By Rabbi Chaim Bruk
It’s Cheshvan, the simplest month of all. There are no biblical holidays, no rabbinic holidays, and there isn’t even a chassidic holiday marking a joyful milestone in chassidic circles. It’s mundane and uneventful. It’s called Mar-Cheshvan, as “mar” means bitter, and after a holiday-packed month like Tishrei, a month without holidays is bitter for the Jewish soul.
Yet, specifically in this month, we are given the opportunity to go back to the basics. We aren’t overwhelmed by all the bonus holiday mitzvos and can’t count on being inspired by G-d-delivered bliss, forgiveness, acceptance, protection, and joy. Hashem expects us to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and get to work, the work of permeating the mundane, and sometimes bitter, world, with holiness. For Chavie and me, this translates to refocusing our efforts on the most basic of mitzvos, the yesodos (foundations) of Yiddishkeit. While on yom tov we offer the Jews of Montana the special yom tov mitzvos and celebrations, during Cheshvan we can go back to ensuring that every Jewish home has a mezuzah, every woman in a Jewish marriage is taught about mikveh, every Jewish child has an education, every Jewish post-bar-mitzvah man knows about tefillin, every Jewish girl and woman knows about Shabbos candles, and so on.
It’s on those most ordinary Cheshvan days, as we are bundled up and gazing at the new snowfall, that Chavie and I are able to sit for hours and counsel neshamos of all flavors, to service those in the most dire of situations, give classes galore as we teach the basics and deeper layers of Torah wisdom, and to respond when called upon, in whatever direction that takes us.
It’s also a healthier time for our children, as after a month of having their home full of wonderful guests, it’s nice to have weekdays of just family time, dinner just with family, and bedtime that is uninterrupted and allows me to read to them about Reb Meir Shapiro of Lublin and, l’havdil, the stories of the Revolutionary War and the Battle of Trenton. Of course, all of us, including the kids, love the guests and cherish the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, but there is also something beautiful about having family time, and Cheshvan is a great time for that.
It’s fascinating that in our Torah portion, Noach spends 120 years building the teivah (ark) that would eventually save him and his family from the mabul, the great flood. Unlike Avraham Avinu, who devoted his life to sharing yedias HaBorei, the knowledge of our Creator, to anyone who would listen, Noach did his thing, and he did it well, but without any selfless outreach to his brothers and sisters who needed to hear the powerful message of teshuvah, the eternal message that immorality and unethical behavior brings about destruction but that they still have time to repent, to return to the land of their soul.
The pasuk says about Avraham, “And he proclaimed there the name of G-d, the G-d of the world.” The Gemara in Sotah teaches, “Reish Lakish said: Do not read this word literally as ‘va’yikra,’ and he called, but rather as ‘va’yakri,’ and he caused others to call.” That was Avraham’s motto, not sufficing with his own spirituality, but seeking to bring as many of his fellow humans to G-d. This is why when Avraham and Sarah left Charan in Lech Lecha, they took “the souls they made in Charan” with them, as Rashi explains: “Avraham would convert the men, and Sarah the women.” Convert to what? Convert them from living hedonistically to living holy.
How about Noach?
Noach was a really special fellow. He spent 120 years building the ark because he knew that the reason Hashem wanted him to build it was so that people would ask what he was doing and he’d be able to forewarn them about the impending flood. It didn’t have to take that long to fulfill the command to build the ark, but Noach chose to take his good old time to ensure that more and more people could change their ways. Yet, despite his care for his generation, he was no Moshe and no Avraham. Moshe and Avraham invoked mesirus nefesh, total sacrifice, for the people of their era. They weren’t looking for sacrifice, but if it was needed to save their people, they were willing to put everything on the line for them and the cause. Moshe was fighting for Am Yisrael and Avraham for humanity, but both gave it their all.
Moshe fought with Pharaoh, took on an Egyptian antisemite, defended his people when they didn’t deserve it after the Golden Calf, and never ceased for a moment to put his generation at the forefront of his existence, even to his own detriment. Avraham was the same — he argued with G-d about the evil people of Sodom and Gomorrah, he sat in the sun after his b’ris to find guests to feed and educate, he stood his ground when being thrown into the fiery furnace, and put his life on the line to save his nephew Lot. Some people like living on the edge and it’s a thrill for them; others are goal-oriented and will do everything in their finite power to achieve those goals even if it means standing at the edge. Get the difference?
Being a shliach is a lot more Abrahamic and Moshe-like than the Noach style. If we were to sit around and wait for the Jew to ask for a mezuzah, most Jews in Big Sky Country wouldn’t have a kosher one on their door. It’s not because they don’t care; it’s because they don’t necessarily know. Like Avraham, we were taught by our Rebbe to spend a life in the “va’yakri” mode, getting others to join us in calling out to Hashem. Like Moshe, and, say, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, we always seek to find the beauty in the Jew, and revealing that to them inspires them to be more connected to their faith, their G-d, their people, and their land. Noach meant well and he did what Hashem commanded him, but he didn’t go out of his comfort zone to rock his world with knowledge of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Earlier this week, I received an email from a local woman who’s going through a personal hell. In it she wrote, “I just wanted to take a moment and say thank you for your words, for your teachings, and your guidance. This past week has been one that truthfully should have broken [me] … The morning inspirations and Wednesday class have brought so much peace upon myself that I am beyond, beyond grateful. I need you to know that through G-d and you, I am singing a new song — one filled with relief and joy!”
That would never happen if we didn’t follow in the path of Avraham and Moshe.
Build an ark of refuge, but run around town getting everyone on board!
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.