Thursday, September 29, 2022

Parshas Vayeilech 5783

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayelech – Shabbas Shuva

5 Tishrei 5783/September 30, 2022

PEELER PROBLEMS

In my previous article I wrote about how it became my practice to make the cholent for Shabbos in our home.

During the summer, we have the great fortune to be at Camp Dora Golding. During that time, we enjoy Chef Yosef Oldak’s delicious food, including his cholent. So, for two months our crock pot lies in solitude, eagerly awaiting our return.

The first Thursday night after we returned, I made sure I had all the ingredients I needed and began preparing the cholent. All was well until it was time to add the potatoes. We had potatoes of course, there can hardly be a cholent without them. In fact, some of our children insist on only eating the potatoes from the cholent, and so I add extra potatoes. But alas, I could not find the peeler. I called for backup. But no one was able to locate any of our elusive peelers. They seemed to have escaped during the summer.

It was quite late, and I was beginning to feel uneasy. How can we have a cholent without potatoes? It would be like Rosh Hashanah without honey, Chanukah without latkes, and Shavuos without cheesecake. It was simply inconceivable. It was so frustrating. The potatoes were right in front of me. But if I couldn’t peel them, no one would eat them.

Fortunately, our daughter was out with a friend who offered to lend us a peeler. Thankfully, the catastrophe was averted and on Shabbos we had our cholent with potatoes.

Perhaps you’ve had enough hearing about my cholent, but I think there is a symbolic lesson to be gleaned from this incredibly exciting incident.

The month of Elul is a time when we focus on Hashem’s love for us- His nation. This is demonstrated by the noted acronym of Elul - “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li - I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.”

We refer to the holiday of Succos as the season of our joy. Physically, we celebrate harvesting the produce of our fields, and spiritually, we bask in the repentance we have achieved on Yom Kippur. Many commentaries explain that during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we engage in repentance out of fear for the exacting judgement. Then on Succos we engage in deeper repentance, one that emerges from feelings of celebratory love and joy.

If Elul is a time to reflect on our loving relationship with G-d, how does it differ from Succos, the holiday when we celebrate our loving relationship with G-d?

Before one begins preparing anything, he needs to have a vision of the desired result. Before beginning construction, one needs to have blueprints, before writing a book one needs to have a plot in mind, before heading into a potential sale one needs to know his purported target, and before cooking/baking one needs to know the recipe. In the words of Stephen Covey, to be successful one must begin with the end in mind. Every Friday night we express this concept eloquently when we state that the holy Shabbos was, “last to be created, first in thought.” The goal of all creation was for holiness, encapsulated by the sanctity of Shabbos.

In Elul we focus on the recipe and goal. If we do teshuva, we are assured that we will achieve a renewed relationship with our Creator. We then chart our course to achieve that renewed connection through the challenging process of teshuva.

Once we know the recipe, we ‘gather the ingredients.’ On Rosh Hashanah we proclaim the majesty of G-d and accept His eternal monarchy upon ourselves. It’s been said that it’s far easier to proclaim G-d as King of the entire universe, than it is to proclaim and accept Him as King over ourselves. The main ingredient necessary for connection with G-d is accepting His monarchy over ourselves. We then spend the days leading up to and including Yom Kippur peeling away the external peels we have allowed to amass upon our souls throughout the year. Once we have peeled away the shells and peels, we are ready to cook the dish. Succos is when we reap the benefits of our efforts. In Elul we envisioned the goal and end result. At that point we imagined how delicious the dish would taste if we followed the recipe. On Succos, we actually taste it. After undergoing the arduous, yet gratifying process of teshuva, on Succos we bask in spiritual bliss and rejoice in that opportunity.

And that in a nutshell - or rather a crock pot - is a symbolic presentation of our pathway during Elul and Tishrei.

I should mention that when making the cholent that first week, my wife informed me that she had frozen onions in the freezer that I could use. I didn’t look closely enough and inadvertently added frozen mushrooms to the cholent. Believe it or not, it was quite tasty. And being that my kids wouldn’t touch it, I had it all to myself. I’m not sure what the lesson is, but I conclude by blessing us all that our efforts to do teshuva mushroom into even greater spiritual heights.

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

G’mar Chasima Tova,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Parshas Nitzavim 5782

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Netzovim

27 Elul 5782/September 23, 2022

 Avos perek 5-6

CHOLENT TALES

I must admit that my culinary expertise is quite limited. In fact, aside for making macaroni and toast (I do make a mean toast) I’m somewhat lost in the kitchen. But in the dining room is a different story. I’m quite experienced at sampling foods served to me and I must say that I “eat very nicely” (in Mommy vernacular).

But there is one thing I do pride myself on in the kitchen, and that’s making the cholent for Shabbos each week.

In the hallowed halls of yeshivos, it’s common for different students to make cholent. The cholent may be for late Thursday night or Friday night or Shabbos.

I once heard a poignant observation: Everyone in yeshiva eats cholent three times a week, besides Shabbos morning. The unmarried yeshiva guy has cholent on Thursday night, Friday afternoon and Friday night. The kollel guy has cholent for supper on Sunday night, Monday night and Tuesday night.

In yeshivos, student-chefs pride themselves on their secret ingredient and secret way of making cholent to give it a distinctive taste. This ranges from hot sauce, potato chips, and even beer. I’m sure there are stranger ingredients used that I’m not aware of.

During the years when I was the general studies principal in Yeshiva Ohr Naftali there were a variety of cholents cooking on Wednesday afternoon. Students explained to me that they didn’t make cholent on Thursday because the yeshiva’s cook made cholent for them to eat late Thursday night. Therefore, they moved their own cholent-cook up a day. It seems that the cholent-cook was a definite before Shabbos. The only question was how close to Shabbos.

A few students made cholent, and the remaining students purchased a bowl of cholent from the cholent-merchant of their choice. Late Wednesday afternoon, the large sink outside the yeshiva bathroom was filled with soaking cholent bowls, and the drain was stuffed with cholent debris (not sure what else to call it).

You can imagine that as principal, Wednesday afternoons were my hardest day. I should’ve made a recording of myself saying “you may not make cholent during class and you may not bring cholent into class.” The students would offer the teacher an irresistible free bowl of cholent thereby giving themselves justification to eat their bowls in class. They offered me cholent as well. But there was no way I was going to eat that stuff without knowing what they had put in there. Besides, I was afraid that they would somehow deduct the cholent fee from my paycheck.

But in our home, I have been making the cholent since before I was married. Actually, that isn’t really true. Prior to our marriage I would make potato kugel for shabbos in my parent’s home each week. In fact, when we were engaged, I would send a kugel to my kallah’s home before shabbos. Some chassonim send flowers, I sent kugel.

But somewhere along the way, I felt that making kugel was too time consuming and I switched to making the cholent for Shabbos.

When I started making the kugel, I really had no clue how to do anything other than peel potatoes. My mother had to show me how to use the mixer. Actually, I think she had to start by showing me how to crack a raw egg. So why did I bother with the kugel?

A number of years ago I heard Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman relate that one year on the night of Erev Shavuos, he went with a couple of his children to bring flowers to Rabbi and Rebbitzin Pam. The Finkelman and Pam families shared a warm relationship and the Finkelmans were bringing flowers as a gift for Yom Tov. When Rabbi Finkelman knocked on the front door there was no response. He didn’t want to leave the flowers by the front door, out of fear that they might be stolen. So, he walked with his children to the back door, to leave the flowers there.

When they approached the back door, the window shutters weren’t totally drawn. They were able to see Rav Pam standing at the kitchen table with his sleeves slightly rolled up (he wouldn’t uncover his elbows) and he was busily preparing food for Yom Tov.

It reminded me of the gemara (Kiddushin 41a) that states that Rav Safra would cook the head of an animal and Rava would salt the fish for the Shabbos meal. These great sages would take the time to help prepare for Shabbos.

The story of Rav Pam inspired me to begin preparing something for Shabbos as well. It’s over two decades later and I have upheld that practice.

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus explains that preparing for Shabbos is essentially honoring the Divine Presence. Whatever we do for the honor of Shabbos is in actuality in honor of Hashem.

When considering how we can enhance and elevate our personal service to Hashem this year, we should consider trying to do more to prepare for Shabbos.

For those who are already maxed out preparing for Shabbos each week, perhaps this can serve to mentally enhance our efforts and remind us of how special it is to prepare for Shabbos. When we are overly fatigued, remembering this can give us a little more mental energy.

Preparing for Shabbos affords us the opportunity to serve Hashem in a unique manner, by beautifying our own homes and meals in His honor.

When preparing for Shabbos, you can have your cake/kugel/cholent, eat it too, and get a mitzvah. What a delicious way to serve Hashem.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

Kesiva Vachasima Tova,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

 

 

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Parshas Ki Savo 5782

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Savo

20 Elul 5782/September 16, 2022

 Avos perek 3-4

ROYAL SILENCE

On Thursday, September 8, 2022, Queen Elizabeth died at the age of 96. She was Queen for more than 70 years, making her the longest-reigning monarch in British history. She began her reign when Winston Churchill was still prime minister and Dwight Eisenhower was the US president.

One newspaper described her as “an enduring presence, one who remained determinedly committed to the hallmark aloofness, formality and pageantry of the monarchy.”

There have been increasing opinions that perhaps Britain would be better off without the monarchy. It is basically all formality, as the royal family wields virtually no real power in the government. But virtually everyone agreed that during the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth, the monarchy would continue.

Incredibly, she was respected by all sides of the political spectrum and leaders throughout the world. She weathered many internal familial storms and challenges that rocked Britain over the decades, always maintaining her grace and dignity.

What was the queen’s secret to the national, and even global, respect and admiration she commanded?

One of the keys to her success was her ability to maintain an aura of neutrality and transcend politics by remaining silent. In an age of constant opinions, social media rants and political broadcasting, the Queen kept her personal views and opinions to herself. The public never knew where she stood on political matters.

During the contentious vote over Brexit, whether Britain should or shouldn’t leave the European Union, a newspaper published a front-page article with the headline, “Queen backs Brexit”. The following day Buckingham Palace released a statement that “the Queen remains politically neutral as she has for 63 years… the referendum is a matter for the British people to decide.”

It’s not hard to imagine that the Queen had an opinion on the matter. Yet she remained stoic and silent and would not divulge her personal feelings.

In that sense, Queen Elizabeth personified the timeless wisdom stated by Shmuel Hakattan in Pirkei Avos (4:19): “All my days I grew up among the sages, and I did not find anything better for the body than silence.” Interestingly, he doesn’t say that he found nothing better for the soul/spirit than silence, but for the body.

On a far more profound and challenging level, the ability to maintain an aura of silence was one of the components of the greatness of Queen Esther. King Achashveirosh was given over to ostentatiousness, glamour and pomp. When he met Esther, he was taken by her reservedness, modesty and humility. Her royal silence was a key factor in bringing about the Purim miracle.

When I was pursuing my social work degree in Fordham University a few decades ago, I generally adopted a policy of silence. The mental health field was and is extremely liberal-minded, sometimes shockingly so. Many of the viewpoints espoused in the classrooms were openly anti-Torah values.

Perhaps it was also shyness but generally I was more reserved and hesitant about offering my opinions and viewpoints. It was interesting to me that my professors would often tell me, or comment on my papers, that they wanted to hear my voice. I assume because I wore a yarmulka and my tzitzis were visible, they particularly wanted to know my thoughts about matters being discussed. But I’m quite sure that if I began being more vocal, they would no longer be so interested in hearing what I had to say.

It’s one of the great ironies of life: Keep quiet and people want to hear what you have to say. Open your mouth and suddenly nobody is interested anymore.

Shabbos Kodesh is a day of royalty. We refer to the Shabbos Malkah - the Shabbos Queen.

One of the laws of Shabbos is “that your speech on Shabbos not be like your speech during the week” (Shabbos 113b). On Shabbos we don’t speak about business or plan for the week. We seek to live in the present and focus on our values and priorities. The royalty of shabbos demands greater restraint in our conduct as well as our speech. Royalty entails knowing when to voice one’s opinion and knowing when silence is a better path.

We, the Torah nation, are true royalty. An important component of our monarchy is the ability to be able to restrain ourselves and remain silent.

As we prepare to present ourselves before the ultimate King on Rosh Hashanah, it behooves us to embrace our own majesty and royalty.

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

 

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Parshas Ki Seitzei 5782

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Setzei

13 Elul 5782/September 9, 2022

 Avos perek 1-2

 

KOSHER RAILING[1]

The Young Israel Beth-El synagogue at the corner of 15th and 48th in Boro Park, is one of the oldest shuls in the Tri-State area. The Kehilla was founded in 1902 and built its first building in 1906. The current three-story building, constructed in the early 1920s, is a magnificent and imposing building with a beautiful sanctuary. 

The current rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Snow, assumed the mantle of leadership of the shul in 2000, after the passing of the previous Rabbi, Rabbi Yisroel Schorr z”l. Because it is such a beautiful building, the Young Israel of Beth-El is occasionally rented out for various functions. One of those functions is the Prospect Park Girls School graduation. As Prospect is a girl’s school, most of the attendees at the graduation are women. Therefore, it’s more practical for the women to sit in the main sanctuary and the men in the balcony, in what is usually the “women’s section” of the shul.

At the Prospect graduation held in the Young Israel Beth-El synagogue in 2002, one of the men in attendance was Dr. Neil Ringel, Rabbi Snow’s chavrusa. After the graduation ended, Rabbi Snow arrived to wish mazal tov to one of the families of a graduate he knew and to give his weekly Thursday night shiur. Dr. Ringel approached Rabbi Snow and informed him that he was concerned that the balcony had a ma’akeh issue.   The Torah states, that one must build a ma’akeh - railing for his roof.[2] Chazal explain that any high or potentially dangerous place, such as a swimming pool or a raised porch, must have an adequate railing for protection.[3] The shul’s balcony had been constructed with a piece of the floor bent upwards forming the bottom of the balcony. Above that was a 26-inch gap, on top of which was another bar. The height of the second bar reached about 31 inches from the floor. Dr. Ringel was concerned that the railing was not halachically valid. 

Rabbi Snow was stunned. Could it be that somehow this had gone unnoticed for 86 years since the building was constructed?[4] The following morning, Rabbi Snow measured the height of the railing and realized immediately that Dr. Ringel was right. On a practical level as well, the balcony seemed somewhat unsafe. 

To complicate the matter, Rabbi Snow had become the rabbi two years earlier[5] and was about to complete his two-year contract, which meant the board would soon be voting about contract renewal and salary. It was not an ideal time to present the board with what would undoubtedly be a major expense. But if halacha demanded it, there was no room for equivocation.

Rabbi Snow consulted with Rabbi Dovid Feinstein zt”l and Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz zt”l. They both agreed that the balcony had to be fixed. Rabbi Schwartz suggested that Rabbi Snow find out the legal requirements for the balconies of public buildings in New York City to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. Rabbi Snow was informed that the minimum height of a balcony is 40 inches (almost the same as 10 tefachim). However, because their building was constructed well before those regulations were enacted, it was ‘grandfathered in’ and legally could not be mandated to raise the balcony. Still, the city representative urged Rabbi Snow to bring it up to code. 

With that information, Rabbi Snow asked the president of the shul to convene a board meeting so he could discuss the matter. He decided that come what may, it was his responsibility to ensure that halacha was maintained in the shul. If it would cost him a renewal of his contract, or forfeiting a raise, so be it!

The rabbi prepared the topic and arrived at the meeting to address the board. Before he could say anything, one board member emphatically announced that there was nothing wrong with the mechitza. Rabbi Snow replied that he had no qualms about the mechitza. Rather, he had come to discuss a problem with a ma’akah. The man looked at the rabbi incredulously, “what’s a ma’akeh?” Rabbi Snow proceeded to deliver a 15-minute mini-shiur about the laws of ma’akeh to the board. He then explained the situation with the balcony and why it would have to be redone. When he finished his lecture, the same fellow again asked what’s the problem with the mechitza. Rabbi Snow again replied that this had nothing to do with the mechitza. The man shot back, “ma’akah, mechitza – it’s all the same!”

A discussion began to ensue between the various members of the board. At that point, the president respectfully asked Rabbi Snow to leave so they could vote about the matter. If he would be there, it would not be a proper vote. 

Later that evening, Rabbi Snow nervously called the president to ask what the board had decided regarding the balcony. The president replied that they had agreed to proceed with the construction. He related that after the rabbi had left, one of the long-time board members, Mrs. Ringel, mother of the aforementioned Dr. Ringel, rapped on the table and said that she wanted to address the board. She said, “I don’t understand what is happening here! We have a rabbi who informed us that as a matter of halacha something must be done. There is no vote on a matter of halacha! If the rabbi said it must be done, there should not be any room for discussion here. If we call ourselves an orthodox congregation this is a mute matter.” Her argument carried the day and the vote passed 29-1[6].

A brass company came down and gave them an estimate of $27,000. The contractor said the work would take 2-3 months. Being that this took place in August, that would mean the work would not be completed until after the Yomim Tovim. At first the board protested that there was no way they could close the balcony for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the building was packed with over a thousand people. The Rabbi explained that the balcony could remain open, except for the first two rows closest to the balcony. The board agreed and the shul placed caution tape behind the first two rows, which remained empty.

By November the work was nearing completion. It was truly stunning. Rabbi Snow asked the contractor for the bill so he could submit it to the board. The contractor took out the bill, and in front of Rabbi Snow, tore it to shreds. He exclaimed, “This one is on me! I want to do this for the shul!” He was Jewish, though not at all religious. He was so enamored by the shul that he wanted to do something in its honor.[7]

When reflecting on the story, Rabbi Snow muses that the lesson he took from the incident is that one must never cower in the face of halachic demands, even when doing so will entail dealing with adversity or struggle.

Not always does deciding to do the right thing warrant such a gratifying ending. In this instance Hashem granted the shul the ability to upkeep halacha without it costing them a red cent. But our mission and responsibility is to adhere to halacha even if and when the ‘price tag’ may be high. The price we pay is well worth the returns we will receive, even if it doesn’t seem that way to the physical eye. 

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


 

 



[1] I originally heard this story from Rabbi Noach Sauber - Assistant principal of RTMA, Learning Director of Camp Dora Golding, and a personal rebbe and mentor - this past summer. Rabbi Moshe Snow is his uncle. I am grateful to Rabbi Snow for reviewing the details of this story and the article. 

[2] See Devorim 22:8

[3] The ma’akeh must be at least ten tefachim tall around the edge of the roof and is only required if the roof is at least ten tefachim off the ground. According to Rav Chaim Na’ah, it is about 31.5 inches, according to Igros Moshe (OC 1:136), it is between 35.6 and 38.4 inches, and according to the Chazon Ish, it is about 40 inches.

It is important to note that there is a concept in halacha called “lavud”. Lavud means that we consider any gap of less than three tefachim as though it's connected.

[4] On second thought, it was logical that just as he had never sat up in the balcony to realize the problem, neither had his predecessor.

[5] Rabbi Snow had been involved in the Young Israel under the guidance of Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz at the Young Israel of Boro Park, originally as the shul’s Youth Director since 1968. When Rabbi Schwartz left the shul to become the Av Beis Din of Chicago in 1986, Rabbi Snow became the rabbi of Young Israel of Boro Park. When Young Israel merged with Beth-El in 1988, Rabbi Snow became associate rabbi to Beth-El’s longtime rabbi, Rabbi Yisroel Schorr. When Rabbi Schorr passed away in 2000, Rabbi Snow became the Rabbi.

[6] The lone dissenter said that he voted against it just to ensure that it was a democratic process.

[7] As an obvious postscript, Rabbi Snow was rehired and is still the rabbi of the shul.