Thursday, November 29, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayeshev
22 Kislev 5779/November 29, 2018

For almost a decade I had the great privilege of being the Guidance Counselor in Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch. On one occasion, I was conversing with the yeshiva’s executive director, Mr. Yehuda Avrohom Most. I mentioned to Mr. Most that I was impressed with a particular speaker who was always careful to check the veracity of his stories before he related them publicly. Mr. Most replied that while it’s true that that speaker always researches his stories, the way he says them over may not necessarily be the way the stories actually happened.
As an example, he began relating to me a personal anecdote. On one occasion he was flying somewhere first class and seated next to him was the New York Yankees legendary slugger Mickey Mantle. My jaw dropped, “You at next to the Mick? Did you say anything to him?” Mr. Most nodded, “I asked him to pass me the magazine that was in front of the seat next to him, which he did.”
I couldn’t believe it, “That’s it? You didn’t ask him for his autograph or anything more?” Mr. Most looked at me sharply, “Listen, I met Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l and I met Rav Aaron Schechter shlita. Those are great people. Mickey Mantle didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t care for his autograph or to speak to him.”
That was the story. Mr. Most continued, “I related that experience to a friend of mine who is a public speaker. Sometime afterwards he repeated the story, telling everyone that I had been on a plane seated next to Mickey Mantle but I held myself back from asking him for his autograph because, after having met Rav Moshe and Rav Aharon, I didn’t want to display any honor towards him. Technically, it’s a true story. But that’s not the way it happened. I didn’t hold myself back; I frankly didn’t care at all. Mickey Mantle didn’t excite me in the least bit.”
It’s a great insight. A story can be true in the sense that all the details are technically factual. Yet the way it’s conveyed may not be the way it happened. It can be overly dramatized, and certain parts can be exaggerated or emphasized though when it occurred that wasn’t at all the intent.
In the aforementioned story, the twist is innocuous. But at times the way a story is twisted can completely distort the facts.
Perhaps there is no starker example of this than the holiday of Chanukah. There is no other holiday whose meaning and significance has been so tragically misunderstood. Chanukah is sometimes touted as a seasonal holiday, that has the least bit of connection to the Christian holiday that happens to take place within a few weeks of Chanukah. Chanukah is also often portrayed as a celebration of the underdog beating the odds. We love the stories of the peasant girl being chosen to marry the prince, the unlikely athlete with the prosthetic leg winning the gold in the Olympics, and the failing student becoming the class valedictorian.
Those who view Chanukah in that manner cheapen it to a Hollywood classic. While the details are true, and it was indeed an unlikely victory of the few against the many, that is a gross misunderstanding of the true greatness of what occurred.
Chanukah is the celebration of those who refused to allow their observance to become tainted with outside influences. It is the story of those who were ready to die for the right to maintain their religious beliefs. It’s about those who subjugated themselves to a higher authority and refused to submit to many of their brethren who couldn’t comprehend their obstinacy.
It’s the perpetuation and celebration of the Chanukah story that ensures we maintain our commitments to Torah even in America 2018.
It’s what compels a group of observant Jews to become emotional and excited when trapped on an ElAl flight with the prospect of Shabbos desecration looming. (Yet, despite being repeatedly lied to, they didn’t behave inappropriately at all. Reports that they acted violently was a blatant lie.) They don’t have the choice to relent on their religious obligations so that their non-religious brethren aboard the flight not lose out on their weekend plans by flying directly to Israel. Shabbos is a mandate from on high and it is not within their rights to tamper with it, ever.
Unlike every other holiday, the story of Chanukah does not have an official text which we are obligated to read during the holiday. That is part of the reason why the holiday is so misunderstood. But the essence of the holiday is the celebration of unbroken tradition, and therefore it must transcend text.
It is incumbent upon us to remember the true story of Chanukah, to celebrate it joyfully, and to internalize it, and convey it wistfully to our children. The Chanukah lights contain the secret to our eternity - our refusal to capitulate and to remain loyal to Hashem and His Torah. It’s an eight-day holiday of thanksgiving where we thank G-d for all He bestows upon us. But above all, for the opportunity to be the torch-bearers of His holy Torah.
All the other beautiful aspects of Chanukah - dreidels, presents, gelt, latkes, and donuts - are all merely gift wrapping.

            Good Shabbos & Shabbat Shalom
Chag Urim Sameiach & Lichtigeh Chanukah
R’ Dani and Chani Staum  

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayishlach
15 Kislev 5779/November 23, 2018

Check your pockets; if you purchased a lottery ticket a few weeks ago, you may have the winning ticket. As of this writing, the $1.5 billion mega millions jackpot has still not been claimed.
The winner, who beat the odds of 1 in 302 million, has 180 days to collect before the ticket expires. In 2015, a California Powerball winner lost his ticket and his $1 million prize. Despite the fact that surveillance footage showed him making the purchase, because he lost the actual ticket, he couldn’t collect his winnings. Last year, Jimmie Smith of East Orange, New Jersey, found a lottery ticket worth $24 million in an old shirt hanging in his closet just before the one-year deadline.
A few weeks ago, everyone was buzzing about the lottery. It was the one question everyone seemed to be asking – “did you buy a lottery ticket?” Many of my students in both yeshivos that I work in asked me the question. They were surprised when I told them that, even if I bought lottery tickets, I wouldn’t have now because it’s too much money to win.  
Many people feel that they would know exactly what to do if they won the lottery. The many stories of lives destroyed by sudden windfalls notwithstanding, they feel that they would know how to proceed.
In a 2010 article, CNN reported that a British privacy protection firm reported that only one in five Londoners would try to track down the owner of a lost wallet that they found on the street. When asked three fifths of people said they would do so, but when researches dropped wallets in different areas, they found that the overwhelming majority of people did not do so. Only 20 percent of wallets were retuned, and only 55 percent on those returned contained the original sum of money.
The great Chassidic rebbe, Rav Chaim Sanzer, once turned to three of his chassidim who were sitting together. He asked the first one what he would do if he found a wallet that had in it a tremendous amount of money. The chossid immediately replied that he would return it without hesitation. The rebbe waved him off, “Fool!” He then turned to the second chossid and repeated the question. Seeing the rebbe’s response to his friend, the second chossid replied that he would keep the money. The rebbe’s voice thundred, “thief!” Then he turned to the third chossid and repeated the question. The chossid nervously replied, “Rebbe, I would hope that I would have the inner strength to return the money!” The rebbe nodded approvingly. That was the correct response.
We are very confident and perhaps even cocky that, placed in a challenging situation, we would unquestionably maintain our integrity and respond according to our convictions. But a person needs to always be aware of his inclinations. One must constantly worry that perhaps he has not sufficiently developed his sense of integrity and his moral compass to ensure that he would follow his own values even in a compromising situation.  
The truth is that it’s not just about money and winning the lottery. In the July 2017 edition of the Atlantic there was an article published entitled, “Power causes Brain Damage.” The article quotes recent research that demonstrates how the brains of people put into powerful positions actually change. Most significantly, they become less empathic and tend to treat their subordinates with more disregard.  
That only further demonstrates to us the incredible greatness of our Torah leaders. It’s not just that they are humble and the epitome of love, empathy, and caring. It’s also that they reach such levels despite the fact that they are accorded so much honor and deference. That humility is what makes them into a Gadol.
For all of us it is a humbling message that we must always be wary of the effect that all promotions and growth can have on us if we aren’t careful. There are indeed individuals who have become rich and famous who have not allowed their newfound wealth and position to severely alter their personalities. But unfortunately, there are many who did.
Mesillas Yesharim cautions us that everything in life is a test – poverty and wealth. The question always is – what did you do with it?

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayetzei
8 Kislev 5779/November 16, 2018

October 26-27 a few weeks ago, was the week of the Shabbat project, when Jews of all affiliations and backgrounds throughout the world were uniting in observing Shabbos.
It has become in vogue at the end of Shabbatons to have a Carlebach style havdala. Before beginning havdala, with the lights off and the glow of the havdala candle reflecting on everyone’s faces, the leader relates a story/poignant thought while strumming gently on his guitar. Then havdala is sung melodiously to very moving tunes.
On that Friday afternoon, I was driving home from Teaneck in the early afternoon. My phone was almost dead, lingering at about 3% in low battery mode.
I received a text from a good friend who lives in Las Vegas. He was going to be leading such a havdala and asked if I had any thoughts that he could share.
I thought for a moment and then replied that after a few strums on the guitar he should ask the assemblage what was the first commandment that G-d gave to Adam in Gan Eden. Undoubtedly someone would answer that it was that Adam not partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. He should then reply that the Meshech Chochma notes that actually the first command was that he eat from all the other fruits in the garden. Only after telling Adam to enjoy the fruits of the garden, did He then add the warning that Adam not eat from the forbidden fruit.
The lesson is that living according to the mandates of G-d is not to confine and restrict, but to ensure that we live an elite connected life within the confines of biblical morality.
I continued that some people view Shabbos as a restrictive day - a day of don’t do this and don’t do that. But that is a very poor understanding of what Shabbos is about.
Imagine an NFL rookie about to play in the Super Bowl. There isn’t an open seat in the stadium, the crowds are screaming and waving. They announce his name and he runs out onto the field high-fiving his teammates as the crowd erupts in raucous cheering.
This is what he has dreamed about since he was a little boy. This is what kept him going when things were really tough. This is his dream come true.
Someone asks him at that moment why he’s so excited when the whole thing seems so overbearing. He has to wear a certain uniform and can’t choose his own clothes. He can’t use his cell phone during the game, and in fact can’t do anything except focus on the game. He can’t go buy a sandwich or get a drink from across the street; he can only drink what’s provided for him on the field. He has to listen to the instruction of the quarterback and the coach, and he has to go out there and work hard. It seems to be worse than prison.
The player will look at the questioner like he fell off the moon. Yes, he can’t do any of those things. But that’s all part of the glory of having the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. Not only are those things not restrictive, they are part of the excitement of playing in the big game.
Shabbos observance indeed entails maintaining numerous restrictions. However, one who appreciates the essence of Shabbos, recognizes that the prohibitions of Shabbos are a vital component for our ability to gain from the greatness of Shabbos.
Throughout the week we are busy living outside of ourselves, trying to do our part to improve the world and our own lives. On Shabbos however, we turn inwards. It is a one-day honeymoon with our souls when we focus on what is really important in life. To be able to accomplish that we need to shut ourselves out from the outside world. That is accomplished by adhering to the prohibitions of Shabbos.
Immediately after sending that idea in a voice note to my friend, my phone died.
When I arrived home and plugged my phone in, I saw that he asked me to elaborate on what the connection was to havdala.
I replied that after we have spent a full day enjoying and celebrating what is really important in life, then we are ready to venture back out into the world with renewed spiritual strength. It’s kind of like plugging in a phone at the end of the day. After a few hours it’s charged and able to fulfill all of its functions for the new day. Shabbos is our souls plug that charges us up for the week.
After I sent that reply, I took my almost dead phone and that’s exactly what I did.

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

Thursday, November 8, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Toldos – Rosh Chodesh Kislev
1 Kislev 5779/November 9, 2018

Last week I had two packages to send out. One was a bar mitzvah gift of a friend’s son; the other was a thank you gift for a person who gave of his time to help me with something. I didn’t want to just send generic messages, so I spent time composing a personal message on each card.
After I sent the thank you gift I came home and found the card I had written for it. I realized that with the thank you gift was the mazal tov card for the bar mitzvah.
I remember that shortly after his bar mitzvah a friend of mine showed me a set of chumashim he had received as a gift from a classmate. Inside the Chumash was a card wishing Mazal Tov to the friend who had given him the set.
It’s always nice to receive a gift, but a personalized note makes it that much more meaningful.
As educators, whenever Chani and I receive a gift from a student with personalized notes attached, we are more moved by the card (which we often save) than the gift itself (though the gifts are of course appreciated too).
Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l noted that the goal of tefila is not just to recite the words of the siddur. The goal is to daven in our own words, to open our hearts and express our feelings, worries, and hopes to Hashem.
The problem is that we don’t really feel like we are talking to anyone when we are davening. Rav Pinkus quips that a person only needs a siddur when he’s talking to the wall!
He surely didn’t mean to undermine the value and importance of reciting the holy and ancient words of the siddur. But his point was that tefila must go beyond the printed word. It must include the unbridled feelings of the heart and soul. 
Most women in pre-war Europe were illiterate and didn’t know how to read the siddur. But oh, how they davened. Throughout their day they would constantly speak to Hashem, imploring Him for guidance, insight, direction, hope, blessing, and health. That is the ultimate goal of tefillah – to connect on a personal level with Hashem.
When we just read the words of the siddur, we have unquestionably discharged our obligation to daven and have accomplished a great thing. However, doing so has not achieved the ultimate benefit of prayer. That is only achieved when it is personalized and presented with emotion and feeling, when our true inner self is presented before G-d.
The Chofetz Chaim writes (Likkutei Amarim): “One should not be satisfied with the three Shemoneh Esreis that he prays each day. Rather, on a few occasions during his day, when he is alone at home, he should express prayers and supplications from the depths of his heart. The words of the three prayers are familiar to him, and therefore he doesn’t pay close attention to them. However, when one contemplates his responsibilities, and stresses, and recognizes his vulnerability and helplessness, then his heart will overflow like water before Hashem Yisborach. Such a prayer is expressed with great intent, humility, and sincerity, and surely will not go unanswered.”   
G-d does not need our prayers, yet He cherishes them and hears them. But more profoundly, our prayers elevate us and allow us to live a life of connection with the ultimate Truth!

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

Thursday, November 1, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Chayei Sarah
24 Cheshvan 5779/November 2, 2018
Mevorchim Chodesh Kislev

Last year on December 25, 2017, Heichal HaTorah hosted a grandfather-grandson morning of Torah learning. It was beautiful and touching to see grandfathers sitting next to their grandsons learning together.
On that morning, I was about to begin my shiur by saying how touched I was by the event, and that I would give anything to have the opportunity to spend a morning learning with either of my grandfathers. Just before I began, Rabbi Mitch Bomrind, grandfather of my student, Elazar Milstein, said to me, “You know I learned with your Zaydei! He was a very special person!” I was very moved by that statement, and it threw me off for a few moments.
My Zaydei, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn zt’l, was indeed a great talmid chochom and a beloved personality. He remains one of my greatest influences and inspirations, almost three decades after his passing. 
The following week, Rabbi Bomrind texted me that he had a great story about my Zaydei to share. I called him, and he related the following:
“In the early 80s, I was at a dinner for Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim. Your grandfather was the emcee and he was sitting next to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, in what may have been the last dinner the aging Rosh Yeshiva was healthy enough to attend.
“The executive director, Rabbi Eidelman, approached the Rosh Yeshiva and mentioned that they had a dilemma- the honoree was a wealthy fellow named Daniel Potkerow. He owned a hosiery store on Orchard Street and was very successful. Although he donated money to the Yeshiva, there were two other donors who had pledged twice the amount of money to the Yeshiva. It would look funny for the Yeshiva if there were two people who gave double the amount that the honoree gave.
“Your grandfather immediately turned to the Rosh Yeshiva and asked for permission to rectify the situation. The Rosh Yeshiva told Rabbi Eidelman to leave it to Rabbi Kohn.
“Your grandfather walked to the podium and related the story at the end of Yevamos (121a): “Rabbi Gamliel said- I was once traveling on a boat and from a distance saw a boat that shattered and sank. I was grieved over the apparent death of the Torah scholar who was on board. Who was it? Rabbi Akiva. But when I disembarked on dry land, he (Rabbi Akiva) came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halacha. I said to him “my son, who brought you up from the water?” He replied to me: דף של ספינה נזדמן לי וכל גל וגל שבא עלי נענעתי לו ראשי - A plank from the boat came to me, and when each and every wave came before me, I bent my head before it. (Thus, the waves didn’t wash him off the board, and he was able to ride the waves until he reached shore).
Your grandfather continued, “The word דף (which Rabbi Akiva held onto) is an acronym for דניאל פאטקרוו. Whenever the Yeshiva has been a dire situation, whenever the waves and challenges have threatened to wash the Yeshiva out, that דף has come to its rescue. The Yeshiva has been able to count on and hold onto its דף and that is how it has been able to endure.”
“Mr. Potkerow was so moved and enamored by your grandfather’s witty presentation, that he immediately tripled his original pledge, which of course solved the problem.”
Rabbi Bomrind then added-
I had the privilege to learn with him on numerous occasions when I was a Rav on the East Side. He had Shas on the back of his hand. But what was more, I learned from him how to deal with people!
This Sunday, 27 Cheshvan, is my Zaydei’s yahrtzeit R’ Yaakov Meir ben R’ Yosef Yitzchok.  May his neshama have an Aliyah!

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