Thursday, December 12, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayishlach
15 Kislev 5780/December 13, 2019


            Rabbi, I was wondering about our prayers. What’s with all the praises of G-d? It seems like we say a lot of similar stuff in different ways, over and over. I’ve always been taught that because G-d is infinite, He doesn’t need our praises. Instead, the praises we say are for us; somehow it helps US when we keep praising G-d. I don’t get that concept. How does it help us to say the same praises about G-d every day? I mean, don’t we get it already? G-d is great, it’s great to be close to Him, He is all powerful, mighty, eternal, and incredible, He makes everything happen, etc.
Why all the repetition?

            Dear Jonah,
            I don’t go shopping too often, but when I do, I can’t help but hear the lyrics of the background music playing in stores. The same is true when I go on outings anywhere. I noticed that the overwhelming majority of those songs are about love and attraction. I gotta tell you - after hearing just a few songs, I can’t help wondering - don’t we get it already? I feel like saying to the singers, “okay, fine so you’re excited for tonight, you can’t wait to be with her, she makes you feel great, life is incomplete without her, you don’t know how you made it without her until now, her love is the best, etc. etc. We heard you loud and clear! Now let’s move on and sing about something else.” But they never do. It’s the same theme over and over. And if it’s not about excitement about love, it’s about the heartbreak of the breakup, the misery of being without that love, or the arrogant insistence of the singer that he/she couldn’t care less that the other person broke up with them, and that they’re ten times better off without him/her. (If they were really so okay without the relationship, why sing about it at all? Just move on...)
            There is obviously a very powerful drive to achieve connection with someone/something beyond ourselves, that helps us transcend the monotony of daily life.
            One core difference between the songs the world sings and the songs of davening that we sing is rooted in where we turn to for that feeling of connection. They sing about that person who makes them feel whole and energetic and makes life exciting. Apparently, there is a thrill to express one’s excitement even in the mere searching and waiting for that “love” (which is actually lust).
The problem is that no person can be the source of someone else’s excitement for any length of time. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. The rush they are singing about and searching for is elusive and fleeting and will invariably leave them feeling empty and frustrated.
            When we sing of G-d’s greatness on the other hand, it reminds us that fulfillment and inner tranquility is to be found in connection with the infinite. There is deep joy felt when we recognize that we have the privilege to sing about the infinite G-d with whom we share a personal and unique relationship. It’s as if we are reminding ourselves of Who we are about to pray to, and what an incredible privilege that is.
            I will admit that when I was your age, I had a hard time relating to davening and appreciating all those praises. But as I have gotten older, I can honestly say that I enjoy davening. (I definitely have my days when I’m tired and not in the mood and have to push myself to say the words. But most days I enjoy the experience.) I enjoy reciting praises of G-d and reminding myself that I have a direct and permanent line to the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, no matter what spiritual level I am on.
            That really is a relationship worth singing about and yearning for. Like all valuable things in life, it entails an investment of effort to develop an appreciation for it. I hope you attain that level where you recognize that the question you asked is not even a question.[1]

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

[1] Toras Avigdor, an organization that disseminates the Torah thoughts of Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l, sends out daily emails which contain questions posed to Rabbi Miller and his verbatim answers. This week, there was a question about the effect of music. Following is part of his answer:
“Music, when utilized for mussar and avodas Hashem, is an excellent expedient. That’s why Dovid Hamelech, when the spirit moved him... took out his harp and the harp helped him begin to ascend on the wings of music to the heights of perfection of the soul.
“But when music is used for, “Your eyes,” and “Your lips,” and your this and your that and how I miss you, and all the rest of the garbage, the Kuzari says that means that the music which once was used for the service of Hakodosh Boruch Hu has now become the play thing of the maidservants and the boys in the street. The Kuzari said that almost a thousand years ago. And it has deteriorated since then. Originally however, there's no question that music was intended to assist in the elevation of the spirit.”

Thursday, December 5, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayetzei
8 Kislev 5780/December 6, 2019


            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


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Toldos  - Rosh Chodesh Kislev
1 Kislev 5780/November 29, 2019


            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