Thursday, October 15, 2020

Parshas Bereishis 5781

  “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Bereishis 5781

Mevorchim Chodesh MaCheshvan

28 Tishrei 5781/October 16, 2020


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FRESH AND TIMELESS

They say that youth is the greatest gift; it’s a pity that it’s wasted on the young.

Periodically, at the dinner table my wife will ask in her motherly sing-song voice “so let’s see who is eating nicely? Is Michael eating nicely? What about Gavriel? Ooooh, Dovid is eating sooo nicely.”

At that point I hold up my empty plate. No one in our family eats nicer than me! In fact, no one even comes close. Yet I never seem to get credit or one of those special songs sung about me. Somehow the specialness of “eating nicely” doesn’t apply to me anymore, at least not in the same way.

Someone once quipped that if you don’t master time, time will master you. Time marches on no matter what. The only question is what we do with our time. Just because a person ages chronologically, doesn’t automatically mean that he matures or becomes more responsible. That depends on us.

As we commence the Torah anew, we prepare to hear the stories that we have learned since our youth. The question is how will we relate to those stories? There is opportunity for growth and life lessons in every single parsha, but our eyes must be open to those lessons.

My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates an anecdote about a woman who rarely went to shul but decided to attend one random Shabbos. She kept asking the woman sitting next to her about what was happening, and the woman graciously explained each thing to her.

The Torah reading that week was Parshas Vayeshev. When the visitor asked what they were reading about the neighbor briefly related the story of Yosef. She told the visitor about Yosef’s dreams, how his brothers were jealous and hated him, and about when his father sent Yosef to check on the brothers, they removed his coat, threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery.

The visiting woman was so shaken by the tragic story that she began to sob. She couldn’t get over what happened to Yosef.

She didn’t return to shul for many months. Then, one Shabbos she returned and again asked the woman next to her about everything happening. It just so happened that the Torah reading that week was again parshas Vayeshev. When she asked what the reading was about, the woman next to her told her the same story she had been told the year before. But this time the visiting woman sat stone-faced.

There was a woman who recognized the visitor from the year before and asked her about her vastly different reaction. “Last year when you heard the story of Yosef you were beside yourself with grief, but this year you have no reaction?” The visitor replied, “Listen, if Yosef is foolish enough to go back again to check on the brothers, and didn’t learn his lesson from last time, I’m not wasting my tears on him.”

Rabbi Wein would note that we learn the stories and ideas of the parshios each year. Although the words and stories don’t change, we do. We need to relate to them and understand them on a different level each time around.

The mishna in Avos (5:26) says about the Torah, הפך בה והפך בה דכלה בה - delve into it and delve into it (repeatedly) for everything is in it.”

No matter which way you turn it the Torah is talking to you. Everything you want to know is there. It’s like a diamond mine, the diamonds are there they just have to be dug out.

That’s what the commentators throughout the generations have done, and that’s what Rabbonim are engaged in when they deliver their sermons to their congregations each week.

In Rabbi Wein’s words: “When you are a Rav for as long as I have been, you would think that everything that could be said has already been said, but that’s not true.

I had a congregant in Monsey who was a brilliant doctor. He remembered every speech I ever gave. (I was often tempted to tell him to go daven somewhere else...)

After eighteen years, he once told me that I had only repeated myself three times. I was amazed and took it as the highest compliment. That meant that somehow every Shabbos I saw something new that I had never seen before. This, despite the fact that I have been doing שנים מקרא ואחד תרגום and preparing sermons for many decades. Still, I saw fresh perspectives and insights.”

The Torah is timeless, and that timelessness is reflected in its commentaries.

Just as we can’t eat or dress the same way we did when we were children, so we shouldn’t understand the lessons of Torah the way we did when we were children. In an unstable and volatile world, we would be wise to listen well to the lessons the Chumash provides us. There is great comfort and chizuk to be gleaned from our holy Avos who also lived in unpredictable and volatile times and yet changed the world.

We are beginning the Torah again. But hopefully with a new and fresh perspective into its timeless truths.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum


Friday, October 9, 2020

Shemini Atzeres 5781

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Hoshanah Rabbah/Erev Shabbos Kodesh-Shemini Atzeres 5781

21 Tishrei 5781/October 9, 2020

 

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PRICKED FINGERS

            Succos is an all-encompassing holiday - soul, emotion and body. Our souls are rejuvenated with the feeling of unparalleled and joyous connection with Hashem. We are emotionally uplifted and swept away by the season of joy. As for our bodies, the succah envelops our entire being, our stomachs are nourished by delicious holiday meals, and the Four Species symbolize our spine, heart, eyes and mouth.

