Thursday, March 26, 2020

Parshas Vayikra 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayikra
2 Nissan 5780/March 27, 2020
            I once saw a great quote: In the same vein that there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are no believers in a metropolis. In a city which has every amenity and every type of store possible, including convenience stores that have numerous brands of every type of commodity, one hardly feels vulnerable or the need to be reliant on a Supreme Power.
            It is uncanny how, during the last couple of weeks, we are suddenly becoming believers, despite living in communities and cities where we hardly lacked anything.
            It’s quite surreal. If anyone would have told us about such a reality even a few weeks ago, we would have waved them off as being delusional. Flights across country for less money than it costs to fill up your car with gas, the NBA, NHL seasons suspended, March Madness cancelled, and MLB opening day postponed indefinitely, Broadway, Disney World, all places of recreation and fun shut down, bars and restaurants only open for takeout, people being ordered to stay home and minimize contact, people being begged not to visit elderly parents and neighbors, yeshivos and shuls closed and children home all day, the country and much of the civilized world heading for recession and economic collapse, and living in fear of tomorrow. It seems like a scene from a bad movie; only it’s our current reality!
            Rabbi Elimelech Biderman quoted the Gemara (Bava Kamma 60b) which states that during a plague one should “gather his feet” and stay home.
            The Ben Ish Chai comments that the Gemara is only referring to a general plague. However, during an epidemic one should flee. He explains that a contagious virus causes people to panic and the panic itself makes a person more vulnerable and susceptible to contracting the disease!
            He then quotes a story he says was related by doctors about a town ravaged by an epidemic. Before the plague began to spread, someone met the angel in charge of the epidemic and asked him how many people he was going to consume with the disease he was spreading? The angel replied that he was going to kill five thousand people. By the time the epidemic passed however, fifteen thousand people had died. The man went back to the angel and asked why the angel had lied to him. The angel replied that in truth he had only taken five thousand people as he had said. The other ten thousand brought the plague upon themselves due to excessive fear and panic.
            Rabbi Biderman concluded that now, during a time of pandemic, we must adhere to medical advice and do our utmost to protect ourselves. But beyond that, we must realize that panic and hysteria can be more damaging.
            For some people, such an idea will only increase their panic and fear, because now they will be even more afraid since they are fearful. To them, the words of President Franklin Roosevelt ring true: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” We undoubtedly have reason for concern. But we need to strive to transcend our fear. To do that we have to work on strengthening our emunah! We have no other options.
            Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon shlita quipped that in Eretz Yisroel they have a Sar Habitachon (Defense Minister) upon whom they rely, while we have the Sha’ar Habitachon (the Gate of Trust - the section which discusses strengthening bitachon in Hashem in the sefer Chovas Halivavos) upon which we rely.
            As Rabbi Biderman concludes: We need not fear, because we are in the Hands of Hashem.
            The incredible things that have occurred in the recent past, include the surge of faith and recognition of the Hand of Hashem in the world. Who else could have orchestrated this pandemic from a microscopic organism that took the world by surprise?
            It turns out there is faith to be found in a metropolis. Sometimes it just has to be revealed.

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

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei/HaChodesh

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei/HaChodesh
Mevorchim Chodesh Nissan
24 Adar 5780/March 20, 2020


            Today, we are all familiar with Rav Noach Weinberg and the incredible work he has done in initiating and revolutionizing the kiruv movement. But when he first set out with the dream of creating such a movement in the 1960s, he was met with fierce resistance and skepticism. He himself related that in 1966, when he first opened Aish HaTorah, people would point at him and say “there goes Noach the crackpot! He thinks he can get non-religious people to want to adopt a Torah lifestyle.”
            Yet, despite the challenges, he persevered, and today, his influence has changed the lives of thousands of people. If we count the grandchildren of those impacted by his efforts, the numbers probably surpass a million people.
            Rav Noach related that the great Torah leader, Rav Lazer Shach attended the b’ris of his son, Yehuda. This was during the early years of Aish HaTorah. Rav Shach looked around the room at the students of the yeshiva and couldn’t believe that they were all ba’alei teshuva. It was clear that he was inspired.
            Afterwards, Rav Shach was asked to address the student body. He exclaimed that if one man could murder six million Jews, than one man can save six million Jews.
            Rav Noach could very well have been speaking about himself. Countless individuals and beautiful families have been connected to their heritage because of Rav Noach’s indefatigable efforts.
            There are many lessons and reflections to be gleaned from the surreal events that have taken hold the world over during the current Coronavirus pandemic. One of those lessons is a reminder about the effect and influence of every single individual.
            As the disease first began to spread, every time someone contracted it, it was immediately publicized to all who might have come into contact with the individual during the previous two weeks. Anyone who had any contact, even remotely, was asked to immediately self-quarantine for two weeks.
            There is surely no justification or rationality to blame the victim, who is suffering enough with the symptoms of the disease. To hold them responsible in any way is utterly preposterous. However, the implication is mind-boggling. One person, a sole individual, unwittingly instantly caused a profound effect on the lives of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, just by being exposed to them for a few moments.
            What does that mean for us?
            Each day, we interact with scores of people. Whether we realize it or not, we have an effect, and leave an impression, upon each person we interact with. Most of the time, we hardly realize the effect we had, but that doesn’t mitigate it at all.
            There is a well-known phenomenon referred to as the Butterfly Effect. It is the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a cascade of events, that weeks later, can cause a tornado in Texas. It essentially asserts that one small change can set off chain reactions that cause far more significant changes; one small incident can have a lasting impact in the future.
            On a spiritual and social level, there is no doubt of the veracity of that theory. We are far more powerful and effective than we give ourselves credit for.
            As we are compelled to step back from the bustle of life, to try to contain the pernicious virus, we should realize that we are always emitting vibes that affect others. May Hashem heal all those who are sick, and free us from the fear and limitations that have become necessary. And when we are able to re-emerge into society, may we all be a source of encouragement and positivity, so that anyone who has come into contact with us in the last two weeks, has been positively touched and warmly effected by the love and friendship that emanates and resonates from us.
            May we recognize just how many lives we touch just by being who we are. We aren’t only one in a million, but we are one that can affect a million.

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

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Parshas Tetzaveh/Zachor - Purim 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Tezaveh/Zachor
10 Adar 5780/March 7, 2020
            One of the more dreaded destinations these days is the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). It’s a place that many try to avoid as much as possible. But sooner or later a visit there is almost unavoidable.
            Recently, I had one such visit. For those unaware, as of October 2020, regular licenses will no longer be accepted in airports for national flights or to enter government buildings throughout the country. Going forward, one will need an enhanced license. So begrudgingly, I went off to the DMV to get my enhanced license. I will leave the discussion about my DMV experience for a future article. For the moment I wanted to share that, although I am gratified to have my enhanced license, and am able to cross that off my list, it is tinged with a bit of sadness.
            My original license picture was taken when I first got my license when I was 16 years old. Since then, every time my license needed to be renewed, I would send in a check and the necessary form, and they would send back the new license with the same picture. So, until now, my license had my picture from when I was sixteen.
            Whenever I travel and present my license, security personnel always do a double take, “Is that really you?” And now, almost twenty-five years later, that cute experience is coming to an end.
            For my new enhanced license, I was required to get a new picture taken at the DMV. Among many other gripes about the DMV, is the fact that the “photographers” seem to be trained to make sure the picture is unflattering. So now, instead of looking twenty-five years younger in my picture, I look about ten years older. I guess that’s part of the price for a new enhanced license.
            Rabbi Shalom Schwadron related that one time he was in the mikvah when an elderly fellow next to him took off his shirt to reveal a very small pair of tzitzis. When Rabbi Schwadron gently noted to the man that his tzitzis were rather small, the man explained that he had them from when he was a young boy. He had never gotten a new pair.
            Rabbi Schwadron quipped that many people are metaphorically similar to that man. They learn the stories of the Avos and Imahos, the stories of Yonah, Dovid Hamelech, Esther and Rus. But they maintain that childlike understanding of those stories throughout their lives. They never seek to understand the incredible depth and profound life lessons that are to be gleaned from our foremost heroes.
            My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often notes that although the stories don’t change, we do. We need to grow with the parshios and with the lessons they impart to us. Otherwise, we are no different than the older man wearing a child’s pair of tzitzis.
            Like people, relationships have ups and downs. They do not remain static and require constant nurturance and attention to maintain and enhance them.
            Rabbi Shimshon Pincus zt”l noted that Chazal compare the Jewish year and its holidays to human maturation.
            Pesach is the birth and genesis of our nationhood. Shavuos is our national bar mitzvah when we accept the Torah. Succos is the wedding between Hashem and Klal Yisrael, with Shemini Ateres/Simchas Torah symbolizing a level of intimate closeness, as it were. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the forgiveness for all sins granted to a bride and groom when they marry (see Yerushalmi Bikkurim).
            Rabbi Pincus continues that when a couple gets married, we dance and sing joyously in celebration of the new home being created. But in truth, at that point, we don’t know if that home will endure, and withstand the tempests and challenges of time. It is only when the couple have a “good fight” and are able to work things out and get past their differences, that we can be confident that the marriage will withstand the inevitable vicissitudes that arise.
            In his inimitable fashion, Rabbi Pincus asserts that “Chanukah and Purim were that good fight.” At that time, the Jewish people felt isolated from G-d as a result of their sinful behavior. There was national despair and despondency, and the Jewish people questioned their enduring relationship with G-d. The salvation that occurred both times, was proof and reassurance of the perpetuity of our status as the chosen nation and of our eternal relationship with G-d.
            There is only one thing in this world that is immutable and unchanging. “I Hashem have not changed, and you the children of Yaakov have not been destroyed” (Malachi 3:6). But all relationships wax and wane, even our feeling of closeness with Hashem. Chanukah and Purim remind us and strengthen our conviction that the relationship will never be broken and we can always come home.
            The gemara (Shabbos 88b) relates that at the time of Kabbolas HaTorah on Har Sinai there was an element of coercion. At the time of the Purim miracle however, the nation reaccepted the Torah, this time solely with love and joy.
            In that sense, although Kabbolas HaTorah was when we received our license to be the chosen people, on Purim we received our enhanced license. Indeed, Chazal relate that on Purim all celestial doors and gates are open to us.
            Just don’t go for the road test on Purim afternoon...

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