Friday, August 10, 2018

PARSHAS RE’EH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Re’eh
Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Elul - Avos perek 5
29 Av 5778/August 10, 2018

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I attended three weddings. Thankfully, they were all within a half hour of each other. Each was special and wonderful, but it was a long and draining day.
The last wedding was held in a shul in Bergenfield, NJ. Before I left, I walked into a side Bais Medrash. At first I thought there was no one there, but then I noticed a teenage boy bent over a Sefer in the front. I was there for about ten minutes, and he didn’t look up once. I don’t know who he is, but he inspired me. A wedding was going on in the building, people occasionally walked in and out of the Bais Medrash, and yet that young man clad in a tee shirt and sports pants was completely immersed in his learning, oblivious to anything else going on around him.
A couple of days later, I was driving with one of my sons on a very hot day. We drove passed a yeshiva bochur walking uphill, clad in his hat and jacket clutching a Gemara in hand. It’s not an unusual sight in Monsey, but at that moment it inspired me. I remarked to my son how beautiful it was to see a young man whose life revolves around the Gemara in his hand hurrying to learn Torah on a hot day.
When I walked into the pizza shop not too long ago, I noticed two high school girls holding bentchers and reciting beracha acharona meticulously. It was a chizuk to me about the importance of reciting berachos carefully even in a public and somewhat harried setting.
In Camp Dora Golding each summer, the season begins with two days of staff orientation. During his address to the staff during orientation this year, camp’s learning director, Rabbi Noach Sauber, asked the staff how many people were hired to be learning rabbeim. As can be expected, only a few hands went up.
Rabbi Sauber then looked around the room and announced that, whether they were informed of it or not, in fact every single staff member who came to camp to work in whatever position that summer was also hired as a rebbe.
Why was that true? Because, no matter what one’s position is in camp, inevitably there are campers who are going to be looking up to him and emulating him. There are campers who dream not only of one day being a counselor, but also of running the canteen, overseeing maintenance, writing and acting in plays, painting banners, or being in charge of the go-carts or zip-line. If someone is being looked up to, he has an obligation to strive to be a proper role model.
I remember once reading about a celebrated and famous athlete who was found to be involved in unethical and illegal behavior. When asked how he could act in such a manner when kids looked up to him, his inane reply was that he never asked to become a role model.
If people look up to someone, he has a responsibility to do his utmost to try to inspire. It is irrelevant whether he wanted that role or not.
The truth is that every one of us is a role model. We can never know how we impact others, and we usually are never aware how much an act or word we did or said affected another. 
The reality is that we learn from, and influence our surroundings, for good or for better.
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l noted that it is for that reason that we pray each morning (just prior to Shema) - “Our Father, the merciful Father... place in our heart understanding to learn and to teach, to guard and to do and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah with love.”
How can we ask Hashem that we merit to teach with love when most of us aren’t teachers? The obvious answer is that we all do teach - whether we mean to or not, and whether we like it or not.
If a person is particular to guard himself from loshon hora, or to not speak during davening, etc. not only will he spiritually elevate himself, but he has also become a rebbe for others in ways he may never realize.
The frightening part is that the opposite is true as well.
As the month of Elul begins we seek to grow spiritually and become even greater than we already are. We do so not only for ourselves but also to inspire others to come closer to their living Father in Heaven.

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

Friday, August 3, 2018

PARSHAS EIKEV 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Eikev
Mevorchim Chodesh Elul - Avos perek 4
22 Av 5778/August 3, 2018

I wonder if others have had this experience too.
Before Tisha B’av I was listening to a lecture about the importance of being nosei b’ol im chaveiro (sharing the burden with one’s friend). Essentially, it refers to our obligation to empathize with the plight of others. In some instances, it motivates us to do all we can to help alleviate the pain of others, while in other situations it at least ensures that those going through challenges don’t feel alone, but that there are those who care about their plight. 
But, it goes beyond even that. On a metaphysical level, our feeling and sharing the pain of others demonstrates to Hashem that we care about our brethren, an important key to bringing about the future redemption.
The renowned speaker shared some incredible anecdotes which demonstrate the unparalleled love and care that great Torah leaders have even for strangers, including that a Gadol couldn’t sleep or eat normally because he was so disturbed by the pain of others.
But the strange thing was, the more I listened to those stories the more deflated I felt. Instead of being inspired, I felt dejected. I have a hard enough time balancing all of the responsibilities in my own life. Am I obligated to strive to fully internalize the pain of others? If I am, how can I ever be happy and dance at a wedding or appreciate a sunny day, when there is so much suffering and sadness in this world?
I reminded myself of a conversation I had with our family’s rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Schabes. Rabbi Schabes is not just a scholar and Rabbi of note, but also a selfless person who gives freely of his time for the needs of Klal Yisroel, well beyond those of his own kehilla. I am constantly astounded when I hear from numerous friends and acquaintances that when there were communal issues or personal struggles they turned to Rabbi Schabes for advice, even though he is not their “rabbi”. I cannot understand where he has the time in his day for his kehilla, the multitudes of others who seek his counsel, and to prepare and give derashos and shiurim.
Throughout the years, whenever we have met privately with Rabbi Schabes to consult with him about various family matters, he always gives us his full attention, as if nothing else was going on. The only interruption is from the incessant buzzing of his phone which indicates that there is plenty of other matters vying for his attention beyond our meeting.
I once asked Rabbi Schabes how he is able to deal with all of the painful stories he hears on a constant basis. How does he always exude so much simcha despite all the tragedies he is privy to?
He replied that when one hears painful news, and surely when one is listening to another relate a personally painful experiences, at that time he is obligated to try to be nosei b’ol and empathize with true care. Then when he davens, he should include heartfelt prayers on behalf of the suffering person and his situation. But beyond that, one must live his own life, and cannot allow himself to be overwhelmed by the suffering of others.
(Of course, that doesn’t include doing what one can on behalf of the person. This only refers to one’s emotional investment. Rabbi Schabes noted that he believes he heard this perspective in the name of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt’l.)
When my rebbe related to me this idea, I was very moved. I suggested that it’s a mitzva to publicize it to others in order to alleviate the needless guilt many of us feel that we are not nosei b’ol. He nodded affirmatively.
It is no small order to truly empathize with another when he is sharing his pain and you have other things to do. Nor is it easy to remember his plight when you are davening, to add tefillos on his behalf. But if one has done so he has fulfilled his obligation to be nosei b’ol. At that point he should strive to be b’simcha with the feeling of the words we say in bentching - “And for all Hashem, our G-d, we thank You and bless You.”

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

Friday, July 27, 2018

PARSHAS VAESCHANAN/NACHAMU 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vaeschanan
Shabbas Nachamu – Avos perek 3
15 Av 5778/July 28, 2018

During one of Abbot and Costello’s famous comic routines, Lou Costello was on trial in court. At one point he made a disrespectful remark towards the judge. The judge reprimanded him and said, “you can’t speak to me that way young man! Why, I’ve been sitting on this bench for twenty years!” Costello immediately snapped back, “naturally lazy, aren’t ya!”
A few weeks ago, at the end of June I stepped down from my position as Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead. In my final sermon in the capacity of Rabbi I related the above anecdote. I continued that I had been standing at that pulpit for eleven wonderful years, but it was definitely not out of laziness.
Over the years, I had shared many Torah thoughts, celebrated many wonderful occasions, including many of our own familial milestones, introduced some well-known Jewish personalities who spoke in the shul, and developed very strong and personal connections. On occasion, I had been tasked to deliver eulogies, some for dear friends. That is of the most difficult components of being a Rabbi.
Stepping down was a very grueling and difficult decision, but based on various personal factors, we decided that the time had come to move on. The fact that the shul has a scholar of the caliber of my dear friend Rabbi Shimon Kerner, who immediately assumed the role as Rabbi, mitigated the difficulty of my departure, albeit only somewhat.
An educator once told me that the greatest mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) for a rebbe is his talmidim. The fact that the rebbe knows that his students are looking up to him, and that he serves as an example for them, compels him to act the part, even if he would not otherwise do so.
What’s more, a rebbe/Rav is blessed with insights and greater Torah understanding in the merit of his students and congregants. Conveying a thought forces the presenter to crystallize the subject matter in his mind and ensure that he has clarity about the matter before he seeks to convey it to others.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt’l related that when he became a rebbe and would prepare shiur, in shmone esrei he no longer davened for knowledge only in the beracha for knowledge (atah chonen). He began to also daven for insight and wisdom in the beracha for livelihood (barech aleinu), being that it was now part of his job.
On another level, on numerous occasions I would have an epiphany wherein I would think of an insight to add to my sermon while I was walking to shul on Shabbos morning. When I would share that added perspective or insight in shul, I would relate that I was blessed with the insight in the merit of the tzibbur.
This is of course besides the many insights and thoughts that congregants themselves have shared, as well as intriguing questions they asked which forced me to ponder and understand many topics on a higher and deeper level than I had previously.
In that sense, the ending of my rabbanus in Kehillat New Hempstead means the loss of my “mashgichim”, and losing out on that special level of siyata dishmaya granted to a Rav.
The one thing that will always remain part of me is the feeling of closeness and the wonderful relationships that I, and my family, forged with the membership of mevakshei Hashem (seekers of G-d) who comprise the Shul’s membership. I will always be grateful to Kehillat New Hempstead for accepting me - a then inexperienced novice - to be their rebbe and for placing their confidence in me eleven years ago.
At present, I am unsure where my rabbinical career will lead me, as I explore options. But I do know that Kehillat New Hempstead, and the wonderful relationships we forged during the over a decade that we were part of the shul, will always remain part of us!

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

Friday, July 20, 2018

PARSHAS DEVORIM 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Devorim
Shabbas Chazon – Tisha B’av
8 Av 5778/July 20, 2018

There are certain phrases, motions, and actions, which instantly become catch phrases. They may have been non-existent one day, and then the next day everyone seems to be caught in the craze.
Not too long ago, flossing was something your dentist told you to do. When I arrived in camp I found out that it’s become a ubiquitous and strange dance move. I also found out why so many kids flip their water and soda bottles, trying to get them to land upright. That’s part of living in the age of social media. The funny thing is that in the not-so-distant future these too will go the way of the ice bucket challenge, the mannequin challenge, fidget spinners, and the Yannai and Laurel debate, and when Fortnite will soon be passé. (When you work in chinuch your students educate you about all of these bizarre societal nonsenses.)
One of those phrases which you can’t say these days without garnering a reaction is “let it go”. If you say those words to a group, if they don’t all start singing together, you’ll at least hear some humming of the famous Disney song swirling around.
The truth is that there is a great deal of wisdom in being able to let things go. Many people live their lives with resentments and acrimonious feelings towards others, because they cannot get past real or perceived injustices committed against them years or decades earlier.
Letting things go is generally a virtue, at least in regard to releasing acrimonious feelings towards others. However, when it comes to personal struggles and overcoming negative character traits or following through with a life-long dream and aspiration, letting it go in the face of adversity is not a virtue at all. It takes courage and conviction to follow through on personal goals and to not ‘let it go’.
On Tisha B’av each year we engage in national mourning, lamenting all the tragedies we have suffered throughout the millennia of exile. We recount in vivid detail the suffering of our ancestors and the egregious actions of our numerous tormentors. It all begs the question - why don’t we just let it go? Why continue to read about the travails year after year? Isn’t it time to move on and celebrate our accomplishments, and stop mourning the losses and tragedies of the past?
When I was a Social Work student in Fordham University, my first internship was with the HEARTS (Holocaust Education And Relief Team) department of Bikur Cholim of Rockland. I met weekly with a number of aging Holocaust survivors, to speak with them and to offer companionship and whatever emotional support I could. It was a very special and unique experience, especially because all the “clients” I met with have since died.
One of those great men that I was privileged to meet with weekly was “Moshe”. Moshe and his brother were saved from the German inferno by being sent on the kinder-transport that brought over 10,000 children to England, saving them from the clutches of the Nazis. Most of those children never saw their parents again.
When I met Moshe he was elderly and frail, and plagued with severe Parkinson’s. He could hardly talk, and generally needed to point to a printout of the letters of the alphabet in front of him to convey what he wanted to say. It was painstaking to watch his severely shaking fingers point letter by letter, composing just a few words ever so slowly.
Moshe had never married, and he and his brother lived in the same home. At that point, his older brother was taking care of him.
Moshe also lived with severe guilt, blaming himself for not saving his father during the war. It was an absolutely absurd thought and everyone who interacted with Moshe knew it. How could he bear any level of culpability for not saving his father, when he himself was a child and a refugee? My supervisor warned me that it was futile to try to reason with him about that point. The best approach was to accept his reality and to try to empathize with him.
A few months later I was reading a psychology article about Holocaust survivors. The article noted that at times survivors maintain irrational feelings of guilt over the loss of a loved one. Subconsciously, that guilt creates an inextricable connection, if even negative, between survivor and loved one. That guilt ensures that the loved one remains at the fore of the survivor’s mind. As long as he cannot forgive himself for the tragedy that occurred, he cannot forget about the person he feels responsible for. That’s why no logic or reasoning will be able to convince him of the fallacy of his guilt. The guilt maintains the connection!
It was clear that Moshe was carrying the irrational guilt for that very reason. That guilt connected him with his father and so even subconsciously he would never let it go.
The famous idiom is that one should let bygones be bygones is only true if it is indeed a bygone. Our mourning on Tisha B’av, our refusal to forget and to move on, demonstrates that our tragic losses are not bygones. Our mourning for the past connects us with it, thereby guaranteeing our hope and belief in the glory of the future.
The fact that we still mourn for those tragedies is the greatest testament that we are still connected to that world and to those victims. That’s why we cannot, and must not, forgive and forget. We remember because the enemies of our ancestors are still our enemies today. Our ancestors who suffered are part of us, and they live on within us. That is the source of our consolation- it’s the very fact that we continue to mourn.
May we merit the ultimate consolation this Tisha B’av.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
A meaningful and inspiring Tisha B’av,
             R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Friday, July 13, 2018

PARSHAS MATOS-MASEI 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Matos-Masei –Avos Perek 2
Shabbas Chazak - Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av
1 Av 5778/July 13, 2018

America takes sports quite seriously. Baseball is our national pastime, and basketball and hockey are not too shabby.
The Super Bowl is the most viewed annual event of the year, with millions of people tuning in the world over.
But soccer has never really made it in the United States. For that reason, I was never too familiar with the World Cup.
In camp this summer, I have two Brazilian campers in my division who joined us for their midwinter break (!). In addition, there are numerous counselors and staff members from England. For the last two weeks, all they seem to want to talk about is soccer (“fooootbul” as they call it) and the World Cup. The English counselors have the whole camp Dining Room singing the English chant from the World Cup.
One of the Brazilian campers was teary-eyed when he found out Brazil lost to Belgium 2-1 last Friday.
On Shabbos I was speaking to him and he explained to me that the World Cup is an event that only takes place once every four years. It also involves countries from the entire world. The pride factor is unparalleled in any other sport or forum.
My Brazilian campers can’t stand baseball. They imitate the game by falling asleep with a bat in hand. Soccer, by contrast, is played with two 45-minute halves of non-stop action. Even American hockey and basketball are not that intense.
As of this writing, England lost a heartbreaker to Croatia, denying them the chance to face France for the world championship. (It’s a shame; it would have been a repeat of many of the medieval wars between France and England.) The English counselors are crestfallen.
The Taz notes that most of the laws and restrictions that we observe during the three weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha B’av do not have their source in the Gemara, but were adopted by halachic authorities in later generations. In the time of the Gemara, the loss of the Bais Hamikdash was still relatively fresh. It wasn’t hard for the Jewish people to feel the tragedy of exile, with memories of the glory days of Yerushalayim not too far in the distant past. The challenge is that with the passage of time, emotions always fade. With each passing generation, it becomes harder to realize the extent of our loss and to recognize how bereft we are in exile.
Pesach is the most widely observed holiday in the Jewish world today. One of the main reasons for that is because of the plethora of laws, rituals, and customs that are endemic to the beloved holiday. In contrast, Shavuos is virtually nonexistent outside the orthodox community because there are no special laws associated with the holiday (eating dairy, staying awake learning all night, and decorating the shul with flowers are all beloved customs, but are not at all obligatory). The holiday which celebrates the most seminal event and the most important component of creation - the Torah - must transcend symbolism and representation. But the cost is that the holiday has been forgotten outside of orthodoxy.
How does Tisha B’av and its meaning endure when we have little understanding of what we are missing? It’s because of the laws of mourning that we observe. The rituals and restrictions insure that we will never forget what it stands for, despite the fact that we lack a proper appreciation of our loss.
The restrictive laws of this time period are uncomfortable and perhaps even annoying. The world around us is enjoying swimming and music in the hot sun, while we are desisting from those pleasures. But therein lies their significance and importance. Every time we feel uncomfortable because we are keeping the laws of mourning, we are ensuring that what it stands for will never be forgotten.
We don’t like being uncomfortable and choosing to be just that in order to honor the memory of the past (and future) glory of our nation, is honoring G-d in a unique manner. No doubt we enjoy honoring Hashem in our succah, eating matzah, dancing with the Torah, lighting Chanukah candles, and hearing Megillah on Purim far more than limiting showers, not listening to music or taking haircuts, and sitting on the floor reciting unfamiliar lamentations on Tisha B’av. But perhaps for that very reason it’s so crucial to observe the laws, and not be constantly seeking leniencies and ways around them (even if justifiable).
Everyone can be a fan when a team is winning every game and is cruising along. But only a real fan keeps cheering and hoping when his team is down in the dumps.
In a certain sense Tisha B’av and the preceding weeks demonstrate who the real adherents and loyalists are.
As the Navi promises - those who observe the laws of mourning will truly feel the joy of its ultimate consolation. May it be this year!

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

Thursday, July 5, 2018

PARSHAS PINCHOS 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Pinchos –Avos Perek 1
23 Tamuz 5778/July 6, 2018

The last few days have been quite hot in the New York area, to say the least. With temperatures in the upper 90s, and intense humidity that drove the heat index over 100 degrees, it felt oppressive. Weather reports all cautioned against being in the sun for any prolonged period, and to make sure to constantly drink to protect from dehydration.
And yet, this past Sunday tens of thousands of people did not drink (or eat) anything!
What’s more, in camp, counselors and junior counselors don’t have the luxury of staying in an air-conditioned room all day. They have over a dozen non-fasting children under their care who need to have activities during the day. Yet, we did not have one incident of dehydration during the fast. 
The mesiras nefesh we have to maintain halacha is amazing. The fact that we were all able to make it through the fast without incident is really unbelievable.
Often, we hear stories of individuals who performed relatively minor acts, which had incredible repercussions, even lifelong or life-altering impact. 
There are numerous stories of people who despaired of life or felt like total failures but regained their vitality because someone displayed a small act of caring.
Rabbi Aryeh Rodin of Texas famously related that a secular Jew donated a tremendous amount of money for the construction of his shul because he was inspired by the davening of a charedi individual when he had been at the kotel one recent morning. Rabbi Rodin related that when that charedi Jew comes to the world of truth after his death, he will be shocked to learn that he has merits of countless prayers from a shul in Texas, where he has likely never been.
Rav Shimshon Pincus zt’l explained that when hearing such a story, most people marvel about the impact of one small action, and how the effect of our words and actions are far more powerful than we could imagine. While that is certainly true, there is a deeper and more profound point as well:
If we seek to live our lives based on our own abilities and means, we are very limited. However, if we live with the awareness that it’s Hashem’s world, and we are merely trying to play our part in the divine plan, then we tap in to the infinitude of the divine.
Rav Pinkus related that one Pesach he and his wife hosted a lot of people. His parents and in laws joined, along with his married children and grandparents. He spent over a thousand dollars just on matzah! He related: “As I sat at the Seder I marveled at the miracle Hashem performed that somehow I was able to afford everything and had plentiful food for Yom Tov. But the whole time I was thinking to myself - what about next year? Maybe, Hashem won’t perform the miracle again next year. 
“This is stupidity! It’s an absurd thought! It was clear to me that Hashem, the Almighty, had provided for me though I couldn’t figure out how. So why did I lack faith that He would do it for me again?” 
When we live with the knowledge that it’s Hashem world, and Hashem lacks nothing, we can merit far greater things than we ever imagined.
The lesson of those inspiring stories reinforces to us that Hashem could do anything. Here a person did something relatively insignificant and may not have even remembered it or thought much of it. Yet Hashem caused his innocent action to set off an incredible chain reaction that changed lives. You can daven one morning at the Kotel and have an impact on the religious life of an entire community you never heard of. To Hashem there are no limits, and anything is possible.
I would venture to think that the mesiras nefesh displayed on Shiva Asar b’Tamuz to maintain the halacha was a great zechus, and was a big factor that Hashem enabled everyone to fast despite the oppressive heat.
When our enemies breached the walls of Yerushalayim they also breached the feelings of closeness we have with Hashem. We commemorate that terrible event in the hope that we will be able to repair that breach by living our lives connected to the divine, where there are no impossibilities or absolute limitations.

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

Thursday, June 28, 2018

PARSHAS BALAK 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Balak –Avos Perek 6
16 Tamuz 5778/June 29, 2018

Shortly before Pesach vacation began in Heichal HaTorah this year, a conscientious student who takes his spiritual growth seriously asked to speak with me in my office. The student said that with only a few days left before vacation he was finding that it was becoming increasingly more difficult to concentrate on learning. As is wont to happen in the waning days of the z’man (Yeshiva semester), especially at the end of a long winter, some fellow students were becoming somewhat lax in their learning. After admiring his desire to not waste the last few days, I told the student that I felt the best way to motivate himself to keep learning was to set himself goals of what he could accomplish in that short period of time.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt’l (Alei Shur) writes that we have an innate resistance to major and sudden changes. When a person tries to make sudden changes in his lifestyle, his body’s automatic response is to resist and thereby force the person back into the comfort zone of his habits. 
So how can one foster changes and improvements in his personality and nature? The answer is by setting for himself small goals that require gradual changes. When one makes incremental changes, he is able to bypass that initial knee-jerk innate rebelliousness. He doesn’t arouse the automatic resistance that emerges from innately feeling threatened by suddenly being thrust out of his comfort zone. Generally drastic changes last a few days at best, before one slips back into his previous routines and comfort zone.
So, what’s the best way to push yourself to accomplish even (or especially) when you’re not in the mood or when your surrounded by sluggishness? By setting attainable goals for yourself. Doing so helps you focus your energy and commit yourself to complete your self-imposed goals.
Someone once noted that a goal without a time frame is usually a mere fleeting dream. Even the best of intentions and aspirations are nebulous unless there is a manageable goal within a specific time frame.
The summer is a great opportunity to enjoy the beauty of Hashem’s world. But it also means Elul and Rosh Hashanah are not too far away. I once saw a great quote: “Do teshuva now; avoid the Yom Kippur rush!” By being proactive and setting for himself attainable goals during these summer months, one can arrive at the onset of Elul with a feeling of confidence that this year he can actually live up to some of the lofty spiritual aspirations he has for himself.
May we all have the wisdom to use the summer well, to grow in all areas.

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

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