Thursday, March 22, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Tzav
Shabbos Hagadol
7 Nissan 5778/March 23, 2018

As a principal in a yeshiva during the afternoon, I appreciate the formidable challenge involved in finding good teachers. In fact, that’s the hardest part of a principal’s job. The teacher must not only be knowledgeable about the subject matter, willing to teach in the late afternoon, and accept the yeshiva salary, but he also has to appreciate the sensitivities of our students towards certain subject matter taught in public schools.
I remember that at the beginning of sixth grade we had one teacher who thankfully didn’t last very long. Mr. M was very unpleasant and demanding. One day he ordered us to do a few pages of work during class, without giving us much guidance about how to do it. While we were working, he asked if anyone had any snack for him to eat. One of my classmates gave him some stale pretzels he found in the back of his desk.
Finally, he collected everyone’s papers, and told us to put our pencils down. He then looked at us and asked, “Does anyone know what this is called?” No one was quite sure how to respond. He smirked and continued, “This is called busy work.” With that, he walked over to the garbage can and promptly dumped it in. He was fired the following day.
Mr. M didn’t look Egyptian, but he was definitely a psychological heir of Pharaoh. When I was in school and learned about Egyptian history, whenever my text book would show pictures of the pyramids and the Sphinx and would note the great architectural skills of the ancient Egyptians, I would become upset. I was sure that it was our forefathers who built those pyramids during their slave labor, and therefore should get the credit for creating that wonder of the ancient world. But I was wrong.
The gemara (Sotah11a) relates that the cities the Jews were forced to build, were upon unstable ground. One opinion is that as soon as they completed the construction, the entire building would topple over. Another opinion is that it was quicksand, and the partially constructed buildings would sink into the ground.
Why didn’t they utilize their army of slaves to build them impressive structures that could help their economy and infrastructure?
Rav Avrohom Pam zt’l explained that this was an important psychological component of Pharaoh’s diabolical plan to torture the Jews. If one is forced to perform slave labor, and he sweats under the blazing sun doing back-breaking work, there is a modicum of comfort in the satisfaction he feels when the job is completed. Pharaoh would not even allow his slaves that small feeling of satisfaction. The most painful part of the servitude was that all their oppressive efforts were for nothing!
As parents and educators, we are most challenged when we have children who feel no connection towards Avodas Hashem. We may feel that they are more like the wicked son, antagonistic and full of rancor. Or, worse, they may present as the son who doesn’t know – or perhaps doesn’t care – to ask, because he is numb and indifferent. He feels Judaism is overbearing and mitzvos are intrusive.
The root of the problem is that he doesn’t feel any meaning or connection. What a tragedy! The very thing that should offer him the greatest sense of meaning and depth, becomes the worst part of his life. The key is for him to be surrounded by a yearning and love for spiritual growth. But if Judaism is something we keep solely because it’s the way we were taught, devoid of meaning, it becomes inconvenient and oftentimes worse.
On the other hand, even if the child is exposed to real Judaism, where Torah and mitzvos are performed with excitement and feeling, if he wants to ‘feel it’ he has to do his part as well.
I related to my students recently the story of Feivel. Feivel didn’t know much about rides and attractions, and when his class went on a trip to bumper cars he had no idea what it was about. His classmates told him that it was a lot of fun, and he would figure it out as soon as he sat down. The problem was that Feivel didn’t figure it out. He sat down in the car waiting for the employee to start it up, and he spaced out. Suddenly he was jolted from one side. Before he had a chance to react, he was bumped from the other side. He spent a miserable few minutes getting bumped about, while everyone laughed as they bumped him. It finally ended, and the employee helped Feivel climb out.
When his friends asked him if he enjoyed it, he replied that it was the dumbest thing he ever did. What’s to enjoy about getting bumped about by laughing people for five minutes? His friends laughed at him. “Of course, you hated it. you just sat there while everyone else bumped into you. If you would have gotten into it you would have love it too. Feivel, why didn’t you step on the pedal?”
There are people who come into shachris each morning, don their tefillin, and then space out. Then, they complain that davening is tedious and boring. Obviously, the analogy is faulty, because davening is not meant to be fun. But it is meant to be enlightening and meaningful. However, to achieve such emotional connection to something so precious doesn’t come easily. The first step is to put in the effort, by opening the siddur and trying to say the words.
Every morning at the end of Hodu we recite the words, “Open your mouth wide, and I will feel it.” Hashem wants to draw us close to Him, but we must put in the requisite initial effort.
The regal night of the Seder when we are surrounded by mitzvos and berachos, is of the greatest opportunities to feel that emotional connection. We just have to be willing to step on the gas.

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayikra
Parshas Hachodesh/Rosh Chodesh Nissan
29 Adar 5778/March 16, 2018

This year the Staum family enjoyed a wonderful Purim seudah at the home our friends and neighbors, the Binders, around the corner from our home. Before Purim I had invited talmidim and rabbeim from our yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah, to our home at 8 p.m. for a post-Purim-seudah seudah.
At 8:05 p.m. while getting ready to bentch at the Binders my friend, Rabbi Yehuda Schuster, arrived to wish me a Freilichen Purim. Rabbi Schuster is an old friend (I don’t mean that he is old, but that we have been friends for quite a few years…). He has come to visit a few times on Purim towards the end of our seudah during the last few years, but this time we weren’t home. I’m still not exactly sure how he tracked us down, but he advised me that I might want to hurry home, as there was a large crowd of excited boys converging outside our house. Our poor devoted cleaning-lady, who was babysitting our (until then) sleeping twins, wasn’t quite sure what was going on.
Rabbi Schuster walked with me up the hill towards our home. As we got closer and behan hearing hear the singing and excitement from outside my home, Rabbi Schuster remarked that he was sure that next week he’s going to read a Rabbi’s Musings in which I would write “I was walking home from the purim seudah with someone…” and that somehow I would conjure up some thought or lesson from the incident.
Well, I want to tell you, Rabbi Schuster, that you were wrong! I have no lesson that I wish to pontificate based on that event. Instead I want to share something more personal about our friendship.
I have heard from numerous people that I look like Rabbi Schuster, and Rabbi Schuster often tells me that people confuse us all the time. On one occasion, at a chasunah we were both attending, Rabbi Schuster came over to me laughing that he was just complimented on a speech that I had given. He thanked the person and walked away. When I was a high school literature teacher in a yeshiva in Monsey, many of my students had been talmidim of Rabbi Schuster when they were in seventh grade. They would ask me if I knew him because I looked and seemed so much like him. I replied that I didn’t know what/who they were talking about.
The truth is that there are certain similarities that we share. We are both alumni of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, spent many years at Camp Dora Golding, and consider ourselves talmidim of Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman based on our summers there with him. Students say we have a similar sense of humor, though I am quite sure I am much funnier. We are also both Yankees fans. The one thing we absolutely do not share is that he is a proud yekki and I am a proud Polish descended, non-yekki. 
As alumni of Shaarei Torah we also share another distinction, in that we both consider ourselves proud talmidim of Rabbi Berel Wein and find ourselves quoting him frequently. Aside for being our Rosh Yeshiva, an author of seforim on gemara and halacha, and a talmid chochom of note, Rabbi Wein has gained renown in the Jewish world for his sermons about Jewish history, and his unique perspective about Jewish life.
One of Rabbi Wein’s well-known analogies is that when a person is learning how to drive one of the first lessons he is taught is to look into the rear-view mirror before pulling out. One need to see what’s coming before he can decide where he is going. We, members of the Jewish people, need to understand our roots and our past – both the glories and the vicissitudes, in order to have an appreciation of our greatness and uniqueness. It is only with that perspective that we can begin to understand the destiny and responsibility every one of us has, as part of the eternal people.   
Rabbi Wein infused within his talmidim an appreciation of the timeless messages of the Torah and the Prophets. His constant message is that the Torah and all of the words of the Prophets are contemporary messages that apply to current events as much as they did when they originally uttered and taught thousands of years ago.
This week, with the help of Hashem, I have reached a personal milestone. I have completed studying all twenty-four books of Tanach for the first time in my life.
I don’t remember when I officially began, but Chani said she remembers me announcing to her about ten years ago that I felt remiss that I had never learned all of Tanach, and had therefore decided to begin a daily study of it.
It has been a most gratifying and rewarding study. Aside for all the incredible stories in Yehoshua, Shoftim, Shmuel, and Melochim, I would feel emotionally charged when I learned the prophecies of Yeshaya and Yermiyah. Their chastisement is as beautiful as it was sorrowful, and their prophecies of consolation and of the future glory that awaits us literally tugged at my heart. The incredible wisdom of Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei and Koheles, the resilience of Daniel, Ezra, and Nechemiah, and the penetrating messages of Iyov were uplifting and penetrating. Learning about the life of Dovid Hamelech, and learning the majestic words of hope and longing throughout Sefer Tehillim was unparalleled. It is something I look forward to each day.
I write these words in the hope that, as I begin again with a prayer that I be zocheh to finish it many more times, others may also be inspired to undertake the study of the most basic teachings of our faith.   
So, if you see Rabbi Schuster around town, please wish him a mazal tov upon his completing Tanach. And if you see a group of excited teens outside my home, please tell them the party is over.  

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

Thursday, March 8, 2018



Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei
Parshas Parah/ Mevorchim Chodesh Nissan
22 Adar 5778/March 9, 2018

During shachris and mincha most weekdays, following shemoneh esrei, davening continues with the recitation of tachanun. Perhaps the most under-appreciated section of davening, tachanun is an intense supplication. We begin the prayer by resting our head on our arm (if in the presence of a Sefer Torah), then sit upright, and conclude by standing. It is as if we are declaring that we have done all we can in our efforts to pray, and have nothing left except place ourselves in the Hands of G-d and await His salvation.
During any day deemed a holiday, or when a joyous event takes place in the shul such as a b’ris, or if there is a chosson present during davening, in deference to the more festive atmosphere, tachanun is omitted. During those occasions, there are almost joyous shouts from the congregation to the chazzan calling out “kaddish!” or “yisgadal!” as soon as he concludes his repetition of shemoneh esrei, reminding him that tachanun is to be skipped that day.
There are specific dates enumerated in Shulchan Aruch when tachanun is universally omitted. There are a few additional occasions which are mentioned by other major halachic authorities - such as the Aruch Hashulchan - when certain congregations also omit tachanun.
Chassidim however, have quite a few more days when they customarily omit tachanun. Two of those times are the sixteenth and seventeenth of Adar. Shulchan Aruch states that we do not recite tachanun on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar - Purim & Shushan Purim. But it seems strange to also omit tachanun during the following two days?
One of my rabbeim explained to me the rationale for their custom: The Gemara in Megilla discusses which days, aside from Purim, it is permitted for certain communities to read Megillas Esther. The Gemara proposes “perhaps it can also be read on the sixteenth and seventeenth of Adar?” The Gemara refutes that proposal based on a pasuk in the megillah.
In Talmudic lexicon a “hava amina” (not to be confused with ‘hava nageela’ which is played during many American baseball games…) is a logical suggestion presented in the gemara, which is then debated. If it withstands all challenges and is accepted as fact, it becomes the “maskana” the final conclusion. Often a talmudic discussion will contain numerous hava aminas, before arriving at a maskana.
My rebbe explained that the chassidim reason “fahr a hava amina ohych nisht zuggen tachanun”. The mere fact that there is a hava amina proposed in the gemara to omit tachanun on the sixteenth and seventeenth of Adar, is sufficient reason to consider the day a minor holiday.
Although when I first heard the explanation, I thought it was rather humorous, there is a great insight contained in their custom.
In the beloved Purim song, Shoshanas Yaakov, we sing “cursed is Haman who tried to destroy me”. Haman was unable to execute his nefarious plan, and yet he remains a perpetual villain because of his hava amina. His wife Zeresh too is cursed because she was the enabler of his failed hava amina.
When analyzing Mordechai’s approach we wonder what his hava amina was. He was aware that the verdict was signed and sealed in the celestial courts. Yet he went beyond normal hope and effected an incredible wave of teshuva and unparalleled celebration.
Purim is therefore, a holiday that symbolizes the power of a hava amina - for good and for bad!
A hava amina, even if farfetched, demonstrates some level of connection. The fact that there still is a hava amina about reading the Megillah on the sixteenth and seventeenth of Adar demonstrates that it is still within the throes of Purim. After all, there is no hava amina that one can read the megilla in the middle of August.
In life, one can only accomplish things when there first is a hava amina. If one has no confidence in his own abilities, he won’t have a hava amina about being successful, and he’ll never get there. All accomplishments begin with a hava amina. Google, Facebook, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and some of the other most lucrative businesses today started in garages, as humble hava aminas.
I remember once reading about a black slave in the 1800s that was asked whether he hoped for freedom. He replied that he didn’t even know what that meant. He simply didn’t even posses the ability to have a hava amina for better times.
One of the greatest deficiencies of exile is the inability to overcome its confines and restrictiveness. Mesillas Yesharim notes that during the Egyptian servitude, Pharaoh successfully ensured that his hapless slaves were so overworked and utterly drained that they had no hope of revolution. By ensuring that the Jews had no hava aminas, Pharaoh ensured that they would never revolt. It took the Power of G-d to destroy the will of Pharaoh and to infuse within the nation the hope and striving for greatness.
Every major revolution in history - including the French, Russian, American, and Israel in 1948 - was precipitated by individuals who dreamed, and were able to make those dreams a reality, despite the dangers and challenges of doing so. It was the “hava aminas” of those dreamers that brought about the eventual change.
Everything starts with a hava amina; without a hava amina there can never be a maskana.
We have to have hava aminas about the great people we can become and the great things we can accomplish. Then we have to have the tenacity to strive for the maskana!

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Ki Sisa
15 Adar 5778/March 2, 2018

Last Friday, as President Trump took the podium at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he noticed his own reflection on television, and remarked that he would love to hear that guy speak. He then turned around began fixing his hair, and announced: “I try… to hide that bald spot, folks, I work hard at it. We’re hanging in there folks – together we are hanging in.”
With that, he began his talk about more trivial matters, like politics and what he was really invited for.
In other news this week, Union College in Schenectady, NY, claims to have found a lock of George Washington’s hair inside a “long-forgotten book.” The book – a leather bound almanac - is believed to have been owned by Philip J. Schuyler, son of General Philip Schuyler, who was a close friend of George Washington, and served under him during the Revolutionary War.
The school says it is unsure how the almanac with the lock of hair inside ended up in their archives.
Hearing the two stories this week gave me an epiphany. I think President Trump should purchase the lock of Washington’s hair, and use it to cover his bald spot. Not only would it cover his scalp, but he would be able to brag about the symbolism of his wearing the hair of the first president and leader of the United States. He would just have to dye the hair blond from its famous (natural) white color. 
A Jewish comedian opined that the Jewish custom of men wearing yarmulkas came about because of paternal baldness. Some Jews were embarrassed by their bald spots, so they covered it with a cloth. It caught on, and before long, all the Jewish men were wearing these hip ‘baldness covers’. It was the first Jewish innovation, even before the Shabbos Lamp, and the Shayne Coat.  
Chazal maintain a negative view towards one spending time fixing his hair. When the Torah refers to Yosef Hatzaddik as a ‘na’ar - youth’, Rashi explains that it is in a negative connotation because he was too interested in his hair. Although he did so with noble intentions, reasoning that as a son of the great Yaakov Avinu he had to look presentable and dignified, it was too much, unbecoming of someone of Yosef’s stature.
The truth is that the word yarmulka is a contraction of two Aramaic words – “Yarei Malka – Fear of the King.” A Jew lives with the realization that he is always in the presence of the King of kings, and lives his life based on certain expectations. The yarmulke is a constant reminder of his mission and higher calling in life.
When the evil Haman presented his plan to Achashverosh to solve the Jewish Problem through mass genocide, he preempted every possible rational argument about why it couldn’t be done. The gemara says that Haman reasoned to Achashverosh that killing all the Jews wouldn’t cause “a bald spot” within the kingdom, because the Jews are scattered and spread out throughout the one-hundred-and-twenty-seven countries that comprised his kingdom.
Part of Haman’s intention was to so frighten the Jews, that they would be completely paralyzed by fear and unable to respond. His intentions were foiled when the nation rallied under the call of Esther to Mordechai to, “go and gather all of the Jews”. Not only were they not paralyzed, but Haman was unwittingly responsible for the greatest mobilization of Jewish prayer and unity in history.
Ironically, the one who was destroyed by panic was Haman. When he approached Achashverosh in the middle of the night to garner permission to hang Mordechai, at that moment he was at the top of the world. From there onwards, the events completely unraveled for him at such a dizzying pace that he was never able to catch his breath. A few hours later he was leading his archenemy through the streets. By the time it was over, his daughter was dead, and he smelled putrid. He was rushed off to the party, where Esther pointed out his culpability. Achashverosh’s anger kept rising, until he lost his temper, and Haman was carted off to the gallows, literally without having a moment to think about what happened.
Haman claimed that killing the Jews would not create a bald spot because they are so scattered and diverse. The truth was that there was no bald spot because they bound together, internalizing the message of the yarmulkas perched upon their heads – symbolizing that there is a power stronger than Haman and Achashverosh.
The love and connection which they felt at the time of the miracle, returns to us every Purim. It is a holiday which unifies every Jew in love and friendship. At least for one day, we remove the masks of enmity and divisiveness which we often wear. We drown our emphatic opinions and hard-held beliefs, intoxicating ourselves with love and emotions that overcome all barriers.
Shoshanas Yaakov – the Rose of Yaakov, with its multihued resplendent colors, comes together, with the joy of seeing the techelies, the tzitzis of Mordechai, as they peeked out from beneath the royal robes as he was being led through the streets of Shushan by Haman.
On Purim we recapture our pride in our tzitzis and yarmulkas, and the modest dress of Jewish women. The world will never be “bald of Jews”, for we will always wear our yarmulkas perched proudly upon our heads.
That powerful message resonates long after the physical holiday of Purim has reached its happy conclusion.

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