The stories in the previous chapter focused on encounters people had with the Rebbe where he helped them reframe their current experience in order to move toward a more positive future. In this chapter, we turn our attention to a more sensitive aspect of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias—reframing the past.

The Best Way to Lose Money

Once, in an audience with the Rebbe, R. Bentzion Wiener mentioned something that had been bothering him for a long time. A while back, he had lent his friend a large sum of money, which his friend had never paid back.

Deeply frustrated by this betrayal, he asked, “How could it be that after performing a good deed and helping another person I should lose so much? How could G‑d allow this to happen?”

The Rebbe answered:

Sometimes it is ordained from heaven that a person should “lose” his money by paying doctor bills, parking tickets, or some other kind of misfortune. Yet, when such a decree is in place but has not been enforced yet, we get a chance to lose the same amount in a different, kinder way—by performing a good deed, such as helping out a friend in need.1

With the help of the Rebbe’s reframing, Rabbi Wiener was able to view his misfortune in a different light, and to grasp the bigger picture and process of which he was a part. In his own words: “Instead of losing money with tears, I could lose it with a smile.”

Although the above story makes a strong point, it is admittedly on the lighter side of life. The following stories wade into deeper waters, and address some of the darker aspects of both personal and Jewish history.

G‑d’s Love is Unconditional

Our self-definition and limitation is a result of the way we perceive and process our past. Our painful experiences are often most in need of reframing. The Rebbe consistently applied this approach to even the most painful and theologically complex human experiences.

Moshe Levy was a sergeant in the IDF Special Forces during the Yom Kippur War. The unit he led defended Fort Budapest, the only Israeli bunker on the Suez Canal to withstand the Egyptian attack. He is one of only forty people to be awarded the Israel Hero Medal, Israel’s highest decoration for valor in combat. Yet, as a result of his harrowing experience in combat, he was left with a number of unanswered questions.

A few days after the war began, Moshe’s unit received word that the Egyptian Army was advancing quickly on their position, which was the only fortification between the Egyptians and Tel Aviv. They didn’t have nearly enough weapons to face off against tanks.

Then, one brave soldier asked for permission to speak.

“Have faith in G‑d,” he cried with his entire being, as only one who stares death in the eye can.

“Do you know how we will ward off the enemy?” he continued with emotion. He held up a book of psalms, “With our heartfelt prayers to the Almighty!”

His words penetrated their hearts.

Moshe, experiencing faith for the first time in his life, made a vow to G‑d: “Master of the world, if we make it out of this hellhole alive, I promise to wear tefillin every day for the rest of my life!”

In an explosive flash of sound and fury, dust and metal, it was over. By a miracle, the Egyptians had been rebuffed. But Moshe, who had made a vow to G‑d, had been injured.

He had lost an arm. His left arm, in fact, the arm upon which tefillin are wrapped.

He was broken. This was too much to bear. Could G‑d be mocking him? The new faith he had just discovered threatened to disappear.

He visited numerous rabbis with his burning question: How could G‑d take the very arm with which he had hoped to bind himself to Him? The answers he was given did not satisfy his tortured soul, and he sank deeper into despair.

All of that changed in one late-night meeting with the Rebbe in which Moshe indignantly told him his story. Together, they cried.

The Rebbe then gently said, “Perhaps this was G‑d’s way of telling you that His relationship with you is unconditional. He loves you not for what you may or may not do, but simply as you are. Like a parent loves a child.”

All the anger and confusion he had internalized for so long instantly melted away. The Rebbe’s compassionate response to Moshe’s suffering completely transformed his understanding of what it means to be in a relationship with G‑d. He realized that G‑d’s love is not something you have to bargain for or earn, it just is—unconditional and infinite. Moshe’s arm would never come back, but in that moment his heart began to heal.2

Reframing the Holocaust

Of all the stories of the Rebbe included in this book, I include the next one with the greatest apprehension, lest it come across, G‑d forbid, as insensitive or be taken out of context. It poignantly expresses a very deep point of view that may be hard for many to digest emotionally, even if it is intellectually sound. But, ultimately, I have chosen to include it, because it reframes the way most of us relate to personal loss in particular, and the tragedies of Jewish history in general.

In a public address given on 11 Nissan 5733 (1973), the Rebbe, who rarely spoke about the Holocaust publicly, shared the following perspective:3

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 [though it] may sever the connection between body and soul, it can burn the soul no more than water can drown it…. And if you were to ask a rational individual, “What is a person’s essence?” If they took a moment to consider persons whom they love, whom they are close with, such as their father or mother or child, and ask themselves, “What are they truly, body or soul?” they will surely answer that a person is their soul! For even though they are made of flesh and blood, and they connect with them physically through touching and speaking with them—with whom are they really connected? Who [or what] is it that is [really] precious to them? Whom do they defend? Whose pain are they alarmed about? It is indeed the soul of the beloved person with whom they have a connection.

This soul, even when it was sent to Auschwitz, and it gave his or her life for being a Jew, [only] the body was taken, but the soul remains. The connection between body and soul may have been broken, but the soul lives on. The soul remains [whole] a day after Auschwitz, a year after Auschwitz, and a generation after Auschwitz…. How long does it remain whole?

There is no reason to say that any [physical] 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 once for a moment, and that person was crying; it must be that their entire life was full of incredible and unbearable pain! How do I know this? Because at the moment that I saw them, they were crying and screaming in terrible pain!” Or, if they report the opposite, “I met someone at one time, and they were full of great elation, so their 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 [they] observed one moment out of a person’s 120 years of life does not indicate in any way the story [or quality] of that person’s entire life, past or future.

Likewise, 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 a soul’s eternal life that this unequivocally proves what that soul is feeling for eternity.

As pertains to us regarding 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 their life must have been and always will be….

It is crucial to put things into perspective when analyzing the quality of our personal lives or Jewish history in its entirety. One can get trapped or frozen in a particular moment of the past, especially if it was filled with trauma and loss. When this happens, we define ourselves through a lens of pain. However, when we take a step back and reflect on what preceded our trauma, as well as what will follow our immediate lifespan, we are able to see such pain and suffering as but a fleeting and finite point within an infinitely vast panorama. Our timeless souls are not bound or defined by any one moment.

On an individual level, the Rebbe speaks to those who upon experiencing loss and sorrow cease to see the world as they did before—who have come to define themselves by their pain. Worse yet, their life story is seen and experienced through a frame of grief, which holds them back from fully living and loving again.

On the collective level of Jewish history, the Rebbe’s words address the typical post-Holocaust victim-narrative, which emphasizes the many persecutions Jews have suffered at the hands of their enemies—highlighting how Jews have lost, rather than lived, their lives throughout history. By reframing our national focus and self-definition, the Rebbe did not devalue or trivialize the colossal loss and destruction of Jewish life brought about by the Holocaust, Heaven forbid. Instead he attempted to ensure that it not confine the way the Jewish People view their past, present, and future—which are also filled with joy, abundance, faith, and beauty.

The three stories above explore loss on different levels. By expanding the scope of our vision to include the spiritual dimension, the Rebbe reminds us that every single event in our lives, no matter how painful, occurs within an infinitely larger field of significance and meaning. If time heals all wounds, as they say, then imagine what eternity can do.