Rabbi Chaim Shaul Bruk

It’s a big schlep to travel from Bozeman to New York, especially if it’s only for a few hours, but last week I did it to celebrate the 40th birthday of my younger brother Yanky who lives in Monsey. Yanky is just 13 months younger than me, and he was my roommate for the first 15 years of my life. He’s grown to be a hardworking man, a ba’al tzedakah, a family man, someone who epitomizes kindheartedness, and he’s an awesome brother. It was a great simcha. My older brother Yochanan, who flew in from Florida for the day, spearheaded a printing of the Sefer HaTanya at the shul during the birthday farbrengen in honor of Yanky and his family, which is something that our Rebbe, zt’l, really encouraged.

Before we departed the gate from Newark to Montana, the pilot announced that he’d asked the flight attendants to remain in their jump seats for the first part of the flight because of reports of consistent turbulence for the first third of the flight. Indeed, all the way from Newark, over the airspace of upstate New York, Ontario, Michigan, and into Minnesota, it was bumpy and windy and very unpleasant.

I’m not a big fan of turbulence on a good day, and prolonged turbulence leaves me without fingernails. Unlike most turbulence, where the plane is in and out of clouds or over storms, this time we remained in the clouds without land or sky visible the entire time. If you’re glued to your TV screen or sleeping deeply it doesn’t matter, but if, like me, you’re looking out the window, it can put you in a daze, feeling “spaced out” and lost throughout. As I endured this at 38,000 feet, I kept thinking of those souls in solitary confinement where they don’t see day or night, locked in a bubble of emotional unconsciousness, and how hopeless one can feel under such harsh, confusing circumstances.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we read about the final three plagues of locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn. When it comes to the plague of darkness, I’ve been intrigued since my days in Oholei Torah elementary school about the fact that the Egyptians couldn’t move; they were paralyzed. I was taught, and Midrashim say this, that the darkness was thick and substantive and didn’t allow for the Egyptians to move at all. Other Midrashim tell us that the thickness of the darkness had a deadly component to it that if inhaled would kill the person immediately. So, the Egyptians had to plug their noses during the plague, too.

Furthermore, I read in a sefer quoting Chochmas Shlomo, which is attributed to Shlomo HaMelech, that during the plague of darkness Hashem brought about frightening demonic images and sounds that scared the living daylights out of the Egyptians, so perhaps they weren’t physically paralyzed by the darkness but were emotionally paralyzed and unwilling to move, as they felt and thought that harmful entities were present. Sure, Hashem was punishing them, which was the purpose of the plague, but, to me, it’s still amazing that when we live in darkness, when we lack the light of Hashem, we end up experiencing paranoia, seeing imaginary images, or allowing every spooky sound to dictate our next move, moves that have the ability to bring about our betterment and the refinement of the world around us.

I was learning a letter of the Rebbe recently with my chavrusa Daniel. It’s a letter dated the 3 Sivan 5712 (1952), and the Rebbe is writing to his shliach, Rabbi Michoel Lipsker in Morocco. He writes to the Rebbe that he’s scared that certain community leaders will force shut or weaken the yeshiva he opened in Meknes. The Rebbe writes to him that he should stop being paranoid, and nobody is going to shut or weaken the yeshiva. In addition, the Rebbe writes, we know that the more we strengthen our fear of Hashem, our yiras Shamayim, the less we will be afraid of people of flesh and blood.

It was amazing.

Reb Michoel was the Rebbe’s first shliach and was willing to move to Morocco in 1950. Together with Rabbis Matusof, Edelman, and Raskin, he revolutionized Jewish life in a place and time when too many of our brothers and sisters were being spiritually lost, and the Rebbe is rebuffing him about yiras Shamayim? Yet, in truth, we all need that reminder occasionally, to pause and recognize that Hashem is more powerful than any obstacle we may encounter and if we hold on tight to Him, we will be OK. At times things are so dark; there are so many frightening images and sounds, so many things we imagine can destroy us, that it’s hard to think of a bright future, it’s hard to see the Elokus, the G-dliness, in our lives, in the moment, in the reality before us—but it’s there all the time. Darkness is a plague for Egyptians; for Jews it says, “But for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.”

I remember hearing an inspiring story of Rabbi Meir of Premishlan that guides much of what we do here in Montana.

The mikveh in his town was situated on the opposite side of a mountain. During the winter months, the snow and ice made it impossible to navigate the mountain, and the residents of Premishlan were forced to go around the mountain, thus avoiding the rough conditions. That is, all except for Reb Meir, who would ascend the mountain even during those wintertime months.

Once, a group of youngsters known for mocking Rebbes and miracles arrived in Premishlan. They set off to prove that there was nothing particularly special about Reb Meir’s behavior, and that they too would be able to cross the mountain. Though they were a healthy and robust group, they didn’t get too far. Instead, they returned to Premishlan bruised and beaten from slipping on the dreadful ice.

Having learned their lesson, they went back to the tzaddik, asking him, “How is it that only you were able to climb this treacherous mountain and for everyone else it is unfeasible?”

Reb Meir responded, “Ven men iz tzugebunden oiben falt men nit unten,” which means, “When one is connected above, they don’t fall below.”

Chavie and I spend our days reminding Jews that they too can connect firmly to the Source of all life, and when they do that it will be much harder for them to fall back into the pits of hopelessness and darkness. It’s what the Rebbe did for Klal Yisrael by sending shluchim and shluchos, elevating the state of Jewry to know that they are connected to Hashem, and through every mitzvah the bond gets stronger to the point that no mountain can stop their drive for holiness and spirituality.

The Rebbe taught me to free myself from darkness, to remain mobile, active, and unparalyzed, getting out of my personal Egyptian bondage; yet, at times I too get stuck in the rut of fear and uncertainty. This week I’m reminded that it’s a plague to live in darkness and it’s a blessing to live in the Jewish light.

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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