Thursday, September 26, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Netzovim
    27 Elul 5779/September 27, 2019 - Avos perakim 5-6

               Although we may not want to admit it, there are certain berachos of Shemone Esrei that seem to resonate with us more deeply than others. The berachos in which we ask Hashem for health, livelihood, and deliverance from pain are probably ones we focus on the most, as those are all things we feel we constantly need.
              Perhaps the beracha that resonates least is that of Hashiva Shofteinu, the prayer that Hashem restore our judges and judicial system. While we definitely await the return of the Sanhedrin, we tend to feel that the prayer for the return of our judges isn’t as urgent and pressing as the other prayers. After all, most of us aren’t judges and don’t have to adjudicate any pressing matters.
              Or are we?
              Rabbi Shimshon Pincus zt”l noted that in fact every individual is a judge every day and throughout his day. We are constantly deliberating, making decisions, and judging situations. But more profoundly, we often judge people and decide how we should proceed in our interactions with them. As parents, we constantly judge our children, and in our jobs, we constantly judge potential clients and business situations. As spouses, siblings, children, neighbors, and friends we pass judgement on the actions and the intentionality of those we are closest with and decide how to proceed based on our conclusions. It is those conclusions that often cause rifts and painful disagreements, or draw us closer.
              Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzhal shlita relates that someone once asked him how he could judge a neighbor favorably, when he was quite sure he had seen him commit overt sins. Rabbi Nebenzhal poignantly replied, “why do you have to judge him? Are you his rabbi? Is there anything you can accomplish by judging him?”
              We take it so for granted that we judge, that it doesn’t even occur to us that it’s not our place to always decide matters relating to other people’s lives.
              A family friend related that her family is going through a very hard time because her son is OTD (Off The Derech). They suffer ongoing anxiety about his future, fear for his daily welfare, and anguish over his current lifestyle. They also must exercise incredible restraint to be loving and accepting of him, even as they fear for the poor life decisions he has made. They also have to contend with the anguish of shattered dreams and hopes, aside for trying to shield their other children from making this child’s same mistakes. But - she noted - the worst of it all, is the judgement she feels from friends, relatives, and neighbors. The looks, and sometimes even verbalized condemnation and critique of the decisions they made and make, causes the situation to be that much harder.
              She dolefully noted that when a family is stricken with a sick child c’v the community bonds together in such a special and loving manner. There are numerous programs and chesed organizations that help the family cope during that painful and challenging time. But when a family has an OTD child those programs are largely absent. Instead there is added shame and judgement heaped upon the already suffering family.
              Single divorced parents who struggle mightily to try to maintain some semblance of normalcy for their children, endure similar challenges. While widows and widowers often receive deserved sympathy, divorcees often feel judged and distanced. There is almost an unverbalized feeling of “maybe if you weren’t so stubborn” or “maybe if you prioritized your kids more, you wouldn’t be in this mess!”
              Older singles often must contend with comments from others about why they aren’t married yet.
              Then there’s the old issue of the stigma of mental illness. It’s not enough that people suffer the discomfort, and challenge of mental illness, but they also have to have the added indignity of being judged by those who are convinced that they understand it all and are therefore qualified to offer advice, or judge the situation.
              Rav Yoylish, the Satmar Rebbe, once called a chosid of his who lived in Miami, Florida to find out information about a certain divorced widow who lived there. The Rebbe was was trying to set up a shidduch for her and he wanted his chosid to give him some information about her. The chosid was excited to help his Rebbe and he replied that he knew who she was because she lived right down the block from him, and he would be happy to find out any information the Rebbe wanted to know. To his surprise, there was silence on the line, which was followed with what sounded like sniffling; it sounded like the rebbe was crying. The chosid was beside himself. “What did I say rebbe? If the rebbe needs the information sooner, I’ll call back in five minutes.”
              The rebbe replied, “How can you call yourself a chosid of mine? There’s a divorced woman who lives down the block from you and you don’t know basic information about her? You never invited her and her family for a Shabbos seudah? You never inquired whether she needed anything? How can you consider yourself a chosid of mine?”
              Perhaps this year we can try to concentrate more when we recite the beracha of Hashivaynu. We should have in mind that Hashem should help us judge properly in all those situations throughout our day when we must draw conclusions and decide how to proceed. But even more profoundly, we should daven that Hashem return the real judges of our nation, those who have the ability and authority to pass true judgement. Until then we should have the wisdom and humility to stop passing judgement on others, unless it’s our place and responsibility.
              When we act as proper judges, we can hope that the celestial courts will judge us accordingly as well.
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Kesiva Vachasima Tova & Shana Tova,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Friday, September 20, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Savo
    20 Elul 5779/September 20, 2019 - Avos perakim 3-4

               The month of June is a busy time for the Staum family, as we prepare to migrate to Camp Dora Golding in East Stroudsburg, PA for the summer.
              This year, the day before our family was going to head up to camp, I was driving to a wedding on Route 287 (incidentally, the same highway I was to drive on the next day, to head to camp). At one point, as I began driving uphill, I suddenly realized that my car wasn’t accelerating. Although I was pressing down on the pedal, the speedometer was slowly shifting left as I lost speed. It was quite obvious that there was something seriously wrong with the car. Every time there was an upward incline, I had to shift into the right lane where I received dirty looks from fellow drivers who weren’t happy that they had to go around the slowpoke on the highway. Thankfully, despite some frazzled nerves, I was able to make it to the wedding and back home.
              It definitely didn’t make things easier that in between packing and loading up, I had to drop off the car at the dealer and pick up a loaner car. It also didn’t help that a week later when Chani drove the loaner car back from camp to the dealer near Monsey, and picked up my car, it didn’t take long before she realized the car wasn’t properly fixed. The car still didn’t accelerate properly. She quickly turned around and brought the car back. But in the interim, someone else had taken the loaner car, and they had no other loaner cars available. Moving our twins’ car seats from the loaner to my car and then back into another loaner (which thankfully then became available) in over ninety-degree heat only made it more difficult.
              Eventually my car was indeed fixed, and we came in a second time to return the loaner and retrieve my car.
              I told my students on the first day of school this year that my car experience was a great symbolism of an important truism in life. The roads of life are circuitous and constantly shifting. In order to constantly grow and became greater people we must be ready to invest added energy to traverse the steep inclines of life. If we don’t have that extra push, not only will we not be able to make it up the hill, but we will lose momentum and start shifting backwards.
Every year is a new opportunity for growth, but growth is only borne from struggle and perseverance.
              Aside from the need to be able to ascend, there is an additional challenge we encounter along the road of growth.
              Almost every night, my phone tells me how long it will take me to get home from wherever I am. I get a kick out of the fact that for weeks after camp, my phone is still telling me how to get back to camp, which it still thinks is home (and they call it a ‘smart’ phone...) So if I’m around the corner from my house, my phone will tell me it’ll take an hour and forty minutes to get home to East Stroudsburg, PA.
              On some level, that is the challenge of teshuva. We get very comfortable with our daily routines and don’t like altering them. Our society pays homage to convenience and comfort. It is the god we all worship; no one likes to feel discomfort. So making changes, even positive changes that will ultimately make us feel more fulfilled and elevated, are very hard for us. Even on occasions when we may have ‘moved’ spiritually, our lethargic selves still naturally slink back to our old routine spiritual addresses.
              The wise person realizes that eventually the changes he effects in his life will become his new reality and he will adjust to his new and improved way of life.
              In a sense, the camp season only came to an end this week, because only now has my phone finally come to the realization that home is 3 Landau Lane in Spring Valley, NY.
During this season when we try to effect lasting change, we need to remember the uncomfortable unfamiliarity will pass.
              In a sense it’s like buying new shoes. It may be exciting to wear them, but it’s often also uncomfortable because they aren’t yet properly adapted to your foot. But that all changes within a few days.
              Hopefully we will all have the necessary energy and vitality to climb the beautiful, scenic and elevating spiritual mountains that we are set to encounter during the coming weeks. Then, when we ascend, we should be able to comfortably adapt to our new reality - a new self that is stronger and better than ever before.
              A beautiful, healthy, and sweet new year to all.

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

Friday, September 13, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Setzei
     13 Elul 5779/September 13, 2019 - Avos perakim 1-2

              Early Friday morning this past week, as I was preparing the Gemara I would be teaching in shiur later that day, I recalled a question one of my students had asked me about a certain halacha regarding b’ris milah. I have a couple of seforim about b’ris milah that are together on a shelf, and I reached for one of them. If I receive a Sefer as a gift or if I purchase it at a memorable place or a special occasion, I often will record that on the inside cover of the Sefer. When I opened that particular sefer about b’ris milah I found that I had written the following in Hebrew: “I purchased the sefer in honor of the birth of our twins on the sixth of Elul, Erev Shabbos parshas Shoftim 5776, and, through the kindness of Hashem, we entered them into the b’ris of Avrohom Avinu on time (the eighth day) Friday, the thirteenth of Elul.”
              I will admit that with seven children b’h and never being good with numbers, I don’t remember all of my children’s birthdays. Although we are preparing to celebrate the twins’ upsherin iyh in the near future, for practical reasons it will be after their birthday. After reading the inscription, it dawned on me that that day was 6 Elul, and it was the twins’ third birthday.
These types of things happen every now and then. But they feel like a small kiss from heaven. What are the odds that I would pull out that particular sefer (which I probably haven’t looked at in three years) on that particular morning?!
              Of course, as soon as I informed Chani that it was their third birthday, our minds flashbacked to where we were three years earlier. Just as it was this year, that year 6 Elul was Friday, erev parshas Shoftim. We were in Columbia hospital in Manhattan, waiting for the babies to be born. I had an eye on the clock knowing that if they were born before Shabbos, I would have to race across the George Washington Bridge on a late summer weekend for a double Shalom zachor.
Amazingly, they were born healthy in the early afternoon. After holding them for a few minutes, I rushed home and, with the help of my parents, friends and neighbors, we arranged a beautiful Shalom zachor.
              As the pregnancy was fraught with complications, and Chani needed weekly and often bi-weekly tests, the insurance company would send us numerous receipts of bills they had paid. At first, out of curiosity we opened them. But when we saw the astronomical amounts they were paying, we decided it was better not to look. But I kept all the envelopes in a large plastic bag as a reminder to us of the chesed Hashem had done for us.
              After realizing that it was their third birthday, I took out the huge bag of envelopes to marvel at it. For a few moments it rekindled within me that indescribable feeling of gratitude to Hashem. My mind was flooded with memories of reciting tehillim together in the waiting room, nervously watching screens, the overwhelming fear of the unknown, consulting with doctors and nurses, and then finally the incredible moment when I was able to actually hold our two miracles.
The events of that morning afforded me a unique perspective on the concept of teshuva. The simple meaning of teshuva is to return. Our sins create a spiritual distance between us and G-d and when we repent, we return to again be closer to His embrace.
              But perhaps teshuva also refers to returning and reflecting upon the past. That we need to reflect upon our negative deeds and character traits so we can improve, is obvious. But on another level, we also need to reflect and remind ourselves of the trajectory of our lives.
              The Gemara Kidushin relates that Rav Yochanan would stand respectfully for every elderly person he encountered, even a non-Jew. Life is the greatest teacher, and therefore an elderly person is deserving of respect simply by virtue of the fact that he has inevitably absorbed the wisdom and lessons of a life lived.
              My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often says that when a person learns to drive, before he pulls onto the road, he has to look into his rear-view mirror. One has to see what’s behind him to know how and if he can proceed. Rabbi Wein explains that that is why it’s so important for us to know Jewish history.
              This is true not only globally, but on a personal level as well. When we look back at the events that have shaped our last year and the course of our lives, it’s clear that there is a force which prods and guides us, even though It’s not always the way we would have chosen or what we would have wanted.
              Rosh Hashana is called “Yom Hazikaron”, loosely translated as Memorial Day. It has such a title because G-d “remembers” all of our deeds of the previous year, and judges us accordingly.
Many seforim explain that the very concept of the remembrance of G-d, Who never forgets, is that G-d “remembers” based on how much we remember. The more we remember and reflect upon G-d in our lives, the more He remembers our good deeds and reflects upon us positively.
As part of our process of teshuva we should mentally return to the events of the previous year, and of our entire lives until now, to recognize the divine force that lovingly shapes our lives, even when that path is unclear to us.
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum