Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his family

By R’ Chaim Bruk

We are Jews, “believers, the children of believers,” so the idea that anything happens without Hashem’s direct instruction is heresy.

One of my favorite, yet gut-wrenching, prayers is U’Nesaneh Tokef, which we recite during the High Holy Days. I remember as a child having the incredible z’chus to pray at the shul of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt’l, which is known lovingly as “770.” As the chazzan pronounced the words “u’mi yarum,” the crowd responded from the depth of their collective hearts, “u’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin es ro’a ha’gezeirah—but repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree.” The prayer intimates how Hashem, like a shepherd with his flock, loves each of us and decides our destiny for the upcoming year.

You may recall that two summers ago I wrote about the insane fires in the Bozeman area that consumed 29 homes, including two homes of Jewish families in our community. It was heartbreaking to watch as our friends lost everything. At the time, my mind was immersed in the words of this powerful prayer that includes the words “Who by fire.” When COVID hit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the words “Who by pestilence.” When watching the number of refugees from Ukraine scattered all over the world on the run, we are forced to think about “Who shall wander.”

I think that as we get older, more mature, we start realizing how real this prayer is, how dependent we truly are on Hashem’s mercy and providence, and how, in some ways, this prayer makes us feel closer to the Ribbono shel Olam Himself, albeit in a roundabout way.

Last week, Montana was hit by insane flooding. It was like Parashas Noach came to life. The beautiful town of Red Lodge, at the entrance of the Beartooth Highway, was devastated. Gardiner, the beautiful northern entrance to Yellowstone, just 50 minutes from our home, was overrun by waves not seen in 500 years. The Yellowstone River, including our beloved Yankee Jim Canyon, where we’ve whitewater-rafted more than once, was so high that we locals couldn’t fathom the insanity of it. We are blessed with a small populace so, baruch Hashem, as I write these words no one had died, but the financial hurt and the chaos is real. All week I’ve been thinking about “Mi b’amayim—Who by water” from the above-mentioned prayer. Some are blaming “climate change” and others will blame “bad FEMA policies,” but the truth is that Hashem, and only Hashem, could pull off what we saw with these floods and, while it doesn’t take away the pain, it’s calming at the soul level to know “there is a Master to this universe.”

During this challenging time, I noticed something amazing: The Montana value of personal responsibility was shining in all its western glory. The State of Montana and Park County Sheriff’s office didn’t force anyone to leave their home or tell anyone what to do. They guided, rescued, encouraged, and, when roads were crumbling, kept people safe, but they didn’t see their citizens as children who needed to be forced to follow their instructions and are otherwise clueless. Montanans came out in full force to help their local neighbors and the visiting tourists. They helped businesses, they removed debris from homes, they started GoFundMe campaigns, and we’ve been reimagining what the future for the flood zone area will look like. We didn’t panic, we didn’t fold, and we didn’t need babysitting.

There is one story floating around Twitter from a statewide radio host that when the search-and-rescue team arrived at a particular campsite near Red Lodge, offering the campers a way out via helicopter, they said “we have enough beer to last us a few days; we’re good, we are staying.” They all smiled and moved on.

I share this perspective because it’s a breath of fresh of air to know that personal responsibility is still a thing. We shouldn’t force people to make choices we approve of only, we shouldn’t force people to do what we deem the “right thing,” we should allow adults to practice adulting, and learn the pros and cons of their choices, the reward and consequence of their behavior. Sure, we are shluchim and reached out to all the Jewish families in the flood areas, they were grateful, and they all seem to be doing ok, ensuring me that they will pick themselves up by their bootstraps and forge ahead. We started a fund to replace any mezuzos, tefillin, or taleisim that were ruined in the floods, but otherwise they had it covered.

It’s the Jewish way. The American way.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, we read about the spies that Moshe sent to scout out Eretz Yisrael. When they returned with their highly opinionated negative report, the Jews in the desert accepted the news of the ten naysayers, totally ignoring Caleb and Joshua, and cried over their fate. Truth be told, the spies were at fault for their sin of turning a reconnaissance mission into a news reporting mission, but the Jews were fully responsible for buying what they were saying. You’re not off the hook just because you were sold a “load of goods.” You bought it and it’s on you. G-d told you that you’re going to Israel, G-d told you He’d fight your battles for you, G-d already took you out of Egypt and split the sea for you, gave you His Torah, forgave you for the Golden Calf and gifted you with the opportunity to build a Mishkan, and you overlook all that and just blindly accept reports from a few guys who are worried about giants and large fruit? That’s on you, not them.

Chavie and I talk about this all the time in relation to parenting. Kids are going to do what kids are going to do. When your children graduate from your home, they will make choices that are good for them and choices that are horrible. We can’t helicopter-parent for forever and we don’t get to boss our kids around forever. At a certain point, and sooner is better, we must help our children gain some independence, which includes refraining from enabling them, so they learn to make choices and grow as a result. If we don’t, we can’t complain when they don’t make it to their promised land.

This past Shabbos we didn’t have any out-of-state visitors, as Yellowstone was closed, yet our shul was packed, baruch Hashem, as about 40 locals joined together for Shabbos services and Kiddush lunch. During the seudah we had some great conversations ranging from the Gemara telling us that the manna fell from heaven for all Jews, including wicked ones, to the importance of learning Chassidus no matter one’s level of religious observance. We spoke about “Kardashian style” weddings that are sadly taking place in Israel and about the life expectancy in Biblical times versus today. As the conversation of the latter topic continued it inevitably came to food and the ingredients contained in too many of them. I am far from perfect, but I’ve always liked Dr. Mark Hyman’s words: “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.” Companies will do what companies do, but we get to choose whether we want to metabolize (or try to) artificial food coloring, sodium nitrite, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, carrageenan, sodium benzoate, or monosodium glutamate (MSG). It’s our body and our responsibility to choose what goes into it.

A Greek philosopher once wrote that “it is a painful thing to look at your own trouble and know that you yourself and no one else has made it.” The Jews wanted to blame the Meraglim, the spies; Hashem didn’t buy it. He said, “How long will this people provoke Me? How much longer will they not believe in Me after all the signs I have performed in their midst?” The Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya that each of us is fully capable of controlling our thoughts, speech, and actions. We can blame the internet, the society, the exposure, but the bottom line is that we are the responsible party, and when we convey that to our children, we will create a society that is healthier, more spiritual, and more responsible.

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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