How should a person be judged—by what he or she is, or by what he or she can be? That, say the chassidic masters, depends on who that person is.

If the person is yourself, you must judge yourself by your actions, not your potential. You cannot say to yourself: “Okay, I’ve been sort of lazy lately, and I’ve messed up a bit, but I know that I can be better. That’s the real me—not the person that the rest of the world sees.” On the contrary, if you know that you can do better, you ought to do better. Why else were your talents and resources granted to you—so that they should rot from misuse inside their wrappings?

If, however, the person being judged is someone other than yourself, you must take the opposite approach. After all, you have no way of knowing, and certainly no way of truly understanding, the circumstances that are preventing that person from actualizing his or her potential. So if you see someone who’s a real mess, don’t look at what he or she is; focus instead on what that person can be. In fact, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya, the more messed-up that person is, the greater the admiration you should have for him or her.

Why is that? Rabbi Schneur Zalman bases his amazing statement on a saying by the sages of the Talmud: “The greater a person is, the greater his evil inclination.” Indeed, it stands to reason: otherwise, how could we say that G‑d has granted every individual absolute freedom of choice? Don’t we see people who are challenged by addictions and temptations far greater than anything we ourselves are ever subjected to? If such a person, too, has been granted the power to control his or her life, that means that they have also been fortified with spiritual strengths far beyond what the “average” person possesses.

The implications of this are twofold: If you see a truly great person, know that he or she has wrestled with demons more ominous and powerful than anything you’ve ever had to deal with. And if you see someone who has sunk to depths which you cannot even fathom, know that this person is blessed with equally unfathomable potentials.

This, says the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is the deeper meaning behind a curious comment by Rashi on the opening verses of the Parshah (Torah section) of Toldot (Genesis 25:19–28:9). Toldot begins, “These are the toldot (generations) of Isaac, the son of Abraham.” Rashi explains: who are these “generations”? “Jacob and Esau who are spoken of in the Parshah.” But isn’t that obvious? Why does Rashi need to explain?

The standard explanation is that, in the Torah, the word toldot can have several meanings. It can mean “children” and “descendants,” and it can also mean “products” and “deeds” (all of which are “generated” by a person). Since the account of Jacob’s and Esau’s birth does not immediately follow the Parshah’s opening verse, and since the Parshah of Toldot also describes events and deeds of Isaac’s life, there can be some doubt as to how to translate the word toldot in this context. So Rashi feels the need to tell us that, in this case, it refers to “Jacob and Esau who are spoken of in the Parshah.”

But, says the Rebbe, there is also another meaning implicit in Rashi’s commentary. On a deeper level, Rashi is addressing the question: How do such righteous and holy parents as Isaac and Rebecca, and a righteous and holy environment such as their home, produce a wicked and violent man such as Esau? After all, Esau was Jacob’s twin, sharing the same gene pool and upbringing. Jacob makes sense. But where does Esau come from?

Indeed, says Rashi, the wicked Esau is not a “product” of Isaac and Rebecca, but a monster of his own making. Who are the toldot of Isaac? The Jacob and Esau who are spoken of in the Parshah. The Torah’s Esau is a man of great potential for good—as great as the evil he allowed himself to succumb to.

To Esau, this says: See what you could be. To us, this says: The next time you see an Esau, look again.