On Tuesday, the 15th of Kislev, I celebrated my 39th birthday. The Rebbe believed one’s birthday should be a personal Rosh Hashanah infused with extra holiness and resolutions for the coming year. Therefore, I utilize its 24 hours to focus on change. Change is hard, but becoming a better person is vital to the healthy human condition. A better husband, father, son, brother, uncle, friend, and, of course, shliach to the Jews of Big Sky Country. Reflection is arduous, but it’s a Jewish mandate; each night before we go to sleep, during Krias Shema she’al ha’mitah we are asked to rectify that which we broke during the day, and annually on Yom Kippur we do it for the year. So adding one more day of spiritual refinement on our birthday shouldn’t be too out of character.
My birthday is always four days before Yud Tes Kislev, the Rosh Hashanah of Chassidism, which will be celebrated this Shabbos. It’s a day on which Jewry commemorates the yahrzeit of the Mezritcher Maggid, Rav Dovber, the prime student of the Ba’al Shem Tov who passed away in 1772, and it’s the day on which the Alter Rebbe, the Ba’al HaTanya V’HaShulchan Aruch, was released from Czarist imprisonment in 1798. There was a decree issued in heaven against the teachings of the Alter Rebbe, a decree questioning the spreading of the esoteric wellsprings of Torah, and when he was released on this yom segulah, it became clear that the kitrug, the decree, failed and it was Hashem’s ratzon, His eternal will, that Chassidus reach the masses even more than before the Alter Rebbe’s arrest.
It’s no secret that there was a time when there were segments of frum Jews, including some prominent gedolim, who questioned the learning of Jewish mysticism and Chassidus. Some wondered about the minhagim, customs, and hashkafah, views, of chassidim, including their never-ending simcha, daily use of the mikveh, davening a bit later in the day so they can internalize the powerful ideas of tefillah, and even their belief in detailed hashgachah pratis, the now-accepted idea that Hashem directs every detail of creation from a-z, but that was over 200 years ago. Today, the opposition to Chassidism simply doesn’t exist. Yes, there are Jews who aren’t chassidim, but the war on chassidim and their lifestyle has dissipated. Chassidus is being studied, overtly or subtly, in Lakewood, in Bnei Brak, and in Gateshead. A vort from the Sfas Emes, an idea from Tzemach Tzedek, a chiddush from the Rebbe in Rashi, are to be found everywhere. It’s simply impossible to be a student of Torah without ingesting mega amounts of Chassidus.
I’m not gloating, chas v’shalom; I’m just happy that the Alter Rebbe’s devotion paid off with real results around the globe. Just last week I was asked to write an article on the Lubavitch approach to eiruvin for a Mizrachi publication in Israel that was published in honor of the siyum on Eiruvin that we made recently in the study of the daily daf. Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson and Rabbi Shais Taub are household names in Flatbush and Monsey; Rav Yoel Kahn and Rav Mendel Wechter are teaching Chassidus to massive crowds in Monroe and Tosh. Just two weeks ago, Rav Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, had an incredible visit with the Satmar Rav of Kiryas Yoel. We don’t always see the world the same way, and our hashkafah isn’t exactly the same, but we are at a place where we recognize that “kulanu bnei ish echad nachnu” — we are siblings, all children of the same G-d, reaching for the same goal of bringing Mashiach.
This week we study Parashas Vayishlach. In it, Yaakov talks to Hashem in trepidation before encountering his evil brother Eisav whom he hasn’t seen in many years. He beseeches G-d: “Please, deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me … And You said, ‘I will surely do good with you, and I will make your seed as numerous as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of multitude.’”
How do you understand Yaakov’s plea? Was he reminding Hashem: “Hey You promised that I would be fine and You’d protect me, but now Eisav will kill me. Dear G-d, You dropped the ball and failed me.” Or was he saying: “Hashem, You told me that I will be fine, and I know You are trustworthy and everything is going to be on the up-and-up as promised, even though right now I’m kinda scared.”
Was it a statement of doubt or trust?
At chassidic farbrengens, after a few l’chaims and many hours of heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul discussions, one is likely to hear a song sung on these exact words: “And You said, ‘I will surely do good with you,’” or, in its original Hebrew, “V’atah amarta heitiv eitiv imach.” But there are two tunes to the song, and each tune represents that pasuk — either as a doubtful or trustful declaration.
One tune is a low song, a song of yearning, begging, and beseeching, “Have You not promised that we Jews will be blessed? Why the pain, why the suffering? When is our righteous Mashiach going to finally come? When will my classmate and Five Towns resident Yudi Dukes, Chaim Shneur Zalman Yehuda ben Hinda Yocheved, have a full recovery and live happily ever after with his beloved wife and children?”
But then there’s the smarter Jew, the one who’s been around the block and sees life through the prism of Chassidus and Jewish history. You may catch a glimpse of this chassid in the wee hours of the morning, at the conclusion of a farbrengen, as he dances atop the table singing, “V’atah amarta heitiv eitiv imach!” You told us we will survive and thrive, and we will! You told us that Mashiach is coming, and we are on board! You told us suffering will end, and we believe You! We daven for Yudi’s recovery and we know he will regain his full health!”
As I enter my 40th year, it is my hope and prayer that I internalize the teachings of Chassidus so that as I wade through the waters of life — sometimes muddy waters — I, too, can sing “V’Atah Amarta” always with the second tune, remembering that there’s a detailed plan orchestrated by G-d, and our role is simply to show up in service of Hashem throughout.
Gut yom tov!
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, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.