Thursday, May 21, 2020

Parshas Bamidbar 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Bamidbar
Mevorchim Chodesh Sivan
28 Iyar YOM YERUSHALAYIM 5780/May 22, 2020
Avos Perek 6 – 43rd day of the Omer
            Those who live in Eretz Yisroel, (and sefardim even outside Eretz Yisroel), have the good fortune of being blessed by the kohanim every day. But for ashkenazim outside of Eretz Yisroel it is a merit we only have on the mornings of the Yomim Tovim.
            The custom is that we don’t look at the hands of the kohanim while they are reciting birchas kohanim. Rambam explains that it is because we don’t want to be distracted from the beracha being recited. Therefore, the custom is for married men to pull their tallis over the heads and the front of their bodies. Younger children in shul are often brought under their father’s tallis as well.
            Until my bar mitzvah, I would join my father beneath his tallis during birchas kohanim. Until his bar mitzvah, my older brother would be underneath there as well. I remember as a child during birchas kohanim feeling very impatient and finding the ordeal tedious. Aside for the fact that it got hot and stuffy underneath the tallis, I had to smell the breath of my father who towered above me. I should add that father is very mindful of his hygiene, and always uses mouthwash before davening on Shabbos and Yom Tov. But after two hours plus of the Yom Tov davening, that mouthwash was a forgotten memory.
            In my early youth, my father was the Chazzan for mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Polisher Shteeble on the Lower East Side. So for Birchas Kohanim, my older brother and I would go under my grandfather’s tallis. I would give anything to have that experience again and to spend anytime with my beloved Sabbah a’h. But at the time I definitely didn’t feel that way when the three of us were trapped under the stuffy tallis. Still, I never complained or said anything about it. It was just my personal thought and feeling.
            I will never forget the first time I brought my son under my tallis for Birchas Kohanim. I don’t remember which Yom Tov it was, but our oldest son, Shalom, must have then been around six or seven years old. The proud father finally had a son old enough! When Birchas Kohanim was about to begin I pulled my tallis over my head and covered Shalom’s head as well. He looked at me strangely, and then tried to escape. I motioned to him firmly that he had to stay underneath. After about thirty seconds, Shalom had had enough. He began waving his hand in front of his face, while grimacing and motioning that it stunk under there.
            Needless to say, it wasn’t the father-son bonding experience I envisioned. We both barely made it through. I hope it was a good beracha...
            I was thinking about that experience recently, being that we have currently been mandated to wear masks in public places, due to the Coronavirus. It’s the first time that I have had to smell my own breath for an extended period of time. It has not been fun.
            A good friend related that his daughter was on a shidduch date recently. Despite being some distance apart, his daughter and her date had to wear masks during their date in someone else’s backyard. At one point, the young man jumped out of his seat and ripped off the mask. My friend’s daughter wasn’t sure what happened until the young man explained that an insect had crawled underneath the mask.
            (I told my friend they should get married just because it’s a great story for Sheva Berachos.)
            I try to glean life lessons from everything in my life and the world around me. It’s quite a poignant sight to see people walking around with masks. When I go shopping and see people I know, I tell them that I’m wearing a mask to make sure I remember not to speak loshon hora. I then sardonically add that it’s not helping.
            We all know about the power of words. From our youth we are taught about the incredible power of our tefillos, Torah, and the chesed we can do with our words. Conversely, we are taught about the deleterious effect of loshon hora and negative speech.
Every morning we state ובנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון - Hashem chose us from every nation and tongue. Similarly, on Yom Tov we state ורוממתנו מכל הלשונות - He raised us above all of the other tongues.
Hashem chose us because our “tongues” are more elevated than the rest of the world. We try to be careful with our words and to speak properly. The world says that “talk is cheap”. The truth is that talk is easy, but it’s anything but cheap.
            More than any other nation, we recognize the power of words, and that is part of the reason why Hashem chose us to be His people.
            At the beginning of davening each morning we state, “the superiority of mankind over animals is nothing, because it’s all הבל.”
            The word הבל is often translated to mean futile. But it also means “fleeting”. Vapor is also called הבל because as soon as it leaves one’s mouth it dissipates into the atmosphere. Something which is fleeting need not be futile. It all depends how it is used. If one offers another encouraging words, those words are fleeting, but they are anything but futile. In fact, they can very likely help improve the other person’s quality of life, if at least temporarily.
            While there may always be times when our breath smells physically, it’s up to us to determine whether our breath is futile or productive. And while we may not always receive a beracha from the kohanim, we can ensure that our words are always a source of blessing and chizuk for others.
            We hope that soon Hashem will allow us to remove the masks and once again breath freely even in public. When that happens, we will do our utmost to ensure that we are not polluting the air with dangerous vapors that spread emotional germs and spiritual bacteria. Instead, we will spread spirituality, positivity and camaraderie.

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

Friday, May 15, 2020

Parshas Behar-Bechukosai – Chazak! 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Behar-Bechukosai – Chazak!
21 Iyar 5780/May 15, 2020
Avos Perek 5 – 36th day of the Omer
            So, since the pandemic began, every morning I head down to my basement office (the one my wife calls my man-cave) to deliver shiur to my students on Zoom. When we first began doing so a couple of months ago, it was suggested that we use our phones for audio. This way, if the internet connection in our homes is weak, we can continue saying shiur even if our video is frozen. That was sage advice, especially because I found myself often getting kicked off the internet completely in the middle of shiur.
            When Chani called a technician to ask about what we could do to improve our internet service, he explained that our current service was inadequate. With the added demand in our home, which had become the base for 9 different classrooms in 7 different schools, our internet wasn’t strong enough. That coupled with the fact that our modem was in the living room, and my office is a floor beneath it, made the connection even more iffy. The technician compared it to a traffic jam. Everyone is trying to go the same way, but there is limited availability. Every device in our home was trying to grab the same limited connectivity.
            The technician said that we needed a new system, which he would send out right away. I assumed that he was sending us a new modem.
            Those words sounded vaguely familiar: a new modem. Where did I hear that before?
            After some thought, I remembered; it was from a lecture I heard recently. The speaker was saying that the most important component of prayer is gratitude. We think the most important part of prayer is “please” - when we state our requests to Hashem. But really the most important and effective prayer is when we express our gratitude to Hashem.
Instead of telling Hashem how He needs to get things right, we would be better off noticing how much He does for us.
            He added that we don’t spend enough time concentrating on the beracha of “Modim”, in which we express our gratitude to Hashem.
            If one wants to make his recitation of Modim more personal and meaningful, he should stop before reciting that beracha and think about one or two unique things that he is particularly thankful to Hashem for at that moment. Just as no one likes eating soggy cereal from the day before, we shouldn’t be satisfied with a “soggy Modim”. Each day we should aim to recite a “new Modim”, that fills us with a renewed sense of gratitude to Hashem.
            That was it! That was what I was reminded of when I heard those words. The need to be continually grateful and to count our blessings continually - a new Modim!
The only problem is that when I told Chani about my clever comparison between a new modem and a new Modim, she replied that we didn’t get a new modem; we got a new router! (Don’t ask me to explain the difference between them...)
            But “new router” doesn’t have any clever altering connotation. So now I have nothing to write about this week. Oh well; maybe next week.

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Parshas Emor 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Acharei Emor
14 Iyar 5780/May 8, 2020
Pesach Sheni
Avos Perek 4 – 29th day of the Omer


            Like many educational institutions, since the Pandemic began, our Yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah, has been having shiurim and classes on Zoom. While it unquestionably has its challenges and deficiencies, there are two things I love about teaching on Zoom: the mute and the commute. The commute from the kitchen to my downstairs office is economically friendly and saves a lot on gas. In addition, in the classroom, I periodically have to contend with a student who interrupts the shiur, or a brief conversation may ensue between a couple of students despite my protestations.   These days such challenges no longer exist. As the host of my class conferences, with one click of a button I can mute all, and peacefully continue giving my shiur. Sometimes after muting everyone I can see a student who is still talking animatedly. But now it no longer disturbs the class, and I can gleefully proceed.
            Yet the undeniable truth is that there is a great deal missing. While I see my students every day, am able to interact with them on some level, and continue to learn together despite the erratic situation that has gripped the world, it is just not the same.
            Like most homes, our home has been transformed into a makeshift school with classrooms all over the house, and at different times.
            Remember how we complained about Purim day when each of our children’s teachers gives a different time to come visit and each teacher lives in a different part of town? Well, now we have a taste of that every day within our own home!
            Most of my children’s classes are held on conference calls that they call in and listen to. That’s an even greater challenge than being on Zoom because teachers and students cannot see each other. It’s a stress to remember all the times and call in numbers for each child. Although it’s unquestionably draining on all parties, it’s also a testament to the devotion of our yeshivos, rabbeim and teachers in making the best out of a highly challenging situation.
            In fact, our overall general response to the pandemic has demonstrated collective resilience and adaptability.
            No one was excited about the restrictions imposed upon us, of the massive loss of income so many have suffered, or about the terrible anxiety of the unknown future, and surely no one is happy about the many victims of the virus. But we had no choice but to accept the reality. It doesn’t matter how big one’s bank account is or what connections he has, like it or not we were, and are, in this together. It’s been noted that for many millennials this is the first time they have been in a challenging situation that their parents could not protect them from or bail them out of.
            However, it is clear to everyone, that despite our incredible resilience and dedication to education, there is no substitution for real human interaction. Five hours of zoom meetings don’t equal one hug. Just ask any grandparent who hasn’t embraced their grandchildren in over two months.
            There is no replacement for a gentle hand on the shoulder or pat on the back. If that’s true with adults, how much more so with children and adolescents who desperately need constant warmth, positivity and encouragement.
            Hashem created us as social beings to be there for each other, and that is our most natural interconnection.
            We have been blessed with incredible technology that allows us to vividly stay in touch with people even on the other side of the world. But make no mistake about it - the brilliance of technology is no match for human touch, a handshake, or a face to face smile. The fact that so many people had to sit shiva for a loved one physically alone, just compounded the grief and anguish.
            Sometimes our ability to connect with the other side of the world causes us to forget how to connect with the people closest to us.
            So, despite my gratitude for the the ability to see and interact with my students each day via Zoom, I would actually rather have a commute and an unmuted class that I can personally interact with, despite the inconveniences.
            I hope I’ll have that opportunity soon.

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