Thursday, October 29, 2020

Parshas Lech Lecha 5781



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Lech Lecha 5781

12 MarCheshvan 5781/October 30, 2020


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            As I was walking to Shul on Motzei Shabbos this week, I saw that the moon was clearly shining. That meant we would be able to recite kiddush levana after ma’ariv. I turned to the person walking with me, pointed upwards, and remarked, “a shayner levana”, Yiddish for “a beautiful moon.” I then added, “can you imagine a non-Jew ever making such a comment?” That’s not to say that a non-Jew can’t appreciate the beauty of the moon. However, they do not have the same appreciation to “bless the moon” which is considered equivalent to greeting the Shechina itself. That feeling of excitement expressed in the words “a shayner levana” is unique to those who observe mitzvos.

            At the funeral of his father, my Uncle, Rabbi Yaakov Cohn, related how excited his father would become over performing mitzvos. When he would call his father after Shabbos to ask him how his Shabbos was, if it was a week when kiddush levana was recited, his father would express how beautiful the kiddush levana was.

            My uncle’s father passed away a few decades ago, but I think about those words every time we recite kiddush levana.

            A few years ago, a Rav approached Rav Elyashiv complaining about certain behaviors a group of Jews were displaying. The Rav told Rav Elyashiv that he felt the situation needed to be dealt with.

            Rav Elyashiv replied by relating the (apocryphal) story about the German leader, Franz Joseph, who one day dispatched an advisor to check up on his Jewish subjects. The advisor returned and reported that he had arrived on a Saturday evening to find all the Jews standing in the street outside their synagogue, looking heavenwards and praying. Franz Joseph was intrigued and summoned a local Rabbi, demanding to know why the Jews were praying outside the synagogue instead of inside. The Rabbi was taken aback by the question. He thought a moment before he replied that when G-d created the world, the moon complained that its light was equal to the sun. G-d responded by minimizing the light of the moon. Therefore, every month Jews go outside and pray that G-d restore the light of the moon.

            Franz Joseph laughed and replied, “If these are the concerns of the Jews, it seems like things are pretty good among the Jewish people.”

            Rav Elyashiv then turned to the Rav and said that we have bigger issues to deal with than the relatively petty issue he was bothered by. If that issue would be the Jewish people’s biggest concern, we would be in good shape.

            Being Jewish does require doing things that seem eccentric to those outside the fold. The sad thing is when we ourselves don’t seek to appreciate the depth and beauty of our own profound traditions and mitzvos, such as kiddush levana.

            In a similar vein to Rav Elyashiv’s story, at an Agudah convention years ago, Rav Shimon Schwab described a Jew in pre-war Poland reciting Kiddush Levanah on a bitterly cold Motzei Shabbos. This Polish Jew had neither enough money to buy clothing to protect himself from the cold nor to purchase food to stave off his pangs of hunger. Yet, he shivered in the cold beseeching Hashem to return the diminished light of the moon.

            Rav Schwab noted that undoubtedly the fact that the moon was symbolically flawed was the least of that Jew’s worries. However, he recognized that all needs will be fulfilled when Moshiach comes and the world witnesses Malchus Shamayim.

            Rav Schwab himself had a personal affinity for the mitzvah of kiddush levana. If he was walking home from shul, and the moon suddenly appeared from behind the clouds, he would stop and recite kiddush levana then and there.

            At one point when he had to be hospitalized, Rav Schwab was offered a private room on the west side of the hospital with a view overlooking the Hudson River, at no extra charge. Rav Schwab politely declined the offer, explaining that he calculated that the moon would be visible that night on the east side of the hospital, so he wanted a room on that side. The room he was given on the east side wasn’t private and his sickly roommate was moaning all night. Rav Schwab insisted that it was all worth it.

            The last month of his life, Rav Schwab was in the Intensive Care Unit in the hospital. He missed Kiddush Levana that month for the first and last time in his life.

            Rabbeinu Yonah (Berachos 21a) writes that by witnessing the cycles of the moon, one sees the greatness of Hashem and, therefore, it is considered as if he accepted p’nei haShechina.

            The Darkei Moshe adds that the cycle of the moon symbolizes the Davidic dynasty. Just as the moon wanes and then waxes again, so will Malchus Bais Dovid be reestablished, even centuries after it has faded.

            At the Siyum Hashas on March 1, 1995 in Madison Square Garden, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon shlita, the Mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., delivered the final address, in which he mentioned that the Siyum was dedicated to the memory of the six million who perished during the Holocaust. During that lecture he related the following story:

            Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt’l recounted that he once asked a survivor how he was able to bear five years in a forced labor camp and remain a believer? How could he have emerged with undiminished love for G-d?

            The man replied, “They didn’t allow us to keep any mitzvos in the camp. They deprived us of Shabbos, Yom Tov, Torah, etc., and from early morning until late in the evening they guarded us closely.

            “But there was one thing they could not take away from us – the moon! There were inmates among us who calculated when Rosh Chodesh was and when Kiddush Levanah could be recited. On that night, as we would walk back to the barracks with soldiers on both sides, someone would whisper that it was time to recite Kiddush Levanah. We would hold hands and recite Kiddush Levanah, and that symbolized everything to us. As we say in Kiddush Levana, "וללבנה אמר שתתחדש עטרת תפארת לעמוסי בטן שהם עתידים להתחדש כמותה ולפאר ליוצרם על שם כבוד מלכותו" – To the moon He said that it should renew itself, as a crown of splendor for those borne from the womb, those who are destined to renew themselves like it, and to glorify their Creator for the sake of His glorious kingdom.”

            The Rema (Oh”C 426:2) writes that Kiddush Levana is a tefillah and expression of confidence that the light of the moon will again be equated with the light of the sun. It is also symbolic of the future reunification of Klal Yisroel with Hashem, as it were, in perpetuity. Therefore, Rema writes that one should dance after reciting Kiddush Levana.

            It turns out then, that the customary dance following kiddush levana isn’t merely a nice thing to do. Its source is in the Shulchan Aruch itself.

            It is a joyous dance with confidence in a better future, the rise of the glory of Klal Yisroel, Torah, and Kavod Shomayim. As we dance before the moon, we join Jews throughout the world and throughout history who have performed that same dance with the same hopes and dreams.

            We might feel antsy or restless on Motzei Shabbos, and not always be so excited to have to walk out of shul and say another tefillah. It entails standing outside in the dark and in summer humidity or the freezing cold winter. But it’s a small price to pay for an opportunity to greet the Shechina and celebrate the undiminished eternal spark and sanguinity of our eternal people. That’s surely something worth dancing about.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


Thursday, October 22, 2020




Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Noach 5781

5 MarCheshvan 5781/October 23, 2020


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            A friend used to have a sign that his mother hung on their fridge, which read: “You have two choices for supper- take it or leave it.”

            Our lives are composed, colored, and in many ways determined by the choices we make. Rav Shimshon Pincus noted that the gemara (Sotah 2a) relates that a person’s home, job, and spouse are predetermined. If so, where is our free will?

            Contrary to what people might like to believe, the sky isn’t the limit and we generally can’t accomplish anything we want to, even if we really want it badly and are willing to work hard to attain it. The real choice of life is what we do with “the cards we are dealt with”.

            Dr. Edith Eva Eger has a very active clinical practice in California. She also serves as a consultant for the US Army and Navy in resiliency treatment and treatment of PTSD. What’s most remarkable is that Dr. Eger is well over ninety years old. In 2017 she published her memoir entitled “The Choice: Embrace the possible”, which has become a New York Times Bestseller.

            In her powerful book, she relates her experiences during the Holocaust, her suffering, survival, building a family and moving on, all the while, still haunted by her traumatic experiences.

            Dr. Eger describes how she was introduced to the work of Viktor Frankel, a fellow survivor, and the founder of logotherapy, and the profound impact his work had upon her. Frankel’s main premise is that although everything else could be taken from a person, his thoughts and inner world are eternally his. The Nazis could never take away from him his ability to picture himself in a different time and place, utilizing his talents and abilities to be of service to others, and to find meaning in his suffering. Frankel writes that that realization was the key to his survival.

            Dr. Eger relates that as a teenager she and her sister arrived in Auschwitz, where their parents were immediately sent to the gas chambers. They were sent to the showers, after which their hair was shaved off. Her sister Magda was holding her shorn hair in her hand, when she looked at her and said, “How do I look?” In Eger’s words: “The truth? She looks like a mangy dog... I can’t tell her this of course, but any lie would hurt too much and so I must find an impossible answer, a truth that doesn’t wound... she is asking me to help her find and face herself. And so I tell her the one true thing that’s mine to say:

            “Your eyes”, I tell my sister, “they’re so beautiful. I never noticed them when they were covered up by all that hair.” It’s the first time I see that we have a choice: to pay attention to what we’ve lost or to pay attention to what we still have.”

            The pasuk in Shir Hashirim (4:1) states: “Behold you are beautiful my beloved, behold you are beautiful; your eyes are like doves.”

            Rashi writes that doves always remain loyal to their mates. The eyes of Klal Yisroel are always on their nests.

            Even when a Jew strays and wanders spiritually from where he should be, his soul yearns to return and reconnect. The holy spark within is never tainted and remains pure and holy. That greatness is reflected in the pure eyes of every Jew. His eyes are always beautiful - like doves yearning to return. Do we see the beauty in the eyes, or do we see the glaring baldness?

            The question is always what we focus on.

            The multi-billion-dollar advertising industry focuses all its energy on reminding us and focusing us on the things we lack. It seeks to make us feel that our lives are incomplete without those commodities. The Torah, however, wants us to focus on what we do have, the blessings and beauty we have been gifted with, and to recognize that we can attain happiness in the now.

            There is a fascinating Medrash (Tana d’vei Eliyahu Rabbah 1) which states that Hashem is happy with His lot, referring to Klal Yisroel.

            The Jewish people are far from perfect. Yet, with all our flaws, Hashem rejoices that we are His chosen people. We would be wise to view ourselves with the positive perspective of the divine.

            There will always be baldness in our lives and there will always be beauty. It’s up to us to decide what we choose to focus on.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum