Thursday, September 13, 2018

Parshas Vayelech – Shabbas Shuva 5779

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayelech – Shabbas Shuva
5 Tishrei 5779/September 14, 2018

With tremendous gratitude to Hashem, we just celebrated the second birthday of our twin sons, Gavriel and Michael. They started the ‘wonderful twos’ early and definitely have been keeping us on our toes, to say the least.
One morning in camp a few weeks ago, the dynamic duo decided to attack the Keurig coffee K-Cups. After moving over the kitchen chairs to the counters, they climbed up and proceeded to empty all the K-Cups from their container. They felt the toaster oven was a far better place for them to be kept.
When Chani went to put her breakfast in the toaster, she had to empty out all the K-Cups. But one of the K-Cups was tucked away and lodged into the bottom of the toaster, so she didn’t see it. When she turned on the toaster the bungalow was instantly filled with a misty smell of burnt coffee and plastic. She quickly shut the toaster and, when it cooled, removed the melted, burnt K-Cup. But the odious smell lingered for a couple of days, a reminder that we are outnumbered by double trouble.
Whenever we commit a sin, the problem is not merely the negative action that we have committed. There is also a spirit of impurity that envelops us and causes a spiritual barrier between us and Hashem.
In the physical world, we are often warned that smoke kills before fire. In the spiritual world too, the spiritual smoke generated by our sins is more noxious and damaging than even the sins themselves. Therefore, when we seek to do teshuva, it is not enough for us to merely purge the action of sin from our account. We also must seek to reverse the incorrect mindsets and attitudes which we have developed before and after we sinned. Inevitably, when one commits a sin he becomes more cavalier to the severity of his actions and less sensitive to the spiritual damage he has caused.
When the prophets speak about teshuva, and when the Rambam codifies the laws of teshuva, they speak about the sinner returning from his errant ways. It is not enough to cease the negative actions he has done. He must also reverse course and ensure that he realigns himself with his true aspirations and goals.
When a couple is struggling in their marriage, it’s rarely one point or disagreement that is the overriding issue. Invariably, the problem is the general lack of communication, or a feeling in the air of rancor and resentment. It’s not enough to deal with the petty issues they are presenting. The real issue is the lack of relationship and the negativity that hangs in the very air between them.
Numerous times during the Yom Kippur prayers we state the verse: “For on this day He will atone for you, to purify you. From all of your sins, before Hashem you will be purified.” The pasuk clearly alludes to two components of teshuva - atonement - the actual purging of the sin, and purification, wherein one is purified from the spiritually deleterious effect of his sins. Meriting divine purification is far more challenging than achieving atonement. After all, it is far easier to dispose of the burnt and melted K-Cup, than it is to get rid of the smoke that it generated.
We spend a great deal of time during Yom Kippur confessing specific iniquities. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Yom Kippur is not just about specific sins. It is also an opportunity to refocus ourselves, and to clear the (spiritual) air.
May we all have the wisdom to take full advantage of this arduous yet majestic day.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
G’mar Chasima Tova,
            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, September 6, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Netzovim - Avos perakim 5-6
27 Elul 5778/September 7, 2018

A few years ago, Chani took our younger children to one of the local Jewish owned shoe stores to buy shoes. The store had a section with slides and climbing toys for children.
Our (then) 5-year-old daughter Chayala was playing on the slides happily until a chassidishe boy approached her and starting chastising her in Yiddish about why she wasn’t allowed to play there. Bh Chayala doesn’t have an issue asserting herself. She looked the chassidish boy in the eye and emphatically proclaimed “I don’t speak Spanish!” At that point the boy became more animated and repeated his demands. Undeterred, Chayala looked him in the eye and repeated, “I said, I don’t speak Spanish!”
Whenever Chani tells over the story she laughs and adds that Chayala’s namesake, her beloved ‘Babby Chaya’, is undoubtedly turning over in her grave that her great-granddaughter mistook Yiddish for Spanish.
There are many people who feel similarly about selichos and the many special tefilos recited during this time of year. It’s not easy reciting added prayers, many of which contain unfamiliar words.
Rabbi Leibel Chaitovsky, eighth grade master rebbe in Ashar, tells his students that when they feel challenged by selichos they can utilize the advice he gives students before they have to speak. Whether it’s a bar mitzvah or at a graduation, speaking publicly can be daunting and nerve-racking. What’s worse, when one stands up and faces the crowd his mind often goes blank and he can’t remember anything.
But he knows that the speech written in front of him is a good one, worthy of the crowd’s attention. Therefore, even if his mind is blank, he can be confident that if he repeats the speech with the same feeling as when he practiced it, the assemblage listening to his words will be impressed.
The “men of the great assembly” comprised of 120 of our greatest sages, composed many of our tefillos. In addition, great paytanim (liturgists) authored magnificent poetic prayers to be said as part of our supplications during selichos. Even if we aren’t sure exactly what we are saying, we can be confident that if we recite the prayers with earnest humility and a desire to connect with Hashem, the words will accomplish great things in heaven. Undoubtedly, knowing the meaning of the words is far greater. But the most important component of prayer is the feelings in one’s heart, the desire to connect with the divine.
In my youth I found selichos to be a very frustrating ordeal. I always tried to recite every word of the selichos with the congregation but was never able to finish the entire paragraph before the congregation moved on.
The halacha however clearly states that the quantity of prayers is not so important. What truly matters is the extent of how much one is able to direct his heart to his Father in Heaven. In the words of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 1:4), “Better few supplications with concentration than many without concentration.”
Whether selichos seems Greek to us or Spanish, more important than the words we say is the sincere desire to achieve forgiveness. What matters is the aspiration to continue to ascend the rungs of spiritual growth and live a life of spiritual connection.
That is the type of life we beseech G-d to grant us during these days: “Remember us for life, King who desires life, and inscribe us in the book of life, for Your sake, living G-d.”

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Kesiva Vachasima Tova & Shana Tova,
            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, August 30, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Ki Savo - Avos perakim 3-4
20 Elul 5778/August 31, 2018

It’s the million-dollar question - why do we feel like we never change? The truth is that the question itself is a fallacy. Who doesn’t change over time? The experiences of life invariably effect and change us. We aren’t the same people we were a year ago, and definitely not who we were five and ten years ago. But there is justifiable frustration in our inability to effect the changes we want, or to the extent that we want. We often exasperatedly feel frustrated that we are still struggling with components of ourselves that we hoped we would have mastered long ago.
Many adults can relate to the struggles of dieting. It has become in vogue for people to go on crash diets. There are no shortages to the different types of crash diets out there. Atkins, South Beach, Slimfast, Fit for Life, Cracker, Pickle, balls behind the ears, etc. I myself have tried some of them.
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that the problem with crash courses is that they usually crash. The same can be said about crash diets. The greatest challenge is that it’s not nearly as hard to lose the weight as it is to maintain the weight loss.
The only way to lose weight and to keep it off (says the guy who hasn’t successfully done so yet...) is to have a mental/paradigm shift. One must begin with the end-goal in mind and he be prepared for, and undaunted, by slip-ups.
One of the simplest yet most profound pieces of advice I ever heard is “you don’t drown by falling into the water; you drown by staying there.” I repeat it to my students all the time. It’s not the fall that hurts us, as much as our becoming dejected by our failing.
A couple of years ago I was dieting and had a great “mentor” with whom I would check in with constantly. I started after succos (like many people do) and did quite well for a few months. Then came Chanukah when the evil Greeks forced me to eat some latkes and a donut.
As was protocol, I had to admit it to my mentor. I loved his response so much that I printed it and kept it:
“Okay, that was the past. Just have in mind that it could take 2-4 days to get back into fat burn mode, so you might experience the starting over symptoms - headache, hunger, etc.
“Obviously it’s your choice. But is that worth a few minutes of ‘happiness’ and indulgence?
“The idea of the program is to train ourselves to sever the emotional connection we have with food. it should not be something we use as a reward, or rely on. We sustain our weight loss by remembering that this is a lifestyle of healthy eating.
“Everyone takes a different amount of time to come to that realization. Whenever I am personally faced with a food craving, I think to myself “look how far I’ve come. Do I want to ruin all the hard work and sacrifice now?”
“Your choice to make. I’m just here to help you make the best ones.”
I reread the email three times. He had essentially related to me the Yom Kippur speech I tell my congregants and students (and hopefully myself). The only difference was that he was writing about food, instead of personality defects or foolish habits:
·         The past is the past!
·         You will experience some starting over symptoms, but they will pass!
·         Look how far you’ve come!
·         The choice is yours; I’m only here to help!

The first step to any sustainable change is to visualize the end goal. Stephen Covey calls it “Beginning with the end in mind”. That goal has to carry the person throughout his journey, especially during times when he feels frustrated.
We would be wise to also remember that beginning the journey is itself perhaps the most challenging part of reaching the destination.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
Let’s get moving!

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

Thursday, August 23, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Ki Setzei - Avos perakim 1-2
13 Elul 5778/August 24, 2018

Sometimes it’s the simplest events that leave the greatest impressions. Several summers ago, a camper crossed the line and needed to be disciplined. I was the camper’s division head, but I felt the situation warranted the intervention of someone higher than me in the hierarchy of camp’s administration. I brought the camper to an administrator and recounted the situation.
After the administrator dealt with the situation and the camper walked away, I told the administrator that I was somewhat surprised by his reaction, and the way he handled the situation. I thought he had been too soft.
The administrator looked at me and said, “Dani, I do the best I can with the brain the Aibishter gave me!”
I was very taken by those simple words. They left no room for debate or discussion. He essentially admitted that it may or may not have been the optimal response, but he had done the best he could.
Had he started rationalizing and proving to me why that was the correct response, I may likely have argued the point. But when he put it in such humble terms, how could I argue? In fact, how could anyone argue with someone honestly saying that he had done his best.
I have thought and repeated those words on many occasions and it has given me chizuk.
More than once a mother has consulted with me that she was struggling with feelings of inadequacy as a parent. She felt guilty about everything she did, and was always second guessing herself, and feeling miserable about it. I recounted this story and told her that Hashem demands nothing more of us than that we do our best. Undoubtedly, we must always try to improve and grow. However, if we are generally doing so than we can do no more than trying our best in the situation we find ourselves in.
I feel that this is an important perspective to bear in mind during these weeks of Elul and Tishrei. Often, we feel dejected with ourselves during these weeks. We look at another year that has passed and wonder if we will still be exactly where we are next year as well.
We must always remember that our goal is growth, not perfection! As long as we can honestly state that we are doing the best we can with what the Aibishter has given us, we can feel confident that we are doing our part. There is no doubt that we can, and must, always strive higher. However, we have to appreciate our accomplishments and efforts, as the Aibishter does.
We have a habit of unwittingly downplaying our accomplishments and growth. It is in fact a favorite tactic of our evil inclination, which wants to bring us to despair so that we give up before we even start.
On the one hand, we must never stop aspiring for growth. On the other hand, we must always be realistic about our current spiritual and emotional level and be realistic about what we can expect of ourselves. In that way we will value and appreciate our past accomplishments and will spur us on to continue to climb the rungs the ladder of avodas Hashem.

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