In Parshas Balak, we read about the attempt of Bilam to curse the Jewish people. Bilam was a prophet to whom G-d granted the power to bless and curse. Time and again he attempted to bring harm to the Jewish people, and each time G-d transformed his words to blessings. Indeed some of the greatest blessings of the Jewish people are the words that G-d placed in Bilam’s mouth. Bilam praises the Jewish people, saying, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” He recognized that “those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.” He foresaw the “everlasting destruction” of those who seek to harm the Jewish people.
This transformation of challenge to opportunity repeats itself all throughout the history of the Jewish people. In every generation there have been those who attempted to curse us, not just with words but with action. Sometimes, as in the case of this week’s reading, G-d prevents them from acting on their evil plots. Other times, for reasons we cannot fathom, those attempts have led to great pain and loss. Yet, despite countless attempts to destroy us, we survived them all. They are lost to the dustbin of history while we live on, as a light unto the nations. In fact, it is often the acts of hate which bring us closer together and lead to the greatest growth.
In recent years we saw this process play out in Pittsburgh. Over the past several weeks, many of us have been reliving the horrific massacre of our brethren at the Tree of Life building as the trial of the perpetrator proceeds. As we continue to feel the immense pain of our loss, we also remember our reactions to that heinous act. We remember how we all came together as one and proudly embraced our Judaism in the face of hate. We remember the feelings of unity and togetherness that the entire Pittsburgh community, Jewish and not, felt in the aftermath of that painful day.
Recently Pittsburgh’s Mayor Ed Gainey joined a gathering marking the 29th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe O.B.M. In his remarks, he spoke about the ability of the Jewish people to, “take problems and turn them into promises . . . [take] adversity, tragedy and trauma and turned it into a promise of a better tomorrow.” The Rebbe led the way in redirecting the pain of the post-Holocaust generation, into a bright and vibrant future. He took the embers from the ashes of destruction and kindled a torch that shines brightly to this very day.
At the same time, the Rebbe focused on the blessing of living in a time and place where such acts of heinous violence are the exception, rather than the rule. In the past, we may have been able to rely on those who hate us to remind us of our Judaism, but now it is up to us. Rather than reacting to tragedy, we must take the blessings of freedom which we have been granted and use them to create a better tomorrow. We must not allow the fact that we no longer need to fight for our lives to cause complacency. We must ensure that the feelings of love and commitment we felt in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack become a constant in our lives. It is then that we will see the fulfillment of Bilam’s greatest prophesy, the ultimate redemption and a time when there will no longer be “famine or war, envy or competition, for good will flow in abundance” with the coming of Moshiach. PJC
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld is the rabbi at the Lubavitch Center and the executive director of Chabad of Western Pennsylvania. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.