Friday, September 13, 2019

PARSHAS KI SETZEI 5779


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Setzei
     13 Elul 5779/September 13, 2019 - Avos perakim 1-2

              Early Friday morning this past week, as I was preparing the Gemara I would be teaching in shiur later that day, I recalled a question one of my students had asked me about a certain halacha regarding b’ris milah. I have a couple of seforim about b’ris milah that are together on a shelf, and I reached for one of them. If I receive a Sefer as a gift or if I purchase it at a memorable place or a special occasion, I often will record that on the inside cover of the Sefer. When I opened that particular sefer about b’ris milah I found that I had written the following in Hebrew: “I purchased the sefer in honor of the birth of our twins on the sixth of Elul, Erev Shabbos parshas Shoftim 5776, and, through the kindness of Hashem, we entered them into the b’ris of Avrohom Avinu on time (the eighth day) Friday, the thirteenth of Elul.”
              I will admit that with seven children b’h and never being good with numbers, I don’t remember all of my children’s birthdays. Although we are preparing to celebrate the twins’ upsherin iyh in the near future, for practical reasons it will be after their birthday. After reading the inscription, it dawned on me that that day was 6 Elul, and it was the twins’ third birthday.
These types of things happen every now and then. But they feel like a small kiss from heaven. What are the odds that I would pull out that particular sefer (which I probably haven’t looked at in three years) on that particular morning?!
              Of course, as soon as I informed Chani that it was their third birthday, our minds flashbacked to where we were three years earlier. Just as it was this year, that year 6 Elul was Friday, erev parshas Shoftim. We were in Columbia hospital in Manhattan, waiting for the babies to be born. I had an eye on the clock knowing that if they were born before Shabbos, I would have to race across the George Washington Bridge on a late summer weekend for a double Shalom zachor.
Amazingly, they were born healthy in the early afternoon. After holding them for a few minutes, I rushed home and, with the help of my parents, friends and neighbors, we arranged a beautiful Shalom zachor.
              As the pregnancy was fraught with complications, and Chani needed weekly and often bi-weekly tests, the insurance company would send us numerous receipts of bills they had paid. At first, out of curiosity we opened them. But when we saw the astronomical amounts they were paying, we decided it was better not to look. But I kept all the envelopes in a large plastic bag as a reminder to us of the chesed Hashem had done for us.
              After realizing that it was their third birthday, I took out the huge bag of envelopes to marvel at it. For a few moments it rekindled within me that indescribable feeling of gratitude to Hashem. My mind was flooded with memories of reciting tehillim together in the waiting room, nervously watching screens, the overwhelming fear of the unknown, consulting with doctors and nurses, and then finally the incredible moment when I was able to actually hold our two miracles.
The events of that morning afforded me a unique perspective on the concept of teshuva. The simple meaning of teshuva is to return. Our sins create a spiritual distance between us and G-d and when we repent, we return to again be closer to His embrace.
              But perhaps teshuva also refers to returning and reflecting upon the past. That we need to reflect upon our negative deeds and character traits so we can improve, is obvious. But on another level, we also need to reflect and remind ourselves of the trajectory of our lives.
              The Gemara Kidushin relates that Rav Yochanan would stand respectfully for every elderly person he encountered, even a non-Jew. Life is the greatest teacher, and therefore an elderly person is deserving of respect simply by virtue of the fact that he has inevitably absorbed the wisdom and lessons of a life lived.
              My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often says that when a person learns to drive, before he pulls onto the road, he has to look into his rear-view mirror. One has to see what’s behind him to know how and if he can proceed. Rabbi Wein explains that that is why it’s so important for us to know Jewish history.
              This is true not only globally, but on a personal level as well. When we look back at the events that have shaped our last year and the course of our lives, it’s clear that there is a force which prods and guides us, even though It’s not always the way we would have chosen or what we would have wanted.
              Rosh Hashana is called “Yom Hazikaron”, loosely translated as Memorial Day. It has such a title because G-d “remembers” all of our deeds of the previous year, and judges us accordingly.
Many seforim explain that the very concept of the remembrance of G-d, Who never forgets, is that G-d “remembers” based on how much we remember. The more we remember and reflect upon G-d in our lives, the more He remembers our good deeds and reflects upon us positively.
As part of our process of teshuva we should mentally return to the events of the previous year, and of our entire lives until now, to recognize the divine force that lovingly shapes our lives, even when that path is unclear to us.
           
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Friday, September 6, 2019

PARSHAS SHOFTIM 5779


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Shoftim
     6 Elul 5779/September 6, 2019 - Avos perek 6

              Every night, I empty the contents of my pockets onto the dresser in my bedroom. That often includes loose change, receipts - many of which contain shorthand notes or reminders- clean and dirty tissues, and whatever other miscellaneous things ended up there during the day.
              Last week my wife surprised me with a little gift - a “stuff collector” (that’s the sophisticated name I gave it). In the center it has a beautiful picture taken by the camp photographer this past summer, of me holding our twins. It has walls on the side to contain whatever is placed in it.
              Before I received this gift, my little scraps of notes, receipts, and papers would often pile up and remain there for a long time before I finally sifted through it all (or the cleaning lady decided to dispose of them). The picture on the “stuff collector” is always there, but if my papers, change, and collar stays cover it, I won’t be able to see it. So now I have an incentive to clear it out periodically, because that’s the only way the picture will be visible.
              The great month of Elul has begun. The spirit of preparation for the Days of Mercy and Judgement have begun to envelop us, and with it the knowledge that it’s time to focus on teshuva.
Teshuva literally means to return. The question becomes to who/what/where are we returning to?
              Michelangelo was once asked how he creates such incredible and brilliant sculptures. He replied, “I see the sculpture already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. What’s left is only for me to chisel away the superfluous material.”
              Every morning we state, “My G-d the soul that You have placed within me is pure.” Not only was our soul pure when it was breathed into us at the time of our birth, but it remains pure throughout our lives.
              Maharal (Nesiv Ha’avodah - Teshuva, chapter 1) writes that every person is analogous to a vibrant, living Bais Hamikdash. Just as the Bais Hamikdash was a physical structure in the physical world that possessed an ulterior spiritual and lofty mission, so too man. When one sins, he is unwittingly bringing impurity into that vibrant Bais Hamikdash. But when one repents, it is as if he refurbished and re-purified the Bais Hamikdash that he personifies.
              Our challenge is that we often cannot sense or feel in touch with the holiness within us because of our misdeeds and sins. That in turn causes us to feel distant and forlorn. The result is that, not only do we feel distant from G-d, but we also feel distant from ourselves. That causes us to feel shameful and internally disconnected.
              When we do teshuva, we are not seeking external greatness. Rather we are digging and chiseling away at the imperfections we have allowed to amass. Teshuva is turning inward to rediscover the spark within us.
              Beneath all the debris we pile on top of it, lies the pristine picture of ourselves waiting to be revealed.
           
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, August 29, 2019

PARSHAS RE’EH 5779


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Re’eh/Rosh Chodesh Elul
     29 Menachem Av 5779/August 30, 2019 - Avos perek 5

            For the last six months, I have been working on creating a new siddur for our Yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah. Well, I’m not actually writing a new siddur; the Sages throughout the ages who compiled our prayers did a masterful job with that, and they don’t need my approbation. But I, and the students and faculty of the yeshiva, are working on a new translation, annotation and elucidation of the tefillos in our siddur. The goal is to present them in a manner and vernacular that relates to an American Yeshiva student in the twenty-first century. (To be honest, I don’t even know what annotate and elucidate really mean. But those are the adjectives Artscroll uses, and - until the Heichal siddur is complete - Artscroll is the gold standard...)
            We b”h disseminated a “pre-publication” edition for the yeshiva’s annual dinner in June. Now I am working on completing the Siddur with new additions, translations, and explanations.
            One of the words which is a challenge to translate is ״נורא״. The standard translation is “awesome”, but in today’s society, it seems very inappropriate to refer to G-d as “awesome”.
            The online Webster dictionary offers two definitions of the word “awesome”. The first is inspiring, the second is terrific/extraordinary.
            It then offers the following comment:
            Many object to the use of awesome to describe something (such as a sandwich) that does not literally elicit feelings of awe. Yet the same people who insist that awesome should be used only of weighty subjects (Niagara Falls, man landing on the moon) will happily use the word awful in reference to something (such as a mess) that falls distinctly short of being “full of awe.” This weakened sense was once considered improper – in fact, complaints about it persisted through the early decades of the 20th century.
            The change in meaning that awesome is undergoing may be more recent than that of awful, but both words are treading the same path. For evidence that such change is normal, we need look no further than awe, which originally meant “terror” and now carries the weaker sense “wonder.”
            During the 1990s, Coca-Cola developed a clever slogan for Diet Coke, claiming that it had “one awesome calorie!” I vividly remember my ninth grade rebbe and menahel, Rabbi Dovid Katzenstein, railing about how Americans have destroyed the English language. When he explained that G-d is awesome, his voice thundered “but you don’t appreciate what awesome means. One calorie in a soda is not awesome!”
            It is with that in mind, that we are translating the word נורא as “awe-inspiring”, and not “awesome”. If one reflects on the fact that whenever he prays he is in the presence of G-d and G-d is listening to his every word, he will be inspired and awed.
            On Shabbos morning, just before the chazzan for shachris melodiously calls out ..."שוכן עד״, we state that Hashem is ״נורא בנוראתיך״ - “awe-inspiring through Your awe-inspiringness”. What does that mean? In what other manner can one be awe-inspiring?
            You’ll forgive the analogy: In L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her newfound friends return to the Wizard of Oz, after doing his bidding and killing the Wicked Witch of the West. But the Wizard still inexplicably refuses to help them. The riddle is solved when Dorothy’s dog, Toto, discovers that there is a vulnerable old man behind the curtain controlling the thunderous voice of Oz. It turns out that all the awe-inspiring majesty and fear of the great and powerful Oz is nothing but a farce.
            G-d is not in a popularity contest. In fact, He Himself endows man with the ability to deny His Presence or to believe in any falsity he chooses. That itself is the epitome of awesomeness, in its true meaning. G-d is awesome, but He doesn’t force that truth upon anyone. The truth is apparent and easily attainable for one who candidly seeks it. That is the meaning of awe-inspiring through His Awe-inspiringness. We are awe-inspired by a G-d Who is truly awe-inspiring. If we could only internalize that feeling, it would be so much easier for us to want to connect and appreciate the ability connect with G-d constantly.

Chodesh Tov & Good Chodesh
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani trand Chani Staum