The year was 1969, and Shirley Chisholm had just made history as the first Black woman ever elected to Congress. She represented a heavily-urban district that included the neighborhood of Crown Heights, New York, where she resided.
Chisholm had high hopes of improving the lives of her constituents, many of whom were poor and uneducated, by serving on the House Education and Labor Committee.
But instead, powerful politicians maneuvered to blunt her influence and popularity back home by forcing her to focus on issues irrelevant to her inner-city constituency: they relegated her to an obscure subcommittee of the Agriculture Committee.
Representative Chisholm was understandably frustrated. But one day, she received a phone call from the office of a rabbi who lived just one block away from her: none other than Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
At the Rebbe’s urging, Chisholm shared her feelings of hurt and anger at being sidelined from a position in which she could truly help her district.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s response surprised Chisholm – and changed the trajectory of her career. “What a blessing God has given you!” he said about her appointment to the Agriculture Committee. “This country has so much surplus food, and there are so many hungry people. You can use this gift that God gave you to feed the hungry. Find a creative way to do it.”
Shortly afterward, Congresswoman Chisholm met with Bob Dole, then a first-term senator from Kansas, who told her that Midwestern farmers were producing more food than they could sell and losing money on their crops.
Chisholm immediately recalled her conversation with the Rebbe, and knew what to do. Together with Senator Dole, she led the way in ensuring that those most in need would have access to food through what became the Food Stamp Program and WIC.
In other words, the infrastructure of welfare in the United States changed forever as a result of a meeting between Congresswoman Chisholm and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
When Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983, she credited the Rebbe: “A rabbi who is an optimist taught me that what you may think is a challenge is a gift from God. And if poor babies have milk, and poor children have food, it’s because this Rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.”
This week’s parsha opens with the words,
“ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה”
“Behold I set in front of you today, blessing and curse.”
Nachmanides comments that deciding whether something is a blessing or a curse is up to us. As Representative Chisholm learned from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, we can decide whether to view things as a challenge or as an opportunity.
Whether it involves our physical health, our mental health, our economic health, or any aspect of our lives; whether in the context of this COVID-19 pandemic or anytime, we always have the power to choose whether we see the glass half empty or half full.
May we always be blessed with the ability to transform what may seem to be a curse into a blessing and to turn challenges into opportunities.