Thursday, July 16, 2020

Parshas Matos-Masei 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Matos-Masei – Chazak!
25 Tamuz 5780/July 17, 2020
Avos perek 1 – Mevorchim chodesh Menachem Av  
            “Zehu Ze!” (This is It!) was a long-running Israeli comedy show from 1978 through 1998. It was a series of sketches that poked fun at the obsessions and idiosyncrasies of Israeli life. Now, 22 years later, the original group was reunited to give Israelis the opportunity to laugh during the current Corona pandemic. The new sketches poke fun at face masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing.
            In one of those sketches, an interviewer is conducting an interview with an individual who has purportedly become very busy during the pandemic. When the interviewer asks him what he does, the individual explains that he posts random information on WhatsApp about the coronavirus. When the interviewer asks him where he gets his information from, the individual replies by pointing to three baskets on the table before him, each with little pieces of paper. He tells the interviewer to pick a piece of paper from each basket and to read him the contents. The interviewer does so and calls out “Taiwan”, “date honey” and “back of the knee”. The individual then dictates to himself as he types into his phone, “Researchers from The University of Taiwan have discovered that rubbing date honey on the back of your knee - “ At that point the individual stops and looks up and asks himself, “hmm - causes or prevents, causes or prevents?” After a moment of thought he continues, “- prevents coronavirus from spreading.” He then gleefully hits the send button.
            A moment later, the interviewer feels a buzz and checks his phone to reveal that he has gotten the message forwarded from friends and family.
            The incredulous interviewer asks the individual if any of the information he sends is true. The interviewer emphatically relies, “Of course it is! It was sent on WhatsApp! How could it not be true?!”
            The humor of that sketch belies a very sad truth - as a society we believe everything we read on the internet or see on social media. We then become so convinced of its truth that we will even passionately defend it. In psychology this is called “belief perseverance”, when one clings to a belief even in the face of overwhelming evidence countering that belief.
            The sad reality is that many, if not most, of the “facts” circulating aren’t facts at all. Rather, they are the product of individual opinions or rationalizations that may likely have little to no basis in reality.
            Mark Twain famously said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The most notable thing about that quote is that Mark Twain never said it, despite the fact that it’s attributed to him.
            The Kotzker Rebbe famously quipped that not everything that is thought should be said, not everything said should be written, not everything written should be published, and not everything published should be read.”
            It’s possible that there has never been a time when news is more uncertain than now. There is almost no facts or statistics that aren’t debated heatedly.
            It’s hard to know currently what parts of society’s response to the pandemic is based on science and medical research, and which components are the result of politics and egos. The blame game is very in vogue these days - a game that costs lives and livelihoods. Inept leadership and double standards abound. Our time has been appropriately dubbed the era of fake news.
            We, the Jewish people, are no stranger to news bias, from which we continue to suffer from. The Torah community particularly is constantly ‘called out’ and targeted blatantly and unfairly.
Is there any absolute truth left in our world?
            Whenever a haftorah is read, beforehand we bless Hashem, “Who chose good prophets and was pleased with their words which were spoken with truth.” The words of the prophets, spoken three thousand years ago, are still as true and applicable today as when they were first uttered. Despite the fact that times and circumstances have drastically changed, the timeless messages of our prophets still speak to us. Their messages were often harsh, poignant, and condemning, but they were always said with love for their people and uncompromising dedication to the veracity of their message. They didn’t allow themselves to become intimidated or cowered. They fearlessly spoke the truth and conveyed their divinely inspired message faithfully.
            Chazal explain that there were thousands of prophets during the era of prophecy. But only those prophets whose messages are timeless were recorded in the canon of Tanach and have continued to be studied and learned throughout the generations.
            In a skeptical and dubious society, it is refreshing to be able to know there is one source of unabashed and unequivocal truth.
            The sad truth is that many are unfamiliar with the messages of the Neviim, and may not even have a cursory appreciation for the message of the haftorah each Shabbos.
After the 9-11 attacks, I heard from great rabbinical leaders, that part of our response must be to learn and study the words of Nach.
            As the era of Moshiach continues to rapidly approach and the predictions of the prophets continue to eerily unfold before our very eyes, it behooves us to make their words more central in our learning.
            My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that in all works of Torah scholarship, beginning with the gemara itself, everything is sourced and based on pesukim. All of the classic mussar works liberally quote from the words of the Neviim. In fact, those verses form the basis of their messages. Without understanding the source, one cannot fully comprehend the lesson being gleaned.
It is high time that we gave Nach the vital attention it deserves. There is one important caveat, however. Rav Shimon Schwab notes that without sufficient familiarity with the teachings and explanations of the Sages, the words and messages of the Prophets can easily be misconstrued and misunderstood. (It’s well known that Christianity is based on mistaken translations of pesukim in sefer Yeshaya). It’s analogous to viewing stars without a telescope. One sees objects but he doesn’t really understand what he is seeing.
            Today, we are blessed to have a plethora of beautiful works on Nach that explain the pesukim according to Chazal.
            In a sea of lies, bias and mistrust, we can and must find refuge upon the island of truth, to bask in its sunshine and enjoy its refreshing air.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Pinchos 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Pinchos
18 Tamuz 5780/July 10, 2020
Avos perek 6
            During the last few weeks, there have been a plethora of signs cropping up on people’s lawns. Some wish congratulations to graduates while others thank teachers and health care workers for going above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic. There are also many such messages appearing on the windows of cars, some of which include best wishes for couples who recently got married.
            There are always challenges and difficulties one encounters along the path of growth. When a person accomplishes something noteworthy which he worked hard to achieve, the congratulations wishes, blessings and encouragement of others help fuel him to forge on to the next level.
            However, there is a vital distinction between recognition and overexposure. So much of people’s lives are laid out on social media for one and all to see. Three billion people - about 40% of the world’s population - use online social media. On average, people spend two hours every day sharing, liking, tweeting and uploading. Studies have shown that Facebook usage has been linked to increased feelings of jealousy, and negative relationship outcomes. Social media usage effects people’s moods, and can increase anxiety and depression. The reasons for this can include cyber-bullying, having a distorted view of other people’s lives, and feeling that time spent on social media is a waste. Social media usage at night effects sleep patterns, which has on overall effect on people’s mood and wellbeing. More than half of social media users report feeling inadequate. For younger users, they also report feeling unattractive.
            But there is another component to the dangers of social media which is not so apparent: the effect that it has upon relationships.
            When Chani and I became engaged, and then when we were first married, there was one couple we were particularly close with who gave us much time and guidance. One of the things we noticed about them was that they would often giggle and laugh together.
            Everyone notes how cute it is when a young newly married couple laughs together and look like they are on cloud- nine. But the truth is that that isn’t so impressive; in fact, at that point, it’s more natural. However, when life becomes busier and there are a bunch of children, then it becomes rarer for couples to laugh together or share such moments. At that point it becomes that much more important to foster and share such times. The fact that this couple, who had numerous children, and a busy life, still shared private jokes and giggled amongst themselves was a great inspiration for us as newlyweds.
            Part of what makes a relationship special is its exclusivity. If there aren’t private social moments the relationship is lacking. When a husband or wife do something special for each other, it should remain between them. That privacy deepens the bond and connection between them. But if those special moments or gifts are posted online, that is a serious breach in the relationship.
            Many people don’t realize this point when they post pictures of their private anniversary dinner, or of a gift that their spouse gave them. Such beautiful events and gifts are no one else’s business.
            Shiva Asar B’Tamuz marks the day when the walls of Yerushalayim were breached by the Romans. A few painful weeks later, the Roman invaders destroyed the second Bais Hamikdash and initiated our two-millennia long exile.
            Yerushalayim was a city that symbolized our intimate connection with Hashem. It is, and has always been, a city of holiness, dedicated to serving Hashem on all levels. When the enemy infiltrated the city walls, it also symbolized the breach of our deep private relationship with Hashem. In a sense, we had allowed external influences to penetrate our private and exclusive relationship. Therefore, what had been private and lofty was now rendered obsolete because of external intrusion. That is part of what we mourn on Shiva Asar B’Tamuz. If the cracks in a relationship - like the cracks in the foundation of a building - are not repaired, the gap will slowly widen. Eventually, it will cause the whole relationship to be pulled apart, and the whole building will collapse.
            On Shiva Asar B’Tamuz it behooves us to also focus on the cracks in our relationships. That includes marriages, friendships, within our families and communities.
            We hope that if we work to repair and seal those breaches, it will prevent the Tisha B’avs of life, which are merely the result of ignoring the Shiva Asar B’Tamuzs of life.
            May it be meaningful and uplifting.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Parshas Chukas-Balak 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chukas-Balak (EY – Balak)
11 Tamuz 5780/July 3, 2020
Avos perek 5

            This past Friday morning, Chani and I were walking on the side of Route 45, a busy thoroughfare in our neighborhood, when we noticed some stunning flowers growing on the side of the road. Being that it was no-man’s land, we picked a few for our Shabbos table.
            We were quite surprised when we sat down at our Shabbos table on Friday night to find that our flowers were completely sealed. But then, on Shabbos morning, the flowers opened up again to their full splendor.
            I asked our neighbor, Yishai Malool, who runs Main Street Florist along with his father, about the flowers we had picked. He quickly identified them as Wild Tiger Lilies and noted that they are of a genre of flowers that indeed close at night and reopen in the morning. (Just add it to the list of miracles of nature that we don’t appreciate...)
            Before World War II, there was a famous saying that, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’. At that time, the British Empire included numerous territories all over the world. Therefore, there were always parts of the empire where the sun was still/already shining, even when Britain itself was cloaked in darkness.
            Every morning, upon awakening, the first words we utter is an expression of gratitude for the opportunity of a new day.
            The prayer that begins “Modeh ani lifanecha- I am thankful before You”, concludes, “רבה אמונתך - great is Your faith”.
            At first glance, those words seem surprising. “Great is Your faith” - Aren’t we speaking about Hashem? Don’t we have to have faith in Him? Who does Hashem have faith in?
            The answer is that Hashem has faith in us! Each day He grants us a new day with many opportunities and many challenges, because He has faith that we can live our day as Torah Jews.
We have faith in Hashem and are able to deal with the challenges of each day, because we know He has faith in us. Even when dealing with overwhelming challenges, such as a worldwide pandemic, we get through it knowing that Hashem believes in us and is guiding us.
            There are times in our lives when things feel unclear and unpleasant. At such times, one needs to remember that the flowers always blossom again in the morning. The morning always comes after night. The challenge is that we don’t always know how long it will be before morning arrives and the sun shines again, but we know that it will eventually happen.
            Each night, at the beginning of maariv, we bless Hashem Who brings evenings, causes changes in time and season, and creates and separates day and night. Just before we conclude that blessing, we recite a sentence that seems completely out of context: “The Almighty, living and enduring, will always reign over us forever and ever.” What does that statement have to do with the fact that Hashem separates between day and night and brings nightfall each evening?
            It is a declaration of faith that, even though times and season change, there is one thing that is constant and unchanging - the eternal enduring Almighty’s reign - that never alters or falters. In fact, that is the only constant we can bank on. So, as we mention the onset of darkness and night, we reassure ourselves that G-d doesn’t change.
            A few weeks ago, at the height of the social isolation brought about by the Corona pandemic, our printer broke. Like everyone else who has schoolchildren, our home had become our children’s homeschool, so the printer was a vital commodity at that point.
            Chani called HP customer service. The woman from customer service began asking her some questions and making suggestions. Suddenly, Chani heard what sounded like a rooster’s cock-a-doodle-doo in the background. At first, she thought she imagined it, but when it happened a second and then a third time, Chani asked the women about it. The woman apologized and admitted that she was next to a farm where there were roosters in the Philippines.
            It was a rather humorous conversation. The customer service representative tried to maintain professionalism, but Chani couldn’t restrain her laughter every time the rooster crowed in the background.
            It was even more fascinating because it was early evening in New York. In the Philippines, it was twelve hours later.
            I once saw a bumper sticker that said that you can rest assured that the world isn’t coming to an end today, because it’s already tomorrow in Australia.
            The truth is that the only guarantee we have that the world isn’t coming to end is because there is a Power greater than nature and the cosmos, that is in full control over everything. Even in times of challenge and difficulty, we live with faith and confidence that tomorrow is a new day. The flowers will again bloom and we will have new vistas and opportunities, fortified by the knowledge that Hashem fully believes in us.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
            R’ Dani and Chani Staum