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     

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