Thursday, June 25, 2020

Parshas Korach 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Korach (EY – Chukas)
4 Tamuz 5780/June 26, 2020
Avos perek 4


The following is the letter I wrote to Heichal HaTorah’s graduating Class of 2020 for their yearbook:

Sivan 5780/June 2020

Dare Graduates!

No, that’s not a typo. That’s my message to you, dear graduates.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm noted that it is commonly believed that the difference between a hero and a coward is that the coward is beset by fear, while the hero is not afraid. But this is incorrect.
In truth, both the hero and the coward may be intimidated and frightened by the prospects of the unknown they are facing. The difference is however, that the coward flees from the source of his fear, while the hero is propelled forward despite his fear. The coward seeks the path of least resistance, while the hero relentlessly readies himself for a long arduous journey.  
All of us in Yeshiva - the hanhala, rabbeim and teachers - have invested tremendously into helping you externalize the individual greatness you each possess. As you continue to traverse the roads of life, you will inevitably encounter resistance and struggles. Your most important asset is your inner greatness. But you have to believe in yourself and have the courage to stay the course.
In Parshas Shelach, Rashi notes that when Moshe dispatched the spies, they were worthy of the mission. The Medrash states that Hashem Himself had vouched for the worthiness of each of the spies.  If so, what caused them to sin so egregiously?
Rav Yecheskel Abramsky zt’l, Chazon Yecheskel, explains that there are individuals who achieve a level of greatness and maintain those levels as long as they remain in pure surroundings, surrounded by people of stature. However, as soon as they leave those surroundings they fall prey to negative influences. A person leaving a holy environment must be wary and conscientious of the danger surrounding him and he must be michazek himself to maintain his level.
When the Meraglim departed, they were indeed holy men of stature. But once they had left the spiritually protected environment of Moshe and Aharon, they stumbled spiritually and disaster ensued.
Rav Mendel Kaplan zt’l once quipped that people think a yeshiva is like a gas station, where you fill up so you can proceed. But in truth a yeshiva is a gymnasium. During your time there you have to work out your spiritual muscles!
A Rebbe of mine was a talmid of the Philadelphia yeshiva for over a decade.  When he was leaving to move to an out of town community he went to say farewell to his Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Elya Svei zt’l. Rav Elya shook his hand warmly and said, “Now we will see what we really taught you!” At first my rebbe was insulted - only now would they see what they taught him? But with time he understood that the greatest challenge is whether one can live by all the values he learned, even outside the spiritual confines of yeshiva. 
Dovid Hamelech expressed this idea in Tehillim: “Go my sons, listen to me, the fear of Hashem I will teach.” His goal was to teach his sons how to be G-d-fearing when they are going, i.e. leaving him and stepping into the challenges of society.
My friends, now is the time when we will see how much you have learned and grown at Heichal.
 Never fear the road ahead because Hashem is with you and rooting for your success. And we will do our utmost to remain there for you as well. Please maintain that connection.
Be daring, courageous, and never lose sight and perspective of your ultimate goals and aspirations.
Dare Graduates, dare!

עם הנצח לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה.

