Thursday, December 6, 2018

Parshas Miketz Shabbos Chanukah- Rosh Chodesh Teves

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Miketz
Shabbos Chanukah- Rosh Chodesh Teves  
29 Kislev 5779/December 7, 2018

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending Shabbos in Chicago. I was invited to deliver a parenting lecture on Motzei Shabbos for the Associated Talmud Torahs (ATT), and in order to do so I had to be there before Shabbos.
My children didn’t understand why, if I was taking a two-hour flight during the winter, was I going west and not south?
As I drove out of the car rental garage at O’Hare airport, I was listening to a meteorologist and a sportscaster discussing the upcoming weekend weather. The meteorologist related that Chicago would be hit with a soaking rainstorm on Saturday. The sportscaster then asked what the weather would be like for the Chicago Bears game when they played against the New York Giants in New York on Sunday. The meteorologist replied that the storm that was to hit Chicago on Saturday was heading eastward and would affect the New York area on Sunday.
I enjoyed a beautiful Shabbos in Chicago, though there were indeed heavy downpours throughout Shabbos. When I arrived back in New York on Sunday, I was greeted by rain, which I knew was from the same weather system I had seen the day before in Chicago.
I am always fascinated by airplanes and by flying. It is amazing to me that within seconds after takeoff the solid ground suddenly becomes a shrinking vista as the plane ascends. 
On Sunday morning as we flew above the clouds, beautiful sunshine reflected off the clouds beneath us. Then, as soon as we began descending into New York, the gray dreary rain was back, completely concealing the resplendent sunshine above.
There are people who seem to carry ‘storms’ with them. They are walking emotional tempests, who spread melancholy and gloom wherever they go. They spend most of their time complaining and grumbling about everything from politics, to finances, to their kids and spouses, to rabbis and institutions.
But then there are others who seem to radiate happiness and emotional sunshine wherever they go. No matter what is happening around them or what personal challenges they are enduring at that juncture of their lives, they seem to always be smiling and upbeat. These are the great people who live above the clouds. They see life, not only as it is in the moment, but from a broader perspective, which includes that life is a growth process with purpose and direction.
Most of us probably don’t totally fall into either category, but somewhere in between. We have our days when we feel completely overwhelmed and defeated. The storms above us infiltrate our psyche and we become morose and negative. 
Thankfully, we also have days when we feel so focused that even the greatest challenges don’t seem to deter us.
The good news is that we can constantly grow and don’t have to submit ourselves to the mood we are feeling at any given time. We have the ability to force sunshine through our personal clouds. But we have to be willing to work for it, and not resign ourselves to the exterior events taking place around us. It requires a great deal of reflection and motivation to maintain a positive demeanor on the darkest days.
The beauty of Chanukah is that it is a celebration of small lights that shine in utter darkness. All other holidays of the year transport us into a different realm - a world of that holiday when our entire conduct and schedule changes. But on Chanukah, for the most part life goes on as normal. Yet, the days of Chanukah aren’t just “normal” days. We recite Hallel, focus on gratitude, and light the menorah, creating rays of sunshine in our otherwise mundane existence. 
That is the light of Chanukah. Its ethereal glow is meant to last with us well beyond the eight-day holiday.

            Good Shabbos & Shabbat Shalom
Chag Urim Sameiach & Lichtigeh Chanukah
R’ Dani and Chani Staum  

Thursday, November 29, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayeshev
22 Kislev 5779/November 29, 2018

For almost a decade I had the great privilege of being the Guidance Counselor in Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch. On one occasion, I was conversing with the yeshiva’s executive director, Mr. Yehuda Avrohom Most. I mentioned to Mr. Most that I was impressed with a particular speaker who was always careful to check the veracity of his stories before he related them publicly. Mr. Most replied that while it’s true that that speaker always researches his stories, the way he says them over may not necessarily be the way the stories actually happened.
As an example, he began relating to me a personal anecdote. On one occasion he was flying somewhere first class and seated next to him was the New York Yankees legendary slugger Mickey Mantle. My jaw dropped, “You at next to the Mick? Did you say anything to him?” Mr. Most nodded, “I asked him to pass me the magazine that was in front of the seat next to him, which he did.”
I couldn’t believe it, “That’s it? You didn’t ask him for his autograph or anything more?” Mr. Most looked at me sharply, “Listen, I met Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l and I met Rav Aaron Schechter shlita. Those are great people. Mickey Mantle didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t care for his autograph or to speak to him.”
That was the story. Mr. Most continued, “I related that experience to a friend of mine who is a public speaker. Sometime afterwards he repeated the story, telling everyone that I had been on a plane seated next to Mickey Mantle but I held myself back from asking him for his autograph because, after having met Rav Moshe and Rav Aharon, I didn’t want to display any honor towards him. Technically, it’s a true story. But that’s not the way it happened. I didn’t hold myself back; I frankly didn’t care at all. Mickey Mantle didn’t excite me in the least bit.”
It’s a great insight. A story can be true in the sense that all the details are technically factual. Yet the way it’s conveyed may not be the way it happened. It can be overly dramatized, and certain parts can be exaggerated or emphasized though when it occurred that wasn’t at all the intent.
In the aforementioned story, the twist is innocuous. But at times the way a story is twisted can completely distort the facts.
Perhaps there is no starker example of this than the holiday of Chanukah. There is no other holiday whose meaning and significance has been so tragically misunderstood. Chanukah is sometimes touted as a seasonal holiday, that has the least bit of connection to the Christian holiday that happens to take place within a few weeks of Chanukah. Chanukah is also often portrayed as a celebration of the underdog beating the odds. We love the stories of the peasant girl being chosen to marry the prince, the unlikely athlete with the prosthetic leg winning the gold in the Olympics, and the failing student becoming the class valedictorian.
Those who view Chanukah in that manner cheapen it to a Hollywood classic. While the details are true, and it was indeed an unlikely victory of the few against the many, that is a gross misunderstanding of the true greatness of what occurred.
Chanukah is the celebration of those who refused to allow their observance to become tainted with outside influences. It is the story of those who were ready to die for the right to maintain their religious beliefs. It’s about those who subjugated themselves to a higher authority and refused to submit to many of their brethren who couldn’t comprehend their obstinacy.
It’s the perpetuation and celebration of the Chanukah story that ensures we maintain our commitments to Torah even in America 2018.
It’s what compels a group of observant Jews to become emotional and excited when trapped on an ElAl flight with the prospect of Shabbos desecration looming. (Yet, despite being repeatedly lied to, they didn’t behave inappropriately at all. Reports that they acted violently was a blatant lie.) They don’t have the choice to relent on their religious obligations so that their non-religious brethren aboard the flight not lose out on their weekend plans by flying directly to Israel. Shabbos is a mandate from on high and it is not within their rights to tamper with it, ever.
Unlike every other holiday, the story of Chanukah does not have an official text which we are obligated to read during the holiday. That is part of the reason why the holiday is so misunderstood. But the essence of the holiday is the celebration of unbroken tradition, and therefore it must transcend text.
It is incumbent upon us to remember the true story of Chanukah, to celebrate it joyfully, and to internalize it, and convey it wistfully to our children. The Chanukah lights contain the secret to our eternity - our refusal to capitulate and to remain loyal to Hashem and His Torah. It’s an eight-day holiday of thanksgiving where we thank G-d for all He bestows upon us. But above all, for the opportunity to be the torch-bearers of His holy Torah.
All the other beautiful aspects of Chanukah - dreidels, presents, gelt, latkes, and donuts - are all merely gift wrapping.

            Good Shabbos & Shabbat Shalom
Chag Urim Sameiach & Lichtigeh Chanukah
R’ Dani and Chani Staum  

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayishlach
15 Kislev 5779/November 23, 2018

Check your pockets; if you purchased a lottery ticket a few weeks ago, you may have the winning ticket. As of this writing, the $1.5 billion mega millions jackpot has still not been claimed.
The winner, who beat the odds of 1 in 302 million, has 180 days to collect before the ticket expires. In 2015, a California Powerball winner lost his ticket and his $1 million prize. Despite the fact that surveillance footage showed him making the purchase, because he lost the actual ticket, he couldn’t collect his winnings. Last year, Jimmie Smith of East Orange, New Jersey, found a lottery ticket worth $24 million in an old shirt hanging in his closet just before the one-year deadline.
A few weeks ago, everyone was buzzing about the lottery. It was the one question everyone seemed to be asking – “did you buy a lottery ticket?” Many of my students in both yeshivos that I work in asked me the question. They were surprised when I told them that, even if I bought lottery tickets, I wouldn’t have now because it’s too much money to win.  
Many people feel that they would know exactly what to do if they won the lottery. The many stories of lives destroyed by sudden windfalls notwithstanding, they feel that they would know how to proceed.
In a 2010 article, CNN reported that a British privacy protection firm reported that only one in five Londoners would try to track down the owner of a lost wallet that they found on the street. When asked three fifths of people said they would do so, but when researches dropped wallets in different areas, they found that the overwhelming majority of people did not do so. Only 20 percent of wallets were retuned, and only 55 percent on those returned contained the original sum of money.
The great Chassidic rebbe, Rav Chaim Sanzer, once turned to three of his chassidim who were sitting together. He asked the first one what he would do if he found a wallet that had in it a tremendous amount of money. The chossid immediately replied that he would return it without hesitation. The rebbe waved him off, “Fool!” He then turned to the second chossid and repeated the question. Seeing the rebbe’s response to his friend, the second chossid replied that he would keep the money. The rebbe’s voice thundred, “thief!” Then he turned to the third chossid and repeated the question. The chossid nervously replied, “Rebbe, I would hope that I would have the inner strength to return the money!” The rebbe nodded approvingly. That was the correct response.
We are very confident and perhaps even cocky that, placed in a challenging situation, we would unquestionably maintain our integrity and respond according to our convictions. But a person needs to always be aware of his inclinations. One must constantly worry that perhaps he has not sufficiently developed his sense of integrity and his moral compass to ensure that he would follow his own values even in a compromising situation.  
The truth is that it’s not just about money and winning the lottery. In the July 2017 edition of the Atlantic there was an article published entitled, “Power causes Brain Damage.” The article quotes recent research that demonstrates how the brains of people put into powerful positions actually change. Most significantly, they become less empathic and tend to treat their subordinates with more disregard.  
That only further demonstrates to us the incredible greatness of our Torah leaders. It’s not just that they are humble and the epitome of love, empathy, and caring. It’s also that they reach such levels despite the fact that they are accorded so much honor and deference. That humility is what makes them into a Gadol.
For all of us it is a humbling message that we must always be wary of the effect that all promotions and growth can have on us if we aren’t careful. There are indeed individuals who have become rich and famous who have not allowed their newfound wealth and position to severely alter their personalities. But unfortunately, there are many who did.
Mesillas Yesharim cautions us that everything in life is a test – poverty and wealth. The question always is – what did you do with it?

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayetzei
8 Kislev 5779/November 16, 2018

October 26-27 a few weeks ago, was the week of the Shabbat project, when Jews of all affiliations and backgrounds throughout the world were uniting in observing Shabbos.
It has become in vogue at the end of Shabbatons to have a Carlebach style havdala. Before beginning havdala, with the lights off and the glow of the havdala candle reflecting on everyone’s faces, the leader relates a story/poignant thought while strumming gently on his guitar. Then havdala is sung melodiously to very moving tunes.
On that Friday afternoon, I was driving home from Teaneck in the early afternoon. My phone was almost dead, lingering at about 3% in low battery mode.
I received a text from a good friend who lives in Las Vegas. He was going to be leading such a havdala and asked if I had any thoughts that he could share.
I thought for a moment and then replied that after a few strums on the guitar he should ask the assemblage what was the first commandment that G-d gave to Adam in Gan Eden. Undoubtedly someone would answer that it was that Adam not partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. He should then reply that the Meshech Chochma notes that actually the first command was that he eat from all the other fruits in the garden. Only after telling Adam to enjoy the fruits of the garden, did He then add the warning that Adam not eat from the forbidden fruit.
The lesson is that living according to the mandates of G-d is not to confine and restrict, but to ensure that we live an elite connected life within the confines of biblical morality.
I continued that some people view Shabbos as a restrictive day - a day of don’t do this and don’t do that. But that is a very poor understanding of what Shabbos is about.
Imagine an NFL rookie about to play in the Super Bowl. There isn’t an open seat in the stadium, the crowds are screaming and waving. They announce his name and he runs out onto the field high-fiving his teammates as the crowd erupts in raucous cheering.
This is what he has dreamed about since he was a little boy. This is what kept him going when things were really tough. This is his dream come true.
Someone asks him at that moment why he’s so excited when the whole thing seems so overbearing. He has to wear a certain uniform and can’t choose his own clothes. He can’t use his cell phone during the game, and in fact can’t do anything except focus on the game. He can’t go buy a sandwich or get a drink from across the street; he can only drink what’s provided for him on the field. He has to listen to the instruction of the quarterback and the coach, and he has to go out there and work hard. It seems to be worse than prison.
The player will look at the questioner like he fell off the moon. Yes, he can’t do any of those things. But that’s all part of the glory of having the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. Not only are those things not restrictive, they are part of the excitement of playing in the big game.
Shabbos observance indeed entails maintaining numerous restrictions. However, one who appreciates the essence of Shabbos, recognizes that the prohibitions of Shabbos are a vital component for our ability to gain from the greatness of Shabbos.
Throughout the week we are busy living outside of ourselves, trying to do our part to improve the world and our own lives. On Shabbos however, we turn inwards. It is a one-day honeymoon with our souls when we focus on what is really important in life. To be able to accomplish that we need to shut ourselves out from the outside world. That is accomplished by adhering to the prohibitions of Shabbos.
Immediately after sending that idea in a voice note to my friend, my phone died.
When I arrived home and plugged my phone in, I saw that he asked me to elaborate on what the connection was to havdala.
I replied that after we have spent a full day enjoying and celebrating what is really important in life, then we are ready to venture back out into the world with renewed spiritual strength. It’s kind of like plugging in a phone at the end of the day. After a few hours it’s charged and able to fulfill all of its functions for the new day. Shabbos is our souls plug that charges us up for the week.
After I sent that reply, I took my almost dead phone and that’s exactly what I did.

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