There is an old Yiddish/Russian song sung by Russian chassidim with the powerful lyrics, “Feier vet unz nisht farbrenen, vasser vet unz nisht dertrinken” — meaning, “Fire won’t burn us, water won’t drown us.”
Naturally, this was a song of mesirus nefesh, total self-sacrifice, in the face of never-ending Soviet persecution, in which the chassidim were proclaiming their devotion to Hashem and His Torah no matter what the consequence. Yet, last Shabbos this song became a scary reality for our family and the citizens of Bozeman, Montana.
On Friday afternoon, around 4 p.m., just as I was picking up my three-year-old daughter Chana Laya from the Montessori school she attends, I saw a pillar of smoke rising from a prominent hiking trail, the “M,” in Bozeman. Against the beautiful big blue sky of Montana, what looked like the pillar of smoke ascending from the Beis HaMikdash was visible to everyone in town or even those driving by on the I-90. A quick search on Twitter, where local news reporters post instantly, confirmed what I already figured— a fire had broken out due to the hot temperatures and fire departments were on the scene dealing with it.
I called two Jewish families I know who live close to the area of the fire, and they seemed to think, as we all did, that it was small and would be under control in no time. I wished them both a good Shabbos and really had a good vibe that all would be well.
Shabbos morning when we awoke, the skies were still pretty smoky, but it seemed like the intensity of the fire and smell of smoke had calmed. We had seen the helicopters with buckets of water, we’d witnessed the planes dropping fire retardant, and I even saw smoke jumpers for the first time in my life; everyone on our side of the hill seemed to think it was under control. A smaller crowd showed up in shul on Shabbos morning and, curiously, Bill, one of the fellows who lives up in the Bridger Canyon and always comes to shul when he’s in town, didn’t show. I had my suspicions, but I chose to think, “Everything is OK.”
When Shabbos ended and I turned on my phone, “S’iz gevoren bitter,” it was terrible. It turned out that the fire, just eight or so miles from our home and very visible, had grown on Shabbos afternoon due to the increased winds and had destroyed Bridger Canyon and was now en route to Jackson Creek, the next area over.
I called and texted every Jew I knew in the evacuated area and most were OK and hopeful, but a few were fairly certain that things would not turn out the way we’d hoped, and they’d only know for sure once they were allowed to head home. Late Sunday morning it was confirmed that 28 homes had burned to the ground, including those of three Jewish families, two of whom are involved in Chabad’s activities. It’s so hard to see people who just yesterday had a dream home with a priceless view wake up to no home — gone, kaput, ashes. When those who help Chabad do our holy work, who support what we do for homeless people and hungry folks, are homeless themselves, it’s heartbreaking.
In my texting exchange with Jason Mendelsohn, one of those Jews, he wrote, “Rabbi, you must come to put up the new mezuzos when we rebuild.”
When I said to Bill Feniger, another one who lost everything in the fire, “I assume your tefillin were in the home, too,” he said, “No, Rabbi, I actually grabbed them on the way out along with my laptop, a few family picture albums, and some jewelry.”
My broken heart was warmed. The Gemara says that homelessness takes away part of your humanity, and yet in the midst of experiencing such a nightmare, for these two families the mitzvos of tefillin and mezuzah were a vital reality not to be missed or ignored. “Fire can’t burn us, water can’t drown us.”
It wasn’t just their homes on fire; their souls are on fire.
I don’t know the da’as Elyon, the Divine thought process, and I haven’t got a clue why G-d would do this to our beautiful town and to these amazing families. But I do know that Hashem should be really proud of Am Yisrael. Yes, we have our issues and, yes, we should work harder on healing them, but, boy, are we an awesome people so worthy of Hashem’s love.
On Rosh Hashanah during davening we recite the words of Yirmiyahu HaNavi: “Go and call out in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: So said the L-rd: ‘I remember to you the loving kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me in the desert, in a land not sown.’” With these powerful words we are reminded of our newlywed love with Al-mighty G-d after Sinai and how we were totally infatuated with our new groom and we were the brides par excellence, short of a few moments with the golden calf. Yet, this year, during davening I will also think of the holy Jews who took their tefillin and planned for their new mezuzos while suffering such great loss.
Hashem doesn’t have to look back all the way to the “desert” to find a people who love Him to death despite not really knowing much about Him. Jason and Bill are learning; many aspects of traditional Yiddishkeit are new to them. Bill only started wearing tefillin daily around his 70th birthday. But these families are committed to being connected to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and all that He teaches.
With all the tzaros that Am Yisrael undergoes, with all the spiritual derailment that exists, it’s OK to remember that we are a devoted and mega-special group of people who, despite our obstacles, are committed to doing right by Hashem. We don’t always succeed, but we sure don’t give up trying.
As we usher in Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year which will direct all that 5781 will be, we should stand in shul (or at home, if shul isn’t possible) and say, “Listen closely, dear Father in Heaven. I’ve made mistakes this year. I missed a Minchah in Adar, I forgot “Ya’aleh V’yavo” on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, I forgot an eiruv tavshilin and relied on the rav’s, and I couldn’t fast on 17 Tammuz, but G-d, I am trying, I really am. Despite COVID-19, I’ve davened with 22 outdoor minyanim, I made my son’s bar mitzvah in the backyard, I managed to keep Yiddishkeit alive in our home despite no schooling, and I even donated to 167 Charidy/matching campaigns during the pandemic.
“G-d, I am asking You to cut me some slack and make 5781 totally different so I can be better and do more on Your behalf. I want to be the best I can be, but some days I just can’t keep up with the load You’ve gifted me. So let’s make a deal: You bless 5781 with only revealed good and I’ll do my best to make You even prouder this year. Deal?”
A sweet new year — not too much to demand.
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.