Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Erev Succos – Z’man Simchaseinu
    14 Tishrei 5780/October 13, 2019

            Last week, for Shabbos Shuva, the ninth graders and Bais Medrash of our yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah, enjoyed a special shabbaton (the rest of the yeshiva had a shabbaton a few weeks prior). The shabbaton was held on the grounds of Camp Nageela in the Catskills Mountains, in Fallsburg, NY. On Friday afternoon, not long before Shabbos, there was a very professional sounding announcement over the building’s PA system welcoming the yeshiva and everyone who came for the shabbaton, especially Rabbi Dani Staum. No one seemed to know who had made the announcement and why I merited a personal shout out., except me.

            Ironically, the announcement was made from Chesterfield, Missouri. My older brother, Rabbi Yitzie Staum, is the head counsleor of Camp Nageela during the summer. He therefore has access to the PA system, as well as all the security cameras from his cell phone. He heard that Heichal was having a shabbaton and that I would be there. After confirming that I had arrived, he made the announcement from his home in Chesterfield, MO.

            It was quite fascinating (and a bit unnerving) to have been welcomed and viewed from afar.

            The mitzvah of succah is most unique. It is the only mitzvah one performs with his entire body (with the exception of living in Eretz Yisrael). The Kotzker Rebbe quipped that in the succah even the mud on one’s boots become holy. (Symbolically, that means that even with a person’s spiritual mud - his failings and sins, he can enter the succah and bask in its holiness.)
            The Gemara Succah details many fascinating and unique leniencies that apply to succah, including lavud, (gaps of three tefachim are halachically considered sealed), gud achis and gud asik (gaps between the ground and the bottom of the wall or gaps between the top of the wall and the s’chach - even sizable gaps - are considered non-existent), and dofen akumah (invalid covering of a succah such as an overhang doesn’t invalidate a succah because it’s considered like “a bent wall” and not part of the succah). As long as there is a halachically valid succah, even if it combines all of the aforementioned leniencies, it possesses the incredible sanctity of the succah. As soon as one steps out of the confines of the succah however, none of that kedusha is present.
            Like the public address system at Camp Nageela, the holiness of the succah only extends to its own borders. As long as I was in the main building of Camp Nageela, I was within range to be able to hear my brother’s announcement, despite the fact that he was a great distance away. But as soon as I left Camp Nageela’s campus, I could no longer hear his voice or be viewed on their cameras.
            There is another mitzva we fulfill on Succos - taking and shaking the Four Species. The Gemara explains that when we shake the Four Species we are symbolizing that G-d controls the winds in all four directions of the world.
            It’s inconceivable that these two encompassing mitzvos performed during the same holiday have no connection with each other. In fact, the Arizal cites a custom to shake the Four Species specifically in the succah.
            The Succah symbolizes that there are special designated places and times that contain added levels of Shechina, places where the soul can bask and absorb added layers of sanctity and connection with its Creator. In time, we have Shabbos and Yomim Tovim. In place, there is Eretz Yisroel and Yerushalayim, and every Shul and Bais Medrash throughout the world. On Succos, that level of Shechina can be found wherever one erects a succah according to the dictates of halacha.
            The deeper symbolism is that our homes too can and should be places of kedusha. Perhaps better said, our homes can be islands of sanctity in an often spiritually impoverished society. Wherever a family strives to build a home according to the dictates of halacha, and whenever a family yearns and strives to make their home a place where G-‘s Presence feels “at home”, the Shechina is manifest.
            Indeed, the avodah of Shemini Atzeres is most challenging and formidable - to take the kedusha of the succah into our homes, where it will remain all year.
            In a different vein, the Four Species remind us that G-d’s “watchful eye” is over the entire world. There is no place in the world beyond His purview. Every tempest, blizzard, thunderstorm, and falling leaf is part of His divine hashgacha. Not every place is holy, but every place is within God’s view, as it were.
            In a sense, one can choose to embrace the message and significance of the succah. It’s up to us to try to absorb and imbibe the holiness of the succah. But there is no escaping the divine eye of Providence, which is the poignant message of the Four Species. (It should be added that Rekanti, an early commentator, notes that each of the four species correspond to one of the letters of G-d’s Four-Letter Name.)
            While I love my brother and admittedly don’t see him and his family enough, it would be too invasive if he would be able to project his voice wherever I go. But it was cute to have that feeling of closeness, even at a distance, while I was on the grounds of Camp Nageela.
            On a far more profound level that is the experience we pine for on Succos. What an opportunity! May we all use it well.
            Let me conclude by saying, R’ Yitzie, thanks for the personal shout out, and for giving me an idea for yet another brilliant Musings.

Chag Sameiach & Freilichen Yom Tov,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Tuesday, October 8, 2019


Erev Yom Kippur
    9 Tishrei 5780/October 8, 2019

               A couple of weeks ago, on a Thursday evening, our oldest child, Shalom, felt some pain on his arm. It was then that he noticed a small mark - presumably a bug bite - with redness surrounding it. When he showed it to Chani, she drew a line around the redness so that we could monitor whether it was spreading.
              On Friday evening, right after davening, he showed me that it had spread. Knowing the potential danger of a spreading infection, particularly if it starts to spread, I showed it to Yisrael Kaplan, a friend and neighbor who is a medic for hatzalah. Yisrael immediately agreed with our concern. He also noted that his daughter had had a similar issue a week earlier and that she was prescribed an oral anti-biotic and cream, which she no longer needed. He suggested that we go together to a local pediatrician so that she could guide us. After examining the affected area, the pediatrician said that those were the exact medicines she would prescribe, and Shalom should take them during Shabbos. She cautioned us that if we did not see improvement, we should come back to her.
              Unfortunately, the following day there was no improvement. When we returned to the doctor right after Shabbos, she felt we should have the wound drained and the anti-biotic changed. We immediately went to Refuah - a nearby clinic that is open late on Motzei Shabbos. After numbing the area, the doctor made a small incision. He then firmly and vigorously pressed and pushed the surrounding areas to ensure that all the pus had been drained. He also extracted a sample to have it cultured to make sure the medicine prescribed was correct for that infection. Finally, he wrote out a prescription for a different oral anti-biotic.
              Famed psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow once said that one who only has a hammer, tends to see everything as a nail. As it is the ‘season of teshuva’, I was thinking about that experience as it connects to the process of teshuva.
              Our evil inclination makes its initial entry subtly and gently. It doesn’t try to convince us to commit grave sins all at once, knowing that in our hearts we want to do what’s right and don’t want to get lost in the morass of sins. Instead it plants a thought in our minds to “push the envelope”, to do something that’s “not so bad” even though it may be improper or unbecoming. At first it only seeks to stick its “foot in the door” by making a small entry or “bite” into our soul. But then it quickly seeks to spread its venom, causing spiritual infection to spread to other areas. The greatest danger is when it spreads into the spiritual blood stream and makes its way towards the heart.
Rav Huna warns that if one repeats a sin, he becomes numb to its severity and begins to feel that it’s not such a big deal (Kiddushin 40a). When that happens, the sin becomes that much more lethal.
              To rectify sins, one needs to ‘drain the evil’ in the sense that he first desists from performing those iniquitous actions. But beyond that he also has to think about how the sins have impacted him generally. Once someone has breached his own boundaries, it requires greater vigilance and self-imposed restrictions to ensure that the infection not return, or in this case, that he not return to the inflection.
              Along with dealing with the sins themselves, there is also a need for oral antibiotics. With regards to teshuva our oral anti-biotic is tefilla and viduy (confession). There is a required dosage needed to ensure the infection has been properly overcome, as prescribed by the ultimate soul doctors - our Sages. As it says in the Haftorah for Shabbos Shuva “take with you words and return to Hashem” (Hoshea 14:3).
              Our main argument for forgiveness is that our sinful behaviors do not define us; they are an aberration, an external infection as it were, that has invaded our essence and masquerades as a core component. Teshuva, literally, means a return, a harmonization of our external behaviors with our true inner being. I will conclude by saying that there is one more point that connects Shalom’s ordeal with the process of teshuva. As soon as the yetzer hara lures us into sin, he assumes his other capacity as Satan and ascends before G-d to claim our guilt and culpability. The power of teshuva is that it nullifies and neutralizes Satan’s prosecution.
              Where does that parallel in Shalom’s experience? A few days later we received the insurance bills. Like Satan they waste no time claiming our culpability and guilt, and why they don’t have to pay. If only there was a process of teshuva that would help us nullify them...
G’mar Chasima Tova
Good Yom Tov & Chag Sameiach,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, September 26, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Netzovim
    27 Elul 5779/September 27, 2019 - Avos perakim 5-6

               Although we may not want to admit it, there are certain berachos of Shemone Esrei that seem to resonate with us more deeply than others. The berachos in which we ask Hashem for health, livelihood, and deliverance from pain are probably ones we focus on the most, as those are all things we feel we constantly need.
              Perhaps the beracha that resonates least is that of Hashiva Shofteinu, the prayer that Hashem restore our judges and judicial system. While we definitely await the return of the Sanhedrin, we tend to feel that the prayer for the return of our judges isn’t as urgent and pressing as the other prayers. After all, most of us aren’t judges and don’t have to adjudicate any pressing matters.
              Or are we?
              Rabbi Shimshon Pincus zt”l noted that in fact every individual is a judge every day and throughout his day. We are constantly deliberating, making decisions, and judging situations. But more profoundly, we often judge people and decide how we should proceed in our interactions with them. As parents, we constantly judge our children, and in our jobs, we constantly judge potential clients and business situations. As spouses, siblings, children, neighbors, and friends we pass judgement on the actions and the intentionality of those we are closest with and decide how to proceed based on our conclusions. It is those conclusions that often cause rifts and painful disagreements, or draw us closer.
              Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzhal shlita relates that someone once asked him how he could judge a neighbor favorably, when he was quite sure he had seen him commit overt sins. Rabbi Nebenzhal poignantly replied, “why do you have to judge him? Are you his rabbi? Is there anything you can accomplish by judging him?”
              We take it so for granted that we judge, that it doesn’t even occur to us that it’s not our place to always decide matters relating to other people’s lives.
              A family friend related that her family is going through a very hard time because her son is OTD (Off The Derech). They suffer ongoing anxiety about his future, fear for his daily welfare, and anguish over his current lifestyle. They also must exercise incredible restraint to be loving and accepting of him, even as they fear for the poor life decisions he has made. They also have to contend with the anguish of shattered dreams and hopes, aside for trying to shield their other children from making this child’s same mistakes. But - she noted - the worst of it all, is the judgement she feels from friends, relatives, and neighbors. The looks, and sometimes even verbalized condemnation and critique of the decisions they made and make, causes the situation to be that much harder.
              She dolefully noted that when a family is stricken with a sick child c’v the community bonds together in such a special and loving manner. There are numerous programs and chesed organizations that help the family cope during that painful and challenging time. But when a family has an OTD child those programs are largely absent. Instead there is added shame and judgement heaped upon the already suffering family.
              Single divorced parents who struggle mightily to try to maintain some semblance of normalcy for their children, endure similar challenges. While widows and widowers often receive deserved sympathy, divorcees often feel judged and distanced. There is almost an unverbalized feeling of “maybe if you weren’t so stubborn” or “maybe if you prioritized your kids more, you wouldn’t be in this mess!”
              Older singles often must contend with comments from others about why they aren’t married yet.
              Then there’s the old issue of the stigma of mental illness. It’s not enough that people suffer the discomfort, and challenge of mental illness, but they also have to have the added indignity of being judged by those who are convinced that they understand it all and are therefore qualified to offer advice, or judge the situation.
              Rav Yoylish, the Satmar Rebbe, once called a chosid of his who lived in Miami, Florida to find out information about a certain divorced widow who lived there. The Rebbe was was trying to set up a shidduch for her and he wanted his chosid to give him some information about her. The chosid was excited to help his Rebbe and he replied that he knew who she was because she lived right down the block from him, and he would be happy to find out any information the Rebbe wanted to know. To his surprise, there was silence on the line, which was followed with what sounded like sniffling; it sounded like the rebbe was crying. The chosid was beside himself. “What did I say rebbe? If the rebbe needs the information sooner, I’ll call back in five minutes.”
              The rebbe replied, “How can you call yourself a chosid of mine? There’s a divorced woman who lives down the block from you and you don’t know basic information about her? You never invited her and her family for a Shabbos seudah? You never inquired whether she needed anything? How can you consider yourself a chosid of mine?”
              Perhaps this year we can try to concentrate more when we recite the beracha of Hashivaynu. We should have in mind that Hashem should help us judge properly in all those situations throughout our day when we must draw conclusions and decide how to proceed. But even more profoundly, we should daven that Hashem return the real judges of our nation, those who have the ability and authority to pass true judgement. Until then we should have the wisdom and humility to stop passing judgement on others, unless it’s our place and responsibility.
              When we act as proper judges, we can hope that the celestial courts will judge us accordingly as well.
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Kesiva Vachasima Tova & Shana Tova,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum