Thursday, August 27, 2020

Parshas Ki Setzei 5780



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Setzei  

8 Elul 5780/August 27, 2020

Avos perek 1-2


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            Before I go to sleep most nights, I walk over to the beds of each of my children to kiss them good night. Before doing so, I watch them sleeping peacefully for a few moments. It reminds me what an invaluable gift each one is and how thankful I am for them. It’s not always easy to remember that during the day, especially when it gets hectic and tense. So, when my day is over and they are asleep, it’s a perfect time for that reminder. In addition, studies show that if a person feels grateful before going to sleep, they have better sleep quality.[1]

            (I should add that these days the three aliens - also called adolescents - living in our home are often up later than I am. But I wake up in the mornings well before they are. While I don’t have that level of appreciation for them when they are speaking too loudly on the phone and I’m trying to go to sleep, I could appreciate them in the quiet moments of the early morning...)

            The other night as I watched my children sleeping peacefully, it struck me that breathing symbolizes the essence of life. Our souls, which emanate from a pure, celestial world, are fused with our animalistic bodies, formed from materials of this world. The role of mankind is to bridge these two diverse worlds, by infusing spirituality into our mundane activities.

            As we breath, our bodies move outwards and inwards, a symbol of our goal to live within ourselves by constantly growing and personally striving, and yet beyond ourselves, for the good and benefit of others.

            Rabbi David Lapin recently noted that something seems to be desperately wrong with the way we are breathing. Covid-19 primarily attacks the respiratory system and has infected millions of people throughout the world. Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth definitely doesn’t make breathing any easier. In addition, the emotive image that triggered fury in hundreds of cities across the world is that of an arrested man’s last words: “I can’t breathe, sir.”

            What could be wrong with the way we are breathing? What could the message be that Hashem is trying to send us about our attitude towards breathing, and our usage of breath?
Rabbi Lapin explained that breathing is much more than a mechanistic activity of respiration. The word for breathing in Hebrew is
נשימה related to the word נשמה, which means soul. Through our breathing we connect to our souls, and thereby to G-d Himself. It is also our vehicle for speech, our ability to articulate complex ideas, words of beauty and inspiration, or words of vulgarity and destruction.
            “Have we lost mastery of our breath? Have we lost connection with our own souls through our breath? Have we lost connection with one another through our breath? We don’t speak touchingly, or lovingly to one another; we just text. More importantly, we don’t listen to the breath of one another or to their words, or the silence between their words. Breathing isn’t just a mechanism.
ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים – Hashem breathed into Adam’s nostrils a breath of life. Breathing is our power of humanity, the power of our divinity.”

            Perhaps there is no time of year to reflect upon the process of breathing more than Elul and Rosh Hashanah. In the Rosh Hashana davening, we pray for the time when, “everyone who has a soul in his nostrils will proclaim ‘Hashem, the G-d of Yisroel, is king and His Kingship dominates everything’.”
            This time-period is symbolized by the shofar, sounded through the medium of breath. The disease that ravaged and shut down society during the last few months, primarily attacks our ability to perform the mitzva of shofar.

            The shofar is the cry of the soul within. It’s a reminder of our mission to simultaneously live within and beyond ourselves, like our very breath - in and out.

            This is a time when we can gain mastery over our speech and over our breathing and listening. It is the piercing call of the shofar, the poignant message of the pandemic, and the symbolic message of the essence of life.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


[1] “Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognition”, November 2008, Alex Wood, et al.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Parshas Shoftim 5780



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Shoftim  

Rosh Chodesh Elul 5780/August 20, 2020

Avos perek 6


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            Not infrequently, I receive envelopes in the mail with printed words on the front: “Help us in our time of need!” “Don’t let them shut our doors!” “Yidden! Have compassion!”

            The enclosed letters are an emotional appeal that the recipient send money to their tzedakah organization because they are undergoing a financial crisis. The bold letters and exclamation points are meant to tug at our heart strings so that we realize the severity of the situation. The hope is that we will donate more than we otherwise might have.

            Yoni Halper, a friend who is a marketing guru and a financial consultant, explained to me that this approach is mistaken. The bottom line is that no one wants to be part of a losing team. In addition, people want to feel that their magnanimity is accomplishing something. If they are giving away their hard-earned money for charity, they want to feel that they are, literally, getting the most bang for their buck. When people read that the situation is so dire, they wonder how effective their personal donation can be. Is it even worth giving anything when the organization needs so much just to stay afloat? And even if they weather this crisis, they’ll likely be back in the same financial crunch in a few months.

            Yoni noted that the better approach would be to promote the success of the organization, and how much they have accomplished. They should also demonstrate how each donation helps them further this incredible cause. The goal is people give, not because they were guilted into feeling that they have to, but because they want to. When they recognize the value of the organization and the merit of being part of it, they will be happy to be part of its great work.

            I was thinking about this idea this week, as Elul is about to begin. It’s clear that one of our greatest challenges today is with self-esteem. A culture which overemphasizes and values wealth, fame, and prestige, leaves most people feeling lowly and insignificant. Besides, what kind of internal satisfaction can one have when they are valued for externalities?

            Rabbi Yaakov Meir Schechter writes that the challenge of feeling melancholy is the foremost challenge of our times. So many people feel downcast and unworthy - emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.

            The cry of the shofar that begins in Elul, seems to only further embed these negative feelings in people’s consciousness. “It’s time to do teshuva because I’ve wasted another year, not learning enough, not davening enough, not being a good enough spouse/parent/friend...”

            It’s no wonder that people want to hibernate from Elul until after Yom Kippur. It’s as if we present ourselves to Hashem with an emergency appeal: “We’re desperate! We know we are a walking disaster and failure, but we still want to have a good year. So, we’ll try to make sure our spirituality doesn’t go bankrupt. Therefore, please forgive us.” Yikes! Who wants to be part of a losing team?

            This whole approach stems from the fact that we don’t value or appreciate ourselves or our accomplishments. Yes, we can all improve, and we have plenty of room for growth. Yes, we have much that we need to rectify. But it’s not because we are in bankruptcy and are begging for underserved clemency. Rather, it’s because we have so much to offer and we want to make sure we aren’t selling ourselves short.

            Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt”l (whose Yahrtzeit was this week on 28 Av) would say that we shouldn’t refer to the days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur as “Yomim Noraim - Days of Awe”. Rather, we refer to them as, “Yomim Muflaim - days of great opportunity”.

            Elul begins that process. It is the time of “ani l’dodi v’dodi li - I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” That is the starting point of the teshuva season - feeling and recognizing that we are beloved!

            This is the time when we can easily forge a deeper connection with Hashem. We have to recognize that opportunity and have the proper perspective as the starting point as we set out upon the path of teshuva.

            Everyone wants to be part of a winning team. We should realize that just by showing up and wanting to grow, we are on the winning team.


Chodesh Tov

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


Thursday, August 13, 2020

Re'eh 5780


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Re’eh
24 Menachem Av 5780/August 14, 2020
Mevorchim Chodesh Elul
Avos perek 5

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In Camp Dora Golding, on Shabbos morning before Mussaf, Rabbi Mayer Erps delivers a three-minute
message to the entire camp. The following is the powerful message he delivered this past Shabbos, the final Shabbos of
this year’s camp season:
Many campers return to camp each summer, progressing from the younger divisions to the
older divisions. When they reach the oldest division, they hope to continue as staff members -
waiters, junior counselors and then counselors.
Those who become counselors for a few summers, hope that they might actually be chosen
to become a color war general. Becoming a color war general is no small matter in camp. It is a
matter of great pride and honor. The climax of that experience takes place at the grand sing at the
end of color war. The entire camp gathers in the dining room, divided according to their color war
team. The generals are introduced with great fanfare and the entire camp cheers excitedly as they
make their grand entrance, dancing together at center stage. They are the stars of the emotionally
charged evening.
When all the skits and songs have been performed, the head counselor stands on the stage in
middle of the room, with only the two generals and the two captains. You can imagine the feeling
they feel during those moments as they breathlessly await the announcement of the winner of color
Last week, right after the scores were announced, something extraordinary occurred. A
young boy, the son of one of the camp families, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was
standing next to the stage, in a mass of campers and staff members. When the scores were
announced, he was knocked over by the excited winners jumping in the air. As the music began
playing loudly, and hugs and handshakes were exchanged, an amazing sight emerged - the two
generals, Avrumy Wadler and Nesanel Ringelheim, emerged from the crowd with a concerned look
on their faces. The winning general was holding the little boy in his arms, walking towards where the
nurses were sitting. They easily could have signaled to someone else to care for the crying boy. But
that is not what they did.
After a minute, the boy was totally fine, except for being a little shaken up. But the sensitivity
of two concerned B’nei Torah, who put aside the moment of glory that every counselor dreams of,
was exemplary.
Rabbi Erps concluded by urging the campers, that when leaving camp in a few days, they
take with them not only incredible memories of so many fun times, but also the great lessons about
how to treat and care for others, such as this one.
In Parshas Vaeschanan (Devorim 7:7), Moshe Rabbeinu declares, “Not because you are
more numerous than any other people, did Hashem desire you and chose you, for you are the least
of all the nations.” Rashi explains that “you are the least of the nations” means that the Jewish
people humble themselves even when they are bestowed with glory and greatness.

