delivered to a local public school on the day they are to be administered, in what looks like a mini jail cell. It can only be delivered to a location that has a safe where the Regents can remain securely locked until the time for the exam. Two locks are affixed to the box, and a label stating which school it is for. Students taking the Regents have to be preregistered. The keys to open the Regents box are mailed separately to the school beforehand. Each day’s Regents has its own code which matches up to that day’s key.
The Regents must remain locked until the students are about to begin them. There is a 45-minute window within which the exam must be started across the state. 
Shortly after the time for the Regents ends, each school has a code which allows it to access the answer key. The Regents cannot be proctored or graded by the teacher who taught the course.
If it’s annoying for me, I can hardly imagine what a headache it is for those who produce the Regents and need to make sure all of the security precautions are adhered to.
In June 1974, two students at Solomon Schechter School in Brooklyn broke in to the principal’s office and stole the answer key. They began selling the answers, and within a few hours students across the state had copies of the answer key to their upcoming Regents. (Because of that incident that the answer key is no longer available until after the test is completed.) As a result, nine of that year’s regents were cancelled statewide. That was the first time in 96 years of Regents exams that such a thing had occurred.
So what’s the point of it all?
The obvious answer is to ensure that there are standards! Every school throughout the state knows that their teachers must adequately prepare their students for the Regents. It serves as a barometer to know how effective teachers are, by assessing how well their students perform on the Regents.
In our own lives, as Torah observant Jews, most of our standards aren’t externally imposed, at least not our moral and religious standards. Our standards are invaluable to us because they provide us with healthy guidelines and safe limits.
We live in a world which often views our standards as archaic, pedantic, and overbearing. But we know that they are there for our own protection and spiritual growth.
Judge Ruchie Freier, the first female chassidish district judge in criminal court in Brooklyn, relates that she was once meeting with a male deputy when no one else was in the office. She asked him if they could keep the door open as the laws of yichud demand. 
He then said to her “Rachel, it’s such a pleasure working with you, because the boundaries are always so clear.” Mrs. Freier mused that she never realized how keeping halacha could add to the comfort of others.
Our standards must be maintained under lock and key. If, G-d forbid, we violate them, it’s not easy re-locking and securing the box.
It is frightening how recently every few weeks there seems to be another story about a famous personality accused of violating standards. It all starts from the smallest of breaches, that if unchecked can quickly spiral out of control.
Maintaining those standards is the key to a spiritually happy and productive life.

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

Thursday, June 7, 2018

PARSHAS SHELACH 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shelach –Avos Perek 3
Mevorchim Chodesh Tamuz
25 Sivan 5778/June 8, 2018

During the Scripps National Spelling Bee last week, 13-year-old Shiva Yeshlur from Wyoming was asked to spell the word “Cholent”.
Yeshlur requested a definition from the judges. The reply: “A Jewish Sabbath-day dish of slow-baked meat and vegetables”. He then asked for the word's language of origin, was told it was Yiddish, and then correctly spelled the word. 
Although Yeshlur mastered cholent, he sadly did not move on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals.
Just imagine if there was a panel of Jewish judges who had to provide the definition of cholent. No doubt each judge would have provided a slightly different answer. The various ingredients people add to their cholent may include beans, barley, onions, meat, garlic, potatoes, various spices, barbecue sauce, ketchup, honey, an egg, and I have even heard of people adding beer or potato chips. There’s probably a lot more ingredients that I’m not even aware of.
We take a lot of pride in our cholent. In yeshivos there are often numerous cholents cooking, each made by a different student who takes great pride in his ‘secret ingredient’. There have even been contests held to sample cholents to determine which is truly the most delectable.
I once heard the following observation: In Jewish homes everyone eats cholent three times during the week (aside for the main serving at the Shabbos day seudah). Yeshiva bochurim eat cholent Thursday night, Friday afternoon, and Friday night. Kollel yungeleit and ba’al habatim eat cholent Sunday night, Monday night, and Tuesday night.
The truth is that eating cholent is not merely enjoyable, but also serves as a chizuk for our belief in the authority of our Sages. The Torah states that one may not ignite a fire on Shabbos. The gemara explains that although one may not light a fire on Shabbos, one is permitted to keep pre-cooked food on an existing flame on Shabbos. The Samaritans, who denied the authority of the Sages and accepted a literal reading of the Torah, would not eat any hot food on Shabbos. To demonstrate our belief and allegiance in the authority of our Sages, we purposely enjoy eating hot food, prepared according to halachic dictates, on Shabbos morning.
I would like to share a few great lessons that we can learn from this most extraordinary, beloved, and uniquely Jewish food:
In our home, I prepare the cholent on Thursday night. After all the ingredients have been added to the crock pot and water has been added (very important to soak the beans…), I then place it in the refrigerator overnight. Early Friday morning I put it on the crock pot where it slowly stews and cooks. When I finish combining the ingredients in the crock pot on Thursday night, no one would want to taste it. At that point it is a messy conglomeration of random foods and spices. There is only one component missing – the heat. The cholent needs to be plugged in so that the ingredients can begin to cook together and cause the taste of each disparate ingredient to combine.
Greatness is not achieved merely with talent, and top of the line equipment won’t create superstars. There needs to be passion, an inner fire that drives the person to bring out the potential from within. If he’s not ready to ‘plug in’ and light the fire beneath him, he’ll never taste the highest levels of accomplishment.
 The second lesson is that a delicious cholent requires time. Good cholent cannot be microwaved! There is no way to duplicate that heavenly aroma that wafts through a Jewish home on Shabbos morning, except by allowing the cholent to slow-cook overnight.
We live in a world which values quick and easy get-rich quick programs. The rule in life is if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Greatness and accomplishment require time and effort. A slow cooker may seem like it’s hardly doing anything, but with time it becomes clearly apparent that the cholent was cooking to perfection. Suddenly those random ingredients have become a delicious cholent.
And the final lesson to be learned from cholent –there is a price to be paid for every indulgence. But some pleasures are simply worth it!

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

PARSHAS BEHA’ALOSCHA 5778



“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Beha’aloscha –Avos Perek 2
18 Sivan 5778/June 1, 2018

Shlomo Hamelech stated: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of celebration, and the living will give heart” (Koheles 7:2)
Although Simchos are beautiful and uplifting, most of the time we don’t leave inspired. In fact, on the way home from a wedding we often find ourselves reviewing and rating the event - the food, the flowers, the band, the attendance, the gowns, and the hall. Sometimes we may even feel tinges of envy for different aspects of the wedding.
But no one feels any tinge of jealousy when walking out of a house of mourning. If anything, we have the opposite feeling - genuine compassion and empathy for the mourner’s loss. It compels us to find a few moments of contemplation before we quickly get lost again in the bustle of life.
Recently, Chani and I went to be menachem avel. I didn’t expect it to be anything more than a routine sad such visit. But it ended up being a very poignant experience that helped put things in perspective.
The mourner is someone we have known and respected for most of our married years. She and her husband are great-grandparents.
She was mourning the loss of an older sibling, who lived quite a distance away. After she shared with us some recollections about her sister, the mourner related to us that her sister’s death made her reflect about her own mortality. The sincerity of her next question was unnerving: “Now I have begun wondering what am I going to say when I get up there? I’m so afraid of that!” Then she proceeded to tell us about the added chesed she was planning on doing to help others. It was clearly something she gave a great deal of thought to. It should be noted that she already does much chesed for others, and tries hard to live a Torah life. Yet she was looking to do more, to grab every opportunity.
It reminded me of the anecdote with Rav Yosef Yozel Horowitz, who was a hard-working businessman. On one occasion he met the great Rav Yisrael Salanter. After he told Rav Yisrael what he did he commented that ‘one must have what to live with’, Rav Yisroel replied that although that was undoubtedly true, ‘one must also have what to die with’. The words so shook Rav Yosef Yozel that he left the business world, and eventually founded tens of Yeshivos known as the Norvadok yeshiva. Rav Yosef Yozel himself became known as the Alter of Norvadok.
I should add that I told the mourner that the first merit she will be able to mention in the celestial courts after 120 is that she is a ba’alas teshuva. That means she willingly altered her entire life to draw closer to Hashem. It surprised me that she herself didn’t think of that. What greater merit is there than the willingness to adopt a totally different lifestyle to grow spiritually?
In our world, at times ba’alei teshuva may feel that they aren’t fully accepted or aren’t as great as those born religious. But in the World of Truth, where effort, yearning, and desire have primacy, there is hardly anything greater.
I don’t know how long the inspiration stayed with me. But at least for a few minutes that experience reminded me that ultimately, we are in this world, not for taking (though we must care for ourselves properly), but to see how much we can give others - not merely money, but more profoundly in time, care, and love.
When we take leave of a mourner we rise and state “Hamakom - the Omnipresent should comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.”
Each morning in Hodu we recite the verse “strength and joy are in His Place” (Divrei Hayamim I 16:27). In the presence of G-d there is only happiness and vitality. That is the beracha we confer upon the mourner. Hamakom - the One on whose presence there is only strength and joy, should comfort you - by granting you strength and joy, just as He will ultimately do so for Zion and Yerushalayim!
Amen!

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

Thursday, May 24, 2018

PARSHAS NASO 5778




“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Naso –Avos Perek 1
11 Sivan 5778/May 15, 2018

My parents were born and bred on New York’s legendary Lower East Side. It’s where my grandparents lived when they came to America as well.
For the first seven years of my life, my family lived at 550 Grand Street, a block away from the FDR Drive and the East River. Before we moved to Monsey the summer before I entered second grade in August 1988, I attended Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim (MTJ). I don’t have too many memories of those early years, but there are a few that I cannot forget. I remember getting in trouble in Pre-1A for blowing out the Shabbos candles during a Friday morning Shabbos party. I think I’ve gotten past that trauma.
My first grade rebbe, Rabbi Blank, was a wonderful rebbe, and had some unique idiosyncrasies. One of his famous ones was that whenever he would pour milk for a student, he would lift his hand as he was pouring. By the time the cup was filled, he would be standing on a chair pouring with perfect precision so that not one drop fell outside the cup.
On one occasion, Rabbi Blank went beyond the chair until he was actually standing on the table, all the while still pouring. At that point the student decided that was enough milk for him, and he promptly pulled away his cup, causing a messy flow of milk to spill everywhere.
The Kotzker Rebbe notes that in our davening we refer to Shavuos as the holiday of the giving of Torah, not the holiday of our accepting of Torah. This is because on Shavuos each year Hashem offers us the Torah anew. Whether we decide to accept it, and to what degree we invest the effort to reaccept it, is our prerogative. We are like the child holding the cup as the milk is being poured. If we decide to pull our cup away, we will be depriving ourselves.
The analogy is apt because of the well-known custom to partake of milk and dairy products on Shavuos.
One of the many reasons for the custom is that an infant after birth requires no other food or nourishment aside from its mother’s milk. Amazingly, studies have shown that when a child nurses from its mother, the milk adapts to the child’s system causing the mother to produce needed antibodies to ward off infection in the infant. Thus, the mother’s milk not only nourishes, it also protects, and helps the child develop and mature.
On the day when we celebrate the giving of the Torah we celebrate the fact that the Torah alone provides our spiritual nourishment and spiritual protection. When we commit ourselves to Torah learning and Torah living we don’t need anything more for our spiritual development.
One final point about milk. Cholov Yisrael companies produce three types of milk. Regular milk has a red cover, skim milk has a blue cover, and 2% fat has a green cover. Based on those covers it has become common lingo for people to ask for green, blue, or red milk, depending on their personal preference.
Someone noted that if there really was green milk no one would go near it. The reality is that all milk is white; the difference is only in regard to fat content.
The Torah too presents to us many colors - there is no one “flavor” of Torah. Some find their souls ignited by chassidus, others by mussar. Some are inspired by a vort on the parsha or an incredible story, while others seek intricate intellectual lomdus. Some enjoy Iyun - delving into a Talmudic topic in depth, while others are more inclined towards bekius - a more basic understanding which allows for more rapid learning. There are master Poskim whose breadth of knowledge allows them to state on-the-spot halchic rulings with conviction, while others may be able to share the “raid on the sugya” without having a definitive conclusion. As long as it’s all nourishing milk, the color doesn’t matter.
It’s only if the milk itself begins to change color, that we need to maintain our distance. Such milk can cause great risks to our spiritual health.
Shavuos has passed, but the beautiful lesson and inspiration should remain with us all year.

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

Thursday, May 17, 2018

PARSHAS BAMIDBAR 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Bamidbar –Avos Perek Kinyan Torah
4 Sivan 5778/May 8, 2018 (48th day of the Omer)
Erev Shavuos

On Thursday nights, the Staums have “Shaarei Torah carpool”. Our son Shalom is in ninth grade in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, and we have the pickup following maariv at 8:45 pm. Being that the Yeshiva davens maariv just prior to dismissal, I often daven with them. When I arrive, I often hear the last few minutes of the pre-maariv mussar schmooze being given by a rebbe.
On a recent Thursday night, as I opened the door to the Bais Medrash, the speaker’s voice thundered “this is not Stam Torah!”
[For those shamefully unfamiliar, I write a weekly essay based on the parsha entitled ‘Stam Torah’, a takeoff of my last name. The word Stam literally means “plain”. In the introduction to the collection of Stam Torah essays published a few years ago, my parents concluded their opening words of beracha: “By the way, your last name is Staum, which is not stam!”]
My first thought was that he must have seen me walk in and was making a joke, but he wasn’t even looking in my direction.
The speaker was prevailing upon the students that to grow in Torah and to appreciate Torah, one must invest emotional energy into it. If one learns Torah as if it’s just “stam”, it won’t be internalized. One must be passionate about Torah and be willing to toil for its attainment.
One recent morning during breakfast, I opened a vanilla yogurt I had brought with me, made a beracha, and ate a spoonful. It was so sour that I could hardly eat it. I realized the yogurt hadn’t gone bad, rather it was plain not vanilla. It need not be said that Torah is transformative and uplifting. But if we don’t “add our personal flavor” of emotional investment, the Torah may seem plain and boring to us. It is for that reason that we daven each morning that Hashem make the Torah sweet in our mouths, and the mouths of our children. The sweetness is there, but it is an acquired taste. We have to discover it and then merit it through our efforts.
The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) relates that when the nation stood at Sinai, G-d held the mountain above them and warned them that if they accept the Torah all will be well, but if not “there will be your burial place”.
There is a plethora of beautiful explanations and ideas to explain this intriguing gemara. Why was it necessary for there to be an element of coercion at Sinai, when the nation had already committed themselves to accepting the Torah? One point seems clear - Hashem was sending the nation a message that Torah is not just a luxury for them but is vital for their national survival.
The Gemara (Yevamos 77a) relates that at the beginning of the monarchy of Dovid Hamelech there was a virulent debate his legitimacy, not merely as king, but as a Jew altogether. It was based on a dispute about a teaching of the oral law regarding how to understand a pasuk in the Torah. The question was whether his ancestor Rus was allowed to join the ranks of the Jewish People, being that she was born a Moabite.
The Gemara states that after much debate, Amasa ben Yeser pulled out his sword, held it aloft, and declared that anyone who dared to dispute the oral law’s tradition which validated Dovid, would be pierced with the sword.
Why the need for such a drastic threat?
My dear student, Shmuel Dov Klein, suggested that it is to symbolize that just as the Written law is vital to our spiritual survival, as evidenced by the mountain being held above the nation at Sinai, so is the Oral law and its traditions vital for our survival.
It is absolutely incredible that one law - one challenged tradition - altered the entire course of history. If Dovid was indeed not a bona-fide Jew, then neither was Shlomo Hamelech or Moshiach who descend from Dovid. Without the Oral Law, the guidance, lessons, perspective, and boundaries of Chazal, we have no past or future.
Our commitment to Torah truly cannot be “stam”, without emotion. On the one hand, we have to learn it like our lives depend on it. On the other hand, our goal is to grow in our learning until it becomes an uplifting and pleasurable experience.
Of course, there is one notable exception when “Stam Torah” is indeed a great thing...

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Chag Sameiach & Good Yom Tov,
              R’ Dani and Chani Staum     

Thursday, May 10, 2018

PARSHAS BEHAR-BECHUKOSAI 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Behar-Bechukosai –Avos Perek 5
26 Iyar 5778/May 1, 2018 (41st day of the Omer)
Mevorchim Chodesh Sivan – Shabbos Chazak!

Last week, I was at Citi Field in Queens on two different occasions. On Sunday, I attended the Orthodox Union’s “Day of Torah Learning” held in the conference rooms at Citi Field. It was a beautiful and inspiring event, with thousands of people in attendance to hear words of chizuk and Torah from a group of wonderful presenters.
Then on Thursday, I was back at Citi Field with our Yeshiva - Heichal HaTorah - for a Lag Baomer outing to watch the Mets take on the Atlanta Braves. The Mets never really showed up and were demolished by the Braves 11-0.
I must admit that I enjoyed both visits to Citi Field (says the Yankees fan), obviously in very different ways. 
Before I headed out to the game on Thursday, I looked up where I could find free parking near Citi Field. I don’t mind walking a bit, so why not save the twenty-five-dollar parking fee? I saw that there is a place fairly close to the stadium called Willets Point where parking was free. So, as everyone waited online to turn right into stadium parking, I, the wiser, went left towards Willets Point.
It was a great reminder that in life you get what you pay for. Driving through Willets Point was an experience to say the least. I couldn’t believe the drastic transition that occurred. As I turned off the main road, I suddenly found myself in an area that looked like a third-world country. Groups of workers were hanging around in front of auto body shop after auto body shop, each one looking more dilapidated than the one before it. Worst of all was the road itself, which looked and felt like it was hit by the blitzkreig. Everyone in the car cringed as we heard the car grind along the road with every inch forward, despite the fact that I was going quite slowly. Then I realized how all those body shops stayed in business. Anytime someone drove down that road they would need part of their car replaced in order to get out. I was sure my wheels were going to fall off as I tried to inch forward and weave my way around the craters all over the road.
It was incredible to see the beautiful stadium less than a city block away yet being trapped in what felt like a different world. 
I found out afterwards that Willets Point is not even attached to the city’s sewer system, and they rely on their own antiquated septic.
As you can imagine, there was no way I was going to park in Willets Point. So, I put my pride aside, and shelled out twenty-five dollars to park in the stadium lot.
I don’t think my experience is so unique, if at least metaphorically. We as Jews are blessed with numerous ancient laws, customs, and traditions. With uncanny foresight, the sages enacted definitive parameters within which we are to live our lives. But often there are those who think they know better. The path of the sages often requires added effort and resources. There are many who feel that their own contrived shortcuts can ensure maintaining observance even while changing the rules.
History has demonstrated that such movements and ideas never stand the test of time. The alarming and frightening assimilation rate is the greatest proof of the failure of all aberrations from traditional Torah observance.
What was once proffered as the only salvation for the future of the Jewish people, has clearly deteriorated to a spiritual Willets Point, presenting a half-baked, faltering and decrepit form of Judaism.
When one leaves this world, the first question he is asked is קבעת עתים לתורה (Shabbos 31a), which literally means “Did you set aside time for (the study of) Torah?” However, there is another homiletic understanding of the question: did you set the times you lived in, to conform to Torah values? In other words, did you live your life trying to make the Torah fit with the times and society you lived in, or did you ensure that your lifestyle conformed to Torah standards, despite society’s values or lack thereof?
Shavuos is the anniversary of when we accepted the Torah in its pristine form. Every year as we celebrate Shavuos we reaffirm and reaccept upon ourselves that same level of original commitment. In that way we guarantee that we are not living a Willets Point Judaism. Rather, we are reaccepting the Torah in a manner that mirrors the observance of our ancestors, all the way back to Sinai.

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

Thursday, May 3, 2018

PARSHAS EMOR 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Emor –Avos Perek 4
19 Iyar 5778/May 4, 2018 (34th day of the Omer)

During the last couple of weeks our Kehilla celebrated and mourned what epitomizes the circle of life. On the seventh day of Pesach, Mr. Seymour Kerner, father of our esteemed friend Rabbi Shimon Kerner, was niftar. I officiated at the funeral on isru chag. 
Just over a week later, the morning after shiva ended, the Kerner family celebrated the b’ris of a great-grandson of the niftar, who now carries his name. It was unbelievable to receive a text from Rabbi Kerner on the morning before the funeral stating that his family gets a Mazal Tov on the birth of his grandson.
Mr. Seymour Kerner was a beloved personality in our shul, and everyone was happy to see him during his frequent visits throughout the year. At the funeral, Reb Shimon quipped that his father was the simplest person in the world, and that was his greatness! His father was always content with what he had, and never complained. He also loved to daven and his siddur was one of his most prized possessions. He anticipated Shabbos all week. In his last months when he was plagued by Alzheimer’s, his wife had to convince him every morning that it wasn’t Shabbos and he shouldn’t wear his white shirt. He often replied that if the rabbi was wearing a white shirt, he could too.
In my brief eulogy, I noted that at the end of the Seder, the Viznitzer Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Hager zt’l, would quip that he had eaten a k’zayis of matzah and a k’zayis of marror, but where could he procure a k’zayis of nirtza (nirtza means to be desired. We conclude the Seder with beautiful songs of praise to G-d, in the hope that we have gained divine favor through our efforts during the Seder).
I said that I wondered how we could find and preserve a k’zayis of Mr. Kerner? In a world, in which we are so blessed and yet so spoiled, we need to learn from his example how to appreciate the blessings Hashem granted us.
At the b’ris the following week, I was honored to recite the unique beracha “Asher kidash yedid- Who sanctified the beloved friend from the womb”. I have heard the beracha recited many times previously. However, being that this was the first time I was given the honor of reciting it, I began to think more about the vernacular.
The word “yedid” connotes a deep, intimate friendship. It is a combination of the word yad - hand, twice. Two hands clasped together in solidarity and admiration creates yedidus, true friendship.
The numerical value of the word yad is 14. Two “yad”s is 28, the numerical value of the word “koach” strength. There is great energy that results from the synergistic unification of two friends.
I once read about the psychology behind a handshake. Our hands extend beyond ourselves, symbolizing our reaching beyond our comfort zone and current standing, in order to accomplish and further our personal interests. In a handshake one person places his hand, which represents the extension beyond himself, into the firm grasp of another person’s extended hand. Doing so symbolizes one’s feeling of comfort and security in the efforts of another. Both are willing to leave their comfort zone to find commonality in order to accomplish greater things together.
The Rishnoim explain that the yedid referred to in this beracha refers to the Patriarchs - Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, each of which was a “trusty confidant and beloved friend” of the divine, as it were.
It would seem that these words also refer to the newly circumcised child. The child’s unique encomium as a “yedid” is the result of his receiving a Bris Milah. The bris symbolizes self-control and adherence to the Torah’s code of morality. 
One who commits himself to a life of chastity and morality is deserving of the title yedid. Such a person can be counted on to maintain his integrity and remain true to his morals no matter where he is or what predicament life challenges him with.
Mr. Seymour Kerner was a yedid. He lived his life with simple faith and joy in whatever Hashem gave him, and he was genuine and sincere.
Imagine how different the world would look if more people lived their lives more in that way.
May his neshama have an Aliyah and may his new great-grandson who bears his name live up to it. 
All of us are sanctified as yedid from the womb. The challenge of life is whether we can maintain it.

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

Thursday, April 26, 2018

PARSHAS ACHAREI MOS-KEDOSHIM


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Acharei- Kedoshim –Avos Perek 3
12 Iyar 5778/April 27, 2018

For those of us living on the East Coast, it’s been a long and harsh winter. Ironically, this was the first time in a few years that we had relatively pleasant fifty-degree weather on Purim. Being that it is a pre-leap year and Purim was on March 1st, it was welcomed and appreciated. But as soon as Purim ended, the weather dropped precipitously, heralding in a Shushan Purim snow storm. That was followed with a few more March snow storms and generally cold weather. This year March came like a lion and left the same way. Even on Pesach it was cold and snowy.
This week, the sun has finally returned from Florida. We are all hoping it will stay a while. Still, we are holding our breath, hoping it doesn’t snow on Shavuos or Tisha B’Av.
In Eretz Yisroel, the special beracha recited once a year on the blooming of the trees was recited weeks ago. I saw pictures of great rabbis standing in front of beautiful trees under the bright Yerushalayim sun reciting the blessing before Pesach.
Meanwhile here in New York, we are still unable to recite it as of yet. 
This week, we have seen the first hints of spring, including the welcomed buzzing of bees and insects, chirping birds, and some color returning to the still nascent trees.
Someone at our Shabbos table asked this week if the lengthy duration of winter is any indication that it will be a particularly cool summer. The response was that it is not an indication at all. In fact, it is likely that during a scorching July day we will hardly remember our desperation to see the sun in late April.
As adults, we all have experienced great surprises about how life turned out for people we knew in our youth. Often that person may even be ourselves.
During our formative years we make assumptions about who will be successful later in life. Many school yearbooks contain articles predicting the future of the graduates. At times they are accurate, but often they are not. The only predictable thing about life is life’s unpredictability.
So often, those we thought had little chance of making something of themselves defy all predictions. 
I once heard a beautiful statement: “all children have gifts; some open them later than others”. The great parent and educator is one who sees the child not as he/she is, but for who he/she can become. That requires vision and foresight, and at times even a bit of imagination.
It’s hard to envision budding trees and flowers in the dead of the winter. But we all know that it will happen. We just have to have the patience to wait for it. We need to have that perspective with our children as well. We need to daven for patience and for the wisdom to see the greatness within, even if it hasn’t blossomed just yet.

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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

PARSHAS TAZRIA-METZORA 5778



“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Tazria-Metzora –Avos Perek 2
5 Iyar 5778/April 20, 2018

When I was a kid (wow, I’ve reached that age...), before Pesach I would bring home a nice Pesach booklet that contained many Divrei Torah. Today, each of our children brings home a complete professional-looking Haggadah, which include personalized pictures, numerous explanations, and a plethora of Divrei Torah.
It is a true fulfillment of the mitzvah of “and you shall tell your father on that night.”
During the years when I was an elementary school rebbe, I too invested much time and effort to produce such a Haggadah. Each rebbe and Morah should be commended for the efforts they invest into producing the haggdos our children bring home.
I was thinking that perhaps all these Herculean efforts are not necessary. All the learning about Pesach takes away from the main subjects our children are learning. I propose that teachers continue teaching their usual subject matter up until the last day before the Pesach break. Then, that last day, they can have a matzah and grape juice party, as well as a carnival with different booths that connect to each of the ten Makkos. Maybe they can also make a small project about Egyptian culture and topography to help everyone get in the mood.
The Yom Tov of Pesach is so profoundly deep, and we all understand that in order to gain an appreciation for the numerous profound lessons of the holiday we need to invest in its study. The excitement that fills the halls of our Yeshivos as students learn about Pesach is palpable. It is that excitement which enables each rebbe and Morah to produce such beautiful booklets in honor of Pesach and each upcoming holiday.
This is part of the reason I feel frustrated around Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. To begin with, it’s difficult to appreciate the significance of these days while living outside Eretz Yisroel. But that’s all the reason why we need to work harder in that regard.
In regards to Avodas Hashem generally, there is no room for half-hearted observance. In the words of Rav Hunter zt’l “there’s no Switzerland in the neshama; there’s no neutrality!” Whatever we do as part of Judaism needs to serve as a means that draws us closer to Hashem. That point is at the root of being Torah-observant.
The yeshivos I attended in my youth did not observe these holidays, or mark them in any way. Therefore, it is only in recent years that I learned about their significance. That of course includes the endemic halachic discussions and political controversies surrounding their observance.
Among those who observe the day as a celebration and holiday, I was mostly disappointed by what I found to be observance that was dry and lacking meaning. The day seemed to be little more than flag-raising, and a falafel party and carnival with themes connected to Israel. Due to the phenomena that outside of Israel no one can seem to produce a quality falafel like in Israel, that seemed to only make matters worse. Our schools do their best to foster exciting and enjoyable programs with Eretz Yisroel based themes. But there seems to be a very unemotional attitude towards these days in the general community. I doubt Pesach would be as meaningful if it was only about listening to a few lectures, no matter how inspiring they would be.
What an opportunity the day presents to educate our children, and to remind ourselves, about Kedushas ha’aretz, mitzvos ha’aertz, and why we pined for so long to return there. No other nation has ever returned home after being forcibly and brutally expelled for any length of time. Not recounting the miracles Hashem performed during the UN vote on November 29, 1948, and during the War of Independence, or the fact that today the center of Torah study in the world has again shifted back to Eretz Yisroel, is like observing Pesach without relating the Haggadah. (The comparison is obviously faulty because we have a mitzvah to recite the Haggadah. I only mention the comparison to bring out the point.)
A colleague in a different Yeshiva related to me that on Yom Hashoah last week, a student asked him if they were reciting Hallel that day. That’s a pretty strong indication that we are coming up short in our conveying the meaning of these days.
Perhaps we need to approach these days as we do other holidays, beginning to explain our spiritual perspective towards these days a few days prior - why they mean so much to us, and how we can draw closer to Hashem through their observance.
For those communities who don’t observe these days, my personal opinion (which no one asked for) is that they too need to educate their students about a proper perspective of how to view contemporary events in Eretz Yisroel. They too need a framework to understand how to view the miraculous events of the past seventy plus years.
Regardless of what hashkafic perspective one has about the state, what has and continue to occur needs to be addressed. Hashem has wrought incredible and previously unimaginable events to occur. This includes the recapture of Yerushalayim in 1967 and all the miracles of the Six-day war, the Entebbe Raid, Operation Desert Storm ending on Purim, and in fact the country’s daily survival. Ignorance is surely not the answer, though it seems that most are woefully ignorant of the events and a perspective about them.
In a religion that encourages questions and pondering of everything, how can such significant events merely be breezed over?
Last week, my younger brother Yaakov, who was visiting for Pesach, headed home with his family to their home in Nachlaot, Yerushalayim. He sent a picture of his ElAl plane from Kennedy airport with the caption “almost home”.
It struck me afterwards how incredible that statement is. They had packed, made it to the airport, and went through security, so all they needed to do was board the plane. He was almost home despite the fact that he was over seven thousand miles away.
What a world we live in. We can be in New York, or any other part of the world and yet be “almost home”; just a flight away.
When I was a high school student in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, we didn’t recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Berel Wein (who said Hallel with his shul next door) would remind us that, more important than whether you recite Hallel or not, is the feeling of gratitude to Hashem for the incredible events He has allowed us to witness, and that we not lose our sense of amazement and wonder for the gift of Eretz Yisroel and Yerushalayim.

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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

PARSHAS SHEMINI 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shemini – Mevorchim Chodesh Iyar – Avos Perek 1
28 Nissan 5778/April 13, 2018

One of the responsibilities of the leaders of any institution is to fundraise. It’s usually regarded as the most dreaded and arduous part of the job. Yeshiva administrators and Roshei Yeshiva are very familiar with the challenges of fundraising and are constantly looking for an innovative idea for fundraising.
Just before Pesach, I suggested to a Rosh Yeshiva that on Seder night, before beginning his own Seder, he should walk around his community. At the moment when he sees through the window that a family is doing yachatz, he should burst in and grab the afikomen before the children get to it. If they ask him what right he has to enter he can point to the paragraph they are about to recite in Ha Lachma Anya when they declare “whoever is hungry let him come and eat”. He can then make his pitch about how hungry the students in his Yeshiva are for funds so they can continue their studies. He should conclude by telling the bewildered family his address where they can find him when they are ready to eat the afikomen.
When they arrive to retrieve their afikomen he can discuss the terms and how much they are willing to donate to the Yeshiva for it.
I thought it was a no-brainer, but he wasn’t keen on the idea. No one appreciates genius these days.
Virtually every Haggadah questions the motive and meaning behind that warm and generous invitation for anyone who needs to join our Seder, when our Seder is already well underway and our front door is closed.
Some suggest that it is not an invitation to outsiders but a clarion call towards those already seated around the table.
We begin by noting that the matzah is the bread of affliction. As the food of slaves, matzah symbolizes servitude and uncompromised loyalty. Such subservience is not easy to attain, unless forced. When we were slaves in Egypt, we had no choice but to fulfill our expected work quota. But as the servants of Hashem we are afforded free-choice. We have the ability to live up to our responsibilities and discover inner tranquility and happiness. Doing so however, requires extortion in a never-ending quest for growth. The other option is to assume the far easier path of convenience, which affords momentary comfort but long-term regret.
If one realizes the value in the struggle and wants to achieve greatness, that’s a good start, but it’s not enough. “Confidence is the feeling you have until you realize the problem!”
What keeps a person going when faced with challenges? The drive! The question is “how badly do you want it?”
This simple question is often mentioned in the world of sports. Two teams are set to square off in an important game. Both have tremendous talent and on paper are evenly matched. Sports commentators will quip that the game will be won by whoever wants it more badly! It won’t be a matter of talent as much as it will be a matter of drive, mental energy, and passion.
L’havdil, the world of spiritual growth requires the same passionate dedication. In a lecture I was privileged to hear from Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt’l, he recounted that someone once asked his rebbe, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt’l how one can finish all of Shas. Rav Chaim replied “if you want to finish Shas, you have to be sick over Shas.” In other words, it has to consume you to such a degree that you never put aside that goal and continue to pursue it constantly. If you have that level of desire than you’ll be able to finish Shas, despite the challenge.
Perhaps that is part of the message of ha lachama anya. First, we declare that matzah is the bread of affliction, symbolizing subservience. Then we call out to ourselves and those at the table “who is hungry? Who feels the need?” Only one who is hungry and pines to partake in spiritual greatness will be willing to endure and consume the requisite bread of affiliation.
That’s the message we convey as we begin the Seder. It’s not just an ancient tale, but a contemporary story connected to our lives. We are all confronted by our own Egypts and Pharaohs. Only those who really want to persevere badly enough will get there. The indomitable and uncompromising will is the key to the redemption.
We aren’t inviting outsiders to join our Seder. Rather, we are inviting ourselves to be a part of the extraordinary story we are about to tell!
Pesach concludes by leaving us in the throes of Sefiras Haomer, anticipatorily gearing up for Shavuos and Kabbolas HaTorah. How much we prepare and how ready we will be, all depends on how badly we want to accomplish and grow. 
It’s an incredible message, but unfortunately one that won’t help with fundraising, except that maybe it’ll remind the fundraiser not to give up...

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

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Acharon Shel Pesach 5778

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shvi’i Shel Pesach – Erev Shabbos Kodesh/Acharon Shel Pesach

20 Nissan 5778/April 5, 2018

 

In my youth, before I owned any seforim I loved siddurim and machzorim, and was always excited by new ones. This was especially true as Artscroll published its machzorim. [Today, we can hardly remember what the world was like before Artscroll, but it was only a few decades ago when Artscroll was an incredible novelty.]

The Artscroll Pesach machzor was published just prior to Pesach 1990, when I was in fifth grade. As my birthday is two days before Pesach, when my Aunt Miriam asked me what I wanted for my birthday that year, I immediately replied that I wanted the newly published machzor.

It was Chol Hamoed before we had the chance to go to Tuvias (then the only Judaica store in Monsey). By then, the regular machzor was sold out. The only thing in stock was the leather-bound machzor which was double the price. Aunt Miriam saw how badly I wanted it, and agreed to buy it for me for the combination of my birthday, afikomen, and the following Chanukah. I readily agreed.

I hardly put down the machzor the entire rest of Pesach. I took it with me on every Chol Hamoed trip, and would’ve taken it out of the car had my parents not insisted that I leave it there.

It’s now almost thirty years later, but every time I take out that machzor, I remember the gift from Aunt Mim and Uncle Yaakov. The machzor doesn’t look anywhere as aesthetically beautiful as it did back then, but it has a much deeper and more profound beauty for me in what it represents.

There is a well-known thought from Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev about why we refer to the holiday as Pesach, while the Torah refers to it as Chag Hamatzos. Rav Levi Yitzchok explains that we refer to it as Pesach to remind ourselves of the love Hashem felt for us when he passed over our homes on the night of the exodus. Hashem refers to it as Chag Hamatzos as a reminder of the love and uncompromised faith we demonstrated when we left Egypt into the vast desert with our families.  

Often after the Sedarim are over we feel that the highlight of Pesach is over, and now we just have to coast through the remaining days before we can return to our regular diet. The truth however, is that for another six days we are celebrating Chag Hamatzos and partaking of matzah, arousing and reminding ourselves of the eternal love story that was ignited at the time of the exodus. Every time we hold up a piece of matzah, we are holding a symbolic reminder of our unbreakable and unshakeable bond with Hashem.

The seventh day of Pesach is itself an incredible celebration, and according to many commentaries is even greater than the first day of Pesach. When we crossed the sea and our former oppressors were obliterated, it was a testament to Hashem’s love for us. Until that point, the nation may have wondered if the miracles they had witnessed in Egypt was more to punish the Egyptians. But the unbridled revelation of the sea was au unquestionable expression of Hashem’s love for His nation. 

Megillas Shir Hashirim is read specifically on Pesach, because it is the deepest expression of the intimate love between Hashem and Klal Yisroel.

It is truly a week-long matzah celebration.

Last year towards the end of Chol Hamoed we were asking our (then) three-year-old son Dovid what we wanted for lunch. He finally agreed to have pizza. When Chani mentioned that she would get matzah to make him pizza, he started yelling, “No more matzah! I don’t want any more matzah! I want real pizza!” 

Perhaps the taste of the matzah doesn’t excite us much by the time the holiday is over. But the deep symbolism of what it represents should excite us throughout the beautiful Yom Tov and beyond. To paraphrase Maxwell House “Good to the last bite!”

Freilichen Yom Tov & Chag Kasher V’sameiach

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum