Friday, August 10, 2018

PARSHAS RE’EH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Re’eh
Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Elul - Avos perek 5
29 Av 5778/August 10, 2018

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I attended three weddings. Thankfully, they were all within a half hour of each other. Each was special and wonderful, but it was a long and draining day.
The last wedding was held in a shul in Bergenfield, NJ. Before I left, I walked into a side Bais Medrash. At first I thought there was no one there, but then I noticed a teenage boy bent over a Sefer in the front. I was there for about ten minutes, and he didn’t look up once. I don’t know who he is, but he inspired me. A wedding was going on in the building, people occasionally walked in and out of the Bais Medrash, and yet that young man clad in a tee shirt and sports pants was completely immersed in his learning, oblivious to anything else going on around him.
A couple of days later, I was driving with one of my sons on a very hot day. We drove passed a yeshiva bochur walking uphill, clad in his hat and jacket clutching a Gemara in hand. It’s not an unusual sight in Monsey, but at that moment it inspired me. I remarked to my son how beautiful it was to see a young man whose life revolves around the Gemara in his hand hurrying to learn Torah on a hot day.
When I walked into the pizza shop not too long ago, I noticed two high school girls holding bentchers and reciting beracha acharona meticulously. It was a chizuk to me about the importance of reciting berachos carefully even in a public and somewhat harried setting.
In Camp Dora Golding each summer, the season begins with two days of staff orientation. During his address to the staff during orientation this year, camp’s learning director, Rabbi Noach Sauber, asked the staff how many people were hired to be learning rabbeim. As can be expected, only a few hands went up.
Rabbi Sauber then looked around the room and announced that, whether they were informed of it or not, in fact every single staff member who came to camp to work in whatever position that summer was also hired as a rebbe.
Why was that true? Because, no matter what one’s position is in camp, inevitably there are campers who are going to be looking up to him and emulating him. There are campers who dream not only of one day being a counselor, but also of running the canteen, overseeing maintenance, writing and acting in plays, painting banners, or being in charge of the go-carts or zip-line. If someone is being looked up to, he has an obligation to strive to be a proper role model.
I remember once reading about a celebrated and famous athlete who was found to be involved in unethical and illegal behavior. When asked how he could act in such a manner when kids looked up to him, his inane reply was that he never asked to become a role model.
If people look up to someone, he has a responsibility to do his utmost to try to inspire. It is irrelevant whether he wanted that role or not.
The truth is that every one of us is a role model. We can never know how we impact others, and we usually are never aware how much an act or word we did or said affected another. 
The reality is that we learn from, and influence our surroundings, for good or for better.
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l noted that it is for that reason that we pray each morning (just prior to Shema) - “Our Father, the merciful Father... place in our heart understanding to learn and to teach, to guard and to do and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah with love.”
How can we ask Hashem that we merit to teach with love when most of us aren’t teachers? The obvious answer is that we all do teach - whether we mean to or not, and whether we like it or not.
If a person is particular to guard himself from loshon hora, or to not speak during davening, etc. not only will he spiritually elevate himself, but he has also become a rebbe for others in ways he may never realize.
The frightening part is that the opposite is true as well.
As the month of Elul begins we seek to grow spiritually and become even greater than we already are. We do so not only for ourselves but also to inspire others to come closer to their living Father in Heaven.

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

Friday, August 3, 2018

PARSHAS EIKEV 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Eikev
Mevorchim Chodesh Elul - Avos perek 4
22 Av 5778/August 3, 2018

I wonder if others have had this experience too.
Before Tisha B’av I was listening to a lecture about the importance of being nosei b’ol im chaveiro (sharing the burden with one’s friend). Essentially, it refers to our obligation to empathize with the plight of others. In some instances, it motivates us to do all we can to help alleviate the pain of others, while in other situations it at least ensures that those going through challenges don’t feel alone, but that there are those who care about their plight. 
But, it goes beyond even that. On a metaphysical level, our feeling and sharing the pain of others demonstrates to Hashem that we care about our brethren, an important key to bringing about the future redemption.
The renowned speaker shared some incredible anecdotes which demonstrate the unparalleled love and care that great Torah leaders have even for strangers, including that a Gadol couldn’t sleep or eat normally because he was so disturbed by the pain of others.
But the strange thing was, the more I listened to those stories the more deflated I felt. Instead of being inspired, I felt dejected. I have a hard enough time balancing all of the responsibilities in my own life. Am I obligated to strive to fully internalize the pain of others? If I am, how can I ever be happy and dance at a wedding or appreciate a sunny day, when there is so much suffering and sadness in this world?
I reminded myself of a conversation I had with our family’s rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Schabes. Rabbi Schabes is not just a scholar and Rabbi of note, but also a selfless person who gives freely of his time for the needs of Klal Yisroel, well beyond those of his own kehilla. I am constantly astounded when I hear from numerous friends and acquaintances that when there were communal issues or personal struggles they turned to Rabbi Schabes for advice, even though he is not their “rabbi”. I cannot understand where he has the time in his day for his kehilla, the multitudes of others who seek his counsel, and to prepare and give derashos and shiurim.
Throughout the years, whenever we have met privately with Rabbi Schabes to consult with him about various family matters, he always gives us his full attention, as if nothing else was going on. The only interruption is from the incessant buzzing of his phone which indicates that there is plenty of other matters vying for his attention beyond our meeting.
I once asked Rabbi Schabes how he is able to deal with all of the painful stories he hears on a constant basis. How does he always exude so much simcha despite all the tragedies he is privy to?
He replied that when one hears painful news, and surely when one is listening to another relate a personally painful experiences, at that time he is obligated to try to be nosei b’ol and empathize with true care. Then when he davens, he should include heartfelt prayers on behalf of the suffering person and his situation. But beyond that, one must live his own life, and cannot allow himself to be overwhelmed by the suffering of others.
(Of course, that doesn’t include doing what one can on behalf of the person. This only refers to one’s emotional investment. Rabbi Schabes noted that he believes he heard this perspective in the name of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt’l.)
When my rebbe related to me this idea, I was very moved. I suggested that it’s a mitzva to publicize it to others in order to alleviate the needless guilt many of us feel that we are not nosei b’ol. He nodded affirmatively.
It is no small order to truly empathize with another when he is sharing his pain and you have other things to do. Nor is it easy to remember his plight when you are davening, to add tefillos on his behalf. But if one has done so he has fulfilled his obligation to be nosei b’ol. At that point he should strive to be b’simcha with the feeling of the words we say in bentching - “And for all Hashem, our G-d, we thank You and bless You.”

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
             R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Friday, July 27, 2018

PARSHAS VAESCHANAN/NACHAMU 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vaeschanan
Shabbas Nachamu – Avos perek 3
15 Av 5778/July 28, 2018

During one of Abbot and Costello’s famous comic routines, Lou Costello was on trial in court. At one point he made a disrespectful remark towards the judge. The judge reprimanded him and said, “you can’t speak to me that way young man! Why, I’ve been sitting on this bench for twenty years!” Costello immediately snapped back, “naturally lazy, aren’t ya!”
A few weeks ago, at the end of June I stepped down from my position as Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead. In my final sermon in the capacity of Rabbi I related the above anecdote. I continued that I had been standing at that pulpit for eleven wonderful years, but it was definitely not out of laziness.
Over the years, I had shared many Torah thoughts, celebrated many wonderful occasions, including many of our own familial milestones, introduced some well-known Jewish personalities who spoke in the shul, and developed very strong and personal connections. On occasion, I had been tasked to deliver eulogies, some for dear friends. That is of the most difficult components of being a Rabbi.
Stepping down was a very grueling and difficult decision, but based on various personal factors, we decided that the time had come to move on. The fact that the shul has a scholar of the caliber of my dear friend Rabbi Shimon Kerner, who immediately assumed the role as Rabbi, mitigated the difficulty of my departure, albeit only somewhat.
An educator once told me that the greatest mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) for a rebbe is his talmidim. The fact that the rebbe knows that his students are looking up to him, and that he serves as an example for them, compels him to act the part, even if he would not otherwise do so.
What’s more, a rebbe/Rav is blessed with insights and greater Torah understanding in the merit of his students and congregants. Conveying a thought forces the presenter to crystallize the subject matter in his mind and ensure that he has clarity about the matter before he seeks to convey it to others.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt’l related that when he became a rebbe and would prepare shiur, in shmone esrei he no longer davened for knowledge only in the beracha for knowledge (atah chonen). He began to also daven for insight and wisdom in the beracha for livelihood (barech aleinu), being that it was now part of his job.
On another level, on numerous occasions I would have an epiphany wherein I would think of an insight to add to my sermon while I was walking to shul on Shabbos morning. When I would share that added perspective or insight in shul, I would relate that I was blessed with the insight in the merit of the tzibbur.
This is of course besides the many insights and thoughts that congregants themselves have shared, as well as intriguing questions they asked which forced me to ponder and understand many topics on a higher and deeper level than I had previously.
In that sense, the ending of my rabbanus in Kehillat New Hempstead means the loss of my “mashgichim”, and losing out on that special level of siyata dishmaya granted to a Rav.
The one thing that will always remain part of me is the feeling of closeness and the wonderful relationships that I, and my family, forged with the membership of mevakshei Hashem (seekers of G-d) who comprise the Shul’s membership. I will always be grateful to Kehillat New Hempstead for accepting me - a then inexperienced novice - to be their rebbe and for placing their confidence in me eleven years ago.
At present, I am unsure where my rabbinical career will lead me, as I explore options. But I do know that Kehillat New Hempstead, and the wonderful relationships we forged during the over a decade that we were part of the shul, will always remain part of us!

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
             R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Friday, July 20, 2018

PARSHAS DEVORIM 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Devorim
Shabbas Chazon – Tisha B’av
8 Av 5778/July 20, 2018

There are certain phrases, motions, and actions, which instantly become catch phrases. They may have been non-existent one day, and then the next day everyone seems to be caught in the craze.
Not too long ago, flossing was something your dentist told you to do. When I arrived in camp I found out that it’s become a ubiquitous and strange dance move. I also found out why so many kids flip their water and soda bottles, trying to get them to land upright. That’s part of living in the age of social media. The funny thing is that in the not-so-distant future these too will go the way of the ice bucket challenge, the mannequin challenge, fidget spinners, and the Yannai and Laurel debate, and when Fortnite will soon be passé. (When you work in chinuch your students educate you about all of these bizarre societal nonsenses.)
One of those phrases which you can’t say these days without garnering a reaction is “let it go”. If you say those words to a group, if they don’t all start singing together, you’ll at least hear some humming of the famous Disney song swirling around.
The truth is that there is a great deal of wisdom in being able to let things go. Many people live their lives with resentments and acrimonious feelings towards others, because they cannot get past real or perceived injustices committed against them years or decades earlier.
Letting things go is generally a virtue, at least in regard to releasing acrimonious feelings towards others. However, when it comes to personal struggles and overcoming negative character traits or following through with a life-long dream and aspiration, letting it go in the face of adversity is not a virtue at all. It takes courage and conviction to follow through on personal goals and to not ‘let it go’.
On Tisha B’av each year we engage in national mourning, lamenting all the tragedies we have suffered throughout the millennia of exile. We recount in vivid detail the suffering of our ancestors and the egregious actions of our numerous tormentors. It all begs the question - why don’t we just let it go? Why continue to read about the travails year after year? Isn’t it time to move on and celebrate our accomplishments, and stop mourning the losses and tragedies of the past?
When I was a Social Work student in Fordham University, my first internship was with the HEARTS (Holocaust Education And Relief Team) department of Bikur Cholim of Rockland. I met weekly with a number of aging Holocaust survivors, to speak with them and to offer companionship and whatever emotional support I could. It was a very special and unique experience, especially because all the “clients” I met with have since died.
One of those great men that I was privileged to meet with weekly was “Moshe”. Moshe and his brother were saved from the German inferno by being sent on the kinder-transport that brought over 10,000 children to England, saving them from the clutches of the Nazis. Most of those children never saw their parents again.
When I met Moshe he was elderly and frail, and plagued with severe Parkinson’s. He could hardly talk, and generally needed to point to a printout of the letters of the alphabet in front of him to convey what he wanted to say. It was painstaking to watch his severely shaking fingers point letter by letter, composing just a few words ever so slowly.
Moshe had never married, and he and his brother lived in the same home. At that point, his older brother was taking care of him.
Moshe also lived with severe guilt, blaming himself for not saving his father during the war. It was an absolutely absurd thought and everyone who interacted with Moshe knew it. How could he bear any level of culpability for not saving his father, when he himself was a child and a refugee? My supervisor warned me that it was futile to try to reason with him about that point. The best approach was to accept his reality and to try to empathize with him.
A few months later I was reading a psychology article about Holocaust survivors. The article noted that at times survivors maintain irrational feelings of guilt over the loss of a loved one. Subconsciously, that guilt creates an inextricable connection, if even negative, between survivor and loved one. That guilt ensures that the loved one remains at the fore of the survivor’s mind. As long as he cannot forgive himself for the tragedy that occurred, he cannot forget about the person he feels responsible for. That’s why no logic or reasoning will be able to convince him of the fallacy of his guilt. The guilt maintains the connection!
It was clear that Moshe was carrying the irrational guilt for that very reason. That guilt connected him with his father and so even subconsciously he would never let it go.
The famous idiom is that one should let bygones be bygones is only true if it is indeed a bygone. Our mourning on Tisha B’av, our refusal to forget and to move on, demonstrates that our tragic losses are not bygones. Our mourning for the past connects us with it, thereby guaranteeing our hope and belief in the glory of the future.
The fact that we still mourn for those tragedies is the greatest testament that we are still connected to that world and to those victims. That’s why we cannot, and must not, forgive and forget. We remember because the enemies of our ancestors are still our enemies today. Our ancestors who suffered are part of us, and they live on within us. That is the source of our consolation- it’s the very fact that we continue to mourn.
May we merit the ultimate consolation this Tisha B’av.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
A meaningful and inspiring Tisha B’av,
             R’ Dani and Chani Staum