Thursday, December 26, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Miketz/Shabbos Chanukah/Rosh Chodesh Teves
29 Kislev – 5th day of Chanukah 5780/December 27, 2019


            It’s one of those things that makes you wonder. During the winter there can be days of resplendent sunshine, without a cloud in the sky, and yet it will be freezing. If the earth is warmed by the sun, how is it possible that the sun can be shining brightly and yet it’s so cold?
            The answer is that the earth is not warmed simply by the sun’s rays coming through the atmosphere. This is clearly demonstrated by the differences between each of the seven different layers in the atmosphere above earth.
            The lowest level - the troposphere - is where we live and where all our weather occurs. The higher one travels within the troposphere the colder it gets. This is why at the top of mountains the temperature drops precipitously, despite the fact that it is “closer to the sun”.
            The next level up - the stratosphere - is where the ozone layer is. In this layer however, the higher one goes the more the temperature increases. At the top of the next level - the mesosphere - are the coldest temperatures on earth, reaching -130F.
            Clearly, it’s not just the sun’s rays which warm the earth. It is also dependent on air pressure. As air pressure drops, less of the heat remains and the colder it becomes. That’s why the mesosphere is so cold; there is almost no air pressure.
            Another factor is that the sun does not directly warm the air. Rather the sun warms the earth’s surface which in turn transmits heat to the air above it. The angle that the sun hits the earth - known as the angle of insolation - determines the amount of heat produced. The lower the angle the weaker the sun hits the earth. That is why it’s coldest at the North and South poles. That’s also why it is hottest during midday when the sun is directly overhead.
            Why the science lesson, particularly on Chanukah?
            The Greek culture posed a formidable threat to the Jewish people. In fact, it was one of the greatest threats our people and our heritage ever faced. Whereas Jews were not at all attracted to Babylonian or Persian culture, Greek culture was a different story. The reason it was such a great danger was because like Judaism, Greek culture had a deep appreciation for wisdom, depth, and beauty. But the core and vital difference is about what you do with that knowledge.
            Judaism believes that it’s not so much what I know as what/who I am! Book knowledge isn’t worth much, if that knowledge doesn’t cause a transformation within the person. It’s one thing to protest against injustices caused to others, it’s another thing to invite the victims to your house for lunch. The Torah outlook on wisdom is that it’s insufficient for knowledge to enter one’s brain if it doesn’t filter down to the rest of his body.
            My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often relates the anecdote about the person who told the Kotzker Rebbe that he had learned through half of Shas. The Rebbe replied, “I am more interested in knowing how much of Shas went through you.”
            The sun’s rays alone do not warm the earth. There must also be air pressure and absorption of its rays. So too, learning words of Torah is only the starting point. We also need to pressure ourselves to absorb the Torah into our very being. Only when we do so, can we radiate spiritual warmth and G-dliness to our surroundings.
            Every time we learn Torah, we need to remind ourselves that we are studying and imbibing divine wisdom. That knowledge alone is transformative.
            The Jewish people are about to celebrate an incredible milestone - the 13th Siyum Hashas of Daf Yomi, to be celebrated hours after the conclusion of Chanukah.
            A Siyum Hashas is not, and cannot, be merely the completion of a study of text and certain pages of ancient knowledge. Rather, it is a completion of a cycle in which its adherents have grown and sought to internalize the timeless words of Gemara. It’s a celebration of absorption, internalization and transformation. The Daf is not just something to be done; it’s something to be lived. That’s what we are celebrating. Not just the spiritual rays of Shas shining through, but more significantly, their being absorbed and radiated throughout the world.

            Good Chodesh & Chodesh Tov
            Freilichen and lichtig Chanukag/Chag Orot Sameiach
            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, December 19, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayeshev
22 Kislev 5780/December 20, 2019


            Winter is unquestionably here. Aside for the cold weather and snow, we have also had to contend with the more insidious danger of ice.
            During a couple of cold mornings recently, I walked out of my house into the morning chill. As I tried to climb my driveway to start my car and begin cleaning off the snow and ice from the windows, I found myself sliding down the driveway. It was so frustrating; despite being just a few feet away from my car, every time I tried to take a step forward, I slid down a few more feet. I realized that my worn-out shoes have absolutely no traction on the bottom. They couldn’t grip anything and therefore there was nothing I could do to keep myself from sliding.
            It definitely would have been a lot easier to go back into the house and wait a few hours for the sun to come out and melt the ice. (It would be even better if I could have gone back into my house and come out in April...) But that is obviously not an option. The new day was beckoning, and I had places to be and things to do. I needed to figure out a way to deal with the ice immediately. So, I allowed myself to slide down to the open garage. I took out a shovel and then was able to chip my way up the driveway.
            As anyone who has lived in this world for some time can attest, life is not smooth sailing. When things become challenging, we have a natural urge to try to run away from our problems, in the naive and foolish hope that somehow, they’ll just go away. The successful and effective person is one who is willing to face his hardships. He knows he may not be able to solve all his problems in the moment. Still, he seeks to navigate his way through the morass of his challenges until he can figure out how to improve his situation.
            The holiday of Chanukah symbolizes this concept. The events surrounding the holiday transpired during a dark and difficult time historically. The reality was that the majority of the Jewish people at that time were attracted by the beauty and allure of Greek culture and they Hellenized, adopting the Greek views and ways of life. Those who remained steadfast and loyal to Torah were a minute pitiful few.
            The Maccabees went to war with the knowledge that G-d could do anything, but that the chances were that they would die fighting. In fact, over time, all of the original five Maccabees indeed died at war or were assassinated.
            After the miracle of the oil and the menorah, the Maccabean forces had to continue battling the Syrian-Greek armies as well as the Jewish Hellenists who still virulently disagreed with the Maccabees’ stubborn loyalty to Torah.
            Chanukah is not a holiday which completely transforms the weekdays into a holy time, as does Succos, Pesach and Shavuos. Rather, it infuses a spirit of holiness into mundane weekdays.
Chanukah symbolizes the ability to find traction and to remain loyal even during difficult times. It’s a celebration of small bursts of light in a time and place of ominousness and darkness. That is why it is such a beloved holiday in exile. It infuses us with chiuzk during the cold and dark period of the year.
            I definitely need to get better shoes to help me gain traction in the ice. I am also very excited about the upcoming days which will help us all find traction for our souls, no matter how challenging our personal situation may be.
            A beautiful and happy Chanukah to all!
            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
            Freilichen and lichtig Chanukag/Chag Orot Sameiach,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, December 12, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayishlach
15 Kislev 5780/December 13, 2019


            Rabbi, I was wondering about our prayers. What’s with all the praises of G-d? It seems like we say a lot of similar stuff in different ways, over and over. I’ve always been taught that because G-d is infinite, He doesn’t need our praises. Instead, the praises we say are for us; somehow it helps US when we keep praising G-d. I don’t get that concept. How does it help us to say the same praises about G-d every day? I mean, don’t we get it already? G-d is great, it’s great to be close to Him, He is all powerful, mighty, eternal, and incredible, He makes everything happen, etc.
Why all the repetition?

            Dear Jonah,
            I don’t go shopping too often, but when I do, I can’t help but hear the lyrics of the background music playing in stores. The same is true when I go on outings anywhere. I noticed that the overwhelming majority of those songs are about love and attraction. I gotta tell you - after hearing just a few songs, I can’t help wondering - don’t we get it already? I feel like saying to the singers, “okay, fine so you’re excited for tonight, you can’t wait to be with her, she makes you feel great, life is incomplete without her, you don’t know how you made it without her until now, her love is the best, etc. etc. We heard you loud and clear! Now let’s move on and sing about something else.” But they never do. It’s the same theme over and over. And if it’s not about excitement about love, it’s about the heartbreak of the breakup, the misery of being without that love, or the arrogant insistence of the singer that he/she couldn’t care less that the other person broke up with them, and that they’re ten times better off without him/her. (If they were really so okay without the relationship, why sing about it at all? Just move on...)
            There is obviously a very powerful drive to achieve connection with someone/something beyond ourselves, that helps us transcend the monotony of daily life.
            One core difference between the songs the world sings and the songs of davening that we sing is rooted in where we turn to for that feeling of connection. They sing about that person who makes them feel whole and energetic and makes life exciting. Apparently, there is a thrill to express one’s excitement even in the mere searching and waiting for that “love” (which is actually lust).
The problem is that no person can be the source of someone else’s excitement for any length of time. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. The rush they are singing about and searching for is elusive and fleeting and will invariably leave them feeling empty and frustrated.
            When we sing of G-d’s greatness on the other hand, it reminds us that fulfillment and inner tranquility is to be found in connection with the infinite. There is deep joy felt when we recognize that we have the privilege to sing about the infinite G-d with whom we share a personal and unique relationship. It’s as if we are reminding ourselves of Who we are about to pray to, and what an incredible privilege that is.
            I will admit that when I was your age, I had a hard time relating to davening and appreciating all those praises. But as I have gotten older, I can honestly say that I enjoy davening. (I definitely have my days when I’m tired and not in the mood and have to push myself to say the words. But most days I enjoy the experience.) I enjoy reciting praises of G-d and reminding myself that I have a direct and permanent line to the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, no matter what spiritual level I am on.
            That really is a relationship worth singing about and yearning for. Like all valuable things in life, it entails an investment of effort to develop an appreciation for it. I hope you attain that level where you recognize that the question you asked is not even a question.[1]

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

[1] Toras Avigdor, an organization that disseminates the Torah thoughts of Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l, sends out daily emails which contain questions posed to Rabbi Miller and his verbatim answers. This week, there was a question about the effect of music. Following is part of his answer:
“Music, when utilized for mussar and avodas Hashem, is an excellent expedient. That’s why Dovid Hamelech, when the spirit moved him... took out his harp and the harp helped him begin to ascend on the wings of music to the heights of perfection of the soul.
“But when music is used for, “Your eyes,” and “Your lips,” and your this and your that and how I miss you, and all the rest of the garbage, the Kuzari says that means that the music which once was used for the service of Hakodosh Boruch Hu has now become the play thing of the maidservants and the boys in the street. The Kuzari said that almost a thousand years ago. And it has deteriorated since then. Originally however, there's no question that music was intended to assist in the elevation of the spirit.”