Musings of a Shliach From Montana
By Rabbi Chaim Bruk
This coming week, Jewry will celebrate Yud Tes Kislev, the day on which Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch movement and the author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch HaRav, was liberated from Czarist prison in 1798. It’s referred to as the Rosh Hashanah of Chasidism and is a day that is traditionally utilized to strengthen ourselves in the study of Chasidic philosophy and the observance of the Chasidic way of life.
The Alter Rebbe, or the Rav, as he was known, had a novel approach to Torah study, integrating both the revealed (niglah) and hidden (nistar) Torah and exhorting the necessity to study both in order to understand Torah wholesomely. Furthermore, the Alter Rebbe drastically shifted Jewry’s observance of the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael. In Tanya, chapter 32 (Perek Lev), he makes it clear that the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael is not theoretical; it’s not even just about being nice to each other and refraining from hatred and fighting. It is a fundamental shift in how we see “others.” When contemplating the significance of soul over body, spiritual over physical, we can actually love others who seem different or who may not be our “cup of tea,” because on the soul level, we must assume, the “others” are incredibly holy.
I thought of this idea in the context of co-directing our Chabad center for almost 13 years. One of the simplest ways to express love is through hachnasas orchim, opening our homes to guests for meals, lodging, and a sense of community. I grew up with the Talmudic dictate that hachnasas orchim is greater than welcoming the Shechinah. I heard all about the childhood of my mother, of blessed memory. Her parents would host guests all the time, and as child number three, she had to give up her bedroom to guests constantly. I saw our Crown Heights community during the month of Tishrei, when thousands would come to be with the Rebbe and every home turned into a Sheraton and hosted numerous guests.
Then I became a homeowner — a homeowner in Bozeman, Montana.
Chavie, who grew up in San Antonio as the oldest of nine in her parents’ Chabad house, was way more natural at this mitzvah than I was; yet, I’ve been doing it long enough now that not only am I used to it, but I love it. It’s an incredible aura when at your Shabbos table or crashing in your library/living room or even during davening in shul, you are surrounded simultaneously by a Jewish couple from Monsey, five bachurim from BMG in Lakewood, two local college students who are studying at Montana State, two Israeli families from Efrat, an anti-Zionist salesman from Brooklyn, and a dozen local Jews who are celebrating Shabbos with Chabad.
Sure, it takes a lot of work to pull it together — Chavie devotes so much energy and love to ensure that our guests are fed and welcomed with heart and soul — but it’s awesome for our children to live this mitzvah every week, as different flavors of Jews enter our home and they can learn to appreciate the diversity of our people. When our children share parashah at the table, they have learned to speak in a way that both frum and secular Jews can understand, and I love that.
Also, it’s such a great bonding experience. Local Jews who grew up pretty secular, and perhaps never chatted with an Orthodox Jew besides our family, spend hours engaging with frum Jews from around the globe. At the same time, some of our Orthodox guests who never really left the ghetto and “listened” to a secular Jew’s life story, now spend a whole Shabbos together and realize how much sacrifice these Jews make in order to fulfill a mitzvah. Sometimes, these newly forged friendships continue after Shabbos as they join together on Sunday for a hike or a visit to local attractions.
This type of hachnasas orchim is exciting and heartwarming. Then there’s the other kind of hachnasas orchim.
Last Friday at 3:05 p.m., just about an hour before candle lighting, an Israeli couple showed up at our door and casually asked, “Zeh Beit Chabad?” This translates as, “Is this the Chabad house?” or, more accurately, “We’d like to join you for Shabbos and we don’t have a room booked at the hotel down the block.”
Chavie greeted them, called me, and an hour later we had set them up with a room to sleep in, and they joined us for Shabbos. They were really sweet, extremely grateful, and our community enjoyed them, but, in my mind, when last-minute visitors appear (which happens plenty of times) I can’t stop thinking, “Why didn’t you call before?” “Would it have killed you to send a text on Wednesday or Thursday?”
I once saw a quote that read: “Hospitality: making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.” Some days, deep down, my yetzer ha’ra creates feelings of frustration toward last-minute guests, and I need to overcome that and make them feel at home. We like to be prepared and welcome our guests like royalty, but it’s harder to do if those guests show up when the table is already set for Shabbos and the food is all cooked.
It would be easier to welcome the Shechinah …
It’s during moments like these that I remember that this is what it’s really all about. This is where ahavas Yisrael comes to life. I recall that I’m a shliach of the Rebbe, a Rebbe who continued and even further developed the Alter Rebbe’s definition of ahavas Yisrael. Love is not only when it’s easy and smooth; love is when it’s hard and you really don’t understand others and yet you love them, welcome them, and make them feel part of your family. Yes, we do our best to verify who our guests are, as we are responsible for the safety of our children and community members, but once that’s done, we dive into Shabbos with our brothers and sisters, and oh, what a Shabbos it is!
Hachnasas orchim is a good way to teach ourselves and our children ahavas Yisrael and selflessness; try it and you’ll see!
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 email@example.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.