Thursday, May 16, 2019

PARSHAS EMOR/ LAG BAOMER 5779


It’s that time of year again. It actually happens twice - once in the spring and once in the summer. It’s the periods of national mourning when Jewish barbers are on vacation and many Jewish men’s beards look scruffy and somewhat unkempt.
Between Pesach and Shavuos, the days of Sefiras Ha’omer, we mourn the loss of the twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva. Between the fasts of the seventeenth of Tamuz and Tisha B’av, we observe the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash.
For those of us who have the pleasure of working with young adolescents, these two time periods have an added dimension, i.e. that of awkward adolescent facial hair growth.
At their stage, they take pride in their beards, nascent as they might be. The different gradations of facial hair is itself a manifestation of the uniqueness of each individual. Some boys have thick sideburns with nothing beyond, others have hanging mustaches, while others have a patch under their mouths with virtually nothing on the sides of their face. Then there’s the stubble and peach-fuzz which are constantly played with, in an effort to show others that there is indeed facial here there, even though it’s not discernible. Many of these young men insist that they need shavers, in the hope that if they start shaving, their beards will grow in faster (that’s a myth). Some are lucky enough to have a perennial five-o’clock shadow look that seems to stagnate at a perfect size.
The more physically mature, deemed by their peers as being ‘like bears’, walk the halls with confidence, sporting facial hair that looks like it’s going to take over their face. There’s always a few of those guys.
At times, a boy may have a full beard and a decent mustache, but the two don’t yet connect. (I must admit that I had such a “floating mustache” for years...)
A colleague often jokingly suggests to certain students that they apply some fertilizer in certain areas of their beard to make it look more balanced.
In camp last summer we had a contest to decide who had the best “Three Week’s beard.” Papers were disseminated with pictures of various contestants and campers had the opportunity to vote.
It is not coincidental that both national periods of mourning are connected with deficiencies in interpersonal relationships. The students of Rabbi Akiva lacked a modicum of respect for each other, and the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash was the result of baseless hatred.
The Medrash Tanchuma (Pinchos 10) states, “just like people’s faces aren’t alike, so too their opinions aren’t alike.” Based on this Medrash, the Kotzker rebbe quipped that just like one doesn’t hate someone else because they have a different face, so too one should not hate someone else because he has different opinions and viewpoints.
When we see all the various variations of facial hair growth, it is a subtle reminder that our focus during these days is to respect every person for who he is. It’s also a reminder that every person progresses in his own way and on his own level. Some are quicker and some are slower.
Personally, I’m happy to be past that awkward stage. Now the variations in my and my peer’s beards has to do with how many white patches we have.

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

Thursday, May 9, 2019

PARSHAS KEDOSHIM 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Kedoshim
            5 Iyar 5779/May 10, 2019
Avos perek 2 – 20th day of the Omer


