Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Parshas Balak 5781



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Balak

15 Tamuz 5781/June 25, 2021

Avos perek 6


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לרפואה שלימה נטע יצחק בן רחל




             This week our family is celebrating the graduation of our oldest child, Shalom, from High School. The child who transformed us from a couple into a family, continues to transform me into an older parent (my wife somehow doesn’t age…)

            Graduations have a way of awakening old memories that transport you back in time (maybe that’s the point of the many commencement speeches). During my trip down memory lane, I remembered that a couple of days after Shalom was born, while my wife was still in the hospital, she was given a form to fill out with the baby’s information for the birth certificate. In the space where it said mother’s name, she casually wrote her mother’s name “Sarah Mermelstein.” But on the next line where it asked for the father’s name she was confused and wondered to herself why they would need her father’s name. It took her a moment to realize that the mother’s name was not Sarah Mermelstein (her mother) but Chani Staum, and the father was not her own father but her husband, Dani Staum. That moment cemented the realization that we were the parents and prime caretakers of that newborn baby.

            At any baseball game, whenever a left-handed batter comes up to bat, there is a battle cry of “lefty shift”. A right-handed batter is more likely to hit the ball towards short stop or left field. A left-handed batter on the other hand, is more apt to hit the ball towards right field. So, when a lefty steps up to the plate, all players shift right, in anticipation of where the ball is more likely to be hit.

         Humans are not stagnant beings. Not only is the world and world-events constantly in flux, but we ourselves evolve as well. Ideas and attitudes we were adamant and emphatic about at one point in our lives may shift in our minds and hearts as we travel the journey of life.

            There is a popular song to the words “ana avda d’kusha b’rich hu – I am a servant of the Holy One, blessed is He” from the prayer B’rich Shmei, recited prior to the removal of the Sefer Torah. In that song the word ‘ana – I’ is repeated numerous times.

            Our generation has been dubbed the I-generation. It’s not just based on a clever observation that we have a lot of “I” devices – iPhone, iPad, iPod. More poignantly, it’s because we are somewhat self-absorbed and narcissistic. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to repeat the word avda – servant, emphasizing that we are proud servants of Hashem, than to repeatedly sing the word ana, stressing the egotistical I?

            It’s been suggested that the format of the song is profound. We often act in different ways depending on our social circle. We speak and conduct ourselves differently when we are in our homes than when we are in shul, at work, at a wedding, or in an amusement park. In addition, our lives are not stagnant. Not only is our social status and circle, jobs, and finances constantly in flux, but emotionally and intellectually we change, for good or for better.  

            Therefore, the song reminds us that ana, ana, ana- all of the different “I”s of my personality, no matter where I am and no matter at what stage of my life - all of those different personas remain always avda d’kudhsha b’rich hu – a servant of the Holy One, blessed is He. That is what defines us and composes the core of our identify. First and foremost, we are servants of Hashem, and have to conduct ourselves accordingly at all times.

            One of the familiar instructions announced at the conclusion of a flight is, “please use caution when opening overhead bins, as items may have shifted during the flight.”

            Our lives have constant turbulence causing our internal selves to be constantly shifting. Because our lives are so transient and in flux, being strong in our convictions and beliefs is a formidable challenge.

           In this graduation season, we remind our graduates that despite the fact that they may have their lives and future planned, life does not always proceed as we anticipate. Although it’s always good to have goals and aspirations, we must be able to shift and adjust to the serpentine turns of life.

            There is only one area in which we cannot be flexible – in our faith and commitment to Torah and the future of the Jewish people. Those “overhead compartments” must never be allowed to shift, despite the inevitable turbulence.


            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Parshas Chukas 5781



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chukas

8 Tamuz 5781/June 18, 2021

Avos perek 5


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לרפואה שלימה נטע יצחק בן רחל




            It happens all the time. Our family will be guests enjoying a Shabbos meal at the home of friends and I or my wife will tell the hostess that one of the dishes, perhaps a dessert, looks delectable and is particularly delicious. The hostess will invariably respond “Oh! It was so easy to make! Really, it was nothing! It looks so fancy, but it took like 5 minutes. It’s the simplest thing. I saw it in last week’s - (whichever magazine). I’ll give you the recipe after Shabbos!”  

            Whenever I have repeated this observation, the response is always a hearty laugh and agreement that that is indeed a common occurrence.

            I have a suspicion that part of the motivation for this ubiquitous response stems from our inability to accept compliments well. How often does someone remark to another that their house is beautiful, or their children are wonderful, and the recipient replies with a thank you followed by a reason why it/they are not quite as great as they seem. The same holds true when someone tells a friend that he/she looks great/beautiful.  

            A friend related that he was sitting next to an elderly seasoned educator at a dinner. A woman who was a former student came over to the educator and, after exchanging pleasantries, remarked that he looked great. After she left, the educator turned to my colleague and quipped that he has noticed that there are three stages in life – youth, middle age, and “you look great!”

            Why do we have such a hard time accepting compliments?

            Vulnerability seems to be a big part of it. We are afraid that if our talents, possessions, or other gifts of our life are placed in the spotlight, it may become clear that we are undeserving of the praise or compliments. We may feel that we didn’t sufficiently earn the compliment or praise being directed at us. By pointing out the deficiencies or minimizing our accomplishments we seek to deflect the praise, making us feel less vulnerable or exposed by the compliment.    

            Rabbi Yitzy Hurwitz was a dynamic and active rabbi in California when he was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 41. Since then, the disease has robbed him of virtually of all his physical abilities. Unable to speak or type, Rabbi Hurwitz uses his eyes to communicate with a computer including writing a weekly Torah column. His continued will to live and to do the best with what he has is incredibly inspiring.

            Mrs. Dina Hurwitz, the wife of Rabbi Yitzy Hurwitz, has become an inspirational speaker. She captivates audiences by being real about the ongoing challenges and struggles she deals with on a daily basis because of her husband’s debilitating condition.

            In one of her talks Mrs. Hurwitz noted that Rabbi Akiva taught the mitzvah of ‘v’ahavta l’reiacha kaomcha – love your friend like yourself’ to a generation in which people appreciated themselves and had a healthy self-image.  Rabbi Akiva instructed them to love others as much as they love themselves.

            Our generation however, struggle with a low self-image and lack of appreciation and recognition of our uniqueness. That’s why we are all trying to be everyone else, yearning to find that elusive life of perfection we think everyone else has.

            We suffer from an inner critic, a little persistent voice within us, that we often don’t even notice, which tells us nasty and negative things about ourselves. Such negative self-talk can include things such as, “I'm not good at this, so I shouldn’t even try”, or harsher, "I can never do anything right!" Those internal messages limit our ability to believe in ourselves or our abilities. The meanest comments said are the ones we say to ourselves.

            These negative messages are also at the root of “imposter syndrome” a common feeling that people do not feel worthy of their accomplishments or of the image people have of them. They live in fear of being “exposed”.  

            Still, most of us try to be pleasant and say nice things to others. We compliment and praise our neighbors and friends and seek to make them feel good.

            Mrs. Hurwitz suggested that to our generation Rabbi Akiva might have said that we should strive to love ourselves and demonstrate love for ourselves as much as we love and show our love for others. Today’s mandate is, vahavta lachem k’reiacha – love yourself like (you love) your friend.  

            It generally doesn’t seem to be humility when one minimizes or shrugs off a compliment. We need to appreciate the blessings we have and to recognize our internal worthiness. It’s wonderful to share an easy recipe but it’s not wonderful to shrug off how much we invest and strive to grow constantly. It’s not so easy to balance all the external and internal turmoil in our lives. Let’s appreciate our own efforts and learn to say a sincere thank you when we are complimented for our efforts.


            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Parshas Korach 5781



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Korach

1 Tamuz 5781/June 11, 2021

Rosh Chodesh Tamuz – Avos perek 4


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לזכר נשמת זקנתי מורתי פרומה בת ליבר ע"ה – יארצייט ל' סיון (א' דר"ח תמוז)

לרפואה שלימה נטע יצחק בן רחל




            Last shabbos, we headed up to the mountains to participate in a wonderful shabbatone with the ninth and tenth grades of Heichal HaTorah. The car was packed up with linen, luggage, and half our children (the rest went to their grandparents).

            We left early Friday afternoon just as a summer rainstorm began. The highway was congested, and traffic was moving slowly as rain pounded the car. That was when one of our children asked me for the first time, “are we almost there yet? What time are we getting there?” I answered as patiently as I could by pointing to the time on display on Waze, which was open on the dashboard. But I decided to shut off Waze because I was familiar with the directions. A moment later I was asked again what time we were getting there, and then again and then again. I must admit that my patience was sapped, and I reassured the questioner that we wouldn’t get there any faster because of the persistent questioning and badgering.

            When driving somewhere, the point is to get to the destination. There are various ways we try to keep ourselves entertained or mentally busy while en-route including talking on the phone, and listening to music, radio, lectures, or podcasts. But the main point is to sit in the car until you arrive at your destination.

            But there are many other journeys we undertake in life which aren’t just about arriving at the destination. In fact, it’s been noted that in many instances the journey is the destination. This is surely true regarding personal and spiritual growth.

            The tragic story of the spies is one of the great calamities in our early history. It was on the night of Tisha B’av when our ancestors rejected Eretz Yisroel, foreshadowing that day as a time of pain and mourning.

            But the truth is that only fifty percent of the nation rejected the land. Rashi (Bamidbar 36:6) relates that the women had a greater love of the land. In fact, Kli Yakar writes that if only Moshe had sent women to spy out the land the whole crisis would’ve been averted.

            It’s hard to imagine that loving the land is gender based. What does it mean that women loved the land more than men?

            At a graduation for the girls of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, Rabbi Aharon Lopianksy suggested the following: Conquering Eretz Yisroel is an arduous and challenging process. The entire nation originally marched forth from Egypt full of excitement to enter the Promised Land. But when they realized the daunting challenges, they would face and would need to traverse in order to conquer the land, the men lost heart. It wasn’t that they lacked love of the land per se. Rather, they were shortsighted and only saw the immediate challenges they would need to face.

            The day after the spies gave their negative report, Moshe told the nation מחר - tomorrow turn back towards the Yam Suf. Their sin was rooted in their inability to see past the moment. They lacked a vision of tomorrow, of what would occur if they would be able to follow through and overcame the challenges.

            Women on the other hand, have a different temperament. A woman possesses a רחם - womb. רחם has the same letters as מחר - tomorrow. A woman carries a child for nine painful and uncomfortable months. She bears it all by remaining focused on the end result - the moment she will clutch her newborn in her arms. Women more naturally live with a sense of tomorrow.

            If the women had spied the land, they would have seen past the immediate challenges and would have been able to envision the future time when each person would “sit in security under his grapevine and under his fig tree.” (Melochim I 5:5)

            I can personally relate to this concept. When we were doing construction on our kitchen a few years ago, and my wife would discuss the plans with me, I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. I would do my best to listen and try to understand but I couldn’t really picture how things would look until it was actually done. I don’t have the ability to envision the final product based on raw plans. (I should add that I have gotten much better in the last few years. Since the construction finished a few years ago, I have a perfect vision of what it looks like.)

            Success in life is contingent on being able to see past immediate struggles and challenges. One must have a vision of what reaching his goals will look like so that he can chart his plan to get there.

            Part of the greatness of the Jewish people has been our ability to always see beyond our immediate challenges and to always maintain hope for better times.

            During our trip up to the mountains last week we weren’t actually there yet until we pulled into our destination. In life however, in a sense wherever we are, we have arrived. We search for opportunities for growth in the moment, while at the same time continuing to hope and dream of greater times that are coming.


            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


Thursday, June 3, 2021

Parshas Shelach 5781



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Shelach

24 Sivan 5781/June 4, 2021

Mevorchim Chodesh Tamuz


To be added to my “Striving Higher” WhatsApp chat with periodic chizuk clips, or my “Power Parenting” WhatsApp chat with weekly ideas about parenting, text me at 845-641-5094.


לרפואה שלימה נטע יצחק בן רחל




            When anyone asked “why” in her presence, my Bubby, Rebbitzin Fruma (Frances) Kohn would repeat the quip, “Why is a crooked letter!” However, with her European accented English it would come across as “Vy is a crooked letter.” The irony and G-d’s humor was that for the last decade of her life, Vy was the name of Bubby’s Latin-American caretaker. Every time I went to visit Bubby and she called Vy I had to restrain myself from repeating the quote I heard from her so often…

            In retrospect I have come to realize that the humorous quote is actually quite profound. My Bubby was part of a generation who did not have the luxury and could not afford to ask why (or vy).

            Bubby grew up in a small Polish village called Tarnogrod. She recounted that she had a wonderful childhood, and her family was somewhat wealthy, which was recognizable by the fact that they were one of the few homes in their town to have indoor plumbing. But then the dark clouds of World War Two rolled in. Her family escaped the Nazi massacre of their village but eventually were deported to Siberia by the Russians. The only one to avoid that fate was her one married sister who would send care packages to the rest of the family. That ended when the Nazis killed her sister, brother-in-law, and their infant child.

            After eighteen months in Siberia the family was released. They traveled southwest and ended up in Samarkand in Uzbekistan. There Bubby met my Zeide, married and had their first child, my Uncle Shmuel. When the war finally ended, they ended up in Paris and from there they came to the United States.

            When she would recount some of her experiences from those dark and painful years, Bubby would note that she sometimes felt like she was talking about someone else’s life. It was hard to imagine that she had endured and survived those terrible experiences.

            On one occasion when I was in graduate school pursuing my master’s in social work, I was paired up with fellow students to discuss our family background and how and when our ancestors arrived in America. I was speaking about my Bubby and Zeide and referred to their coming to America after the war. One student asked me, “You mentioned the war. Would that be the Civil War, Korea, or Vietnam?” I apologized for my lack of clarity and explained that among Jews we take it for granted that when anyone refers to “the war” it’s referring to the Holocaust and World War II when our people were targeted for merciless and baseless genocide.

            I read an article a few years ago in which the Novominsker Rebbe discussed the need to teach about the Holocaust from a Torah perspective in our yeshivos. The rebbe noted that for the first decades after the war those lessons were not included in the yeshiva curriculum because it was too raw and too painful. At that point, the mission of the Torah world was to rise from the ashes and to look ahead with confidence at the formidable task of rebuilding and thriving. They could not afford to dwell on the unbearable pain of what had occurred.

            However, as the years and decades wore on, and the number of living survivors continues to wane, we have an obligation to preserve the dark memories of what happened. We have to give our children a framework and perspective to understand the judgement of Hashem and to remember the calamitous events that occurred. We must speak of the heroism of the faithful and the uncanny mesiras nefesh to preserve mitzvos under the worst of circumstances. Those lessons must be preserved now before the opportunity is lost. Years ago, we could not afford to speak about it. But now we cannot afford not to.    

            A month ago, on Lag Baomer, we heard about the terrible tragedy that occurred in Meron with the tragic death of 45 precious Jews. One of those 45 was Donny Morris. Anyone who has attended Camp Dora Golding the last few summers is well acquainted with Donny’s radiant smile, easygoing personality, and excitement for davening and Torah learning.

            At her son’s funeral Donny’s mother, Mrs. Mirlana Morris, eulogized him with tears in her eyes: “I have so many questions, but so few answers.” She then added, “But what I know for sure is that you were loved by so many. The impact you had on hundreds is remarkable. Daddy and I couldn’t be prouder to call you, our son.”

            Her painful yet powerful words contain what has often been the cry of our people. So many questions and so few answers. Yet, we are so proud of our mission and accomplishments, and know that our impact has changed the world.

            Next week, 30 Sivan, our family marks Bubby’s second yartzeit. It’s an appropriate time to remind ourselves that although we cannot know the Vys of the world we remain faithful to our destiny, knowing that it is the only hope to straighten all that’s crooked.


            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum