Last week, I took the kids to a friend’s house in a scenic area called Gallatin Gateway. It’s about 25 minutes away from our house, between Bozeman and Big Sky, the amazing ski resort. This family is no ordinary family, as they are one of only a few Israeli families who live across the Treasure State. Either the distance or the cold of Montana has kept Israelis away, but there are a few here, as there are a few everywhere, and we do our very best to keep them engaged and connected.
This couple, along with their two sweet daughters, moved to town about two years ago as one of them had an animal research gig in the Montana wilderness on behalf of Fish and Wildlife, via the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. They are really kindhearted, and their two daughters are good friends with our girls since their arrival to Montana. They come from a left-leaning kibbutz, and I’ve been very careful over the years to encourage them to attend our programming, but never to push them, as it was clear that “religion” is not their cup of tea.
During this visit I offered the dad the opportunity to place a mezuzah on his new home. He said, “Yallah, Chaim, for you.”
I asked him whether his 97-year-old grandfather, who had passed away that very morning on the kibbutz, would have been happy about the mezuzah, and he said, “Nope.”
So, I asked him if his father who passed away about a year ago would be happy about it, and he said, unequivocally, “Nope.”
He then said, “Chaim, I am doing it for you.”
I responded, “Ehud, the most important thing is that it will adorn your home.”
These moments are hard for me, as, of course, I want him to put up the mezuzah because it’s important to him, not me. On the other hand, I have to realize that if not for my friendship with him—one that was earned with two years of trust between us—he never would have agreed to put it up at all, so I shouldn’t get caught up in the “enthusiasm” gap. He’s never agreed to lay tefillin, he refused to say Kaddish for his own dad, so the mezuzah, motivation aside, is a solid step forward. In truth, it’s historic, as kibbutznikim are hardcore secularists and sometimes atheists. My buddy and his wife grew up with no Yiddishkeit at all. They’re Israeli, so they speak Hebrew, but their knowledge is so limited that an average secular American Jew knows more than them about their faith, so how could I blame him for not wanting it?
It’s the story of so many of the Israelis I meet. They simply were never afforded a proper, meaningful Jewish experience.
In this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, we read about the clothing of the kohanim, the priests, and the kohen gadol, the high priest. It’s a continuation of last week’s parashah, which discussed the assembly of the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle. So often when talking about the Mishkan, we talk about our part in gathering and donating the materials needed for its building, the building and weaving of the items themselves, and the Divinity that was brought about through our service at the sanctuary. Yet, one of the verses this week says, “I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the Altar, and sanctify Aharon and his sons to act as priests to me. I will dwell among the Children of Israel and be G-d for them. They will know that I am the Eternal, their G-d, Who took them out of the land of Egypt in order that I may dwell among them.”
Yes, we must create the vessel, the center for Divine light, but we also mustn’t ever forget that it’s Hashem’s presence we await, and the revelation of the Shechinah, of that Divine manifestation, is dependent on what G-d wants us to experience at that moment. No two revelations are alike, and it’s up to Him—only Him—as to what that looks like.
We must “make an opening for Hashem like the eye of the needle and Hashem will open for us like the entrance of the great hall of the Temple.”
I think back to our first year in Bozeman, when we met Ilai and Gal, another Israeli couple who have since moved out of state. They were avowed communists, members of Israel’s communist party, and self-proclaimed atheists. They were so, so sweet, and we hit it off at the soul level. We argued about Israeli politics (I’ve always been a political junkie and loved going back and forth with them) while drinking beer, I named their daughter at the Torah, and I got the dad, who was in his late thirties, to be called to the Torah for the first time in his life while wearing tefillin. He’d help with a minyan when I was desperate (“only if you have nine in the shul and need a tenth should you call me”), and they agreed to have a mezuzah on their door. They didn’t become “frum,” not even close; I never pushed them, but we were their only frum friends and it rubbed off on them, albeit lightly. When their son turned 13 a year ago, they had no plans for a bar mitzvah, so I ordered a pair of tefillin and sent my cousin, a Chabad shliach in the area where they live now, to bring the tefillin over and lay tefillin for the bar mitzvah boy. That would never happen with just a random rabbi, only with a friend.
When we talk about the Divine revelation that our world so desperately needs, I believe its impact is greater with families like these who really don’t want it, but are allowing it, accepting it, even enjoying it (a bit), because deep down in their subconscious they know it’s OK. They don’t understand it and they don’t need to—they need to follow Nike’s slogan and “Just Do It.” Sometimes we get caught up in the intention, the kavanah which is so desired in each mitzvah, but don’t let the kavanah, the proper intention and thought process, fog your ability to appreciate the Divinity that showers the home of these amazing neshamos, awesome souls, who, through connecting with those of us who have had the z’chus, the great merit, of being raised with a love for Torah and an understanding of chassidus, open their lives to a little dose of G-d. If through our actions they are a bit more cognizant that “Mordechai is blessed” and “Haman is cursed” then that is the real Purim experience.
This is part of the Purim story. So many Jews attended and, sadly, enjoyed the party of Achashveirosh. They ignored their righteous leader Mordechai—of whom it is said: “Mordechai in his generation was like Moshe in his generation”—and went to the cocktail party anyway. Yet, when the decree came down against the Jews, they joined together in prayer and fasting to annul the decree. They allowed their children to study under Mordechai’s tutelage despite the threat to their life. As we are taught, “It was during the story of Purim that the Jews accepted wholeheartedly and internalized the Torah that was given at Sinai.” That’s no small statement. These same Jews who messed up royally amongst royalty recognized their mistake and owned up to it. It was a simple act of turning back to Hashem which changed the trajectory of Am Yisrael.
We are taught in the holy Zohar that teshuvah, returning to Hashem, is “b’shata chada u’be’riga chada,” in one hour or even one moment. Change doesn’t need to be a long, dragged-out process—sometimes it’s just the simple act of letting G-d back in, or in for the very first time, that makes all the difference. We don’t read about the “bad Jews” who ate from Achashveirosh’s meal; it was done and over with and it was time to focus on getting the decree annulled and the Jews saved. We can’t choose to alienate Jews and hold them back from enjoying the Divine revelation that Hashem so desperately wants to shower upon them, simply because they don’t believe 100% or they don’t understand why they’re doing it. We should always strive for the highest standards and we should want every Jew to know it all, but that shouldn’t stop them from getting on board the Divine train and Tabernacle experience even before they fully “get it.”
As we dress up for Purim and say “L’chaim,” let’s remember that behind the costumes are all different types of Jews who are all part of our Jewish family and should be celebrated as fellow tribe members. I will be doing just that. And this year I will keep in mind that one more family in Gallatin Gateway is Divinely empowered whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, whether they understand it or not.
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.