Late one evening in 1971, a debriefing was taking place at the headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch, located at 770 Eastern Parkway. Gershon Ber Jacobson, a journalist and the editor of a Jewish newspaper, had recently returned from the former Soviet Union, having traveled on a mission to deliver religious contraband to the Jews living there who weren’t allowed to practice religion openly and to bolster their spirits and morale. Upon his return, he was asked to see the Rebbe to describe all that he had seen and done while on his covert mission.

Throughout the meeting, which lasted through the night, he recounted the extreme challenges and persecution of his fellow Jews behind the “Iron Curtain,” of the trials and tribulations Soviet Jewry faced daily in order to live a religious life, and of their deep longing for religious freedom.

With each passing story of hardship, the Rebbe’s face fell further, and it was apparent that he was deeply agitated by their struggle and was personally internalizing and absorbing their pain and suffering.

And then, as the long night concluded and dawn began to break, a ray of sunshine suddenly illuminated the Rebbe’s office. Catching sight of the rising sun, the Rebbe slowly stood up, his face transformed from utter exhaustion to radiant vitality, his shoulders relaxed from the heavy weight of Soviet Jewry he carried personally, and, as if welcoming a long-lost friend, he said in a longing voice: Ah, a nayem tog…. [“Ah, a new day….”]1

A hallmark of the Rebbe’s approach to the world was an almost stubborn optimism in the face of tragedy—a refusal to live in fear or to see our world as anything but inherently good.2

In a rare personal disclosure to one of his Chasidim and a confidante, Rabbi Berel Junik, the Rebbe once referred to his focus on seeing things positively as stemming from his past, saying, “I worked on myself to look at things in a positive light, otherwise I could not have survived.”

Having lived through pogroms, World War One, a typhus epidemic, the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of Communism, and World War Two, the Rebbe had made a conscious decision to focus on the positive rather than the negative in his life and the world around him.

The following letter was written by the Rebbe to an individual who was wont to complain about his life circumstances.

I acknowledge receipt of your letter…. Despite its tone and content…I have not, God forbid, lost hope that eventually you will appreciate the good in life, including the good in your own life, and that this appreciation will impact your emotions and frame of mind….In our world, everything is a mixture of good and bad. Human beings must choose which aspects they will emphasize, contemplate, and pursue. In everyone’s life there are two paths—to see the good or [the opposite]….

How instructive is that which our Sages tell us, that Adam was an ingrate. Even before he was banished from the Garden of Eden, [while living in a literal paradise,] he complained about his circumstances. On the other hand, there were Jewish men and women who thanked and blessed the Creator and recited the morning blessings while living through the most horrifying times in the German concentration camps. Ultimately, everyone’s circumstances will be somewhere between these two extremes….

Needless to say, my intention is not to imply that anyone deserves suffering, God forbid. My point is simply to underscore the reality: The type of lives that we live, whether full of satisfaction and meaning or the opposite, depends, in large measure, on our willpower, which dictates whether we will focus on the positive or on the negative.3

In another pointed letter, written to an individual who complained that he had “never experienced goodness in his life,” the Rebbe wrote sharply:

In response to your letter…in which you write about your current situation and that throughout your life you have not experienced any good….

It seems that you do not sense the contradiction in your letter. For a man who G‑d has blessed with a wife and children to say that he has never seen any good is ungrateful to an alarming degree…. Hundreds, even thousands, of people pray every day to be blessed with children and would give everything they own to have a single child but have not as of yet merited this….

But you, the recipient of this blessing, which it seems came to you without you having to especially pray for it, don’t recognize the wealth and happiness in the blessings you have, and you write twice in your letter that you have never experienced any good!4

On another occasion, after reading a memoir written by Rabbi Yitzchak Goldin, who had suffered at the hands of the authorities for his actions to spread Judaism during Communist times and who wrote, “All of the days of my life were bad…,” the Rebbe wrote to him:

How can you write that (all of the days of your life were bad)! You learned for six years in Tomchei Temimim (the elite Lubavitcher yeshiva); you assisted my father-in-law, the Rebbe, in his private affairs; you were blessed to fulfill the missions he entrusted you with; you were arrested on account of the noble activities you engaged in to preserve Judaism, and even in prison you were able to continue your Holy work. If after all this you say that all of your life was bad, then I have no idea what good is!5

On the tenth day of Shevat, January 28, 1950, the Rebbe’s father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, returned his soul to his Maker. Few events affected the Rebbe as deeply as the passing of his father-in-law and predecessor, whom he greatly revered. Indeed, there was hardly a talk he gave in the following four decades of his leadership that didn’t make mention of “my father-in-law, the Rebbe.”

In an address he delivered on the 10th of Shevat, 1972, the Rebbe expounded on a discourse by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak entitled “I Have Come to My Garden” (based on a verse from the Song of Songs 5:1):

Here we have a magnificent lesson: The world in which my father-in-law lived—and he conveyed this lesson for the days and years to come—is a veritable garden. It is not just like a field that produces grain; it is a garden that produces fruits.

Furthermore, it is not just anyone’s garden, of average value with average fruits, whose owner is satisfied with a mediocre harvest. It is, as the verse stresses, “My garden.” G‑d says that our world is His personal orchard.

