Rabbi Bruk speaking at Heritage Christian School

Musings Of A Shliach From Montana

When you find yourself standing before a soul on fire, crying from the essence of their neshamah, it’s impossible not to be moved.

This past Shabbos in shul I shared a story from a few years back about Rabbi Zale Newman of Toronto arranging a funeral for a local Holocaust survivor named Eddie Ford. Eddie wasn’t an active part of the Jewish community, and Rabbi Newman only met him during the last eight months of his life while visiting the hospital, but before Eddie died of cancer, he asked Reb Zale to arrange for his Jewish burial. After Eddie passed, Reb Zale posted a simple message on Facebook inviting the local Toronto Jewish community to attend the funeral, and it brought out over two hundred Jews of all flavors to show respect to a man they didn’t know.

It’s a goosebump-inducing story and my congregants appreciated it.

An hour later, during the Kiddush lunch, a young man named Aaron came over to me and before he could say a word, burst out crying with tears rolling down his cheeks. Aaron, whose parents were both Jewish and never hid that from him, raised him to believe in the Christian savior. He’s now in his thirties and has started coming to shul almost every week. When he heard the story about Eddie and Reb Zale in Canada, his heart melted and his soul ached. His mother had been cremated, and she never had the honor he would have loved to have given her and he felt awful about it. He was desperate to know how he could rectify the past.

Let me say clearly: when a believer in JC comes to shul, one must consult a rav to figure out how such a Jew can be welcomed in the family of Jews without defiling the sanctity of the shul, complicating a place of tefillah, and ensuring that he or she does not bring their “faith” to other Jews. Putting aside the obvious caveat, I watched as Aaron’s neshamah was hurt, awake, and raw. I told him the next time we had a burial at our Neshama Gardens cemetery, we could put her remains there. I told him we could get a memorial plaque for her on our shul memorial board, and I told him that on her next yahrzeit he could say kaddish for her beautiful Jewish soul.

His mother didn’t grow up frum. She wasn’t educated in our traditions and decided one day to give it up and swap religions. She and his father simply didn’t know better, and in the 70’s when they were married, they thought they had found salvation. Now some forty years later, their son is finding his way back to Hashem and it was awe-inspiring. I envied Aaron’s yearning for kedushah, his deep desire to be more connected to the path of our ancestors, and his thirst for authenticity.

He texted me after Shabbos asking where he could learn more about the Urim VeTumim on the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate that would light up with answers every time a Jewish king asked a question of Hashem. He also asked where he could learn more about Aharon, the Ark in the Holy of Holies as being a finite/measurable object yet being infinite and immeasurable. The concept of G-d isn’t foreign to him; it’s just that our G-d, the one G-d, one without partners, sons, daughters-in-law is new to him. But he will certainly learn. He will grow and the fire in him will continue to burn.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Sisa, we read about the sin of all sins, the formation of the golden calf by the Jews in the desert. Moshe was in heaven, away from his nation for thirty-nine days, but they felt like it was too long. With the ill-advised guidance from the riffraff, the erev rav, who convinced them that he wasn’t coming back, that it’s already “day 40,” they donated all their jewelry to create a calf using forms of kishuf, the occult, and the rest is history. It may sound crazy to us since the temptation for idol worship doesn’t exist anymore, but back then it was super desirable. We tend to think of idolatry as something from the past, not relevant to us, but in truth, whether graven images at Catholic churches, Hindus worshipping idols, Christians obsessed with crosses and the trinity, and Buddhists clinging to little buddha statues, idolatry is very much alive and well.

Last week, I hosted Bozeman’s Heritage Christian School for a crash course on Judaism. Each year, Linda, their teacher, brings her class of 15–16-year-olds to learn about Jews and the Jewish faith. While they are good kids, respectful, and with decent morals, the reality is their beliefs go against the first of the seven Noahide Laws, the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach, which teaches that all humans must believe in one G-d. Naturally, I discussed this with the students in a way they could understand, but it’s an uphill battle to make the belief in Hashem Echad something that can be expressed by all mankind, not just Am Yisrael.

I meet with many schools throughout the year and do my best to shine the light of Torah on them. It helps combat ignorance, antisemitism, and impacts students in very real ways. Meeting an identifiable Jew is worthwhile in itself. Yet, I always utilize the meeting to share the Hashem Echad concept with as many people as possible. Every time we can get a neighbor, a coworker, a cleaning lady, business associate, or fellow traveler to believe in One G-d, a G-d who creates and directs the entirety of creation, it’s a win for Hashem and team “Torah values.”

Chassidus emphasizes that there are more delicate, refined versions of idolatry that we are all guilty of on some level. Every time we find a person, a thing, a philosophy, or an addiction to which we bestow power over our lives, that’s a subtle form of avodah zarah. The words avodah zarah mean foreign worship or “strange service,” and when we place our faith or belief in anything but Hashem, it’s a form of idolatry. If our “jewelry” is used to make an idol; if our finances are used for things that don’t connect us to Hashem or may even disconnect us from Hashem, it’s a problem.

We live in a world with many distractions and obstacles on our spiritual journey. We wake up in the morning and the idols of modern civilization immediately pull us in their grasp. It’s the same for both children and adults. Very often I think about how much information and distraction is geared toward our children, even if they don’t have smart phones (my four youngest don’t have one), and I realize that they are overloaded with messages and distracting images. It’s vital to give them a solid anchoring and foundation so they don’t end up involuntarily serving an “idol.”

Rabbi Bruk coins for tzedakah

Growing up, I remember hearing stories about my Alter-Zeide, Reb Yochanan Gordon, who would wake up each morning before dawn and place coins in a pushka while mentioning the names of his deceased loved ones. “Dus is far mein Tatte….” (This is for my father, my mother, etc.) Keeping this in mind, I’ve made it a point to do something similar.

Each morning, at 5:00 a.m. when I head downstairs to say berachos and make my coffee, before I get on the phone with Chaim and Avi in the Five Towns, I take the pushka off the windowsill, place it on the kitchen island, and put a nickel in it. Then I place five additional nickels so Chavie, Chaya, Zeesy, Menny, and Chana Laya can place their nickel in the pushka when they wake up (Shoshana doesn’t live at home.). It’s a great thing to see the kids reminding each other to do an act of charity before they start their day. I hope it imparts to them the value of helping the poor and thinking about others before ourselves, and that we are always in Hashem’s service, using our funds, energy, and talent to do good instead of building idols of any sort.

Back in the summer when we visited South Africa, Daud, who was the local Zimbabwean working the coffee station at the hotel, told us that he takes a ninety-minute bus ride to work each day because his car broke down. I asked him how much it cost to fix and he said 7,000 rands, which is about $350. I told him that we wanted to pay to get it fixed. He was elated, and it was life-changing for him. A few minutes later, our daughter Chaya said she wanted to use her bas mitzvah money to help pay for it. I was now elated. We all want our children to be frum, to follow in our healthy footsteps and be connected to Hashem, but above all, we want them to be rachmanim bnei rachamanim, merciful people who care about others and don’t get mired in the worship of the self or “things,” but rather focus on helping others and bringing more godliness to the world.

Check yourself and clear the idols from your holy life.

 

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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