Earlier this week I was awaiting three of my kids, all of whom are expert skiers, as they descended the ski hill at Bridger Bowl, our local ski mountain, with their beloved instructor Claire. Standing at the foothill, I saw one snowboarder coming down the hill with gusto, jump in the air, go backwards at one point, and eventually come in for a spectacular stop just a few feet away from me. I was mesmerized by the sight and realized something so Jewish about the snowboard.
The snowboarder is locked into the board, he is grounded, allowing him to traverse the mountain with zest. Snowboarders can move this way or that way, and they can bend their body with many different moves (that I couldn’t do even if they paid me), but the goal is to remain connected tightly with the board at all times. Their flexibility is impressive, but it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t doing it while snowboarding. The foundation of all their fun, all their activity, all their exercise, is the grounding and connection with the vehicle, the snowboard, that takes them on the journey through the breathtaking mountain.
This made me think of Torah principles, a life of mitzvah observance that allows us to enjoy a meaningful experience while on earth as we have the structure to keep us on track. There is flexibility in Judaism—there are different minhagim, communal customs, there are different standards within Orthodoxy, and there are chumros, stringencies, that many accept and others don’t. But there is a common connection between all of us, and that is that we all accept the Torah as a G-d-given gift, true in its entirety, including 613 unbreakable bonding opportunities with Hashem and four volumes of Shulchan Aruch that guide every facet of our lives—“Dvar Hashem zu halachah,” the word of Hashem as embedded in the Code of Jewish Law.
Before COVID, when our local minyan was going strong, I loved when a frum Jew would show up while on vacation or a family trip. Perhaps he could read the Haftarah, daven for the amud (serve as the chazan) for Mussaf, or maybe even be the ba’al korei. Normally, the rabbi, chazan, ba’al korei, and sermonizer are all me, and having some backup is an absolute pleasure. Even if the fellow isn’t a Lubavitcher, it doesn’t matter; the nuschaos (prayer book liturgy and order) are close enough, and he can quickly adapt to our Chabad nusach, the Torah reading is the same from Moses, the books of the Prophets for Haftarah belong to all of us, and we celebrate the same Judaism, even if with unique paths within the system. It’s the same Judaism—we are anchored by the same snowboard, even if Hashem allowed flexibility in some moves while connected to the board. You may eat gebrochts on Pesach and I wouldn’t even allow it in my house, but we are celebrating the same Torah, in all its nuanced details.
In this week’s parashah, Mishpatim, we read about many mitzvos, and it’s a good time to tap into the three categories of mitzvos spoken about very often by many gedolim. For me personally, the concept was something my Rebbe always addressed with great enthusiasm. There are mitzvos that are “mishpatim,” justifiable mitzvos—i.e., those that our finite logic can understand, as they’re steeped in rationale that is comprehensible and perhaps would even be understood without a Torah. As the Gemara in Eiruvin states in the name of Rav Yochanan, “Even if the Torah had not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, which covers its excrement, and that stealing is objectionable from the ant, which does not take grain from another ant, and forbidden relations from the dove, which is faithful to its partner, and proper relations from the rooster, which first appeases the hen and then mates with it.” These are the most understood mitzvos.
Then there are “eidos,” mitzvos that are testimonials for something that happened in our incredible history. We observe Shabbos to commemorate Hashem resting on the seventh day after six days of creation, we eat matzah on Pesach to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, and so on. These mitzvos aren’t logical or illogical; they are meant to remind us of a monumental moment in our Jewish story and relive, even enliven, those ideas in our neshamah, in our bond with Hashem today.
Above all there are “chukim,” mitzvos that don’t follow any human logic. G-d has a reason for them, but we don’t—and we won’t—understand them until Mashiach comes. We are permitted, as the Rambam rules in the law of temurah, to seek explanations for them, but they weren’t accessible to Moshe Rabbeinu and Shlomo HaMelech, and we won’t figure it out either. We do them because G-d decreed so, and they need to be experienced in that way.
In the daily study of Rambam, we just wrapped up the laws of impurity of a corpse, impurity of a metzora, and other impurities, and for me it’s so hard, as it doesn’t make logical sense. The rules make sense, just not the reason, as there is no reason, and that makes me crazy.
During our first two years in Montana, we’d drive each month to use the mikveh in Salt Lake City, Utah. The roads were treacherous at times, and at other times we’d have to get back for an event so it was a “quick” 14–15-hour round-trip drive. One time we were in Salt Lake City when my wife’s sister decided to go to the Rebbe’s Ohel with her soon-to-be husband and get engaged, so we ran to Nordstrom Rack, where Chavie found a dress for the l’chaim/vort, and she flew from Salt Lake to New York to celebrate with her family while I drove back to Bozeman alone. Thinking back to those trips, it’s amazing to me how we did it, no questions asked. We are Jewish, this is what G-d commanded us, and there is no whining or excuses—we do it wholeheartedly. They are chukim, they are the most challenging, but if the King of Kings wants it of us, we stick to our spiritual snowboard and we do it.
Chassidus emphasizes that we are to fulfill the mishpatim, the logical mitzvos, with the same bittul, nullification, with which we’d fulfill the chukim. It’s hard to do a mitzvah that makes so much sense, like “Thou shalt not murder” with the same devotion as the mitzvah of eating kosher, which takes total acceptance and recognition of Hashem’s Superiority. Yet, we are also meant to fulfill the chukim with the same joy and energy that we’d do the logical mitzvos. Bottom line: all of Hashem’s mitzvos are to be treated equally, celebrated with the same joy, experienced with the same awe, and internalized to enhance our spirituality.
This Friday and Shabbos we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Adar, ushering in the month of simcha. It’s not just Purim that brings about the joy; as we know from the Midrash regarding Haman’s miscalculation, it’s the month of Moshe Rabbeinu’s birth. It’s hard being a chassid and being extra-joyous in Adar, as, based on the ingrained instructions of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Ba’al HaTanya, we consider living with simcha not just something we experience when in service of Hashem, but in every moment of life. And if you’re always b’simcha, being “marbim b’simcha,” adding joy, isn’t easy. Yet, it says this in Shulchan Aruch and we must follow through.
I believe we have so much to be joyous about—first and foremost for being on the G-dly snowboard that keeps us locked in for the journey of life and all the fun that comes with it.
In a letter to his children before his passing, the Chasam Sofer writes (found in English in Rabbi Moshe Bamberger’s Great Jewish Letters), “You must always remember that we are the descendants of Abraham our father, disciples of Moshe our teacher, and servants of David our king … Be strong and resolute. Exert yourself with diligence and great depth in the Divine Torah … Be careful not to change your Jewish name, language, and manner of dress, G-d forbid…Never say, ‘Times have changed’ for we have an Ancient Father, may His Name be blessed, Who never has nor ever will change.”
Flexible? You bet! Changeable? Never.
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.