Moreover, it is not of secondary importance to him; it is “My abode”—the very essence of G‑d dwells in this world. So whether we understand how this is or not, the Torah of truth says it is so, that we live in a world, regardless of how it may appear to the physical eye, that is a garden.

This allows one to look at the world differently. From this perspective, one can see that which on the surface, and at first glance, one did not notice.

This is the lesson that my father-in-law, the Rebbe, imparted on the day of his passing for us6 to take along for all the years: despite evil attempts to conceal the preciousness of our world, and for us to give up hope, heaven forbid…we must know that we are in a precious world!7

While it is certainly necessary to exercise caution and act with a reasonable sense of safety, our overall approach to the world should not be one of fear and mistrust. Rather, we should meditate on and remember that the true nature of the world is that it is beautiful and precious.

Of all the quotes of the Rebbe included in this book, it is the next one that I include with the greatest sense of caution, lest it come across, G‑d forbid, as insensitive or be taken out of context. It is a point that may be hard to digest emotionally, even if it is intellectually sound. But ultimately, I have chosen to include it, as it addresses an important perspective on personal loss in particular and Jewish history in general.

On the individual level, it speaks to those whom, upon experiencing loss and sorrow, cease to see the world in the way they did prior to suffering loss. They are forever marked by tragedy and have come to define themselves by their pain. Worse yet, their life story is seen and experienced through the prism of sadness and grief, which holds them back from living and loving fully again.

On the collective level of Jewish history, the Rebbe’s words address the typical post-Holocaust victim-narrative of Jewish history, which emphasizes the many persecutions Jews suffered at the hands of their enemies, in other words, how Jewish people lost, rather than lived, their lives throughout history.

In a public address given on April 13, 1973,8 the Rebbe, who rarely spoke about the Holocaust publicly, shared the following perspective:

A fundamental principle to consider: If you ask a thinking person, “Can a spear or sword harm something spiritual?”, they would laugh at the question because the two have no connection. What ability does a sword or spear have—or fire or water, for that matter—to damage something spiritual?

Everyone knows that fire can injure only the body and may sever the connection between body and soul, but it can burn the soul no more than water can drown it….

And if you were to ask a rational individual, what is the person’s essence? Persons whom he loves, whom he is close with, his father or his mother, what are they truly, the body or soul? They will say that the person is the soul! And even though they are made of flesh and blood, etc., and he connects with them physically through touching them and speaking to them, but with whom is he really connected?

Who [or what] is it that is [really] precious to him? Whom does he defend? Whose pain is he alarmed about? The souls of the beloved person with whom he has a connection…. This soul, even when it was sent to Auschwitz, and it gave his/her life for being a Jew, [only] the body was taken, but the soul remains. [It is] the connection between body and soul [that] may have been broken, but the soul lives on. The soul remains the day after Auschwitz, a year after Auschwitz, and a generation after Auschwitz…. The soul remains whole. How long does it remain whole? There is no reason to say that any changes in this world affect the soul. There is no reason to say that the soul ever ceases to exist.

What does this principle tell us?

If someone were to come and report, “I met a person for a moment, and that person was crying; it must be that his entire life was full of incredible and unbearable pain! How do I know this? Because at the moment that I saw him, he was crying; he was screaming in terrible pain!” Or if he reports the opposite, “I met someone at one time, and he was full of great elation, so his life must be one long story of joy and happiness, without any pain whatsoever!” Such a person would be called a fool. The fact that you observed one moment, out of a person’s 120 years of life, does not indicate in any way the story of that person’s entire life, past or future.

So too, those who perished in Auschwitz lived a certain number of years up to that point, and thereafter, their souls [continue to] live on for thousands of years to come…. [It’s true that] we saw the person for a [terrible pain-filled] moment, [but] compared to the soul’s eternal life, [it] was less than a passing moment in 120 years.

[Therefore,] it is illogical to conclude, by observing one minute of the soul’s eternal life, that this unequivocally proves what the soul is feeling for eternity….

As pertains to us: all the questions that are asked about the Second World War, how it could happen and how it reflects on the eternal existence of the Jewish people, it is similar to observing a person’s life for a single moment and judging from this how his life was and will always be….9

The essential point here is that it is crucial to put things into perspective and context when analyzing the quality of our personal lives and that of Jewish history in its entirety. And thus, when we take a step back from our current reality and reflect on that which preceded and that which will follow our immediate lifespan, and similarly when we take into account the entire lifespan of the Jewish people, we come to see the pain and tragedy we may suffer in our life and the suffering throughout Jewish history as fleeting and but a finite speck compared to the joy, abundance, and longevity we experienced as a nation and as individuals with eternal souls.

By de-emphasizing the colossal loss and destruction to Jewish life created by the Holocaust as the central point of national focus and self-definition, the Rebbe chose not to devalue or trivialize that loss, Heaven forbid, but to ensure that it not come to define and confine the way the Jewish people view their past, present, and future.

And on an individual level, upon encountering crushing loss or tragedy, the Rebbe’s words serve as an inspiration and an invitation to uproot and replace a paralyzing life-narrative infused with pain and suffering with the broader and more liberating view on life that takes the whole picture into account, including the soul’s eternally blissful existence that long preceded and will long continue after our brief physical stay on earth.