Thursday, June 21, 2018

PARSHAS CHUKAS 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Chukas –Avos Perek 5
9 Tamuz 5778/June 22, 2018

It’s the last thing any driver wants to see in their rear-view mirror. Yes, blue lives matter, but we don’t want to see a cop driving right behind us. I had the delightful experience a few weeks ago, when I was on my way home from a meeting one erev Shabbos.
The strange thing was that I was in the right lane and going beneath the speed limit. My mechanic had just told me that some of my tires were worn out. I had ordered new ones and they had arrived at my mechanic that day. I was planning to go to the mechanic on Sunday, so in the meanwhile I was driving extra cautiously. There was no way the cop could see that there was anything wrong with my tires on the highway. So I kept racking my brain trying to figure out what he could have gotten me on. My seat belt was closed, my break light was working etc.
I pledged some money to tzedaka if he somehow wouldn’t pull me over. For what felt like forever he kept following me, without turning on his lights and sirens. It was maddening; I felt that if he was going to pull me over, let him just do it already. Finally, I slowed down considerably, at which point the cop switched lanes and zoomed past me.
It was an annoying and frustrating experience, but one which was quickly forgotten, save for including it in this brilliant article.
I once heard an educator note that there are children who feel similarly about their parents, or at least one parent. An adolescent described that he lives his life every day wondering what his father is going to yell at him for next. He is always looking in his proverbial rear-view mirror anticipating the next criticism and harsh rebuke.
Parenting requires that parents rebuke their children on occasion when necessary. A parent needs to set boundaries and impose healthy limitations upon his/her child. Yet a parent cannot be an authoritarian either. A child cannot be made to feel that everything he does is subject to criticism.
What’s perhaps even more deleterious is when children (and adults!) maintain this perspective about how Hashem views and relates to them. Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky relates that an adolescent once told him that he perceives Hashem as being an “angry face” hovering in the sky, waiting for him to mess up so he can punish us for our misdeeds. What an awful and false perspective!
Part of emunah entails believing that Hashem loves us, despite our failings. On the one hand, one must know that there is indeed a reckoning and one is responsible for all of his actions in this world. However, one must also understand well that the judge is also his loving divine father who wants and awaits his success and growth.
This perspective is especially vital to understand as we head towards the three weeks of mourning for all the tragedies throughout the exile, and primarily for the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash.
“Like a father disciplines his son, Hashem, your G-d, disciplines you.” (Devorim 8:5) 
For any growth and healthy connection to Torah and Judaism to occur, one must understand this concept, constantly remind himself of it and deepen his understanding of it. It’s something we don’t hear or say enough - Hashem loves us and believes in us, and that love never changes or fades. It’s the same concept that a child needs to know about his relationship with his parents. He can anger them and frustrate them, but he can never get them to stop loving him!
If only we could have the same level of emunah in ourselves that Hashem has in us!

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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

PARSHAS KORACH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Korach –Avos Perek 4
2 Tamuz 5778/June 15, 2018

Living in New York unquestionably has benefits and drawbacks. But for high schoolers, living in New York means having to take the dreaded Regents exams.
Our oldest, Shalom, took his first Regents this week. For the last few weeks, I have seen in him the same anxiety I felt two decades ago when I was taking them.
Now as a principal, I see the Regents from a different perspective. At this point, for me it’s more of an annoyance than a source of anxiety.
The Regents are delivered to a local public school on the day they are to be administered, in what looks like a mini jail cell. It can only be delivered to a location that has a safe where the Regents can remain securely locked until the time for the exam. Two locks are affixed to the box, and a label stating which school it is for. Students taking the Regents have to be preregistered. The keys to open the Regents box are mailed separately to the school beforehand. Each day’s Regents has its own code which matches up to that day’s key.
The Regents must remain locked until the students are about to begin them. There is a 45-minute window within which the exam must be started across the state. 
Shortly after the time for the Regents ends, each school has a code which allows it to access the answer key. The Regents cannot be proctored or graded by the teacher who taught the course.
If it’s annoying for me, I can hardly imagine what a headache it is for those who produce the Regents and need to make sure all of the security precautions are adhered to.
In June 1974, two students at Solomon Schechter School in Brooklyn broke in to the principal’s office and stole the answer key. They began selling the answers, and within a few hours students across the state had copies of the answer key to their upcoming Regents. (Because of that incident that the answer key is no longer available until after the test is completed.) As a result, nine of that year’s regents were cancelled statewide. That was the first time in 96 years of Regents exams that such a thing had occurred.
So what’s the point of it all?
The obvious answer is to ensure that there are standards! Every school throughout the state knows that their teachers must adequately prepare their students for the Regents. It serves as a barometer to know how effective teachers are, by assessing how well their students perform on the Regents.
In our own lives, as Torah observant Jews, most of our standards aren’t externally imposed, at least not our moral and religious standards. Our standards are invaluable to us because they provide us with healthy guidelines and safe limits.
We live in a world which often views our standards as archaic, pedantic, and overbearing. But we know that they are there for our own protection and spiritual growth.
Judge Ruchie Freier, the first female chassidish district judge in criminal court in Brooklyn, relates that she was once meeting with a male deputy when no one else was in the office. She asked him if they could keep the door open as the laws of yichud demand. 
He then said to her “Rachel, it’s such a pleasure working with you, because the boundaries are always so clear.” Mrs. Freier mused that she never realized how keeping halacha could add to the comfort of others.
Our standards must be maintained under lock and key. If, G-d forbid, we violate them, it’s not easy re-locking and securing the box.
It is frightening how recently every few weeks there seems to be another story about a famous personality accused of violating standards. It all starts from the smallest of breaches, that if unchecked can quickly spiral out of control.
Maintaining those standards is the key to a spiritually happy and productive life.

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

Thursday, June 7, 2018

PARSHAS SHELACH 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shelach –Avos Perek 3
Mevorchim Chodesh Tamuz
25 Sivan 5778/June 8, 2018

During the Scripps National Spelling Bee last week, 13-year-old Shiva Yeshlur from Wyoming was asked to spell the word “Cholent”.
Yeshlur requested a definition from the judges. The reply: “A Jewish Sabbath-day dish of slow-baked meat and vegetables”. He then asked for the word's language of origin, was told it was Yiddish, and then correctly spelled the word. 
Although Yeshlur mastered cholent, he sadly did not move on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals.
Just imagine if there was a panel of Jewish judges who had to provide the definition of cholent. No doubt each judge would have provided a slightly different answer. The various ingredients people add to their cholent may include beans, barley, onions, meat, garlic, potatoes, various spices, barbecue sauce, ketchup, honey, an egg, and I have even heard of people adding beer or potato chips. There’s probably a lot more ingredients that I’m not even aware of.
We take a lot of pride in our cholent. In yeshivos there are often numerous cholents cooking, each made by a different student who takes great pride in his ‘secret ingredient’. There have even been contests held to sample cholents to determine which is truly the most delectable.
I once heard the following observation: In Jewish homes everyone eats cholent three times during the week (aside for the main serving at the Shabbos day seudah). Yeshiva bochurim eat cholent Thursday night, Friday afternoon, and Friday night. Kollel yungeleit and ba’al habatim eat cholent Sunday night, Monday night, and Tuesday night.
The truth is that eating cholent is not merely enjoyable, but also serves as a chizuk for our belief in the authority of our Sages. The Torah states that one may not ignite a fire on Shabbos. The gemara explains that although one may not light a fire on Shabbos, one is permitted to keep pre-cooked food on an existing flame on Shabbos. The Samaritans, who denied the authority of the Sages and accepted a literal reading of the Torah, would not eat any hot food on Shabbos. To demonstrate our belief and allegiance in the authority of our Sages, we purposely enjoy eating hot food, prepared according to halachic dictates, on Shabbos morning.
I would like to share a few great lessons that we can learn from this most extraordinary, beloved, and uniquely Jewish food:
In our home, I prepare the cholent on Thursday night. After all the ingredients have been added to the crock pot and water has been added (very important to soak the beans…), I then place it in the refrigerator overnight. Early Friday morning I put it on the crock pot where it slowly stews and cooks. When I finish combining the ingredients in the crock pot on Thursday night, no one would want to taste it. At that point it is a messy conglomeration of random foods and spices. There is only one component missing – the heat. The cholent needs to be plugged in so that the ingredients can begin to cook together and cause the taste of each disparate ingredient to combine.
Greatness is not achieved merely with talent, and top of the line equipment won’t create superstars. There needs to be passion, an inner fire that drives the person to bring out the potential from within. If he’s not ready to ‘plug in’ and light the fire beneath him, he’ll never taste the highest levels of accomplishment.
 The second lesson is that a delicious cholent requires time. Good cholent cannot be microwaved! There is no way to duplicate that heavenly aroma that wafts through a Jewish home on Shabbos morning, except by allowing the cholent to slow-cook overnight.
We live in a world which values quick and easy get-rich quick programs. The rule in life is if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Greatness and accomplishment require time and effort. A slow cooker may seem like it’s hardly doing anything, but with time it becomes clearly apparent that the cholent was cooking to perfection. Suddenly those random ingredients have become a delicious cholent.
And the final lesson to be learned from cholent –there is a price to be paid for every indulgence. But some pleasures are simply worth it!

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

PARSHAS BEHA’ALOSCHA 5778



“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Beha’aloscha –Avos Perek 2
18 Sivan 5778/June 1, 2018

Shlomo Hamelech stated: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of celebration, and the living will give heart” (Koheles 7:2)
Although Simchos are beautiful and uplifting, most of the time we don’t leave inspired. In fact, on the way home from a wedding we often find ourselves reviewing and rating the event - the food, the flowers, the band, the attendance, the gowns, and the hall. Sometimes we may even feel tinges of envy for different aspects of the wedding.
But no one feels any tinge of jealousy when walking out of a house of mourning. If anything, we have the opposite feeling - genuine compassion and empathy for the mourner’s loss. It compels us to find a few moments of contemplation before we quickly get lost again in the bustle of life.
Recently, Chani and I went to be menachem avel. I didn’t expect it to be anything more than a routine sad such visit. But it ended up being a very poignant experience that helped put things in perspective.
The mourner is someone we have known and respected for most of our married years. She and her husband are great-grandparents.
She was mourning the loss of an older sibling, who lived quite a distance away. After she shared with us some recollections about her sister, the mourner related to us that her sister’s death made her reflect about her own mortality. The sincerity of her next question was unnerving: “Now I have begun wondering what am I going to say when I get up there? I’m so afraid of that!” Then she proceeded to tell us about the added chesed she was planning on doing to help others. It was clearly something she gave a great deal of thought to. It should be noted that she already does much chesed for others, and tries hard to live a Torah life. Yet she was looking to do more, to grab every opportunity.
It reminded me of the anecdote with Rav Yosef Yozel Horowitz, who was a hard-working businessman. On one occasion he met the great Rav Yisrael Salanter. After he told Rav Yisrael what he did he commented that ‘one must have what to live with’, Rav Yisroel replied that although that was undoubtedly true, ‘one must also have what to die with’. The words so shook Rav Yosef Yozel that he left the business world, and eventually founded tens of Yeshivos known as the Norvadok yeshiva. Rav Yosef Yozel himself became known as the Alter of Norvadok.
I should add that I told the mourner that the first merit she will be able to mention in the celestial courts after 120 is that she is a ba’alas teshuva. That means she willingly altered her entire life to draw closer to Hashem. It surprised me that she herself didn’t think of that. What greater merit is there than the willingness to adopt a totally different lifestyle to grow spiritually?
In our world, at times ba’alei teshuva may feel that they aren’t fully accepted or aren’t as great as those born religious. But in the World of Truth, where effort, yearning, and desire have primacy, there is hardly anything greater.
I don’t know how long the inspiration stayed with me. But at least for a few minutes that experience reminded me that ultimately, we are in this world, not for taking (though we must care for ourselves properly), but to see how much we can give others - not merely money, but more profoundly in time, care, and love.
When we take leave of a mourner we rise and state “Hamakom - the Omnipresent should comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.”
Each morning in Hodu we recite the verse “strength and joy are in His Place” (Divrei Hayamim I 16:27). In the presence of G-d there is only happiness and vitality. That is the beracha we confer upon the mourner. Hamakom - the One on whose presence there is only strength and joy, should comfort you - by granting you strength and joy, just as He will ultimately do so for Zion and Yerushalayim!
Amen!

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