With friendship and affection,
Rabbi Dani Staum

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Shelach 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Shelach (EY – Korach)
27 Sivan 5780/June 19, 2020
Mevorchim Chodesh Tamuz - Avos perek 3
            One of the positives about this very difficult period of anxiety and isolation, was that I was able to take care of some of those things that “I’ll get to one day”.
            One of those things was purchasing a new Shabbos tallis, and fixing the zipper on my tefillin bag. Both my tefillin bag and my Shabbos tallis have a great deal of sentimental value to me.
            My tefillin bag was designed and sewn by my mother, a gift for my bar mitzvah. The picture she drew for my tefillin bag was printed on my bar mitzvah invitations and on the benchers that were disseminated then. A few years ago, the zipper on that tefillin bag ripped. Every morning, as I put away my tefillin I thought about fixing it. But then the day would begin, and I would forget about it.
            A few weeks ago, I finally brought the tefillin bag to the cleaners. Three days later, I had a strong zipper and a functional tefillin bag. It gave me a renewed appreciation for a very personal and meaningful gift my mother gave me years ago.
            My Shabbos tallis too desperately needed to be replaced. It was the original tallis I received from my in-laws and then-Kallah over eighteen years ago. I remember well the excitement I had when we went to purchase it and I donned it that first time. I was especially proud of the beautiful silver atarah (crown) atop the tallis.
            Hundreds of times since then, I have pulled the tallis with the atarah over my head during davening, on Shabbos, Yom Tov, and while serving as the Chazzan on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The space inside that tallis is very meaningful, not only because of the sentimentality of the tallis, but also because of how much tefillah I uttered there. But, like all physical commodities, the time came when it had to be replaced. It had gone from being holy to being quite hole-y, and the atarah was falling off in a few places.
            I purchased a new tallis and gave in my old one so the atarah could be polished and transferred into the new one. A week later, my new tallis arrived. I hardly recognized the atarah - it was polished and fixed up and looked beautiful atop the new tallis.
            This coming Monday, 30 Sivan, our family will mark the first yahrtzeit of my Bubby, my mother’s mother, Rebbitzin Fruma Kohn a’h. The pasuk (Mishlei 17:6) states, “the crown of elders is their grandchildren”. Rashi explains that the crown of grandparents is seeing their grandchildren following the straight path. It gives them a sense of fulfillment and purpose to know that they have fulfilled their life mission and ambition to raise the next generation of Torah observance.
            My other three grandparents passed away before I was fifteen. But I was blessed to have my Bubby in my life for almost four decades of my life. It was such a gift that my children were able to glimpse a relic of the previous generation. They were able to meet a survivor of Siberia, a member of the generation who gave everything for the preservation and perpetuation of Torah living, amidst vast personal loss and struggle.
            When one visits a grave, the custom is that before one takes leave, he places a stone atop the grave. The symbolism is that although the one buried can no longer personally garner merits, but we can give them merits through actions we perform in their memory. We place a stone atop their grave, as if to say that we can still add to their legacy.
            Bubby has passed on. We, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, have the perpetual task to polish her crown and make sure it sparkles and shines. In fact, we are her crown!
            May her neshama have an aliyah.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Beha'aloscha 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Beha’aloscha (EY – Shelach)
20 Sivan 5780/June 12, 2020
Avos perek 2
            Marty wasn’t very adept at using computers. It took him a long time to familiarize himself with new technology, and he always seemed a few steps behind. When he finally downloaded programs and apps he required, he constantly needed to be reminded how to use it.
            The company technician was summoned at least once a week to update or repair Marty’s computer. But one week, Marty really blew it. He had way too many programs open on his computer, including streaming videos and other work-related programs. Then suddenly, his computer completely shut down. At first, Marty thought it was no big deal, and that he could just reboot the computer. But when the computer started showing all sorts of codes and errors, he knew he was in trouble. He put in a panicked call to the technician for help. The technician arrived a short while later, and quickly he realized that this was no simple matter. He had to go into the bowels of the computer to change settings and download new programs. (If you are somewhat technologically savvy, you have already realized that I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but bear with me...)     It took the technician almost four hours to recover all of the damaged files, including documents and files used by the entire company. Finally, Marty’s computer was back up and running.
            As the technician gathered his things to leave and Marty sat back in his chair, he asked the technician if he thought it would be a problem for him to reopen all the files simultaneously that had been open when his computer crashed. The technician looked at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? Don’t you see what happened because of your reckless computer activity? If you do all that again, then all of my efforts just now were for nothing!”
            The moral of the story is when you push the reset button, don’t just go back to what you were doing before!
            We have no business playing G-d or prophet. No one has the right to say why the pandemic happened, why people suffered and died, why people had to be alone, why the economy tanked, etc. But we would be foolish not to learn personal lessons from everything that happened, so we can grow from it, and resiliently emerge stronger because of it.
            My rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Schabes noted that we should not presently go back to our shuls. Of course, as restrictions are being lifted and we are once again able to daven with a minyan in shul, we should be excited to do so. But we should not “go back”. Going back means returning exactly the way we were when we left. We want to return - albeit differently, better!
            We invest time and effort to ensure that we daven with a minyan. It’s part of our lifestyle and we readily inconvenience ourselves to do so. There is no doubt that our tefillos have always been incredibly efficacious and have protected us in so many ways. But now that we have not been able to be in our shuls for a few months, it is incumbent upon us to up our game.
            No professional sports player wants to come back the next season exactly the way he was the year before. He uses the offseason to study his personal performance and to see where he can improve and become a better player.
            In a sense, this is a new season, a new chapter, in our lives and in our Avodas Hashem.
            At the height of the pandemic we were reminded that even when all else fails, we always have tefilla. But now, as curves flatten and we slowly begin to re-emerge from isolation, we need to remember that tefilla is not a last resort, but a first resort. Tefilla is not only for when all else fails, but simply for all - the good, the challenging and the mundane.
            Just as in the business world, everyone strives to be innovative, that is how we should approach tefillah.
            A young Rabbi, who was a student of the Telsher Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, once approached Rabbi Gifter and said that he had been invited to be the guest lecturer in an out-of-town community. He wanted to know if his Rebbe had a suggestion for an appropriate message that he should relate to that particular community.
            Rabbi Gifter replied by relating the following personal vignette:
            Rabbi Gifter was born and raised in America but traveled to Europe to learn in the prominent Telshe Yeshiva in Lithuania. He was only able to afford a third-class ticket for the boat ride. He was assigned a room at the bottom of the ship, adjacent to a massive banquet hall.   
            A few days after they were out at sea there was a festive masquerade party in the banquet hall. Rabbi Gifter had never before seen adults wearing costumes and acting frivolously.
            Suddenly, there was a loud noise and the electricity on the boat went out. The tragic events of the Titanic were known to all. Immediately, everyone pulled off their masks, put down their glasses of wine, and began crying and praying.
            A minute or two later, the power returned.
            Three minutes later the power went back on. A collective cheer erupted - the music resumed, masks were re-donned, glasses lifted, and the festivities resumed.
            Rabbi Gifter concluded his story and turned to his student, “Tell the congregation that when the lights come back on, don’t put the music back on as if nothing happened!”
            At this juncture, the divine proverbial reset button has been pressed. We would be foolish to let things just return to the way they were.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
R’ Dani and Chani Staum