Thursday, November 12, 2020

Parshas Chayei Sarah 5781

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chayei Sarah 5781

26 MarCheshvan 5781/November 13, 2020

Mevorchim Chodesh Kislev

 

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SIMPLE GREATNESS

            You won’t find “Lower East Sider” in a dictionary. If you google those words, you’ll get some entries about prices of apartments and other various news about the Lower East Side. But for the tens of thousands of Jews who grew up and lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan there is significant meaning. In fact, those old timers take it as a great compliment to be a “Lower East Sider”.

            Lower East Siders possess a combination of simplicity, exuding warmth, extreme friendliness, being non-judgmental, and unpretentious. There was, and is, nothing fancy about the Lower East Side, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. It was the land of Gus’s pickles, China Town noodles, H and M skullcap, and the Williamsburg bridge. There were also countless shuls, but none were in competition with the other.

            I was born and spent my formative years on the Lower East Side. Both sets of my grandparents lived on the Lower East Side and it was exciting to be able to walk over on Shabbos to see them or eat a seudah at their apartment. Our family moved from the Lower East Side to Monsey in 1988.

            My Zaydei, whose yahrtzeit is this Shabbos, 27 MarCheshvan, was the Rabbi of the well-known Anshei Slonim shul on Norfolk street until it closed in 1974.

            My Zaydei had a warm relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. The last gift my Zaydei left me is a set of Igros Moshe inscribed with a brief beracha from Rav Moshe. The inscription is dated 12 Kislev 5745 (December 1985). At the time I was five years old. Rav Moshe was niftar a little over a year later; my Zaydei was niftar less than three years later. It’s one of my most treasured seforim.

            Even after Rav Moshe was niftar, his sons, Rav Dovid and Rav Reuven, would attend our family simchos, primarily in honor of my Bubby a”h. I had the zechus that they attended my bar mitzvah and wedding.

            The Lower East Side was the perfect place for Rav Moshe and his family. Rav Moshe was the posek hador, and the gadol hador. His greatness in Torah was matched only by his incredible humility.

Those traits were personified by his son, Rav Dovid who was niftar this week.

            My aunt would often note that it was known that if you wanted to find Rav Dovid and Rav Reuven on a given day, you first checked the pizza shop on the Lower East Side, where they often ate breakfast together.

            If you didn’t know who Rav Dovid was and you passed him on the street, you would have no idea that one of the leading halachic authorities in the world, a man who was fluent in the entire Torah, and the Rosh Yeshiva who had succeeded his illustrious father, had just passed you.

            A few years ago, my father went went back to the Lower East Side for Shabbos to attend a simcha. During the kiddush, Rav Dovid walked over to him to say Good Shabbos.

            On one of our dates, my wife and I went to a restaurant in Boro Park. When our food arrived, I went to wash. (She probably ordered a salad and didn’t need to wash). When I returned to the table, she noticed a look on my face that she couldn’t decipher. When she asked me what happened, I pointed beyond her. She couldn’t figure out what in the world I wanted. After I said a beracha and took a bite, I told her not to back up too quickly. At the table behind us were seated Rav Dovid and his Rebbitzin, along with another couple.

            Rav Dovid was so great and yet he was so simple. He went shopping, he humbly walked the streets of the Lower East Side, and he was accessible to anyone who wanted. I look at the picture of him and his Rebbitzin from our wedding and marvel at the fact that he not only schlepped to Lakewood to attend, but also was willing to be in the picture with us. (The same is true about Rav Reuven and his Rebbitzin.) It was, and remains, very meaningful to us.

            In a world so focused on glamour and publicity, it’s rare to find people who are perfectly happy keeping to themselves and living a simple life. But I don’t know how one can do so when he is a leader of his people with earth-shattering questions and pressing matters coming to his door constantly.

            This week we celebrate the bar mitzvah of our son, Avi. Somehow, I hope we can convey to him some of the lessons we learned and gleaned from Rav Dovid Feinstein zt”l.

            The nostalgic streets of the Lower East Side have lost some of their greatness, and Klal Yisroel has lost a quiet Gadol and leader. May his memory be for a blessing.

 

            Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

PARSHAS VAYERA 5781

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayera 5781

19 MarCheshvan 5781/November 6, 2020

 

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STRENGTH FOR ALL TIMES

            By now, the beautiful holiday of Succos feels like a somewhat distant memory. The leaves have changed into their splendor and august colors, and are beginning to rapidly fall from the trees. Our clocks have been adjusted to Eastern Standard Time, and the weather has become markedly colder.

            But for me, Succos is very much at the fore of my mind. That’s not because I am so holy as to be able to hold onto the holiness of the holiday. Rather, it’s because my succah is still standing on my porch.

            We have a silver tray upon which we placed our esrogim after Succos. From week to week we watch sadly as they shrivel and shrink. And yet, our succah, sans the schach, is still up.

            I am aware that there are people who procrastinate and don’t get around to taking down their succah for a long time. I heard that one woman wanted to serve her family’s Purim seudah in the succah as a subtle reminder to her husband that he still didn’t take it down. But I actually have a valid excuse. I contracted Corona at the end of Succos and since then have physically been unable to take my succah down. When I was sick, I b’H, I didn’t have any breathing issues, except for a minor cough. But I felt terribly achy, with severe flu-like symptoms, including chills and fever.

            The worst part of all was that I didn’t know what to do with myself. Sitting was painful, and I couldn’t concentrate. I can’t say that I was climbing the walls because I lacked the energy to do so. But I did fantasize about climbing the walls.

            Then, when the main symptoms cleared up, terrible nausea set in such that I have never experienced before in my life. I didn’t lose my sense of smell or taste. In fact, I had the opposite experience. Many things had an awful smell.

            Even when that finally went away, and even now a few weeks later, I am still drained and fatigued, a common after-effect of Covid-19.

            In addition, my poor family was quarantined with me, though thankfully and incredibly no one else contacted it b”H.

            So, here we are a month after Succos and my succah still stands. Although I really would like to know that the boards are securely put away for next year, there is a little comfort in seeing the succah up, connecting me to the beautiful Yom Tov we celebrated a few weeks ago.

            The truth is that moving on and transitioning is always challenging. “The comfort zone is a wonderful place, but nothing grows there.”

            We tenaciously cling to our comfort zones because the unknown and unfamiliar are intimidating and scary. But moving on requires energy, commitment, and effort. Often, we need a proverbial (or literal) kick in the pants to get us moving.

            One of my favorite stories is about a rich fellow who was showing a group of people around his massive estate. He proudly showed off his huge mansion, his tennis courts, pools, sports complex, perfectly manicured fields, and stunning gardens. When he showed them his lake, they noticed a full-length alligator lying in the sun across the lake. When the wealthy host noticed them staring at the alligator, he told them that if anyone was daring enough to swim across the lake, he’d give them a million dollars.

            He waited thirty seconds, and no one budged. He was about to walk away when everyone heard a splash. Everyone turned around to see Mike desperately swimming across the lake. The alligator heard the splash, its eyes popped open, and it dove into the water. The assemblage watched in fear as Mike swam with all his might as the alligator inches closer and closer. As the alligator lunged towards Mike with its jaws open, Mike jumped out safely on the other side. Everyone rushed over to congratulate him. The rich host shook his head, “I think you’re out of your mind, but a word is a word.” He pulled out his check book and began writing out the check.

            Mike stood up, still panting, and trying to catch his breath, and said “I just want to know who the jerk was who pushed me in!”

            We celebrate times of accomplishment and milestones, not only to mark the achievements of the past but also to give encouragement to deal with the encounters of the future. In fact, perhaps more important than celebrating the past is giving that boost of encouragement for the future. The unknown and unfamiliar is daunting and intimidating. Transitions are nerve-wracking. Better than getting pushed in, is to be danced in. That chizuk helps us feel that we are capable of plunging on and struggling upwards to the next rung of our journey.

            We celebrate graduation when a child prepares to move on from the familiarity of the school they just completed and are moving on to the next level. We celebrate marriage when two single individuals pledge to synergize their lives together and build a home on Torah values. We also celebrate a bar mitzvah when a child begins his ascent to maturity and responsibility within the esteemed ranks of Klal Yisroel.

            Next Shabbos, parshas Chayei Sarah, our family will iy”H be celebrating the bar mitzvah of our dear son, Avi. Avi carries the name of my dear Sabbah, Avrohom Yosef Staum. My Sabbah was beloved for his sterling character and pleasantness. He performed great chesed for people, most of which we will probably never know about. He was honest to a fault and a person that could be counted on. Throughout the vicissitudes of living as a Jew in America from before the War and onwards, he remained Shabbos observant and loyal to Torah.

            Our Avi is blessed with a vivacious personality, a quick mind, and is always fun to be around.

We hope that Avi will follow the path of his illustrious namesake. We hope that as he forges ahead on the roads of life that he always has the inner fortitude and confidence to remain loyal to Hashem and Torah. We hope he will be able to confront the challenges of life with faith and conviction. We hope he will have the wisdom and energy to erect walls when necessary and to tear them down when necessary. Finally, we hope Hashem will grant us the patience and wisdom to guide him properly towards a life of kavod shomayim.

           

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Parshas Lech Lecha 5781

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Lech Lecha 5781

12 MarCheshvan 5781/October 30, 2020

 

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A BEAUTIFUL MOON

            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