Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his family

By R Chaim Bruk

It’s motzaei Shabbos, 11:00 p.m. I just got home from shul, where I read Eichah for the few who joined. I sit down on the floor of my bedroom to write. Chavie is still in Texas visiting her family, and our two dogs, Ezzy and Peetie, are sleeping nearby. My son Menny is sleeping cozily in Chavie’s bed, waking intermittently for gulps of seltzer.

I ponder Tishah B’Av. There is so much inspiration out there that it’s hard to find the inner emotions that best express our feelings on this solemn day.

Eichah, the Book of Lamentations written by Yirmiyahu HaNavi around the time of the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash, has always been special to me. There is something about it that is soul-searing. For as far back as I can remember, the five chapters of Eichah and the tune in which they are read awaken my heart, and that continues into the seven weeks of comfort, represented in the Haftarahs all the way until Rosh Hashanah. When I read Eichah, it fills me with sadness and hope, sorrow and joy, optimism and pessimism; it’s like a composite of Judaism’s entire history compacted into a miniature scroll.

Reading the painful words “For these things I weep; my eye, yea my eye, sheds tears, for the comforter to restore my soul is removed from me; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” makes me forlorn, wondering how much longer we Jews need to suffer. But ending on a high note, with the uplifting words “Restore us to You, O L-rd, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old” revives me with deep emunah, unwavering trust in Hashem, that this horrific exile, this almost-two-thousand-year galus, will soon come to an end and bring about an era of purity, peace, and wholesomeness. It’s sad to read of the choices and suffering of our ancestors, but the fact that we are reading it in 2022 is a sign of our resilience.

Over the past ten days, I experienced two moments that represent the dichotomy of being Jewish and our faith. Are Jews recipients of constant miracles from on high or are we a people constantly suffering at every turn? Can both of those be true? Is it miraculous or burdensome to be a member of Klal Yisrael?

About a month ago, Amram, the gabbai of our shul, shared with me that his mother-in-law, whom our family knows well, just came back from a checkup with her oncologist and, sadly, the scans confirmed that the cancer in her leg was back with a vengeance and the doctor wasn’t too optimistic about her healing. She’s had cancer twice before, once in that exact spot on her leg, and while the doctor advocated that she have the leg amputated, she refused. She would only allow a surgery to remove as much problematic area as possible, and perhaps if followed by chemo/radiation she could survive. The surgery date was set. We davened for her in our shul, made a Mishebeirach, and Amram and his wife, Justine, dedicated a Kiddush in honor of her full and speedy recovery.

A few days before the surgery, the patient traveled the four hours or so from Baltimore to New York to daven at the Rebbe’s Ohel. I’m not the one who recommended it—but I was elated to hear they did that. We know that tefillasan shel tzadikim, the intervention of those closest to Hashem, does wonders.

The surgery day arrived. They cut her open, removed all the growths on the muscle, getting pretty close to the bone, and the doctors felt they did the best they could under the circumstances. One week later, she went for her follow-up with the surgeon, who was going to give her the results of the pathology and a plan for treatment. You could imagine her utter shock when the doctor said that he has no idea how this happened, but all the results show that it wasn’t cancer, and he doesn’t know how to explain the scans that showed it was. Aside from physical therapy to get the leg working well again, he said, she is cancer-free and in great shape.

I was on Main Street that morning when I received a text message from Amram that read as follows: “So … just got back from her doctor visit. The growths that they removed that lit up the PET scan, 100% indicating cancer, which were removed, all came back negative in pathology. No cancer anywhere. She is convinced the Rebbe created a miracle for her, when she prayed at his Ohel, that removed all cancer from the growths. The doctors are baffled. She needs nothing but physical therapy. B’H.”

Needless to say, this text stopped me in my tracks. They are not Lubavitchers, not visible chassidim, and yet this miracle transpired and they recognized it. It gave Chavie and me a direct glimpse into a modern-day miracle from Hashem.

It was a breath of fresh spiritual air.

In this week’s parashah, Va’eschanan, we read the Shema, the most prominent Jewish prayer and statement of faith. We read the eternal words “And you shall love the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.” Yet, next week in Eikev we read the second portion of Shema: “And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day to love the L-rd, your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” So, in section one we love Hashem with heart, soul, and might, while in section two we only love him with heart and soul. Why the difference?

There are times in life that loving Hashem with heart and soul suffices. We see miracles, we see the Yad Hashem, and therefore there is no struggle and it’s fairly easy to love our Creator and Caregiver. Yet, there are times that He chooses to be invisible, chooses to hide His infinite countenance from us, and it is then that we need to “love Him with all our might”—we need to dig deeper into our emunah reservoir and find what it takes to love Him, despite the challenges. It’s those moments where the mitzvah of Yedias Hashem, knowing G-d, is hard to incorporate, and we need to rely on the “Anochi Hashem Elokecha,” the faith in Him that carries us through the tough times.

I caught a glimpse of this when I boarded a flight from LaGuardia to Detroit, having just picked up my daughter Chaya who landed in New York from summer camp in Sweden. We were heading to Detroit to pick up my son who was wrapping up a month at Camp Gan Israel in Tustin, Michigan. We boarded, and a frum fellow and his mother sat down in the row just in front of us. Upon takeoff I heard him saying Tefillas HaDerech loud and clear, and before long we were beginning our descent into Detroit. Just before we deplaned, I asked him if there were any Shacharis minyanim near the airport for the following morning, and he confirmed that there were none. But when he and his mom heard that we were from Montana and that I was shlepping around to pick up my kids from camp, he said, “You’re an amazing father.”

Those four words really meant the world to me. It was indeed a big shlep. Not all parents do it, as there are other ways to get kids to and from camp, but my kids do better this way, and each summer I do the “Uber Air” pickups and drop-offs. His kind words touched my heart and made me feel really good on the inside.

I heard his mom calling him Elie, and I heard someone in the airport refer to his mom as Malka or Malkie, so I posted on LinkedIn to see if any of my Michigan friends knew someone by this name; I wanted to let him know how much his words touched me. With the help of a LinkedIn friend, I got his cellphone number and sent him a voice note telling him how much his words meant to me.

He called me back a few hours later and shared something heartbreaking, yet deeply inspiring: “What you don’t know, Chaim,” said Elie, “is that six weeks ago, my wife and I lost our nine-year-old daughter after an almost-five-year battle with leukemia. Our daughter was the type of girl who always gave compliments, always finding something nice to say about everyone, and uplifting people. I resolved after her passing to emulate that behavior. So when I saw you shlepping around, I felt compelled to say something nice to you about your efforts for your kids. Now that you’ve tracked me down and told me how much it meant to you, I feel like it’s my daughter sending me a message from heaven telling me that she likes what I am doing in her memory.”

Here is a fellow who isn’t seeing open miracles; he isn’t seeing Hashem in all His glory. He’s in the early stages of mourning the loss of his daughter, yet he is a living embodiment of “b’chol me’odecha, with all your might,” serving Hashem with unwavering commitment despite his broken heart and unimaginable loss. Elie’s story hit me hard; how could it not? But his devotion to Hashem, to hashgachah pratis, to fellow Jews, and to humanity blew me away.

You see, to be a Jew means to do both—to see the miracles and to remain connected even when we don’t see any good at all. To observe the miracle of nature and to struggle with what Hashem allows to transpire in our world, all on the same day, perhaps in the same hour. There is so much beauty, so much holiness, and yet so much darkness and so much hurt—and we can carry both truths simultaneously.

Tishah B’Av reminds us of our hardships, but also of our bright future. We celebrate the miracles of being “cancer-free” and we pride ourselves in being faithful like my buddy Elie. We cry, we mourn, we hurt. But we also uplift, we inspire, we find our way back to Hashem, even if it means seeking in our fractured hearts to find our inner might.

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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