There’s a classic story about two beggars - one Jewish, the other non-Jewish - who would make their rounds begging together.
One night they were sitting on a bench commiserating about how hungry they always were. The Jewish beggar then told his companion that at least the following week, on the night of the Pesach Seder, they would have a good meal. The non-Jewish beggar countered that he would never be invited to a Seder. The Jewish beggar reassured him that if he put on a kippah and imitated whatever everyone else did, no one would realize he wasn’t Jewish, and he would eat like a king.
On the first night of Pesach, they went to shul, and indeed, after davening were invited to different homes.
The non-Jew blended in as best he could, by watching and imitating whatever everyone else was doing. When they raised their cups to recite kiddush, he raised his cup and pretended to mumble along. He really enjoyed the cup of wine. He followed the family to wash his hands, as he excitedly waited for a fresh piece of homemade challah. To his dismay, he was given a minuscule piece of salty parsley. But then it got worse. The family settled into their seats and began to talk and talk and talk.
The non-Jew’s stomach growled loudly as he waited impatiently for the meal.
After what seemed like an eternity, they finally drank another cup of wine, and then washed their hands again. The non-Jew almost choked on the big piece of hard cardboard they gave him to eat.
Then he was given a small piece of a white vegetable. But by now, the beggar had had enough. In his famished state, he grabbed the whole white carrot and took a huge bite out of it. Within seconds, he was gasping for air, with steam coming out of his ears and nostrils. The family rushed to get him a cup of water, but he stood up and began screaming deliriously, “Okay! You got me! I’ll admit it! I’m not Jewish!” And with that he ran out the front door, leaving behind the shocked family.
The miserable non-Jew made his way back to their bench, morbid as ever. A couple of hours later, his Jewish buddy hobbled down the street. He plopped himself down on the bench and patted his stomach. He didn’t even notice the non-Jew’s dour expression as he asked him, “wasn’t that the greatest meal you ever had?” 
The non-Jew looked at him angrily, “why did you set me up like that? That was a dirty prank; I’ve never been hungrier in my life.” The Jew looked at him in shock and told the non-Jew to recount exactly what happened. When the Jew heard the whole story, he broke out into gregarious laughter. “You foolish person! If you had waited another three minutes you would have eaten the meal of your life. But in your impatience, you ran out and never had the chance to enjoy the amazing meal that was about to be served.”
I thought of that story today because of the following incident:
When I’m driving and there’s a Yankees game happening, I often listen to the broadcast. Last night as I drove carpool, we were listening to the game on the radio.
When I arrived home, the Yankees were trailing 2-1 to the Seattle Mariners in the seventh inning. But the game had just been postponed because of a rain delay.
Just before I headed up to sleep, I checked the score and heard that it was 4-1 Mariners in the top of the ninth. Oh well, there goes that.
This morning I was curious to hear how badly the Yankees were beaten. When I checked the score, I was pleasantly surprised to I hear that the Yankees won 5-4, after hitting a home run and a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.
Then I remembered that a student had posted a picture of himself standing in front of Yankees Stadium the night before. When I saw him in yeshiva this morning, I asked him if he was at the game. He replied that he and another student were indeed there and that it was a great game.
When I asked him about the walk-off, and what the energy was like in the stadium, he sheepishly replied that they left in the eighth inning to beat the traffic! They had stayed throughout the entire rain delay, but when the Mariners scored two runs in the eighth, they headed for the exits with most of the crowd.
I used this anecdote to remind my students (and myself) that to accomplish anything worthwhile in life, and to be successful generally, we have to have patience. When things are tough, we are quick to despair that things will ever get better.
It’s hard to maintain one’s sense of hope when things seem bleak. Often there won’t be a stunning comeback in the bottom of the ninth, and there will be difficult and painful losses. But if we head for the exits to beat the traffic and avoid the minor frustrations because we feel like it’s just not worth it anymore, then we will definitely not be there for the walk-off moments of resilience and growth.
There is always going to be times of marror in our lives. But we have to continue to wait and daven for the incredible seudah that is to follow.
And that seudah can only happen after the marror has been consumed. 

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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

PARSHAS ACHREI MOS 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Acharei Mos
            28 Nissan 5779/May 3, 2019
Mevorchim Chodesh Iyar/ Avos perek 1

When I was younger, I was told that if a person eats too much of a certain food, he will eventually start to look like that food. Pesach proves the fallacy of that idea: the more matzah I ate over Pesach, the more I felt like a fluffy piece of chometz. If only eating matzah made you look like matzah (without the holes)...
Although we are all back to eating chometz, Pesach contains a powerful lesson that is especially poignant and relevant for our times.
Anyone who attends shul during any day of Pesach and hears maftir being lained from the Torah, is aware that the congregation seems to become very excited when the word ״כאלה״ is read. When the Torah describes the unique korbanos that were offered each day of Pesach, it states כאלה - like this - exactly as the Torah dictates - shall the korbanos be offered. Rashi explains that on Succos there was a different amount of korbanos offered each day of the holiday. On Pesach however, the exact same amount of korbanos were offered all seven days of the holiday - two bulls, one ram, seven sheep as Olos (elevation offerings) and a goat as a Chatas (sin offering).
The Gemara (Arachin 10a) relates that because on Pesach the same offerings are brought each day, the joy isn’t as intense as Succos. Therefore, on Pesach only “half hallel” is recited, whereas on Succos, the entire hallel is recited each day.
Based on this discrepancy, it may seem that Pesach plays second-fiddle to Succos. But the reality is that this very aspect of Pesach contains an important insight. We live in a world of constant innovation. Yesterday’s exciting novelty is today’s ho-hum.
My students in Yeshiva tell me that my iPhone 5S is “ancient”. I try to explain to them that I remember when double screen Donkey Kong was the latest rage, just before Gameboy hit the scene.
Everything is constantly becoming clearer, more convenient, and faster. Ours is an “on-demand” world, where everyone panders to the consumer so they can lure him into their snare of mindless preoccupation with their product.
In such an impatient society it is an increasing challenge to focus and reflect on anything.
That is the beauty and greatness of Pesach. For a week we would offer the exact same korbanos, and that is an important part of the celebration and the biblical obligation of being joyous during the holiday. It may not contain the excitement and novelty of Succos, but it is no less vital. To be able to rejoice with what we have and reflect upon the timeless messages that surround us, is an integral facet of spiritual maturity.
Pesach is a celebration of divine love and faith. Those are messages that are not quickly internalized, but require much contemplation and thought; a week is hardly enough time to imbibe such timeless values.
Perhaps that is the subconscious reason why it has become in vogue to call out כאלה along with the ba’al korei throughout Pesach. The fact that we bring the exact same korbanos every day of Pesach reminds us how important it is to take advantage of the message of Pesach. It isn’t because our Pesach diet seems to be the same every day - matzah pizza, chocolate, leben, yogurt, eggs, and potatoes. But because we desperately want that message to remain with us long after we have reopened our chometz cabinets. If there was ever a time when we needed to remind ourselves of the value of reflection and contemplation, it is in our “you-tube/check-out-this-silly-clip generation”.
Even as we work to rid ourselves of the physical after effects of the matzah, we would be wise to try to hold onto its spiritual message for as long as we can!

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

Thursday, April 18, 2019

PESACH 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh/Pesach
             14 Nissan 5779/April 19, 2019

So, when did “thing” become a thing?
Our expressions are constantly evolving, especially in our society of constant new and exciting technology, where new words are frequently introduced to describe new apps and programs. But even within our everyday talk, especially among the younger generation, there’s new jargon that becomes part of our everyday speech. One of those phrases is “thing”.
When I was growing up, people spoke about “something” and having “things”, and of course Dr. Suess’s Cat in the Hat had “Thing 1” and “Thing 2”. But, people didn’t ask “is that a thing?”, “when did that become a thing?”, or “how is that even a thing?”
(In the Yeshiva world, bochurim often talk about “that Kav”. It’s the same as saying “thing” but in yeshivish talk...)
People used to talk about fads, rages, styles, and trends. Now all of that is compacted into “thing”.
I don’t remember when that way of talk began, but I’m pretty sure it was only in the twenty-first century. In our culture, being “a thing” has become the basic unit of cultural ontology.
In 2012 there was a tremendous event in CitiField, known as the CitiField asifa (gathering) to generate awareness about the potential pitfalls and dangers involved in internet usage. (A friend pointed out that it was the only time CitiField was sold out for an event that season...) The main driving forces behind the asifa were the late Skulener Rebbe zt”l and Rav Matisyahu Salomon shlita.
At a pre-asifa meeting with rabbonim and community leaders, Rav Salomon explained that the purpose of the event was not to rail against, and flatly outlaw internet usage. Rather, it was to create an awareness among the Torah faithful that this is a significant challenge. The internet is not just another issue we have to contend with, but we need to recognize that as a generation, it is our most formidable challenge and we need to take it seriously.
In a sense, his point was that the asifa was to generate awareness that vigilance about internet and the dangers it can present if not used responsibly is “a thing”.
In a similar vein, every morning after shachris in our Yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah, there is voluntary chabura (group) that meets in front of the Bais Medrash with Rabbi Pesach Skulnik for a five-minute lecture about the laws of loshon hora. That chabura has a positive effect upon the entire Yeshiva, eve the boys who don’t attend. The mere fact that such a chabura exists, generates awareness that being vigilant about not speaking loshon hora is “a thing”.
On Seder night, our goal is to make sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim “a thing”. However, that is not the ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to make emunah and awareness of Hashem in our lives “a thing”.
How do we make something into “a thing”?
Just a few weeks ago, the baseball season began. One morning my students asked me which team I root for. When I replied that the Staums are Yankees fans, one of my students asked me to name the starting players for the Yankees. When I admitted that I couldn’t, he heatedly replied that I wasn’t really a fan. He was emphatic that a real fan knows every player on his team and their stats. He told me that if I was really a passionate fan, I’d at least know their names and positions. I asked him if I have to get special permission to cheer for the Yankees even though I am not a bona-fide fan.
I’m still waiting to find out what my status and fate as a Yankees fan will be.
Some people come to the Seder with a passive demeanor. They fulfill all the mitzvos of the evening according to halacha and undoubtedly are enriched by the experience. But that can not compare to someone who approaches the Seder with passion and excitement. Such people prepare beforehand and can’t wait for the exalted evening. Each mitzvah performed adds to his excitement and he relishes every moment of the regal night. That experience will undoubtedly endure far longer, because to that second person the Seder was far more of “a thing”. Quite simply, something becomes “a thing” when it is exciting and captivating.
A night that ends with hallel and nirtza, songs of yearning and love for more, inevitably elevates all its adherents.
With that, I wish all of my loyal readers a legit epic Seder, which unquestionably is “a thing”.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Chag Kasher v’samayach & Freilichen Yom Tov,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum