Monday, September 27, 2021

Simchas Torah 5782

 

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Hoshanah Rabbah

21 Tishrei 5781/September 27, 2021

 

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לרפואה שלימה נטע יצחק בן רחל

PERFECTLY UNBALANCED

 

            Perhaps the most under-appreciated honor that one can receive in shul is to do hagbaha - raising the Torah for the entire congregation to see.

            Some people don’t appreciate being honored with hagbaha, because, unlike being called up for an aliyah, hagbaha is not a “talking part”. Some young men however, become very excited with the opportunity to do hagbaha, relishing the opportunity to display their bulging muscles to the entire congregation. You can tell who those people are because they try to open the entire Torah at once while raising it to the rafters.

            I often think about a hagbaha incident from my youth, when we davened in the Poilisher Shteeble on the Lower East Side. For some inexplicable reason, Ezra, a man whose hands shook was given the honor of doing hagbaha. As expected, as soon as Ezra lifted the Torah it wobbled menacingly, and everyone around the bimah rushed to steady it. An annoyed Ezra called out, “I got it! I got it!” My father and I still laugh about that incident.

            During this time of year hagbaha can be somewhat challenging because all of the weight of the Torah is shifted to one side. During the weeks before Simchas Torah when the final parshios of the Torah are read, all of the weight is on the right side. Then, during the weeks after Simchas Torah when the first parshios of the Torah are read, all the weight is on the left side.

            There is a symbolic message in the challenging hagbahos of this time of year. The end of the Jewish year is the season of repentance, when we seek to reset ourselves spiritually, and recommit ourselves to the ideals of Torah and serving Hashem. It is immediately followed by our recommencement of our yearly cycle of Torah learning and reading. During this time, we remind ourselves that Torah study, commitment and observance is not merely for when everything is evenly balanced and relatively easy. It also includes unyielding acceptance, even when life seems unbalanced, and pressures pull us in one (or opposite) directions. Our task is to be able to metaphorically do hagbaha - raising and looking upwards towards the open Torah - even then.

            Rav Elimelech Biderman similarly notes that this message is demonstrated in our daily taking of the Four Species on Succos. Halacha dictates that until one recites the blessing, one holds the esrog upside down with the pittum facing downwards. This symbolizes that whenever one is in a situation where things seem upside down, or out of whack, when things are as people say, “mitten pittum arup - when the pittum is facing the ground”, even then one must recite a beracha. Doing so demonstrates one’s faith that everything is for the good and exactly how G-d wants it to be. In that merit, hopefully everything will be transformed to what seems good to us as well.

            There is an old beloved Yiddish Succos song called “ah sukkele”. In a moving tune it relates how the father built a flimsy succah for his family to use during the beloved holiday. But then a storm came, and winds pounded the succah, threatening to rip it apart. The man’s son turns to his father in fear and asks if the succah can withstand such winds? The father reassuringly replies that the succah has been withstanding terrible winds and tempests for two thousand years. It will unquestionably withstand this storm as well.

            During the seven days of Succos we celebrate the lives of seven of our greatest leaders, the ushpizin, who are called the seven shepherds of Klal Yisroel. By reminding ourselves and contemplating their timeless contribution to our people, we welcome their presence and essence into our succah.

            The ushpizin teach us how to serve Hashem, even when things are not pleasant, easy or convenient. Each one of them transcended numerous challenges and struggles throughout their lives. It is their moments of triumph over adversity and personal pain that we celebrate and try to internalize during Succos. It is the fact that they served Hashem even when things weren’t balanced and the proverbial esrog was upside down.

            As we roll the Torah for the end back to the beginning, and as the weight shifts from one side to the other, our hope is that we can proclaim, “I got it! I got it!”, even at those times when our hands are shaky, and we feel unbalanced.

 

            A Piskta Tava & Git Kvittel

            Freilichen Yom Tov & Chag Sameiach,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Monday, September 20, 2021

Succos 5782

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Succos

14 Tishrei 5781/September 20, 2021

 

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לרפואה שלימה נטע יצחק בן רחל

BENEATH THE CAP

            The season of repentance is described as a great gift from G-d, one that offers us renewal and redirection. So why do we dread it so much?

            You’re schmoozing with a friend at a simcha, laughing and reminiscing together. Without thinking much about it, you haphazardly grab a bottle of soda from the middle of the table and rapidly begin twisting it open. You failed to realize that the waiter had just brought that bottle of soda to the table and had dropped it along the way. In a moment there is soda spritzing all over the table, your suit (dress/shaitel), and face. Aside for the big mess, it’s embarrassing. It’s definitely a sticky situation to be in (sorry).

            The carbonated contents of the bottle had been under pressure. To avoid a bursting explosion, it needed to have been opened slowly and methodically.

            Most of us have a lot going on beneath the surface of our lives and personalities. But we feel that we have to maintain a superficial veneer that our lives are perfect, and we have everything together. Despite the fact that everyone has their share of struggles and challenges, we like to pretend everything is peachy and perfect. After all, we are naively fooled that our neighbors indeed have everything together, so how can we let anyone know that we don’t?

            So, we bottle everything up, causing tremendous pressure to build within ourselves. For much of the time we are able to keep pushing everything beneath the surface or the rug and go about our lives.

            That is part of the reason why many of us fear the process of teshuva. Why shake up the bottle and create an explosion? Who wants to find out what’s under the bottle cap?

            The problem is that in order to grow, one must be willing to confront all those things he spends his life hiding from. He has to open the cap on the bottle and allow the mounting pressure to escape. But he’s afraid that it may explode beyond what he can handle. The problem is that, alas, there is no other way to grow beyond one’s current state.

            During the sublime days of Tishrei, the custom is that we recite tashlich in front of a flowing body of water, preferably water that has fish swimming in it. (Of course, there are some readers who just looked up and said “Oy! I still have to remember to say tashlich!” This is your reminder that you have until Hoshana Rabbah.)

            When one looks at a body of water it seems serene and level. But just beneath the surface of the water is an entire world obscured from view.

            One of the reasons why tashlich is recited at a waterfront is to symbolize that, like flowing water, G-d’s Kingship flows and continues eternally. Perhaps it’s also to symbolize that just as there is a world beneath the surface of the water obscured from the view of those on shore, so is the depth of G-d’s monarchy beyond human comprehension. There are layers and layers of depth beyond what our finite minds can grasp.

            The truth is that within ourselves as well there is much greatness that we fail to tap into. It’s uncomfortable to pull off the cap that’s keeping the contents under pressure. But when we do so, we discover wonderful content we never realized was there.

            The question then becomes, once one has opened the proverbial bottle, and dealt with the pressure and explosion it generated, what does he do next? Does he immediately close it back up and put in the fridge, or does he then enjoy the delicious contents?

            Now that we hopefully have engaged in that discomfort during the great days of teshuva, pulling and pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone, how do we maintain it?

            Rabbi Aaron Moss of Sydney, Australia, explains it this way:

            “Having just emerged from the security and nurture of the womb, a newborn baby is particularly vulnerable and sensitive. So, moments after birth, it is immediately swaddled to keep it protected and warm.

            “But swaddling doesn't last long. You rarely see teenagers wrapped up in a cloth with their arms behind their ears (though perhaps some should be.) Swaddling is a brief bridging stage between the safety of the womb and the hazards of real life. A well wrapped baby will eventually grow to face life unwrapped. The swaddle cloth just helps him get there.

            “Your soul needs that bridge too. You have emerged from the womb of Yom Kippur, a pure and renewed soul. The negative residue from your past has been cleansed. Your soul is now tender and sensitive, and easily susceptible to the coldness of spiritual apathy and other moral germs floating in the air. You need some protection. You need to be swaddled. You need a Sukkah.

            “The Sukkah is the only mitzvah that you do with your whole being. The holy air of the Sukkah completely envelops and surrounds you. It turns everything you do into a holy act. Eating and drinking and chatting in the Sukkah is a mitzvah, just because it is done in the divine shade of the Sukkah. When you sit in a Sukkah, you are being swaddled by sanctity. 

            “Going from the highs of Yom Kippur straight back into the routine of the mundane world is like taking a newborn from her mother's womb straight out into the cold night. You just can’t do that. Sit in the Sukkah. Bask in its sacred shade. Be enwrapped in its warm embrace.”

            I would add that particularly after baring our soul, making ourselves vulnerable and facing the parts of ourselves that we tried to hide, we need added reassurance and encouragement. We need to feel that despite exposing the cold parts of ourselves to the elements, we are still beloved in the eyes of the divine.

            But the truth is that it’s the opposite. It’s because we had the courage to turn inwards and expose those painful parts of ourselves, to face our demons and confront our shames in order to grow, that we are so beloved.

            That’s the beauty and joy of Succos. We are welcomed to sit in the shadow of the divine and to celebrate the self-discovery we have gained. The cap is off. Now it’s time to enjoy the wonderful contents you discover inside.

 

            Freilichen Yom Tov & Chag Sameiach,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Yom Kippur 5782

 

 “RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Yom Kippur

9 Tishrei 5781/September 15, 2021

 

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לרפואה שלימה נטע יצחק בן רחל

ANTIVIRUS WARE

            The other night I was driving with our eleven-year-old daughter Chayala, and she began asking me questions about how different parts of the car works. I happen to know a lot about cars from my years of driving them. I know that they have four tires, an engine, a steering wheel, a battery that you can’t buy at the checkout line at Shoprite, seats, and windshield wipers. But that’s about the extent of my expertise with cars. Still, I explained to her that inside the system of the car there is a built-in computer that regulates the technical parts of the car. I added that when I had gotten into an accident a couple of years ago, when a car rammed into the side of my car, aside from the structural body damage that my car sustained, the mechanic also had to reset the computer inside the car, which had malfunctioned as a result of the impact.

            Being that this conversation took place during the Aseres Yimei Teshuva, I thought about the connection between my car analogy and the process of teshuva. Every time we commit a sin, there are two mishaps that occur. There is the actual sin which becomes embedded on our conscience. In addition, there is a negative spiritual residue which blemishes our soul. In another sense, there is the sin itself and then there is the fact that we committed an act in defiance of G-d’s Will, which automatically makes the sin an act of unwitting rebellion.

            Repentance for the actual sin is like the body work to fix the car. That damage is most easily recognizable because it immediately impedes the functioning of the car. But there is also the not as noticeable problem which may not be immediately apparent but will become clear after the driver turns on the motor. The inner computer, the brain of the car, is also damaged which causes the car to not function optimally. Even if the car is able to drive, it will be a frustrating experience and potentially even dangerous.

            Rabbi Paysach Krohn relates a similar analogy about a young ba’al teshuva who bought a new set of pots and pans and went to immerse them in a mikvah. Afterwards, he was informed that the immersion could not be done until all stickers were removed from the vessels. He removed all the stickers and went to immerse them again.

            Afterwards, he noted that removing the stickers themselves was the easy part. The hard part was scratching off the glue underneath the labels.

            I can well relate to this. Anytime my wife asks me to tovel something I ask her to please take off the stickers and glue beforehand. I have spent much time trying to scratch off the stubborn glue in the small mikvah area….

            The ba’al teshuva noted that he realized that every sin has an outer component and an inner component - the label and the glue. The actual sin itself is the label, the outer component. But beyond that is the glue, the inner component of the sin, the impurity caused by the act which adheres to his soul and makes him more prone to sin again.

            The Torah writes about Yom Kippur, (Vayikra 16:30) “Because on this day, you will be forgiven so that you will be purified.” Yom Kippur is not only a day of repentance, but also a day of reconnection. Through the arduous service of the day, we not only rectify the body work and remove the negative labels from our souls, but we also rectify our inner computers, by scratching away the sticky residue of the sin. Forgiveness is for the actual sin itself, while purification is from the negative spiritual effect the sin caused.

            A chassidishe friend once quipped that a computer can become infected with a virus, just as we become infected by aveiros (it works better with a chassidishe pronunciation, when it’s pronounced the same way - “a-virus”).

            Last year, I had the unenviable experience of my computer shutting down. Suddenly, all I saw was a blank blue screen. No matter what I pushed, or how many times I shut my computer, that awful blank blue screen persisted.

