Thursday, April 19, 2018

PARSHAS TAZRIA-METZORA 5778



“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Tazria-Metzora –Avos Perek 2
5 Iyar 5778/April 20, 2018

When I was a kid (wow, I’ve reached that age...), before Pesach I would bring home a nice Pesach booklet that contained many Divrei Torah. Today, each of our children brings home a complete professional-looking Haggadah, which include personalized pictures, numerous explanations, and a plethora of Divrei Torah.
It is a true fulfillment of the mitzvah of “and you shall tell your father on that night.”
During the years when I was an elementary school rebbe, I too invested much time and effort to produce such a Haggadah. Each rebbe and Morah should be commended for the efforts they invest into producing the haggdos our children bring home.
I was thinking that perhaps all these Herculean efforts are not necessary. All the learning about Pesach takes away from the main subjects our children are learning. I propose that teachers continue teaching their usual subject matter up until the last day before the Pesach break. Then, that last day, they can have a matzah and grape juice party, as well as a carnival with different booths that connect to each of the ten Makkos. Maybe they can also make a small project about Egyptian culture and topography to help everyone get in the mood.
The Yom Tov of Pesach is so profoundly deep, and we all understand that in order to gain an appreciation for the numerous profound lessons of the holiday we need to invest in its study. The excitement that fills the halls of our Yeshivos as students learn about Pesach is palpable. It is that excitement which enables each rebbe and Morah to produce such beautiful booklets in honor of Pesach and each upcoming holiday.
This is part of the reason I feel frustrated around Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. To begin with, it’s difficult to appreciate the significance of these days while living outside Eretz Yisroel. But that’s all the reason why we need to work harder in that regard.
In regards to Avodas Hashem generally, there is no room for half-hearted observance. In the words of Rav Hunter zt’l “there’s no Switzerland in the neshama; there’s no neutrality!” Whatever we do as part of Judaism needs to serve as a means that draws us closer to Hashem. That point is at the root of being Torah-observant.
The yeshivos I attended in my youth did not observe these holidays, or mark them in any way. Therefore, it is only in recent years that I learned about their significance. That of course includes the endemic halachic discussions and political controversies surrounding their observance.
Among those who observe the day as a celebration and holiday, I was mostly disappointed by what I found to be observance that was dry and lacking meaning. The day seemed to be little more than flag-raising, and a falafel party and carnival with themes connected to Israel. Due to the phenomena that outside of Israel no one can seem to produce a quality falafel like in Israel, that seemed to only make matters worse. Our schools do their best to foster exciting and enjoyable programs with Eretz Yisroel based themes. But there seems to be a very unemotional attitude towards these days in the general community. I doubt Pesach would be as meaningful if it was only about listening to a few lectures, no matter how inspiring they would be.
What an opportunity the day presents to educate our children, and to remind ourselves, about Kedushas ha’aretz, mitzvos ha’aertz, and why we pined for so long to return there. No other nation has ever returned home after being forcibly and brutally expelled for any length of time. Not recounting the miracles Hashem performed during the UN vote on November 29, 1948, and during the War of Independence, or the fact that today the center of Torah study in the world has again shifted back to Eretz Yisroel, is like observing Pesach without relating the Haggadah. (The comparison is obviously faulty because we have a mitzvah to recite the Haggadah. I only mention the comparison to bring out the point.)
A colleague in a different Yeshiva related to me that on Yom Hashoah last week, a student asked him if they were reciting Hallel that day. That’s a pretty strong indication that we are coming up short in our conveying the meaning of these days.
Perhaps we need to approach these days as we do other holidays, beginning to explain our spiritual perspective towards these days a few days prior - why they mean so much to us, and how we can draw closer to Hashem through their observance.
For those communities who don’t observe these days, my personal opinion (which no one asked for) is that they too need to educate their students about a proper perspective of how to view contemporary events in Eretz Yisroel. They too need a framework to understand how to view the miraculous events of the past seventy plus years.
Regardless of what hashkafic perspective one has about the state, what has and continue to occur needs to be addressed. Hashem has wrought incredible and previously unimaginable events to occur. This includes the recapture of Yerushalayim in 1967 and all the miracles of the Six-day war, the Entebbe Raid, Operation Desert Storm ending on Purim, and in fact the country’s daily survival. Ignorance is surely not the answer, though it seems that most are woefully ignorant of the events and a perspective about them.
In a religion that encourages questions and pondering of everything, how can such significant events merely be breezed over?
Last week, my younger brother Yaakov, who was visiting for Pesach, headed home with his family to their home in Nachlaot, Yerushalayim. He sent a picture of his ElAl plane from Kennedy airport with the caption “almost home”.
It struck me afterwards how incredible that statement is. They had packed, made it to the airport, and went through security, so all they needed to do was board the plane. He was almost home despite the fact that he was over seven thousand miles away.
What a world we live in. We can be in New York, or any other part of the world and yet be “almost home”; just a flight away.
When I was a high school student in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, we didn’t recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Berel Wein (who said Hallel with his shul next door) would remind us that, more important than whether you recite Hallel or not, is the feeling of gratitude to Hashem for the incredible events He has allowed us to witness, and that we not lose our sense of amazement and wonder for the gift of Eretz Yisroel and Yerushalayim.

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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

PARSHAS SHEMINI 5778


 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shemini – Mevorchim Chodesh Iyar – Avos Perek 1
28 Nissan 5778/April 13, 2018

One of the responsibilities of the leaders of any institution is to fundraise. It’s usually regarded as the most dreaded and arduous part of the job. Yeshiva administrators and Roshei Yeshiva are very familiar with the challenges of fundraising and are constantly looking for an innovative idea for fundraising.
Just before Pesach, I suggested to a Rosh Yeshiva that on Seder night, before beginning his own Seder, he should walk around his community. At the moment when he sees through the window that a family is doing yachatz, he should burst in and grab the afikomen before the children get to it. If they ask him what right he has to enter he can point to the paragraph they are about to recite in Ha Lachma Anya when they declare “whoever is hungry let him come and eat”. He can then make his pitch about how hungry the students in his Yeshiva are for funds so they can continue their studies. He should conclude by telling the bewildered family his address where they can find him when they are ready to eat the afikomen.
When they arrive to retrieve their afikomen he can discuss the terms and how much they are willing to donate to the Yeshiva for it.
I thought it was a no-brainer, but he wasn’t keen on the idea. No one appreciates genius these days.
Virtually every Haggadah questions the motive and meaning behind that warm and generous invitation for anyone who needs to join our Seder, when our Seder is already well underway and our front door is closed.
Some suggest that it is not an invitation to outsiders but a clarion call towards those already seated around the table.
We begin by noting that the matzah is the bread of affliction. As the food of slaves, matzah symbolizes servitude and uncompromised loyalty. Such subservience is not easy to attain, unless forced. When we were slaves in Egypt, we had no choice but to fulfill our expected work quota. But as the servants of Hashem we are afforded free-choice. We have the ability to live up to our responsibilities and discover inner tranquility and happiness. Doing so however, requires extortion in a never-ending quest for growth. The other option is to assume the far easier path of convenience, which affords momentary comfort but long-term regret.
If one realizes the value in the struggle and wants to achieve greatness, that’s a good start, but it’s not enough. “Confidence is the feeling you have until you realize the problem!”
What keeps a person going when faced with challenges? The drive! The question is “how badly do you want it?”
This simple question is often mentioned in the world of sports. Two teams are set to square off in an important game. Both have tremendous talent and on paper are evenly matched. Sports commentators will quip that the game will be won by whoever wants it more badly! It won’t be a matter of talent as much as it will be a matter of drive, mental energy, and passion.
L’havdil, the world of spiritual growth requires the same passionate dedication. In a lecture I was privileged to hear from Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt’l, he recounted that someone once asked his rebbe, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt’l how one can finish all of Shas. Rav Chaim replied “if you want to finish Shas, you have to be sick over Shas.” In other words, it has to consume you to such a degree that you never put aside that goal and continue to pursue it constantly. If you have that level of desire than you’ll be able to finish Shas, despite the challenge.
Perhaps that is part of the message of ha lachama anya. First, we declare that matzah is the bread of affliction, symbolizing subservience. Then we call out to ourselves and those at the table “who is hungry? Who feels the need?” Only one who is hungry and pines to partake in spiritual greatness will be willing to endure and consume the requisite bread of affiliation.
That’s the message we convey as we begin the Seder. It’s not just an ancient tale, but a contemporary story connected to our lives. We are all confronted by our own Egypts and Pharaohs. Only those who really want to persevere badly enough will get there. The indomitable and uncompromising will is the key to the redemption.
We aren’t inviting outsiders to join our Seder. Rather, we are inviting ourselves to be a part of the extraordinary story we are about to tell!
Pesach concludes by leaving us in the throes of Sefiras Haomer, anticipatorily gearing up for Shavuos and Kabbolas HaTorah. How much we prepare and how ready we will be, all depends on how badly we want to accomplish and grow. 
It’s an incredible message, but unfortunately one that won’t help with fundraising, except that maybe it’ll remind the fundraiser not to give up...

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

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Acharon Shel Pesach 5778

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shvi’i Shel Pesach – Erev Shabbos Kodesh/Acharon Shel Pesach

20 Nissan 5778/April 5, 2018

 

In my youth, before I owned any seforim I loved siddurim and machzorim, and was always excited by new ones. This was especially true as Artscroll published its machzorim. [Today, we can hardly remember what the world was like before Artscroll, but it was only a few decades ago when Artscroll was an incredible novelty.]

The Artscroll Pesach machzor was published just prior to Pesach 1990, when I was in fifth grade. As my birthday is two days before Pesach, when my Aunt Miriam asked me what I wanted for my birthday that year, I immediately replied that I wanted the newly published machzor.

It was Chol Hamoed before we had the chance to go to Tuvias (then the only Judaica store in Monsey). By then, the regular machzor was sold out. The only thing in stock was the leather-bound machzor which was double the price. Aunt Miriam saw how badly I wanted it, and agreed to buy it for me for the combination of my birthday, afikomen, and the following Chanukah. I readily agreed.

I hardly put down the machzor the entire rest of Pesach. I took it with me on every Chol Hamoed trip, and would’ve taken it out of the car had my parents not insisted that I leave it there.

It’s now almost thirty years later, but every time I take out that machzor, I remember the gift from Aunt Mim and Uncle Yaakov. The machzor doesn’t look anywhere as aesthetically beautiful as it did back then, but it has a much deeper and more profound beauty for me in what it represents.

There is a well-known thought from Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev about why we refer to the holiday as Pesach, while the Torah refers to it as Chag Hamatzos. Rav Levi Yitzchok explains that we refer to it as Pesach to remind ourselves of the love Hashem felt for us when he passed over our homes on the night of the exodus. Hashem refers to it as Chag Hamatzos as a reminder of the love and uncompromised faith we demonstrated when we left Egypt into the vast desert with our families.  

Often after the Sedarim are over we feel that the highlight of Pesach is over, and now we just have to coast through the remaining days before we can return to our regular diet. The truth however, is that for another six days we are celebrating Chag Hamatzos and partaking of matzah, arousing and reminding ourselves of the eternal love story that was ignited at the time of the exodus. Every time we hold up a piece of matzah, we are holding a symbolic reminder of our unbreakable and unshakeable bond with Hashem.

The seventh day of Pesach is itself an incredible celebration, and according to many commentaries is even greater than the first day of Pesach. When we crossed the sea and our former oppressors were obliterated, it was a testament to Hashem’s love for us. Until that point, the nation may have wondered if the miracles they had witnessed in Egypt was more to punish the Egyptians. But the unbridled revelation of the sea was au unquestionable expression of Hashem’s love for His nation. 

Megillas Shir Hashirim is read specifically on Pesach, because it is the deepest expression of the intimate love between Hashem and Klal Yisroel.

It is truly a week-long matzah celebration.

Last year towards the end of Chol Hamoed we were asking our (then) three-year-old son Dovid what we wanted for lunch. He finally agreed to have pizza. When Chani mentioned that she would get matzah to make him pizza, he started yelling, “No more matzah! I don’t want any more matzah! I want real pizza!” 

Perhaps the taste of the matzah doesn’t excite us much by the time the holiday is over. But the deep symbolism of what it represents should excite us throughout the beautiful Yom Tov and beyond. To paraphrase Maxwell House “Good to the last bite!”

Freilichen Yom Tov & Chag Kasher V’sameiach

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum     

Thursday, March 29, 2018

PESACH 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh – First day of Pesach
14 Nissan 5778/March 30, 2018

There’s no doubt that getting ready for Pesach isn’t easy. But with today’s new innovations there’s far less to stress about.
For example, you can buy ten pieces of bread for bedikas chometz already prepared. No longer do you need to exert yourself breaking up a bagel or slicing bread into ten pieces, and then wrapping them in a napkin. Now all that arduous labor has been done for you, and you can feel like you went from bondage to freedom.
The same holds true with pre-peeled potatoes for karpas. Next year they’ll pre-dip them into salt water too.
How about a pre-assembled קערה with the shank-bone already roasted, the egg peeled and roasted, and everything else in place too?
A cleaning crew will clean your car, and your shaimos can be picked up from your home.
Maybe next year they’ll have an app which can be set on a timer to read the Haggadah on Seder night at the table, while you relax comfortably on the couch.
Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi recently quipped (somewhat humorously) that men should stop telling women that cleaning for Pesach isn’t so hard. The men say it because they don’t want their wives to be stressed, because they know if she’s stressed, they’ll be too. But the bottom line is that cleaning and preparing isn’t easy.
There is a certain amount of stress that pre-Pesach invariably brings. There is a tremendous amount of preparatory work to be done within a limited time. It’s more challenging when we are only able to begin our pre-Pesach efforts at night after a full day of work and dealing with young children.
Aside from knowing what halacha demands and what is unnecessary exertion, we cannot change the time and effort necessary for “making Pesach”. However, we can change our perspective, and often that makes a tremendous difference.
When we remember that it’s not just a chore and obligation, but a mitzvah we are fulfilling for the honor of Hashem it becomes more bearable. If it’s a mitzvah (commandment to be performed), that means there is a metzaveh who commanded it. By fulfilling the command of the commander, we draw close to the commander.
At the Seder we draw closer to Hashem through the Haggadah, matzah, marror, and wine. Before Pesach, we draw close to Hashem with Windex, Easy Off, Mr. Clean, and Bleach.
Mesiras Nefesh is an important value in living a Torah life. It entails serving Hashem with selflessness and sacrifice. We make a big mistake when we think only major acts of mesirus nefesh are significant, such as stories we hear about individuals who risked their lives to perform a mitzvah or daven in Auschwitz or Siberia. But we fail to realize that when we forgo comfort and push ourselves beyond our comfort zones to perform a mitzvah and serve Hashem, that too is an act of mesiras nefesh, considered invaluable in the celestial courts.
What’s more, when our children see us exerting ourselves preparing for Pesach, they learn that mitzvos require effort, but are worth the exertion.
In years, when we weren’t home much on Pesach, Chani would suggest that we still kasher or at least clean part of the house, so our children should see us busying ourselves for Yom Tov.  
Last year, after kashering our stovetop and oven, I covered the area above and around the oven with tin foil. Soon afterwards, I turned on the oven to preheat for supper. Within minutes, the electric board which contains the dials that control the oven were completely melted. I had misguidedly covered the oven vent, causing the boiling oven air to become trapped in that area, burning it in seconds.
Repairmen also need to make a living, and a repairman arrived later that day to fix the electric on the oven. He reassured me that he gets calls like this all the time before Pesach, and I wasn’t the first klutz.
When I was reflecting on the incident and trying to come up with a good lesson to be learned from it, I had an epiphany. In fact, there’s a great lesson to be learned: When covering your oven and cleaning for Pesach generally, make sure you don’t cover the vents. That’s true for ovens, as well as refrigerators, and freezers. Make sure to be safe!
So, as we head into this most regal and beautiful Yom Tov, may we all merit to have a chag kasher v’sameiach. Not only should we enjoy the holiday itself, but may we also be elevated and inspired by all the efforts we invest prior, despite the challenge and fatigue we feel.
May we not lose our cool despite our impatience and frustration. But if we do, may we vent safely, and not at our children and (clueless) husbands or wives.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Freilichen Yom Tov & Chag Kasher V’sameiach,
              R’ Dani and Chani Staum