            Aside for the core organs symbolized by the Four Species, I often think about my fingers during Succos, especially during the days immediately prior. Although the Medrash doesn’t mention fingers, I invariably get a few splinters in my fingers as I take the wooden succah boards out of our garage and haul them up to our porch. Then, I get a few more bamboo splinters as I put the schach up. Finally, as I put the knots around the lulav, I always get a couple of pricks from the sharp edges of the lulav leaves. It’s amazing how much those hurt.

            Of course, the real message is that I buy strong gloves and use them when I put up the succah, but that’s a lesson I never seem to learn. So, I at least try to think of a symbolic lesson to be gleaned. What’s the message of all the finger pricks before Succos?

            As mentioned, Succos is a time of unparalleled connection with the divine. The succah contains the holiness of Yerushalayim and all we do in it is sanctified within its holy confines. Shaking the Four Species demonstrates that we can take the holiness within us and externalize it, radiating it outwards in all directions.

            This idea is all the more poignant for those who have the custom to shake the Four Species in the succah. Perhaps it symbolizes that we can take the holiness endemic to the succah and spread it in all directions. That is essentially the goal of the Jewish People in exile - to spread holiness and kiddush Hashem throughout the world!

            Before we can embrace and bask in that world of holiness, we must embrace unity and love for every Jew. Doing so entails that we stop pointing fingers. We must stop believing that our path towards G-d is the only proper one or that we have the monopoly on proper Torah outlook. The only area we should be unyielding is regarding adherence to halacha, but regarding the pathway to connection with G-d, we have to be willing to accept that there are different methodologies.

            The halacha is that the minimum acceptable number of walls for a succah is two walls plus an additional tefach-handbreadth of a third wall.

            The Zohar states that two walls and a little bit of a third wall is symbolic of a hug. When one hugs someone else, his arms wrap around the recipient, with his elbows bent inward, and his fingers edging inwards. It’s as if there are two full parts and an additional little bit doing the hugging. Incredibly, the succah is symbolic of a divine hug from G-d to us.

            One of the mornings of our beautiful Chol Hamoed learning program this week, Rabbi Dovid Rube, related this idea from the Zohar. He then added that when one hugs another, he pulls the person closely and tightly. Then, after feeling that embrace, the recipient is able to venture beyond, fortified with the love that was conveyed. That brief closeness gives him the ability to go beyond what is familiar and comfortable.

            The divine hug of Succos is meant, not only to remain with us throughout the year, but also to spiritually fuel us throughout the year. But we must also recognize that, not only are we hugged by the succah, so is every other Jew who performs this beloved and unique mitzvah. To fully appreciate and internalize the love of the succah we cannot point fingers accusatorially. We have to feel love for each other and see the good in each other in order to fully feel the love from above.

            There is one time when pointing is appropriate:

            The Gemara (Taanis 31a) states that in the future messianic world, the righteous will form a circle around Hashem. They will point towards Hashem in the center and declare, “This is Hashem, to Whom we have hoped; we will rejoice and be happy in His salvation.”

            The Chofetz Chaim noted that different sects of Jews serve Hashem in different ways. As long as their intentions are for the sake of Heaven and they observe halacha, they will all celebrate together. At that time, we will discover that the Jew who seems diametrically opposed to another may be on the other side of the circle, equidistant from Hashem.  

            Every Jew is part of that circle. The only appropriate pointing is inwards at G-d. But when we point at each other, the schach and the lulav metaphorically prick us, reminding us that their poignant message cannot resonate until we see the greatness of our brethren.

            May Hashem imbue is with the simcha of these days, banish pain, and raise the pride of Klal Yisroel who are fully committed to fulfilling His Will.

 

G’mar Tov & Git Kvittel,

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

Chag Sameiach & Freilichen Yom Tov,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Succos 5781

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Succos 5781

14 Tshrei 5781/October 2, 2020

 

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FLIGHT TO SOMEWHERE

            It’s been an arduous few months. Aside for the loss of life, financial loss, emotional loss, and anxiety that the pandemic has generated thus far, people are very restless. People can’t wait to stop needing to social distance, wear masks, constantly wash hands, and being at the mercy of governors and politicians. For a society that was used to traveling constantly, being forced to remain grounded - literally - has been very challenging.

            To that end, Singapore airlines came up with a novel idea - flights to nowhere. For people who miss the experience of flying, and the whole airport rush - security, and baggage check in, tickets could be purchased for one of these unique flights. Stewards and stewardesses would review safety and emergency procedures before takeoff and would serve beverages and service those aboard while in the air. The planes would take off and remain in the air for about three hours, after which the plane would land... exactly where it took off from.

            This was a widely touted idea for a few weeks. Only in the last few days was the idea scrapped by Singapore Airlines. However, it did happen in Australia and Taiwan.

            It sounds somewhat silly. But upon further reflection it may not be so foreign after all.

            At the bar mitzvah of my younger brother, R’ Ya’akov, a number of years ago, my older brother, R’ Yitzie, shared the following:

            A family was on their way to a vacation. The car was completely packed with suitcases and provisions for the getaway. After a few hours of driving and six bathroom breaks, the atmosphere in the car was becoming quite tense. The younger kids are getting rowdy and k’vetchy, the older kids are beyond restless, and the parents are at wits end. They have been traveling down the seemingly endless Thruway for three hours, passing nothing but a continuous blur of bare trees. Just then, the father announces that their exit is not too far ahead. “It’s starting to get dark, so I am having a hard time seeing the signs. Everyone, please look out your window and let me know if you see a sign for Exit 392.” All at once, the car becomes completely silent. Faces are pressed against the windows as all family members eagerly search for the first appearance of a sign heralding the imminent “Exit 392”. Suddenly, the first sign comes into view and everyone starts screaming in a frenzied tone, “There it is!” “There is the sign!” “It’s three miles ahead!” “We’re almost there!” “Yippeeee!”

            New signs keep coming into view and the excitement in the car keeps mounting, two miles, one mile, a half-mile, and then…. Exit 392 in all of its glory!

            “The father stops the car, and everyone jumps out to marvel at the sign. They have been waiting for this exit for so long and here it is at long last. They stop a passing car and ask the driver to take pictures of them huddled in front of the sign. They gleefully take out a barbecue and prepare a delicious supper. As they eat, they reminisce about the lengthy trip and how long it took them to get there, how many times they had to stop along the way, and how they had all thought that they would never get there.

            When they finally finished the celebration, they packed everything up and gathered back into the car. With a final look at the sign, they slammed the van doors shut. The father pulled back onto the Thruway and headed home.

             “It seems like a ridiculous story. The family had finally arrived at the exit but they failed to realize what that meant. They celebrated finding the exit, but they didn’t get off the highway. What’s the use of finding the exit it you don’t follow it?”

            At that point, my older brother turned to my younger brother and said, “Yaakov, today you are becoming a Bar Mitzvah! Many people celebrate their Bar Mitzvah with gala celebrations, beautiful receptions, and tremendous fanfare. But as soon as the guests leave and the lights in the hall are dimmed, they return to their daily lives and the whole shebang becomes an expensive memory. In a sense, such people are no different than the family who found the exit but, after pictures and supper in front of the sign, got back on the highway.

            “A Bar Mitzvah, and any other joyous occasion, must be viewed as an exit. The celebration is wonderful but the real greatness is dependent on you. You have to follow this exit as it leads you to a new road, a road to greatness and spiritual pursuit, which will help you develop the greatness that you innately possess. All of tonight’s celebration is merely externals. It’s the other component, the one that remains hidden from view, i.e. the commitment you accept upon yourself tonight in utilizing this ‘exit’, which comprises the focal point of your Bar Mitzvah celebration.”   

            With our son - Avi’s bar mitzvah only a few weeks away iy’H, this great message resonates with us even more.

            But in truth, this idea isn’t only applicable to a bar mitzvah or joyous occasion.

            Rabbi Shimshon Pincus noted that the month of Tishrei is a magnificent journey.

It begins with the recitation of the psalm “L’Dovid Hashem Ori” and blowing Shofar each day throughout the month of Elul, continuing with Selichos the week prior to Rosh Hashanah, the symbolic fruits eaten on Rosh Hashanah eve, the recitation of Tashlich at a flowing body of water, the unique prayers of the Ten Days of Teshuva, Shabbos Shuva, Kapparos, Yom Kippur – beginning with Kol Nidrei and concluding with Neilah, the holiday of Succos, sitting in the Succah, waving the Four Species, Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, and climaxing with the celebration of Simchas Torah.

            The fifty-two days from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Simchas Torah are a spiritual superhighway leading us on a beautiful and uplifting journey.  But that is merely the road for the spiritual journey. It’s up to us to decide when the holidays conclude and life resumes its routine, what do we want to have accomplished that will remain with us?

            RaBBI Pincus concluded that many people enjoy the journey, but they don’t go anywhere. In a sense, they take off at the beginning of Elul, but then land in the same exact place 7 weeks later.

            So, we ask ourselves: what is our destination? What are we trying to accomplish during the joyous celebration of Succos?

            Currently, the world is living in fear of an organism that is undetectable by the human eye, yet is highly contagious.

            The Hebrew word for contagion is מדבק. It is similar to the word דבק - glue, because contagions unwittingly connect and stick to a person. It is also reminiscent of the word דביקות. The dictionary translates דביקות as stickiness. However, it also refers to the deepest level of connection and bonding. We aspire for דביקות with Hashem. In fact, the Torah instructs, ״ובו תדבק״ - in Him you shall cling. How can one connect and “cling” with the divine? The Gemara explains we do so by following in His ways - by being compassionate, tolerant, kind, patient, and loving. We also do so by trusting in Him and seeking to be close with Him.

            Perhaps more than any other holiday of the year, the Yom Tov of Succos is a time of דביקות, when we feel inextricably connected with G-d. Our sins, which disconnect us from Him, have been wiped away, we have recommitted ourselves to our ideals, and now we can bask in His presence.

            On Succos we feel secure in our connection with Him and, in that security, we discover inner joy.

            The following quote is from Rav Yechiel Perr in his powerful book, “Faith over Fear”, which is “a path to bitachon”[1]:

            “Look at how much people appreciate our Torah! Why can’t we appreciate it as well? I think we are too preoccupied with our worries - even spiritual ones - to concentrate on what’s in front of our noses...

            “Someone who lacks bitachon can’t grasp any of the experiences that slide through his hands. All of life, and davening, and Torah pass through you without your ever getting a chance to taste them. You have children and raise them without tasting it. Life escapes you and all of a sudden you are an old man and you wonder where it all went...

            “Life goes by in a flash because we don’t know how to slow it down with experiences. We are steeped in being plagued by worries of tomorrow. Sometimes the machar is tomorrow, sometimes it is forty years from now. Either way, worry stems from a lack of bitachon. By ridding ourselves of our worries, we stand to regain our lives.”

            Succos is about connecting with Hashem deeply and intimately. It’s about feeling secure in the Hands of Hashem. That is the true meaning of bitachon - a deep faith which breeds feelings of serenity and security.

            The message of Succos couldn’t be more meaningful than now. We are plagued by worry, fear, and doubt of what the future will bring. We fear for our health, we are unsure about the economy, we are unnerved by the political future, and so many people and families are broken and suffering.

            With all that, we sit down in our succah and look heavenward, and we remember what our only assurance is - that Hashem is running the world.

            We grasp the Four Species in The Succah is an enclosure of sanctity, where even food and sleep become sanctified. hands and wave them in all directions, reminding us that G-d isn’t just “up there” but He surrounds us on all sides, embracing us within the walls of the succah and controls every aspect of our lives.

            We don’t ignore our fears. With A reservoir of bitachon we can feel inner joy. That inner joy bursts forth and manifests itself in external celebration during this incredible holiday.

            Perhaps this year the external celebration will have to be different, and we won’t be able to dance and rejoice in the way we are used to. But the source and reason for our celebration is, in a sense, deeper and more real than ever before.

            When this glorious Yom Tov ends, we do not want to land where we have taken off from. We hope to be on a different level, in a different place - not having left our problems behind but being far better equipped to handle them.

            ה׳ לי ולא אירא - Hashem is with me; I will not fear.”

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

Chag Sameiach & Freilichen Yom Tov,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

 



[1] Together with his first book “Mind over Man”, these are two of the most refreshingly candid and poignant books I have ever read in my life. They are thought-provoking, incredibly insightful, and full of truth.