When catastrophe strikes, the mind can become prone to fearful imaginings, especially when there have been repeated disasters. People in these situations often live in fear of what will happen next, replaying possible scenarios in their minds: “Will it happen again? Will calamity reoccur, at the same time, same place, in the same way, or worse?”

Aside from the obvious inner turmoil wreaked by such terrifying thoughts, Judaism teaches that our negative thoughts can actually affect reality for the worse, often becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

This message can be discerned in the biblical account of Joseph’s dream interpretations during his incarceration in an Egyptian prison:1

At that time, Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker fell from grace and were placed behind bars, where they confided their dreams to Joseph. The butler dreamed that “Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand and I took the grapes, pressed them into the cup, and placed it on Pharaoh’s palm.” The baker dreamed that “birds were eating from the baskets [of bread] on my head”—something birds would be afraid to do from a living human.2

Joseph interpreted these dreams to mean that the butler would be restored to his position by Pharaoh, while the baker would be hanged and his flesh picked off of him by the ravenous birds of his nightmare. A few days later, these predictions indeed came to pass. While we can read this as an incident of prophetic dreaming and skilled dream analysis, the story can also be read as an insight into how our inner thoughts have power over our destinies. In keeping with the Talmud’s observation that nocturnal dreams merely echo daydreams and conscious thoughts, the butler was clearly optimistic about his fate, while the baker thought in more morbid terms.

A distressed rabbi once wrote to the Rebbe that his synagogue had recently received a new Torah scroll whose kosher status had been brought into question twice. He was very concerned, because within a correspondingly short period of time, two young members of his community had passed away, and he worried that there was a correlation between the unfortunate events.

The Rebbe responded by quoting a famous teaching of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek: Tracht gut vet zein gut, “Think good, and it will be good.” That is, the mere exercise of thinking positively produces positive results.3 In case the teaching would be taken glibly or be seen as a platitude, the Rebbe then made reference to a Talmudic text.

The Talmudic passage he cited4 discusses dreams and their interpretations, including an episode where on many occasions Raba sought out the interpretation skills of a certain Bar Hedya. The dream-readings were mainly negative and yielded tragic results, among them the death of Raba’s wife and some of his children. The Talmud continues:

Bar Hedya was once traveling with Raba in a boat. As he was disembarking, he let fall a book. Raba found it and saw written in it: “All dreams follow the mouth.” He exclaimed: “Wretch! It all depended on you, and you gave me all this pain!”5

According to a related Talmudic discussion, the same principle applies to daytime thoughts as well:

It once happened that Hillel the Elder was returning from a journey, and he heard a great cry in the city, and he said: “I am confident that this does not come from my house.” Of him Scripture says: “He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord (Psalms 112:7).

Raba said: “Whenever you expound this verse, you may make the second clause explain the first, or the first clause explain the second. You may make the second clause explain the first, thus: ‘He will not fear evil tidings.’ Why? Because ‘his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.’ You may explain the second clause by the first, thus: ‘His heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord,’ and therefore, ‘he shall not be afraid of evil things.’”6

The Talmud then relates another story:

Once Rabbi Judah ben Natan sighed, and Rabbi Hamnuna said to him: “This man wants to bring suffering on himself, since it is written (in Job 3:25), ‘For one thing that I fear has befallen me, and what I dreaded has overtaken me.’”7

In an address the Rebbe gave in 1963,8 he expanded on the philosophical and spiritual dynamic behind the principle “Think good, and it will be good.”

He began by asking the obvious question: On the basis of what should one believe that in the face of any challenge, “it (the outcome) will be good”? Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that in every given situation we are always deserving of Divine grace, regardless of our state of religious and moral standing9?

And what of the basic Jewish belief that there is a Divine order of reward and punishment10 that governs our world, making salvation dependent on righteous behavior?

The Rebbe’s answer was: When a Jew decides to place his trust in G‑d, believing that his current crisis will be resolved favorably despite facing a bleak reality that suggests otherwise, he has, in effect, risen above his own nature, which in turn elicits, reciprocally, “measure for measure” the suspension of the Divine order,11 where only the righteous are deserving of salvation.

G‑d, the creator of Man, understands how difficult and even “supernatural” it is for a human being to truly believe—to the degree that he or she no longer experiences fear and anxiety—that an unpromising and even seemingly hopeless situation will have a positive outcome. And, thus, as a result and even reward for the extraordinary act of worship of “tracht gut,” G‑d deems the believer, who is otherwise undeserving of a positive outcome, to be deserving in this instance of an extra measure of Divine generosity.

What follows are a small sampling of the hundreds of letters the Rebbe wrote in which he referred to the aphorism, “tracht gut vet zein gut.”12

In response to an individual who sent the Rebbe a telegram seeking his blessing for good health, the Rebbe wrote:

I received your telegram stating that your operation will be taking place on Sunday…and certainly everything will work out and return to normal.

I have already written [in the past] expressing my astonishment with those who look to interpret events that occur to them or members of their family in a “strict” [i.e., negative, even morbid] manner, even though my father-in-law, the [previous] Rebbe, has stated numerous times in the name of his predecessors the teaching: “Think positive, and [the outcome] will be positive,” and certainly [this is meant literally, that] things will be good!

…I look forward to being informed in the future of the fact that things have turned out well and your situation has improved.

Awaiting good news and with blessings to you and yours.13

In his response to an individual who had requested that the Rebbe pray for his wife and granddaughter, who were both unwell, the Rebbe elaborated on this theme:

In response to your two letters [requesting blessings for the good health of] your wife and granddaughter…Divine mercy will definitely be aroused for them so that they return to good health.

…I strongly discourage the behavior of those who dwell on, exaggerate, and amplify their health issues through speaking about and writing about any and every health issue they encounter, which runs contrary to the philosophy of the Rabbeim who taught, “Think positive, and the outcome will be positive.”

If this is the case with regards to positive thought [which can affect reality for the better], how much more so when it comes to positive speech and writing, which is considered to be like deed.14

In the following response to someone who, it seems, had written several pessimistic letters to the Rebbe describing his life’s challenges, the Rebbe elaborated on the effects of verbalizing negative thoughts.

In his letter, the Rebbe highlights the novelty of the teaching, “Think good, etc.,” which teaches that the process of actualization, where a spiritual idea and energy becomes manifest in physical reality, does not begin through verbalizing an idea (a common point made in Chasidic texts) but begins earlier, and on a more spiritual plane, through the process of thought.

In response to your letter, from which it is clear that I have not yet been successful at inspiring in you a spirit of optimism, despite having told you on numerous occasions that according to Jewish teaching, one should refrain from [verbally] introducing negative and melancholy ideas into the world, which is one way to help avert the actualization of negativity.15

And not only does this apply to verbalization—which, according to Chasidic teaching16, contains the power to actualize, as we learn from the behavior of the Maggid [of Mezritch], who would verbalize his novel ideas in order to “bring them into the world”—but even thought has the power to effect actualization, as we see from the teaching of our Rabbeim, “Think good, and it will be good,” which is why one should refrain from negative thinking, so as not actualize negativity.17

In a different letter, the Rebbe responded strongly to a yeshiva student, who wrote to the Rebbe in the middle of summer about his plans to return home from his yeshiva during the High Holy Days to be with his father, who wasn’t well at the time. After blessing the student’s father with good health, the Rebbe wrote:

P.S. Regarding the idea you proposed in your letter, to be at home over the High Holy Days, even though many students will be at the yeshiva, since your father is currently unwell: I was greatly surprised and taken aback by the apparent lack of trust in G‑d, which allows you to assume and make concrete plans (to leave the spiritual environment of yeshiva and, as a result, decrease in your dedication to heartfelt prayer18) as a result, already now in the middle of the summer that your father will still be unwell in a month’s time!

It would be far better and more advisable to assume instead, per the dictate of the Rabbeim, “Think positive, and the outcome will be positive,” that your father’s health will definitely have improved by then, allowing you to devote greater energies to your spiritual development.”19

The previous letter brings to mind the following story:

During a private audience with the Rebbe, a chasid mentioned that he was due to have a very serious operation in a few weeks’ time, and he asked the Rebbe for a blessing that the surgery be a success. The Rebbe grew very serious and said pointedly, “Instead of asking that I pray that the surgery be successful, you could have asked me to pray that you not need to undergo surgery at all!”20

This story teaches that not only do our actual thoughts affect reality, but even our attitude and way of thinking (which reflects our degree of faith) profoundly impacts our reality for better or worse.

In addition to the negative effects of pessimistic thinking on reality, the Rebbe strongly discouraged negative thinking and visualization because of its depressing and despair-inducing psychological effects, which can lead to physiological deterioration as well.

Consider the following candid letter of the Rebbe, written to an individual who wasn’t satisfied with the medical advice given him by his doctors and decided to research his condition by reading some medical books and journals and draw his own conclusions.

In response to your letter in which you inform me of the numerous operations you underwent in the past, etc.

…It is unfortunate that you have set out to research and read up on the medical condition you assume to be your own. In my opinion, you should concern yourself instead, per the Torah’s directives, with following the doctors’ orders and to engage your mind and heart, and all of your powers of concentration, with thoughts of trust in G‑d, the Healer of all who are sick, who can create wonders.

It is surely not advisable to mix into the medical research [of your condition], which is not your domain [but that of your doctors], especially if this disturbs your inner peace and triggers thoughts of depression and despair. [On this note] the teaching of the Rebbes of Chabad, “Think positive, and the outcome will be positive,” is well known.21

The Rebbe elaborated on this theme in the following letter he wrote in 1952 to a woman who was ill:

While I am pleased to read in your letter the quotation about G‑d being the Creator of the world, Who also guides all its destinies, etc., this very good impression is weakened by the further tone of your letter, where you state that you want to be “realistic,” based on the prognosis of physicians regarding your condition. I want to tell you, first, that even from the realistic point of view, we must recognize the fact that very many times, the greatest physicians have made mistakes in diagnosis. Moreover, in recent times we see that new discoveries are made daily in the medical field, with new “wonder” drugs and methods, which have revolutionized medical treatment.

Secondly, observing life in general, we see so many things that are strange and unbelievable that to be truly realistic, one cannot consider anything as impossible.22

In a condition that is, to a large extent, bound up with the nervous system and the resistance of the organism, even medical opinion agrees that the stronger the patient’s faith in cure, and the stronger his will to get better, the stronger becomes his ability to recover. Needless to say, this is not said in the way of an admonition. But, inasmuch as by individual Divine Providence, you have learned of me, and I of you, I think I am entitled to convey to you the above thoughts, which I was privileged to hear from my father-in-law, of saintly memory, in similar cases.

May the Almighty help you to fulfill your promise to work for Torah-true movements and to bring up your children in the way of true Yiddishkeit.23

The connection between one’s emotional and physical state of being was an important feature24 of the Rebbe’s thinking and can be seen from the care he took never to use the common Hebrew word for hospital, beit cholim, which literally means “house of the sick,” clearly a very discouraging way to refer to the very institution that is meant to inspire confidence and hope.

In a letter to Professor Mordechai Shani, director of the Sheba medical center at Tel Hashomer in Israel, the Rebbe made reference to an earlier conversation they had had in which he had strongly urged him to call the hospital a beit refuah (house of healing) instead of beit cholim. “Even though…this would seem to represent a semantic change, the term beit refuah brings encouragement to the sick….”25

The same concern led the Rebbe to caution doctors in the way they discuss medical issues with their patients.

“Surely you are aware of the comment of many of our great Rebbes on the ruling of the Sages—‘He [the doctor] shall provide for his cure.’ From these words, we derive that physicians have been granted permission to heal”—that the only mandate that doctors have been granted is to heal [and not to induce despair].”26

The following related story demonstrates the Rebbe’s insistence that the physician’s domain is diagnosis, not prognosis.

After his wife had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, a distraught husband came to see the Rebbe, bringing along his two little children.

“Rebbe,” he broke down crying, “I am a man who just immigrated to the United States with my family. I can’t even speak English! And now my wife is going to die, leaving me to care for these two little children!”

“Who said she will die?” the Rebbe asked, visibly upset. “The doctor,” he responded. “Do you have the prognosis with you?” the Rebbe asked.

“Yes,” said the man, handing it to the Rebbe. The Rebbe took the paper and tore it up. “Since when do doctors determine who will live and who will die?” he demanded. “Only G‑d can do that! Now, go home and tell your wife that she should continue taking her prescribed medication, and she will be fine.”

Happily, this woman, a wife and mother, lived for many years.27