In his best-selling A Time to Heal, Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson provided essential support to readers by showing how the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, comforted and guided individuals facing tragedy and loss.
In his latest work, Positivity Bias, Practical Wisdom for Positive Living, Kalmenson provides deep insights into the spiritual yet practical positivity that permeated the Rebbe’s personal actions, teachings, interactions and influence, which continues to grow in the years after his passing, transforming the lives of men, women and children of every faith and background around the world.
The eminently readable and instructive book is already in its second printing, even before its official publication date. In its pages, the author shows how through personal audiences, written correspondence, public addresses and unique Torah commentaries, the Rebbe’s understanding and teaching of the positive potential of the self, and the never-ceasing opportunities for goodness and G dliness, transformed the “negativity bias” that had permeated Jewish life in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, the virtual destruction of Eastern European Jewish life in the Soviet Union, and the cynical materialism that has defined so much of life in the 20th and 21st centuries.
It would be easy to understand how someone who had gone through what the Rebbe and his family had experienced in Soviet Russia, and then narrowly escaping from the Nazis in Europe, would have shared that negativity bias. As the author writes in the book’s preface:
It is important to note that the redemptive perspectives presented in this book are not those of a man who lived a life of peace and privilege. They are the insights of a man who lived through waves of pogroms, the killing fields of World War I, a typhus epidemic, a refugee crisis, the persecution and forced exile of his father, whom he never saw again, the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Communism, World War II, the brutal murder of his brother, grandmother, and numerous other relatives at the hands of the Nazis, and a life of childlessness.
A radical shift in the way that the Jewish people individually and collectively saw themselves and the world was important, the Rebbe would often point out, not because it is psychologically motivating, emotionally satisfying or even because positive thinking is practically and pragmatically effective.
To the Rebbe, positive thinking is essential for everyone at every moment, and is possible no matter what the circumstances because it is the truth, which has been articulated in every work of Divine wisdom that has been revealed to humankind—from the Divine inspiration given to the Patriarchs, to the Bible, to the Talmud, to the works of Chassidic spirituality.
Positivity is the lens through which G d wants us to see His creation and everything in it.
One of the most inspiring and edifying features to be found throughout Positivity Bias is how the author introduces and explains the Rebbe’s deep Torah insights to the reader. In the book’s first chapter we read how the Rebbe introduced the essential root and nature of positive thinking in the first Chassidic discourse he delivered upon accepting the mantle of leadership of Chabad in 1951:
We must know that the world … is a garden! Not just a [utilitarian] field that yields grain [which is necessary in order to subsist], but a luxuriant garden that yields precious fruits [that provide color, aroma, flavor, beauty, and pleasure].
Moreover, this world is not just anyone’s garden; it is G d’s garden. As the verse states, I have come to My garden. [Its goodness is therefore measured according to His infinite terms.]
With this perspective, we [are able to] view the world differently; we begin to notice things that we may have missed upon first glance. When we realize that it is our responsibility to constantly search [for G d and for the good], we endeavor to look around us and perceive that which is beneath the shell, the fruit that is under the peel. Furthermore, despite all evidence to the contrary:
We are confident that we will successfully uncover the garden that is latent in creation, because the Torah tells us that it is indeed there, waiting to be discovered … .
While providing an abundance of Torah insight, more than anything else, Positivity Bias is a remarkable instrument for personal transformation and growth. By absorbing and making personal the lessons that the Rebbe exemplified, and suggested to others, the reader naturally and easily develops an appreciation of how this wisdom can be applied to his or her potential for a rooted, meaningful life.
The 30 self-contained chapters of the work contain numerous examples of advice that the Rebbe gave though both letters and personal audiences with individuals who sought his counsel on the widest range of personal and professional issues.
The Rebbe’s counsel to Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel exemplifies an approach to tragedy and belief in G d that applies to individuals, the Jewish people, and the world as a whole:
In his memoirs, Elie Wiesel vividly recounts his first encounter with the Rebbe in the early 1960s. “That simple dialogue,” according to Wiesel, “lasted almost an entire night,” and “was a turning point in my writing.”
After Night, which has since been translated into over 30 languages, Wiesel published his second novel, The Gates of the Forest, in 1964. This book recounts that first late-night conversation between himself and the Rebbe.
The account is grueling, heartbreaking, and painfully vulnerable. Auschwitz, of course, is the pivotal question of the conversation. “How can you believe in G d after Auschwitz?” But as the conversation shifts from emotion to emotion, from argument to counter-argument, the Rebbe keeps pushing his visitor to reveal why he is really there, his deepest motivation for the visit. “What do you expect of me?” asks the Rebbe. To which Wiesel responds: “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
But the Rebbe is patient.
After hours of going back and forth, in a moment of epiphany, Wiesel came to realize why he had come to see the Rebbe. He confessed, “ … You asked me what I expect of you, and I said I expect nothing. I was wrong. I want you to make me cry.”
In the original, much longer, Yiddish version of the book that came to be called Night, Wiesel describes the death of his father in Buchenwald, admitting that this event was so traumatizing it had, in that moment and ever since, robbed him of his tears. “I did not cry, and this is what causes me the most grief: this inability to cry. The heart had petrified, the fountainhead of tears had dried up.”
And what was the Rebbe’s response? What could one possibly say to such an urgent, human request?
“That’s not enough,” he said lovingly. “I shall teach you to sing.”
In this singular exchange, we see the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias on full display in all of its redemptive sensitivity and complexity. Wiesel’s tears are not denied, Heaven forbid. Facing one’s pain, no matter how enormous, and feeling it deeply is essential to releasing its deadening grip on the soul. However, the Rebbe’s response makes it clear that this catharsis is not the ultimate goal. It’s what comes after the tears that the Rebbe remains focused on, and what he wanted to communicate to the aspiring author.
The Rebbe understood that for Wiesel to truly heal he needed to learn not only how to cry, but how to regain his desire and ability to sing again.
And this assessment of the Rebbe, that sorrow must never swallow joy, and that tears must never drown out the song in our hearts, was not reserved for Mr. Wiesel. It was a deeper diagnosis of the Jewish soul following the wreckage of World War II. In general, as many expended their energy on memorializing the horrifying loss of Jewish life, the Rebbe consistently directed his focus and that of others to the miraculous continuation of Jewish life, in its many forms. Truly, for the Rebbe, it was never enough to just survive, we must constantly strive to thrive.
By attempting to shift the central point of national focus and self-identification away from the colossal tragedy of the Holocaust and direct it instead toward a redemptive future and a joyful present, the Rebbe chose not to devalue or trivialize such historic loss, Heaven forbid. He only worked to ensure that it not come to exclusively define and confine the way the Jewish People view their past, present, and future.
In the words of R. Jonathan Sacks: “I have read many works of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. And they all ask the same question. They ask what unites us—the Jewish people—today, with all our divisiveness and arguments. And in them I read the same answer: What unites us as Jewish people today is memories of the Holocaust, fears of anti-Semitism. What unites us as a people is that other people hate us.
The Rebbe taught the opposite message. What unites us, he taught, is not that other people don’t like us, but that G d loves us; that every one of us is a fragment of the Divine presence and together we are the physical presence of G d on earth. Surely that message—spiritual, mystical as it is—is so much more powerful, [and] so much more noble than the alternative.
Reframing Negative Thinking
An essential element of positivity, the Rebbe teaches, is the ability to frequently reframe one’s thinking and develop an alternative interpretation of the “facts” of one’s perceived reality. This is a theme that the author returns to throughout the book—from groundbreaking interpretations of Torah passages to timely, life-changing advice given to people of all ages:
When Shaindel Itkin was 14, a new advanced Lubavitch girls’ high school opened in the neighborhood, which her father encouraged her to attend. Willfully asserting her independence and not wanting to feel like a “test-case” for the new program, Shana adamantly refused, desiring instead to attend the more established school in the district. Disappointed, her father urged her to write a letter to the Rebbe requesting insight and direction.
Shana did in fact pen a bold letter to the Rebbe, which she concluded with the following provocative words: “I do not want to be a guinea pig (to be experimented on).”
Reflecting on this years later, she admitted: “Maybe it was a little bit inappropriate to write this, maybe I had no right to. But I was a teenager, and I was very independent in my thinking. And I was so adamant about not going to [the new school].”
A few days later, Shana received a response from the Rebbe that completely changed her perspective. Her original letter had been returned to her, with a slight modification, made in the Rebbe’s hand. The Rebbe had simply crossed out the term ‘guinea pig,’ and had written: chalutzah, in its place, which means, “pioneer.”
“Chalutzah? You’re telling me to be a pioneer? I’ll climb the mountain, I’ll forge the river, I’ll do anything!”
“The Rebbe knew how to reach a teenager with one word. One simple word that understood the essence of who I was. My need to be unique, to be special, to be different, and to forge new paths. … So of course, I went to [the new] high school. We were the ‘pioneer’ class.”
Following that inaugural year, Shaindel maintained a lifelong involvement with Beis Rivkah High School in Crown Heights, and is currently serving as its principal. The Rebbe reframed her situation and shifted the course of her entire life with a single word.
This process of positive reframing is a frequent theme in the Rebbe’s Chassidic discourses, in which events and individuals are seen in an entirely new light, such as the Rebbe’s exposition on the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were condemned for bringing “strange fire” into the Tabernacle.
In all cases, these brothers are essentially portrayed as self-centered, egotistical, spiritual thrill seekers, who deserved what they got. The Rebbe, however, highlighted and developed a teaching of the Or Hachayim and elaborated on in Chassidic sources. Aaron’s eldest sons passed away from a “Kiss of G d,” a most positive description, used only for the highest souls. Each of the punishable actions enumerated in the Midrash was rooted in a single, positive source—intense passion and yearning for G d. In the words of the Rebbe: “They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and thereby died. Thus they died by ‘Divine kiss,’ such as experienced by the perfectly righteous… This is the meaning of the verse, They came close to G d and died.” From this perspective, it becomes clear that Nadav and Avihu died of a spiritual overdose—too much of a good thing.
Jewish tradition teaches that we are here for a reason, which is to elevate and sanctify the material world, not only to transcend it.
While not condoning their approach of unfettered and irresponsible spiritual indulgence, we can and must emulate Nadav and Avihu’s willingness to give up everything, even life itself, in pursuit of spiritual truth. With our feet firmly planted on the earth, our souls are free to reach for the heights to bring the infinite lightof the Divine down into our daily life and tasks.
An Abundance of Practical Guidance
As noted above, Positivity Bias is not just theoretical. In Part II: Ten Commandments for Designing a Life of Positivity, the author delivers on the promise to provide practical strategies for the reader to change his or her perspective for the good. The author notes how important it is for the wisdom gained by reading the book to not remain in the reader’s head and heart:
In the Rebbe’s oft-repeated words—paraphrasing the Mishnah—“hamaaseh hu ha’ikar,” which means that the essential thing is the deed, not abstract study. Otherwise, teachings and words, no matter how beautiful, wise, or aesthetic, are devarim beteilim “empty expressions” and their power to move and inspire actions was wasted.
To that end, we will now highlight ten practical steps that will empower you to design a life of positivity. While there are countless other powerful instructions throughout the recorded encounters with the Rebbe, we have designed a program of ten essential directives to help you reframe your perspective in order to see yourself and the world in a more positive way. In Part III of this chapter, “A User’s Guide to Practical Action,” we conclude this work with a beginning for you: A program of specific written exercises to help you establish and maintain your own personal “Positivity Bias” in every aspect of your life.
You may want to keep a journal to record your progress and share it with others. When you make a decisive shift in your life, it becomes easier for others to do so as well. Imagine creating a wave of positivity in the world!
The author then echoes a core principle of Chassidic thought: That no matter how important asking for help from Above may be,
It all starts with you.
A joint publication of Chabad.org and Ezra Press, the publication date for Positivity Bias is 3 Tammuz, 5779, the 25th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, and one does not have to look far beyond the leading news stories of the day, or the personal challenges we find throughout social media to appreciate the degree to which the Rebbe’s wisdom, and the stories of his personal example, are needed, individually and collectively, by people of all backgrounds and faiths.
Positivity Bias in an important addition to the goal of bringing the Rebbe’s wisdom to the widest possible audience, and is essential reading for anyone who wants to lead a more meaningful, G dly life.
Positivity Bias can be purchased online here and at Jewish bookstores. It is also available for online reading with another chapter being released each week.
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