Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his family

By R’ Chaim Bruk

Chanukah is universally appreciated. It’s not just the light itself that attracts us, but the fact that it’s everywhere. It’s in our homes, in the public domain, in our workplaces, our shuls, and our Targets. It’s the healthy pride associated with the Chanukah story that enlivens our souls. Judah the Maccabee is someone we want to be, someone we hope to live up to in the moments of challenge and strife, and a figure who makes us wonder whether we are doing enough for our Yiddishkeit.

Here in Montana, it was eight days of pure brightness. Public menorah-lightings with hundreds of people in attendance, celebrating with our public officials, parties at our new center and on the Montana State University Campus, a parade through our county and visits to homes around the state, op-eds in newspapers and interviews on TV—it was pirsumei nisa, public expression of the miracle, and it rocked. It’s not about being in people’s faces, G-d forbid; it’s about sharing the love and light embedded in the Chanukah story.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we read of the emotionally charged reunion of Yosef and his brothers. Yet, just before Yosef reveals his identity to his fellow tribes, Yehuda confronts him with a major dose of chutzpah. He says to Yosef, “Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.” Rashi tells us that the fact that Yehuda needed to ask Yosef to refrain from getting angry is because Yehuda spoke to Yosef in a harsh way that isn’t appropriate when talking to a king.

In a powerful 1964 talk from the Rebbe, zt’l, on this parashah, he wonders why Yehuda didn’t first try conversing with Yosef and only later going for the jugular. Wouldn’t it be more prudent for Yehuda to work diplomatically and only later, when the diplomacy fails, bring in the big guns? The Rebbe explains that when a Jewish child’s life is on the line, there is no room for diplomacy—we must intervene and bring about the salvation for this child. Yehuda knew that his brother Binyamin, his father Yaakov’s youngest, was taken by the Egyptians, and he knew what that meant for him both physically and spiritually. When that realization kicked in, there was no room for anything but a full-fledged, unapologetic demand that the child be freed and allowed to return home to his people, to his father. When a Yiddishe neshamah is under attack, we come out in force to defend its purity and demand its redemption.

This Thursday, the 5th of Teves, is a yom segulah, a day of great significance, as we celebrate 35 years since Federal Judge Charles P. Sifton ruled that the holy books of the central Chabad library in New York, a library that belongs to the Chabad Rebbes of all generations, had to be returned to the library. In short, a relative of the Rebbe had stolen some very precious books from the library, claiming that it was a personal inheritance from his grandfather, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad, but the Rebbe, in extreme straightforwardness, made it clear that a Rebbe is not a private individual. A Rebbe is a leader connected to the souls of all his chassidim, belonging to them, and therefore the books aren’t personal items but belong to the movement itself. It was long, heartbreaking saga, but the case made in court was just that: A Rebbe is not a leader seeking self-aggrandizement or entrepreneurial success but a spiritual master who is a neshamah klalis, a general soul, that represents the klal; therefore the Rebbe’s holy books belong to the community, not an individual grandchild. The non-Jewish judge agreed, and the rest is history.

The attorneys didn’t necessarily agree with the Rebbe’s strategy. They thought a more pragmatic approach would serve the movement better, but to the Rebbe it wasn’t a strategy, it was “house on fire.” And when there’s a fire, when it hits us at our core, we scream, we demand truth, we demand justice, and there’s no room for political correctness. The Rebbe understood that it wasn’t just a question of books, but whether a Rebbe is a real thing, whether Moshe Rabbeinu could actually be the nasi, the leader, who includes his pupils in his spiritual experience, and since this is the truth, this is what the judge needed to hear.

When I think of this unconventional approach, I think of my mother of blessed memory, Chana Leah bas Esther, whose 11th yahrzeit is this Shabbos on the 7th of Teves. My mother was a lot of things, but one thing she exemplified was “tochah k’barah”—her inner and outer self were in sync, she didn’t “funfe,” she told you the truth, lived up to the values she believed in, and was straightforward.

I will never forget one school night when I was a child and my mother took my brother and me to Boro Park to purchase suits and shirts at a store owned by frum people. As we were checking out, my mother innocently asked the person at the counter, “Where can we have it checked for shatnez?” The frum cashier responded, “Oh, this company suit doesn’t need to be checked.” 

My mother kind of lost it, saying, “What do you mean? Shatnez is a mitzvah d’Oraisa (a Biblical mitzvah)! What do you mean it doesn’t need to be checked?”

I will never forget that moment.

My mother was a jean-skirt-wearing, Bloomingdale’s and Daffy’s-loving, proud Brooklynite and Lubavitcher chassid. She lived by unbreakable principles, Halachah was her guiding light and she loved Tanach with the Alshich’s commentary as much as I love sushi. Above all, she was a woman of truth, who, like the Rebbe and Yehuda, loved every Jew and everything about Yiddishkeit. She shared its beauty with anyone who would listen and stood up for its truth even when silence would’ve been easier.

May the neshamah of my mother, who was a Yiddishe Mamme par excellence, be an advocate for my siblings and me until we reunite with her with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.

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 rabbi@jewishmontana.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.

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