Thursday, December 31, 2020




Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayechi

17 Teves 5781/January 1, 2021


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            The other week I was looking for a check I had received a few days earlier so I could bring it to the bank to deposit. To my chagrin, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I looked in every drawer in my office and on every shelf. I even went through the omnipresent pile of papers on my desk, but it wasn’t there. I asked my wife and kids if they had seen it but no one had. I uncomfortably asked that the check be reissued, knowing I would only find the old one after I had received a new one. (It’s just another example of Murphy’s law. And to think he is the governor of New Jersey...)

            About a week later, I pulled a Sefer off my shelf that I occasionally use. When I opened it, I discovered the check in the envelope, exactly where I had left it. I often use papers, tissues, business cards, or anything else at my disposal as bookmarks. I realized that when I was using the Sefer a few weeks earlier, the check was in front of me, so I stuck it into the Sefer as a bookmark. That was one expensive bookmark.

            My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, recently published a collection of essays from his years of writing, in a book called “In My Opinion”. He mused that, in preparing the book, he enjoyed reading his old writings because he got a lot of good ideas from them.

            In her wonderful book, “Find Your Horizon”, Elisheva Liss notes that when she reviews her writings from years earlier, she often cringes from her then dogmatic and preachy style. She finds her earlier writings to be bossy, over-confident, and pretentious. What’s more, she often doesn’t agree with her emphatic assertions of decades earlier.

            Her words resonated with me because I recently came to the same conclusion about my own writings. This year, for my weekly Stam Torah essay, I have been revising and resending the first Stam Torahs I wrote before I was married in 2000.

            I have found that twenty years ago I was much surer about myself and was much more preachy. But life has a way of humbling people and these days my suggestions are not nearly as authoritative.

            It’s fascinating that our ideas, beliefs, and perceptions don’t remain fixed or static.

            These days, many people seek ways to make themselves look younger. For our emotional health however, it’s far more important to feel youthful, and that comes from constant growth, and not allowing life to stagnate.

            The noted folk artist, Grandma Moses (1860-1961) is famous for beginning her painting career when she was 78 years old. Since then, her works have been sold around the world and are displayed in many museums.

            Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to learn new connections and behaviors in response to new information, experience, stimulation, development, or dysfunction. While it was once believed that the human brain was only developing in one’s youth, it’s now understood that the brain constantly changes throughout one’s life.

            We are not the same people today that we once were.

            A few weeks ago, a couple in Eastern France was enjoying a walk when they discovered a tiny capsule. They opened it and found that it contained a message sent by a Prussian soldier during World War I using a carrier pigeon.

            At the time it was written the message must have been important. But now, over a century later, it’s an irrelevant relic.

            We constantly write the book and story of our lives by the choices we make and how we live our lives. Where the bookmark was placed yesterday in our book does not determine where it’s placed today.

            What was so important yesterday may not be important today, and what’s important today may be unimportant tomorrow.

            I’m happy with this brilliant essay that I’ve written but by next week I may hate it (in which case I’ll have something else to write about). What keep life colorful is its fluidity, and what keeps our lives exciting is our ability to constantly change and grow.

            The current pandemic has challenged us, but it also has forced us to mold and change our mindsets, behaviors, and attitudes.

            Our personal bookmark and the world’s bookmark have been forcibly and irretrievably moved. Our role is to turn to and embrace the page where the bookmark has been placed and do our best to continue writing the most beautiful story we can.


            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       



Wednesday, December 23, 2020




Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayigash

10 Teves 5781/December 25, 2020

Fast of Asarah b’Teves


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            After spending a beautiful Shabbos Chanukah with our family in Toms River, NJ, we capped it off with an enjoyable family event on Motzei Shabbos. We ate pizza, played games, ate chocolate coins, laughed, ate latkes, and then ate donuts. But the highlight of the night for our children was undoubtedly receiving individual presents from their grandparents.

            Gavriel and Michoel, our four-year-old twins, received a package of match box cars. They were very excited with their gift and were eager to begin playing with them. The problem was that the cars were secured to the box they came in with what felt like barbed wire. It would have been easier to break out of Fort Knox than to unfasten those cars from their cardboard casing. My real car didn’t come with as much security as those toy cars.

