B"H

BALAK

This week, the Torah portion deals with Bilam who was hired to curse the Jewish people. In the end, all of his curses were transformed into blessings; many of which extol the virtues of the Jewish people. Bilam sought to denigrate them so that they would ultimately lose their identities as Jews. Instead, he was compelled by G‑d to exclaim their virtue.

“Behold! To bless have I received – He has blessed, and I shall not contradict it. He perceived no iniquity in Jacob, and saw no perversity in Israel. G-D his G‑d is with him, and the friendship of the king is in him.” 

These immortal words—transmitted through the vile mouth of Bilam—describe the inner character of the Jewish people that has been expressed time and again throughout Jewish history. Even when it seems that we are far from the accolades G‑d has given us, in times of crisis we rise to the occasion. In particular, there are certain individual leaders who personify these lofty ideals that Bilam extols and seek to cultivate and reveal these traits in others. 

One such leader—whose life was devoted to actualizing the good in every one—was the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe of sainted memory—Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson.

Chassidim throughout the world are celebrating the 90th anniversary of the release of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe from Soviet imprisonment and the commuted death sentence, which occurred on the 12th and 13th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz in 1927. 

Tammuz, historically, is known as a sad month because of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans that led to the destruction of the Holy temple and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people. However, in the spirit of Bilam’s curses turning into blessings by G‑d, this month has been transformed into a month of joy by virtue of this miraculous release of the Rebbe in 1927.

The Rebbe was accused of counterrevolutionary activity by the Communists because he publicly defied the regime’s ban against Jewish education. Although the Rebbe established a network of clandestine schools for older students, classes for adults, synagogues, Mikvas and other Jewish institutions, the Rebbe put special emphasis on the education of children and established hundreds of underground schools that produced thousands of students whose knowledge of and allegiance to Judaism saved a generation of Jews. 

The Rebbe’s release from prison was therefore more than just a victory for him personally and for the tens of thousands of his followers. It was a victory for the entire Jewish people. The Rebbe was arguably the only individual—who was viewed by the wicked, murderous Soviet regime as a major threat to their system—who did not bow to them, triumphed and survived to tell the story. Moreover, as a result of his efforts there are now hundreds of thousands of Jews who proudly identify themselves as Jews and who are carrying on the Jewish tradition, while the Soviet regime was relegated to the ash heap of history.

The Previous Rebbe did not rest on his laurels. Even after he was liberated from the Soviet Union he continued to have extensive secret contact with his followers in Russia who continued to spread Judaism at great peril to their lives.  

In addition to the continuation of those efforts, he established a network of Jewish Schools in Poland attracting thousands of the best and brightest of Polish Jewry. Those who survived the Holocaust became the nucleus of many of the world’s leading Jewish educational institutions throughout the world.

However, the crown achievement of the Previous Rebbe after he had miraculously escaped Nazi occupied Poland was, arguably, the rejuvenation of Jewish life in America. His clarion call to American Jewry was, “America is no different,” meaning that America was ripe for Torah true Judaism. There was no reason why the “old fashioned,” pure and unadulterated Judaism could not be transported to, take root and blossom in this hemisphere. 

And while the Rebbe was physically disabled, paralyzed, confined to a wheel chair, stricken with a host of illnesses, and broken and shattered from the horrendous reports of the Holocaust that were emerging, including the loss of his daughter, her family and thousands of his closest relatives, friends, disciples and followers, he was nevertheless undaunted by all of the obstacles in the pursuit of American Jewry’s future. His life was dedicated to transforming the negativity of “Tammuz” into a positive force.  

True to his obsession with Jewish education for children, he then proceeded to lay the foundation for the Jewish Day School movement, establishing, in the early forties, dozens of Day Schools, among dozens of other projects intended to bolster Jewish morale and identification in this country.

Through his influence, and that of his successor—the Rebbe—millions of Jews throughout the world have been exposed to their heritage in one form or another.  

And parenthetically, it is incredible that the Previous Rebbe—as well as the Rebbe, his successor—in addition to their leadership of the Jewish people in all matters, have produced an unprecedented amount of scholarly literature as well as voluminous correspondence with tens of thousands of Jews. It is estimated that the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe each have penned around one hundred thousand letters, as well as several hundred volumes of scholarly works between them!  

To summarize the previous Rebbe’s life: It was one saga of total dedication and self-sacrifice for the Jewish people’s physical and spiritual well-being. Nothing could stop him from forging ahead to reveal the beauty of each Jewish soul and of Judaism.   

Both the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe have also understood our role as links in a chain that leads inexorably to the ultimate Redemption. Our task is to look out for the well being of our brothers and sisters—even as we educate ourselves—affording them an opportunity to know who they are as Jews and to empower them to bring the world to its state of perfection—the ultimate Messianic Age, when darkness will be transformed into light and the month of Tammuz will be fully appreciated as a month of exclusive joy.