Thursday, May 28, 2020

Shavuos 5780

Erev Shavuos – Z’man Mattan Toraseinu
5 Sivan 5780/May 28, 2020
 49th day of the Omer
            Last week, I saw that a new Sefer on Megillas Rus had been published. I was excited by the publication and very much wanted to have it before Shavuos, so I immediately ordered it.
            These days you don’t have to be too old to give the “I remember when” speeches. (The only thing that hasn’t changed is that no one in the younger generation is interested in hearing about the archaic world of their elders. The only ones who enjoy hearing it, are contemporaries who laughingly or nostalgically reminisce about it.) I remember when ordering a package meant it would be a few weeks before it arrived. I also remember when you bought books in a store. But in the current “on-demand”, impatient world we live in, my wait felt intolerable.
            When a few days went by and my order was not delivered, I went on-line to track my package and follow the trajectory of its fateful journey to 3 Landau Lane in Spring Valley, NY.
            Here is the ultimate path it took: On May 19, at 12:49 p.m. it arrived in the USPS Origin facility in Columbia, Maryland. Two hours later it arrived at a network distribution center in Greensboro, North Carolina. From there, it was dispatched to a regional facility in Jersey City, then to a USPS facility in Nyack, NY. It’s next stop was a destination center in White Plains, NY, from where it was sent to Monsey, and from there to my front door in Spring Valley, NY. (Thankfully, it stops tracking it from that point onward.)
            When I originally tracked the package however, it had just arrived in North Carolina from Maryland. A quick search on Google Maps revealed that the drive from our home to Columbia, Maryland is slightly less than four hours, whereas the drive to Greensboro, North Carolina is almost nine hours. That means my package was heading in the wrong direction. How silly!
            Of course, we all understand that there is a reason for my package’s erratic route. There is a definitive route the package has to take. It’s not necessarily the most direct route, but it’s the only way it can get to where it needs to go. It has to first go the distribution center because that is where the resources are in to send it towards its destination.
            It’s a great metaphor for success in life. It’s been said that a shortcut is often the quickest way to get to somewhere you had no intention of going. Beyond that, it’s safe to say that the road to our ultimate destinations is, more often than not, circuitous and arduous. There are no clearly paved and marked roads that lead to success. The road for one person is not necessarily the road for another. Often, it’s the unwanted vicissitudes and bumps along the way that propel us to actually meet our goals and fulfill our aspirations. We need to first pass through life’s distribution center in order to be redirected towards our destination.
            If this is true of almost all paths to success in this world, it’s surely true regarding success in other-worldly, spiritual matters. The road to greatness is surely not smooth sailing. If one wants to refine and improve his character traits, become proficient in halacha and Torah, improve his davening, become a greater ba’al chesed etc, he has to gear up for the long haul. It’s attainable and doable, but not if he wants to meet those lofty goals overnight. The road to Sinai requires seven weeks of devotion and focus on growth. The road to conquering Eretz Yisroel took forty years to traverse, and there were many setbacks and frustrations along the way. And even when they arrived in the Land, the challenges were far from over.
            Sometimes we become frustrated and exasperated by the challenges of life. The wise person understands that those setbacks aren’t necessarily diverting him from the path to his destination. Those diversions and recalculations may help him ascertain the only path that leads to his final destination.
            The story of the Jewish people is the story of a long serpentine journey. The secret of our eternity lies in our unquenchable optimism and hope. No matter how bleak things seemed, no matter how impossible the future looked, we never lost hope.
            Ultimately, our hope is in the messianic era and the advent of Moshiach. There is no family or story that has more challenges and setbacks than the roots and ancestors of Moshiach. The story begins with Lot who unwittingly fathered a child with his daughter. It continues with the story of Yehuda and Tamar. The doubts continue with the union of Boaz and Rus. Their descendant, Dovid, was plagued by scoffers who questioned his lineage throughout his life.
            My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, quips that in our society Moshiach would never get a shidduch. But in the world of truth, he is the paragon of Jewish monarchy and the source of Jewish confidence and hope.
            I was very grateful when my package arrived. Aside for the book itself, it was a reminder that although things don’t always follow the trajectory we project, they will ultimately arrive, if they follow the proper route.
            So, the next time UPS or Fedex arrive at your home to deliver a package, thank them for reminding you that Moshiach is on his way.

            Chag Sameiach & Freilichen Yom Tov,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Parshas Bamidbar 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Bamidbar
Mevorchim Chodesh Sivan
28 Iyar YOM YERUSHALAYIM 5780/May 22, 2020
Avos Perek 6 – 43rd day of the Omer
            Those who live in Eretz Yisroel, (and sefardim even outside Eretz Yisroel), have the good fortune of being blessed by the kohanim every day. But for ashkenazim outside of Eretz Yisroel it is a merit we only have on the mornings of the Yomim Tovim.
            The custom is that we don’t look at the hands of the kohanim while they are reciting birchas kohanim. Rambam explains that it is because we don’t want to be distracted from the beracha being recited. Therefore, the custom is for married men to pull their tallis over the heads and the front of their bodies. Younger children in shul are often brought under their father’s tallis as well.
            Until my bar mitzvah, I would join my father beneath his tallis during birchas kohanim. Until his bar mitzvah, my older brother would be underneath there as well. I remember as a child during birchas kohanim feeling very impatient and finding the ordeal tedious. Aside for the fact that it got hot and stuffy underneath the tallis, I had to smell the breath of my father who towered above me. I should add that father is very mindful of his hygiene, and always uses mouthwash before davening on Shabbos and Yom Tov. But after two hours plus of the Yom Tov davening, that mouthwash was a forgotten memory.
            In my early youth, my father was the Chazzan for mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Polisher Shteeble on the Lower East Side. So for Birchas Kohanim, my older brother and I would go under my grandfather’s tallis. I would give anything to have that experience again and to spend anytime with my beloved Sabbah a’h. But at the time I definitely didn’t feel that way when the three of us were trapped under the stuffy tallis. Still, I never complained or said anything about it. It was just my personal thought and feeling.
            I will never forget the first time I brought my son under my tallis for Birchas Kohanim. I don’t remember which Yom Tov it was, but our oldest son, Shalom, must have then been around six or seven years old. The proud father finally had a son old enough! When Birchas Kohanim was about to begin I pulled my tallis over my head and covered Shalom’s head as well. He looked at me strangely, and then tried to escape. I motioned to him firmly that he had to stay underneath. After about thirty seconds, Shalom had had enough. He began waving his hand in front of his face, while grimacing and motioning that it stunk under there.
            Needless to say, it wasn’t the father-son bonding experience I envisioned. We both barely made it through. I hope it was a good beracha...
            I was thinking about that experience recently, being that we have currently been mandated to wear masks in public places, due to the Coronavirus. It’s the first time that I have had to smell my own breath for an extended period of time. It has not been fun.
            A good friend related that his daughter was on a shidduch date recently. Despite being some distance apart, his daughter and her date had to wear masks during their date in someone else’s backyard. At one point, the young man jumped out of his seat and ripped off the mask. My friend’s daughter wasn’t sure what happened until the young man explained that an insect had crawled underneath the mask.
            (I told my friend they should get married just because it’s a great story for Sheva Berachos.)
            I try to glean life lessons from everything in my life and the world around me. It’s quite a poignant sight to see people walking around with masks. When I go shopping and see people I know, I tell them that I’m wearing a mask to make sure I remember not to speak loshon hora. I then sardonically add that it’s not helping.
            We all know about the power of words. From our youth we are taught about the incredible power of our tefillos, Torah, and the chesed we can do with our words. Conversely, we are taught about the deleterious effect of loshon hora and negative speech.
Every morning we state ובנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון - Hashem chose us from every nation and tongue. Similarly, on Yom Tov we state ורוממתנו מכל הלשונות - He raised us above all of the other tongues.
Hashem chose us because our “tongues” are more elevated than the rest of the world. We try to be careful with our words and to speak properly. The world says that “talk is cheap”. The truth is that talk is easy, but it’s anything but cheap.
            More than any other nation, we recognize the power of words, and that is part of the reason why Hashem chose us to be His people.
            At the beginning of davening each morning we state, “the superiority of mankind over animals is nothing, because it’s all הבל.”
            The word הבל is often translated to mean futile. But it also means “fleeting”. Vapor is also called הבל because as soon as it leaves one’s mouth it dissipates into the atmosphere. Something which is fleeting need not be futile. It all depends how it is used. If one offers another encouraging words, those words are fleeting, but they are anything but futile. In fact, they can very likely help improve the other person’s quality of life, if at least temporarily.
            While there may always be times when our breath smells physically, it’s up to us to determine whether our breath is futile or productive. And while we may not always receive a beracha from the kohanim, we can ensure that our words are always a source of blessing and chizuk for others.
            We hope that soon Hashem will allow us to remove the masks and once again breath freely even in public. When that happens, we will do our utmost to ensure that we are not polluting the air with dangerous vapors that spread emotional germs and spiritual bacteria. Instead, we will spread spirituality, positivity and camaraderie.

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

Friday, May 15, 2020

Parshas Behar-Bechukosai – Chazak! 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Behar-Bechukosai – Chazak!
21 Iyar 5780/May 15, 2020
Avos Perek 5 – 36th day of the Omer
            So, since the pandemic began, every morning I head down to my basement office (the one my wife calls my man-cave) to deliver shiur to my students on Zoom. When we first began doing so a couple of months ago, it was suggested that we use our phones for audio. This way, if the internet connection in our homes is weak, we can continue saying shiur even if our video is frozen. That was sage advice, especially because I found myself often getting kicked off the internet completely in the middle of shiur.
            When Chani called a technician to ask about what we could do to improve our internet service, he explained that our current service was inadequate. With the added demand in our home, which had become the base for 9 different classrooms in 7 different schools, our internet wasn’t strong enough. That coupled with the fact that our modem was in the living room, and my office is a floor beneath it, made the connection even more iffy. The technician compared it to a traffic jam. Everyone is trying to go the same way, but there is limited availability. Every device in our home was trying to grab the same limited connectivity.
            The technician said that we needed a new system, which he would send out right away. I assumed that he was sending us a new modem.
            Those words sounded vaguely familiar: a new modem. Where did I hear that before?
            After some thought, I remembered; it was from a lecture I heard recently. The speaker was saying that the most important component of prayer is gratitude. We think the most important part of prayer is “please” - when we state our requests to Hashem. But really the most important and effective prayer is when we express our gratitude to Hashem.
Instead of telling Hashem how He needs to get things right, we would be better off noticing how much He does for us.
            He added that we don’t spend enough time concentrating on the beracha of “Modim”, in which we express our gratitude to Hashem.
            If one wants to make his recitation of Modim more personal and meaningful, he should stop before reciting that beracha and think about one or two unique things that he is particularly thankful to Hashem for at that moment. Just as no one likes eating soggy cereal from the day before, we shouldn’t be satisfied with a “soggy Modim”. Each day we should aim to recite a “new Modim”, that fills us with a renewed sense of gratitude to Hashem.
            That was it! That was what I was reminded of when I heard those words. The need to be continually grateful and to count our blessings continually - a new Modim!
The only problem is that when I told Chani about my clever comparison between a new modem and a new Modim, she replied that we didn’t get a new modem; we got a new router! (Don’t ask me to explain the difference between them...)
            But “new router” doesn’t have any clever altering connotation. So now I have nothing to write about this week. Oh well; maybe next week.

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