            I took out a pair of scissors and began cutting. It took a lot of effort to cut through one of them. It was then I realized each car had two wrappings around it. I lost patience with the scissors and asked my sister-in-law where her kitchen knives were. In the back of my mind, I thought that it wasn’t such a good idea, but impatience overwhelmed common sense (story of our lives). After I was able to cut through the first cord easily, I was happy with my brilliant idea to use a kitchen knife. But the second ring I tried cutting wasn’t opening as easily. So, I pushed a little harder on the knife. Three minutes later, I was in my brother-in-law’s car where he was speeding down the Lakewood roads towards Urgent Care, while I was firmly pressing a pile of paper towels against the deep wound.

            A tetanus shot and three stitches later, we were back on our way home. I was under strict orders from the doctor to never bathe our children or do dishes ever again (or maybe it was for a week, I can’t remember minor details).

            The worst of all was that my wife told me that right after I left, one of the children at the Chanukah party looked at the match box cars and said, “oh these are easy to open”, and proceeded to open them all in under two minutes. I couldn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing that my pain was for any useful purpose.

            Special shout-out to SYC who quipped right after I left to get stitches that he would probably be reading about the ordeal very soon. Indeed!

            As I sat in the Urgent Care waiting room, I contemplated what lesson I could learn from the experience. Yes Mommy, I know what the obvious and practical lesson is. But I mean an additional lesson connected to Chanukah.

            Historically, the Chanukah story has a rather tragic ending. The Gemara[1] relates that there are no living descendants of the Chashmonaim. The heroic family that fought the Hellenists and saved the Jewish people, eventually Hellenized and died or were killed out.

            Rav Nosson Wachtfogel explained that the descendants of the Chashmonaim destroyed the legacy of their illustrious ancestors. The Chashmonaim/Maccabees carefully portrayed themselves as faithful defenders of the honor of Hashem. They did not depict themselves as militants or fighters for civil liberation. Their sole objective was freedom to serve Hashem and observe the Torah.

            Their descendants however, assumed the throne and portrayed themselves as everything their forebearers did not. In so doing, they essentially destroyed their own legacy and were eventually wiped out physically as well.

            There is a time and place when one must act in an unusual, and sometimes even radical manner. Desperate situations call for desperate measures.

            The Mishnah[2] discusses the concept of עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתך, that there are times when one must “breach” certain accepted Torah norms in order to preserve Torah observance. (The Mishna’s example is when Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi recorded the Oral Torah, which until then was only studied and transmitted orally.)

            However, there is a great inherent danger involved in such breaches in that it can be hard to maintain a sense of balance, and not take it too far. It’s analogous to using a sharp knife to cut through barriers. It doesn’t take much to cut too far and too deep.

            On the calendar as well, the joy of Chanukah seems to quickly segue into days of darkness and tragedy. The fast of Asarah b’Teves commemorates three tragedies - the writing of the Septuagint (which was the precursor to the New Testament), the death of Ezra HaSofer, and the beginning of the siege around Yerushalayim by the Babylonians who eventually destroyed the first Bais Hamikdash. It feels strange to recite selichos and fast with maoz tzur still ringing in the back of your mind.

            The challenge of life is always about finding the proper balance. There’s a time to sing and celebrate and a time to fast and introspect. There’s also a time for unusual and extreme action, but such action must always be tempered and measured.

            On Chanukah we are reminded to be careful with fire, and as Chanukah gives way for Asarah b’Teves, we are reminded of the dangers involved when handling sharp objects.


            Have an easy and meaningful fast,

            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


[1] Bava Basra 3b

[2] Berachos 9:5

Thursday, December 17, 2020




Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Miketz

3 Teves 5781/December 18, 2020

Zos Chanukah


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            One day, during my wonderful years in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, my friend “Richie” (name has not been changed, as I have no intention of protecting his anonymity) excitedly motioned for me to follow him into his dormitory room. As he opened his door, I heard a strange noise from inside. Hanging from a string attached to the middle of the ceiling was a flying cow with wings, circling the room, mooing, and yelping.

            That unexpected sight stayed with me for some time. Even until today, when I see Richie, I think of that flying cow (among other things). In fact, the more I tried not to think about it, the more it stuck in my mind.

            That isn’t really surprising, as everyone knows that the more you try not to think about something specific, the more you will inevitably think about that thing.

            That being the case, it’s hard to understand what it means that during the dark days of Greek persecution prior to the Chanukah miracle, the Greeks tried “to cause them to forget Your Torah”.
It doesn’t seem logical that they passed a decree that all Jews must forget all the Torah they know. How could they cause the Jews to forget Your Torah? Besides, the Jews are a stubborn people- if you tell them to forget something, that instruction alone will impel them to stubbornly maintain it.        

            Last week I was listening to a lecture from Rabbi David Lapin in which he was discussing the difference between Jewish wisdom and Greek wisdom. He made the following point:
“In secular studies, what’s important is that you master the material. In order to get a degree, you need to study, take notes, analyze and be able to answer any questions on it - that’s mastery of the material.
            “But that’s not the way Torah works.

            “One of my great moments in yeshiva was after I had waited for a year to be admitted to the shiur of my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Elya Mishkovsky. He finally agreed to consider me and told me to come for an examination. I was very excited, and came down to K’far Chassidim to his house. When he asked me what I wanted to be tested on, I replied that I would prepare whatever I needed to know. He replied that I can choose. I chose a particular part which I didn’t know well as of yet. He told me to go to the yeshiva and study it. When I asked how long I had, he said that I have as much time as I need. That sounded easy enough. I called my father and asked him if I could hire a tutor to help me learn the topic. My father replied that he would pay for whatever I needed to help me.

            “I hired one of the top students in the Yeshiva to learn with me everything there was to know about that topic. We learned well together until I was able to answer any question on the topic.
            “Very confidently, I went back to the Rosh Yeshiva and told him I was ready. He was a very intimidating person under the best of circumstances, even more so when he was giving an entrance exam. I sat down and he asked me what I was learning. He took out a Gemara and I thought - it’s even open book. How easy. He looked at me and said, “Okay. So, what are your questions?” I stammered - “Questions? I don’t have any questions; I have answers. You can ask me any question on this topic and I can answer it.” He replied, “Why do I need your answers? I want to know how you think, not what you remember! I can see that by what questions you ask not what answers you give.”

            “Gemara methodology is question, question, question. And it has to be a good question. Because if you would ask a question that wasn’t well articulated you would be torn to shreds and would want the ground to open beneath you and swallow you up. And I speak from experience.
“Questions had to be good, and that was more important than answers.

            What do our children do at school? Do they give questions or answers? 12 years of learning how to give answers. Then they go to university and give more answers.

            “What about how Gemara is taught? Are students encouraged to ask questions or just to give answers?

            “What about at the Shabbos table? Do parents just ask the questions that are sent home by teachers, encouraged to just spit back the answers?

            “That’s not Torah. The content is Torah, but the method Is Greek!

            “Hashem isn’t a spreadsheet, or system of data. Hashem is a completely organic holistic system of dynamic movement where nothing stays the same.

            “Gemara is not about mastering the information, but about being mastered by it.
“Greek learning and all western culture is about mastering the material; in Torah learning it’s about being mastered by the material. It becomes your master, and you submit to it.
“The closest thing to Torah knowledge is music, where you just lose yourself to it. If you start analyzing the sounds, science and vibrations - that’s not music anymore, it’s physics.
“You can turn Gemara into physical, chemistry, law, zoology, and science. But that’s not Gemara anymore.”
            When I repeated this idea to my esteemed colleague, Rabbi Dr. Joel Berman, he replied by relating the following:

            “When I was a student in Graduate School, they would often bring in speakers who would share their research while giving long boring lectures. One such professor came and was presenting. I wasn’t particularly interested and was only listening with half an ear. But a girl sitting a few seats away was listening intensely.

            “At one point she raised her hand and very respectfully asked the professor about something he said which seemed to contradict something he said earlier. The professor replied by lashing out at her, shouting how her question was idiotic and the questioner doesn’t deserve to be in a graduate program. The woman ran out in tears.

            “I thought her question was valid. It seems that the presenter didn’t have a good answer, so he replied by trashing the questioner and making her think it was a foolish question.
“A few years later, I was learning in Ohr Someiach and I approached the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yisroel Rokowsky. I asked him that something he said seemed to contradict something else I had seen in Rav Schwab’s Sefer. As soon as I asked the question, Rabbi Rokowsky stood up and hugged me, lifting me off the ground, and then kissing me on the head. He told me that it was such a good question that he wasn’t going to go to sleep that night until he figured out an answer.

            “On Shabbos morning when I walked into shul, he was waiting for me with a Sefer open and a big smile on his face. He proceeded to share with me the answer he thought of.”

            What an incredible difference in the way to approach a question!

            Torah is not something to be mastered as much as it is to be internalized. The Greeks did not seek to make us forget Torah, but “Your Torah”. They wanted to reduce Torah into just another branch of wisdom, alongside philosophy, science, and mathematics. The Greeks loved wisdom and they appreciated the wisdom of Talmud. But for us Torah is life itself. When Torah is just another topic it ceases to be “Your Torah”, the Torah of Hashem.

            We have to try to teach our children to ponder, wonder, think and question. They should not accept the timeless wisdom of Torah at face value, but should seek to understand it for themselves. That is how Torah becomes internalized. The deeper we plunge its depth, the more connected we become with its “Author”.

            The light of Chanukah is reflective of the deep internal light of Hashem’s Torah. It’s a time to re-dedicate ourselves to - not as much Torah learning, as much Torah studying and internalizing.


            Freilichen Zos Chanukah Sameiach,

            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


Thursday, December 10, 2020




Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayeshev/Shabbos Chanukah 5781

25 Kislev 5781/December 11, 2020

Mevorchim Chodesh Teves


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            If I was making supper for my family, it would consist of Cheerios every night. The only choice would be with milk or just plain cereal? My wife however, aside from deciding what to make for supper, and investing the effort to actually make it, with multiple children b”h invading our home, she also has to contend with ungrateful children who don’t approve of that night’s supper (you thought this only happened in your house?).

            So, it’s rare that she makes a supper which gets approval ratings from every child. (If a mother bases her success as a mother on her children’s approval rating, she can go straight to therapy...) But a few nights ago, she “nailed it” by making chicken poppers. The critics gave rave reviews - “This is better than Dougies!” “These are great, and I don’t need to eat them with a fork.” They especially enjoyed the spicy sauce she made, that the poppers were doused in.

            These days we take our sauces very seriously. When you order a fleishig sandwich, after finally deciding what kind of meat or chicken to order, which vegetables you want, and if you want to add fried onions, you have to decide what sauces to put on top. You have about fifteen seconds to pick two of the twelve different sauces. And whichever ones you pick, the other people with you will tell you that you should have picked the other ones.

            What’s with all the sauces, especially hot sauce?

            It turns out that there’s a scientific explanation for why people enjoy hot food. Capsaicin is the chemical in spicy foods which makes them feel hot. When it touches your tongue your body registers that sensation as pain. That in turn triggers the release of endorphins, the “happy chemical”, that gives a person an instant feeling of pleasure.

            On a simpler level, we like things that give a little kick to the more mundane components of our life. We even talk about “spicing up” our lives.

            On a different note, addictions cause a person to chase after an elusive high that ultimately makes the person feel even worse. The worst part of it is that it’s really hard to get out of that destructive pattern.

            There are those who suggest that Americans are addicted to outrage. It’s become increasingly more commonplace to hear people arguing heatedly over anything and everything. It’s no longer limited to politics and sports. Now people scream about their food not being prepared how they want it, about traffic, about lines, and every other minor inconvenience. Part of the reason is that people need some excitement and passion in their life to add some spice to their otherwise dreary day.

            My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, would dolefully note that life is like a piece of chewing gum - there’s a little bit of flavor and the rest is chew, chew, chew.

            It’s up to us to either add some flavor or find a way to appreciate and enjoy the chewing.

            One of the rules of life is that the more one invests in something the more connected he will feel with that investment and the more excited he will be when engaging in it.

            Part of the beauty of holidays is that they add excitement to our lives. Many of our fondest and most nostalgic memories revolve around holidays.

            The conscientious Jew does not only observe the holidays as a way to add excitement to his life generally, but also in his Avodas Hashem. Each Yom Tov has its own focus that we can grow in.

            The message of Chanukah is a message of hope, even in the darkest of times.

            Rabbi Jonathan Sacks a”h noted that, “Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.” Chanukah isn’t merely about optimism, but about hope. It reminds us that no matter how bleak things are, we can make a difference. Our yearning for greatness and willingness to fight for our faith is the guarantee of our eternity.

            In our daily lives we may sometimes forget the great merit and opportunity we have to be part of such a special people.

            Some like their latkes with applesauce, others with sour cream. Some like jelly donuts, some like custard or cream. (Personally, I don’t discriminate when it comes to donuts.)

            But more importantly, Chanukah spices up our Judaism by igniting our souls. The Chanukah candles invigorate our spirit in a way that lingers long after the physical candles have burned out.


            Freilichen Chanukah Sameiach,

            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


Wednesday, December 2, 2020




Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayishlach 5781

18 Kislev 5781/December 4, 2020


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            May 1945. Liberation day finally arrived. Chaim was more dead than alive, but he had survived. Although he had suffered terribly and lost almost everything, he had outlived Hitler. So many times, throughout the war he had given up hope; there was simply no way he could go on. The odds of his survival was practically zero, and yet, in each situation he somehow survived. It was as if a divine hand was guiding him in the miserable darkness.

            After being handed a piece of bread by an American soldier, the chaplain asked Chaim what he needed. Chaim immediately replied that, after not having had the opportunity in years, he wanted to put on a pair of tefillin. There happened to be an old worn out pair that had smuggled in. But when it was given to Chaim he refused to put them on. He wanted to find a mehudar pair of tefillin.

They tried to reason with him that there was no way they would find such a set. Perhaps they could order one and receive it the following week. But for the moment he could fulfil the mitzvah with the set that was available. But Chaim wouldn’t hear of it. With tears in his eyes he explained that the Nazis greatest joy was to break the spirits of the helpless inmates, so that they would fall into despair. Chaim was insistent that he fulfill the mitzvah in the optimal manner.

            Because of his insistence, the American chaplain drove Chaim a few miles to the remains of a bombed-out Shul. The chaplain again tried to explain that there was nothing salvageable. But Chaim was already crawling and sifting through the rubble.

            Soon, it was late afternoon and not much time before the sun would set. The chaplain again tried to convince Chaim that they had done their best and he should give up his quest for the impossible. But Chaim was unyielding. He went back to the rubble and randomly began digging. Suddenly, he found a metal box with a lock on it. He excitedly called the chaplain and together they cracked the box open. To their utter surprise and delight, inside was a stunning pair of tefillin. What was more amazing was the name on the bag. The tefillin had belonged to the last Rav of the community - a holy tzaddik known for his devotion to mitzvos.

            It’s an incredible story, but I must confess that I made it up. To be sure, I only make up true stories, and indeed the story is true, just the names and events are different. This story is largely the story of Chanukah. Then too their survival was miraculous and against the odds. They too had not fulfilled the mitzvah in years. When the opportunity presented itself, they too could have performed the mitzvah easily (impure oil was permissible under the circumstances for a variety of reasons). However, they insisted on performing the mitzvah in an optimal manner despite the fact that it was virtually impossible to do so. They too searched for something that couldn’t be found, and they too miraculously discovered what they hoped for.

            While miracles have been performed throughout the ages, the purpose of miracles generally is to save lives. This was true at the time of the exodus from Egypt, splitting of the sea, destruction of the armies of Sisra and Sancheirev, miracle of Purim, and even the miraculous victories over the Arabs during each of the Arab-Israeli wars.

            The miracle of the oil, however, was completely unnecessary. That miracle was a divine kiss, as it were. The Maccabees pined to perform the mitzvah and didn’t stop trying to serve Hashem in the optimal fashion, and Hashem reciprocated.

            If you think about it, that type of miracle is constantly happening around us. Our community is blessed with numerous chesed organizations, each one performing incredible and vital services to help those in need.

            Which organization didn’t begin with a small act? The founders of these organizations will be the first to say that they never thought it would grow to become what it is today. It began as just an idea and a dream. They lit one small candle. But then the miracle set in and it continued to burn, brighter and brighter. They kept at it with every fiber of their being, devoting blood, tears, and toil in their pursuit for more pure oil, and G-d began providing.

            Which yeshiva or shul didn’t have humble beginnings? Most, in fact, had little chance of survival and growth.

            On an individual level this happens as well. Many people at the recent Siyum Hashas recounted that there was no way they could do Daf Yomi. But they began anyway and seven and a half years later are marveling in disbelief at their own impossible accomplishment. They lit one flame and, as long as they kept yearning, Hashem kept fueling their fire.

            There are Chanukah miracles happening all around us, every day - globally and personally.

            As we light our small flames this Chanukah, we should appreciate the fact that it is symbolic of what we do every day and throughout our lives - one candle at a time.


            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

            Freilichen Chanukah Sameiach,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum