Wednesday, May 22, 2019

PARSHAS BEHAR 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Behar
            24 Iyar 5779/May 24, 2019
Avos perek 4 – 34th day of the Omer

THE FIRE OF LAG BAOMER


There are certain people whose accomplishments seem to traverse normal human limits. They seem to possess uncanny and selfless devotion to their causes which influence Klal Yisroel and promote Torah. What is the secret to their unmitigated energy?
How did Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman (All for the Boss) continue to devote himself to Torah causes when there were so many odds against him on a constant basis?
How did the Chofetz Chaim infuse hope and instill Torah values in his generation, to such a degree that his influence is still poignantly felt until today?
How did the Ponovetcher Rav build his yeshiva, after escaping the ashes of Europe?
How did Rav Aharon Kotler rebuild Torah in the spiritual desolation of America?
How did Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel promote the greatest Torah institution in the world?
How did the Bluzhever, Bobbover, Belzer, Gerrer, Satmar, Klausenberger, and Kaliver Rebbes rebuild after all of the devastation they endured, and the loss of so many of their chassidim?
On a personal note, I wonder how someone like my Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, continues to travel and teach, and to recently publish another book, after so many years of devotion to education and teaching?  
A few weeks ago, I was in a local seforim store perusing the newest English publications when a book caught my eye. It was about the life of Rav Zusha Wilamowsky, known in the circles of Lubavitch as “the Partisan”. Although it wouldn’t seem that such a book should pique my interest, I was actually very excited and immediately purchased it. Rav Zusha is my great uncle, the brother of my Zaydei, Rav Yaakov Meir Kohn z”l.  
I wish there was such a book about my Zaydei’s life. But my Zaydei didn’t talk much about the painful war years and his experiences, and we only know bits and pieces from the few anecdotes he shared and from stories related by others. But the book about Rav Zusha contains a few quotes and insights that my Zaydei shared about his younger brother who predeceased him.
It may seem strange that they had different last names, but that was a result of the war years. At one point my Zaydei’s passport was taken away and he was thrown into prison. He found a passport with the name Kohn on it (there were no pictures on the passports then). From then on that was his name, despite the fact that he was not a kohain.
The book describes Rav Zusha’s youth which mostly paralleled that of Zaydei. Their father was the Rav of the town, and a saintly Jew, who, along with their mother and only sister, was killed by the Nazis. They learned in the great yeshiva of Baranovich, the yeshiva of Rav Elchanan Wasserman zt’l hy”d. During the war years they were separated. Zushe ended up with Tuvia Bielski’s Partisans in the forests.
In the Displaced Persons camp after the war, Rav Zishe discovered Lubavitch and forged an inextricable lifelong connection with it. For the remainder of his life, Rav Zusha became devoted to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who affectionately referred to Rav Zusha as “my partisan”. In fact, on the monument above his grave it says “R’ Chaim Zusia who was known as the Rebbe’s Partisan”.
On Succos 1986, a weakened Rav Zusha, briefly joined the major Simchas Bais Hashoaivah at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, the main headquarters of Lubavitch. But after a few minutes he wasn’t feeling well and he entered the succah and laid down on a bench. It was there that he passed away. He died as he had lived his life, as a faithful devotee fulfilling his mission.   
The book describes the incredibly selfless dedication that Rav Zusha had to the Rebbe and his causes. Rav Zusha dedicated his life to fulfilling the word of the Rebbe, and considered any request the Rebbe made of him to be a holy mission. He often spoke of “reporting to duty”, “the battlefront”, and “onward march”.
The common thread between those who persevere beyond all odds and accomplish incredible things is that they have an unyielding sense of mission and responsibility. They aren’t merely doing what they want to do; they are striving to accomplish what they feel needs to be done. They feel the weight upon their shoulders.
The gemara (Shabbos 138b) relates that when the rabbis arrived in the vineyards of Yavneh they related that they feared that Torah would be forgotten from the Jewish people. At that point, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai declared, “Heaven forbid, that Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish people, as it says, ‘for it will not be forgotten from the mouths of your progeny’.”
The Bais Yisrael of Ger explained that by declaring that Torah would never be forgotten, Rabbi Shimon was essentially taking responsibility to ensure that it would never happen. It wasn’t just a prediction; it was a commitment.  
That is what we celebrate on Lag Baomer. The fire of Torah was ignited within our souls at Sinai. But a fire will only endure as long as it has fuel. In the time of Rabbi Shimon, it seemed that the fuel source had been depleted. Rabbi Shimon himself fueled the fire with every fiber of his being and reawakened the surging flames.
In the generation following the Holocaust, the flames of Torah again seemed to have been weakened by the nefarious flames of the crematoriums. But then too, there were those who declared that Torah would not be forgotten, and in so doing committed themselves to its preservation, despite impossible odds.    
Those heroic personalities have refueled the fire which continues to burn in the hallowed halls of our shuls, yeshivos, and homes.
The fire of Sinai and the fire of Rabbi Shimon continues to burn within our hearts, ensuring that it will indeed never be forgotten!

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

Thursday, May 16, 2019

PARSHAS EMOR/ LAG BAOMER 5779


It’s that time of year again. It actually happens twice - once in the spring and once in the summer. It’s the periods of national mourning when Jewish barbers are on vacation and many Jewish men’s beards look scruffy and somewhat unkempt.
Between Pesach and Shavuos, the days of Sefiras Ha’omer, we mourn the loss of the twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva. Between the fasts of the seventeenth of Tamuz and Tisha B’av, we observe the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash.
For those of us who have the pleasure of working with young adolescents, these two time periods have an added dimension, i.e. that of awkward adolescent facial hair growth.
At their stage, they take pride in their beards, nascent as they might be. The different gradations of facial hair is itself a manifestation of the uniqueness of each individual. Some boys have thick sideburns with nothing beyond, others have hanging mustaches, while others have a patch under their mouths with virtually nothing on the sides of their face. Then there’s the stubble and peach-fuzz which are constantly played with, in an effort to show others that there is indeed facial here there, even though it’s not discernible. Many of these young men insist that they need shavers, in the hope that if they start shaving, their beards will grow in faster (that’s a myth). Some are lucky enough to have a perennial five-o’clock shadow look that seems to stagnate at a perfect size.
The more physically mature, deemed by their peers as being ‘like bears’, walk the halls with confidence, sporting facial hair that looks like it’s going to take over their face. There’s always a few of those guys.
At times, a boy may have a full beard and a decent mustache, but the two don’t yet connect. (I must admit that I had such a “floating mustache” for years...)
A colleague often jokingly suggests to certain students that they apply some fertilizer in certain areas of their beard to make it look more balanced.
In camp last summer we had a contest to decide who had the best “Three Week’s beard.” Papers were disseminated with pictures of various contestants and campers had the opportunity to vote.
It is not coincidental that both national periods of mourning are connected with deficiencies in interpersonal relationships. The students of Rabbi Akiva lacked a modicum of respect for each other, and the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash was the result of baseless hatred.
The Medrash Tanchuma (Pinchos 10) states, “just like people’s faces aren’t alike, so too their opinions aren’t alike.” Based on this Medrash, the Kotzker rebbe quipped that just like one doesn’t hate someone else because they have a different face, so too one should not hate someone else because he has different opinions and viewpoints.
When we see all the various variations of facial hair growth, it is a subtle reminder that our focus during these days is to respect every person for who he is. It’s also a reminder that every person progresses in his own way and on his own level. Some are quicker and some are slower.
Personally, I’m happy to be past that awkward stage. Now the variations in my and my peer’s beards has to do with how many white patches we have.

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

Thursday, May 9, 2019

PARSHAS KEDOSHIM 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Kedoshim
            5 Iyar 5779/May 10, 2019
Avos perek 2 – 20th day of the Omer


There’s a classic story about two beggars - one Jewish, the other non-Jewish - who would make their rounds begging together.
One night they were sitting on a bench commiserating about how hungry they always were. The Jewish beggar then told his companion that at least the following week, on the night of the Pesach Seder, they would have a good meal. The non-Jewish beggar countered that he would never be invited to a Seder. The Jewish beggar reassured him that if he put on a kippah and imitated whatever everyone else did, no one would realize he wasn’t Jewish, and he would eat like a king.
On the first night of Pesach, they went to shul, and indeed, after davening were invited to different homes.
The non-Jew blended in as best he could, by watching and imitating whatever everyone else was doing. When they raised their cups to recite kiddush, he raised his cup and pretended to mumble along. He really enjoyed the cup of wine. He followed the family to wash his hands, as he excitedly waited for a fresh piece of homemade challah. To his dismay, he was given a minuscule piece of salty parsley. But then it got worse. The family settled into their seats and began to talk and talk and talk.
The non-Jew’s stomach growled loudly as he waited impatiently for the meal.
After what seemed like an eternity, they finally drank another cup of wine, and then washed their hands again. The non-Jew almost choked on the big piece of hard cardboard they gave him to eat.
Then he was given a small piece of a white vegetable. But by now, the beggar had had enough. In his famished state, he grabbed the whole white carrot and took a huge bite out of it. Within seconds, he was gasping for air, with steam coming out of his ears and nostrils. The family rushed to get him a cup of water, but he stood up and began screaming deliriously, “Okay! You got me! I’ll admit it! I’m not Jewish!” And with that he ran out the front door, leaving behind the shocked family.
The miserable non-Jew made his way back to their bench, morbid as ever. A couple of hours later, his Jewish buddy hobbled down the street. He plopped himself down on the bench and patted his stomach. He didn’t even notice the non-Jew’s dour expression as he asked him, “wasn’t that the greatest meal you ever had?” 
The non-Jew looked at him angrily, “why did you set me up like that? That was a dirty prank; I’ve never been hungrier in my life.” The Jew looked at him in shock and told the non-Jew to recount exactly what happened. When the Jew heard the whole story, he broke out into gregarious laughter. “You foolish person! If you had waited another three minutes you would have eaten the meal of your life. But in your impatience, you ran out and never had the chance to enjoy the amazing meal that was about to be served.”
I thought of that story today because of the following incident:
When I’m driving and there’s a Yankees game happening, I often listen to the broadcast. Last night as I drove carpool, we were listening to the game on the radio.
When I arrived home, the Yankees were trailing 2-1 to the Seattle Mariners in the seventh inning. But the game had just been postponed because of a rain delay.
Just before I headed up to sleep, I checked the score and heard that it was 4-1 Mariners in the top of the ninth. Oh well, there goes that.
This morning I was curious to hear how badly the Yankees were beaten. When I checked the score, I was pleasantly surprised to I hear that the Yankees won 5-4, after hitting a home run and a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.
Then I remembered that a student had posted a picture of himself standing in front of Yankees Stadium the night before. When I saw him in yeshiva this morning, I asked him if he was at the game. He replied that he and another student were indeed there and that it was a great game.
When I asked him about the walk-off, and what the energy was like in the stadium, he sheepishly replied that they left in the eighth inning to beat the traffic! They had stayed throughout the entire rain delay, but when the Mariners scored two runs in the eighth, they headed for the exits with most of the crowd.
I used this anecdote to remind my students (and myself) that to accomplish anything worthwhile in life, and to be successful generally, we have to have patience. When things are tough, we are quick to despair that things will ever get better.
It’s hard to maintain one’s sense of hope when things seem bleak. Often there won’t be a stunning comeback in the bottom of the ninth, and there will be difficult and painful losses. But if we head for the exits to beat the traffic and avoid the minor frustrations because we feel like it’s just not worth it anymore, then we will definitely not be there for the walk-off moments of resilience and growth.
There is always going to be times of marror in our lives. But we have to continue to wait and daven for the incredible seudah that is to follow.
And that seudah can only happen after the marror has been consumed. 

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