Thursday, February 27, 2020

Parshas Terumah 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Terumah
3 Adar 5780/February 28, 2020


            Growing up, I always felt like I was living in my older brother, Yitzie’s, shadow. Our personalities were quite different, and we didn’t look alike back then. But that didn’t change the fact that I was “Staum’s brother”. I was two grades behind him and often had rabbeim and teachers that he had.
            When I was a freshman in high school, he was a junior. When I came to Yeshiva on my first day with an attache case, he wanted to disown me. Nevertheless, he did take care of me, showing me the ropes, and protecting me from ‘freshie bantering’ of older classmen. I can’t say I totally minded being in his shadow. He was well-liked and appreciated for his sense of humor and gregariousness. I was far more reserved, and it was helpful that people knew that I was Staum’s brother. But at times it was hard living in his shadow.
            After high school, Yitzie went to learn in Eretz Yisroel. Before Pesach of his second year there he returned home so he could plan where he would go after the summer. For the final few months of that year he returned to Shaarei Torah, where I was then a senior. I’ll never forget the day I overheard one person ask who the new guy is and someone else replied, “that’s Staum’s brother!” It was my moment of vindication. For a brief period, I was Staum, and Yitzie was “Staum’s brother”.
            This past Shabbos I had the privilege to serve as a scholar-in-residence in the U-City community in St. Louis, Missouri. My older brother - now known affectionately as Rav Yitz - and his wife, Mrs. Racheli Staum, the menaheles of a Girl’s elementary school, and their family live in Chesterfield, a suburb of St. Louis.
            They graciously joined me in U-City and I was able to spend Shabbos with them. I noted in one of my speeches the irony that now, over two decades later, I felt it was a genuine privilege to be “Staum’s brother”, or rather, “Rabbi Staum’s brother”. In the last few years we also have been told that we look alike.
            I have noted in this column that it’s a beautiful feeling to have nachas from one’s parents. I should add that the same is true about having nachas from one’s siblings. I was proud to be associated with my brother and sister-in-law, master educators who are so involved, committed, and respected in their community.
            On the flight home, I was thinking about it. Even years ago, when I was proud of my older brother, I didn’t like always living in his shadow. What changed?
            The most obvious difference is that now we both live in our own communities and made our mark individually.
            But more significantly, I think it’s because I have a far more secure sense of who I am and have forged my own identity. Although I hope I am still growing as a person and still have far more to accomplish, I have a much better sense of my strength and weaknesses and what my capabilities are.
            As parents, we want our homes to be emotionally and spiritually embracing places for each of our children. But that is no easy feat. It is amazing how different siblings in the same family are. To make each child feel comfortable requires constant thought and analyzation.
            The diary of Anne Frank has been read by millions of people throughout the world. It is her private reflections about her own life and maturation while living with her family in a hidden annex in her father’s factory to evade Nazi persecution.
            The family was eventually caught and were sent to Concentration Camps. The only survivor from the family was Otto, Anne’s Father. When he returned, he was given Anne’s diary which he then read for the first time.
            The following are his reflections:
            “I knew that Anne wrote a diary. She spoke about her diary. She left her diary with me at night in a briefcase next to my bed. I had promised her never to look in. I never did.
“When I returned, and after I had the news that my children would not come back, Miep gave me the diary, which had been saved by, I should say, a miracle. It took me a very long time to read it, and I must say I was very much surprised about the deep thoughts Anne had, her seriousness — especially her self-criticism.
            “It was quite a different Anne [than] I had known as my daughter. She never really showed this kind of inner feeling. She talked about many things, we criticized many things, but what really her feelings were, I only could see from the diary.
            “And my conclusion is, as I had been in very, very good terms with Anne, that most parents don’t know, really, their children.”
            I found his reflection to be jarring and somewhat concerning. The only way we, as parents, can try to meet the emotional needs of each of our children, is by knowing them individually. We need to understand what motivates them, what excites them, and what their attributes and struggles are. But all those things require that we really know our children, who sometimes don’t know themselves, and other times are very guarded, even from their own parents. As they reach adolescence, the challenge only magnifies.
            We need to daven for divine assistance constantly, to have energy and patience despite living in a fast-paced, merry-go-round like life, and that we have the insight necessary to provide our children with what they need.
            I hope and pray that my children always be proud to be Staums’ brothers and sisters, a feeling which stems from confidence in who they are and appreciation for the differences and abilities of their siblings.

