By R Chaim Bruk
I am tired, perhaps exhausted; it’s been a very long month of pre-Pesach prep and yom tov. But tiredness aside, we just wrapped up an incredible Pesach, bar none.
Chassidus explains that Yetzias Mitzrayim, leaving Egyptian bondage, isn’t just a historical event that we commemorate on Pesach and throughout the year with so many other mitzvos; rather, it’s a state of being that we aim to attain each and every day, freeing ourselves from inner slavery, from the limitations that bog us down and don’t allow us to serve Hashem freely. It’s easier said than done, but having just experienced Pesach with the beautiful Jews of Montana, I saw firsthand the yearning for freedom, as we sought to find paths to redemption—internally, for ourselves, and externally, for all of Klal Yisrael.
Ninety-three Jews came together in Bozeman for our first public Seder at our new shul; we had four morning minyanim on all four yom tov days; we delivered matzah to about 600 households; we ensured that Montana’s Jewish voice reached every Jewish home in the state before the onset of yom tov; we hosted countless neshamos at the various yom tov meals, all catered by Chavie with her special touch; and just before yom tov, Governor Greg Gianforte declared the 11th of Nissan, the day on which we celebrated the 120th birthday of the Rebbe, zt’l, as “Education and Sharing Day” in Montana.
At 11:15 p.m. on the first night of Pesach, in a city that is normally fast asleep way earlier, over 80 of the Seder attendees were still in the house, rocking it to “One is Hashem” with spirit and smiles. When Jake, who’s my age, came straight from his job at the United Airlines baggage department at our local airport to hear the “Az Yashir” song that the Jews sang at Krias Yam Suf being read from the Torah on Shevi’i shel Pesach, I felt the Yiddishkeit being passed on to the next generation of Jews. When Nate and Rachel, a young couple, joined us just hours before Havdallah for Seudas Mashiach to drink four cups of wine and eat some matzah, as instituted by the Ba’al Shem Tov, I knew that their first baby, whom they’re expecting this summer, has a bright future as a Jew in Big Sky Country. When a single mom in Roundup asked me for more matzah during chol ha’moed and we shipped it over, I knew that Hashem is smiling at His people from the Heavenly Throne.
In addition to the spiritual high of the holiday, we had a bonus this year, as we were joined by my brother and his family for the entire yom tov. My brother Yanky is 13 months younger than me; he and his wife, Rivky, live in Monsey, and along with their three daughters they schlepped out to Bozeman to spend yom tov with us. They are amazing people, full of heart and life, and it was so special to have them with us for ten days. We don’t have as much entertainment as a Pesach program in Cabo or Palm Springs, but we have a joy for yom tov, mouthwatering food, and we’re awesome company. Yanky had planned to be with us for Pesach of 2020, but with COVID-19 hitting New York really badly back then, they canceled their trip and were only now able to finally make the trip a reality.
While siblings, especially brothers with whom you were roommates your entire childhood, can be argumentative and annoying, they are also the best thing in the world. We pick on each other, laugh with and at each other, reminisce about our childhood and youth, and chat about the ups and downs of our individual life journeys; yet, more than anything else, we are naturally fit for each other, as everything flows seamlessly, no stress attached, and we can just be ourselves. He joined me at the barber for a haircut, we enjoyed a day at Yellowstone National Park with our families, we walked back and forth to shul together in snow, rain, sleet, and sunshine, we learned the daf together, and watched our children spend ten days getting to know each other well and playing nonstop.
One of the hardest aspects of being a shliach is the physical distance from siblings, parents, cousins, and many friends. I would love to be at every family simcha, at every nephew’s birthday party, and every niece’s bas mitzvah, but it’s just not practical when you live two flights away, with no bubby or aunt to babysit, and with flights costing a few thousand dollars each time. We knew this going in when we moved out west in 2007, but it still stings a bit each time when we see the pictures of a simcha we missed. When my daughter met her aunt, my sister, five years after being adopted and joining our family, my heart broke just a bit from being so far away.
Having the family come out to our turf and see firsthand how life is on the frontier of shlichus, where we serve klal Yisrael, is an experience we cherish. The physical distance can sometimes create a distance in understanding, too, and coming out to visit changes it all. For my brother to see how our kids are schooled without a Jewish day school is eye-opening When my brother gets to see that it snows throughout the entire Pesach, and that I am the rabbi, chazzan, ba’al koreh, sermonizer, and ba’al maftir at every single tefillah, it’s an opportunity to share how we’ve built a bright center of Jewish life for Am Yisrael, and for him to understand the personal cost that comes with making that a reality.
We find ourselves deep into week two of sefiras ha’omer, when we count the Omer, refining our inner character traits, our middos. We not only count the days until Matan Torah, but we spend each day progressing as Jews, seeking to be the best version of ourselves, with our neshamah experiencing the holiest possible manifestation.
We all know people who are super-successful in the business world or the entertainment world, but their record at home with their family is abysmal. At times I feel like I fail my family while being loved by my community. The truth is that character refinement needs to start at home with our loved ones.
For some it may be easier to be kind to a stranger or to a congregant or co-worker than to their child who’s getting on their nerves or a sibling who is getting under their skin. But if we are to take sefiras ha’omer seriously, it means being gracious and generous with our closest loved ones, too, or perhaps first and foremost. It shouldn’t only be in tragedy that we recognize the gift of family; it should be during health and success that we celebrate our special bond with those we get to call family. I once read that “families don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be united.”
My siblings and I lost our mother in 2010, when she was just 54 years old. We are a close-knit bunch, love each other dearly, and are in touch with each other all the time, but like all families, we have different personalities and different life journeys. It’s not hard to touch a few raw nerves here and there, but it’s way more rewarding to celebrate the family that G-d has given me and to work on myself to focus on what we love about each other and how are there for each other.
As I look back at Pesach, I will remember fondly the hours and hours we spent with my brother and his family. It makes the simcha of yom tov more joyous and gives us the ability to begin the work of sefiras ha’omer where it matters most. I will spend the next five weeks focusing on how I can be a better son, husband, brother, and father, and this will certainly make me a better rabbi, too, in service of Jewry.
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.