By R’ Chaim Bruk
The only way to live as Yidden is to constantly grow in our relationship with Hashem, through refinement of our inner middos and unwavering observance of halachah. As Jews we are to work on ourselves all the time. We learn Chassidus, we delve into Mussar, we study the daily daf and Rambam … we are entrenched in Torah, because “it is our life and the length of our days.” There is immeasurable chesed and devotion to mitzvos among Klal Yisrael, but before the Yomim Nora’im, the High Holy Days, we need to pause and see where we can find room for healthy progress.
In the original Lubavitch, the town in White Russia, there was an Elul reality check. When Rosh Chodesh Elul came around it was said “an Elul wind” was blowing that was felt by all. They’d get up early in the morning to say Tehillim, and, overall, the mood was one of sincerity and introspection. We, too, need to get ready for Rosh Hashanah and work through the aspects of our life that need a dose of spiritual WD-40. It’s not enough to study the Torah; the Torah must teach us and help transform us to be better human beings. If I learn and learn and can still eat something with questionable kashrus, it’s an issue. If one davens Shemoneh Esrei the longest of everyone else in shul but lacks in chesed or ahavas Yisrael, something needs to be changed.
This past Shabbos we had the honor of hosting 60-plus visitors for the Shabbos meals at our Bozeman Chabad Center. From Lakewood and Beit Shemesh, Flatbush and Crown Heights, Los Angeles and Atlanta, Santa Monica and Gainesville, they came, as a miniature kibbutz galuyos, ingathering of the exiles, and we celebrated with so much holiness, laughter, and uplifting spirit throughout Shabbos. We even hosted a beautiful family from Cedarhurst who are avid readers of this column and chose Bozeman, in part, because of that.
It was so special.
I said Kaddish on behalf of a local woman who lost her mom to Alzheimer’s, I made a Mishebeirach for a mom in our community who just gave birth, we heard beautiful people share thoughts and toast l’chaim, and we saw Jews of all flavors connecting and sharing our essence as can only happen at Chabad. It was a Shabbos that I consider positively off the charts.
During seudah shlishis, a woman from Israel asked me about the religious representation in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. A fascinating conversation ensued about the real challenges when mixing religion and government. I spent some time addressing the issue of frum representatives in the Knesset focusing on the periphery, on the externalities of Jewish life, like buses driving on Shabbos and chametz being permitted in hospitals, when they should be focused on the source of the problem, which is that more than half of Israeli children don’t know the Shema or the Aseres HaDibros. We can’t inspire change about Am Yisrael’s relationship with Hashem by having a yarmulke-wearing Jew screaming from the Knesset podium; it must be done with love and respect and with a focus on transforming the Israeli society at the core.
This conversation led to a more important discussion about what it means to be a Jew, and how, sadly, we have lost our path a bit, forgetting, at times, about the yechidah she’b’nefesh, the essence of our soul that is one with Hashem and is holy in nature, unable to ever be tainted. We can’t turn Judaism into a religion like all others, where we get the “things” done without the neshamah shining in the process. Being a Jew means a lot of different things, but first and foremost it means that we are children of Hashem on a mission to brighten ourselves, our families, and the world around us.
We can have hundreds of conversations about your minhag versus mine, whether you use the eiruv or not, or even harder ones about the best way to build a mikveh and which poskim got it right in our opinion. But if we forget the foundation—that all of us are members of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” that “This is my consolation in my affliction, for Your word has sustained me”—if we forget, G-d forbid, that to be a Jew means to reject our temptations, refine our inner coarseness and addictions, if we forget that respecting every human being with utmost dignity is the Jewish way, then what’s the point of all the minhagim? Is G-d waiting for your Pesach chumrah or corrections during krias haTorah while you’re hurting His children and observing Judaism superficially anyhow?
Many parents wonder why their children adore political pundits or talk-show hosts more than Kuzari or the Sfas Emes. Why does my kid talk about the neighbor’s Tesla more than she does about the power of challah? Why would a Jewish magazine have an image of a gentile president instead of R’ Yerucham Olshin or Ezra Schochet? Being a Yid isn’t about fancy dinners for important institutions, or a lavish Kiddush that makes half the shul feel unworthy and jealous when they can’t pay their mortgage, or about who spent more on the Jacuzzi in the bungalow. It’s about being an Am Segulah, a chosen people to inspire the world with Hashem’s guidance and wisdom and doing so with simcha, inner and outer joy.
I started a new shiur on Zoom for a group of gentiles who are unhappy with their religions of birth and who wanted a rabbi to teach them how to live as a ben/bas Noach, following in the covenant that Hashem created with Adam and later solidified with Noach. They wanted to know how a gentile should pray, how a gentile should get married, how a gentile should give ma’aser (tithing). During the class, one of the students asked, “Rabbi, how does a gentile fit in to the general goal of making the world holy, elevating the G-dly sparks, so the world can be redeemed?”
It was so raw and special. He wanted to know how he, too, can bring Mashiach.
Parashas Eikev begins with the words: “Because you hearken to these laws.” The commentaries dwell on the Hebrew word “eikev” in this verse—an uncommon synonym for “because.” Many see a connection with the word “akev” (same Hebrew spelling, different pronunciation), which means “heel.” As Rashi says, this is an allusion to those mitzvos that a person tramples with his heel—the Torah is telling us to be equally diligent with all of G d’s commandments, no less with those that seem less significant to our finite minds. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt’l, says: Our dedication to Torah should be such that it penetrates us entirely, so that also our heel—the lowest and the least sensitive part of the person—“hearkens to these laws, observes them, and does them.” Simply put, our relationship with G d should not be confined to the holy days of the year, or to certain “holy” hours we devote to prayer and study, but should also embrace our everyday activities. The “spiritually insensitive” part of our life is the foundation of our relationship with G-d in the same way that the heel is the base upon which the entire body stands and moves.
We need to make basic, pure, and unadulterated Judaism the foundation of life and our homes. If we want our youth to celebrate their Jewishness and Judaism, we need to show them something more than another Charidy campaign and another Siyum HaShas that costs more money than they could ever dream of earning. If we want them to respect our Torah sages, the rebbes and roshei yeshivos who give us chizuk and so much Torah, we must adore those same gedolim (not just for a photo op) and not obsess about the FBI, the politicians, and the future of Roe v. Wade. We are Yidden, we are better than this, we are the ones who proclaim in Tehillim: “Because I considered all precepts of all things upright, and every false way I hated.”
Do we really hate falsehood? Do we really despise sheker? Are we living authentically or are we selling ourselves cheap for a pot of lentils? Are we Jews who are experts on the Constitution, or Yidden who are experts on Igros Moshe?
On Wednesday of this week, the 20th of Av, we commemorate the 78th yahrzeit of the Rebbe’s father, Reb Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, who was a mekubal and the one who spearheaded Yiddishkeit at the cost of life itself during the 1920s and 30s in Ukraine. I read about how he fought for every Yid to have shemurah matzah for Pesach, about his Rebbetzin Chana who cooked leaves so he’d have ink to write chiddushei Torah while in the horrific Kazakhstan exile, about his ahavas Yisrael for every Yid, even those who were communist and potentially informers. I read and I wondered to myself, “Chaim, when did Judaism become about sushi and Pesach programs rather than a humble kapitel Tehillim at dawn for a child who isn’t well? When did we shift from a family-oriented Shabbos lunch with homemade cholent, a little l’chaim, and a lot of love to a Kiddush Club that is nothing more than “alcoholics not-so-anonymous?”
On Monday, I had the z’chus of hosting a bris in our Bozeman shul for a young couple who named their baby Zev Michoel. I am awed when a couple who isn’t “frum” chooses to do the right thing for Hashem, even if it’s less and less common to do so. After the bris the mohel says a prayer: “Sovereign of the universe, may it be Your will that this circumcision be regarded and accepted by You as if I had offered him before the Throne of Your Glory. And You, in Your abounding mercy, send through Your holy angels a holy and pure soul to (Zev Michoel), the son of (Natan), who has now been circumcised for the sake of Your great Name. May his heart be open as the portal of the Great Hall in the Temple in Your holy Torah, to learn and to teach, to observe and to practice; grant him long life…”
There’s so much beauty in this prayer. Are we living up to that? I am not sure, but we mustn’t give up on trying to imbue these amazing values, today and forever.
This may have sounded a bit harsh, but it’s coming from a place of love. I love every single Yid, I love Torah and all its holy layers, I love Eretz Yisrael, and I love HaKadosh Baruch Hu most of the time. I am also eternally grateful to the Jews who have been blessed by Hashem to be wealthy and support holy causes because that’s what keeps our Chabad Center alive. But we can’t forget what it’s really about, and that is: Hashem, Torah, and Jews—nothing else.
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.