By R’ Chaim Bruk
Last week I had the honor of visiting the Whitehall Public Library, about an hour west of Bozeman, to speak to the community about the Holocaust. A group of local teenagers, supported by the local librarian, organized this Holocaust awareness and education project, and for most of them it was their first time interacting with an identifiable Jew. Certainly, none of them had ever met a frum, Orthodox Jew before.
I stood before the 40 or so gathered there and shared the incredible story of my Zayde, Reb Shimon Goldman, of blessed memory, who lost his six siblings and parents to Hitler’s hate machine. I told them that while there are many survivors who have the infamous numbers tattooed on their arms, most of the survivors had the tattoos on their hearts, as they, by the grace of G-d, never entered the death camps but lost everything dear to them.
The crowd was mesmerized.
Truth be told, I lacked a proper Holocaust education. I knew more about the suffering of the Jews in Egypt than about those who suffered in Auschwitz. I’m not sure why, but despite the fact that I grew up in Crown Heights, a neighborhood with so many survivors, we didn’t get a well-rounded education about the Holocaust at school or even at home. Perhaps they didn’t want to make the survivors uncomfortable, especially the family members, or perhaps they didn’t want to scare us about the potential for more hatred, but sharing these stories now is how I find my redemption for not paying enough attention to it at a younger age.
For me the evening was awe-inspiring. Not only because I was able to share my Zayde’s story and teach about Judaism, but because of the humility I felt all evening and the days that followed. I felt humbled reliving my grandfather’s story, realizing that I stand on the shoulders of giants who not only gave me life but gave me purpose, making every day a worthy endeavor to brighten our world. I owe so much to those who came before me; they gave sweat, toil, and blood for our people, our Torah, our G-d, and our land, and all I have to give is sweat and toil for the furtherance of Yiddishkeit. The smallness I felt wasn’t a negative feeling of unworthiness but an inspiring feeling of: “Wow, I get to carry the torch of amazing Jews, relatives and otherwise, who fought to survive so that they could have families and instill in us a zest for life.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read of the moment when Yaakov Avinu, our patriarch Jacob, is filled with worry about his impending encounter with his brother, Esav, and the possibility of falling prey to Esav’s viciousness. He never forgot Esav’s threats to murder him and the familial feud that resulted from Jacob taking the blessings intended for Esav. He obviously hoped for Hashem’s blessings, yet Yaakov says the most powerful, humbling, statement of “Katonti.” He says to Hashem, “I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.”
He recognizes how much good Hashem has done for him and therefore feels like perhaps he isn’t worthy anymore of Hashem’s protection, blessings, intervention, and so he feels lost.
Of course, Yaakov was wrong, and G-d was going to protect him through thick and thin, but the humility, the deep gratitude he had for all that he already experienced, was so real, so raw, so special. He had lots of challenges in his life: Esav, being away from his parents, living with his conniving uncle/father-in-law, Lavan, losing his mother before he made it back to Israel, Rachel’s infertility and, later, her passing, Yosef torn from him for 22 years, Dinah being violated by Shechem … his life was no picnic, but he lived a life of “katonti,” recognizing the immense amount of good and brightness in his life, and being so grateful for it all. He simply wasn’t sure that he’d earn more of it.
This Friday, the 15th of Kislev, I will be celebrating my 40th birthday. I am traveling to Queens, just around the corner from y’all, to spend the day and the Shabbos connected to it at the resting place of my dear Rebbe, of righteous memory. It’s a special time for me and it’s a milestone I don’t take lightly. Lots of feelings have been flowing through my mind and heart in the weeks leading up to this day and not sure where they will land.
Like Yaakov Avinu, my life has had many ups and downs. I lost my mother at a somewhat young age, Chavie and I experienced infertility, we have children with special needs, and, like all human beings, there is stuff we each deal with, but “katonti” is all that comes to mind—Hashem is so kind, so generous, so uplifting, so in love with me that I am humbled. I don’t know if I deserve any more of his infinite berachot, but I pledge that should He continue to bless me, continue to imbue me with the energy and enthusiasm to be His ambassador to share Torah, mitzvos, chassidus, and light with Montana and beyond, I will give it all that I’ve got. I will not waste my life away, I will devote myself 24/7 to keep His beloved kinderlach in Montana inspired, to keep His beautiful Torah a household discussion in Big Sky Country, and to do my part, with every fiber of my aging being, to bring Mashiach.
My Zayde, who was my personal chavrusa for almost a decade, lost his entire family and yet woke up each day devoted to Hashem Yisbarach with heart and soul. I owe it to him, to his family, to all those who gave me the tools and the guidance, to keep going strong. If 40 is the new 20, I am ready and able to bring Yiddishkeit to new heights for the next hundred years and make G-d feel at home in the Treasure State.
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.