Thursday, April 2, 2020

Parshas Tzav/Shabbos Hagadol 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Tzav/Shabbos Hagadol
9 Nissan 5780/April 3, 2020
            A long time ago - or at least what feels like a long time ago - it was actually a Friday morning one-month BCE (Before Coronavirus Exploded), I went to the DMV to get a soon-to-be-required Enhanced License. The lines at the DMV can be long, so I made sure to be there when they opened at 8:30 am. When I walked in at 8:32, the large room was mostly full and there was already a long line growing constantly. I was given a little slip of paper with a few random numbers and told to have a seat and wait until my number was called.
            My number was preceded with the letter U. To my consternation, I quickly realized that not all the numbers being called began with the letter U. That meant I would not only have to wait for my number to be called, there was also no recognizable pattern in knowing when it would be called.
            (I have never been good with numbers and memorizing things, so I was constantly taking the slip of paper out of my pocket to check the number. As the time wore on, I came up with a fictitious story to help me remember my number:
            One night there were a bunch of cookies taken from the pantry. The mother called her sons Juan and Julio and demanded to know who had eaten the missing cookies. When Juan said that he hadn’t eaten one and only Julio did, Julio stood up and yelled, “U8121” (You ate one too, Juan). Because of my brilliant story I still remember my numbers now...)
            The hours ticked away slowly. I finished the parsha, learned Gemara, prepared to teach my next few classes, and wrote an article.
            I told all the Jews I met that we should have someone bring wine and challos for us, because it didn’t look like we were getting out before Shabbos. I nervously hoped I was joking.
            After about three hours, I guesstimated that it was almost my turn - which meant within an hour! But then there was an announcement overhead: “We have just been informed from the central offices in Albany that their system is down. This is completely beyond our control. We cannot process any licenses at this time. We have no idea how long this will last.”
            It was the last thing I wanted to hear. All those hours waiting for nothing. I would have to start all over again.
            Thankfully, a few minutes later, just before I walked out, they announced that anyone who had their papers in order would receive a pass, that would allow them to return the following week and bypass the line.
            With that paper in hand, I indeed returned the following week and was able to bypass the line. My number was called after only an hour.
            Then I stood at the desk opposite the clerk for literally forty-five minutes. I felt that he was stuck in slow-motion. I have hardly ever witnessed greater incompetence. But finally, I was given a receipt and told I could expect my enhanced license to arrive within two weeks.
            It was quite an irksome experience. But as I type these words, amid the global Coronavirus pandemic, I now know that experience was hardly practice for the patience we all are being forced to exercise during this time.
In “Oh the places you’ll go”, Dr. Suess wrote about
“A most useless place; The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
            The truth is that much of life is spent waiting. On a simple level, (when the world is functioning normally) we wait on store lines, in traffic, for packages to arrive, etc. But on a more significant level, wewait for all sorts of salvations and panaceas. There are people waiting for shidduchim, to have children, for estranged children to return home, to be able to pay bills, to find a home in a good neighborhood, for shalom bayis, for emotional stability, and the painful list goes on and on.
            Rabbi Yisroel Reisman noted that the perspective of a Torah Jew is to always strive to grow in every situation. The goal is that when the difficult situation ends, one can look back at that time as a time of growth during the challenge.
            Sometimes we hear people reflect upon the most difficult period of their lives as being the most gratifying, and even the most fulfilling. How is such a dichotomy possible? Because fulfillment is the result of growth and one who grows during arduous times sees tangible good that emerged from it.
            Rabbi Reisman noted that “this situation will pass, and it will be a distant memory. After the infamous September 11th attacks, we thought the world would never revert to normalcy. Yet, it became a distant memory, and life reverted back to (a new) normal. Now too, life will return to normal. The question is if we will be able to look back at this difficult period, as one in which we accomplished and grew.
            The memories we can create for our families during this challenging time period cannot be created under normal circumstances.
            We surely hope and pray that this will all end, all those who are sick will be healed, all those who have suffered tragic losses be consoled, and all those who have been severely impacted financially recoup their losses. But until Hashem does so, we need to do our best during these circumstances.
            We have little control over those times when we find ourselves in The Waiting Place. But it is our choice whether we allow it to be a most useless place or if we make into a most productive place.
            To do so is surely no easy feat, but the Jewish people have never shied away from challenges.

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

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Parshas Vayikra 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayikra
2 Nissan 5780/March 27, 2020
            I once saw a great quote: In the same vein that there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are no believers in a metropolis. In a city which has every amenity and every type of store possible, including convenience stores that have numerous brands of every type of commodity, one hardly feels vulnerable or the need to be reliant on a Supreme Power.
            It is uncanny how, during the last couple of weeks, we are suddenly becoming believers, despite living in communities and cities where we hardly lacked anything.
            It’s quite surreal. If anyone would have told us about such a reality even a few weeks ago, we would have waved them off as being delusional. Flights across country for less money than it costs to fill up your car with gas, the NBA, NHL seasons suspended, March Madness cancelled, and MLB opening day postponed indefinitely, Broadway, Disney World, all places of recreation and fun shut down, bars and restaurants only open for takeout, people being ordered to stay home and minimize contact, people being begged not to visit elderly parents and neighbors, yeshivos and shuls closed and children home all day, the country and much of the civilized world heading for recession and economic collapse, and living in fear of tomorrow. It seems like a scene from a bad movie; only it’s our current reality!
            Rabbi Elimelech Biderman quoted the Gemara (Bava Kamma 60b) which states that during a plague one should “gather his feet” and stay home.
            The Ben Ish Chai comments that the Gemara is only referring to a general plague. However, during an epidemic one should flee. He explains that a contagious virus causes people to panic and the panic itself makes a person more vulnerable and susceptible to contracting the disease!
            He then quotes a story he says was related by doctors about a town ravaged by an epidemic. Before the plague began to spread, someone met the angel in charge of the epidemic and asked him how many people he was going to consume with the disease he was spreading? The angel replied that he was going to kill five thousand people. By the time the epidemic passed however, fifteen thousand people had died. The man went back to the angel and asked why the angel had lied to him. The angel replied that in truth he had only taken five thousand people as he had said. The other ten thousand brought the plague upon themselves due to excessive fear and panic.
            Rabbi Biderman concluded that now, during a time of pandemic, we must adhere to medical advice and do our utmost to protect ourselves. But beyond that, we must realize that panic and hysteria can be more damaging.
            For some people, such an idea will only increase their panic and fear, because now they will be even more afraid since they are fearful. To them, the words of President Franklin Roosevelt ring true: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” We undoubtedly have reason for concern. But we need to strive to transcend our fear. To do that we have to work on strengthening our emunah! We have no other options.
            Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon shlita quipped that in Eretz Yisroel they have a Sar Habitachon (Defense Minister) upon whom they rely, while we have the Sha’ar Habitachon (the Gate of Trust - the section which discusses strengthening bitachon in Hashem in the sefer Chovas Halivavos) upon which we rely.
            As Rabbi Biderman concludes: We need not fear, because we are in the Hands of Hashem.
            The incredible things that have occurred in the recent past, include the surge of faith and recognition of the Hand of Hashem in the world. Who else could have orchestrated this pandemic from a microscopic organism that took the world by surprise?
            It turns out there is faith to be found in a metropolis. Sometimes it just has to be revealed.

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

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei/HaChodesh

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei/HaChodesh
Mevorchim Chodesh Nissan
24 Adar 5780/March 20, 2020


            Today, we are all familiar with Rav Noach Weinberg and the incredible work he has done in initiating and revolutionizing the kiruv movement. But when he first set out with the dream of creating such a movement in the 1960s, he was met with fierce resistance and skepticism. He himself related that in 1966, when he first opened Aish HaTorah, people would point at him and say “there goes Noach the crackpot! He thinks he can get non-religious people to want to adopt a Torah lifestyle.”
            Yet, despite the challenges, he persevered, and today, his influence has changed the lives of thousands of people. If we count the grandchildren of those impacted by his efforts, the numbers probably surpass a million people.
            Rav Noach related that the great Torah leader, Rav Lazer Shach attended the b’ris of his son, Yehuda. This was during the early years of Aish HaTorah. Rav Shach looked around the room at the students of the yeshiva and couldn’t believe that they were all ba’alei teshuva. It was clear that he was inspired.
            Afterwards, Rav Shach was asked to address the student body. He exclaimed that if one man could murder six million Jews, than one man can save six million Jews.
            Rav Noach could very well have been speaking about himself. Countless individuals and beautiful families have been connected to their heritage because of Rav Noach’s indefatigable efforts.
            There are many lessons and reflections to be gleaned from the surreal events that have taken hold the world over during the current Coronavirus pandemic. One of those lessons is a reminder about the effect and influence of every single individual.
            As the disease first began to spread, every time someone contracted it, it was immediately publicized to all who might have come into contact with the individual during the previous two weeks. Anyone who had any contact, even remotely, was asked to immediately self-quarantine for two weeks.
            There is surely no justification or rationality to blame the victim, who is suffering enough with the symptoms of the disease. To hold them responsible in any way is utterly preposterous. However, the implication is mind-boggling. One person, a sole individual, unwittingly instantly caused a profound effect on the lives of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, just by being exposed to them for a few moments.
            What does that mean for us?
            Each day, we interact with scores of people. Whether we realize it or not, we have an effect, and leave an impression, upon each person we interact with. Most of the time, we hardly realize the effect we had, but that doesn’t mitigate it at all.
            There is a well-known phenomenon referred to as the Butterfly Effect. It is the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a cascade of events, that weeks later, can cause a tornado in Texas. It essentially asserts that one small change can set off chain reactions that cause far more significant changes; one small incident can have a lasting impact in the future.
            On a spiritual and social level, there is no doubt of the veracity of that theory. We are far more powerful and effective than we give ourselves credit for.
            As we are compelled to step back from the bustle of life, to try to contain the pernicious virus, we should realize that we are always emitting vibes that affect others. May Hashem heal all those who are sick, and free us from the fear and limitations that have become necessary. And when we are able to re-emerge into society, may we all be a source of encouragement and positivity, so that anyone who has come into contact with us in the last two weeks, has been positively touched and warmly effected by the love and friendship that emanates and resonates from us.
            May we recognize just how many lives we touch just by being who we are. We aren’t only one in a million, but we are one that can affect a million.

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