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     

Thursday, March 29, 2018

PESACH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh – First day of Pesach
14 Nissan 5778/March 30, 2018

There’s no doubt that getting ready for Pesach isn’t easy. But with today’s new innovations there’s far less to stress about.
For example, you can buy ten pieces of bread for bedikas chometz already prepared. No longer do you need to exert yourself breaking up a bagel or slicing bread into ten pieces, and then wrapping them in a napkin. Now all that arduous labor has been done for you, and you can feel like you went from bondage to freedom.
The same holds true with pre-peeled potatoes for karpas. Next year they’ll pre-dip them into salt water too.
How about a pre-assembled קערה with the shank-bone already roasted, the egg peeled and roasted, and everything else in place too?
A cleaning crew will clean your car, and your shaimos can be picked up from your home.
Maybe next year they’ll have an app which can be set on a timer to read the Haggadah on Seder night at the table, while you relax comfortably on the couch.
Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi recently quipped (somewhat humorously) that men should stop telling women that cleaning for Pesach isn’t so hard. The men say it because they don’t want their wives to be stressed, because they know if she’s stressed, they’ll be too. But the bottom line is that cleaning and preparing isn’t easy.
There is a certain amount of stress that pre-Pesach invariably brings. There is a tremendous amount of preparatory work to be done within a limited time. It’s more challenging when we are only able to begin our pre-Pesach efforts at night after a full day of work and dealing with young children.
Aside from knowing what halacha demands and what is unnecessary exertion, we cannot change the time and effort necessary for “making Pesach”. However, we can change our perspective, and often that makes a tremendous difference.
When we remember that it’s not just a chore and obligation, but a mitzvah we are fulfilling for the honor of Hashem it becomes more bearable. If it’s a mitzvah (commandment to be performed), that means there is a metzaveh who commanded it. By fulfilling the command of the commander, we draw close to the commander.
At the Seder we draw closer to Hashem through the Haggadah, matzah, marror, and wine. Before Pesach, we draw close to Hashem with Windex, Easy Off, Mr. Clean, and Bleach.
Mesiras Nefesh is an important value in living a Torah life. It entails serving Hashem with selflessness and sacrifice. We make a big mistake when we think only major acts of mesirus nefesh are significant, such as stories we hear about individuals who risked their lives to perform a mitzvah or daven in Auschwitz or Siberia. But we fail to realize that when we forgo comfort and push ourselves beyond our comfort zones to perform a mitzvah and serve Hashem, that too is an act of mesiras nefesh, considered invaluable in the celestial courts.
What’s more, when our children see us exerting ourselves preparing for Pesach, they learn that mitzvos require effort, but are worth the exertion.
In years, when we weren’t home much on Pesach, Chani would suggest that we still kasher or at least clean part of the house, so our children should see us busying ourselves for Yom Tov.  
Last year, after kashering our stovetop and oven, I covered the area above and around the oven with tin foil. Soon afterwards, I turned on the oven to preheat for supper. Within minutes, the electric board which contains the dials that control the oven were completely melted. I had misguidedly covered the oven vent, causing the boiling oven air to become trapped in that area, burning it in seconds.
Repairmen also need to make a living, and a repairman arrived later that day to fix the electric on the oven. He reassured me that he gets calls like this all the time before Pesach, and I wasn’t the first klutz.
When I was reflecting on the incident and trying to come up with a good lesson to be learned from it, I had an epiphany. In fact, there’s a great lesson to be learned: When covering your oven and cleaning for Pesach generally, make sure you don’t cover the vents. That’s true for ovens, as well as refrigerators, and freezers. Make sure to be safe!
So, as we head into this most regal and beautiful Yom Tov, may we all merit to have a chag kasher v’sameiach. Not only should we enjoy the holiday itself, but may we also be elevated and inspired by all the efforts we invest prior, despite the challenge and fatigue we feel.
May we not lose our cool despite our impatience and frustration. But if we do, may we vent safely, and not at our children and (clueless) husbands or wives.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Freilichen Yom Tov & Chag Kasher V’sameiach,
              R’ Dani and Chani Staum     

Thursday, March 22, 2018

PARSHAS TZAV SHABBOS HAGADOL 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Tzav
Shabbos Hagadol
7 Nissan 5778/March 23, 2018

As a principal in a yeshiva during the afternoon, I appreciate the formidable challenge involved in finding good teachers. In fact, that’s the hardest part of a principal’s job. The teacher must not only be knowledgeable about the subject matter, willing to teach in the late afternoon, and accept the yeshiva salary, but he also has to appreciate the sensitivities of our students towards certain subject matter taught in public schools.
I remember that at the beginning of sixth grade we had one teacher who thankfully didn’t last very long. Mr. M was very unpleasant and demanding. One day he ordered us to do a few pages of work during class, without giving us much guidance about how to do it. While we were working, he asked if anyone had any snack for him to eat. One of my classmates gave him some stale pretzels he found in the back of his desk.
Finally, he collected everyone’s papers, and told us to put our pencils down. He then looked at us and asked, “Does anyone know what this is called?” No one was quite sure how to respond. He smirked and continued, “This is called busy work.” With that, he walked over to the garbage can and promptly dumped it in. He was fired the following day.
Mr. M didn’t look Egyptian, but he was definitely a psychological heir of Pharaoh. When I was in school and learned about Egyptian history, whenever my text book would show pictures of the pyramids and the Sphinx and would note the great architectural skills of the ancient Egyptians, I would become upset. I was sure that it was our forefathers who built those pyramids during their slave labor, and therefore should get the credit for creating that wonder of the ancient world. But I was wrong.
The gemara (Sotah11a) relates that the cities the Jews were forced to build, were upon unstable ground. One opinion is that as soon as they completed the construction, the entire building would topple over. Another opinion is that it was quicksand, and the partially constructed buildings would sink into the ground.
Why didn’t they utilize their army of slaves to build them impressive structures that could help their economy and infrastructure?
Rav Avrohom Pam zt’l explained that this was an important psychological component of Pharaoh’s diabolical plan to torture the Jews. If one is forced to perform slave labor, and he sweats under the blazing sun doing back-breaking work, there is a modicum of comfort in the satisfaction he feels when the job is completed. Pharaoh would not even allow his slaves that small feeling of satisfaction. The most painful part of the servitude was that all their oppressive efforts were for nothing!
As parents and educators, we are most challenged when we have children who feel no connection towards Avodas Hashem. We may feel that they are more like the wicked son, antagonistic and full of rancor. Or, worse, they may present as the son who doesn’t know – or perhaps doesn’t care – to ask, because he is numb and indifferent. He feels Judaism is overbearing and mitzvos are intrusive.
The root of the problem is that he doesn’t feel any meaning or connection. What a tragedy! The very thing that should offer him the greatest sense of meaning and depth, becomes the worst part of his life. The key is for him to be surrounded by a yearning and love for spiritual growth. But if Judaism is something we keep solely because it’s the way we were taught, devoid of meaning, it becomes inconvenient and oftentimes worse.
On the other hand, even if the child is exposed to real Judaism, where Torah and mitzvos are performed with excitement and feeling, if he wants to ‘feel it’ he has to do his part as well.
I related to my students recently the story of Feivel. Feivel didn’t know much about rides and attractions, and when his class went on a trip to bumper cars he had no idea what it was about. His classmates told him that it was a lot of fun, and he would figure it out as soon as he sat down. The problem was that Feivel didn’t figure it out. He sat down in the car waiting for the employee to start it up, and he spaced out. Suddenly he was jolted from one side. Before he had a chance to react, he was bumped from the other side. He spent a miserable few minutes getting bumped about, while everyone laughed as they bumped him. It finally ended, and the employee helped Feivel climb out.
When his friends asked him if he enjoyed it, he replied that it was the dumbest thing he ever did. What’s to enjoy about getting bumped about by laughing people for five minutes? His friends laughed at him. “Of course, you hated it. you just sat there while everyone else bumped into you. If you would have gotten into it you would have love it too. Feivel, why didn’t you step on the pedal?”
There are people who come into shachris each morning, don their tefillin, and then space out. Then, they complain that davening is tedious and boring. Obviously, the analogy is faulty, because davening is not meant to be fun. But it is meant to be enlightening and meaningful. However, to achieve such emotional connection to something so precious doesn’t come easily. The first step is to put in the effort, by opening the siddur and trying to say the words.
Every morning at the end of Hodu we recite the words, “Open your mouth wide, and I will feel it.” Hashem wants to draw us close to Him, but we must put in the requisite initial effort.
The regal night of the Seder when we are surrounded by mitzvos and berachos, is of the greatest opportunities to feel that emotional connection. We just have to be willing to step on the gas.

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

PARSHAS VAYIKRA PARSHAS HACHODESH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayikra
Parshas Hachodesh/Rosh Chodesh Nissan
29 Adar 5778/March 16, 2018

This year the Staum family enjoyed a wonderful Purim seudah at the home our friends and neighbors, the Binders, around the corner from our home. Before Purim I had invited talmidim and rabbeim from our yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah, to our home at 8 p.m. for a post-Purim-seudah seudah.
At 8:05 p.m. while getting ready to bentch at the Binders my friend, Rabbi Yehuda Schuster, arrived to wish me a Freilichen Purim. Rabbi Schuster is an old friend (I don’t mean that he is old, but that we have been friends for quite a few years…). He has come to visit a few times on Purim towards the end of our seudah during the last few years, but this time we weren’t home. I’m still not exactly sure how he tracked us down, but he advised me that I might want to hurry home, as there was a large crowd of excited boys converging outside our house. Our poor devoted cleaning-lady, who was babysitting our (until then) sleeping twins, wasn’t quite sure what was going on.
Rabbi Schuster walked with me up the hill towards our home. As we got closer and behan hearing hear the singing and excitement from outside my home, Rabbi Schuster remarked that he was sure that next week he’s going to read a Rabbi’s Musings in which I would write “I was walking home from the purim seudah with someone…” and that somehow I would conjure up some thought or lesson from the incident.
Well, I want to tell you, Rabbi Schuster, that you were wrong! I have no lesson that I wish to pontificate based on that event. Instead I want to share something more personal about our friendship.
I have heard from numerous people that I look like Rabbi Schuster, and Rabbi Schuster often tells me that people confuse us all the time. On one occasion, at a chasunah we were both attending, Rabbi Schuster came over to me laughing that he was just complimented on a speech that I had given. He thanked the person and walked away. When I was a high school literature teacher in a yeshiva in Monsey, many of my students had been talmidim of Rabbi Schuster when they were in seventh grade. They would ask me if I knew him because I looked and seemed so much like him. I replied that I didn’t know what/who they were talking about.
The truth is that there are certain similarities that we share. We are both alumni of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, spent many years at Camp Dora Golding, and consider ourselves talmidim of Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman based on our summers there with him. Students say we have a similar sense of humor, though I am quite sure I am much funnier. We are also both Yankees fans. The one thing we absolutely do not share is that he is a proud yekki and I am a proud Polish descended, non-yekki. 
As alumni of Shaarei Torah we also share another distinction, in that we both consider ourselves proud talmidim of Rabbi Berel Wein and find ourselves quoting him frequently. Aside for being our Rosh Yeshiva, an author of seforim on gemara and halacha, and a talmid chochom of note, Rabbi Wein has gained renown in the Jewish world for his sermons about Jewish history, and his unique perspective about Jewish life.
One of Rabbi Wein’s well-known analogies is that when a person is learning how to drive one of the first lessons he is taught is to look into the rear-view mirror before pulling out. One need to see what’s coming before he can decide where he is going. We, members of the Jewish people, need to understand our roots and our past – both the glories and the vicissitudes, in order to have an appreciation of our greatness and uniqueness. It is only with that perspective that we can begin to understand the destiny and responsibility every one of us has, as part of the eternal people.   
Rabbi Wein infused within his talmidim an appreciation of the timeless messages of the Torah and the Prophets. His constant message is that the Torah and all of the words of the Prophets are contemporary messages that apply to current events as much as they did when they originally uttered and taught thousands of years ago.
This week, with the help of Hashem, I have reached a personal milestone. I have completed studying all twenty-four books of Tanach for the first time in my life.
I don’t remember when I officially began, but Chani said she remembers me announcing to her about ten years ago that I felt remiss that I had never learned all of Tanach, and had therefore decided to begin a daily study of it.
It has been a most gratifying and rewarding study. Aside for all the incredible stories in Yehoshua, Shoftim, Shmuel, and Melochim, I would feel emotionally charged when I learned the prophecies of Yeshaya and Yermiyah. Their chastisement is as beautiful as it was sorrowful, and their prophecies of consolation and of the future glory that awaits us literally tugged at my heart. The incredible wisdom of Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei and Koheles, the resilience of Daniel, Ezra, and Nechemiah, and the penetrating messages of Iyov were uplifting and penetrating. Learning about the life of Dovid Hamelech, and learning the majestic words of hope and longing throughout Sefer Tehillim was unparalleled. It is something I look forward to each day.
I write these words in the hope that, as I begin again with a prayer that I be zocheh to finish it many more times, others may also be inspired to undertake the study of the most basic teachings of our faith.   
So, if you see Rabbi Schuster around town, please wish him a mazal tov upon his completing Tanach. And if you see a group of excited teens outside my home, please tell them the party is over.  

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

Thursday, March 8, 2018

PARSHIOS VAYAKHEL-PEKUDEI PARSHAS PARAH 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei
Parshas Parah/ Mevorchim Chodesh Nissan
22 Adar 5778/March 9, 2018

During shachris and mincha most weekdays, following shemoneh esrei, davening continues with the recitation of tachanun. Perhaps the most under-appreciated section of davening, tachanun is an intense supplication. We begin the prayer by resting our head on our arm (if in the presence of a Sefer Torah), then sit upright, and conclude by standing. It is as if we are declaring that we have done all we can in our efforts to pray, and have nothing left except place ourselves in the Hands of G-d and await His salvation.
During any day deemed a holiday, or when a joyous event takes place in the shul such as a b’ris, or if there is a chosson present during davening, in deference to the more festive atmosphere, tachanun is omitted. During those occasions, there are almost joyous shouts from the congregation to the chazzan calling out “kaddish!” or “yisgadal!” as soon as he concludes his repetition of shemoneh esrei, reminding him that tachanun is to be skipped that day.
There are specific dates enumerated in Shulchan Aruch when tachanun is universally omitted. There are a few additional occasions which are mentioned by other major halachic authorities - such as the Aruch Hashulchan - when certain congregations also omit tachanun.
Chassidim however, have quite a few more days when they customarily omit tachanun. Two of those times are the sixteenth and seventeenth of Adar. Shulchan Aruch states that we do not recite tachanun on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar - Purim & Shushan Purim. But it seems strange to also omit tachanun during the following two days?
One of my rabbeim explained to me the rationale for their custom: The Gemara in Megilla discusses which days, aside from Purim, it is permitted for certain communities to read Megillas Esther. The Gemara proposes “perhaps it can also be read on the sixteenth and seventeenth of Adar?” The Gemara refutes that proposal based on a pasuk in the megillah.
In Talmudic lexicon a “hava amina” (not to be confused with ‘hava nageela’ which is played during many American baseball games…) is a logical suggestion presented in the gemara, which is then debated. If it withstands all challenges and is accepted as fact, it becomes the “maskana” the final conclusion. Often a talmudic discussion will contain numerous hava aminas, before arriving at a maskana.
My rebbe explained that the chassidim reason “fahr a hava amina ohych nisht zuggen tachanun”. The mere fact that there is a hava amina proposed in the gemara to omit tachanun on the sixteenth and seventeenth of Adar, is sufficient reason to consider the day a minor holiday.
Although when I first heard the explanation, I thought it was rather humorous, there is a great insight contained in their custom.
In the beloved Purim song, Shoshanas Yaakov, we sing “cursed is Haman who tried to destroy me”. Haman was unable to execute his nefarious plan, and yet he remains a perpetual villain because of his hava amina. His wife Zeresh too is cursed because she was the enabler of his failed hava amina.
When analyzing Mordechai’s approach we wonder what his hava amina was. He was aware that the verdict was signed and sealed in the celestial courts. Yet he went beyond normal hope and effected an incredible wave of teshuva and unparalleled celebration.
Purim is therefore, a holiday that symbolizes the power of a hava amina - for good and for bad!
A hava amina, even if farfetched, demonstrates some level of connection. The fact that there still is a hava amina about reading the Megillah on the sixteenth and seventeenth of Adar demonstrates that it is still within the throes of Purim. After all, there is no hava amina that one can read the megilla in the middle of August.
In life, one can only accomplish things when there first is a hava amina. If one has no confidence in his own abilities, he won’t have a hava amina about being successful, and he’ll never get there. All accomplishments begin with a hava amina. Google, Facebook, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and some of the other most lucrative businesses today started in garages, as humble hava aminas.
I remember once reading about a black slave in the 1800s that was asked whether he hoped for freedom. He replied that he didn’t even know what that meant. He simply didn’t even posses the ability to have a hava amina for better times.
One of the greatest deficiencies of exile is the inability to overcome its confines and restrictiveness. Mesillas Yesharim notes that during the Egyptian servitude, Pharaoh successfully ensured that his hapless slaves were so overworked and utterly drained that they had no hope of revolution. By ensuring that the Jews had no hava aminas, Pharaoh ensured that they would never revolt. It took the Power of G-d to destroy the will of Pharaoh and to infuse within the nation the hope and striving for greatness.
Every major revolution in history - including the French, Russian, American, and Israel in 1948 - was precipitated by individuals who dreamed, and were able to make those dreams a reality, despite the dangers and challenges of doing so. It was the “hava aminas” of those dreamers that brought about the eventual change.
Everything starts with a hava amina; without a hava amina there can never be a maskana.
We have to have hava aminas about the great people we can become and the great things we can accomplish. Then we have to have the tenacity to strive for the maskana!

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

PARSHAS KI SISA 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Ki Sisa
SHUSHAN PURIM
15 Adar 5778/March 2, 2018

Last Friday, as President Trump took the podium at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he noticed his own reflection on television, and remarked that he would love to hear that guy speak. He then turned around began fixing his hair, and announced: “I try… to hide that bald spot, folks, I work hard at it. We’re hanging in there folks – together we are hanging in.”
With that, he began his talk about more trivial matters, like politics and what he was really invited for.
In other news this week, Union College in Schenectady, NY, claims to have found a lock of George Washington’s hair inside a “long-forgotten book.” The book – a leather bound almanac - is believed to have been owned by Philip J. Schuyler, son of General Philip Schuyler, who was a close friend of George Washington, and served under him during the Revolutionary War.
The school says it is unsure how the almanac with the lock of hair inside ended up in their archives.
Hearing the two stories this week gave me an epiphany. I think President Trump should purchase the lock of Washington’s hair, and use it to cover his bald spot. Not only would it cover his scalp, but he would be able to brag about the symbolism of his wearing the hair of the first president and leader of the United States. He would just have to dye the hair blond from its famous (natural) white color. 
A Jewish comedian opined that the Jewish custom of men wearing yarmulkas came about because of paternal baldness. Some Jews were embarrassed by their bald spots, so they covered it with a cloth. It caught on, and before long, all the Jewish men were wearing these hip ‘baldness covers’. It was the first Jewish innovation, even before the Shabbos Lamp, and the Shayne Coat.  
Chazal maintain a negative view towards one spending time fixing his hair. When the Torah refers to Yosef Hatzaddik as a ‘na’ar - youth’, Rashi explains that it is in a negative connotation because he was too interested in his hair. Although he did so with noble intentions, reasoning that as a son of the great Yaakov Avinu he had to look presentable and dignified, it was too much, unbecoming of someone of Yosef’s stature.
The truth is that the word yarmulka is a contraction of two Aramaic words – “Yarei Malka – Fear of the King.” A Jew lives with the realization that he is always in the presence of the King of kings, and lives his life based on certain expectations. The yarmulke is a constant reminder of his mission and higher calling in life.
When the evil Haman presented his plan to Achashverosh to solve the Jewish Problem through mass genocide, he preempted every possible rational argument about why it couldn’t be done. The gemara says that Haman reasoned to Achashverosh that killing all the Jews wouldn’t cause “a bald spot” within the kingdom, because the Jews are scattered and spread out throughout the one-hundred-and-twenty-seven countries that comprised his kingdom.
Part of Haman’s intention was to so frighten the Jews, that they would be completely paralyzed by fear and unable to respond. His intentions were foiled when the nation rallied under the call of Esther to Mordechai to, “go and gather all of the Jews”. Not only were they not paralyzed, but Haman was unwittingly responsible for the greatest mobilization of Jewish prayer and unity in history.
Ironically, the one who was destroyed by panic was Haman. When he approached Achashverosh in the middle of the night to garner permission to hang Mordechai, at that moment he was at the top of the world. From there onwards, the events completely unraveled for him at such a dizzying pace that he was never able to catch his breath. A few hours later he was leading his archenemy through the streets. By the time it was over, his daughter was dead, and he smelled putrid. He was rushed off to the party, where Esther pointed out his culpability. Achashverosh’s anger kept rising, until he lost his temper, and Haman was carted off to the gallows, literally without having a moment to think about what happened.
Haman claimed that killing the Jews would not create a bald spot because they are so scattered and diverse. The truth was that there was no bald spot because they bound together, internalizing the message of the yarmulkas perched upon their heads – symbolizing that there is a power stronger than Haman and Achashverosh.
The love and connection which they felt at the time of the miracle, returns to us every Purim. It is a holiday which unifies every Jew in love and friendship. At least for one day, we remove the masks of enmity and divisiveness which we often wear. We drown our emphatic opinions and hard-held beliefs, intoxicating ourselves with love and emotions that overcome all barriers.
Shoshanas Yaakov – the Rose of Yaakov, with its multihued resplendent colors, comes together, with the joy of seeing the techelies, the tzitzis of Mordechai, as they peeked out from beneath the royal robes as he was being led through the streets of Shushan by Haman.
On Purim we recapture our pride in our tzitzis and yarmulkas, and the modest dress of Jewish women. The world will never be “bald of Jews”, for we will always wear our yarmulkas perched proudly upon our heads.
That powerful message resonates long after the physical holiday of Purim has reached its happy conclusion.

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

Thursday, February 22, 2018

PARSHAS TETZAVEH/ZACHOR PURIM 5778

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Tetzaveh
8 Adar 5778/February 23, 2018
Parshas Zachor

In case, you are afraid that the honor and respect conferred upon rabbis goes to their heads, rest assured that rabbis have a built-in ‘humility promoter’. They are called sermon snoozers. Most of them seem to sit in the front row.
I should add that many rabbis have other humility builders as well, which include, but are not limited to, the shul president, a bored board of directors, and salary discussions. I personally am blessed not to know of such humility-builders in our shul.
A rabbinical colleague related that he feels there is great purpose served in the five-minute speech he delivers on Friday evenings, following Kabbolas Shabbos. In his words, “either my congregants hear a nice Torah thought based on the parsha, which they can repeat at their Shabbos table, or they get a brief power nap, which gives them energy so that they not fall asleep on their family during their Shabbos meal”.
It’s fascinating that everyone seems to feel tired on Friday night during the short speech, no matter if it’s 5 p.m. during the winter, or 8 p.m. during the summer.
I remember one particular Friday night when I was speaking in a certain shul to a relatively small crowd, and I was pretty sure that the entire audience had dozed off. I was tempted to test it out by interjecting some gibberish, to see if the assemblage would continue their subconscious head-bobbing and nodding. But I wasn’t sue if one particular person was listening, despite the fact that his eyes were closed, so I desisted.
Rabbi Zev Leff recounts that on one occasion, a congregant approached him on Sunday morning to tell him that the rabbis’s Shabbos sermon had kept him up all night on Motzei Shabbos.
Rabbi Leff continued that before he had a chance to start feeling impressed with the poignancy of his own words, the man explained that he always has a hard time falling asleep at night when he slept during the day. The sermon had provided him with just that opportunity.
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates that he once had a congregant who consistently slept through his derashos. As soon as Rabbi Wein mounted the podium the man closed his eyes and slept until the derasha ended. [I find it encouraging to know that even a noted and talented speaker like Rabbi Wein has snoozers.]
Then, one Shabbos Rabbi Wein walked up at the pulpit to make a brief announcement, and then went back to his seat. That week the man slept through mussaf. Rabbi Wein added that the man was angry at him afterwards, because he was convinced that he did it on purpose.
A rabbi once told me that in his experience it seems that women seem to behave in the opposite manner during shul speeches. Through the Mechitza, he coul tell that the women are locked in, listening to every word.
He added that he always wanted to have the women sit up front during the derasha, while the men more comfortably dozed off behind the mechitza.
Over time I have come to learn that not everyone who appears to be sleeping truly is. There are individuals who listen with their eyes closed. The majority of sleepers really want and try to listen at the beginning, even as fatigue gets the better of them.
When they get home, if anyone at their Shabbos table asks what the rabbi spoke about, they’ll answer “about twenty minutes” or “about the parsha”, and then quickly change the topic.
Before the miracles of Purim occurred, the Jewish people seemed to have slipped into a national spiritual fatigue. It wasn’t that they weren’t serving G-d or performing the mitzvos, it was more that they were doing so on autopilot, as a matter of obligation and emotionless rote.
The Purim miracle served to jumpstart the nation emotionally. It reignited their collective inner spark and brought back a feeling of pride to be the bearers of the Torah.
Shlomo Hamelech states in Shur Hashirim “I am asleep, but my heart is awake. The voice of my beloved is knocking. Open for me my sister, my friend, my dove, my perfect one...”
Inspiration knocks periodically, but we must be willing to open the door to allow it in. That is accomplished by rousing ourselves from our stupor, so that we can emotionally internalize the inspiration.
Such is what occurred at the time of Purim. It’s a holiday that celebrates our spiritual rejuvenation and infuses every Jew with a sense of joy and pride in being part of the Chosen Nation.
Purim doesn’t call out to us to wake up, it sweeps us off our feet in a frenzy of joy and unity.
It’s a holiday that brings with it a spiritual awakening. Therein lies the source of its intense joy and celebration.
May we all attain it.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Purim Sameiach & Feilichen Purim,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, February 15, 2018

PARSHAS TERUMAH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Terumah
1 Adar 5778/February 16, 2018
2 Rosh Chodesh Adar

I don’t know if there’s anything worse than being a sock. Socks are put on hastily in the morning and have the inauspicious task of wrapping around a person’s smelly foot. They quickly become smelly, and often get wet. Then, at night, they are pulled off, and in the best situations cast into a hamper, if not just left on the floor. 
Of all articles of clothing, socks have the highest mortality rate, and the shortest life span. They can easily develop fatal holes which no longer enables them to protect the big toe, or they can become stretched out. For those who are sensory, socks take even more abuse, constantly getting pulled up and stretched out.
Another thing about socks, is that they are only worth anything if you have two of them. Their value lies in their being a pair. I think everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of socks never returning from the wash. The washing machine becomes like a black hole and Bermuda Triangle for socks. You put them in with the rest of the clothing, but then when you take out the clothing, somehow a few socks seem to escape, and are never seen again. The greatest tragedy is for its fellow sock who now remains widowed and alone. If you’re like my family, then you have a drawer full of widowed socks, that will continue to remain there dormant forever, or at least until something impels us to clean the drawer.
In the Mishkan, and subsequently in the Bais Hamikdash, the holiest of all the vessels was the Aron which was placed in the Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies). Atop the Aron was affixed the golden Keruvim, and from within them emanated the voice of G-d, as it were. The Torah relates about the Keruvim, the two angelic faces of children, “their faces was each to his brother.”
The Mishkan was covered by a few layers of yerios – curtains/tapestries. The Torah relates that the yerios were not constructed as one long cloth. Rather, it was made into two parts, and then they were connected to each other. In the words of the pasuk, “Five curtains shall be attached – a woman to her sister – and the (other) five curtains shall be attached – a woman to her sister.”
What incredible imagery. The holiest place on earth was created by keruvim facing each other, and the Mishkan was covered by curtains connected – each woman to her sister!
Last week, Mevorchim Chodesh Adar, we read Parshas Shekalim, which details the mandatory half-shekel tax that every Jew contributed annually.
The commentators explain that the half-shekel represents that although every individual is valuable (or invaluable), our ultimate worth is when we bond together. That, in fact, is the introduction to the subsequent special reading of Parshas Zachor, read the Shabbos before Purim. Parshas Zachor recounts our defeat over our nemesis, Amalek, and our obligation to remember his virulent hatred, his mission to destroy us, and his ultimate desire to obliterate all G-dliness from the world. Such evil can only be overcome with the synergistic power of our unity.
Sadly, there is a beautiful demonstration of this concept, in an article in Times-of-Israel, February 6, 2018, by Jacob Magid:

HAR BRACHA, West Bank — Less than a month after her husband Raziel was gunned down in a terror attack outside the Havat Gilad outpost, Yael Shevach arrived in the neighboring Har Bracha settlement Tuesday to console Miriam Ben-Gal, whose husband Itamar was murdered in a stabbing terror attack on Monday.
In a statement on the widows’ meeting outside the Ben-Gal home, Yael Shevach said the two traced the eerie similarities in their respective tragedies:
“Both Raziel and Itamar loved life; they both loved to dress and eat well. Raziel was killed on his way home from a circumcision, and Itamar was on his way to a circumcision. Raziel’s sister will be getting married in less than a month, and Miriam’s sister will be getting married in less than a month,” Yael Shevach added. “We are both educators, both Raziel and Itamar were Torah scholars, and both of us feel that we were chosen for this role,” Yael Shevach said, explaining that “role” as one responsible for strengthening the settlement movement in their husbands’ honor.
Raziel Shevach was shot dead by Palestinian terrorist on January 9. The father of six had known Ben-Gal, a father of four, through mutual friends.
Hours after 29-year-old Itamar Ben-Gal was stabbed to death while hitchhiking at the Ariel Junction in the central West Bank on Monday, Yael Shevach posted on Facebook that she felt “as if she gained a new sister.”
“We will get through this together. Alone,” she wrote.

The only way to adequately achieve “Zachor” - remembering and overcoming the heinousness of Amalek from time immemorial until contemporary times, is through the message of “Shekalim” – through unity and with chizuk from each other.
The miracle of Purim occurred when the Jews gathered together, adhering to Esther’s clarion call to Mordechai: “Go, gather all of the Jews…” That unification was the beginning of the end for Haman.
Purim is a national celebration of sanguinity and faith. It is that spirit which Amalek can never destroy!

Chodesh Tov & Good Chodesh
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum