Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky at the dinner for Yaldei Shluchei HaRebbe where Rabbi Chaim was the guest speaker in 2016

It’s the season when Shabbos ends after 10 p.m. and I’m writing this article early Sunday morning before the kids wake up. I’m tired and exhausted, yet find myself invigorated after an amazing week of yom tov.

Growing up, Shavuos was always about homemade dairy dishes and Klein’s ice cream. Yes, the Rebbe, zt’l, encouraged men, women, and children, including babies, to come to shul to hear the Aseres Hadibros, the Ten Commandments, and of course, we tried staying up all night to learn, but really the chag revolved around food, food, and more food.

As I grew older and studied heavy doses of Chassidus about the significance and transformative nature of Matan Torah, learned the Midrashim and Gemaros about the Sinai experience, it became clearer that Shavuos is the Chag HaChagim, the holiday of all holidays without which our beautiful Judaism wouldn’t be complete and our specialness and chosenness would not come to fruition. When one contemplates for five minutes, you come to realize that the 48 hours of holiness embedded in Shavuos is unparalleled and this is what I try to impart to the Jews of Montana, most of whom know very little about this “obscure” holiday.

So last Sunday, in preparation for yom tov, Chavie gathered her Women’s League for a special evening of flower making to help them beautify their homes, but also to remind them of the Midrash about the flowers that grew instantaneously on Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah. The mood at the women’s event was joyous and uplifting and put everyone in the Shavuos spirit. Then, like on Pesach, we hosted many in-house guests for the yom tov, including two young women from Israel, Chavie’s sister Devorah and her husband Zelig with their baby Mushka, and our dear friend Matys, who is a traveling businessman and nature enthusiast. In addition, we hosted guests from many other states for the yom tov meals.

Women’s League pre-Shavuos event

We are always taught that the Torah was given in a desert because Hashem intended for it to be ownerless, so no one particular group can say the Torah is theirs exclusively. It’s not Charedi or Litvish or American, Chassidish or Modern Orthodox, it’s for every Jew to open, study, and seek its depth and meaning. So, when I looked around our Bozeman shul, whether on the first day of Shavuos when we hosted over sixty Yidden, or the second day, when we had around twenty in shul, the feeling of seeing Hashem’s children home, reclaiming their inheritance of Torah, which belongs to them as much as it does to me, was truly special.

There’s a local woman here who is a proud Jew, but she wasn’t with us for Purim or Pesach, nor Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but she sat in shul for Kriyas HaTorah on Shavuos and my heart was so happy. There were two chevrah who grew up Yeshivish and are now soul-searching and they showed up for davening. Both got aliyos and we had a great time farbrenging over sushi and cheesecake at the luncheon that followed. There was a Yid who had to work on the first day of yom tov, but sat in shul the entire second day crying bitter tears as he recited Yizkor for his parents.

Shavuos is the day that reminds Jews that Judaism belongs to them individually. You can’t do Sukkos without a sukkah, Rosh Hashanah without a shofar, Chanukah without a menorah, or Pesach without matzah, but you can do Shavuos simply by refraining from work and internalizing the gift that is yours—the holy Torah.

This week’s Torah portion is Behaalosecha and we read about Pesach Sheini, the second Passover, when Jews who missed round-one demanded a second chance. Moshe talked to G-d and Hashem tells him to give them a second Pesach. These weren’t all people who made a mistake or missed the boat unintentionally. Some of them were impure or far from Jerusalem by choice, Judaism didn’t mean enough to them a month ago, so they chose not to show up. Yet, when they had a change of heart and Moshe could have told them to “go fly a kite,” he didn’t. Hashem understood and so did Moshe, that no Jew really chooses to separate himself from G-d. It’s the falsehoods they tell themselves or the lies they were told that gets them on the bandwagon, but at their core they are believers and want to be connected to Hashem, bound with the Torah, and therefore they are always welcomed back home.

It’s what the Rebbe, zt’l, emphasized time and time again.

A few weeks ago, I lost a friend, Reb Moshe Kotlarsky. Moshe, who is the father of Five Towns’ Chabad Rebbetzin Chanie Wolowik, was an ambassador who traveled the world on behalf of Lubavitch to help establish Chabad Centers. Though he never made it to Montana, he was integral in the early days of our shlichus. As Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the Rebbe’s personal confidant and Chairman of Lubavitch World Headquarters, told the New York Times, “Rabbi Kotlarsky’s dedication to the Rebbe’s vision of concern for every single Jew has profoundly impacted the vitality of Jewish life around the world.”

