By R’ Chaim Bruk
The people of Am Yisrael are incredible.
This past Shabbos, thousands of my colleagues from around the globe gathered in New York for the annual conference of Lubavitch shluchim. It’s always a time that is uplifting and reenergizing, a time to recalibrate, refocus, and rejuvenate for another year on the frontlines. Some stay in Crown Heights for Shabbos so they can spend time with their families and classmates whom they don’t see all year round; others choose to spend Shabbos in close proximity to the Rebbe’s Ohel, his resting place, in Queens. But no matter where they spend Shabbos, they all return to the communities they lead, inspired to keep sharing the love and light of Torah and mitzvos, along with the care and concern for each Yid that our sender, the Rebbe, imbued in us.
I couldn’t make it to New York this year. Instead, I had a busy week in Bozeman, including a very full house at our Shabbos meals and services. It’s almost normal at this point to host over 40 individual Jews who come through our doors on a typical Shabbos. I’d like to share two things that happened during this week that impressed me.
(1) On Wednesday morning, Stuart, a fellow I know from Denver, texted me that he’d be in town for business and would like to swing by to put on tefillin. We met at the new shul bright and early, and he and his young business associate named Kyle both laid tefillin. This was unsolicited—simply a soul yearning for his Creator. (2) While I was doing my statewide kashrus visits, driving 1,100 miles in 36 hours to visit nine plants and certify their kashrus, I stopped in a city called Havre, popped into my buddy Jeremy’s office, and laid tefillin with him. He’s originally from Queens, works all the way up near the border of Canada, and, though I didn’t give him any notice, he wrapped up with me on demand, and did so happily.
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldos, we read about Yitzchak and Rivka suffering with infertility and the eventual blessing of their twin boys, Yaakov and Esav. These two boys couldn’t be more different: one fathered the twelve tribes of Israel, while the other was the founder of the Roman Empire. One respected his employer, his wives, and his parents; the other was a rapist, thief, and honored his parents when it benefited him. Two opposites emerged from Rivka’s womb, and, suffice it to say, humanity has never been the same since. Esav represents ruthless power coupled with a never-ending temptation for licentiousness, and Yaakov represents a refined character that seeks peace, familial bonding, and universal morality. Esav would sell his birthright for a pot of lentils, and Yaakov wouldn’t give up on his Jewish values even when being cheated by his conniving uncle, Laban.
Yet, there are times that the roles seem flipped. What happens when the descendants of Yaakov act like Esav? When the offspring of Esav act like Yaakov? In other words, what happens when humanity is not following the path set out for them by their forebears? More people acting or living like Yaakov is obviously a good thing—the more Yaakovs, the merrier—but when our fellow Jews start acting like Esav, seeking to gain approval from the Edomites, how do we deal with it? How do we cure this illness of assimilation?
Rabbi YY Jacobson once shared an incredible teaching of the Chiddushei HaRim, the first Rebbe of the Ger Chassidic dynasty. The Torah says that when Yaakov dressed in Esav’s clothing to get the blessings from Yitzchak, “Yitzchak smelled his clothing … and proclaimed: ‘See, the aroma of my son is like the aroma of the field blessed by G-d.’”
The Talmud in Sanhedrin says that the word for clothing, “begadav,” could also be read “bogdav,” which means traitor. The verse is saying that “Yitzchak smelled his traitors and proclaimed: ‘See, the aroma of my son is like the aroma of the field blessed by G-d.”
What’s the Gemara trying to teach us? Are we celebrating traitors? Was Yitzchak seeking to bless traitors?
The Gerrer Rebbe explained: Yaakov, dressed in Esav’s clothes, represented, at that moment, the Jews who at some time in the future, at some later time in Jewish history, might look and behave just like Esav. There may come a time when Jewish men or women might betray their people and faith, in blatant or subtle forms. Yet, despite their external traitor-like behavior, their inner Jewish soul would emerge in its full fragrance. Rivka, the Yiddishe mamme, wanted Yaakov to wear Esav’s clothing to ensure that the blessings of Yitzchak would be directed to all Jews, including to the ones who have gone far off the deep end of Jewish tradition. Furthermore, it is specifically these Jews, who have gone so far, who demonstrate the truth that Jewishness and G-dliness is at the core of a Jew, entrenched in his or her very DNA, even as they try to run away.
I’ve loved this idea ever since hearing it from Rabbi Jacobson over a decade ago, as we live with this reality every day in Montana. There are Jews who will scream that they don’t believe in the first of the Ten Commandments to believe in One G-d; there are those who will choose to hate their fellow Jews in Israel, not recognizing that Hashem gave us the Holy Land; there are those who, after 15 years of being asked, still won’t put on tefillin when I ask them to … but every one of these Yidden is connected. They are not only Yaakov at their core, but they are Yaakov all the time, acting like a Jew even while screaming that they don’t want to be a Jew. It’s paradoxical, but it’s the paradoxical story of the Jew. They may act, sound, and think like Esav, but they are no Esav.
So how does one deal with a Jew who enjoys dressing in Esav’s clothing? You simply need to take him shopping to find clothing for him that is appropriate for a Jew, for a son or daughter of Yaakov. We can’t strip them of their current clothing without replacing it with a healthier dress code, as they will then feel naked and empty; instead, we need to spend time inspiring them to realize that the clothing they are currently wearing doesn’t fit for a Jew, for a Yaakov, and once they realize how beautiful Yaakov’s clothing is, they, too, will want to make the swap and live accordingly.
Journalists, pundits, and research companies spend thousands of precious hours figuring out the state of Jewry when those hours should be spent offering Jews, no matter their flavor, the opportunity to do a mitzvah. No heart was ever inspired, no mind ever shifted, no soul ever awakened due to a poll or survey. Most Yidden don’t even need such a big push—just a little nudge and the mitzvah is in process. Stuart and Kyle asked to come to shul to lay tefillin, and Jeremy stepped out of a mediation meeting he was heading in order to lay tefillin with a rabbi he hasn’t seen in two years who popped into his office without an appointment.
Neshamos are on fire. If a young Jew is courageous enough to take on his parents and grandparents about their “archaic” Judaism, he or she can be directed to channel that courage to be a passionate defender of the Jewish people, thinker of chassidic philosophy, as well as enthusiastic enough to share Torah on a college campus. Redirect the fire and the world becomes brighter, not consumed, by the flames.
True, there are too many young Jews today who think it’s “woke” or “hip” to talk trash about Israel, religion, and “my parents’ generation,” and go into the world looking to impress the Esavs, follow in their footsteps, and ignore their Yaakov heritage. It would be easy to ignore them, sentence them to “no Jewish future,” or sideline them from mainstream Judaism; don’t do it. They are precious souls who are lost, misguided, and confused. Give them the same love Yitzchak showed Esav, bless them, shower them, inspire them, and they, too, can one day dress in Yaakov’s Jewish clothing. Just in the last three weeks, eight or nine young Jews, ages 22 and younger, have attended a Shabbos meal, Shabbos service, or one-on-one visits with me or with my assistant, Mendel, here in Bozeman.
It’s easy to label fellow Jews as traitors; it’s a lot harder to take a deep breath and see them as a sharing the aroma of Gan Eden. The Rebbe gave us the ability to smell the soul, and even COVID side effects can’t take that away.
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.