Thursday, August 16, 2018

PARSHAS SHOFTIM 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shoftim - Avos perek 6

7 Elul 5778/August 17, 2018

 

I have been attending summer camp for almost three decades. I have been a camper, masmid, office boy, junior counselor, counselor, learning rebbe, head waiter, and the division head of almost every age. But I have a confession to make: as a camper I absolutely abhorred color war. I hated the change of schedule, the loud cheering, the unusual splitting of my bunk and the whole camp, having to go to team time to learn and then to sing songs, etc.

But I remember that the last year that I was a camper in Camp Torah Vodaas (of blessed memory), I had a different experience. That summer during color war, I was invited to have a major part in the grand play. I had never acted on stage before, and I was quite skeptical about my acting abilities. (Since then I have acted in numerous plays. That probably would never have happened if Baruch Wein, who wrote our team’s play, didn’t have the confidence in me that I didn’t have in myself.)

Acting in that play made me a sudden celebrity in camp that summer, and gave me a surge of confidence. The following evening, when a few staff members convened to write the alma-mater[1], I joined them. I didn’t think I had any ability to write lyrics. However, when they were stuck on a line I suggested “as I ride the bus staring out the window, tears well up inside my eyes”. The eyes of the person in charge of the song lit up, and he wrote my suggestion down. (That was the beginning of a camp career writing lyrics for songs).

I don’t even remember if my team won color war that that year. But I do remember feeling sad when it ended.

I had always dreaded color war; what had suddenly changed? The obvious answer was that for the first time I had been involved in color war. It wasn’t something dictated and imposed upon me, but something I had invested in and contributed to. That was why, despite the tremendous exertion and effort it entailed, I enjoyed the experience and didn’t want it to end.

Now that the month of Elul has begun, we are all anticipating the imminence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many dread the experience of reciting long, unfamiliar tefilos and having to contend with so many halachos, and introspection. How can one not only not dread these days, but even excitedly anticipate the exquisiteness of these lofty days?

One possibility is that it depends whether we are passive or active towards these days. If the tefilos and laws are imposed upon us, then we see it as a necessary inconvenience that we have to survive. However, if we are proactive and prepare ourselves somewhat for the coming days - by learning the halachos, studying some of the meaning and depth of the tefilos, it can become an enjoyable, inspiring, and uplifting experience. We can actually feel excited for the Yomim Noraim, despite the challenges it brings.

If we “step into the Yom Tov” and build up excitement for the opportunity that it presents, we will look forward to it.[2]

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

             R’ Dani and Chani Staum      



[1] the alma-mater song is sung during the grand sing - the crescendo of color war and the summer season
[2] This is part of the first lecture I was privileged to present in Yeshiva Heichal HaTorah, September 19,2017/28 Elul 5777

Friday, August 10, 2018

PARSHAS RE’EH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Re’eh
Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Elul - Avos perek 5
29 Av 5778/August 10, 2018

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I attended three weddings. Thankfully, they were all within a half hour of each other. Each was special and wonderful, but it was a long and draining day.
The last wedding was held in a shul in Bergenfield, NJ. Before I left, I walked into a side Bais Medrash. At first I thought there was no one there, but then I noticed a teenage boy bent over a Sefer in the front. I was there for about ten minutes, and he didn’t look up once. I don’t know who he is, but he inspired me. A wedding was going on in the building, people occasionally walked in and out of the Bais Medrash, and yet that young man clad in a tee shirt and sports pants was completely immersed in his learning, oblivious to anything else going on around him.
A couple of days later, I was driving with one of my sons on a very hot day. We drove passed a yeshiva bochur walking uphill, clad in his hat and jacket clutching a Gemara in hand. It’s not an unusual sight in Monsey, but at that moment it inspired me. I remarked to my son how beautiful it was to see a young man whose life revolves around the Gemara in his hand hurrying to learn Torah on a hot day.
When I walked into the pizza shop not too long ago, I noticed two high school girls holding bentchers and reciting beracha acharona meticulously. It was a chizuk to me about the importance of reciting berachos carefully even in a public and somewhat harried setting.
In Camp Dora Golding each summer, the season begins with two days of staff orientation. During his address to the staff during orientation this year, camp’s learning director, Rabbi Noach Sauber, asked the staff how many people were hired to be learning rabbeim. As can be expected, only a few hands went up.
Rabbi Sauber then looked around the room and announced that, whether they were informed of it or not, in fact every single staff member who came to camp to work in whatever position that summer was also hired as a rebbe.
Why was that true? Because, no matter what one’s position is in camp, inevitably there are campers who are going to be looking up to him and emulating him. There are campers who dream not only of one day being a counselor, but also of running the canteen, overseeing maintenance, writing and acting in plays, painting banners, or being in charge of the go-carts or zip-line. If someone is being looked up to, he has an obligation to strive to be a proper role model.
I remember once reading about a celebrated and famous athlete who was found to be involved in unethical and illegal behavior. When asked how he could act in such a manner when kids looked up to him, his inane reply was that he never asked to become a role model.
If people look up to someone, he has a responsibility to do his utmost to try to inspire. It is irrelevant whether he wanted that role or not.
The truth is that every one of us is a role model. We can never know how we impact others, and we usually are never aware how much an act or word we did or said affected another. 
The reality is that we learn from, and influence our surroundings, for good or for better.
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l noted that it is for that reason that we pray each morning (just prior to Shema) - “Our Father, the merciful Father... place in our heart understanding to learn and to teach, to guard and to do and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah with love.”
How can we ask Hashem that we merit to teach with love when most of us aren’t teachers? The obvious answer is that we all do teach - whether we mean to or not, and whether we like it or not.
If a person is particular to guard himself from loshon hora, or to not speak during davening, etc. not only will he spiritually elevate himself, but he has also become a rebbe for others in ways he may never realize.
The frightening part is that the opposite is true as well.
As the month of Elul begins we seek to grow spiritually and become even greater than we already are. We do so not only for ourselves but also to inspire others to come closer to their living Father in Heaven.

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

Friday, August 3, 2018

PARSHAS EIKEV 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Eikev
Mevorchim Chodesh Elul - Avos perek 4
22 Av 5778/August 3, 2018

I wonder if others have had this experience too.
Before Tisha B’av I was listening to a lecture about the importance of being nosei b’ol im chaveiro (sharing the burden with one’s friend). Essentially, it refers to our obligation to empathize with the plight of others. In some instances, it motivates us to do all we can to help alleviate the pain of others, while in other situations it at least ensures that those going through challenges don’t feel alone, but that there are those who care about their plight. 
But, it goes beyond even that. On a metaphysical level, our feeling and sharing the pain of others demonstrates to Hashem that we care about our brethren, an important key to bringing about the future redemption.
The renowned speaker shared some incredible anecdotes which demonstrate the unparalleled love and care that great Torah leaders have even for strangers, including that a Gadol couldn’t sleep or eat normally because he was so disturbed by the pain of others.
But the strange thing was, the more I listened to those stories the more deflated I felt. Instead of being inspired, I felt dejected. I have a hard enough time balancing all of the responsibilities in my own life. Am I obligated to strive to fully internalize the pain of others? If I am, how can I ever be happy and dance at a wedding or appreciate a sunny day, when there is so much suffering and sadness in this world?
I reminded myself of a conversation I had with our family’s rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Schabes. Rabbi Schabes is not just a scholar and Rabbi of note, but also a selfless person who gives freely of his time for the needs of Klal Yisroel, well beyond those of his own kehilla. I am constantly astounded when I hear from numerous friends and acquaintances that when there were communal issues or personal struggles they turned to Rabbi Schabes for advice, even though he is not their “rabbi”. I cannot understand where he has the time in his day for his kehilla, the multitudes of others who seek his counsel, and to prepare and give derashos and shiurim.
Throughout the years, whenever we have met privately with Rabbi Schabes to consult with him about various family matters, he always gives us his full attention, as if nothing else was going on. The only interruption is from the incessant buzzing of his phone which indicates that there is plenty of other matters vying for his attention beyond our meeting.
I once asked Rabbi Schabes how he is able to deal with all of the painful stories he hears on a constant basis. How does he always exude so much simcha despite all the tragedies he is privy to?
He replied that when one hears painful news, and surely when one is listening to another relate a personally painful experiences, at that time he is obligated to try to be nosei b’ol and empathize with true care. Then when he davens, he should include heartfelt prayers on behalf of the suffering person and his situation. But beyond that, one must live his own life, and cannot allow himself to be overwhelmed by the suffering of others.
(Of course, that doesn’t include doing what one can on behalf of the person. This only refers to one’s emotional investment. Rabbi Schabes noted that he believes he heard this perspective in the name of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt’l.)
When my rebbe related to me this idea, I was very moved. I suggested that it’s a mitzva to publicize it to others in order to alleviate the needless guilt many of us feel that we are not nosei b’ol. He nodded affirmatively.
It is no small order to truly empathize with another when he is sharing his pain and you have other things to do. Nor is it easy to remember his plight when you are davening, to add tefillos on his behalf. But if one has done so he has fulfilled his obligation to be nosei b’ol. At that point he should strive to be b’simcha with the feeling of the words we say in bentching - “And for all Hashem, our G-d, we thank You and bless You.”

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

Friday, July 27, 2018

PARSHAS VAESCHANAN/NACHAMU 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vaeschanan
Shabbas Nachamu – Avos perek 3
15 Av 5778/July 28, 2018

During one of Abbot and Costello’s famous comic routines, Lou Costello was on trial in court. At one point he made a disrespectful remark towards the judge. The judge reprimanded him and said, “you can’t speak to me that way young man! Why, I’ve been sitting on this bench for twenty years!” Costello immediately snapped back, “naturally lazy, aren’t ya!”
A few weeks ago, at the end of June I stepped down from my position as Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead. In my final sermon in the capacity of Rabbi I related the above anecdote. I continued that I had been standing at that pulpit for eleven wonderful years, but it was definitely not out of laziness.
Over the years, I had shared many Torah thoughts, celebrated many wonderful occasions, including many of our own familial milestones, introduced some well-known Jewish personalities who spoke in the shul, and developed very strong and personal connections. On occasion, I had been tasked to deliver eulogies, some for dear friends. That is of the most difficult components of being a Rabbi.
Stepping down was a very grueling and difficult decision, but based on various personal factors, we decided that the time had come to move on. The fact that the shul has a scholar of the caliber of my dear friend Rabbi Shimon Kerner, who immediately assumed the role as Rabbi, mitigated the difficulty of my departure, albeit only somewhat.
An educator once told me that the greatest mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) for a rebbe is his talmidim. The fact that the rebbe knows that his students are looking up to him, and that he serves as an example for them, compels him to act the part, even if he would not otherwise do so.
What’s more, a rebbe/Rav is blessed with insights and greater Torah understanding in the merit of his students and congregants. Conveying a thought forces the presenter to crystallize the subject matter in his mind and ensure that he has clarity about the matter before he seeks to convey it to others.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt’l related that when he became a rebbe and would prepare shiur, in shmone esrei he no longer davened for knowledge only in the beracha for knowledge (atah chonen). He began to also daven for insight and wisdom in the beracha for livelihood (barech aleinu), being that it was now part of his job.
On another level, on numerous occasions I would have an epiphany wherein I would think of an insight to add to my sermon while I was walking to shul on Shabbos morning. When I would share that added perspective or insight in shul, I would relate that I was blessed with the insight in the merit of the tzibbur.
This is of course besides the many insights and thoughts that congregants themselves have shared, as well as intriguing questions they asked which forced me to ponder and understand many topics on a higher and deeper level than I had previously.
In that sense, the ending of my rabbanus in Kehillat New Hempstead means the loss of my “mashgichim”, and losing out on that special level of siyata dishmaya granted to a Rav.
The one thing that will always remain part of me is the feeling of closeness and the wonderful relationships that I, and my family, forged with the membership of mevakshei Hashem (seekers of G-d) who comprise the Shul’s membership. I will always be grateful to Kehillat New Hempstead for accepting me - a then inexperienced novice - to be their rebbe and for placing their confidence in me eleven years ago.
At present, I am unsure where my rabbinical career will lead me, as I explore options. But I do know that Kehillat New Hempstead, and the wonderful relationships we forged during the over a decade that we were part of the shul, will always remain part of us!

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