Thursday, May 24, 2018

PARSHAS NASO 5778




“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Naso –Avos Perek 1
11 Sivan 5778/May 15, 2018

My parents were born and bred on New York’s legendary Lower East Side. It’s where my grandparents lived when they came to America as well.
For the first seven years of my life, my family lived at 550 Grand Street, a block away from the FDR Drive and the East River. Before we moved to Monsey the summer before I entered second grade in August 1988, I attended Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim (MTJ). I don’t have too many memories of those early years, but there are a few that I cannot forget. I remember getting in trouble in Pre-1A for blowing out the Shabbos candles during a Friday morning Shabbos party. I think I’ve gotten past that trauma.
My first grade rebbe, Rabbi Blank, was a wonderful rebbe, and had some unique idiosyncrasies. One of his famous ones was that whenever he would pour milk for a student, he would lift his hand as he was pouring. By the time the cup was filled, he would be standing on a chair pouring with perfect precision so that not one drop fell outside the cup.
On one occasion, Rabbi Blank went beyond the chair until he was actually standing on the table, all the while still pouring. At that point the student decided that was enough milk for him, and he promptly pulled away his cup, causing a messy flow of milk to spill everywhere.
The Kotzker Rebbe notes that in our davening we refer to Shavuos as the holiday of the giving of Torah, not the holiday of our accepting of Torah. This is because on Shavuos each year Hashem offers us the Torah anew. Whether we decide to accept it, and to what degree we invest the effort to reaccept it, is our prerogative. We are like the child holding the cup as the milk is being poured. If we decide to pull our cup away, we will be depriving ourselves.
The analogy is apt because of the well-known custom to partake of milk and dairy products on Shavuos.
One of the many reasons for the custom is that an infant after birth requires no other food or nourishment aside from its mother’s milk. Amazingly, studies have shown that when a child nurses from its mother, the milk adapts to the child’s system causing the mother to produce needed antibodies to ward off infection in the infant. Thus, the mother’s milk not only nourishes, it also protects, and helps the child develop and mature.
On the day when we celebrate the giving of the Torah we celebrate the fact that the Torah alone provides our spiritual nourishment and spiritual protection. When we commit ourselves to Torah learning and Torah living we don’t need anything more for our spiritual development.
One final point about milk. Cholov Yisrael companies produce three types of milk. Regular milk has a red cover, skim milk has a blue cover, and 2% fat has a green cover. Based on those covers it has become common lingo for people to ask for green, blue, or red milk, depending on their personal preference.
Someone noted that if there really was green milk no one would go near it. The reality is that all milk is white; the difference is only in regard to fat content.
The Torah too presents to us many colors - there is no one “flavor” of Torah. Some find their souls ignited by chassidus, others by mussar. Some are inspired by a vort on the parsha or an incredible story, while others seek intricate intellectual lomdus. Some enjoy Iyun - delving into a Talmudic topic in depth, while others are more inclined towards bekius - a more basic understanding which allows for more rapid learning. There are master Poskim whose breadth of knowledge allows them to state on-the-spot halchic rulings with conviction, while others may be able to share the “raid on the sugya” without having a definitive conclusion. As long as it’s all nourishing milk, the color doesn’t matter.
It’s only if the milk itself begins to change color, that we need to maintain our distance. Such milk can cause great risks to our spiritual health.
Shavuos has passed, but the beautiful lesson and inspiration should remain with us all year.

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

Thursday, May 17, 2018

PARSHAS BAMIDBAR 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Bamidbar –Avos Perek Kinyan Torah
4 Sivan 5778/May 8, 2018 (48th day of the Omer)
Erev Shavuos

On Thursday nights, the Staums have “Shaarei Torah carpool”. Our son Shalom is in ninth grade in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, and we have the pickup following maariv at 8:45 pm. Being that the Yeshiva davens maariv just prior to dismissal, I often daven with them. When I arrive, I often hear the last few minutes of the pre-maariv mussar schmooze being given by a rebbe.
On a recent Thursday night, as I opened the door to the Bais Medrash, the speaker’s voice thundered “this is not Stam Torah!”
[For those shamefully unfamiliar, I write a weekly essay based on the parsha entitled ‘Stam Torah’, a takeoff of my last name. The word Stam literally means “plain”. In the introduction to the collection of Stam Torah essays published a few years ago, my parents concluded their opening words of beracha: “By the way, your last name is Staum, which is not stam!”]
My first thought was that he must have seen me walk in and was making a joke, but he wasn’t even looking in my direction.
The speaker was prevailing upon the students that to grow in Torah and to appreciate Torah, one must invest emotional energy into it. If one learns Torah as if it’s just “stam”, it won’t be internalized. One must be passionate about Torah and be willing to toil for its attainment.
One recent morning during breakfast, I opened a vanilla yogurt I had brought with me, made a beracha, and ate a spoonful. It was so sour that I could hardly eat it. I realized the yogurt hadn’t gone bad, rather it was plain not vanilla. It need not be said that Torah is transformative and uplifting. But if we don’t “add our personal flavor” of emotional investment, the Torah may seem plain and boring to us. It is for that reason that we daven each morning that Hashem make the Torah sweet in our mouths, and the mouths of our children. The sweetness is there, but it is an acquired taste. We have to discover it and then merit it through our efforts.
The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) relates that when the nation stood at Sinai, G-d held the mountain above them and warned them that if they accept the Torah all will be well, but if not “there will be your burial place”.
There is a plethora of beautiful explanations and ideas to explain this intriguing gemara. Why was it necessary for there to be an element of coercion at Sinai, when the nation had already committed themselves to accepting the Torah? One point seems clear - Hashem was sending the nation a message that Torah is not just a luxury for them but is vital for their national survival.
The Gemara (Yevamos 77a) relates that at the beginning of the monarchy of Dovid Hamelech there was a virulent debate his legitimacy, not merely as king, but as a Jew altogether. It was based on a dispute about a teaching of the oral law regarding how to understand a pasuk in the Torah. The question was whether his ancestor Rus was allowed to join the ranks of the Jewish People, being that she was born a Moabite.
The Gemara states that after much debate, Amasa ben Yeser pulled out his sword, held it aloft, and declared that anyone who dared to dispute the oral law’s tradition which validated Dovid, would be pierced with the sword.
Why the need for such a drastic threat?
My dear student, Shmuel Dov Klein, suggested that it is to symbolize that just as the Written law is vital to our spiritual survival, as evidenced by the mountain being held above the nation at Sinai, so is the Oral law and its traditions vital for our survival.
It is absolutely incredible that one law - one challenged tradition - altered the entire course of history. If Dovid was indeed not a bona-fide Jew, then neither was Shlomo Hamelech or Moshiach who descend from Dovid. Without the Oral Law, the guidance, lessons, perspective, and boundaries of Chazal, we have no past or future.
Our commitment to Torah truly cannot be “stam”, without emotion. On the one hand, we have to learn it like our lives depend on it. On the other hand, our goal is to grow in our learning until it becomes an uplifting and pleasurable experience.
Of course, there is one notable exception when “Stam Torah” is indeed a great thing...

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Chag Sameiach & Good Yom Tov,
              R’ Dani and Chani Staum     

Thursday, May 10, 2018

PARSHAS BEHAR-BECHUKOSAI 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Behar-Bechukosai –Avos Perek 5
26 Iyar 5778/May 1, 2018 (41st day of the Omer)
Mevorchim Chodesh Sivan – Shabbos Chazak!

Last week, I was at Citi Field in Queens on two different occasions. On Sunday, I attended the Orthodox Union’s “Day of Torah Learning” held in the conference rooms at Citi Field. It was a beautiful and inspiring event, with thousands of people in attendance to hear words of chizuk and Torah from a group of wonderful presenters.
Then on Thursday, I was back at Citi Field with our Yeshiva - Heichal HaTorah - for a Lag Baomer outing to watch the Mets take on the Atlanta Braves. The Mets never really showed up and were demolished by the Braves 11-0.
I must admit that I enjoyed both visits to Citi Field (says the Yankees fan), obviously in very different ways. 
Before I headed out to the game on Thursday, I looked up where I could find free parking near Citi Field. I don’t mind walking a bit, so why not save the twenty-five-dollar parking fee? I saw that there is a place fairly close to the stadium called Willets Point where parking was free. So, as everyone waited online to turn right into stadium parking, I, the wiser, went left towards Willets Point.
It was a great reminder that in life you get what you pay for. Driving through Willets Point was an experience to say the least. I couldn’t believe the drastic transition that occurred. As I turned off the main road, I suddenly found myself in an area that looked like a third-world country. Groups of workers were hanging around in front of auto body shop after auto body shop, each one looking more dilapidated than the one before it. Worst of all was the road itself, which looked and felt like it was hit by the blitzkreig. Everyone in the car cringed as we heard the car grind along the road with every inch forward, despite the fact that I was going quite slowly. Then I realized how all those body shops stayed in business. Anytime someone drove down that road they would need part of their car replaced in order to get out. I was sure my wheels were going to fall off as I tried to inch forward and weave my way around the craters all over the road.
It was incredible to see the beautiful stadium less than a city block away yet being trapped in what felt like a different world. 
I found out afterwards that Willets Point is not even attached to the city’s sewer system, and they rely on their own antiquated septic.
As you can imagine, there was no way I was going to park in Willets Point. So, I put my pride aside, and shelled out twenty-five dollars to park in the stadium lot.
I don’t think my experience is so unique, if at least metaphorically. We as Jews are blessed with numerous ancient laws, customs, and traditions. With uncanny foresight, the sages enacted definitive parameters within which we are to live our lives. But often there are those who think they know better. The path of the sages often requires added effort and resources. There are many who feel that their own contrived shortcuts can ensure maintaining observance even while changing the rules.
History has demonstrated that such movements and ideas never stand the test of time. The alarming and frightening assimilation rate is the greatest proof of the failure of all aberrations from traditional Torah observance.
What was once proffered as the only salvation for the future of the Jewish people, has clearly deteriorated to a spiritual Willets Point, presenting a half-baked, faltering and decrepit form of Judaism.
When one leaves this world, the first question he is asked is קבעת עתים לתורה (Shabbos 31a), which literally means “Did you set aside time for (the study of) Torah?” However, there is another homiletic understanding of the question: did you set the times you lived in, to conform to Torah values? In other words, did you live your life trying to make the Torah fit with the times and society you lived in, or did you ensure that your lifestyle conformed to Torah standards, despite society’s values or lack thereof?
Shavuos is the anniversary of when we accepted the Torah in its pristine form. Every year as we celebrate Shavuos we reaffirm and reaccept upon ourselves that same level of original commitment. In that way we guarantee that we are not living a Willets Point Judaism. Rather, we are reaccepting the Torah in a manner that mirrors the observance of our ancestors, all the way back to Sinai.

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

Thursday, May 3, 2018

PARSHAS EMOR 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Emor –Avos Perek 4
19 Iyar 5778/May 4, 2018 (34th day of the Omer)

During the last couple of weeks our Kehilla celebrated and mourned what epitomizes the circle of life. On the seventh day of Pesach, Mr. Seymour Kerner, father of our esteemed friend Rabbi Shimon Kerner, was niftar. I officiated at the funeral on isru chag. 
Just over a week later, the morning after shiva ended, the Kerner family celebrated the b’ris of a great-grandson of the niftar, who now carries his name. It was unbelievable to receive a text from Rabbi Kerner on the morning before the funeral stating that his family gets a Mazal Tov on the birth of his grandson.
Mr. Seymour Kerner was a beloved personality in our shul, and everyone was happy to see him during his frequent visits throughout the year. At the funeral, Reb Shimon quipped that his father was the simplest person in the world, and that was his greatness! His father was always content with what he had, and never complained. He also loved to daven and his siddur was one of his most prized possessions. He anticipated Shabbos all week. In his last months when he was plagued by Alzheimer’s, his wife had to convince him every morning that it wasn’t Shabbos and he shouldn’t wear his white shirt. He often replied that if the rabbi was wearing a white shirt, he could too.
In my brief eulogy, I noted that at the end of the Seder, the Viznitzer Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Hager zt’l, would quip that he had eaten a k’zayis of matzah and a k’zayis of marror, but where could he procure a k’zayis of nirtza (nirtza means to be desired. We conclude the Seder with beautiful songs of praise to G-d, in the hope that we have gained divine favor through our efforts during the Seder).
I said that I wondered how we could find and preserve a k’zayis of Mr. Kerner? In a world, in which we are so blessed and yet so spoiled, we need to learn from his example how to appreciate the blessings Hashem granted us.
At the b’ris the following week, I was honored to recite the unique beracha “Asher kidash yedid- Who sanctified the beloved friend from the womb”. I have heard the beracha recited many times previously. However, being that this was the first time I was given the honor of reciting it, I began to think more about the vernacular.
The word “yedid” connotes a deep, intimate friendship. It is a combination of the word yad - hand, twice. Two hands clasped together in solidarity and admiration creates yedidus, true friendship.
The numerical value of the word yad is 14. Two “yad”s is 28, the numerical value of the word “koach” strength. There is great energy that results from the synergistic unification of two friends.
I once read about the psychology behind a handshake. Our hands extend beyond ourselves, symbolizing our reaching beyond our comfort zone and current standing, in order to accomplish and further our personal interests. In a handshake one person places his hand, which represents the extension beyond himself, into the firm grasp of another person’s extended hand. Doing so symbolizes one’s feeling of comfort and security in the efforts of another. Both are willing to leave their comfort zone to find commonality in order to accomplish greater things together.
The Rishnoim explain that the yedid referred to in this beracha refers to the Patriarchs - Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, each of which was a “trusty confidant and beloved friend” of the divine, as it were.
It would seem that these words also refer to the newly circumcised child. The child’s unique encomium as a “yedid” is the result of his receiving a Bris Milah. The bris symbolizes self-control and adherence to the Torah’s code of morality. 
One who commits himself to a life of chastity and morality is deserving of the title yedid. Such a person can be counted on to maintain his integrity and remain true to his morals no matter where he is or what predicament life challenges him with.
Mr. Seymour Kerner was a yedid. He lived his life with simple faith and joy in whatever Hashem gave him, and he was genuine and sincere.
Imagine how different the world would look if more people lived their lives more in that way.
May his neshama have an Aliyah and may his new great-grandson who bears his name live up to it. 
All of us are sanctified as yedid from the womb. The challenge of life is whether we can maintain it.

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