Thursday, August 29, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Re’eh/Rosh Chodesh Elul
     29 Menachem Av 5779/August 30, 2019 - Avos perek 5

            For the last six months, I have been working on creating a new siddur for our Yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah. Well, I’m not actually writing a new siddur; the Sages throughout the ages who compiled our prayers did a masterful job with that, and they don’t need my approbation. But I, and the students and faculty of the yeshiva, are working on a new translation, annotation and elucidation of the tefillos in our siddur. The goal is to present them in a manner and vernacular that relates to an American Yeshiva student in the twenty-first century. (To be honest, I don’t even know what annotate and elucidate really mean. But those are the adjectives Artscroll uses, and - until the Heichal siddur is complete - Artscroll is the gold standard...)
            We b”h disseminated a “pre-publication” edition for the yeshiva’s annual dinner in June. Now I am working on completing the Siddur with new additions, translations, and explanations.
            One of the words which is a challenge to translate is ״נורא״. The standard translation is “awesome”, but in today’s society, it seems very inappropriate to refer to G-d as “awesome”.
            The online Webster dictionary offers two definitions of the word “awesome”. The first is inspiring, the second is terrific/extraordinary.
            It then offers the following comment:
            Many object to the use of awesome to describe something (such as a sandwich) that does not literally elicit feelings of awe. Yet the same people who insist that awesome should be used only of weighty subjects (Niagara Falls, man landing on the moon) will happily use the word awful in reference to something (such as a mess) that falls distinctly short of being “full of awe.” This weakened sense was once considered improper – in fact, complaints about it persisted through the early decades of the 20th century.
            The change in meaning that awesome is undergoing may be more recent than that of awful, but both words are treading the same path. For evidence that such change is normal, we need look no further than awe, which originally meant “terror” and now carries the weaker sense “wonder.”
            During the 1990s, Coca-Cola developed a clever slogan for Diet Coke, claiming that it had “one awesome calorie!” I vividly remember my ninth grade rebbe and menahel, Rabbi Dovid Katzenstein, railing about how Americans have destroyed the English language. When he explained that G-d is awesome, his voice thundered “but you don’t appreciate what awesome means. One calorie in a soda is not awesome!”
            It is with that in mind, that we are translating the word נורא as “awe-inspiring”, and not “awesome”. If one reflects on the fact that whenever he prays he is in the presence of G-d and G-d is listening to his every word, he will be inspired and awed.
            On Shabbos morning, just before the chazzan for shachris melodiously calls out ..."שוכן עד״, we state that Hashem is ״נורא בנוראתיך״ - “awe-inspiring through Your awe-inspiringness”. What does that mean? In what other manner can one be awe-inspiring?
            You’ll forgive the analogy: In L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her newfound friends return to the Wizard of Oz, after doing his bidding and killing the Wicked Witch of the West. But the Wizard still inexplicably refuses to help them. The riddle is solved when Dorothy’s dog, Toto, discovers that there is a vulnerable old man behind the curtain controlling the thunderous voice of Oz. It turns out that all the awe-inspiring majesty and fear of the great and powerful Oz is nothing but a farce.
            G-d is not in a popularity contest. In fact, He Himself endows man with the ability to deny His Presence or to believe in any falsity he chooses. That itself is the epitome of awesomeness, in its true meaning. G-d is awesome, but He doesn’t force that truth upon anyone. The truth is apparent and easily attainable for one who candidly seeks it. That is the meaning of awe-inspiring through His Awe-inspiringness. We are awe-inspired by a G-d Who is truly awe-inspiring. If we could only internalize that feeling, it would be so much easier for us to want to connect and appreciate the ability connect with G-d constantly.

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

Thursday, August 22, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Eikev
Mevorchim Chodesh Elul
     22 Menachem Av 5779/August 23, 2019 - Avos perek 5

            It was a really wonderful camp season at Camp Dora Golding this summer b”h. But all good things must come to an end, and on Monday we bid each other farewell.
            The last day of camp each summer season is extraordinary. It’s quite an operation to send home well over seven hundred campers and staff members to numerous locations, along with their luggage. At the time of departure, there are buses heading to various destinations in different areas of camp. The buses to the Five Towns and Teaneck leaves from the main parking lot. The buses to Queens, Elizabeth, and Newark Airport from the gym. The buses to Brooklyn and the Catskills leave from the Chevra Shul, while the buses to Baltimore and Philadelphia leave from the smaller parking lot.
            Camp becomes like a mini airport where you have to know which gate you’re leaving from, so that you don’t end up at the wrong location.
            To help things go smoother, luggage is taken separately. Numerous trucks are stationed around camp with a sign hanging inside the truck informing which destination the truck is going to. On the morning of the last day of camp, the trucks leave camp before the busses, so that when the busses arrive with the campers, their luggage has already been unloaded at that location.
            A number of years ago, one of the local drivers camp hired to drive a truck left camp a bit early to make sure he arrived on time. The problem is that when he opened the back door to begin unloading the luggage, he found that the truck was empty. Instead of taking the truck packed to the ceiling with luggage, he had taken a truck that had been used a day earlier to deliver luggage from the girl’s camp (which had ended two days earlier) and was waiting to be returned the following day. He had technically done what he was hired to do - to drive a truck. But there is no purpose served from driving an empty truck.
            Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l notes that we have not come down to this world to merely avoid sinning. While that is of course an integral part of growth and the responsibility of a Jew, that is not enough. A person has to try to make the world a better place in whatever way he is able. He has to spread divinity and morality through his example and behavior, and he has to try to better the lives of others through his actions and speech.
            One who lives his life not doing anything wrong, but also not doing anything right, is like the faithful truck driver who made good time, was fuel efficient, and delivered nothing.
            This is an integral idea regarding chinuch as well. The Torah unquestionably imposes many restrictions upon us. But it’s not sufficient to educate our children about keeping their distance from negative influences and potential dangers. They also must be taught how to “fill up the back of their truck” with spiritual delights and the pleasure of living a life of integrity and meaning.
Every talent and capability G-d has granted to a person has been given to him so that he can use those to help others and enhance the world.
            Part of the beauty and uniqueness of summer camp is that it allows campers to utilize talents that they aren’t able to necessarily tap into during the school year. During my decades in camp, I have seen numerous campers who have literally shined during the summer, despite the fact that school is an ongoing challenge and mostly unpleasant experience for them. There are many adults today who point to camp as a turning point and invaluable influence in their lives, including this writer.
            In that sense, camp helps us capitalize on the divinely ordained talents and gifts we have been granted, so that we not be like the truck driver who drives an empty truck.
            We first need to recognize the innate talents and capabilities we have, so that we can capitalize on them and use them to help others as well.
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, August 15, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vaeschanan – Shabbas Nachamu
      15 (Tu) Menachem Av 5779/August 16, 2019 - Avos perek 4

            I came to a fascinating realization recently: The people who are paid the highest salaries in our society are those who distract us. Think about it - who gets paid mega bucks and salaries in the millions? Celebrities, movie stars, and athletes. Our society imbibes television, movies, and sports, because it offers us a welcomed distraction from our stressful, fast-paced lives.
            We all need some respite from the daily grind. The problem in our society is when distractions begin to supplant reality.
            The Torah and halacha demands that we train ourselves to maintain our focus on what we are engaged in. When one davens it is an ongoing struggle to maintain concentration, at least of the fact that he is standing before, and davening to Hashem. Whenever one is engaged in performing a mitzvah he has to try to make that his complete focus. Halacha forbids multi-tasking when davening, reciting a beracha, or performing a mitzvah.
            But in a world which has almost no attention span or patience, investing and maintaining focus is very difficult.
            When the Bais Hamikdash stood, things were very different.
            A person would think twice before he spoke about someone else, knowing that one statement of loshon hora can cause him to contract tzara’as and possibly end up in solitude, outside the city for some time. One funny or sarcastic comment is surely not worth that price. On Shabbos a person would be far more mindful of inadvertently desecrating the holy day, knowing that such a mistake can cost him a tremendous amount of money. He would have to purchase a sheep or a goat as a Korban chatas, which he would then have to bring to the Bias Hamikdash and watch its blood being sprinkled upon the altar by the Kohain. All that for forgetting that it was Shabbos or that the act he did was prohibited. “Spacing out” had a far greater price tag.
            The pilgrimage to Eretz Yisroel before each of the three major holidays also left an indelible impression. Entire cities would empty out, as the entire population headed for Yerushalyim. The only ones left behind were the elderly and infirm who were unable to undertake the journey. The display of faith to leave everything behind unguarded was itself incredibly inspiring. Meeting friends and Jews from all walks of life every holiday was also a memorable experience.
            A visit to the Bais Hamikdash any weekday was memorable and uplifting. One would see the alacrity and precision with which the kohanim performed the service. He would hear the beautiful melodious songs of the Leviim, and he would witness how careful everyone was to not come into contact with anything that could render him impure. It was truly a different life.
            The pasuk states “The awesomeness of G-d was from Your sanctuary.” One could attain a certain measure of Yiras Shomayim whenever he visited the Bais Hamikdash. (When the nation began to lack that reverential awe when they visited the Bais Hamikdash, that was when Hashem decided that it was time to destroy it.)
            The lack of a Bais Hamikdash robs us of all these experiences. Living with a Bais Hamikdash meant living a life of focus and attention. Our society is almost the polar opposite. It’s a world of fragmentation and distraction.
            Part of the challenge of exile is for us to try to live with that sense of focus and awareness, even without the Bais Hamikdash. It is with the hope and anticipation that our efforts will help usher in the time when we can experience that greatness again, at the time when we will enjoy the ultimate consolation.

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

Thursday, August 8, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Devorim – Shabbas Chazon
      8 Menachem Av 5779/August 9, 2019 - Avos perek 3

            Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l was recognized throughout the Torah world as the foremost halachic authority and the leader of his time. As the ambulance sped through the streets of Manhattan carrying the elderly and ailing Rosh Yeshiva in what would be his final moments on earth, Rav Moshe uttered his final words: “Ich hob mehr nisht kayn ko’ach - I have no more strength.”
            Whatever strength he had was used in the service of his people. Now his energy was gone, and his illustrious life on this earth came to an end as well.
            One of the most painful predicaments is when a person feels he just can’t take it anymore; he just can’t go on. Although that feeling can be an incredible motivator for change and growth, that is only when change is within his purview and capability. That’s when the feeling of desperation can be the catalyst and impetus he needs to catapult him beyond his lethargy or anxiety to accomplish what he truly desires. However, when there are situations that are out of one’s hands, and life becomes painful and overwhelming, it’s a different story. As long as one is able to maintain a spirit of optimism, he will be able to endure the challenge. But when that sense of hope becomes depleted, he becomes far more vulnerable. The most difficult moments are when a person feels defeated, beaten, and alone. When one’s resolve has been shattered, he no longer has the fortitude to deal with the vagaries of his challenging situation.
            When Parshas Devorim is read there is one pasuk read in the mournful tune used when laining Megillas Eicha. That is the pasuk where Moshe Rabbeinu declares, “How can I alone bear your burdens, your loads, and your grievances?” Moshe felt overwhelmed and incapable of being the sole leader of Klal Yisroel. When one has a feeling of “eicha - how can it be?” he can easily become despondent.
            It is not one’s situation that determines his emotional state, but his attitude and perspective.
In the world of psychology this was demonstrated and taught most profoundly by Dr. Viktor Frankl. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, suffered Nazi persecution including being an inmate in Concentration Camps. Frankl noted that only those who were able to maintain a sense of mission were able to survive Auschwitz. He himself survived because he would picture himself speaking with people as a therapist in his new office after the war would end.
            In his words, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that can not be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
According to Frankl having a sense of meaning and purpose can help a person deal with the most difficult challenges. He bemoaned the fact that people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for!
            The greatest gift a person can receive when feeling broken and lost is regeneration of chizuk and encouragement. It can come in many forms and sometimes from unexpected places. When one feels that he has no strength to go on, that renewed vitality can make all the difference.
Megillas Eicha begins with that most painful declaration - “Eicha”, Yermiyah’s deepest expression of anguish and exasperation. We begin Tisha B’av with that same sense of “Eicha” - How can all this have happened? How can our people have endured so much pain and suffering? How can we still be here after so many centuries in exile?
            As we read the words of the kinnos that feeling of Eicha only becomes magnified. But after reciting paragraph after paragraph recounting our endless suffering, we start to realize that if they have not been able to destroy us until now, it is clear that we are eternal and indestructible. It is that recognition which fills us with sudden hope, granting us an injection of vitality that consoles us.
In our lowest moments, we recognize that our suffering itself is indicative of our eternity. The question of Eicha - how can we endure? is transformed to a proud declaration of Eicha- oh, how we have and will endure!
            That is why in the middle of Tisha B’av we already begin to gather comfort and recite the prayer of “Nachem”, asking Hashem to comfort the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim. All the pain and suffering we have recounted reinforces to us that we are special and unique.

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