By R’ Chaim Bruk
We were all thrown off our game, taken off our Lag B’Omer high, upon hearing the horrific news out of one of the holiest sites, the resting place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron. When I studied in Tzfat, I had the honor of operating a tefillin stand in Meron on Lag B’Omer and seeing firsthand the love and joy that permeated the air and all those in attendance. This year that joy was shattered. On the day that celebrates the cessation of the plague that caused Rabbi Akiva’s students to die, 45 of our brothers passed away in a few short moments.
Due to this year’s calendar, we planned our Lag B’Omer celebration in Bozeman for Friday at 5:00 p.m., just three hours before Shabbos. Close to 60 people came out to celebrate with a gala barbecue and a moonbounce/trampoline for the kids. The food was delish, many men donned tefillin, and the atmosphere was positive and joyful, though, sadly, with a big dose of underlying pain. I said l’chaim with the gathered and shared the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s exit from the cave after 13 years in hiding:
The Talmud says in the tractate of Shabbos that Rashbi went to a particular town to heal from the wounds he acquired while living in the sand cave for so long. While there, he explored whether the town in which he was recovering needed anything. He learned that kohanim, members of the priesthood, couldn’t walk on one of its back roads because something impure was possibly buried underneath, which would make the kohanim impure. Though the priests in this town were a small minority, Rashbi spent valuable time and effort on remedying the problem so that they could use the path.
This is love. This is treating fellow human beings with dignity and respect. This is about genuine, unadulterated kindness. This is Lag B’Omer. I implored those gathered in our front yard to take this story to heart, and if they truly feel for those whose lives were cut short, those families mourning their loved ones, they should learn from the man of the hour, Rashbi, and do better in the realm of kindness to others, even total strangers. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that a soul can descend to this world for a lifespan of 70 or 80 years just to have the ability to do a single favor for another.
This kindness, this connectedness, is something unique among Klal Yisrael. We don’t know any of those who passed, but Chavie and I were devastated by the tragedy. It’s something really special about our Jewish family that connects us in ways that’s unheard of in any other community on earth. We all felt broken. We felt punched in the gut. We felt lost.
I wondered why it hurt so much, and then I remembered that by Divine Providence I just recently learned a farbrengen of the Rebbe from motzaei Shabbos Parashas Vayeishev, November 24, 1956, printed in the rich volumes of Toras Menachem. In it the Rebbe addresses the concept of arvus, guarantor-ship, but before I share with you what I learned, let me explain.
In the beginning of this week’s double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, we read that the laws of Shemittah, the sabbatical year, were taught at Mount Sinai. Out of nowhere, towards the ends of Leviticus, we are reminded that the mitzvos were given at Sinai, not elsewhere. Rashi explains that just as the laws of Shemittah were taught with every detail at Sinai, so, too, every other mitzvah was given with all its intricate details at Sinai. Lest you think that it was at the plains of Moab, on the east side of the Jordan River, just before entering the land with Joshua, that the details were shared with Jewry, the Torah says it was all taught almost 40 years earlier at Sinai.
Yet, in addition to the wisdom of Torah and the beauty of its commandments, in addition to the bond of heaven and earth that took place during Matan Torah, something else happened. The concept of “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh,” all Jews are guarantors for each other, was introduced. There is no such thing as a “lone Jew;” we are all in it together—spirituality, physically, mentally, and emotionally—and are here for each other through thick and thin. “K’ish echad b’lev echad,” like one person with one heart, we fostered a bond that defies nature. We saw it in Israel this week. We saw it with the incredible support for the Hatzalah-thon last week. We see it every day, if we look out for it.
Back to that farbrengen.
On that night, the Rebbe explained that the word “arvus” (guarantor-ship) also comes from the Hebrew word “arev,” like “areivus” and “metikus,” which means sweetness. In addition, it also comes from the word “eiruv,” like an eiruv that brings us all together in the same community with regard to hilchos Shabbos. We aren’t just nine-to-five guarantors and it isn’t just that we enjoy and love the taste of being there for each other; it’s an interconnectedness that binds us so close that we can’t help ourselves and must stand with each other in good times as well as times that seem like the opposite of good.
I remember how broken I was after the attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai, after losing the kedoshim, the holy Jews, including Gabi and Rivky Holzberg, z’l, but I also remember the love I felt from my local community, where I was very new at the time. It made all the difference, and I am forever indebted to Jews of all flavors and affiliations, and even some non-Jews, who reached out in love and familial care and touched my heart during that time.
When we think of Har Sinai, it mustn’t just be about the Torah and its many mitzvos, but also about a bond, a brotherhood, a sisterhood, that gets us through the hardest of times and is there to celebrate during good times. In the words of Matisyahu Miller, “Sometimes in my tears I drown, but I never let it get me down, so when negativity surrounds, I know some day it’ll all turn around.”
It has to. It will. Ani ma’amin.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.