Thursday, December 14, 2017

PARSHAS MIKETZ 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Miketz
3rd day of Chanukah
Mevorchim Chodesh Teves  
27 Kislev 5778/December 15, 2017

This week, one of the non-Jewish teachers in Yeshiva related that he is surprised that there were regular general studies classes during Chanukah. He noted that generally during Jewish holidays, there is no school at all, and all Jewish businesses are closed. So why would Chanukah be different?
The truth is, that it’s not only a non-Jewish teacher who had this question. Many of my students in both schools that I am privileged to be a part of, have voiced, many rather vociferously, how bothered they are by the fact that we have classes on Chanukah. Some complain that it dampers the holiday spirit, while others use the religious complaint - how can we have general studies classes on Chanukah? When I ask those students what they would be doing if we didn’t have classes, most smile and admit that they would be ‘chilling’, but reassure me that it’s only because they need to do so to put themselves in the proper mindset, so they can fulfill the mitzvah of lighting properly.
I know of one Yeshiva which gave off from general studies classes during Chanukah. It was at the request of the students who fulfilled their pledge to utilize that time to learn Torah! That actually makes some sense!
I must admit that I do understand my students, because I had the same complaint when I was a student. I couldn’t stand having a regular day of school during Chanukah.
However, understanding why we go about our regular lives during Chanukah, is fundamental to understanding the essence of this most unique and elevating holiday.
The Bais Yosef asks why Chanukah is an eight-day holiday, and not seven days? If they had enough oil to light the menorah for one day, then the miracle was only for seven days?
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l proposed that we have an extra day on Chanukah to celebrate nature itself. After celebrating for seven days that an insufficient amount of oil could remain burning for seven days beyond its natural capacity, we celebrate the fact that oil burns ever. On Chanukah we remind ourselves that nature is a pseudonym for Hashem, that what we call natural is really supernatural, only we get used to it and fail to appreciate the miracles of nature.
Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman made the following observation: “Imagine if we woke up one morning and all the chickens were laying oranges, and eggs were growing on trees. Wouldn’t we all be in wonder and shock at the incredible phenomenon taking place?
So just because it’s the other way around, should we not be in absolute wonder and shock over the incredible miracle that eggs emerge from chickens, and oranges grow on trees?”
During Shabbos, and all of the major holidays of the year, we are transported into a different reality. We don’t do melacha, spend the day in the company of family and friends, and bask in the embrace of Hashem with special tefillos and mitzvos. It’s not a life that we could uphold in our current reality. It is in fact a portentous glimpse into the utopian world of the future. During those holy days we live an unnatural, superior existence.
On Chanukah however, life goes on as normal. We head off to work and to school and go about our regular mundane lives. It’s a regular day, but it’s not!
The days of Chanukah elevate our normal routines, and create a sense of holiness in our natural lives. We recite hallel in the morning, recite al hanisim in davening and bentching, and, of course, light the menorah. We focus on the things we should be grateful for, the miracles we take for granted every day, which include our natural abilities, our beating heart, our communities, and the freedom to be Torah observant. For eight days and nights we live our regular lives, but on a higher and more spiritually minded plane. And when it’s over, we are hopefully inspired enough to take those emotions and gratitudes with us to light and warm the cold and dark winter.
Chanukah is a weekday holiday in the sense that it elevates the weak-days, strengthening them and us.
Well, maybe not completely natural - my sister complained that at work this week, all day long her shaitel smelled like latkes. I’m not sure why she was complaining - sounds (or smells) good to me!

Lichtig & Freilichen Chanukah/Orot Sameiach
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, December 7, 2017

PARSHAS VAYESHEV 5778



“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayeshev  
20 Kislev 5778/December 8, 2017

On November 9, in Heichal HaTorah, a group of students made a small model graffitied wall, symbolic of the Berlin Wall, which divided West and East Germany for decades. Then, in commemoration of “Berlin Wall Day”, the anniversary of the day when the Berlin War was dismantled on that day in 1989, they broke down their makeshift wall.
The dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 came shortly after President Ronald Reagan’s famous quip to the Russian president: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The wall’s destruction was symbolic of the imminent downfall of what was dubbed the ‘evil empire’ and the Iron Curtain. Berliners used crowbars and chisels to tear down the wall built by the communist hammer and sickle. Families were reunified after decades of forced separation, and it was a great victory for democracy, with implications the world over.
Not all walls are detrimental however, and dismantling of walls is not always cause for celebration. Nebuchadnezzar also proclaimed, “Tear down this wall” before his legions destroyed the walls surrounding Yerushalayim and the first Bais Hamikdash in 422 B.C.E. That same call was made by the wicked Titus when his Roman forces arrived to destroy the second Bais Hamikdash in 70 C.E.
When I was in Eretz Yisroel with my son Shalom a couple of years ago, we had the opportunity to head up north for a day. We drove from Yerushalayim toward the Galil alongside the Jordanian border. Along the entire length of the shared border there is a fence, and alongside the fence is sand, so that footprints can be easily detected. The entire perimeter of the fence is under 24-hour surveillance, to protect against enemy infiltration. It’s incredible how much security and vigilance is necessary along the border of a (relatively) peaceful neighbor.
On a metaphysical level, the Jewish people erect spiritual boundaries between ourselves and the rest of the world. As we transition from the holiness of Shabbos to the weekdays each Motzei Shabbos, we bless Hashem “who separates between holy and unholy, between light and darkness, between Yisroel and the nations…” As the wicked Bila’am admiringly declared, “Behold! They are a nation that dwells in solitude!”
Those divisional boundaries do not convey a lack of respect for everyone else. It’s no different than the walls and doors of our homes which preserve and ensure privacy, but are in no way an affront to our neighbors.
One of the most important protective barriers we erect are those of morality. The Shulchan Aruch mandates that we maintain certain boundaries between genders, such as the laws of yichud and negiah, aside for the laws of family purity within the privacy of our own homes. Any thinking person realizes that those laws do not denigrate women, but in fact accomplish the reverse. They are there to prevent the objectification of women, and to ensure that women are respected for who they are, not merely for how they look.   
During the time of Syrian-Greek oppression, prior to the Maccabean revolt and the Chanukah miracles, Antiochus IV, created an all-out assault against Jewish morality and family purity. Doors were forcibly removed from homes, violating the very concept of family privacy and modesty, circumcision, the symbol of self-control, was banned, and brides were forced to be violated by the local governor prior to their wedding. It was an egregious breach of the very foundation of our national holiness.
In Maoz Tzur we state that the Greeks “breached the walls of my towers”, a reference to the breaches they inflicted in the walls of modesty we try so hard to erect around ourselves. The celebration of Chanukah therefore, is also a celebration and rededication to the laws which ensure morality and family purity.
In recent weeks, the American public has been stunned by the numerous accusations leveled by women against powerful and well-known moguls and famous personalities. The careers of the accused have been destroyed by the publicizing of the shameful and denigrating acts they committed against those women.
As we celebrate the beautiful Yom Tov of Chanukah, it’s an opportunity to emphasize to our children, and remind ourselves, that the laws of the Torah are there for our growth and greatness. Perhaps the Western World isn’t going to adhere to the laws of yichud and prohibition of negiah, but with all that’s going on, at least we should have an appreciation for the spiritual fences we invest so much in to maintain.  

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Lichtig & Freilichen Chanukah/Orot Sameiach,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, November 30, 2017

PARSHAS VAYISHLACH 5778

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayishlach  
13 Kislev 5778/December 1, 2017

During the last few weeks, I’ve received a plethora of would-be halachos that would apply if secular holidays and their symbols were actual mitzvos.
There was the discussion of the halachos of the Halloween pumpkin and the laws of hiddur, including if the pitum fell off, etc.
Then there were the various laws of the Thanksgiving turkey, including how the turkey must be prepared (cooked, fried, or roasted), how much one must eat to be yotzei, how much of the story of the pilgrims must be shared while eating, and what is the proper amount of gratitude that must be expressed.
It gets even more outlandish with the discussion of what the halachos would be about erecting a holiday tree in one’s home - when it must be cut, is a non-Jew allowed to help with the cutting, can one reuse an old tree, how high the tree must be, where it must be placed in the home, etc.
Although it may be witty, why would I even write about such nonsense? Because the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s probably true. If there would be any sort of mitzvos involving these artifacts, they would undoubtedly contain many parameters and laws, like every other facet of Judaism. But here’s the point that is often missed. Some people hear such an idea of imaginary laws, and roll their eyes thinking about how lucky their non-Jewish neighbors are that they don’t have to be bothered with such cumbersome laws. But therein lies the tragedy, and perhaps greatest spiritual danger of our times.
Why are there so many laws involved in all of our holy mitzvos?
I remember being a chosson, and planning the next time I would have the opportunity to spend the day with my Kallah. The arrangements I made weren’t just about where we would go, but also about finding little things along the way that I knew she would enjoy. The same held true about the things she did for me. It wasn’t just the gift or a packed meal, but all of the additives in the bag which I knew were made with a great deal of thought because she knew I would find them personally meaningful.
The fact is that true love and devotion is expressed in the details. Anyone can present someone else with a beautiful gift, but only someone who truly loves someone else will expend tremendous amounts of time on all of the seemingly petty details. Think about the things parents do for their children. Think about how much extra energy they expend on all of the details in their children’s life. Those details aren’t necessary for the child’s wellbeing, but the parents love their children and can hardly hold back from expressing it.
Each mitzvah that we have the opportunity to perform, is an added chance to foster and further develop our connection with Hashem. That is ultimately what Judaism is about, and that is perhaps the fundamental difference between Judaism and all other religions. It’s not just that G-d loves us, but that He desires and seeks for us to build a personal and unique relationship with Him.
Since it’s all about the relationship, there are many details involved in the proper performance of every mitzvah. Although many mitzvos can be performed on a basic level, where is the relationship building in that?
The uniqueness of laws endemic to every mitzvah, is a testament to the fact that we have a higher purpose in our fulfillment of mitzvos. It’s not merely about commemoration or symbolic rituals, it’s about deepening the connection and making it more genuine.
Those who develop an appreciation for Yomim Tovim and mitzvos cannot get enough of all the laws involved in their performance.
A woman who becomes overwhelmed before Yom Tov can view it as a Kallah who feels overwhelmed the night before her chosson comes to her home. Sure, she is stressed, but it’s because she wants so much to demonstrate to him her devotion and appreciation for him. She wants everything to be perfect for their time together. Shabbos, Chanukah, Pesach, etc. are all about the relationship.
We are fortunate to have been chosen for that special connection. The proof is in the details.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

PARSHAS VAYETZEI 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayetzei  
6 Kislev 5778/November 24, 2017

For a period during my youth my parents arranged for my sister Ahuva, and myself to take ice-skating lessons. What I remember the most is the instructor telling us to always lean forward while skating, so if (when) we fall, we fall forward, instead of on our backs. I do remember falling a lot. I didn’t quite make the US Olympics team for skating, but it was fun.
I was thinking about that class a few years ago, when we signed up our son Shalom to play in an ice-hockey league. The program was for a series of Sundays, from early autumn until the middle of the winter. The first session was on a warm eighty-degree Sunday in late September.
There is no sport that requires as much gear as ice-hockey, and we arrived sufficiently early in order to help Shalom put on all of his necessary gear. We helped him put on his chest protector, elbow and knee protectors, helmet, jersey and, of course his skates. Then he skated onto the ice with his hockey stick.
I stood behind the glass watching proudly, amazed that we had actually figured out (with some help from other parents and players) how to put on all of his gear. Another father was also watching, and we made some small talk. As he looked out on the ice, he turned to me and snickered, “Look at that kid in the shorts. I guess his parents didn’t realize that it’s cold on the ice!” I replied that some people just don’t think about these things. How silly that the poor boy’s parents didn’t think that even though it was hot outside, the ice still has to be below freezing! Then I politely excused myself and ran to call Chani, and told her that our son’s parents had neglected to bring him adequate clothing for the ice.
Chani proceeded to drive over to my parent’s house, which was closer than our house, and rummaged through closets until she found a pair of sweat pants and a sweater. When she brought the clothes to me, I nonchalantly called Shalom off the ice. When he skated off and I handed him the clothing, he was most grateful. He said that he had felt really cold on the ice, and was wondering why he was the only kid skating in shorts.
This week, we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Kislev, which means that Chanukah is on the horizon. The local Kosher supermarkets and seforim stores already have Chanukah items on display. Many have already begun to make plans for the upcoming holiday, including family parties and communal get togethers. As the coming weeks rush by, demand and prices for oil will sharply rise, and doughnuts will be on display everywhere.
In our society of blessed bounty, we do not lack any of the beautiful ancient physical customs that comprise the holiday of Chanukah. But for one who really seeks to elevate his neshama, to glean the true meaning and essence of Chanukah, the weeks before are an opportunity to mentally and spiritually prepare ourselves to understand and appreciate the eternal message of Chanukah.   
The sad reality is that many show up on the first night of Chanukah with beautiful menorahs prepared, the smell of latkes and donuts in the air, and presents wrapped off to the side, but content with the same callow understanding of the holiday that they have maintained since their youth. It’s analogous to one showing up on the ice without the gear he needs to play the game. [The better analogy would be to a player coming onto ice with a jersey and helmet but no stick or skates. Thankfully our situation wasn’t that bad.]
There is a plethora of beautiful seforim and lectures (many free on-line) in Hebrew, English, and many other languages, that help foster a far deeper appreciation of Chanukah and the emotionally penetrating lessons and message of the candles. After a few weeks of proper spiritual preparation, the hallel recited throughout the eight days will be a far more elevating experience.
Before we have the opportunity to wish each other Happy Chanukah, we should wish each other a meaningful and elevating Pre-Chanukah.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Happy Pre-Chanukah,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum