Thursday, December 5, 2019

PARSHAS VAYETZEI 5780


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayetzei
8 Kislev 5780/December 6, 2019

BENEATH THE SURFACE

            As far as the weather was concerned, this was a Thanksgiving to remember. Across the United States, the holiday celebration was impacted. In the Northwest there were powerful winds; the Midwest was hit with blizzard like conditions. Flights were cancelled, travel plans were disrupted, and thousands lost power. And in the Northeast.... the balloons in the Macy’s day parade were in danger of being grounded. The headlines kept repeating the national forecast - “strong winds, white-out conditions, and balloons may not fly in New York.”
            The Thanksgiving Day parade began in 1924 as a three-hour event in Manhattan, ending in front of Macy’s Herald Square. The first three years the parade featured floats, professional bands, and live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. In 1927 the animals were replaced with inflatable balloons; the first balloon was of Felix the Cat.
            In 1997, a massive Cat in the Hat balloon slammed into a steel lamppost, shearing off part of the post and injuring four people, including one person who spent 24 days in a coma.
            In 2005, a M & M balloon, 515 pounds of polyurethane filled with 13,335 cubic feet of helium, hit a light pole and was punctured. As the balloon collapsed, it knocked over a streetlight and injured spectators. It prompted the introduction of new rules for the 2006 parade. One of the new rules was that the balloons would not fly if there were sustained winds over 23 mph, or gusts exceeding 34 mph.
            Thankfully the balloons were able to fly, but it was quite a scare there for a while. It was only the morning of the parade when the decision was made that the balloons to fly, albeit closer to the ground.
            In a sense, the balloons are a great representation of certain components of our society, in the sense that they are tremendous attention-grabbers that in reality are nothing more than vapid air. The world of social media is one such example. When browsing people’s Social Media pages, their lives seem so idyllic and perfect. But it’s all an illusion. People only post the part of their lives that they want others to see. The rest of it, which is probably most of it, is hidden from view.
            The endless pursuit for wealth and the life of the rich and famous is another example. It’s no secret that the world of Hollywood isn’t nearly as glamorous as it seems. That too is a mirage that captures our imagination and draws us after it. Like the balloons in the parade, there are many who are injured by those mirages, because the tempestuous realities of life force the air out of them.
            There was another event last week that captured everyone’s attention when Elon Musk unveiled the new Cybertruck. There were many surprises during the event, including a significant surprise for Musk himself. First, to prove the truck’s durability, his designer forcefully slammed a sledgehammer into the side of the truck, which didn’t even leave a mark. But then he had his designer throw a metal ball at the “armor glass” window. To Musk’s shock and chagrin, the window smashed upon impact. The same thing happened when he threw it at the back window. It was embarrassing for Musk to have to give the rest of his presentation in front of the truck with two shattered windows.
            Afterwards, Musk explained what went wrong. When the sledgehammer slammed into the truck, although it didn’t seem to have any effect on the truck, it cracked the base of the glass, which was hidden from view. Therefore, when the metal ball was thrown at the window, it caused the window to smash. (A video of the metal ball being thrown at the window during a pre-event test indeed showed the ball bouncing harmlessly off the window.) Musk concluded that he should have had the ball thrown at the window before the sledgehammer was slammed against the truck.
            In that situation, it was what was indiscernible and what was beneath the surface, that mattered.
            Most of the time we draw conclusions based on what we see. But the reality is that most of what happens is caused by things beneath the surface.
            In the Torah, Eisav is called Edom - Red, because when Yaakov was cooking and Eisav was hungry all he noticed was the red color of the food. Seeing something solely for its color is the epitome of superficiality. Yaakov on the other hand was a person who “sat in tents”. He was a person who pondered and contemplated, which enabled him to be a person of sophistication and depth.
            In our daily course of events we have the choice to be blinded by the vapidity surrounding us, or to recognize that there is far more beneath the surface that we aren’t privy to, but that significantly effects the impact of everything we experience. It’s the choice between being a superficial person or a person of depth.

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

Thursday, November 28, 2019

PARSHAS TOLDOS 5780


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Toldos  - Rosh Chodesh Kislev
1 Kislev 5780/November 29, 2019

THUMBS UP

            I’m just going to be forthright about it - I have weird thumbs. The truth is that weird is relative (especially my relatives), and I’m pretty convinced that the rest of the world has weird thumbs, and I’m one of the few who have normal and proper thumbs. But by majority standards I have unusual thumbs, especially my left thumb, which is somewhat short and stumpy. They say no one is perfect, so I guess that’s why I need to have unusual thumbs.
            When I was in high school, I had a friend who told me that whenever he was in a bad mood, he would think about my thumbs and that would make him laugh.
            Thumbs are one of those gifts G-d grants us that we fail to appreciate. One morning a friend told me he had a dream that he had no thumbs, and he was really bummed about it because he likes his thumbs. (Yes, I have some interesting friends...)
            Aside from being helpful, thumbs have more symbolism than any other finger. To hitch a ride, one sticks out his thumb. If a person wants to convey satisfaction or promote something, he gives it a thumbs up. Conversely, if he wants to convey dissatisfaction, he gives it a thumbs down. We speak about someone who doesn’t fit in as “sticking out like a sore thumb”.
            For those of us who have the merit and privilege to study the timeless words of gemara, the thumb plays a particularly significant role. We can hardly imagine learning gemara, trying to explain a particularly challenging novel exegetical explanation, without passionately thrusting our thumb downward and then upward. The Talmudic thumb swipe symbolizes a shift of perspective which is one of the hallmarks of studying Gemara.
            This past Motzei Shabbos I and my older sons attended Camp Dora Golding’s reunion at Great Wolf Lodge in the Poconos Mountains. While there I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Rabbi Noach Sauber, camp’s learning director and a personal mentor. (This isn’t the first Musings that includes thoughts that Rabbi Sauber related to me during conversations we had...) We exchanged a few thoughts and stories, and then Rabbi Sauber said that he had to tell me one last thought:
            When a person spoke loshon hora and would contract tzara’as, part of the purification process included smearing some of the ‘sacrificial blood’ on the ear lobe, thumb, and big toe of the metzora. That it was smeared on the ear and toe are understandable - the metzora listened to loshon hora and likely walked to hear or relate loshon hora. But how are one’s thumbs involved in loshon hora?
            Rabbi Sauber related that his father suggested that there is nothing beyond the purview of Torah. In our world thumbs are vital for texting, and we all know how much loshon hora can be spread through the medium of texting and social media! The Torah, which traverses time, includes a personal message for contemporary society - that there is a need for atonement of loshon hora promulgated by thumbs.
            Aside for the poignancy of the thought, I was stunned that Rabbi Sauber happened to relate that thought to me, just as I was mentally compiling this brilliant article about thumbs!
            In closing, I take a moment to express my gratitude to Hashem for my thumbs and for all the benefits I have from them, including typing this article, to which I’m sure you’ll all give a thumbs up.

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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

CHAYEI SARAH 5780


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chayei Sarah   
24 Cheshvan 5780/November 22, 2019
Mevorchim Chodesh Kislev

This week’s Musings are lovingly dedicated in memory of my Zaydei, Yaakov Meir ben Yosef Yitzchak z”l, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn, whose yahrtzeit is on Sunday evening, 27 Cheshvan.

WHEN LESS IS MORE

            This past Friday night, I’m sure everyone who davened at Kehillas Zichron Yaakov came home from shul and spoke about the d’var Torah recited before maariv. I’m also sure I’m not the only one whose wife asked her husband when he walked in from shul if davening was over already. Why? Because the speech consisted of an excellent thought from the Brisker Rav, that was repeated - from start to finish - in under ninety seconds.
            A rabbinical colleague related that, before he was a Rabbi, he was once asked by the shul Rabbi to deliver the Friday evening d’var Torah before maariv.
            It was the week of Parshas Beshalach. He began by quoting the pasuk which states that the Jewish people stood trapped between the sea and the approaching Egyptians. At that point, Moshe began to pray. Rashi quotes the Medrash which states that G-d replied to Moshe, “this is not the time for lengthy prayers. The nation must proceed.” My colleague then said, “this is not the time for lengthy speeches. Now is the time to proceed.” And with that he motioned for the chazzan to proceed with barchu.
            The crowd was delighted. And the rabbi never again asked him to speak on Friday night.
It’s a difficult balance to strike. Everyone is looking for inspiration, but no one wants to sit through long speeches.
            So, when people discover someone who can inspire in a short amount of time, they won’t let him go too easily.
            In Camp Dora Golding, we have achieved that balance. Rabbi Meir Erps, a noted educator and dynamic storyteller, shares a three minute “bullet derasha” which contains a powerful story and a great lesson. The six hundred campers, who have just recently eaten kokush cake and chocolate milk for breakfast (kiddush is recited between shachris and Krias HaTorah), listen with rapt attention. By the time they start getting edgy, the speech is over and we are well into Mussaf.
            My Zaydei, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn z”l was not only a scholar of note, he was also sharp-witted and understood people very well. When he and my Bubby arrived in America after World War II, they moved to the then fledgling but burgeoning community of Lakewood. My Zaydei was a student of the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt”l before the war, when Rabbi Aharon was Rosh Yeshiva in the town of Kletzk. While living in Lakewood, my Zaydei would travel and speak on behalf of the young yeshiva and on behalf of the Va’ad Hatzalah , which was under the leadership of Rabbi Eliezer Silver.
            In the early 1950s my Zaydei and Bubby spent a Shavuos on the Lower East Side of Manhattan so my Zaydei could deliver the pre-Yizkor appeal at the Anshe Slonim shul at 172 Norfolk Street.
            The well-known shul was in an august and imposing building, boasting hundreds of seats, noted cantors and choirs. At that time, the shul was searching for a new Rabbi. By the time my Zaydei got up to speak, it had already been a long davening. He shared a brief poignant thought and then said to the assemblage, “My friends, I could easily continue speaking for another half hour, extolling the virtue of Va’ad Hatzalah and the vital work they do. But I know that you are all aware of its importance. In addition, I’m sure - like my wife- your wives prepared wonderful meals that are waiting for you after davening. Let’s consider it as if I spoke for the extra half hour, and everyone should contribute to this vital cause.” With that he sat down.
            It was the most successful appeal the shul ever had.
            That night, the leadership of the shul set aside their long list of potential candidates and offered my Zaydei to be the Rabbi of the prestigious shul. The rest is history. He became the Rabbi for over twenty years, until the shul closed its doors in 1974.
            I remember one Shabbos morning during my youth, when our family hosted a Rabbi in our community and his family for the Shabbos seudah. He was distinguished and well-known, and his lectures were delivered with passion and emotion. However, they were not known for their brevity.
            During the seudah, amidst the other topics of discussion, my mother mentioned that her father was also a community Shul rabbi. Then my mother added that her father always said that speeches cannot be too long, otherwise you’ll lose the attention of the congregation. My father’s looks and gentle kicks under the table didn’t help. The Rabbi in our home laughed good-naturedly. The following Shabbos his speech was as long as always.
            I must admit that as a shul rabbi for over a decade, it is very hard to strike the right balance. Every rabbi wants to inspire by conveying an important lesson, which is best brought out with stories to illustrate and other points of reference. It is an ongoing arduous challenge to balance content with attention span. But it is a balance that every rabbi must strive for.
            In an age of “quick chizuk”, such as Meaningful Minute and WhatsApp groups that convey 1-5-minute divrei Torah, that challenge becomes all the more pronounced. (It’s axiomatic that one doesn’t become a scholar from brief inspirational clips. Scholarship and erudition are the result of effort, exertion, and being able to sustain attention, often during long lectures. Bursts of inspiration are like a match that ignites a flame. That fire needs to be fueled so that it can develop into a more substantial and enduring fire. The purpose of this essay is surely not to minimize or downgrade the value and need of lectures. It is only to reinforce that in our fast-paced world, bursts of inspiration are invaluable.)
            I wish I could still personally glean from my Zaydei’s wellsprings of knowledge of Torah and interpersonal dealing with people. He passed away when I was eight years old. Yet, his legacy continues to inspire me, and he remains of my foremost role models in life.
            I cannot fathom how a person who suffered so much loss and was an orphaned refugee, could have emerged with such a jovial personality and contagious vivaciousness. His love for Torah and for people largely defined him, and all who knew him testified to that.

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