Thursday, November 28, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Toldos  - Rosh Chodesh Kislev
1 Kislev 5780/November 29, 2019


            I’m just going to be forthright about it - I have weird thumbs. The truth is that weird is relative (especially my relatives), and I’m pretty convinced that the rest of the world has weird thumbs, and I’m one of the few who have normal and proper thumbs. But by majority standards I have unusual thumbs, especially my left thumb, which is somewhat short and stumpy. They say no one is perfect, so I guess that’s why I need to have unusual thumbs.
            When I was in high school, I had a friend who told me that whenever he was in a bad mood, he would think about my thumbs and that would make him laugh.
            Thumbs are one of those gifts G-d grants us that we fail to appreciate. One morning a friend told me he had a dream that he had no thumbs, and he was really bummed about it because he likes his thumbs. (Yes, I have some interesting friends...)
            Aside from being helpful, thumbs have more symbolism than any other finger. To hitch a ride, one sticks out his thumb. If a person wants to convey satisfaction or promote something, he gives it a thumbs up. Conversely, if he wants to convey dissatisfaction, he gives it a thumbs down. We speak about someone who doesn’t fit in as “sticking out like a sore thumb”.
            For those of us who have the merit and privilege to study the timeless words of gemara, the thumb plays a particularly significant role. We can hardly imagine learning gemara, trying to explain a particularly challenging novel exegetical explanation, without passionately thrusting our thumb downward and then upward. The Talmudic thumb swipe symbolizes a shift of perspective which is one of the hallmarks of studying Gemara.
            This past Motzei Shabbos I and my older sons attended Camp Dora Golding’s reunion at Great Wolf Lodge in the Poconos Mountains. While there I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Rabbi Noach Sauber, camp’s learning director and a personal mentor. (This isn’t the first Musings that includes thoughts that Rabbi Sauber related to me during conversations we had...) We exchanged a few thoughts and stories, and then Rabbi Sauber said that he had to tell me one last thought:
            When a person spoke loshon hora and would contract tzara’as, part of the purification process included smearing some of the ‘sacrificial blood’ on the ear lobe, thumb, and big toe of the metzora. That it was smeared on the ear and toe are understandable - the metzora listened to loshon hora and likely walked to hear or relate loshon hora. But how are one’s thumbs involved in loshon hora?
            Rabbi Sauber related that his father suggested that there is nothing beyond the purview of Torah. In our world thumbs are vital for texting, and we all know how much loshon hora can be spread through the medium of texting and social media! The Torah, which traverses time, includes a personal message for contemporary society - that there is a need for atonement of loshon hora promulgated by thumbs.
            Aside for the poignancy of the thought, I was stunned that Rabbi Sauber happened to relate that thought to me, just as I was mentally compiling this brilliant article about thumbs!
            In closing, I take a moment to express my gratitude to Hashem for my thumbs and for all the benefits I have from them, including typing this article, to which I’m sure you’ll all give a thumbs up.

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

Thursday, November 21, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chayei Sarah   
24 Cheshvan 5780/November 22, 2019
Mevorchim Chodesh Kislev

This week’s Musings are lovingly dedicated in memory of my Zaydei, Yaakov Meir ben Yosef Yitzchak z”l, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn, whose yahrtzeit is on Sunday evening, 27 Cheshvan.


            This past Friday night, I’m sure everyone who davened at Kehillas Zichron Yaakov came home from shul and spoke about the d’var Torah recited before maariv. I’m also sure I’m not the only one whose wife asked her husband when he walked in from shul if davening was over already. Why? Because the speech consisted of an excellent thought from the Brisker Rav, that was repeated - from start to finish - in under ninety seconds.
            A rabbinical colleague related that, before he was a Rabbi, he was once asked by the shul Rabbi to deliver the Friday evening d’var Torah before maariv.
            It was the week of Parshas Beshalach. He began by quoting the pasuk which states that the Jewish people stood trapped between the sea and the approaching Egyptians. At that point, Moshe began to pray. Rashi quotes the Medrash which states that G-d replied to Moshe, “this is not the time for lengthy prayers. The nation must proceed.” My colleague then said, “this is not the time for lengthy speeches. Now is the time to proceed.” And with that he motioned for the chazzan to proceed with barchu.
            The crowd was delighted. And the rabbi never again asked him to speak on Friday night.
It’s a difficult balance to strike. Everyone is looking for inspiration, but no one wants to sit through long speeches.
            So, when people discover someone who can inspire in a short amount of time, they won’t let him go too easily.
            In Camp Dora Golding, we have achieved that balance. Rabbi Meir Erps, a noted educator and dynamic storyteller, shares a three minute “bullet derasha” which contains a powerful story and a great lesson. The six hundred campers, who have just recently eaten kokush cake and chocolate milk for breakfast (kiddush is recited between shachris and Krias HaTorah), listen with rapt attention. By the time they start getting edgy, the speech is over and we are well into Mussaf.
            My Zaydei, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn z”l was not only a scholar of note, he was also sharp-witted and understood people very well. When he and my Bubby arrived in America after World War II, they moved to the then fledgling but burgeoning community of Lakewood. My Zaydei was a student of the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt”l before the war, when Rabbi Aharon was Rosh Yeshiva in the town of Kletzk. While living in Lakewood, my Zaydei would travel and speak on behalf of the young yeshiva and on behalf of the Va’ad Hatzalah , which was under the leadership of Rabbi Eliezer Silver.
            In the early 1950s my Zaydei and Bubby spent a Shavuos on the Lower East Side of Manhattan so my Zaydei could deliver the pre-Yizkor appeal at the Anshe Slonim shul at 172 Norfolk Street.
            The well-known shul was in an august and imposing building, boasting hundreds of seats, noted cantors and choirs. At that time, the shul was searching for a new Rabbi. By the time my Zaydei got up to speak, it had already been a long davening. He shared a brief poignant thought and then said to the assemblage, “My friends, I could easily continue speaking for another half hour, extolling the virtue of Va’ad Hatzalah and the vital work they do. But I know that you are all aware of its importance. In addition, I’m sure - like my wife- your wives prepared wonderful meals that are waiting for you after davening. Let’s consider it as if I spoke for the extra half hour, and everyone should contribute to this vital cause.” With that he sat down.
            It was the most successful appeal the shul ever had.
            That night, the leadership of the shul set aside their long list of potential candidates and offered my Zaydei to be the Rabbi of the prestigious shul. The rest is history. He became the Rabbi for over twenty years, until the shul closed its doors in 1974.
            I remember one Shabbos morning during my youth, when our family hosted a Rabbi in our community and his family for the Shabbos seudah. He was distinguished and well-known, and his lectures were delivered with passion and emotion. However, they were not known for their brevity.
            During the seudah, amidst the other topics of discussion, my mother mentioned that her father was also a community Shul rabbi. Then my mother added that her father always said that speeches cannot be too long, otherwise you’ll lose the attention of the congregation. My father’s looks and gentle kicks under the table didn’t help. The Rabbi in our home laughed good-naturedly. The following Shabbos his speech was as long as always.
            I must admit that as a shul rabbi for over a decade, it is very hard to strike the right balance. Every rabbi wants to inspire by conveying an important lesson, which is best brought out with stories to illustrate and other points of reference. It is an ongoing arduous challenge to balance content with attention span. But it is a balance that every rabbi must strive for.
            In an age of “quick chizuk”, such as Meaningful Minute and WhatsApp groups that convey 1-5-minute divrei Torah, that challenge becomes all the more pronounced. (It’s axiomatic that one doesn’t become a scholar from brief inspirational clips. Scholarship and erudition are the result of effort, exertion, and being able to sustain attention, often during long lectures. Bursts of inspiration are like a match that ignites a flame. That fire needs to be fueled so that it can develop into a more substantial and enduring fire. The purpose of this essay is surely not to minimize or downgrade the value and need of lectures. It is only to reinforce that in our fast-paced world, bursts of inspiration are invaluable.)
            I wish I could still personally glean from my Zaydei’s wellsprings of knowledge of Torah and interpersonal dealing with people. He passed away when I was eight years old. Yet, his legacy continues to inspire me, and he remains of my foremost role models in life.
            I cannot fathom how a person who suffered so much loss and was an orphaned refugee, could have emerged with such a jovial personality and contagious vivaciousness. His love for Torah and for people largely defined him, and all who knew him testified to that.

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Parshas Vayeira 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayera  
17 Cheshvan 5780/November 15, 2019

This week’s Musings are lovingly dedicated in memory of my Savta, Mrs. Minnie Staum a”h, Shprintza bas Avrohom Yitzchok whose yahrtzeit is on Friday, 17 Cheshvan.


            A few weeks ago our family celebrated the upsherin (first haircut at age three) of our twins, Gavriel and Michael. Before their official haircuts, we took them for the “first cutting” and to to receive berachos from our rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Schabes, my uncle, Rabbi Yaakov Cohn, and the Nikolsburger Rebbe. Needless to say, the cutting and berachos of their grandparents were special and meaningful too.
            After their haircuts, we took them to Yeshiva of Spring Valley, the elementary yeshiva of my youth and our sons’ elementary yeshiva (as well as iy”H the twins’ future yeshiva) to the class of Rabbi Dovid Malin. Rabbi Malin is a special rebbe with endless love and warmth. Together with his class, he reviewed and sang the Aleph Bais with Gavriel and Michael, as they happily licked honey off lollipops dipped onto a chart with each letter. That was followed by a lovely seudah for family and friends in our backyard. It was a very special event.
            The twins received quite a few adorable gifts. But there was one that really excited me. My sister and brother-in-law, Shoshana and Daniel, gave them a toy tallis and tefillin set. From afar the tefillin look real, which is why I had to explain to visitors why there were tefillin strewn all over the couch and living room floor on Shabbos!
During my youth I couldn’t wait until my bar mitzvah when I would be able to start putting on tefillin. I still have a clear memory as an eleven-year-old sitting on my bed thinking my bar mitzvah is never going to arrive!
            During my youth, whenever I came across a string or long thick cloth I would roll up my sleeve and wrap it around my arm seven times. I would make it tight enough and keep it there long enough for it leave a mark on my arm, just like I saw on my father’s arm each morning when he removed his tefillin. I was excited that Gavriel and Michael had a toy set that they could play with. I would have loved to have such a thing when I was a kid. Yet, to my surprise, they were completely uninterested in the talis and tefillin set.
            Later that night, I realized why.
            The pasuk states “The hidden is for Hashem our G-d and the revealed is for us and our children forever” (Devorim 29:28). One of the homiletic explanations of the pasuk is that it is an allusion to an important educational principle. Children are always watching their parents and teachers. Far more than from what we say, our children learn from the things we do. In general, a person shouldn’t flaunt his Avodas Hashem and shouldn’t show off his religiosity. But there is one notable exception. One should make sure his children witness how he serves Hashem so they can absorb and internalize his values.[1] (Of course, that doesn’t mean one should be disingenuous, but the things he does anyway he shouldn’t hide from them.)
            That is what the pasuk is alluding to: “The hidden things are for Hashem” - if our children are not aware of the virtuous acts we perform, they will not be able learn from them, and those actions will remain known only to Hashem. But “the revealed ones” - the things our children witness “are for us and our children forever” - not only will it make an impression upon them, but hopefully will inspire them to follow that example so that their children will learn to perform them as well.
            I realized that Gavriel and Michael have never seen me wearing my talis and tefillin (except perhaps at their bris; but I assume that’s a suppressed memory). That’s why they had no interest in wearing their own tallis and tefillin.
            In this situation, it was a good thing that they never saw me in my tallis and tefillin because I daven in shul every morning and they haven’t yet attended shul on a weekday morning. However, the incident served as a good reminder that when it comes to our own children, our need to be humble is somewhat mitigated. Our children need to see and hear about the wonderful things we do so that they can learn from them.
            [I should add that within a few days of Gavriel and Michael seeing how excited I was about the tallis and tefillin, they began to take a greater interest in them. Although they wouldn’t allow me to show them how to properly put them on, they began to wear them in their own way. A good reminder that what excites us will excite our children. But that’s a whole other discussion.]
            We often hear discussions about our children giving nachas to us. But we also need to give our children reason to have nachas from us.
            I indeed have much nachas when I hear stories about my grandparents and learn about the special roots I have. My Savta was a person of love and devotion, from a family (the Gold family) that was and is fiercely devoted to Avodas Hashem. All her descendants are the beneficiaries of that. May her neshama have an aliyah.

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

[1] I heard this thought from my friend, Rabbi Yechiel Weberman, from his weekly one minute WhatsApp d’var Torah a few months ago.