Thursday, December 13, 2018

PARSHAS VAYIGASH 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayigash
6 Teves 5779/December 14, 2018

Gedolei Yisroel often lament that people who request that they daven on their behalf in a challenging situation, never share good news with them when they merit salvation.
Two and a half years ago, when Chani was expecting our twins, there were some serious complications, due to a condition they had called TTTS (Twin to Twin Syndrome). At one point, our doctor in Columbia Hospital, suggested that Chani undergo a “treatment” to alleviate the danger of their condition. However, the doctor cautioned us that the treatment contained risks, including that it might not remedy the situation. He then told us that we had to decide if we wanted to proceed with it or not.
The doctor led us to a conference room and told us we had 15 minutes to decide. It was of the most frightening moments of our lives. We had to make a decision that would impact the lives of our unborn twins within fifteen minutes. How in the world were we to know what to do?
I immediately called our rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Schabes, who has always been there for us. But as it was the morning, he was saying shiur and his phone was off.
I made a few phone calls and got the number of a respected Rosh Yeshiva to seek his advice. The Rosh Yeshiva’s secretary took down the information and conveyed it to the Rosh Yeshiva while I was holding on the line. A few minutes later she returned and replied that the Rosh Yeshiva wrote down Chani’s name and would daven for her, he wasn’t familiar enough with the condition or the procedure to offer any guidance.
We grew more desperate as the clock continued ticking. I then remembered that I had the number of Rabbi Dovid Cohen, a renown Gadol and halachic Posek from Flatbush.
When I called his home, his wife answered and informed me that the Rav was unavailable at that time. When I told her it was an urgent life and death matter she immediately put him on the phone.
Rabbi Cohen doesn’t know me at all. He is also extremely busy and spends hours each night fielding complicated halachic questions and giving advice and guidance. Yet he listened patiently to all the details and asked questions for clarity. When he had all the information, he replied that he doesn’t know much about the condition, but he felt that if the doctor feels we should proceed with the treatment, that’s what we should do.
We thanked him profusely for his time and caring ear. A minute after I hung up, Rabbi Schabes called back. When I informed him about what was happening, and about Rabbi Cohen’s suggestion, he concurred and urged us to proceed.
I told Chani then that no matter what would happen, we could never blame ourselves. We had sought the doctor’s advice and that of da’as Torah, and there was nothing more we could do. Now it was in the Hands of Hashem.
Baruch HaShem, the treatment was a success. However, for the duration of the pregnancy there were numerous concerns and tremendous anxiety.
When the babies were born healthy on Friday afternoon, September 9, 2017, it was a tremendous Simcha. I rushed home from the hospital shortly after the birth to be with the rest of our family for Shabbos and to host the shalom zachor. My mother-in-law graciously remained in the hospital with Chani on Shabbos.
On Motzei Shabbos, I returned to the hospital, and for the first time enjoyed holding the twins and allowing the realization of the incredible blessings we were granted to sink in.
While holding one of the twins I decided to call Rabbi Dovid Cohen to thank him for his time and guidance a few months earlier. When the Rebbitzin answered and I told her why I was calling she was so appreciative. After blessing the newborns and our family, she gave the phone to her husband. Rabbi Cohen admitted that he did not recall the conversation, but he too was deeply appreciative of my phone-call and shared his excitement for us as well as his blessing.
I have to say that it was a great feeling for me that I was able to share the good news and to convey to Rabbi and Rebbitzin Cohen their part in it.
If gratitude is so important and healthy for our emotional well-being, why is it so hard to express gratitude?
By nature, we are mostly reactive to life and the things that transpire. We are born selfish beings, with an innate sense of entitlement. To be grateful requires reflection and thought. One needs to be somewhat proactive to be thankful, and to express those feelings with those to whom he is thankful.
Life moves so quickly, and we get bogged down by daily responsibilities. If one wants to live beyond self, it entails time for reflection, a commodity that is rare in today’s day and age.
Another challenge to gratitude is that we tend to take things for granted, especially of the people who matter the most to us and are closest to us.
Former President George Bush, who just died last week, had a beautiful habit of leaving notes of gratitude wherever he went.
On one occasion he used a classroom in a school in Rochester as a temporary makeshift office. When the teacher returned to her classroom after the president left, she found a personal handwritten thank-you note written in chalk on her chalkboard from President Bush. The school kept that board with the message on it when they switched to whiteboards a few years ago.
Little thank-you notes left conspicuously are a wonderful way to express gratitude for things/people we often take for granted.
We are the greatest beneficiaries of being grateful, but to do so we must resist our nature to be self-absorbed and to have a sense of entitlement.
It begins by recognizing and appreciating the gifts of life!

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

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Parshas Miketz Shabbos Chanukah- Rosh Chodesh Teves


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
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

PARSHAS VAYESHEV/CHANUKAH 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
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

PARSHAS VAYISHLACH 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
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