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

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Parshas Mishpatim 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Mishpatim/Shekalim
Mevorchim Chodesh Adar
26 Shevat 5780/February 21, 2020
            In case you aren’t aware, President Trump was impeached, put on trial, and has since been acquitted of the charges that led to his impeachment.
            As one person put it “from the whole impeachment trial at least Americans learned a new Latin word - quid pro quo.”
            To the chagrin of some and the relief of others, the trial in the Senate ended relatively quickly. Despite their personal feelings, Senators have to be happy that the trial is over simply because of the dietary restrictions imposed upon them during the trial. They are allowed no food or drinks besides water and milk. Well, no food other than the famous candy drawer. For some odd reason, while even coffee is prohibited, candy is permitted in the Senate.
The current Capitol Hill Candy Man is Pat Toomey, republican Senator of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is home of Hershey’s Chocolate World and 200 confectionary companies and therefore Pennsylvania is the candy capital of America. Toomey makes sure that his desk is well stocked with all sorts of candies for his fellow Senators. It may be the only bipartisan thing in Congress at this point.
            This concept is not so strange to us because we are all familiar with the shul candy man. I remember one candy man who had a sign in his tallis bag calling for everyone to vote for him as Shul candy man. As a youngster, I wondered when those elections were held, and what qualifications the candy man needed to have.
            The idea of receiving candies or treats for a spiritual accomplishment, is not without source. Rambam (Pairush Mishnayos, Sanhedrin, chapter 10) writes that a young child does not yet have the intellectual ability to appreciate Torah, and so he should be given some treats (Rambam suggests walnuts, figs or some honey) to goad him to learn. As he gets older, the incentives should remain age appropriate. At some point, he will hopefully be mature enough to appreciate the greatness of Torah and want to learn on his own.
            In 1904, Ivan Pavlov received the Nobel Prize for his experiments in classical conditioning. He noticed that dogs began to salivate when the technicians who fed them appeared, even if the technicians weren’t holding food. Association through stimuli became known as the Pavlovian response.
            Long before Pavlov experimented with his salivating dogs however, the Rokeiach recorded the ancient custom that when young children were brought to learn Torah for the first time, they were given honey cake so that they would associate Torah with sweetness and enjoyment.
            One of the challenges of contemporary society is that everything is so readily available, and however much we want. Supersize becomes the norm, and childhood obesity has become a national epidemic. Candy which is eaten all week and whenever a child wants, is no longer special on Shabbos, or as an incentive for when the child does something exemplary.
            But the truth is that even as adults we are not above culinary incentives.
            Rabbi Avrohom Yachnes is a seasoned and beloved rebbe for over three decades in North Miami Beach, Florida. When he began his career in chinuch, during his first year as a rebbe he had a particularly challenging and difficult class. Within a few months, he was feeling somewhat despondent and was rethinking his ability to do what he loved and wanted to do.
            At that time he had a friend who was close with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv zt”l. Rabbi Yachnes asked his friend to ask Rabbi Eliyashiv for some advice. Rabbi Eliyashiv replied, “I heard that in America they have food people like called pizza or ice cream”. Rabbi Eliyashiv suggested that every day, when Rabbi Yachnes finished teaching he should buy himself a slice of pizza. That physical incentive would give him the boost he needed to deal with the challenges of teaching.
            Rabbi Yachnes related that he followed the advice, albeit not exactly. Instead of pizza, what kept him going was the daily chocolate Thickshake he picked up from Carvel after he finished substituting each day. Over three decades later he agrees that it was indeed the extra boost he needed at that time. (Rabbi Yachnes adds that at that time he was able to afford the calories and sugar intake...)
            It’s not exactly the advice you might have expected from a leading Torah personality. But the truth is that one immersed in Torah wisdom has a keen and deep understanding of human personality and motivation. Rabbi Eliyashiv, who himself never indulged in candy or culinary treats, understood and suggested, that a struggling and aspiring rebbe utilize his natural physical cravings to help him accomplish his goals and aspirations.
            We can easily overindulge in candy, sugar, sweets and treats. But when used in the right time, in the right manner, and with proper balance, it can be a wonderful motivational tool and boost. For some that may mean surviving an impeachment trial, for others it can enhance Shabbos kodesh, be an incentive to daven and learn, and help a rebbe overcome his initial inhibitions on his path to becoming a beloved pedagogue who has, and continues to, influence scores of students.

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

Thursday, February 13, 2020


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Yisro
19 Shevat 5780/February 14, 2020
            I can’t say I’m very fluent in Yiddish, though I wish I was. Like many Orthodox Jews, I know “ah bissel”. From my years in Yeshiva and hearing derashos, I have gleaned more of the “shprach”. I know enough to quote things to my students in Yiddish to make them think I know Yiddish. But there’s always at least one student who - when I say something in Yiddish - gives me a funny knowing look that says “rabbi, both of us know that that didn’t make any sense grammatically.”
            For many of us, Yiddish is the language our parents or grandparents spoke when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were saying. A friend told me his mother’s most common refrain was her saying to his father, “nisht fahr dee kinder - not in front of the kids!”
            My Bubby a’h would often quote Yiddish aphorisms. When I would ask her what they meant, she would always say the same thing - “it doesn’t translate well into English”. When she did translate them, to my young mind, they indeed sounded nonsensical. It always seemed to be something about how you can’t make food under some strange condition, like you can’t make pancakes when it’s snowing. And it always had some deep explanation that I never understood how it connected to the saying.
            There is undoubtedly a tremendous wealth of profound wisdom in those ancient Yiddish sayings. Rabbi Dovid Cohen (of Brooklyn) authored a sefer called “Yiddish- the holy language”, in which he discusses the biblical and Talmudic sources for many Yiddish sayings.
            One of the most famous and oft-quoted Yiddishisms is “der mentsch tracht oon Gut lacht - man plans and G-d laughs.” Its clear message is that we have no guarantees or assurances that we will be able to follow through on anything. Even our best-laid and best-intentioned plans are subject to change because of circumstances beyond our control. Rabbi Cohen suggests that one possible source for this aphorism is the pasuk recited each morning: “many are the thoughts in the heart of man, but the plan of Hashem - it is what endures” (Mishlei 19:21).
            The poignant wording “and G-d laughs” is meant to emphasize our vulnerability and limited perspective. However, it can also be easily misunderstood. I recently read an article in which the author noted that so many things he had hoped for and worked hard to achieve, did not work out. He then added that he had enough of G-d laughing at him.
            It was a painful statement and it got me thinking. Granted, it’s not an ancient statement from Chazal. Still, if it has entered the lexicon of the Jewish people - as Rabbi Dovid Cohen explained - it means that it has some depth. Clearly, G-d doesn’t laugh mockingly or derisively. So what does it mean that G-d “laughs” at our plans?
            The Chofetz Chaim relates a parable about a guest visiting a city for Shabbos. After davening on Shabbos morning, the guest approached the Gabbai and questioned why he had given aliyos to people from all sides of the shul. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just call up seven people from the same row? The Gabbai replied that being that he was only a guest, he could hardly understand the reason for each Aliyah. The first Aliyah went to the Kohain who sat in the front, the Levi was in the back, the fellow who got Shlishi has yahrtzeit, revi’i went to a man who is celebrating his birthday etc. How could a person come for one Shabbos and expect to understand everything happening in that town?
            To give a more contemporary example: If a person enters a movie theater a half hour after the movie started, he won’t understand what is happening in the movie. To the annoyance and consternation of the other viewers, he will likely spend the next few minutes questioning what is happening and why the characters are acting as they are. If he then leaves a half hour before the movie ends and the resolution is achieved, he will be even more confused.
            My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that we enter this world long after the story has begun, and we leave this world long before the story reaches its resolution. How can we expect to understand why things occur as they do?
            A young boy learns about the September 11th attacks and the subsequent war on terror. His father is a police officer who was injured in the September 11th attacks. He comes homes and asks his father if the American army is so powerful, why don’t they just kill all the terrorists and the whole problem will be solved? His father laughs.
            Is the father laughing at his son? Is he mocking his son? Not at all; he is laughing at his son’s naïveté and his inability to grasp the complexity and difficulty of the matter, to think it can be solved so simply.
            Not only does Hashem not laugh at our pain, but the Gemara relates that He feels our pain, and suffers along with us (Sanhedrin 46a).
            Perhaps the expression about “G-d laughing”, is to highlight our inability to understand how the world works and why things need to happen as they do. We can hardly see the bigger picture and so we have to rely on our faith that it’s truly all for the best. Perhaps it is meant to intimate that in the celestial worlds where things are clear they laugh at our annoyance when we don’t understand why things happen. But they surely never laugh at our pain, frustration, and anguish. On the contrary!

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