Thursday, February 20, 2020

Parshas Mishpatim 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Mishpatim/Shekalim
Mevorchim Chodesh Adar
26 Shevat 5780/February 21, 2020
            In case you aren’t aware, President Trump was impeached, put on trial, and has since been acquitted of the charges that led to his impeachment.
            As one person put it “from the whole impeachment trial at least Americans learned a new Latin word - quid pro quo.”
            To the chagrin of some and the relief of others, the trial in the Senate ended relatively quickly. Despite their personal feelings, Senators have to be happy that the trial is over simply because of the dietary restrictions imposed upon them during the trial. They are allowed no food or drinks besides water and milk. Well, no food other than the famous candy drawer. For some odd reason, while even coffee is prohibited, candy is permitted in the Senate.
The current Capitol Hill Candy Man is Pat Toomey, republican Senator of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is home of Hershey’s Chocolate World and 200 confectionary companies and therefore Pennsylvania is the candy capital of America. Toomey makes sure that his desk is well stocked with all sorts of candies for his fellow Senators. It may be the only bipartisan thing in Congress at this point.
            This concept is not so strange to us because we are all familiar with the shul candy man. I remember one candy man who had a sign in his tallis bag calling for everyone to vote for him as Shul candy man. As a youngster, I wondered when those elections were held, and what qualifications the candy man needed to have.
            The idea of receiving candies or treats for a spiritual accomplishment, is not without source. Rambam (Pairush Mishnayos, Sanhedrin, chapter 10) writes that a young child does not yet have the intellectual ability to appreciate Torah, and so he should be given some treats (Rambam suggests walnuts, figs or some honey) to goad him to learn. As he gets older, the incentives should remain age appropriate. At some point, he will hopefully be mature enough to appreciate the greatness of Torah and want to learn on his own.
            In 1904, Ivan Pavlov received the Nobel Prize for his experiments in classical conditioning. He noticed that dogs began to salivate when the technicians who fed them appeared, even if the technicians weren’t holding food. Association through stimuli became known as the Pavlovian response.
            Long before Pavlov experimented with his salivating dogs however, the Rokeiach recorded the ancient custom that when young children were brought to learn Torah for the first time, they were given honey cake so that they would associate Torah with sweetness and enjoyment.
            One of the challenges of contemporary society is that everything is so readily available, and however much we want. Supersize becomes the norm, and childhood obesity has become a national epidemic. Candy which is eaten all week and whenever a child wants, is no longer special on Shabbos, or as an incentive for when the child does something exemplary.
            But the truth is that even as adults we are not above culinary incentives.
            Rabbi Avrohom Yachnes is a seasoned and beloved rebbe for over three decades in North Miami Beach, Florida. When he began his career in chinuch, during his first year as a rebbe he had a particularly challenging and difficult class. Within a few months, he was feeling somewhat despondent and was rethinking his ability to do what he loved and wanted to do.
            At that time he had a friend who was close with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv zt”l. Rabbi Yachnes asked his friend to ask Rabbi Eliyashiv for some advice. Rabbi Eliyashiv replied, “I heard that in America they have food people like called pizza or ice cream”. Rabbi Eliyashiv suggested that every day, when Rabbi Yachnes finished teaching he should buy himself a slice of pizza. That physical incentive would give him the boost he needed to deal with the challenges of teaching.
            Rabbi Yachnes related that he followed the advice, albeit not exactly. Instead of pizza, what kept him going was the daily chocolate Thickshake he picked up from Carvel after he finished substituting each day. Over three decades later he agrees that it was indeed the extra boost he needed at that time. (Rabbi Yachnes adds that at that time he was able to afford the calories and sugar intake...)
            It’s not exactly the advice you might have expected from a leading Torah personality. But the truth is that one immersed in Torah wisdom has a keen and deep understanding of human personality and motivation. Rabbi Eliyashiv, who himself never indulged in candy or culinary treats, understood and suggested, that a struggling and aspiring rebbe utilize his natural physical cravings to help him accomplish his goals and aspirations.
            We can easily overindulge in candy, sugar, sweets and treats. But when used in the right time, in the right manner, and with proper balance, it can be a wonderful motivational tool and boost. For some that may mean surviving an impeachment trial, for others it can enhance Shabbos kodesh, be an incentive to daven and learn, and help a rebbe overcome his initial inhibitions on his path to becoming a beloved pedagogue who has, and continues to, influence scores of students.

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

Thursday, February 13, 2020


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Yisro
19 Shevat 5780/February 14, 2020
            I can’t say I’m very fluent in Yiddish, though I wish I was. Like many Orthodox Jews, I know “ah bissel”. From my years in Yeshiva and hearing derashos, I have gleaned more of the “shprach”. I know enough to quote things to my students in Yiddish to make them think I know Yiddish. But there’s always at least one student who - when I say something in Yiddish - gives me a funny knowing look that says “rabbi, both of us know that that didn’t make any sense grammatically.”
            For many of us, Yiddish is the language our parents or grandparents spoke when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were saying. A friend told me his mother’s most common refrain was her saying to his father, “nisht fahr dee kinder - not in front of the kids!”
            My Bubby a’h would often quote Yiddish aphorisms. When I would ask her what they meant, she would always say the same thing - “it doesn’t translate well into English”. When she did translate them, to my young mind, they indeed sounded nonsensical. It always seemed to be something about how you can’t make food under some strange condition, like you can’t make pancakes when it’s snowing. And it always had some deep explanation that I never understood how it connected to the saying.
            There is undoubtedly a tremendous wealth of profound wisdom in those ancient Yiddish sayings. Rabbi Dovid Cohen (of Brooklyn) authored a sefer called “Yiddish- the holy language”, in which he discusses the biblical and Talmudic sources for many Yiddish sayings.
            One of the most famous and oft-quoted Yiddishisms is “der mentsch tracht oon Gut lacht - man plans and G-d laughs.” Its clear message is that we have no guarantees or assurances that we will be able to follow through on anything. Even our best-laid and best-intentioned plans are subject to change because of circumstances beyond our control. Rabbi Cohen suggests that one possible source for this aphorism is the pasuk recited each morning: “many are the thoughts in the heart of man, but the plan of Hashem - it is what endures” (Mishlei 19:21).
            The poignant wording “and G-d laughs” is meant to emphasize our vulnerability and limited perspective. However, it can also be easily misunderstood. I recently read an article in which the author noted that so many things he had hoped for and worked hard to achieve, did not work out. He then added that he had enough of G-d laughing at him.
            It was a painful statement and it got me thinking. Granted, it’s not an ancient statement from Chazal. Still, if it has entered the lexicon of the Jewish people - as Rabbi Dovid Cohen explained - it means that it has some depth. Clearly, G-d doesn’t laugh mockingly or derisively. So what does it mean that G-d “laughs” at our plans?
            The Chofetz Chaim relates a parable about a guest visiting a city for Shabbos. After davening on Shabbos morning, the guest approached the Gabbai and questioned why he had given aliyos to people from all sides of the shul. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just call up seven people from the same row? The Gabbai replied that being that he was only a guest, he could hardly understand the reason for each Aliyah. The first Aliyah went to the Kohain who sat in the front, the Levi was in the back, the fellow who got Shlishi has yahrtzeit, revi’i went to a man who is celebrating his birthday etc. How could a person come for one Shabbos and expect to understand everything happening in that town?
            To give a more contemporary example: If a person enters a movie theater a half hour after the movie started, he won’t understand what is happening in the movie. To the annoyance and consternation of the other viewers, he will likely spend the next few minutes questioning what is happening and why the characters are acting as they are. If he then leaves a half hour before the movie ends and the resolution is achieved, he will be even more confused.
            My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that we enter this world long after the story has begun, and we leave this world long before the story reaches its resolution. How can we expect to understand why things occur as they do?
            A young boy learns about the September 11th attacks and the subsequent war on terror. His father is a police officer who was injured in the September 11th attacks. He comes homes and asks his father if the American army is so powerful, why don’t they just kill all the terrorists and the whole problem will be solved? His father laughs.
            Is the father laughing at his son? Is he mocking his son? Not at all; he is laughing at his son’s naïveté and his inability to grasp the complexity and difficulty of the matter, to think it can be solved so simply.
            Not only does Hashem not laugh at our pain, but the Gemara relates that He feels our pain, and suffers along with us (Sanhedrin 46a).
            Perhaps the expression about “G-d laughing”, is to highlight our inability to understand how the world works and why things need to happen as they do. We can hardly see the bigger picture and so we have to rely on our faith that it’s truly all for the best. Perhaps it is meant to intimate that in the celestial worlds where things are clear they laugh at our annoyance when we don’t understand why things happen. But they surely never laugh at our pain, frustration, and anguish. On the contrary!

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

Thursday, January 30, 2020


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Bo
5 Shevat 5780/January 31, 2020
            It’s a fascinating story. Prince Harry, a member of the English royal family, and his wife, Duchess of Sussex, have informed his grandmother the Queen, and the world at large, that they no longer wish to perform their royal duties.
            As a student of Rabbi Berel Wein, the story immediately brought to mind an incident recorded in Sefer Yechezkel (chapter 20) that Rabbi Wein often recounts. The destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash brought shocking devastation to the Jewish people. It wasn’t only what occurred, it was the very fact that it had occurred. Many Jews felt that it was over. They had a “good run” as the Chosen People for a millennium, but at that point they felt their ‘chosenness’ had expired. G-d had destroyed the Bais Hamikdash and exiled them, and now “the House of Israel is like all other nations.” The prophet conveys G-d’s strong and unequivocal response: “As for what enters your minds - it shall not be!... I will rule over you with a strong hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath...”
            Essentially, G-d informed the nation that there was no escaping their distinction and greatness. Being a holy nation and a kingdom of priests was their mission and destiny.
            Shortly before Rosh Hashana this year, our yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, NJ, celebrated a very special event. During the summer, over thirty students reviewed the masechta of gemara that they learned in Yeshiva the previous year. The yeshiva hosted a joint Siyum for the entire yeshiva, its parent body, and friends. The students being mesayem sat upon a dais in front of the room.
            It was a memorable and special evening, which included a catered meal and singing and dancing. We were also graced with the presence of noted rabbinic personalities. One of those distinguished personalities was Rabbi Yeruchom Olshin shlita, one of the Roshei Yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ.
            When he addressed the assemblage, he began by lauding the worthy accomplishment of the mesaymim who had chosen to review their learning during their summer break. He quoted the words of the Rambam who says one who wants to merit the כתר תורה - crown of Torah must learn Torah every night. Most people relax at night and unwind from the pressures of the day. One who uses that time to engage in Torah study is worthy of the crown of Torah. Therefore, the students who had chosen to learn and review during summer break, a time of leisure and relaxation, had surely achieved כתר תורה as well.
            Then Rabbi Olshin announced that he wished to say a few words to the rest of the students, those who were not making a Siyum that night.
            He related a story about Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the renown nineteenth century Torah leader. Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s Talmudic questions are legendary in the hallowed halls of gemara study. Rabbi Akiva Eiger has incredible clarity and his questions are sharp and brilliant. Scholars pride themselves on offering resolutions to his questions.
            On one occasion, Rabbi Akiva Eiger was bothered by one such question. He pondered and struggled for three days until he excitedly discovered an answer to his question.
            That same day he was invited to visit a class of Talmudic students to “speak to them in learning”. When Rabbi Akiva Eiger arrived there, he decided to pose the question he had just discovered an answer for. He did not expect any of the students to have a resolution, but he reasoned that it would be a good way to initiate a discussion.
            However, as soon as he mentioned the question, the hand of one student shot up. That student proceeded to rattle off the exact answer that Rabbi Akiva Eiger had labored three days to discover.
            When he heard the answer, Rabbi Akiva Eiger was beaming with joy. But then, a moment later, the Rabbi’s countenance literally dropped, and he seemed pale and very upset. He quickly composed himself and continued the discussion.
            When they were on their way home, those accompanying him asked Rabbi Akiva Eiger what had occurred. He replied that when that student had immediately offered that answer so effortlessly, he became very excited. There was no doubt that this student was a future Torah leader. But then, when Rabbi Akiva Eiger looked at that student’s face, he didn’t see a trace of emotion. The student who had just answered the Talmudic question of the greatest Rabbi of his time, did not have a trace of joy or excitement. Rabbi Akiva Eiger explained “when I saw that he did not feel elevated or joyous about the Torah he had just shared, I realized there was no way he would become a future Torah leader of the Jewish people. That’s why I looked so distressed. We are losing a Torah leader because he has no joy in his Torah study!”
            Rabbi Olshin conveyed to the assemblage that every person must feel a sense of joy and happiness in whatever levels of Torah he has learned. Even if he is not yet ready to complete masechtos and make siyumim, he must be joyful over whatever he has accomplished.
It is not enough to learn Torah. One must also celebrate his personal connection and portion of Torah, whatever and however much that may be. That is the meaning of the words we recite each morning “Praised are we, how good is our portion, how sweet is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance. Praised are we that we wake up early and remain into the nights, night and morning, and recite twice every day: Shema Yisroel...”
            Chazal (based on Gittin 62a) state מאן מלכי רבנן - who are the true kings? The rabbis! Those who engage in Torah study and live a Torah life, are true royalty. But they can only celebrate that royalty if they recognize and appreciate it.
            Being a member of the royal family has many responsibilities and expectations that non-royalty doesn’t have. Why would anyone want those extra restrictions and expectations? Because they recognize the privilege, uniqueness, responsibility, and opportunity of being part of leadership and royalty. But if they are unable to recognize the privilege and uniqueness of their royalty, and only experience the annoyance of those expectations, then it’s not so hard to understand why they would want to escape that life to live like a commoner.
            A few weeks ago, the Torah world celebrated the Siyum Hashas of Daf Yomi. But even those who did actually make a siyum must share the simcha based on their own personal connection and accomplishment to Torah. That feeling of pride is vital and they are entitled to it.
            It is not easy being a Torah Jew. But there is no greater honor, fulfillment, and royalty than living such a life. Our arduous task is to help every one of our children, neighbors and friends realize the extreme privilege they have to be part of this unique nation of ultimate royalty. They must understand that they are vital to our cause, and we are incomplete without them. The greatest danger is when one doesn’t recognize that he is special and needed.
            They need not be Rabbi Akiva Eiger to celebrate their portion in Torah. Every pasuk, every Mishna and every line of gemara; every mitzvah, every chesed, and every word of tefilla - make us part of the royal family.
            There is no greater “highness”.

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