Recently, I experienced two memorable moments that really touched me and genuinely warmed my heart. The first moment took place after transitioning our children back to their school of choice from the school that they enjoyed during the time when COVID restrictions kept their “regular” school open only part-time for in-person classes. At dismissal, Mrs. Bunkers, our Zeesy’s kindergarten teacher from 2017-18, said to me, “I just want you to know how happy we are to have you guys back. When I saw the Bruk kids back in the building, I knew, I felt, we are going to be OK, the world will be OK.”
The second moment took place on a phone call, as I was soliciting a donor, David, to support our work, and he and his non-Jewish wife, Debra, made a significant pledge to enhance Yiddishkeit’s future in Montana. When I thanked Debra, who is a partner in all their charitable giving, she said to me, “Rabbi, it’s a small token, a small gift, for all that you’ve done to make David’s life more positive, more meaningful, better.”
It blew me away.
I shared both episodes with Chavie, and we both appreciated the heartfelt comments so much. First, it always feels good to be appreciated; I know sometimes we say, “It’s a pleasure; no need to thank me” or other humble expressions, but it does feel good to be recognized and appreciated. Secondly, it’s hard at times to be on display 24/7 as a Jew, as a rabbi, as a shliach/shluchah, and sometimes we wonder if we are living up to the role modeling, representing G-d, Judaism, and Lubavitch in the best light. It was reassuring to see that those around us in Montana, both Jews and gentiles, are seeing us for who we strive to be, and our message of love and light is penetrating their hearts.
In this week’s parashah, Yisro, we read about Moshe’s father-in-law, Yisro, a pagan preacher who dabbled in every idolatry that existed at the time and ultimately decided to embrace his son-in-law’s tribe of Jews. He heard about the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Yam Suf, and the victory over Amalek, and he decided that Am Yisrael was his people. Yet, there is a fascinating aspect of Yisro’s life that I feel isn’t spoken about enough in the narrative, and that is his return to his native Midyanite community. He didn’t live amid the Jews forever, he didn’t stay until the very end when they were crossing into Israel; he returned to Midyan, to his roots.
Why did he return? Did he have second thoughts? Did he experience buyer’s remorse? Didn’t he enjoy the royalty of being Tziporah’s dad and Moshe’s adviser and father-in-law?
The Midrash tells us that Yisro said to Moshe, “A candle is only impactful when in darkness. You, Moshe, are like the sun, Aharon, your brother is like the moon, so who needs me to be a light around here, where it’s bright already?”
Yisro chose to head back to Midyan and inspire his people—the people he grew up with, the people who worshipped with him back in the day, many of whom were his blood relatives—and he embarked on a lifelong mission to bring them on board to belief in Hashem and conversion to the Abrahamic way of life. It wasn’t an easy task; he wasn’t a young man, and he was despised by many in Midyan for his betrayal, leaving them for the G-d of Israel, but he was devoted with heart and soul, and when someone is devoted, it’s not just about them anymore.
Chassidus emphasizes this incredible concept of bitul, total subservience to Hashem, allowing the deep, innate Jewish desire to be a conduit for Hashem, to come to the forefront of our personal experience and the choices we make. It’s the mindset of “I am in service.” It’s not just shluchim/shluchos or those in klei kodesh (those serving Klal Yisrael in leadership/rabbinic roles) who are on call 24/7, but every Jew is in the same boat, the same service, and is expected to be on call all the time. Wherever we go—on a plane, at the grocery, when on vacation in Las Vegas or Florida, a favorite stomping ground for New Yorkers—we are always on call, always a representative of Hashem and never free from that service embedded in our very being.
The Gemara in Pesachim says about the extra stringencies Jews took upon themselves regarding the prohibition to eat the gid ha’nasheh (the sciatic nerve of a cow): “Yisrael kedoshim heim,” Jews are holy, and, though it’s not prohibited by Torah law, we’ve accepted certain stringencies regarding parts of the animal that are near the gid ha’nasheh that we won’t eat because it’s too close for comfort.
“Yisrael kedoshim heim.” We are meant to live in holiness. “Viniflinu,” we stand out, we are different.
If Yisro, a new member of the Jewish family, realized this in such a short period of time, how much more so should those of us who have been blessed to grow up with Torah and mitzvos, or have been living the Torah lifestyle for a long time, see ourselves as lights to the world, as members who are willing, when needed, to head to Midyan, an idolatrous, un-G-dly place, to transform it into G-dly locales.
In the farbrengen of Shabbos Parashas Bereishis of 1956, the Rebbe, of blessed memory, addressed why the Gemara, all Gemara, starts with daf beis, page two, and not daf alef, page one. The simple reasoning is that the printers considered the sha’ar blatt, the front page stating the name of the tractate, as page one. Yet, on a deeper level it’s because the alef is the Torah student’s relationship with Hashem. If one enters the study hall and knows that the alef is already in the bag, that Hashem is the alef and He’s given him the koach, the inner strength and energy, to study His Torah, then his learning, starting with the beis, is immediately guided by the correct spiritual state-of-being needed for studying the word of Hashem, without getting egoistic about it. It’s like Bereishis itself, the first word of the Torah in Genesis, which starts with a beis, not an alef, because the alef, which is the alef of “Anochi, I am Hashem your L-rd,” from this week’s parashah, is the recognition that it is a G-dly document with G-dly wisdom and should be seen and felt as such whenever we study.
They say, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” Hashem doesn’t want us to walk around beating ourselves up and seeing ourselves as sinful losers. That philosophy existed in Jewish circles at some point, but the Ba’al Shem Tov shifted us away from it and made us realize we are beautiful souls with occasional challenges. We aren’t losers or masochists who want to suffer and miss out on the excitement of our G-d-given life; we are members of a Holy Nation and we want to enjoy every facet of Hashem’s creation with every fiber of our being and do so while servicing the world around us on His behalf.
There was a Russian chassid in Crown Heights who would ask, “Who you?” He was trying to say, “Who are you?” but it became a motto that meant to say, “Who the heck do you think you are?” For a Jew, our value isn’t measured by what we do for ourselves; it’s measured by what we do for Hashem and humanity, which are interconnected. Yisro didn’t have to go back to Midyan, but it was the right thing for him to do. He was in love with what he found in Judaism, and instead of staying in that warm Jewish ghetto in the desert, instead of keeping himself aflame with the Torah he fell in love with, he went back to the people he “left” to share the light.
I think it was Baron Rothschild who was asked by a reporter, “How much are you worth?” When he answered with a number in the millions that seemed too low, the reporter demanded an honest answer. He retorted, “You didn’t ask me how much money I have in the bank; you asked me how much I’m worth, and I’m worth whatever I’ve given to tzedakah, to charity.”
Yisro taught us that part-and-parcel of being a Jew it to be inspired by alef, by Hashem, to go share His light, deliberately or simply by example, with those around us.
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 email@example.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.