Thursday, July 2, 2020

Parshas Chukas-Balak 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chukas-Balak (EY – Balak)
11 Tamuz 5780/July 3, 2020
Avos perek 5

            This past Friday morning, Chani and I were walking on the side of Route 45, a busy thoroughfare in our neighborhood, when we noticed some stunning flowers growing on the side of the road. Being that it was no-man’s land, we picked a few for our Shabbos table.
            We were quite surprised when we sat down at our Shabbos table on Friday night to find that our flowers were completely sealed. But then, on Shabbos morning, the flowers opened up again to their full splendor.
            I asked our neighbor, Yishai Malool, who runs Main Street Florist along with his father, about the flowers we had picked. He quickly identified them as Wild Tiger Lilies and noted that they are of a genre of flowers that indeed close at night and reopen in the morning. (Just add it to the list of miracles of nature that we don’t appreciate...)
            Before World War II, there was a famous saying that, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’. At that time, the British Empire included numerous territories all over the world. Therefore, there were always parts of the empire where the sun was still/already shining, even when Britain itself was cloaked in darkness.
            Every morning, upon awakening, the first words we utter is an expression of gratitude for the opportunity of a new day.
            The prayer that begins “Modeh ani lifanecha- I am thankful before You”, concludes, “רבה אמונתך - great is Your faith”.
            At first glance, those words seem surprising. “Great is Your faith” - Aren’t we speaking about Hashem? Don’t we have to have faith in Him? Who does Hashem have faith in?
            The answer is that Hashem has faith in us! Each day He grants us a new day with many opportunities and many challenges, because He has faith that we can live our day as Torah Jews.
We have faith in Hashem and are able to deal with the challenges of each day, because we know He has faith in us. Even when dealing with overwhelming challenges, such as a worldwide pandemic, we get through it knowing that Hashem believes in us and is guiding us.
            There are times in our lives when things feel unclear and unpleasant. At such times, one needs to remember that the flowers always blossom again in the morning. The morning always comes after night. The challenge is that we don’t always know how long it will be before morning arrives and the sun shines again, but we know that it will eventually happen.
            Each night, at the beginning of maariv, we bless Hashem Who brings evenings, causes changes in time and season, and creates and separates day and night. Just before we conclude that blessing, we recite a sentence that seems completely out of context: “The Almighty, living and enduring, will always reign over us forever and ever.” What does that statement have to do with the fact that Hashem separates between day and night and brings nightfall each evening?
            It is a declaration of faith that, even though times and season change, there is one thing that is constant and unchanging - the eternal enduring Almighty’s reign - that never alters or falters. In fact, that is the only constant we can bank on. So, as we mention the onset of darkness and night, we reassure ourselves that G-d doesn’t change.
            A few weeks ago, at the height of the social isolation brought about by the Corona pandemic, our printer broke. Like everyone else who has schoolchildren, our home had become our children’s homeschool, so the printer was a vital commodity at that point.
            Chani called HP customer service. The woman from customer service began asking her some questions and making suggestions. Suddenly, Chani heard what sounded like a rooster’s cock-a-doodle-doo in the background. At first, she thought she imagined it, but when it happened a second and then a third time, Chani asked the women about it. The woman apologized and admitted that she was next to a farm where there were roosters in the Philippines.
            It was a rather humorous conversation. The customer service representative tried to maintain professionalism, but Chani couldn’t restrain her laughter every time the rooster crowed in the background.
            It was even more fascinating because it was early evening in New York. In the Philippines, it was twelve hours later.
            I once saw a bumper sticker that said that you can rest assured that the world isn’t coming to an end today, because it’s already tomorrow in Australia.
            The truth is that the only guarantee we have that the world isn’t coming to end is because there is a Power greater than nature and the cosmos, that is in full control over everything. Even in times of challenge and difficulty, we live with faith and confidence that tomorrow is a new day. The flowers will again bloom and we will have new vistas and opportunities, fortified by the knowledge that Hashem fully believes in us.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Parshas Korach 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Korach (EY – Chukas)
4 Tamuz 5780/June 26, 2020
Avos perek 4


The following is the letter I wrote to Heichal HaTorah’s graduating Class of 2020 for their yearbook:

Sivan 5780/June 2020

Dare Graduates!

No, that’s not a typo. That’s my message to you, dear graduates.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm noted that it is commonly believed that the difference between a hero and a coward is that the coward is beset by fear, while the hero is not afraid. But this is incorrect.
In truth, both the hero and the coward may be intimidated and frightened by the prospects of the unknown they are facing. The difference is however, that the coward flees from the source of his fear, while the hero is propelled forward despite his fear. The coward seeks the path of least resistance, while the hero relentlessly readies himself for a long arduous journey.  
All of us in Yeshiva - the hanhala, rabbeim and teachers - have invested tremendously into helping you externalize the individual greatness you each possess. As you continue to traverse the roads of life, you will inevitably encounter resistance and struggles. Your most important asset is your inner greatness. But you have to believe in yourself and have the courage to stay the course.
In Parshas Shelach, Rashi notes that when Moshe dispatched the spies, they were worthy of the mission. The Medrash states that Hashem Himself had vouched for the worthiness of each of the spies.  If so, what caused them to sin so egregiously?
Rav Yecheskel Abramsky zt’l, Chazon Yecheskel, explains that there are individuals who achieve a level of greatness and maintain those levels as long as they remain in pure surroundings, surrounded by people of stature. However, as soon as they leave those surroundings they fall prey to negative influences. A person leaving a holy environment must be wary and conscientious of the danger surrounding him and he must be michazek himself to maintain his level.
When the Meraglim departed, they were indeed holy men of stature. But once they had left the spiritually protected environment of Moshe and Aharon, they stumbled spiritually and disaster ensued.
Rav Mendel Kaplan zt’l once quipped that people think a yeshiva is like a gas station, where you fill up so you can proceed. But in truth a yeshiva is a gymnasium. During your time there you have to work out your spiritual muscles!
A Rebbe of mine was a talmid of the Philadelphia yeshiva for over a decade.  When he was leaving to move to an out of town community he went to say farewell to his Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Elya Svei zt’l. Rav Elya shook his hand warmly and said, “Now we will see what we really taught you!” At first my rebbe was insulted - only now would they see what they taught him? But with time he understood that the greatest challenge is whether one can live by all the values he learned, even outside the spiritual confines of yeshiva. 
Dovid Hamelech expressed this idea in Tehillim: “Go my sons, listen to me, the fear of Hashem I will teach.” His goal was to teach his sons how to be G-d-fearing when they are going, i.e. leaving him and stepping into the challenges of society.
My friends, now is the time when we will see how much you have learned and grown at Heichal.
 Never fear the road ahead because Hashem is with you and rooting for your success. And we will do our utmost to remain there for you as well. Please maintain that connection.
Be daring, courageous, and never lose sight and perspective of your ultimate goals and aspirations.
Dare Graduates, dare!

עם הנצח לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה.

With friendship and affection,
Rabbi Dani Staum

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Shelach 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Shelach (EY – Korach)
27 Sivan 5780/June 19, 2020
Mevorchim Chodesh Tamuz - Avos perek 3
            One of the positives about this very difficult period of anxiety and isolation, was that I was able to take care of some of those things that “I’ll get to one day”.
            One of those things was purchasing a new Shabbos tallis, and fixing the zipper on my tefillin bag. Both my tefillin bag and my Shabbos tallis have a great deal of sentimental value to me.
            My tefillin bag was designed and sewn by my mother, a gift for my bar mitzvah. The picture she drew for my tefillin bag was printed on my bar mitzvah invitations and on the benchers that were disseminated then. A few years ago, the zipper on that tefillin bag ripped. Every morning, as I put away my tefillin I thought about fixing it. But then the day would begin, and I would forget about it.
            A few weeks ago, I finally brought the tefillin bag to the cleaners. Three days later, I had a strong zipper and a functional tefillin bag. It gave me a renewed appreciation for a very personal and meaningful gift my mother gave me years ago.
            My Shabbos tallis too desperately needed to be replaced. It was the original tallis I received from my in-laws and then-Kallah over eighteen years ago. I remember well the excitement I had when we went to purchase it and I donned it that first time. I was especially proud of the beautiful silver atarah (crown) atop the tallis.
            Hundreds of times since then, I have pulled the tallis with the atarah over my head during davening, on Shabbos, Yom Tov, and while serving as the Chazzan on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The space inside that tallis is very meaningful, not only because of the sentimentality of the tallis, but also because of how much tefillah I uttered there. But, like all physical commodities, the time came when it had to be replaced. It had gone from being holy to being quite hole-y, and the atarah was falling off in a few places.
            I purchased a new tallis and gave in my old one so the atarah could be polished and transferred into the new one. A week later, my new tallis arrived. I hardly recognized the atarah - it was polished and fixed up and looked beautiful atop the new tallis.
            This coming Monday, 30 Sivan, our family will mark the first yahrtzeit of my Bubby, my mother’s mother, Rebbitzin Fruma Kohn a’h. The pasuk (Mishlei 17:6) states, “the crown of elders is their grandchildren”. Rashi explains that the crown of grandparents is seeing their grandchildren following the straight path. It gives them a sense of fulfillment and purpose to know that they have fulfilled their life mission and ambition to raise the next generation of Torah observance.
            My other three grandparents passed away before I was fifteen. But I was blessed to have my Bubby in my life for almost four decades of my life. It was such a gift that my children were able to glimpse a relic of the previous generation. They were able to meet a survivor of Siberia, a member of the generation who gave everything for the preservation and perpetuation of Torah living, amidst vast personal loss and struggle.
            When one visits a grave, the custom is that before one takes leave, he places a stone atop the grave. The symbolism is that although the one buried can no longer personally garner merits, but we can give them merits through actions we perform in their memory. We place a stone atop their grave, as if to say that we can still add to their legacy.
            Bubby has passed on. We, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, have the perpetual task to polish her crown and make sure it sparkles and shines. In fact, we are her crown!
            May her neshama have an aliyah.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
R’ Dani and Chani Staum