Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his family

Parashas Ki Savo is a hard parashah to swallow. Ki Savo is one of two parshiyos in which Hashem lays down the Tochachah, his rebuke to the Jewish people, as He forewarns them about the reality that will engulf their lives should they make un-G-dly, unholy choices. It’s pretty gruesome and definitely difficult to digest.

I recall hearing Rabbi Shlomo Riskin share a memory from a Shabbos on which he prayed at the Williamsburg Shtiebel (synagogue) of the Sanz-Klausenberg Rebbe in the years after the Holocaust. The Rebbe, Rabbi Halberstam, lost his wife and 11 children to the Nazis, and he began to rebuild his life and community in New York before moving to Netanya and establishing Laniado Hospital. It was Parashas Ki Savo, and the ba’al koreh, the Torah reader, began reading the Tochachah (rebuke) in a quieter tone, as is custom.

Suddenly, almost inaudibly, the Yiddish word “hecher” (louder), came from the Rebbe’s direction at the eastern wall of the shul. The Torah reader stopped, apparently wondering if he had heard the Rebbe correctly, but ultimately decided that he must have heard incorrectly. So he continued reading quietly. The Klausenberger Rebbe then banged on the table and shouted, “I said, ‘Louder!’ Let the Master of the Universe hear! We have nothing to be afraid of. We have already received all of the curses — and more! Let the Almighty hear and let Him understand that the time has come to send the blessings!”

The ba’al koreh then began to read the Tochachah loudly and clearly.

It’s an incredible insight into one school of thought regarding the parashah. Yes, G-d threatens us with extreme punishments, yes, things could be really rough for Jewry, and, yes, we must always keep in mind one of the key principles of Jewish faith that there is s’char v’onesh, reward and punishment, and our behavior matters. The Klausenberger’s approach was to stare at the “curses” head on, and help Hashem realize that He’s already tormented His people enough and it’s high time for redemption, for the coming of Mashiach.

There is a Lubavitcher approach to the Tochachah that is a bit more complex, yet internally transformative. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, shared the following.

The Alter Rebbe, Rav Shneur Zalman, himself was the regular Torah reader at his shul. Once he was away from Lyozna on the Shabbos of Parashas Ki Savo, and the Mitteler Rebbe, his not-yet-bar-mitzvah son, heard the Torah reading from another. The son, anguished by the curses in the Tochachah (rebuke), fell ill to the degree that on Yom Kippur, a month later, his father, the Alter Rebbe, doubted whether his son would be able to fast. They asked the Mitteler Rebbe, “Don’t you hear this parashah being read every year?”

He replied, “When Father reads, one hears no curses.”

It’s in this anecdote that we are taught a principled idea that is Torah-based and elucidated in Chassidus at great length. The Mishnah in Berachos teaches that we are obligated to thank Hashem for the negative life experiences as much as we thank Him for the positive ones. The Gemara tells us about Nachum Ish Gamzu who always would say, “Gam zu l’tovah” —  this, too, is for the good — no matter what happened. In addition, we are taught that Rabbi Akiva would say, “Kol mah d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid,” that everything Hashem does is for the good. These are not new ideas, but starting from the Ba’al Shem Tov and all the way to the Rebbe, this idea was internalized and made accessible to each and every one of us.

Rabbi Akiva and Nachum Ish Gamzu both had very G-dly outlooks. Rabbi Akiva recognized that everything taking place in our life and around us will lead to something good, while Nachum felt that there is no bad at all; the seemingly negative reality will not only lead to something good, but is in actuality good. This is a novel approach to life, as it allows us to recognize that even those moments in life that seem totally bad and chaotic are actually good, though it may take time for us to see the good embedded deep within the negative. So, when young Dovber heard his father reading the rebuke, he heard the good that is rooted in the very scary rebuke, not the bad as bad itself.

Chavie’s sister met her soulmate and got engaged at the end of June. They were to be married August 26 in Chavie’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas. As COVID cases grew in Texas, and San Antonio in particular, my in-laws were facing a dilemma: do they push off the wedding or does the couple get married in San Antonio with a minyan only? Chavie is the oldest of nine, which means that just the immediate family is close to 40 people, plus the groom and his siblings are another 20 or so. The decision was made to make the wedding in Montana. We would, of course, still follow all the local health department guidelines, with social distancing and masks, but we could have 90 people and still follow all the rules properly.

Indeed, last Wednesday, close friends and family joined together to celebrate Shayna and Mendel’s wedding. The kabbalas panim and chuppah took place in our home and front yard, and the party was held at a local ranch venue. It was so joyous, so beautiful, so elegant, so personal. It had seemed like COVID was ruining this bride and groom’s plans, as it has for countless others; but, in truth, as I look back to last week’s celebration, it’s clear that Hashem gifted this newlywed couple a very memorable wedding at which the joy was palpable by all in attendance, who had make a real effort to be there. The COVID restrictions could have seemed very “bad” or “negative,” but when we take the time to look a little deeper, we realize that, in this case, it wasn’t a curse — just “good” and “awesome” hidden beneath a bumpy surface. 

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 rabbi@jewishmontana.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.

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