Thursday, November 15, 2018

PARSHAS VAYTZEI 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayetzei
8 Kislev 5779/November 16, 2018

October 26-27 a few weeks ago, was the week of the Shabbat project, when Jews of all affiliations and backgrounds throughout the world were uniting in observing Shabbos.
It has become in vogue at the end of Shabbatons to have a Carlebach style havdala. Before beginning havdala, with the lights off and the glow of the havdala candle reflecting on everyone’s faces, the leader relates a story/poignant thought while strumming gently on his guitar. Then havdala is sung melodiously to very moving tunes.
On that Friday afternoon, I was driving home from Teaneck in the early afternoon. My phone was almost dead, lingering at about 3% in low battery mode.
I received a text from a good friend who lives in Las Vegas. He was going to be leading such a havdala and asked if I had any thoughts that he could share.
I thought for a moment and then replied that after a few strums on the guitar he should ask the assemblage what was the first commandment that G-d gave to Adam in Gan Eden. Undoubtedly someone would answer that it was that Adam not partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. He should then reply that the Meshech Chochma notes that actually the first command was that he eat from all the other fruits in the garden. Only after telling Adam to enjoy the fruits of the garden, did He then add the warning that Adam not eat from the forbidden fruit.
The lesson is that living according to the mandates of G-d is not to confine and restrict, but to ensure that we live an elite connected life within the confines of biblical morality.
I continued that some people view Shabbos as a restrictive day - a day of don’t do this and don’t do that. But that is a very poor understanding of what Shabbos is about.
Imagine an NFL rookie about to play in the Super Bowl. There isn’t an open seat in the stadium, the crowds are screaming and waving. They announce his name and he runs out onto the field high-fiving his teammates as the crowd erupts in raucous cheering.
This is what he has dreamed about since he was a little boy. This is what kept him going when things were really tough. This is his dream come true.
Someone asks him at that moment why he’s so excited when the whole thing seems so overbearing. He has to wear a certain uniform and can’t choose his own clothes. He can’t use his cell phone during the game, and in fact can’t do anything except focus on the game. He can’t go buy a sandwich or get a drink from across the street; he can only drink what’s provided for him on the field. He has to listen to the instruction of the quarterback and the coach, and he has to go out there and work hard. It seems to be worse than prison.
The player will look at the questioner like he fell off the moon. Yes, he can’t do any of those things. But that’s all part of the glory of having the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. Not only are those things not restrictive, they are part of the excitement of playing in the big game.
Shabbos observance indeed entails maintaining numerous restrictions. However, one who appreciates the essence of Shabbos, recognizes that the prohibitions of Shabbos are a vital component for our ability to gain from the greatness of Shabbos.
Throughout the week we are busy living outside of ourselves, trying to do our part to improve the world and our own lives. On Shabbos however, we turn inwards. It is a one-day honeymoon with our souls when we focus on what is really important in life. To be able to accomplish that we need to shut ourselves out from the outside world. That is accomplished by adhering to the prohibitions of Shabbos.
Immediately after sending that idea in a voice note to my friend, my phone died.
When I arrived home and plugged my phone in, I saw that he asked me to elaborate on what the connection was to havdala.
I replied that after we have spent a full day enjoying and celebrating what is really important in life, then we are ready to venture back out into the world with renewed spiritual strength. It’s kind of like plugging in a phone at the end of the day. After a few hours it’s charged and able to fulfill all of its functions for the new day. Shabbos is our souls plug that charges us up for the week.
After I sent that reply, I took my almost dead phone and that’s exactly what I did.

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

Thursday, November 8, 2018

PARSHAS TOLDOS 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Toldos – Rosh Chodesh Kislev
1 Kislev 5779/November 9, 2018

Last week I had two packages to send out. One was a bar mitzvah gift of a friend’s son; the other was a thank you gift for a person who gave of his time to help me with something. I didn’t want to just send generic messages, so I spent time composing a personal message on each card.
After I sent the thank you gift I came home and found the card I had written for it. I realized that with the thank you gift was the mazal tov card for the bar mitzvah.
I remember that shortly after his bar mitzvah a friend of mine showed me a set of chumashim he had received as a gift from a classmate. Inside the Chumash was a card wishing Mazal Tov to the friend who had given him the set.
It’s always nice to receive a gift, but a personalized note makes it that much more meaningful.
As educators, whenever Chani and I receive a gift from a student with personalized notes attached, we are more moved by the card (which we often save) than the gift itself (though the gifts are of course appreciated too).
Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l noted that the goal of tefila is not just to recite the words of the siddur. The goal is to daven in our own words, to open our hearts and express our feelings, worries, and hopes to Hashem.
The problem is that we don’t really feel like we are talking to anyone when we are davening. Rav Pinkus quips that a person only needs a siddur when he’s talking to the wall!
He surely didn’t mean to undermine the value and importance of reciting the holy and ancient words of the siddur. But his point was that tefila must go beyond the printed word. It must include the unbridled feelings of the heart and soul. 
Most women in pre-war Europe were illiterate and didn’t know how to read the siddur. But oh, how they davened. Throughout their day they would constantly speak to Hashem, imploring Him for guidance, insight, direction, hope, blessing, and health. That is the ultimate goal of tefillah – to connect on a personal level with Hashem.
When we just read the words of the siddur, we have unquestionably discharged our obligation to daven and have accomplished a great thing. However, doing so has not achieved the ultimate benefit of prayer. That is only achieved when it is personalized and presented with emotion and feeling, when our true inner self is presented before G-d.
The Chofetz Chaim writes (Likkutei Amarim): “One should not be satisfied with the three Shemoneh Esreis that he prays each day. Rather, on a few occasions during his day, when he is alone at home, he should express prayers and supplications from the depths of his heart. The words of the three prayers are familiar to him, and therefore he doesn’t pay close attention to them. However, when one contemplates his responsibilities, and stresses, and recognizes his vulnerability and helplessness, then his heart will overflow like water before Hashem Yisborach. Such a prayer is expressed with great intent, humility, and sincerity, and surely will not go unanswered.”   
G-d does not need our prayers, yet He cherishes them and hears them. But more profoundly, our prayers elevate us and allow us to live a life of connection with the ultimate Truth!

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

Thursday, November 1, 2018

PARSHAS CHAYEI SARAH 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Chayei Sarah
24 Cheshvan 5779/November 2, 2018
Mevorchim Chodesh Kislev

Last year on December 25, 2017, Heichal HaTorah hosted a grandfather-grandson morning of Torah learning. It was beautiful and touching to see grandfathers sitting next to their grandsons learning together.
On that morning, I was about to begin my shiur by saying how touched I was by the event, and that I would give anything to have the opportunity to spend a morning learning with either of my grandfathers. Just before I began, Rabbi Mitch Bomrind, grandfather of my student, Elazar Milstein, said to me, “You know I learned with your Zaydei! He was a very special person!” I was very moved by that statement, and it threw me off for a few moments.
My Zaydei, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn zt’l, was indeed a great talmid chochom and a beloved personality. He remains one of my greatest influences and inspirations, almost three decades after his passing. 
The following week, Rabbi Bomrind texted me that he had a great story about my Zaydei to share. I called him, and he related the following:
“In the early 80s, I was at a dinner for Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim. Your grandfather was the emcee and he was sitting next to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, in what may have been the last dinner the aging Rosh Yeshiva was healthy enough to attend.
“The executive director, Rabbi Eidelman, approached the Rosh Yeshiva and mentioned that they had a dilemma- the honoree was a wealthy fellow named Daniel Potkerow. He owned a hosiery store on Orchard Street and was very successful. Although he donated money to the Yeshiva, there were two other donors who had pledged twice the amount of money to the Yeshiva. It would look funny for the Yeshiva if there were two people who gave double the amount that the honoree gave.
“Your grandfather immediately turned to the Rosh Yeshiva and asked for permission to rectify the situation. The Rosh Yeshiva told Rabbi Eidelman to leave it to Rabbi Kohn.
“Your grandfather walked to the podium and related the story at the end of Yevamos (121a): “Rabbi Gamliel said- I was once traveling on a boat and from a distance saw a boat that shattered and sank. I was grieved over the apparent death of the Torah scholar who was on board. Who was it? Rabbi Akiva. But when I disembarked on dry land, he (Rabbi Akiva) came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halacha. I said to him “my son, who brought you up from the water?” He replied to me: דף של ספינה נזדמן לי וכל גל וגל שבא עלי נענעתי לו ראשי - A plank from the boat came to me, and when each and every wave came before me, I bent my head before it. (Thus, the waves didn’t wash him off the board, and he was able to ride the waves until he reached shore).
Your grandfather continued, “The word דף (which Rabbi Akiva held onto) is an acronym for דניאל פאטקרוו. Whenever the Yeshiva has been a dire situation, whenever the waves and challenges have threatened to wash the Yeshiva out, that דף has come to its rescue. The Yeshiva has been able to count on and hold onto its דף and that is how it has been able to endure.”
“Mr. Potkerow was so moved and enamored by your grandfather’s witty presentation, that he immediately tripled his original pledge, which of course solved the problem.”
Rabbi Bomrind then added-
I had the privilege to learn with him on numerous occasions when I was a Rav on the East Side. He had Shas on the back of his hand. But what was more, I learned from him how to deal with people!
This Sunday, 27 Cheshvan, is my Zaydei’s yahrtzeit R’ Yaakov Meir ben R’ Yosef Yitzchok.  May his neshama have an Aliyah!

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

Thursday, October 25, 2018

PARSHAS VAYERA 5779


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayera
17 Cheshvan 5779/October 26, 2018

On Yom Kippur a few weeks ago, all day long I couldn’t stop thinking about Titus. That may sound strange, being that Titus is one of the infamous villains recounted on Tisha B’av. He was the commanding Roman general who oversaw the destruction of Yerushalayim and the second Bais Hamikdash in 70 c.e.
Upon his return to Rome he boasted that he had overpowered, not only the Jewish people, but their G-d as well. He blasphemed that the Jewish G-d only has power over the waters (as can be seen from historical evets – flood, splitting of the sea, etc.), but is powerless on dry land. Shortly thereafter a gnat flew into his nostril and made its way into his brain.
For the next seven years it ceaselessly pecked away inside his head, causing him incredible pain. The only respite he had was when a blacksmith was banging nearby. The gnat became intrigued by the noise and temporarily stopped pecking. But eventually it grew accustomed to that noise too and resumed pecking until it ultimately killed Titus.
Apparently, G-d’s abilities extend to dry land as well.
So why was I thinking about Titus on Yom Kippur?
As I have for more than the last decade, this year I had the pleasure of davening for the amud at Kehillat New Hempstead on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. When I arrived there on Yom Kippur morning, the building’s alarm was beeping incessantly, and continued doing so throughout the holy day. Although others said that after a while the noise didn’t bother them, I am particularly sensitive, and it exacerbated my usual Yom Kippur afternoon headache.
In retrospect there is a great lesson to be gleaned from the experience. We would like to serve Hashem with a clear mind, when we feel relaxed and calm. In fact, to some degree we expect that when we try to do what is right, G-d should ensure that life is smooth and easy. After all, if we are trying to do His Will, shouldn’t He at least make it convenient to do so?!
But the reality is not that way. When Hashem initially instructed Avrohom to set out and leave behind his family and everything familiar, things weren’t easy for Avrohom. In fact, the challenges seem to only increase in intensity. But it was those challenges that propelled Avrohom to levels of unparalleled greatness, worthy of being the progenitor of the eternal people.
The challenge of life and the road to greatness is paved with struggle and the incessant and often maddening ‘beepings’ of life.
But perhaps there is an additional lesson that is more endemic to our times:
On the third day after his circumcision, G-d Himself visited the ailing Avrohom, as it were. In the midst of their “conversation”, Avrohom noticed three bedouins traveling in the distance. He immediately interrupted his “meeting” with G-d to invite the guests to his home.
The commentators note that Avrohom’s actions demonstrate that it is greater to emulate G-d than it is to speak with G-d. Fulfilling the mitzvah of chesed was even greater than receiving prophecy from the Almighty.
Maybe that’s why there are people who don’t think twice about taking out their phones during davening. With our phones we can instantly be in touch with anyone anywhere in the world. Until a few years ago that was something only G-d Himself could do.
When people text or scroll through messages during davening they may feel they are imitating G-d which - as Avrohom Avinu taught us - is greater than speaking to Him.
Beyond my facetiousness, it’s probably more habit, desensitization, and lack of thinking that causes people to be busy with their phones in middle of davening. If anyone really stopped to think about it, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t agree that it’s disrespectful and inappropriate. No one means to be disrespectful, but we need to realize the truth.
In our lives in order to engage in the important things in life - spending time with our spouses and children, doing our jobs, and of course serving our Creator - we need to be able to ignore the “ringing” that surrounds us. We have to be able to not engage every buzz and ring that we hear or feel. This is not only true during davening, but whenever we need to invest our attention elsewhere.
Titus was destroyed because he couldn’t control the incessant noise in his head. We should make sure the same doesn’t happen to us.

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