It was a special moment at the Bozeman airport as my dad waltzed through the security doors and was greeted by my long-awaited heartfelt hug, along with the embrace of Chaya and Zeesy, our two middle daughters. Though we FaceTime every morning at the crack of dawn, it’s been ten months since I’ve seen my father face to face. He lives in New York and Yerushalayim, and I live in Montana. Before COVID, we’d see each other bimonthly, as I’m often in New York for a simcha or a meeting or just to daven at the Rebbe’s Ohel. Yet, since the 18th of Teves I haven’t seen him. In that time, he was sick with COVID-19 and baruch Hashem recovered, and wow was it good to see him in the flesh!
I called my father early last week and said, “I bought you a ticket and you’re coming to us for Shabbos.” He didn’t want to shlep — it’s four flights roundtrip — but I insisted, I pressured … and what a beautiful Shabbos it was. I had the pleasure of watching him play “Owl” with Chaya and Zeesy, running around the kitchen island with Menny, lifting Chana Laya on his feet to her absolute amusement, and trying on rings that he brought as a gift for Shoshana; all in all, we enjoyed entertaining Shabbos meals with humor and life insight that was out of this world.
There is nothing like family, and with my mom’s tenth yahrzeit coming up in a month, he’s been our only living parent for a while, and my siblings and I are very close to him and enjoy hanging out with him.
In this week’s parashah, Vayeitzei, we read about Yaakov Avinu leaving behind his beloved parents to escape the wrath of his brother Eisav over the blessings Yaakov received in deceit as encouraged by his mother, Rivka. It was a case of family drama that resulted in Yaakov living alone for 14 years as he studied in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever and then moved to Charan (modern-day Turkey) to find a wife from Uncle Laban’s family. There, he needed to constantly defend his integrity, honesty, and morals at every step of the way, as Laban and his band of ganavim were a conniving bunch. For Yaakov, having to make big life decisions without his parents there to guide him must have been really hard.
Yes, he marries four wives, fathers the twelve tribes and Dina, earns a reputation of being the most ethical of employees, and raises his children with his Abrahamic values, but we can’t forget that he was 650 miles away from his parents who were left at home in Beersheba with a wicked son and a natural yearning for their righteous son, carrier of the Isaac and Rebecca torch of Yiddishkeit, who was far away. One can be the founder of the 12 shevatim of Am Yisrael, the preeminent leaders of Jewry for all eternity, and still be lonely.
Yaakov exhibited incredible amounts of courage and strength, but one must think not only of Yaakov but also of his parents and their aloneness. Yaakov never sees his mother again nor does he attend her funeral; he barely gets some time to meet up with his father before he passes in Chevron. Though it was his mom’s recommendation to run away, Yaakov is still punished for the length of his absence by being separated from his beloved son Yosef for 22 years, when Yosef is sold by his brothers as a slave to Egyptian merchants.
Parents being separated from children is unnatural.
So often, we study the Torah stories and forget that, in addition to the spiritual and mystical aspects of the biblical tales and the holiness of the individuals, there is the practical, familial aspect that could be emotionally charged — painful, happy, confusing, fearful, and sad. I can’t imagine the choice Rivka had to make: send off your beloved son to escape from a threatening sibling and to find a wife; do what’s best for the child, but still live every day yearning for one of your babies, born after years of infertility, knowing that he will be living with your evil brother from whom you yourself escaped years earlier. Yaakov fulfilled his mission amazingly, but it came with a cost — a cost that we shluchim, and, even more so our parents, can, at times, fully understand and relate to.
People often think that the Rebbe sent off shluchim to distant shores with excitement for their mission to revolutionize Yiddishkeit and bring Mashiach. Yet, in truth, it was bittersweet, as the Rebbe also understood the pain parents would experience while their children lived so far away, struggling with the most basic amenities of life, not to mention lacking the spiritual amenities of being in a frum community and closer to family. The Rebbe knew that the shluchim would be having babies in local hospitals with no parents there to support them; they would miss siblings’ weddings because it was too expensive to fly back to New York; and they would miss spending Shabbos afternoons catching up with their parents, enjoying family, as we are meant to. The Rebbe didn’t disregard those real yearnings, those deep feelings of separation, but he knew that bringing Mashiach, fighting the war against those who have “disgraced the footsteps of Your anointed,” as Dovid HaMelech refers to Mashiach, is one that entails sacrifice, the same essential sacrifice that was needed from Yaakov to ensure the 12 shevatim, the future of Am Yisrael, would come to be.
My Bubby told me that when my uncle Rabbi Yossy Goldman and his wife, Rochel, moved to Johannesburg in the mid-1970s, she and my Zayde were elated to have merited a son who would embark on this incredible mission; it was the z’chus of their lifetime, but they also missed them terribly, and in those days travel wasn’t what it is today. Rivka and Yitzchak surely awaited the day that they would see their Yankele again. Sadly, for Rivka that never happened, and that must’ve hurt deeply. Rivka on her deathbed surely longed to see her cherished Yaakov one last time.
Chavie and I often joke about wanting to go away for a night or two to get a break, and then we remember that we don’t have any uncles or aunts or bubbies or zaidys around the corner who could “babysit” for a couple of days, or even hours. Cherish family while they’re healthy and available. Don’t squander opportunities for bonding. We may think there will always be time, but as Yaakov’s story reminds us, sometimes there is no time for it later.
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.