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       

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Parshas Korach 5780

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Korach (EY – Chukas)
4 Tamuz 5780/June 26, 2020
Avos perek 4


The following is the letter I wrote to Heichal HaTorah’s graduating Class of 2020 for their yearbook:

Sivan 5780/June 2020

Dare Graduates!

No, that’s not a typo. That’s my message to you, dear graduates.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm noted that it is commonly believed that the difference between a hero and a coward is that the coward is beset by fear, while the hero is not afraid. But this is incorrect.
In truth, both the hero and the coward may be intimidated and frightened by the prospects of the unknown they are facing. The difference is however, that the coward flees from the source of his fear, while the hero is propelled forward despite his fear. The coward seeks the path of least resistance, while the hero relentlessly readies himself for a long arduous journey.  
All of us in Yeshiva - the hanhala, rabbeim and teachers - have invested tremendously into helping you externalize the individual greatness you each possess. As you continue to traverse the roads of life, you will inevitably encounter resistance and struggles. Your most important asset is your inner greatness. But you have to believe in yourself and have the courage to stay the course.
In Parshas Shelach, Rashi notes that when Moshe dispatched the spies, they were worthy of the mission. The Medrash states that Hashem Himself had vouched for the worthiness of each of the spies.  If so, what caused them to sin so egregiously?
Rav Yecheskel Abramsky zt’l, Chazon Yecheskel, explains that there are individuals who achieve a level of greatness and maintain those levels as long as they remain in pure surroundings, surrounded by people of stature. However, as soon as they leave those surroundings they fall prey to negative influences. A person leaving a holy environment must be wary and conscientious of the danger surrounding him and he must be michazek himself to maintain his level.
When the Meraglim departed, they were indeed holy men of stature. But once they had left the spiritually protected environment of Moshe and Aharon, they stumbled spiritually and disaster ensued.
Rav Mendel Kaplan zt’l once quipped that people think a yeshiva is like a gas station, where you fill up so you can proceed. But in truth a yeshiva is a gymnasium. During your time there you have to work out your spiritual muscles!
A Rebbe of mine was a talmid of the Philadelphia yeshiva for over a decade.  When he was leaving to move to an out of town community he went to say farewell to his Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Elya Svei zt’l. Rav Elya shook his hand warmly and said, “Now we will see what we really taught you!” At first my rebbe was insulted - only now would they see what they taught him? But with time he understood that the greatest challenge is whether one can live by all the values he learned, even outside the spiritual confines of yeshiva. 
Dovid Hamelech expressed this idea in Tehillim: “Go my sons, listen to me, the fear of Hashem I will teach.” His goal was to teach his sons how to be G-d-fearing when they are going, i.e. leaving him and stepping into the challenges of society.
My friends, now is the time when we will see how much you have learned and grown at Heichal.
 Never fear the road ahead because Hashem is with you and rooting for your success. And we will do our utmost to remain there for you as well. Please maintain that connection.
Be daring, courageous, and never lose sight and perspective of your ultimate goals and aspirations.
Dare Graduates, dare!

עם הנצח לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה.

With friendship and affection,
Rabbi Dani Staum