Reb Moshe once met a lonely old Jew in a nursing home in Mountain Brook, Alabama. The Yid told him that his children had left him there and that they didn’t care about him. And then he said these gut-wrenching words: “My Zaidy used to call Shabbos the heilige (holy) Shabbos Kodesh. My father called it Shabbos Kodesh. I call it Shabbos. My children call it Saturday and their children call it the weekend. I shudder to think what their children will call it.” Reb Moshe joked that today they call it “the day before Superbowl Sunday.” Yet, the Rebbe, zt’l, gave us the mandate to help Jews turn the weekend back to the heilige Shabbos Kodesh, and we do that by never giving up on them and recognizing that even when they chose to be distant, they still have a second chance.

On Isru Chag we were joined by Rabbi Tuvia and Chaya Teldon, senior shluchim and founders of Chabad of Long Island. Having them with us for Shabbos was a treat as their life story and experience of 47 years on Long Island is fascinating and brings a wealth of inspiration, depth, and perspective to us all. At lunch on Shabbos, Rabbi Teldon shared the following story about the Baal Shem Tov:

A distinguished Chassid, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, wanted to see Eliyahu HaNavi, the Prophet Elijah. He had heard that certain Mekubalim, or Kabbalistic mystics, had this amazing privilege, and he asked the Baal Shem Tov if he could arrange such an experience for him.

The Baal Shem Tov discouraged him, but the Chassid persisted. For months he begged the Baal Shem Tov, yet the great master kept rebuffing him. Finally, a few days before Pesach, the Baal Shem Tov acquiesced. He told the Chassid that he would help him meet Eliyahu, but on one condition, that he would carry out his instructions exactly as charged without deviating even one iota. The Chassid agreed.

“If you want to see the prophet, this is what you need to do,” the Baal Shem Tov instructed. “Fill up nine boxes with large quantities of food: fish, meat, matzah, wine, etc. Then, on the day before Passover, travel to the neighboring town with all the food you purchased. On the outskirts of the town, at the edge of the forest is a dilapidated house. Shortly before yom tov begins, knock on the door and ask if they would put you up for the holiday.”

With excitement, the disciple followed the instructions of the Baal Shem Tov. He purchased lots of food and drink, and on the designated day, traveled to the impoverished home. He knocked on the door. The woman of the house opened it, and he asked her if he could stay with them for the holiday. “How can I welcome you when I don’t have any food in the house?” she cried. “We are a poor family.”

“Well, I happen to have sufficient food here with me,” he replied. “I have enough food for all of us.” The woman could not believe her ears and welcomed him into their home, introduced him to her husband and children, and gave him a bed to sleep in. Seeing how the entire family was overjoyed and the children were dancing around, the Chassid realized how truly poor they were. And the parents were the happiest people in the world, feeling that they could finally celebrate Pesach properly, with abundant provisions. The Chassid spent the first two days of yom tov with them, celebrating together. All the while, he was eagerly waiting to see Eliyahu, but to no avail. Elijah never showed up.

Frustrated, he returned to the Baal Shem Tov and complained: “I was in that house for two days. but I did not see Eliyahu! Why did you disappoint me?” “Did you do everything I told you?” asked the Baal Shem Tov. “Yes, I did!” he asserted. “And you didn’t see him?” “No!” “In that case,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “Go back to the house for the last days of the holiday, but this time remain outside for the first ten minutes, just listening, before knocking on the door.”

The Chassid wondered about the meaning of this strange instruction, but he followed his orders. He went back to the house and stood near the window. Inside he heard the following conversation taking place between the wife and the husband: “Sarah,” the husband said. “Where will we get food for the last days of the holiday? I’m very worried.” At which point his wife responded: “Why are you worried, Yankel? Didn’t Hashem send us Elijah during the first days of Pesach with all the packages of delicious food? Surely G-d will send Elijah again for the last days of Passover!”

Suddenly, the man understood what the Baal Shem Tov was telling him. The goal in life is not to see Eliyahu or yearn to see angelic sights; the goal is to be an angel, to be an Elijah, to be a source of blessing to others in the world.

When looking around our fractured world, let us resolve not to complain about those who aren’t there for Pesach, let’s just make sure we offer them a chance at the “second Passover.”

It’s never too late. Never. n


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


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