Thursday, April 30, 2020

Parshas Acharei Mos - Kedoshim 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Acharei Mos -Kedoshim
7 Iyar 5780/May 1, 2020
Avos Perek 3 – 22nd day of the Omer
            Be strong all ye loyal, despondent baseball fans! All hope is not lost for the beleaguered 2020 baseball season.
            While Major League Baseball is still on hold indefinitely, halfway across the world the sounds of whizzing baseballs and the crack of the bat can be heard.
            In South Korea, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) has begun its preseason, in the hope that it will be able to begin its regular season in a few weeks.
            But there will be nothing regular about the regular season. For now, the games will be played in front of empty seats in an otherwise empty stadium.
            During the games, the stadium is eerily quiet and boring. Dan Straily, an American-born pitcher with the Lotte Giants of the KBO, quipped, “I had to ask people in the front office to get some music between innings, to somehow try to get a little energy [in the stadium]."
            Straily noted that without fans it’s much harder to generate energy and motivation.
            "Even if you're on the other side and the fans are yelling at you, you just feel the energy. Somewhere deep down, it adds adrenaline to you and you feed off of that."
            The KBO'S new Covid-19 rules  include players having their temperatures checked twice a day; everyone not in a baseball uniform, including umpires and athletic trainers, wearing face masks and gloves; if a player shows symptoms, he'll be immediately quarantined and they'll close the stadium where he played his most recent game; if he tests positive for the virus, they will immediately use contact tracing to determine who else needs to be quarantined for two weeks.
            But perhaps the most challenging rule for players is that for the time being they are not allowed to spit! Players chewing and spitting all over the clubhouse and field at baseball games is as much a pastime as the game itself. Imposed civility on the field at baseball games? What’s next? Hitters apologizing to the pitcher if they hit a homerun off them, and pitchers apologizing to hitters when they strike them out?
            Truthfully, my bigger concern, even more than spitless baseball, is if they can really play a game without people walking around the stands screaming “beyaeh heeyah (beer here)!”
            In his commentary at the conclusion of parshas Bo (Shemos 13:16), Ramban explains that the ultimate objective of all mitzvos is to help us develop our faith in G-d and acknowledge that He created us. This is the objective of creation itself. “For we have no other explanation for the first creation, and the most High has no desire for the earthbound creatures except this, that man should know and acknowledge to his G-d that G-d created him.”
            Ramban then adds that this is the reason why we have shuls in which we pray together. “That people have a place where they can gather and acknowledge... where they can publicize this and declare before Him, “We are your creations!”
            Prayer is by definition a medium that helps foster faith and connectivity. The effect of personal prayer in seclusion is incomparable to prayer with a congregation in a shul when, in unity, we reinforce within each other our collective mission to accept G-d’s Will.
            Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 331) notes that whenever something is performed with multitudes, it builds momentum and excitement. “For nothing strengthens the hearts of men as much as the actions of the masses.” Even when a person’s resolve is weak and flimsy, he can become swept away by the frenzied energy of the masses and that itself can awaken him from his lethargy and infuse him with energy.
            During these last few weeks, when we have been forced to daven outside of our beloved shuls and without a minyan, G-d undoubtedly must have tremendous nachas from the tenacious dedication of His holy people who continue to serve Him and pray to Him in any way possible. But for us, being unable to daven together is extremely painful and challenging.
            I must admit that I never realized how much chizuk one gains just by stepping foot in a shul, the holy room always waiting for its adherents to begin praying within it. I never realized the infusion of spiritual energy one feels when davening together even on a weeknight, and even when it was inconvenient to schlepp out there. We hope that soon we will be able to return to our shuls and to participate in communal prayer with renewed appreciation and renewed reverence.

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

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Parshas Tazria - Metzora 5780

We have been correctly accused of being a generation that doesn’t take the time to stop and smell the flowers. The current challenging time of social distancing has compelled us to slow down and has granted us the opportunity to stop and smell the flowers. Most years we may not have much time to appreciate the majestic beauty of this time of year of resurgence of life with budding leaves, stunning colors on trees coming back to life, and brighter sunshine.
            One of the symptoms of the Covid-19 virus is loss of smell and taste. Some patients report that those were their only symptoms; they simply lost their sense of smell and/or taste for a few days, until it slowly returned.
            Our sense of smell is far more powerful than we may realize.
            Smells have a stronger link to memory and emotion than any of the other senses.
            For example, the smell of freshly cut grass can bring back childhood memories in starker detail than watching a home video of those events.
            We have over 1,000 different types of smell receptors but only four types of light sensors and about four types of receptors for touch.
            In 2017, scientists discovered that not only does the brain's smell center connect directly to its memory center, but it also stores long-term memories. That’s why the smell of something can immediately trigger and evoke vivid memories and intense emotions.
            Smelling a certain food can evoke memories of a child experience, perhaps with grandparents when that food was commonly served.
            A friend related that he once bought a new deodorant and was stunned that as soon as he opened it he was filled with anxiety. He realized that decades earlier during a difficult period of his adolescence, that was the deodorant he used. The smell was enough to cause him to feel the intense anxiety he felt then.
            When we smell something it also allows us to anticipate something we may not see or hear. The smell of gas can be an indication of a dangerous leak nearby. Carbon monoxide detectors are important particularly because they have no odor.
            On a more positive note, one of the more enjoyable components of erev Shabbos and erev Yom Tov is the beautiful smells of prepared foods that permeate our homes.
            The ability to discern and sense something otherwise indiscernible is analogized with smell. When someone feels uncomfortable about something without being able to pinpoint what it is, the common expression is, “I smell a rat”.
            In the haftorah of the final day of Pesach, the Navi Yeshaya describes Moshiach and the messianic era: “He will smell with fear of G-d and he will not need to judge by what his eyes see nor decide by what his ears hear.” One of the qualities of Moshiach is that he will be imbued with a spiritual sense of smell that will give him an incredible intuition to discern right from wrong and moral from immoral (See Yeshaya 11:3, as explained by Radak).
            People believe that what they see and hear is reality. We are convinced that pictures and videos depict the truth. But that’s often far from reality. Pictures didn’t “tell” t full story, and even videos only depict what the videographer wants others to see. It takes a sixth sense and an ability to “smell” what is really happening.
            The era of Moshiach will expose the truth as it really is, not as Hollywood and social media portray.
            It’ll be a world where we truly appreciate the miracles of life and the world around us. It’ll be a society where we can literally smell divinity and feel G-d’s Presence everywhere.
            The wise person, however, doesn’t wait for Moshiach. He has already begun developing his sense of smell so that he can sense and recognize all those blessings, despite the masks of this world.

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

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Parshas Tzav/Shabbos Hagadol 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Tzav/Shabbos Hagadol
9 Nissan 5780/April 3, 2020
            A long time ago - or at least what feels like a long time ago - it was actually a Friday morning one-month BCE (Before Coronavirus Exploded), I went to the DMV to get a soon-to-be-required Enhanced License. The lines at the DMV can be long, so I made sure to be there when they opened at 8:30 am. When I walked in at 8:32, the large room was mostly full and there was already a long line growing constantly. I was given a little slip of paper with a few random numbers and told to have a seat and wait until my number was called.
            My number was preceded with the letter U. To my consternation, I quickly realized that not all the numbers being called began with the letter U. That meant I would not only have to wait for my number to be called, there was also no recognizable pattern in knowing when it would be called.
            (I have never been good with numbers and memorizing things, so I was constantly taking the slip of paper out of my pocket to check the number. As the time wore on, I came up with a fictitious story to help me remember my number:
            One night there were a bunch of cookies taken from the pantry. The mother called her sons Juan and Julio and demanded to know who had eaten the missing cookies. When Juan said that he hadn’t eaten one and only Julio did, Julio stood up and yelled, “U8121” (You ate one too, Juan). Because of my brilliant story I still remember my numbers now...)
            The hours ticked away slowly. I finished the parsha, learned Gemara, prepared to teach my next few classes, and wrote an article.
            I told all the Jews I met that we should have someone bring wine and challos for us, because it didn’t look like we were getting out before Shabbos. I nervously hoped I was joking.
            After about three hours, I guesstimated that it was almost my turn - which meant within an hour! But then there was an announcement overhead: “We have just been informed from the central offices in Albany that their system is down. This is completely beyond our control. We cannot process any licenses at this time. We have no idea how long this will last.”
            It was the last thing I wanted to hear. All those hours waiting for nothing. I would have to start all over again.
            Thankfully, a few minutes later, just before I walked out, they announced that anyone who had their papers in order would receive a pass, that would allow them to return the following week and bypass the line.
            With that paper in hand, I indeed returned the following week and was able to bypass the line. My number was called after only an hour.
            Then I stood at the desk opposite the clerk for literally forty-five minutes. I felt that he was stuck in slow-motion. I have hardly ever witnessed greater incompetence. But finally, I was given a receipt and told I could expect my enhanced license to arrive within two weeks.
            It was quite an irksome experience. But as I type these words, amid the global Coronavirus pandemic, I now know that experience was hardly practice for the patience we all are being forced to exercise during this time.
In “Oh the places you’ll go”, Dr. Suess wrote about
“A most useless place; The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
            The truth is that much of life is spent waiting. On a simple level, (when the world is functioning normally) we wait on store lines, in traffic, for packages to arrive, etc. But on a more significant level, wewait for all sorts of salvations and panaceas. There are people waiting for shidduchim, to have children, for estranged children to return home, to be able to pay bills, to find a home in a good neighborhood, for shalom bayis, for emotional stability, and the painful list goes on and on.
            Rabbi Yisroel Reisman noted that the perspective of a Torah Jew is to always strive to grow in every situation. The goal is that when the difficult situation ends, one can look back at that time as a time of growth during the challenge.
            Sometimes we hear people reflect upon the most difficult period of their lives as being the most gratifying, and even the most fulfilling. How is such a dichotomy possible? Because fulfillment is the result of growth and one who grows during arduous times sees tangible good that emerged from it.
            Rabbi Reisman noted that “this situation will pass, and it will be a distant memory. After the infamous September 11th attacks, we thought the world would never revert to normalcy. Yet, it became a distant memory, and life reverted back to (a new) normal. Now too, life will return to normal. The question is if we will be able to look back at this difficult period, as one in which we accomplished and grew.
            The memories we can create for our families during this challenging time period cannot be created under normal circumstances.
            We surely hope and pray that this will all end, all those who are sick will be healed, all those who have suffered tragic losses be consoled, and all those who have been severely impacted financially recoup their losses. But until Hashem does so, we need to do our best during these circumstances.
            We have little control over those times when we find ourselves in The Waiting Place. But it is our choice whether we allow it to be a most useless place or if we make into a most productive place.
            To do so is surely no easy feat, but the Jewish people have never shied away from challenges.

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