Friday, July 12, 2019

PARSHAS CHUKAS 5779


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chukas
      9 Tamuz 5779/July 12, 2019 - Avos perek 5

            Rabbi Noach Sauber, a seasoned and popular educator and a personal mentor of mine, is the Assistant Principal and Head of Judaic Studies at RTMA in Elizabeth, NJ, as well as the Learning Director here in Camp Dora Golding.
Rabbi Sauber related that a few winters ago, he was teaching parshas Vayeira to his students in RTMA. When he reached the Torah’s account of Avrohom Avinu offering his beloved son Yitzchak as a sacrifice to Hashem at the akeidah, he paused. He was about to teach about the greatest act of personal sacrifice ever displayed by a human being towards G-d, but they would not be able to relate to it at all. The whole story, including the idea of G-d calling for human sacrifice, was incredibly foreign to a group of twenty-first century Modern Orthodox kids. He felt it would be a missed opportunity if he couldn’t somehow bring the story down to their lives, so they could gain from the heroic story in a practical manner.
He thought long and hard until he was struck by an epiphany. He then said a silent prayer that his idea and efforts be successful.
The following day, at the beginning of shiur, his students filed into class and settled into their seats. Five minutes after he began class, Jeff, who was notoriously late, sauntered into class. The rule in RTMA is that all students must place their cell phones in a basket on the teacher’s desk at the beginning of each class. Being late, Jeff was a bit flustered and forgot to give in his phone.
As Jeff sat down, Rabbi Sauber pretended he was frustrated with Jeff and asked him where his phone was. Jeff apologized and pulled it out of his pocket, walked up to the front, and handed it to Rabbi Sauber. At that point, Rabbi Sauber grabbed the phone, walked over to the window, threw it open, and emphatically declared that he had it with the lateness and the phones. He then threw the phone out the window, at least that is how it appeared to a very shocked Jeff and his classmates.
The classroom was dead silent. Rabbi Sauber looked at Jeff and asked him what was wrong. Jeff looked up in shock, “What’s wrong? My whole life is on that phone and you just threw it out the window.” At that point, Rabbi Sauber opened his hand and showed Jeff that he never thrown it at all. “But Jeff, you’re telling me that your phone has your whole life on it. I want to ask you a question, but you have to answer me honestly. If G-d Himself appeared to you today and instructed you to throw your cell phone out the window, would you do it?”  
Jeff looked up slowly, “Honestly, I am not sure I could do it, even if G-d Himself told me to.” At that point, Rabbi Sauber told his class, “Now we are going to learn about the greatest act of self-sacrifice that ever occurred. Now perhaps you can have a small glimpse of what it took for Avrohom Avinu to perform the akeidah.”   
Rabbi Moshe Wolfson notes that the word nefesh refers to one’s desires. When Avrohom Avinu was negotiating with Ephron and the B’nei Cheis to purchase the Cave of Machpelah, he said, “אם יש את נפשכם – If it is your desire” (Bereishis 23:8).
The greatest level of mesiras nefesh is giving up one’s life, because our ultimate desire is to live. However, any time one suppresses or overcomes a desire or a personal craving in order to fulfill G-d’s Will, he has been moser nesfeh – i.e. he has given up some of his nefesh.
That means that every individual has the opportunity to be moser nefesh constantly. Every time we challenge our base desires and overcome our whims, we demonstrate mastery over the animalistic component of ourselves. One who averts his senses, alters his behaviors, or invests added resources and efforts into his spiritual pursuits, exercises his soul over his physical body and becomes that much greater.  
We do not need to offer our child upon the akeidah in order to follow in the footsteps of Avrohom Avinu. We need only to prioritize the Will of G-d over our own.

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

Thursday, July 4, 2019

PARSHAS KORACH 5779


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Korach
      2 Tamuz 5779/July 5, 2019 - Avos perek 4

Throughout my youth, I enjoyed Country Yossi’s Kivi and Tuki children tapes.
On one of the tapes, Country Yossi annoyedly asks Tuki why he can’t get him into bed at night, but then can’t get him out of bed in the morning. Tuki replies that it is one of the many unanswerable mysteries of life.
For children and adolescents, there is a certain thrill in staying up late. Somewhere along the way in early adulthood we begin to wish someone would put us to bed at 8:30 pm. But children love to brag about how late they were up.
On Thursday of last week, the 2019 summer camping season began at Camp Dora Golding. Wasting no time, on Motzei Shabbos, the oldest two divisions of camp (the “Malchus” divisions) were informed that they would have an all-nighter. The campers loved it. After late night sports competitions, they enjoyed a midnight swim with a barbecue at the pool, followed by a bonfire. They then davened shachris at vasikin (3:45 am camp time). The best part of their all-nighter was that they had no morning activities and were able to sleep until lunch.
A younger camper asked me why they wanted to stay up all night. If they would have done all those same activities during the day, they could have done everything for longer.
It brought to mind the prevalent custom to stay awake the entire Shavuos night. The whole custom seems counterintuitive. If the point is to learn as much Torah as possible, wouldn’t it make more sense to get a normal night’s sleep, and then learn through the afternoon? Being that Shavuos is during the summer when the nights are relatively short, on average a person learns 4-5 hours during the overnight (not including coffee and cheesecake breaks). The afternoon on the other hand, is 7-8 hours. (Someone noted that in Gateshead the night is even shorter, and learning all night entails learning for only about 45 minutes...)
Obviously staying up all night isn’t about qualitative learning, but about demonstrating excitement. One only stays up late, or all night, for something truly important or exciting. 
For teenagers, playing ball, swimming, and eating through the night is unusual, and therefore exciting.
Remaining awake all night on Shavuos reinforces to us that Torah study is something special, something worth willingly giving up sleep for.
A friend once quipped that when someone asks you how you are, he means aside from the fact that you’re tired. Then fact that you feel fatigued is taken as a given.
As we get older, we seem to yearn to spend more time in bed. We constantly feel sleep deprived and energy-drained, as we try to keep up with our daily stresses and responsibilities. Yet, there are things that we willingly give up sleep for. Parents know well about losing sleep for their children. We attend weddings to celebrate with friends and stay up late to complete projects or meet deadlines.
There are the many people who drag themselves out to learn Torah at night after a full day or work or pull themselves out of bed early so they can immerse themselves in Torah before heading off to work. What incredible people!
Every morning we recite the beracha thanking Hashem “Who gives strength to the tired.” We would love to not feel drained or tired, but fatigue seems to be an inevitability of life. The challenge is for us to push past our tiredness in order to fulfill our obligations and responsibilities.
We don’t thank Hashem Who takes away our tiredness. Rather, we thank Him for helping us traverse it.

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

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

PARSHAS SHELACH 5779


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Shelach
        25 Sivan 5779/June 28, 2019
Mevorchim Chodsh Tamuz - Avos perek 3

It’s one of those things that happens to someone else. When you hear it you shake your head and express your sympathy and breathe a sigh of relief that it was someone else, and not you. But last week it happened to me.
One morning last week, I checked my bank app and saw that there was a $50 “counter withdrawal” from an account we haven’t used in a few months. I went to the bank and inquired. The bank teller asked me if I knew anyone in the state of Delaware. I replied that I knew that Delaware was the first state of the union, but that was about it. The teller printed the bank check which had been submitted and handed it to me. Sure enough, it had my name, bank number, and signature. The only problem was that I hadn’t commissioned it or signed it.
My bank contacted their Delaware branch and were informed that the person who made the withdrawal had submitted ID with his picture and all my information. He provided my address, social security number, and phone number.
During the next few hours I was busy securing my bank account and credit cards and adding whatever precautions and added security measures I could. Then I went down to my local police station and filed a police report.
The officer who filed my report told me that I was the seventeenth person in June to file such a report. Being that it was June 19th, that meant that on average they dealt with one case of identity theft every day.
The bank had provided me with the driver’s license number that the scammer had provided along with my ID. The police officer looked up the number and saw that it was of a woman in Westchester. Her information had been compromised as well, which she may not have even been aware of. The expiration date the scammer provided didn’t match up with her license either, which means he mixed and matched information from different people.
At the suggestion of the police and my bank, I also opened an account with Experian to maintain constant monitoring of my credit.
It is a terrible feeling, not only when money is stolen from you, but also to know that someone is using your name and information.
One’s reputation is one of the most precious commodities he has. We all work hard to build and maintain a positive reputation, because that serves as our identity in the eyes of others. When someone steals or manipulates that identity it is a very personal violation and a terrible feeling.
Who is the greatest victim of identity theft? Every one of us. One of the greatest tactics that our evil inclination employs is to confuse us about who we really are, and what defines us.
It is intriguing that we refer to a person who learns Torah as a “Ben Torah” (a son of Torah), but a sinner as a “Ba’al aveirah” (a husband of sin). Being a son is a permanent state, while a husband is based on marriage, a matter of choice. When one learns Torah and performs mitzvos, it becomes part of his essence. Being that one’s essence is his soul which is nourished through spiritual pursuits, all spiritual actions energize his soul and become part of his essence. When one commits a sin however, it has a negative impact upon him, causing a spiritual dissonance. However, the sin does not become part of his essence. Rather, it is like a cancerous growth that must be removed. In that sense the one who sins isn’t the “son of the sin” but the “husband of the sin”, who needs to divorce himself from the iniquities he committed.
The problem is that there is an inner voice that tells us that our mishaps and sins define us. It seduces us into believing that we are as lowly as our misdeeds. That is identity theft at its worst. When we begin to believe we are someone other than who we are, we become the victims of the most cunning and egregious form of theft.
We too have security systems that can protect us. Works of mussar and chassidus help us maintain perspective - not only of right and wrong- but also of who we are and what defines us. We should take advantage of those vital security measures. They don’t cost any money, only some serious time and thought. But better safe than sorry.

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

Friday, June 21, 2019

PARSHAS BEHA’ALOSCHA 5779


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Beha’aloscha
         18 Sivan 5779/June 21, 2019
Avos perek 2

Dedicated in honor of Coach YL Celnik

Sunday afternoons during May and June are dedicated to Pirchei Baseball. Every grade has its own teams and games. As the boys get older, the games become more competitive and intense, especially for the parents. That’s why I really enjoy watching the pre-1Aers, the youngest boys, play; their games are pleasant and unpressured. I saw it when our oldest son Shalom was in pre-1A years ago, then again with our second son Avi, and this year, with our third son, Dovid.
Watching those boys play is like watching a mini comedy show. The batter hits the ball off the tee, and the ball slowly dribbles up the middle of the field. Suddenly, from all sides of the field, fourteen players converge on the ball. So much for having set positions. Somehow the ball makes it through all their scrambling legs, and like a swarm of bees all of them make a sharp turn and start heading towards the outfield to retrieve the ball.
Meanwhile the hitter is being told to run. Sometimes he begins running up the third base line and must to be redirected. As he runs up the first base line, often holding the bat, he tries to figure out where to stop. By then the ball is in the outfield and he’s being told to head towards the other white fluffy thing in the middle of the field.
When the play is finally over, everyone is told what a fantastic job they did.
By the time they reach the next grade a year later, the game has already progressed to new levels. Fathers and coaches are calling out to batters to “wait for your pitch” and “good eye’, while fielders are instructed, “play is to first”, or “try to cut off the run”. But in pre-1A there are no such instructions being called out. Everyone will be deliriously happy if the batter actually hits the ball off the tee, and remembers to run to first, and if the fielders actually find the ball and send it back into the infield. Lower expectations lead to greater satisfaction all around.
In baseball, as in all sports, players must be proactive in deciding what action they need to take before the play begins. It’s vital that a fielder and batter knows how many outs there are. Whether a fielder will make a play to second or decide to hold the runner, and whether a runner will be running if there is a pop-up depends on how many outs there are.
If the player doesn’t think it through before the play begins and has to start contemplating how to proceed once the ball is in play, he will most likely mess up the play.
In sports there are scouting reports and coaches, to help players figure out their best plan of action so they can be ready to make their move as soon as the play begins.   
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals last year, Cleveland Cavalier guard J.R. Smith forgot the score with four seconds left. He pulled down an offensive rebound after a teammate missed a free throw. He didn’t realize that the game was tied, and so, instead of passing the ball or taking a shot, he dribbled out to midcourt and ran out the clock. The Cavaliers lost the game to the Golden State Warriors in overtime.
In life too, we need to plan in advance as much as possible. Undoubtedly, there are many situations when surprises and the unexpected is thrust upon us. But there are many other situations in which being proactive could make a world of a difference and change the entire dynamic.
Regarding relationships, we often know the types of comments or situations that frustrate others. If we mentally prepare for such encounters, we will often be far better equipped to handle the situation properly and avoid confrontation.
This idea is no less true when it comes to our spiritual pursuits. One moment of thought before davening or performing a mitzvah can make a world of difference.
Mesillas Yesharim cautions us to never perform mitzvos suddenly. The entire point of a beracha is to give us a moment of pause to contemplate what we are about to do – to appreciate the benefit Hashem has granted us, or to mentally prepare for the mitzvah we are about to perform.
In sports, not pre-planning is frustrating; in life, not pre-planning is a tragedy![1]

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


[1] The underlying idea in this essay was based on a schmooze by Rabbi Daniel Kalish. The connection to Pirchei Baseball is my own 😊.