This is in contradistinction with the navi sheker - false prophet. In Parshas Re’eh the Torah
warns that we shouldn’t be lured in or duped by false prophets. The question is - if he is a phony,
why is he referred to as a prophet at all?
The Sifrei (Devorim 84) quotes Rabbi Akiva who explained that the Torah is referring to
one who had been a true prophet but devolved into a false prophet. This individual had achieved an
extreme level of spiritual greatness, meriting prophecy itself. But he allowed it to go to his head, and
he became conceited and full of himself. The catastrophic result was that he became a false prophet,
attributing his own fantastical and heretical ideas to the divine.
The pasuk states that the greatness of the Jewish people is that they do not allow greatness
to overtake them. They do so by maintaining a feeling of humility by always acknowledging that
their abilities and accomplishments are from G-d.
The Gemara (Megillah 31a) states that wherever G-d’s greatness is manifest, one will also
discover G-d’s humility, as it were. That is the mark of greatness which we too aspire for. To always
strive for greatness and yet to maintain a proper perspective that keeps us humble.
It is the ability to jump off the stage and out of the spotlight to help a little boy - both
literally and figuratively.
In that sense, both generals were true winners.
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Eikev 5780


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Eikev

17 Menachem Av 5780/August 7, 2020

Avos perek 4


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            It’s the day after Tisha B’av.

            The clock strikes chatzos.

            The halachos of aveilus are over.

            In camps, they try to get everything in at once. Music is blaring, as campers jump in the pool. Meanwhile, others bite into a freshly grilled hot dog, while staff members immediately begin shaving.

            It’s a great feeling to shave at the end of the three weeks. The same holds true on Lag Baomer, when shaving for the first time since the beginning of sefira.

            These last few years, as I shave, I’ve been noticing more patches of white in my beard. At first, I tried to blame my kids for putting whiteout in my beard while I was sleeping, but that didn’t work out well. So, I just blamed them for causing my beard to turn white.

            My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates that when his grandchildren ask him why his beard is all white, he tells them they should ask their parents. I’m beginning to understand.

            The greatest challenge of shaving and trimming is “doing the lines”. The first few years after I grew a beard, I didn’t do the lines well at all and it looked like someone did them at a carnival. As time has passed however, I’ve started to get the hang of it. I must say that I did rather well last week keeping the lines even.

            Nature is always producing growth. But nature’s production is wild and unkempt.

            For example, those who live in Brooklyn may be able to maintain their “lawn” with a pair of scissors. But those of us who live in more suburban areas need to mow their lawn or hire a landscaper to keep it looking neat and trimmed.

            Women also enjoy manicures on their fingers, to keep their nails neat and shiny. (It’s just another one of the many things about women I don’t really get...)

            The Torah (Devorim 7:22) relates that when Klal Yisroel conquers Eretz Yisroel it will be little by little, “lest the beasts of the field increase against you.” If the Cannaites would be uprooted quickly, vast stretches of land would be left unpopulated, which would leave them open to uncontrolled habituation by the surrounding wildlife.

            During the pandemic, many animals were seen freely roaming normally busy, but then deserted, streets. There are various reasons offered as to why that phenomenon occurred. But the primary reason is that animals generally live within a “landscape of fear”, trying to get what they need while avoiding areas where predators might be lurking. Those predators include humans.

            The Torah states in Parshas Bereishis, that Hashem blesses Adam that the fear of man will be upon all living things. Although we can damage that primacy by sinning and thereby distorting our supremacy over creation, there is a natural tendency for animals to fear and avoid humans.

            When humans retreat, due to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the landscape of fear retreats as well. If there are fewer people around, animals which normally restrict their activities to the evening, will venture out during the day.

            G-d created the process of nature in which there is ongoing and consistent production and growth. But He left it in the hands of man to draw the proverbial lines and to keep that growth in order.

            We all seem to know exactly how the lines should be drawn for everyone else. But we have no control over everyone else’s lines. The only lines we can draw are the ones on our own faces.

            The Torah is our ultimate guide in teaching us how to preserve creation, drawing moral lines which enable humankind and the entire world to thrive. When those values are challenged and discarded, wildlife invades. When humanity fails to exercise its supremacy, the lines of nature become overrun.

            That seems to be a pretty apt description of what is happening to our society, as the lines become increasingly blurred. The “values” purported are often hollow and leave us with reason to be concerned.

            Our task is to fulfill our roles of being the crown of society by preserving the timeless faith and morals that have been transmitted to us. We can then hope that G-d will help the world maintain its divinity as well.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum