Thursday, November 14, 2019

Parshas Vayeira 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayera  
17 Cheshvan 5780/November 15, 2019

This week’s Musings are lovingly dedicated in memory of my Savta, Mrs. Minnie Staum a”h, Shprintza bas Avrohom Yitzchok whose yahrtzeit is on Friday, 17 Cheshvan.


            A few weeks ago our family celebrated the upsherin (first haircut at age three) of our twins, Gavriel and Michael. Before their official haircuts, we took them for the “first cutting” and to to receive berachos from our rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Schabes, my uncle, Rabbi Yaakov Cohn, and the Nikolsburger Rebbe. Needless to say, the cutting and berachos of their grandparents were special and meaningful too.
            After their haircuts, we took them to Yeshiva of Spring Valley, the elementary yeshiva of my youth and our sons’ elementary yeshiva (as well as iy”H the twins’ future yeshiva) to the class of Rabbi Dovid Malin. Rabbi Malin is a special rebbe with endless love and warmth. Together with his class, he reviewed and sang the Aleph Bais with Gavriel and Michael, as they happily licked honey off lollipops dipped onto a chart with each letter. That was followed by a lovely seudah for family and friends in our backyard. It was a very special event.
            The twins received quite a few adorable gifts. But there was one that really excited me. My sister and brother-in-law, Shoshana and Daniel, gave them a toy tallis and tefillin set. From afar the tefillin look real, which is why I had to explain to visitors why there were tefillin strewn all over the couch and living room floor on Shabbos!
During my youth I couldn’t wait until my bar mitzvah when I would be able to start putting on tefillin. I still have a clear memory as an eleven-year-old sitting on my bed thinking my bar mitzvah is never going to arrive!
            During my youth, whenever I came across a string or long thick cloth I would roll up my sleeve and wrap it around my arm seven times. I would make it tight enough and keep it there long enough for it leave a mark on my arm, just like I saw on my father’s arm each morning when he removed his tefillin. I was excited that Gavriel and Michael had a toy set that they could play with. I would have loved to have such a thing when I was a kid. Yet, to my surprise, they were completely uninterested in the talis and tefillin set.
            Later that night, I realized why.
            The pasuk states “The hidden is for Hashem our G-d and the revealed is for us and our children forever” (Devorim 29:28). One of the homiletic explanations of the pasuk is that it is an allusion to an important educational principle. Children are always watching their parents and teachers. Far more than from what we say, our children learn from the things we do. In general, a person shouldn’t flaunt his Avodas Hashem and shouldn’t show off his religiosity. But there is one notable exception. One should make sure his children witness how he serves Hashem so they can absorb and internalize his values.[1] (Of course, that doesn’t mean one should be disingenuous, but the things he does anyway he shouldn’t hide from them.)
            That is what the pasuk is alluding to: “The hidden things are for Hashem” - if our children are not aware of the virtuous acts we perform, they will not be able learn from them, and those actions will remain known only to Hashem. But “the revealed ones” - the things our children witness “are for us and our children forever” - not only will it make an impression upon them, but hopefully will inspire them to follow that example so that their children will learn to perform them as well.
            I realized that Gavriel and Michael have never seen me wearing my talis and tefillin (except perhaps at their bris; but I assume that’s a suppressed memory). That’s why they had no interest in wearing their own tallis and tefillin.
            In this situation, it was a good thing that they never saw me in my tallis and tefillin because I daven in shul every morning and they haven’t yet attended shul on a weekday morning. However, the incident served as a good reminder that when it comes to our own children, our need to be humble is somewhat mitigated. Our children need to see and hear about the wonderful things we do so that they can learn from them.
            [I should add that within a few days of Gavriel and Michael seeing how excited I was about the tallis and tefillin, they began to take a greater interest in them. Although they wouldn’t allow me to show them how to properly put them on, they began to wear them in their own way. A good reminder that what excites us will excite our children. But that’s a whole other discussion.]
            We often hear discussions about our children giving nachas to us. But we also need to give our children reason to have nachas from us.
            I indeed have much nachas when I hear stories about my grandparents and learn about the special roots I have. My Savta was a person of love and devotion, from a family (the Gold family) that was and is fiercely devoted to Avodas Hashem. All her descendants are the beneficiaries of that. May her neshama have an aliyah.

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

[1] I heard this thought from my friend, Rabbi Yechiel Weberman, from his weekly one minute WhatsApp d’var Torah a few months ago.  

Thursday, November 7, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Lech Lecha  
10 Cheshvan 5780/November 8, 2019


            Last week, Air Canada announced that flights attendants will no longer be addressing passengers as “ladies and gentlemen”[1]. They claim that the move is being made to respect “identity, diversity, and inclusion”. From now on passengers will be addressed as “Everybody”.
            Well, I am thinking of suing Air Canada for discrimination, for not respecting my individuality. You see, I identify myself as a soul trapped in a human body. Therefore, when they address “every-body” I feel like I am being left out.  
            The Torah refers to man as Adam. The Hebrew word adam has two opposite connotations. On the one hand, adam comes from the word adamah - earth, a reference to the finite, physicality of man and his needs for food and shelter. But it also is similar to the word adameh as in the pasuk  adameh l’elyon – I will liken myself to the Most High” (Yeshaya 14:14), a clear reference to man’s quest to transcend his physical confines and identify with his spiritual soul and lifeforce and to connect with its Creator.
            Our struggle in life is always about which meaning of adam we identify ourselves with – adamah or adameh.
            Every Shabbos, we put aside all technology. We are perhaps the only community in the world who are active members of society all week and yet won’t check emails, social media, or the news for twenty-five hours. There has even been discussion in the modern media about the need and benefit of adapting a “tech Shabbat” where people exorcise themselves from their devices for one day in order to reconnect with life.
            Although we must respect and care for our bodies and physical needs, we strive to view ourselves primarily as souls. We are in this world with a purpose and mission that transcends the finite physical life of this world.
            When Avrohom and his entourage arrived at the foot of Mount Moriah where Avrohom was instructed to offer Yitzchak to G-d as a sacrifice, Avrohom turned to Yishmael and Eliezer and said, “Remain פה - here with the donkey and I and the youth will proceed עד כה - yonder” (Bereishis 22:5).
            Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l noted: “Here is represented the difference in outlook between a Jew and a non-Jew.
            “The word פה here represents the universal commitment of every human being to adhere to the seven Noachide mitzvos. Avrohom tells Yishamel and Eliezer ‘you only come until פה- here; your obligation ends here.
            “But I and Yitzchak will proceed beyond. Our mission is to go  כה- yonder – a point further added. A Jew must traverse פה and always be yearning and seeking[D1]  כה – higher ideals of spiritual attainment.”[2]
            The holiday of Chanukah begins on כה' – the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. The philosophy of the ancient Greeks was built on glorification of the human body and physical beauty. They were a people rooted in the concept of פה – the pleasures and beauty of the here and now. They sought to acculturate the world and to compel all peoples to adapt that outlook. But in us they found an adversary willing to sacrifice their lives to maintain their beliefs that life is not merely about the ephemeral here and now. The miracles of the holiday occurred for those who lived their lives with that transcendent feeling of “going yonder”.[3] Chanukah is a celebration of  כה over פה.[4]
            Ours is a tall order. We are to live in a world seeped in hedonism, selfishness, and pursuit of materialism and to be a beacon of light of morality and meaning. We accomplish that in the way we conduct ourselves, the way we speak, and by maintaining our integrity in all situations.
            That’s why I say that Air Canada’s attempts to prove to everyone how liberal and open-minded they are is an abject failure. “Everybody” does not include me. Perhaps they should address their passengers as “Every being”, or maybe they should adapt the slang of the times and just start with “Yo, listen up!”
            I should mention in closing that I have another friend who is also upset with Air Canada. He told me that he identifies as a roasted marshmallow…

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

[1] As a side bar, I feel it’s insulting that men must be addressed as “gentlemen” while it’s assumed that ladies are gentle. It’s either that, or the idea is only to address the gentle-men and not even bother with the rest of the men.
[2] Rabbi Soloveitchik Rosh Hashanah Machzor p.409
[3] When discussing the origins of the holiday of Chanukah, the gemara (Shabbos 21b) states that “the twenty-fifth of Kislev is eight days of Chanukah.” That phraseology is difficult. The twenty-fifth of Kislev is the beginning of the eight-day holiday, but that day itself is not an eight-day holiday?
Homiletically, perhaps it is alluding to this idea. The entire holiday of Chanukah is rooted in the concept of כה- not the number twenty-five but the concept of yonder.
[4] Chanukah may still be quite a few weeks away. But its message is one that needs to resonate throughout the year and throughout our lives. Besides, in Israel they are probably starting to mass produce donuts any day now.