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      

Friday, July 13, 2018

PARSHAS MATOS-MASEI 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Matos-Masei –Avos Perek 2
Shabbas Chazak - Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av
1 Av 5778/July 13, 2018

America takes sports quite seriously. Baseball is our national pastime, and basketball and hockey are not too shabby.
The Super Bowl is the most viewed annual event of the year, with millions of people tuning in the world over.
But soccer has never really made it in the United States. For that reason, I was never too familiar with the World Cup.
In camp this summer, I have two Brazilian campers in my division who joined us for their midwinter break (!). In addition, there are numerous counselors and staff members from England. For the last two weeks, all they seem to want to talk about is soccer (“fooootbul” as they call it) and the World Cup. The English counselors have the whole camp Dining Room singing the English chant from the World Cup.
One of the Brazilian campers was teary-eyed when he found out Brazil lost to Belgium 2-1 last Friday.
On Shabbos I was speaking to him and he explained to me that the World Cup is an event that only takes place once every four years. It also involves countries from the entire world. The pride factor is unparalleled in any other sport or forum.
My Brazilian campers can’t stand baseball. They imitate the game by falling asleep with a bat in hand. Soccer, by contrast, is played with two 45-minute halves of non-stop action. Even American hockey and basketball are not that intense.
As of this writing, England lost a heartbreaker to Croatia, denying them the chance to face France for the world championship. (It’s a shame; it would have been a repeat of many of the medieval wars between France and England.) The English counselors are crestfallen.
The Taz notes that most of the laws and restrictions that we observe during the three weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha B’av do not have their source in the Gemara, but were adopted by halachic authorities in later generations. In the time of the Gemara, the loss of the Bais Hamikdash was still relatively fresh. It wasn’t hard for the Jewish people to feel the tragedy of exile, with memories of the glory days of Yerushalayim not too far in the distant past. The challenge is that with the passage of time, emotions always fade. With each passing generation, it becomes harder to realize the extent of our loss and to recognize how bereft we are in exile.
Pesach is the most widely observed holiday in the Jewish world today. One of the main reasons for that is because of the plethora of laws, rituals, and customs that are endemic to the beloved holiday. In contrast, Shavuos is virtually nonexistent outside the orthodox community because there are no special laws associated with the holiday (eating dairy, staying awake learning all night, and decorating the shul with flowers are all beloved customs, but are not at all obligatory). The holiday which celebrates the most seminal event and the most important component of creation - the Torah - must transcend symbolism and representation. But the cost is that the holiday has been forgotten outside of orthodoxy.
How does Tisha B’av and its meaning endure when we have little understanding of what we are missing? It’s because of the laws of mourning that we observe. The rituals and restrictions insure that we will never forget what it stands for, despite the fact that we lack a proper appreciation of our loss.
The restrictive laws of this time period are uncomfortable and perhaps even annoying. The world around us is enjoying swimming and music in the hot sun, while we are desisting from those pleasures. But therein lies their significance and importance. Every time we feel uncomfortable because we are keeping the laws of mourning, we are ensuring that what it stands for will never be forgotten.
We don’t like being uncomfortable and choosing to be just that in order to honor the memory of the past (and future) glory of our nation, is honoring G-d in a unique manner. No doubt we enjoy honoring Hashem in our succah, eating matzah, dancing with the Torah, lighting Chanukah candles, and hearing Megillah on Purim far more than limiting showers, not listening to music or taking haircuts, and sitting on the floor reciting unfamiliar lamentations on Tisha B’av. But perhaps for that very reason it’s so crucial to observe the laws, and not be constantly seeking leniencies and ways around them (even if justifiable).
Everyone can be a fan when a team is winning every game and is cruising along. But only a real fan keeps cheering and hoping when his team is down in the dumps.
In a certain sense Tisha B’av and the preceding weeks demonstrate who the real adherents and loyalists are.
As the Navi promises - those who observe the laws of mourning will truly feel the joy of its ultimate consolation. May it be this year!

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

Thursday, July 5, 2018

PARSHAS PINCHOS 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Pinchos –Avos Perek 1
23 Tamuz 5778/July 6, 2018

The last few days have been quite hot in the New York area, to say the least. With temperatures in the upper 90s, and intense humidity that drove the heat index over 100 degrees, it felt oppressive. Weather reports all cautioned against being in the sun for any prolonged period, and to make sure to constantly drink to protect from dehydration.
And yet, this past Sunday tens of thousands of people did not drink (or eat) anything!
What’s more, in camp, counselors and junior counselors don’t have the luxury of staying in an air-conditioned room all day. They have over a dozen non-fasting children under their care who need to have activities during the day. Yet, we did not have one incident of dehydration during the fast. 
The mesiras nefesh we have to maintain halacha is amazing. The fact that we were all able to make it through the fast without incident is really unbelievable.
Often, we hear stories of individuals who performed relatively minor acts, which had incredible repercussions, even lifelong or life-altering impact. 
There are numerous stories of people who despaired of life or felt like total failures but regained their vitality because someone displayed a small act of caring.
Rabbi Aryeh Rodin of Texas famously related that a secular Jew donated a tremendous amount of money for the construction of his shul because he was inspired by the davening of a charedi individual when he had been at the kotel one recent morning. Rabbi Rodin related that when that charedi Jew comes to the world of truth after his death, he will be shocked to learn that he has merits of countless prayers from a shul in Texas, where he has likely never been.
Rav Shimshon Pincus zt’l explained that when hearing such a story, most people marvel about the impact of one small action, and how the effect of our words and actions are far more powerful than we could imagine. While that is certainly true, there is a deeper and more profound point as well:
If we seek to live our lives based on our own abilities and means, we are very limited. However, if we live with the awareness that it’s Hashem’s world, and we are merely trying to play our part in the divine plan, then we tap in to the infinitude of the divine.
Rav Pinkus related that one Pesach he and his wife hosted a lot of people. His parents and in laws joined, along with his married children and grandparents. He spent over a thousand dollars just on matzah! He related: “As I sat at the Seder I marveled at the miracle Hashem performed that somehow I was able to afford everything and had plentiful food for Yom Tov. But the whole time I was thinking to myself - what about next year? Maybe, Hashem won’t perform the miracle again next year. 
“This is stupidity! It’s an absurd thought! It was clear to me that Hashem, the Almighty, had provided for me though I couldn’t figure out how. So why did I lack faith that He would do it for me again?” 
When we live with the knowledge that it’s Hashem world, and Hashem lacks nothing, we can merit far greater things than we ever imagined.
The lesson of those inspiring stories reinforces to us that Hashem could do anything. Here a person did something relatively insignificant and may not have even remembered it or thought much of it. Yet Hashem caused his innocent action to set off an incredible chain reaction that changed lives. You can daven one morning at the Kotel and have an impact on the religious life of an entire community you never heard of. To Hashem there are no limits, and anything is possible.
I would venture to think that the mesiras nefesh displayed on Shiva Asar b’Tamuz to maintain the halacha was a great zechus, and was a big factor that Hashem enabled everyone to fast despite the oppressive heat.
When our enemies breached the walls of Yerushalayim they also breached the feelings of closeness we have with Hashem. We commemorate that terrible event in the hope that we will be able to repair that breach by living our lives connected to the divine, where there are no impossibilities or absolute limitations.

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

Thursday, June 28, 2018

PARSHAS BALAK 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Balak –Avos Perek 6
16 Tamuz 5778/June 29, 2018

Shortly before Pesach vacation began in Heichal HaTorah this year, a conscientious student who takes his spiritual growth seriously asked to speak with me in my office. The student said that with only a few days left before vacation he was finding that it was becoming increasingly more difficult to concentrate on learning. As is wont to happen in the waning days of the z’man (Yeshiva semester), especially at the end of a long winter, some fellow students were becoming somewhat lax in their learning. After admiring his desire to not waste the last few days, I told the student that I felt the best way to motivate himself to keep learning was to set himself goals of what he could accomplish in that short period of time.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt’l (Alei Shur) writes that we have an innate resistance to major and sudden changes. When a person tries to make sudden changes in his lifestyle, his body’s automatic response is to resist and thereby force the person back into the comfort zone of his habits. 
So how can one foster changes and improvements in his personality and nature? The answer is by setting for himself small goals that require gradual changes. When one makes incremental changes, he is able to bypass that initial knee-jerk innate rebelliousness. He doesn’t arouse the automatic resistance that emerges from innately feeling threatened by suddenly being thrust out of his comfort zone. Generally drastic changes last a few days at best, before one slips back into his previous routines and comfort zone.
So, what’s the best way to push yourself to accomplish even (or especially) when you’re not in the mood or when your surrounded by sluggishness? By setting attainable goals for yourself. Doing so helps you focus your energy and commit yourself to complete your self-imposed goals.
Someone once noted that a goal without a time frame is usually a mere fleeting dream. Even the best of intentions and aspirations are nebulous unless there is a manageable goal within a specific time frame.
The summer is a great opportunity to enjoy the beauty of Hashem’s world. But it also means Elul and Rosh Hashanah are not too far away. I once saw a great quote: “Do teshuva now; avoid the Yom Kippur rush!” By being proactive and setting for himself attainable goals during these summer months, one can arrive at the onset of Elul with a feeling of confidence that this year he can actually live up to some of the lofty spiritual aspirations he has for himself.
May we all have the wisdom to use the summer well, to grow in all areas.

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