            In a panic, I went to an expert who was able to go into the bowels of the computer and rectify the issue. When I came to pick it up, he showed me that the screen with the familiar background picture of my family was back, as were all my files and documents. Thankfully, my infected computer was able to have a refuah sheleimah.

            On Yom Kippur, if we seek to purify ourselves, Hashem helps us get there. It’s not only a day of forgiveness from past iniquities, but also a day of purification and rectification, when we are afforded the opportunity to begin anew.

 

            G’mar Chasima Tova and Good Yom Tov,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Monday, September 6, 2021

Rosh Hashana 5872

 

 

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Rosh Hashanah of 5777

29 Elul Av 5776/ October 2, 2016

 

Although I have lived in Monsey for most of my life, I am not a Monsey native. My formative years were spent living in the legendary Lower East Side of Manhattan. Until I was eight years old, we lived on the second floor of 550G Grand Street, near where it intersects with East Broadway.

I have many wonderful memories from my years living there. Gus’s pickles were a constant at our Shabbos table, as were Chinese noodles purchased in nearby Chinatown. Through first grade I attended Mesivta Tiferes Jerusalem, and our family davened in the Poilishter Shteeble. But best of all was the fact that both sets of my grandparents lived just a few minutes away, in nearby apartment buildings. It was a special treat that when we would come to shul every Shabbos we would daven alongside my Sabbah a’h.

One of the many endemic experiences of living on the Lower East Side was saying tashlich near the base of the Williamsburg Bridge on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It seemed that the entire Jewish community, which included hundreds of people, was there.

As a child I was sure that it was our saying of tashlich that caused the East River to be so murky and polluted. After all, the river contained all of the discarded sins of all of Manhattan on one side, and all of Brooklyn and Queens on the other.

Another special experience of those years was spending Shabbos with our Sabbah and Savta. They lived on the fifth floor of their apartment building. On the way home from shul we would race up the flights of stairs urging Sabbah – who did quite well for a man of his age – to come quicker.

One of the highlights of those Shabbosim was lying down in Sabbah’s bed when he would read us a book. The book I remember him reading to us most was Scuffy.

Scuffy was a toy tugboat who grew bored circling around the bathtub of his young owner. He dreamed of traveling the open waterways in freedom. On one occasion he somehow managed to wiggle away from his owner in a small pond. The pond flowed all the way until it reached a river. Scuffy was enjoying every minute, including the views along the way, until the river became more raging and he neared the vast and frightening ocean. At the last moment before the water thrust him into the ominous endless ocean, a hand grabbed the terrified little toy tugboat by its stack. It was the young boy who owned Scuffy. Only from then on Scuffy was only too happy to be back in the bathtub, circling around and doing what he was made to do.

As a young boy that story put me to sleep. Reflecting on that story now however, made me think of it from a different perspective. In certain ways the story of Scuffy is our story. Chazal relate that the yetzer hara does not immediately goad a person to commit a serious transgression. Rather, he suggests that the person push his boundaries slightly, to test out the waters. He convinces to do things that aren’t really wrong per se, but may simply be something that make us feel somewhat uncomfortable. But the current only becomes stronger, until the person soon finds himself being rushed along the flow, no longer able to stop himself. The once pleasant streams have flowed into uncontrollable raging rivers, which lead to the ominous oceans.

But there is a hand that reaches out to grab us and reel us in before we become completely lost. In the waning moments of Yom Kippur, during the climactic prayer of Neilah, we declare: “You give a hand to sinners.” There is hope for return!

Perhaps that is part of the reason why the custom is to recite tashlich by a body of flowing water. It reminds us of the progression of sin and how easily we can become swept away. At the same time, it reminds us that there is a force stronger than all the rivers and oceans, i.e. the Being that created repentance even before he created those bodies of water.

We stand before the water with a feeling of meekness and humility and begin the prayer, “Who is like You, One who bears sin, and overlooks transgression…”

Therein lies our hope, if we will only allow that outstretched hand to embrace us.

Gut G’bentscht Yahr & Shana Tova,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum