I grew up in an environment where family was everything. My mother was extremely close to her parents, my father was tight with his siblings, we “worshiped” my uncle, my aunt was like a backup mother, family Chanukah parties were a must, cousins’ birthdays were unforgettable, we’d visit our relatives in Israel, and we took care of each other. As I get older, I appreciate more and more how beautiful it is to grow up with immediate and extended family members who are deeply connected. It’s how I got this column in the first place. Larry Gordon and my mother are first cousins (his father, my Uncle Nison, was the older brother of my maternal Bubby Esther Goldman), and his son Yochanan, the acclaimed columnist in the 5TJT, reached out to me and asked if I’d write a Montana column. The rest is history.
I once read, “Families are like branches on a tree. We grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one.”
In a sense that’s very true. If I run into a Bruk, Brook, Gordon, Goldman, Scheinberger, or Sonnonfeld anywhere in the world, it’s like I’m home; we speak the same language and march to the same beat. We have that common ancestral connection so that even if I never met them before or met them only once or twice, my heart swells in real time from the familial bond that is awakened. No, families aren’t perfect. Each family tree has its branches that get in our way or under our skin, but as a rule, mishpachah is one of the greatest gifts Hashem has given us.
Most gentiles or, l’havdil, ba’alei teshuvah who come from a secular background, don’t have large families. They talk about their two cousins and one aunt and it’s visibly bothersome to them that their family tree is tiny. When they hear about my family, that I have, ka’h, over 100 first cousins and hundreds, maybe thousands, of second cousins, it blows them away, and you can see the yearning in their eyes for a larger family.
When I was a yeshiva student, I landed in Los Angeles for a friend’s wedding, and with a few hours to spare, I went to visit my mother’s cousin Rabbi Josh Gordon in Encino. He was a world-renowned Torah teacher on Chabad.org, ran an impressive network of over 20 Chabad Centers in the Valley, and he was a sought-after adviser/mediator to so many. Yet, when I walked into his office without warning, he said, “You’re Chanchy’s? Nice to meet you, Chaim Shaul. Let’s have lunch.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Yisro, we read about the importance of a healthy family dynamic. In the beginning of the parashah we read: “Now, Moses’ father in law Yisro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.”
Rashi, quoting the Mechilta, points out that the verse mentions that Yisro was Moshe’s father-in-law and says, “Here Yisro prides himself on his relationship to Moshe, saying, “I am the king’s father-in-law.”
In the past, Moshe attributed the greatness to his father-in-law, as it is said: “Moses went and returned to Yeser, his father-in-law.”
It seems clear that each of them was honored to be associated with the other.
Later in the parashah, when Moshe goes out to greet Yisro, who is coming to the camp of Israel along with Moshe’s wife, Tziporah, and his sons Gershom and Eliezer, reuniting after a lengthy separation, Rashi tells us: “Yisro was afforded great honor at that time. Since Moshe went out, Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu also went out, and who was it who saw these men going out and did not go out? Thus, everyone went out to greet Yisro.”
Mind you, this was before Yisro fully converted from his idolatrous lifestyle to be a Jew, and yet he was treated with utmost respect.
HaRav Ovadia Yosef, zt’l, ruled that a ger tzedek, a convert to Judaism, should recite Kaddish after the passing of his biological gentile parents. HaRav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, ruled that a convert should take his or her children from Israel to the diaspora, even when it is expensive, to visit a dying biological gentile grandparent. Halachah is clear that a Jewish person who becomes Torah-observant later in life must remain in close contact with and be super-respectful to his or her parents despite their secularism. Of course, if the parents are berating their child’s journey, it could make it harder to be in their presence often, but, generally, the relationship should be rock-solid, showing the secular relatives what Yiddishkeit really is and how respectful we really are.
Last night, Chavie and I, along with the kids, danced in San Antonio at the wedding of my sister-in-law Devorah and her chassan, Zelig. My kids are always so eager to travel for simchos, to spend a few days with cousins, uncles, aunts, and Bubby and Zaidy. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s so, so good for all of us. To see them playing, laughing, and singing with their cousins from Grand Cayman, San Marcos, Kalispell, West Bloomfield, and San Antonio is a real nachas and an important component of life which they don’t get to experience often while living in Montana.
On Monday, the 22nd of Shevat, we will commemorate the 35th yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, wife of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt’l. I remember standing at her funeral and how sad the Rebbe looked that day and in the months and years that followed. The Rebbe spoke so eloquently, so emotionally, with so much rawness, about the loss of his Rebbetzin, and it was a vivid reminder to all of us, his chassidim, that behind the public persona of the Rebbe and his devotion to world Jewry, he was a family man who adored his wife, honored his parents, and loved engaging with every one of his family members.
In the 1980s, the Rebbe’s niece, Daliah, the daughter of the Rebbe’s younger brother, Leibel, and his wife, Regina, came from Israel to visit him in New York. They were visiting with the Rebbe and Rebbetzin at their home on President Street and then the Rebbe was going to head out to his office at 770. His niece offered the Rebbe a ride in the rented sports car she was driving. The red sports car pulled up in front of 770, and you could imagine the total shock when out of that car the Rebbe emerged. Yet, to the Rebbe that ride meant spending a few more minutes with his niece and giving her, his beloved family member, a feeling of closeness, which is what it’s all about.
Celebrate family; they are Hashem’s gift to you.
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.