Thursday, November 21, 2019

CHAYEI SARAH 5780


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chayei Sarah   
24 Cheshvan 5780/November 22, 2019
Mevorchim Chodesh Kislev

This week’s Musings are lovingly dedicated in memory of my Zaydei, Yaakov Meir ben Yosef Yitzchak z”l, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn, whose yahrtzeit is on Sunday evening, 27 Cheshvan.

WHEN LESS IS MORE

            This past Friday night, I’m sure everyone who davened at Kehillas Zichron Yaakov came home from shul and spoke about the d’var Torah recited before maariv. I’m also sure I’m not the only one whose wife asked her husband when he walked in from shul if davening was over already. Why? Because the speech consisted of an excellent thought from the Brisker Rav, that was repeated - from start to finish - in under ninety seconds.
            A rabbinical colleague related that, before he was a Rabbi, he was once asked by the shul Rabbi to deliver the Friday evening d’var Torah before maariv.
            It was the week of Parshas Beshalach. He began by quoting the pasuk which states that the Jewish people stood trapped between the sea and the approaching Egyptians. At that point, Moshe began to pray. Rashi quotes the Medrash which states that G-d replied to Moshe, “this is not the time for lengthy prayers. The nation must proceed.” My colleague then said, “this is not the time for lengthy speeches. Now is the time to proceed.” And with that he motioned for the chazzan to proceed with barchu.
            The crowd was delighted. And the rabbi never again asked him to speak on Friday night.
It’s a difficult balance to strike. Everyone is looking for inspiration, but no one wants to sit through long speeches.
            So, when people discover someone who can inspire in a short amount of time, they won’t let him go too easily.
            In Camp Dora Golding, we have achieved that balance. Rabbi Meir Erps, a noted educator and dynamic storyteller, shares a three minute “bullet derasha” which contains a powerful story and a great lesson. The six hundred campers, who have just recently eaten kokush cake and chocolate milk for breakfast (kiddush is recited between shachris and Krias HaTorah), listen with rapt attention. By the time they start getting edgy, the speech is over and we are well into Mussaf.
            My Zaydei, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn z”l was not only a scholar of note, he was also sharp-witted and understood people very well. When he and my Bubby arrived in America after World War II, they moved to the then fledgling but burgeoning community of Lakewood. My Zaydei was a student of the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt”l before the war, when Rabbi Aharon was Rosh Yeshiva in the town of Kletzk. While living in Lakewood, my Zaydei would travel and speak on behalf of the young yeshiva and on behalf of the Va’ad Hatzalah , which was under the leadership of Rabbi Eliezer Silver.
            In the early 1950s my Zaydei and Bubby spent a Shavuos on the Lower East Side of Manhattan so my Zaydei could deliver the pre-Yizkor appeal at the Anshe Slonim shul at 172 Norfolk Street.
            The well-known shul was in an august and imposing building, boasting hundreds of seats, noted cantors and choirs. At that time, the shul was searching for a new Rabbi. By the time my Zaydei got up to speak, it had already been a long davening. He shared a brief poignant thought and then said to the assemblage, “My friends, I could easily continue speaking for another half hour, extolling the virtue of Va’ad Hatzalah and the vital work they do. But I know that you are all aware of its importance. In addition, I’m sure - like my wife- your wives prepared wonderful meals that are waiting for you after davening. Let’s consider it as if I spoke for the extra half hour, and everyone should contribute to this vital cause.” With that he sat down.
            It was the most successful appeal the shul ever had.
            That night, the leadership of the shul set aside their long list of potential candidates and offered my Zaydei to be the Rabbi of the prestigious shul. The rest is history. He became the Rabbi for over twenty years, until the shul closed its doors in 1974.
            I remember one Shabbos morning during my youth, when our family hosted a Rabbi in our community and his family for the Shabbos seudah. He was distinguished and well-known, and his lectures were delivered with passion and emotion. However, they were not known for their brevity.
            During the seudah, amidst the other topics of discussion, my mother mentioned that her father was also a community Shul rabbi. Then my mother added that her father always said that speeches cannot be too long, otherwise you’ll lose the attention of the congregation. My father’s looks and gentle kicks under the table didn’t help. The Rabbi in our home laughed good-naturedly. The following Shabbos his speech was as long as always.
            I must admit that as a shul rabbi for over a decade, it is very hard to strike the right balance. Every rabbi wants to inspire by conveying an important lesson, which is best brought out with stories to illustrate and other points of reference. It is an ongoing arduous challenge to balance content with attention span. But it is a balance that every rabbi must strive for.
            In an age of “quick chizuk”, such as Meaningful Minute and WhatsApp groups that convey 1-5-minute divrei Torah, that challenge becomes all the more pronounced. (It’s axiomatic that one doesn’t become a scholar from brief inspirational clips. Scholarship and erudition are the result of effort, exertion, and being able to sustain attention, often during long lectures. Bursts of inspiration are like a match that ignites a flame. That fire needs to be fueled so that it can develop into a more substantial and enduring fire. The purpose of this essay is surely not to minimize or downgrade the value and need of lectures. It is only to reinforce that in our fast-paced world, bursts of inspiration are invaluable.)
            I wish I could still personally glean from my Zaydei’s wellsprings of knowledge of Torah and interpersonal dealing with people. He passed away when I was eight years old. Yet, his legacy continues to inspire me, and he remains of my foremost role models in life.
            I cannot fathom how a person who suffered so much loss and was an orphaned refugee, could have emerged with such a jovial personality and contagious vivaciousness. His love for Torah and for people largely defined him, and all who knew him testified to that.

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Parshas Vayeira 5780


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayera  
17 Cheshvan 5780/November 15, 2019

This week’s Musings are lovingly dedicated in memory of my Savta, Mrs. Minnie Staum a”h, Shprintza bas Avrohom Yitzchok whose yahrtzeit is on Friday, 17 Cheshvan.

 

PARENTAL NACHAS
            A few weeks ago our family celebrated the upsherin (first haircut at age three) of our twins, Gavriel and Michael. Before their official haircuts, we took them for the “first cutting” and to to receive berachos from our rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Schabes, my uncle, Rabbi Yaakov Cohn, and the Nikolsburger Rebbe. Needless to say, the cutting and berachos of their grandparents were special and meaningful too.
            After their haircuts, we took them to Yeshiva of Spring Valley, the elementary yeshiva of my youth and our sons’ elementary yeshiva (as well as iy”H the twins’ future yeshiva) to the class of Rabbi Dovid Malin. Rabbi Malin is a special rebbe with endless love and warmth. Together with his class, he reviewed and sang the Aleph Bais with Gavriel and Michael, as they happily licked honey off lollipops dipped onto a chart with each letter. That was followed by a lovely seudah for family and friends in our backyard. It was a very special event.
            The twins received quite a few adorable gifts. But there was one that really excited me. My sister and brother-in-law, Shoshana and Daniel, gave them a toy tallis and tefillin set. From afar the tefillin look real, which is why I had to explain to visitors why there were tefillin strewn all over the couch and living room floor on Shabbos!
During my youth I couldn’t wait until my bar mitzvah when I would be able to start putting on tefillin. I still have a clear memory as an eleven-year-old sitting on my bed thinking my bar mitzvah is never going to arrive!
            During my youth, whenever I came across a string or long thick cloth I would roll up my sleeve and wrap it around my arm seven times. I would make it tight enough and keep it there long enough for it leave a mark on my arm, just like I saw on my father’s arm each morning when he removed his tefillin. I was excited that Gavriel and Michael had a toy set that they could play with. I would have loved to have such a thing when I was a kid. Yet, to my surprise, they were completely uninterested in the talis and tefillin set.
            Later that night, I realized why.
            The pasuk states “The hidden is for Hashem our G-d and the revealed is for us and our children forever” (Devorim 29:28). One of the homiletic explanations of the pasuk is that it is an allusion to an important educational principle. Children are always watching their parents and teachers. Far more than from what we say, our children learn from the things we do. In general, a person shouldn’t flaunt his Avodas Hashem and shouldn’t show off his religiosity. But there is one notable exception. One should make sure his children witness how he serves Hashem so they can absorb and internalize his values.[1] (Of course, that doesn’t mean one should be disingenuous, but the things he does anyway he shouldn’t hide from them.)
            That is what the pasuk is alluding to: “The hidden things are for Hashem” - if our children are not aware of the virtuous acts we perform, they will not be able learn from them, and those actions will remain known only to Hashem. But “the revealed ones” - the things our children witness “are for us and our children forever” - not only will it make an impression upon them, but hopefully will inspire them to follow that example so that their children will learn to perform them as well.
            I realized that Gavriel and Michael have never seen me wearing my talis and tefillin (except perhaps at their bris; but I assume that’s a suppressed memory). That’s why they had no interest in wearing their own tallis and tefillin.
            In this situation, it was a good thing that they never saw me in my tallis and tefillin because I daven in shul every morning and they haven’t yet attended shul on a weekday morning. However, the incident served as a good reminder that when it comes to our own children, our need to be humble is somewhat mitigated. Our children need to see and hear about the wonderful things we do so that they can learn from them.
            [I should add that within a few days of Gavriel and Michael seeing how excited I was about the tallis and tefillin, they began to take a greater interest in them. Although they wouldn’t allow me to show them how to properly put them on, they began to wear them in their own way. A good reminder that what excites us will excite our children. But that’s a whole other discussion.]
            We often hear discussions about our children giving nachas to us. But we also need to give our children reason to have nachas from us.
            I indeed have much nachas when I hear stories about my grandparents and learn about the special roots I have. My Savta was a person of love and devotion, from a family (the Gold family) that was and is fiercely devoted to Avodas Hashem. All her descendants are the beneficiaries of that. May her neshama have an aliyah.

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


[1] I heard this thought from my friend, Rabbi Yechiel Weberman, from his weekly one minute WhatsApp d’var Torah a few months ago.  

Thursday, November 7, 2019

PARSHAS LECH LECHA 5780


 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Lech Lecha  
10 Cheshvan 5780/November 8, 2019

 

            Last week, Air Canada announced that flights attendants will no longer be addressing passengers as “ladies and gentlemen”[1]. They claim that the move is being made to respect “identity, diversity, and inclusion”. From now on passengers will be addressed as “Everybody”.
            Well, I am thinking of suing Air Canada for discrimination, for not respecting my individuality. You see, I identify myself as a soul trapped in a human body. Therefore, when they address “every-body” I feel like I am being left out.  
            The Torah refers to man as Adam. The Hebrew word adam has two opposite connotations. On the one hand, adam comes from the word adamah - earth, a reference to the finite, physicality of man and his needs for food and shelter. But it also is similar to the word adameh as in the pasuk  adameh l’elyon – I will liken myself to the Most High” (Yeshaya 14:14), a clear reference to man’s quest to transcend his physical confines and identify with his spiritual soul and lifeforce and to connect with its Creator.
            Our struggle in life is always about which meaning of adam we identify ourselves with – adamah or adameh.
            Every Shabbos, we put aside all technology. We are perhaps the only community in the world who are active members of society all week and yet won’t check emails, social media, or the news for twenty-five hours. There has even been discussion in the modern media about the need and benefit of adapting a “tech Shabbat” where people exorcise themselves from their devices for one day in order to reconnect with life.
            Although we must respect and care for our bodies and physical needs, we strive to view ourselves primarily as souls. We are in this world with a purpose and mission that transcends the finite physical life of this world.
            When Avrohom and his entourage arrived at the foot of Mount Moriah where Avrohom was instructed to offer Yitzchak to G-d as a sacrifice, Avrohom turned to Yishmael and Eliezer and said, “Remain פה - here with the donkey and I and the youth will proceed עד כה - yonder” (Bereishis 22:5).
            Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l noted: “Here is represented the difference in outlook between a Jew and a non-Jew.
            “The word פה here represents the universal commitment of every human being to adhere to the seven Noachide mitzvos. Avrohom tells Yishamel and Eliezer ‘you only come until פה- here; your obligation ends here.
            “But I and Yitzchak will proceed beyond. Our mission is to go  כה- yonder – a point further added. A Jew must traverse פה and always be yearning and seeking[D1]  כה – higher ideals of spiritual attainment.”[2]
            The holiday of Chanukah begins on כה' – the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. The philosophy of the ancient Greeks was built on glorification of the human body and physical beauty. They were a people rooted in the concept of פה – the pleasures and beauty of the here and now. They sought to acculturate the world and to compel all peoples to adapt that outlook. But in us they found an adversary willing to sacrifice their lives to maintain their beliefs that life is not merely about the ephemeral here and now. The miracles of the holiday occurred for those who lived their lives with that transcendent feeling of “going yonder”.[3] Chanukah is a celebration of  כה over פה.[4]
            Ours is a tall order. We are to live in a world seeped in hedonism, selfishness, and pursuit of materialism and to be a beacon of light of morality and meaning. We accomplish that in the way we conduct ourselves, the way we speak, and by maintaining our integrity in all situations.
            That’s why I say that Air Canada’s attempts to prove to everyone how liberal and open-minded they are is an abject failure. “Everybody” does not include me. Perhaps they should address their passengers as “Every being”, or maybe they should adapt the slang of the times and just start with “Yo, listen up!”
            I should mention in closing that I have another friend who is also upset with Air Canada. He told me that he identifies as a roasted marshmallow…

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


[1] As a side bar, I feel it’s insulting that men must be addressed as “gentlemen” while it’s assumed that ladies are gentle. It’s either that, or the idea is only to address the gentle-men and not even bother with the rest of the men.
[2] Rabbi Soloveitchik Rosh Hashanah Machzor p.409
[3] When discussing the origins of the holiday of Chanukah, the gemara (Shabbos 21b) states that “the twenty-fifth of Kislev is eight days of Chanukah.” That phraseology is difficult. The twenty-fifth of Kislev is the beginning of the eight-day holiday, but that day itself is not an eight-day holiday?
Homiletically, perhaps it is alluding to this idea. The entire holiday of Chanukah is rooted in the concept of כה- not the number twenty-five but the concept of yonder.
[4] Chanukah may still be quite a few weeks away. But its message is one that needs to resonate throughout the year and throughout our lives. Besides, in Israel they are probably starting to mass produce donuts any day now.

 [D1]