Thursday, August 11, 2022

Parshas Vaeschanan 5782

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vaeschanan – Shabbos Nachamu

15 Menachem Av 5782/August 12, 2022

 Tu b’Av – Avos perek 3

FLIP CHALLENGE

In October 2016, the New York Times published an article entitled, “Bottle-Flipping Craze Is Fun for Children but Torture for Parents.”

Like many other fads that develop these days, the bottle-flip challenge began based on a video posted online. During a talent show held in a school in Charlotte, North Carolina, a student holding a water bottle, strutted up to a table while music was blaring in the background. With a dramatic pause, he flipped the bottle, which landed upright on the table. The crowd erupted in pandemonium. The video was quickly viewed millions of times. Since then, the internet has been flooded with videos of people imitating the flip.

As a rebbe in yeshiva and in camp, I can testify that the craze has not abated. Students will often start flipping bottles just before, or after, and sometimes in the middle of shiur. My students know that doing so is an easy way to rankle me.

Apparently, I’m not the only adult that can’t stand the bottle flipping. The main issue is the annoying sound it makes, especially when it’s done repeatedly, as it usually is, because the first eight attempts are unsuccessful. Part of the problem is that kids are forever trying to do harder bottle flips, like on faraway places, moving targets, or narrow ledges.

Despite my disdain and annoyance with the bottle flip challenge, I feel that it carries some important symbolic significance. We like when life is smooth and predictable. The problem is that it hardly is. I often tell people that these days I’m trying to find, or even buy, a dull moment. The challenge is how to remain on your feet even after life has cast some harsh curveballs at you. It’s inevitable that events in life “sweep us off our feet” by pulling out the rug of stability from beneath our feet. Being able to maintain our composure and sense of equanimity during such trying times is no easy feat. The challenge is whether we can remain upright even when we feel like we are “on a narrow ledge”.

Whenever camp goes on a trip to an amusement park, my motto is that if G-d placed me on the ground, that is where I’ll stay. I sample the different benches and concession stands around the park and enjoy watching campers on the rides. But you can’t pay me enough to get on a roller coaster. But it seems that many people do enjoy that experience. They are willing to wait on long lines, for the relatively brief ride. They enjoy having their stomach, head and legs get mushed together, while they get shaken up like a lulav.

There’s a thrill in going through loops and backwards at high speed, feeling like you’re in an out-of-control descent, all the while knowing that you’re going to end up back where you started in one piece.

Life is often a roller coaster. The significant difference is that life lacks predictability and we don’t know where we will end up. For that we need faith that life isn’t as random as it may feel.

The history of the Jewish people can aptly be described as a frightening roller coaster. There have been many great moments, but many vicissitudes as well. Our national greatness is that we have never lost our footing. Despite having to endure endless suffering and wandering, through faith, courage, and commitment, we have never abandoned our mission.

So, while bottle flipping may enthrall millions of teens worldwide, I am not so impressed. The Jewish people have been successfully personifying the bottle flip for thousands of years and will continue to do so until the end of time.

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


Thursday, August 4, 2022

Parshas Devorim 5782

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Devorim – Shabbos Chazon

8 Menachem Av 5782/August 5, 2022

 Erev Tisha b’Av

LOVING FEAR

It’s become a rather ubiquitous experience. You walk up to someone’s home and ring the bell. As you wait for a response, you notice that they have a video ring, and you know you’re being watched. What do you do while you’re waiting? Most people try their best to nonchalantly look causal and cool. But there’s no escaping that feeling of being stuck there while you know you’re being videoed.

During the weeks of the covid pandemic, I went to my students’ homes one Erev Shabbos to deliver potato kugel my wife had made. It was an excuse to see them, if even from a distance. I pulled up to one home and got out of my car to hand it to my student. I saw my student and his brother and father pointing excitedly. I thought they were joking until they started screaming “your car!” I turned around to see my car slowly inching towards their dining room window. It seems that the driver, who will remain nameless, remembered to put on his mask and gloves, but must have forgotten to put the car in park. I quickly ran, jumped into the car and stopped it in time. The worst part was that the whole ordeal was clearly captured on their ring. (The Zimermans will be more than happy to show it to you…)

My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, quipped that, “A Jew should always feel that G-d is looking over his shoulder. If a person feels that way, it’ll save him from a lot of trouble. All the articles in the newspapers that report indictments, and everything lawyers make millions of dollars off of, is because people forget G-d for a moment.”

 We refer to that sense of awareness as yiras shomayim. One fears heaven by being conscience of the fact that heaven is viewing and recording his deeds and actions. This is not to say heaven is watching us to condemn us when we fall short. Rather, heaven is cheering us on, hoping that we will live up to our potential and be the great people we are capable of becoming.

The Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh we recite a passionate prayer in which we beseech Hashem to grant us life. We ask for life of blessing, livelihood, vigor, etc. Curiously, there is one thing we ask for twice: “A life that has in them fear of heaven and fear of sin… life that there is within us love of Torah and fear of heaven.” There are various explanations offered about why we ask for fear of heaven twice.

Rabbi Asher Weiss notes that it is clear to him that the real answer to the question has to do with a misplaced comma. Rabbi Weiss is emphatic that, in fact, we do not request fear of heaven twice. The second request is not for “love of Torah, and fear of heaven” as if they are two separate commodities. Rather, we ask Hashem to grant us a life wherein we feel a love both of Torah and fear of heaven. In other words, we are asking Hashem to help us love being G-d-fearing Jews.

Rabbi Weiss continues that the reason this true explanation is not commonly known is because most people don’t think of fear of heaven as something one can love. Most people view it as a necessary challenge. Most people think that training oneself to recognize that G-d is always watching his every action is an unpleasant reality we have to live with. But the truth is that being G-d-fearing should not be overbearing and unpleasant. One merely needs to look at the state of morality, or the lack thereof, in western society to see what happens when there is a lack of awareness of G-d. It’s reminiscent of the timeless words of Avrohom Avinu who told Avimelech that he wasn’t candid about his beautiful wife’s identity, “because I said only there is no fear of G-d in this place, and (therefore) they will kill me regarding the matter of my wife” (Bereishis 20:11).

We don’t merely ask to fear heaven. We ask that Hashem help us appreciate the virtue of living such a noble life with an awareness of G-d constantly. Our greatest Torah leaders, who epitomize such a life, are princes of noble character, loving and beloved, exuding goodness and examples of humanity at its finest. That virtue and nobility is the direct result of the fact that they are G-d-fearing and live with an awareness of G-d in their lives.

The more fear of heaven we inculcate in our lives, the greater we become as individuals and as a society.

The ultimate place where one was able to glean that sense of fear of heaven was in the Bais Hamikdash. When a Jew entered its confines, he became hyper-aware that he was in G-d’s Presence. When one would witness the Kohanim performing the avodah with vigilance and alacrity, hear the harmonized singing of the Leviim, and see the awesome structure of the Bais Hamikdash, it left an indelible impression upon him. It was when people stopped feeling that sense of awe from the Bais Hamikdash that Hashem caused it to be destroyed.

One of the challenges of exile and not having a Bais Hamikdash is the lack of that added sense of awareness of Hashem in the world.

At the conclusion of Shemoneh Esrei we daven that Hashem rebuild the Bais Hamikdash “and there we will serve You with awe.” Although the Bais Hamikdash was a place where one could and should also discern love of Hashem for His nation, our prayer is to merit back the awe that we lack without the Bais Hamikdash and its avodah.

It is an ongoing struggle for us to maintain that sense of awareness that Hashem is with us constantly and is always “looking over our shoulder.” With the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash very soon, we will once again have that omnipresent feeling of connection with Hashem. And when that awareness returns what a different world it will be - a world without pain and suffering. It will be a world of kindness, selflessness, and holiness.

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

Have an inspiring, meaningful, and easy fast,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Parshas Matos-Massei 5782

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Matos-Masei – Chazak!

Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av 5782/July 29, 2022

 Avos perek 2

HEAR IT

June 1994 was a great month for New York sports. The New York Rangers, who had previously not won a Stanley Cup since 1940, finally prevailed. Until then, for years, whenever the Rangers played on the road, the home team would taunt them with chants of 1940.

The 1994 playoffs were incredible, culminating with the Rangers beating their rivals, the New Jersey Devils, in double overtime of game 7. The Stanley Cup against the Vancouver Canucks also went to seven games before the Rangers finally secured the cup. New York Rangers fans were euphoric.

At the same time, the New York Knicks were winning their way through the NBA playoffs, beating the Nets, Bulls and Pistons. Alas, in the championships, Patrick Ewing and the Knicks were defeated by Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets in seven games.

All that sports excitement is very distracting for a ninth grader studying for his first two New York State Regents. That year I was taking the math regents and the biology regents. Math has never been my strong point and I invested hours of studying. I’m proud to say that I scored a 96. The biology regents, however, didn’t turn out that well for me. Thanks to the Rangers, Knicks, and too much time studying for math, I got a 60 on biology. (We’ll just keep this between you and me, my faithful readership. If word gets out it can affect my children’s shidduchim.)

The next biology regents was offered in August, and it was suggested that I retake it. I registered for the regents and then spent the summer studying biology. When I went off to Camp Torah Voda’as for the second half of the summer, I had the biology review book under my bed, and would study from it at night.

The night before the regents, my father picked me up from camp and brought me home. The next morning, I went to a local public school to take the exam. Later that afternoon, my father drove me back up to camp. I was obviously quite anxious about how I did, and I knew it would take a couple of days before I would receive the grade.

What made it more challenging was that in those days we were only allowed to call home on Friday, and I didn’t want to wait almost an entire week to find out how I did.

The next day I received a fax from my father (this was during ancient times, before email….). It said: “To get to you (Camp Torah Voda’as, Highland, NY) we take the 299. To get to Ahuva (Camp Sternberg, Narrowsburg, NY) we take the 17. To get to Yitzie (Camp Dora Golding, East Stroudsburg, PA) we take the 80.” The number 80 was circled five times.

It took me a few perplexing minutes before I realized that my father was covertly telling me that I had scored an 80 on the regents. To the kid in the office handling the faxes, for some reason my father was giving me directions. But I was able to decipher the symbolic personal message without anyone else realizing it.

Just prior to Shemoneh Esrei each morning, we state: “Praised is the man who listens to Your mitzvos and Your Torah and Your Words he places upon his heart.”

Rabbi Shimon Schwab explains that one fulfills “sheyishma l’mitzvosecha – hearing Your mitzvos” not only by performing the actual mitzvos, but also “hearing” the message and ethical values they convey.

The Torah instructs us “Kedoshim tihyu - You shall be holy.” Ramban explains that a person can be a “naval birshus HaTorah - a despicable person within the parameters of Torah”. In other words, he can observe the letter of all laws and technically be an “observant Jew”, and yet behave in an uncouth and undignified manner. The Torah instructs us that we must strive to be a people of regal bearing, people who others see as holy and G-d-fearing.

It is not enough to merely observe the laws; we must hear and adhere to their message as well.

Beyond the underlying message of mitzvos and the Torah, there is often a more personal message. These are the messages one gleans from daily living, from events that transpire to us or around us, or from people we encounter.

Being that none of us are gifted with prophecy today, no one has the right to definitively declare what G-d intended through an event that occurred. Interpreting and attaching explanations for G-d is an especially slippery slope when people decide messages for others. But every one of us is able to glean symbolic messages from life generally. The keen person pays attention to events and tries to personally grow from everything that happens to him and around him.

A friend related that one day his watch had stopped. Apparently, the battery needed to be changed. He noticed that it had stopped at 7:42. He attends a daily minyan that begins at 7:45. He knew that to be properly ready for davening he needed to be in shul a few minutes early, but, as of late, he had become lax in that regard. When his watch stopped, he took it as a personal message that he needed to try harder to get ready for davening at 7:42.

That is part of what we mean that we try to “hear” the Word of Hashem. Messages and lessons abound if we are looking for them.

During the time of the Bais Hamikdash and particularly in the Bais Hamikdash, one “encountered” G-d and felt greater connecting to Him. In exile, we have to invest far greater effort to do so. Part of our focus during these days of mourning is to discover and encounter G-d and to try to discern His Word constantly through the world and life generally.

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum        

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Parshas Pinchas 5782

 

“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”

Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Pinchos

23 Tamuz 5782/July 22, 2022

 Avos perek 1

FOCUS ON FOCUS

Every word of the Torah is precious, beloved, and timeless. But I have a particular affinity for parshas Balak. I know we just read it. Still, while it’s fresh in my mind I wanted to write about why I enjoy the parsha so much.

For one, parshas Balak has the uniqueness of being the only narrative in the Torah of which our ancestors were completely unaware. As Moshe related the words of the Torah, reviewing all the events that transpired during their forty-year sojourns in the desert, the nation nodded knowingly. But when they were informed that Balak had hired Bila’am to curse them, but their nefarious plan had been thwarted, the nation was stunned. They knew nothing about the evil intentions or about the beautiful praises Bila’am had unwittingly stated about them.

In addition, there is a poignant practical message the parsha conveys. We often don’t recognize the blessings in our lives, because we grow accustomed to them. But when an outsider conveys his amazement and admiration for what we take for granted, it generates within us a renewed appreciation for those blessings.

The Jewish people have their flaws; there’s no doubt about that. We are, and have always been, a tough people. We are stubborn, strong-minded, and strong-willed. Although those traits have assured our survival, they also make us difficult to contend with at times. Moshe Rabbeinu himself told our ancestors at the end of his life. “You have been rebellious from the day I knew you” (Devorim 9:24).

At the same time however, there is much greatness, nobility, strength of character and inherent goodness in the Jewish people. But since it surrounds us and we don’t know any other type of life, we often don’t realize or focus on the gift of being part of such a great people.

It’s well-known that there are non-Jews who keep a yarmulka in their glove compartment. If their car ever breaks down on the highway, they don the yarmulka and stand outside their car, assured that within a short time a bunch of yarmulka-wearers will stop to help. The truth is that in the last few years there have been numerous stories of religious Jews, particularly of Chaverim, helping non-Jews with flat tires, and cars stuck in snow.

A few weeks ago, there was a formula shortage crisis in the United States. There are sensitive and hypoallergenic toddlers that could only have certain amino acid-based formula. As can be imagined, that formula was in high demand and even more limited than general formula.

There was a post that was circulated that said the following: “Emergency post: please share. If anyone, anywhere has this formula (the post had a picture of the can), a desperate mother in Baltimore is looking for this exact formula. Her baby is having severe allergic reactions to everything else tried.” Within a few hours a follow-up post circulated: “Mi K’amcha Yisroel!!! 4 cans located in Monsey with a ride directly to Baltimore!”

The story is truly remarkable. It was sent from Monsey to Baltimore, from one family to another they had never previously met.

I saw the posts about the formula on a beautiful new WhatsApp group called “#MKY” (Mi K’amcha Yisroel - Who is like Your people, Yisroel). The group’s description states:

“A place to celebrate the joy, the connection, and the flavor of simply being a Yid!” What a beautiful idea!

There is so much collective beauty being a Torah Jew and being part of our communities m, but we often forget it in our daily frustrations and gripes.

The average American family starts saving money for their children to go to college when the children are just beginning elementary school. In our communities, we pay astronomical amounts in tuition for our children to attend Torah institutions every year.

The average American family has a family meal on Thanksgiving and perhaps December 25. We enjoy such special family meals every Shabbos and Yom Tov.

In addition, we spend thousands of dollars on Shabbos, Yomim Tovim, kashrus, shul dues, tefillin and mezuzos. Our communities have endless opportunities for inspiration and lectures on a variety of topics, including parenting and improving marriage, parsha, daf yomi and all areas of halacha. I wonder how often the average American listens to a class or attends a lecture about improving their character, marriage or becoming a better parent.

A year and a half after the Covid pandemic began, public school teachers were arguing that schools had to remain shuttered. Meanwhile in our yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, our rabbeim, moros, and teachers were on the front lines, trying to get our schools to reopen as soon as it was reasonably safe enough to do so.

Rabbi Yisroel Reisman noted that we must point this out and emphasize it to our children. They should realize the primacy and vital importance we place on educating and teaching our children Torah and Torah values.

Everyone is familiar with the dictum that the optimist sees the glass as half full while the pessimist sees the glass as half empty. I once heard the following clever and true observation:

Whether one sees the glass half full, or half empty is dependent on his vantage point when looking at the glass. If he is looking up for below, he will see the water in the glass. But if he looks at the glass from above, he will see the emptiness on top.

How we view everything in life depends on the perspective from which we are looking. If we have sense of humility and appreciation we will look up at others and at life, and we will notice the blessings on our lives. But if we are looking down from above with a sense of entitlement and arrogance, we will first notice the things we are missing from our lives.

The same is true regarding our perspective when thinking about the Jewish people. If our focus is on the deficiencies of others and with a negative perspective, we will see the faults of the Jewish people. But if we have a perceptive of humility and look up at our fellow Jews, we will see the incredible beauty the Jewish people have and the gift we have to be part of the eternal people.

As we begin the Three Weeks of mourning for the loss of the Bais Hamikdash and our elongated exile, it is an apropos time to focus on our focus. How do we think about and view others and the Jewish people collectively? When we seek the good, we will discover that there is much good to be found.

 

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum