Thursday, September 24, 2020

Parshas Ha’azinu 5781

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Shuva – Parshas Ha’azinu 5781

7 Tshrei 5781/September 24, 2020

 

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EXPANDING SOUL

            I remove my kittel from the closet every six months. Before Pesach I take it out to wear at the Sedarim and to daven Tal on the first day of Pesach. Then, at the end of Elul, I take it out to wear on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hoshanah Rabbah and when davening Geshem on Shemini Atzeres Mussaf.

            The last few years when I’ve removed it from the closet, I’ve noticed that, strangely enough, my kittel seems to shrink a little bit more each year.

            When I first purchased the kittel, shortly before my marriage, it was loose and flowing. But these days there’s not much breathing room, and the buttons look like they are hanging on for dear life. I think the air in my closet must have some noxious fumes in it that’s causing the kittel to shrink. They sure don’t make em like they used to.

            The Jewish year is often thought of as a circle. Along our travels around the circle we arrive at certain annual highlights, which are yomim tovim or fast days.

            The truth is that the year would more accurately be portrayed as a spiral. While it’s true that we return to the same points each year, our goal is to observe and celebrate each special day on a higher level and with deeper appreciation and understanding than the year prior. It’s not just “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur again”, but a newer and deeper period of teshuva than what I experienced last year.

            Our goal is to never stagnate in our spiritual growth.

            Rav Tzadok Hakohain writes that this idea also applies to our Avodas Hashem. As a person constantly grows spiritually, he looks back at his previous improvements and feels that they were inadequate.

            Rav Saadia Gaon, leader of Babylonian Jewry in the tenth century, was once seen crying, and saying that he needed to do teshuvah immediately. All those near him wondered what the great tzaddik could possibly have done wrong?

            Rav Saadia Gaon explained by relating that he had once visited a Jewish community distant from his home. Seeking to conceal his identity, he sat in the back of the shul and made sure not to call attention to himself. He spent a few days at the home of a very hospitable man who treated him with the same cordiality that he would any other guest. But after a few days, it was revealed who the esteemed guest was. When the inn owner realized that he had Rav Saadiah Gaon staying in his inn for the past week he was shocked. He approached the Rav crying and begging for forgiveness. Rav Saadiah assured him that he had treated him very well. The man replied that if he would have known who Rav Saadiah was he surely would have treated him with far greater honor and reverence.

            Rav Saadia explained that that experience made him realize that he too must do teshuva for his previous teshuva. Now he has a greater understanding of the greatness of Hashem than he had previously, and the therefore realized that the teshuva he did previously was woefully inadequate.

            When I was a chosson, a rebbe of mine shared with me that when he was first married, he felt that he finally understood the meaning of love. Then, after five years of marriage and the birth of a couple of children, he looked back and laughed at himself. What he thought was love then was nothing compared to the bond and love he currently felt for his wife. After ten years, enduring the challenges of growing children and the stresses of daily living, he again reflected and concluded that he only now understood love. The same happened after twenty years. My rebbe concluded that he looks forward to continuing to have a deeper understanding of what love truly means as the years continue.

            It was an endearing, beautiful and meaningful lesson for me. A person must seek to grow in every area throughout his life. When he allows himself and his relationships to stagnate, that is when troubles begin.

            The avodah of teshuva and the yearning for consistent aliyah ensures that our life always has meaning, direction, and purpose.

            It would be nice if my kittel would stop shrinking, but, conversely, I hope my neshama only continues to grow and expand throughout my life.

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

G’mar Chasima Tova,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Rosh Hashanah 5781

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh - Rosh Hashanah 5781

29 Elul 5780/September 17, 2020

 

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OF MASKS AND MEN

            Teaching is never easy. It requires time, patience, technique, and a lot of caring. Then there’s also preparation, marking, parental feedback and dealing with issues that arise. Teaching with a mask is that much harder. Aside for the discomfort of wearing a mask and the challenge of projecting your voice, it’s immeasurably harder to teach when students cannot see the teacher’s mouth and facial expressions. The same is true regarding the teacher’s inability to see their student’s facial expressions. It also makes it much harder to hear what They are saying. We don’t realize how much we read lips in daily conversations.

            (There’s also the added challenge of having to smell your own breath...)

            The truth is that we spend most of our days wearing masks. Every time we step outside of the privacy of our own home, we don masks which shields others from seeing the real us.

            Social media and on-line presence is even more masked. No one portrays their real lives on social media; they only portray what they would like everyone to see. As a result, social media breeds jealousy, anxiety, and depression. We look at other people’s posts and wonder why their lives seems so blissful and wonderful while we feel like we can barely keep our heads above water. Little do we realize that the other person may very well be thinking the same thing about us and our lives based on our social media posts.

            Rarely do we have the courage to remove our masks and present ourselves to the world as we really are. We are too afraid to be real and vulnerable. We wonder - what if people don’t like the real me? So, we maintain fake veneers, which only serve to make us feel worse about ourselves and our deficiencies.

            Part of the refreshing beauty of the weeks of Elul and the days leading up to Yom Kippur is that during this time we make a supreme effort to peel off our masks, in order to analyze the real essence of who we are.

            Halacha states that one must immerse in a mikvah before Yom Kippur.

            In a sense, the mikvah symbolizes the spiritual drama of death and rebirth. When one submerges himself in its natural water, he enters an environment in which he cannot breathe and live for more than a few moments. It symbolizes the death of all that has gone on before. As he emerges from the gagging waters into the clear air, he begins life anew.

            The mikvah also symbolizes a spiritual womb. A human fetus is surrounded by water. At the time of its birth, the water “breaks” and the child emerges into a new world.

            When one emerges from the mikvah, he should view himself as if beginning life anew. The question is what will he do now? Will he return to the prior life he was living? Will he again don the masks he had been wearing? Or, will he seek to maintain his newfound purity by being true and genuine to himself?

            The pandemic has also addressed the question of what is considered essential? Businesses that were deemed essential were allowed to reopen while those not essential had to remain shut. This led to justifiable aggravation and outrage as people watched their businesses be destroyed, feeling that their business was no less “essential” than others that had been allowed to open.

            The pandemic forced us to rethink what is essential in our lives. There were many things we didn’t think we could live without and we found out otherwise. (Is it really possible to make Pesach without a cleaning lady?)

            We must constantly remind ourselves that we are all essential! If we are here it’s because G-d wants us to be here to fulfill a specific mission and purpose. It’s been said that G-d has no grandchildren. We may disappoint Him but no matter what, we are always His children (Kiddushin 36a).

            We hope that 5781 will be a year of blessing and goodness. We hope it will be a year of health and well-being, of peace and prosperity, a year when suffering and pain, plague and struggle end.

            For us personally, we hope it will be a year when we are able to confidently remove our masks - literally and figuratively, a year when we learn to love ourselves for who we are, a year of rebirth, and one in which we recognize how essential we are in G-d’s world.

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

Shana Tova & Gut g’bnetcht yahr

Kesiva Vachasima Tova,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Parshas Netzovim-Vayelech 5780

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Netzovim-Vayelech

22 Elul 5780/September 11, 2020

Avos perek 5-6

 

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STRIVING VALIANTLY

            A few months ago, Chani bought a bunch of green bananas. The next morning, when Gavriel, one of our three-and-a-half-year-old twins, requested a banana, Chani informed him that he had to wait until they turned yellow. For the next few mornings, Gavriel surmised that the bananas were ‘almost yellow’. He really wanted a banana and when he was informed that they weren’t ready yet, he reassured himself that they would be ready shortly.

            We don’t have much patience these days. My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that we have a weakness called “now”. We want “peace now!” and “Moshiach now!” But G-d does not conform to our timetable. He has time and patience.

            On an unholy level, Yankees fans are devastated to learn that just because you demand a “World Series now!” doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Even if the name of your GM is cash-man, it seems money can’t buy a championship after all. On a more serious note, we all want a vaccine now and an end to the pandemic now. But we have no choice but to wait and see what G-d has planned.

We need to learn to be patient, most significantly, with ourselves.

            Part of our impulsive desire for immediacy includes with our own growth and dealing with our deficiencies. We want to master Shas, fix all of our middos, and smooth out all of our challenges tonight. And we want to get a good night’s sleep afterwards. Our generation’s prayer is “G-d grant me patience and give it to me now!”

            In the epic struggle within ourselves between our soul and our base desires, mastery is not attained quickly. It’s a lifelong battle and struggle, and one must be poised and ready for the challenge.

            The Viznitzer Rebbe, the Yeshuos Moshe, quipped that only a person who doesn’t learn mussar fancies himself a truly devout Jew. One who works on character development, however, recognizes his defects and is always trying to improve. The most dangerous predicament to be in is when one doesn’t realize the danger he is in. If a person doesn’t realize that he is infected, he will never take the medicine he needs to cure himself.

            But beyond recognizing his disease, one must be patient in following the prescribed treatment and medicines.

            During the 1980s and early 1990s former First Lady Nancy Reagan created and championed the slogan “just say no”. It was an advertising campaign that was part of the “war on drugs”, aimed at discouraging children from engaging in illegal recreational use or experimentation of drugs. There are varied opinions about the success or failure of the campaign.

            In his wonderful book, Positive Vision, Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger posits that when it comes to our perpetual battle with our evil inclination, there are times when we feel weak and vulnerable. During such times if we seek to “just say no” our yetzer hara will convince us that we cannot squelch our desires forever, so we might as well give up now. In such circumstances, our internal response should be, “just say not yet”. Even if we feel we cannot overcome the yetzer hara, we can delay.

            While our ultimate goal is to overcome our inner voice, which tells us to do wrong, we may not always be successful in our efforts to vanquish it. However, if we maintain the struggle and “keep ourselves in the ring” we have achieved a modicum of success.

            The poignant words of President Theodore Roosevelt should serve as a chizuk for us in our personal struggles:

            “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

            These are great words to bear in kind constantly.

            What does G-d want of us? That we strive valiantly, that even when we inevitably err, we do so daring greatly.

            We need to have the patience to wait for the green bananas within us to turn yellow. But in the meanwhile, to maintain the epic struggle and to recognize our value and greatness in doing so. It is that feeling which will fuel us to continue the struggle and to continue striving valiantly.

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum