1951. 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York.

On the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, a small group of Chasidim huddled together in the middle of winter, anxiously waiting to hear the first words from their new Rebbe.

This humble gathering represented the meager remnant of the once glorious Chasidic dynasty known as Chabad-Lubavitch, which in the past had numbered in the hundreds of thousands, with centers and outposts active across much of Eastern Europe.

Many of those present had lost much of their families to Stalinist purges, or during the war, while others had ventured across the Atlantic earlier and had begun to assimilate into the surrounding American culture to varying degrees. And yet, here they all were, waiting and wondering—what would become of them and their way of life in this new land? What would be their marching orders into the future?

It had been exactly one year since the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, had passed away, creating a leadership vacuum in this tight-knit community of pious scholars and mystics, simple Jews, and survivors. During the interim period, the future of the movement had been uncertain, as the new Rebbe had consistently rejected all invitations to assume the position.

Numerous debates and deliberations ensued. Who would lead them? Where would they turn for comfort, strength, and guidance in life and Torah?

With these questions up in the air, coupled with the traumas of life under Soviet Regime and aftershocks of the war, it is easy to imagine this small group of largely Yiddish-speaking immigrants feeling profoundly distraught and disoriented.

Within this relative chaos, the Rebbe revealed a hidden order. Picking up precisely where his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe, had left off, the new Rebbe began his inaugural address with the well-known words from Song of Songs, Bati L’gani (I have come into My garden).1

These were the very same opening words quoted by R. Yosef Yitzchak in his final discourse, amounting to a last will and testament of sorts for his followers, published exactly one year earlier to the day. This subtle act of spiritual connection—threading the proverbial needle from one Rebbe to the next—was so important to the Rebbe, that for the next four decades, the Rebbe would continue to review and reveal deeper and higher aspects of R. Yosef Yitzchak’s final teaching every year at the annual Chasidic gathering marking the anniversary of his father-in-law and predecessor’s passing.

Ultimately, both Rebbes interpreted the verse of Bati L’gani in a profoundly creative and inspiring way: Despite all of the eruptive uncertainty and destructive chaos punctuating the recent past and still defining the times in many ways, the world is not a cruel and meaningless mass hurdling blindly through space. The world is G‑d’s garden, His finest creation and chosen abode.

Realizing and living this truth largely depends on how one views and understands the world around and within them.

When you look out at the world and into your soul, do you see a wasteland or a wonderland, a desert or an oasis?

According to Chasidut (Chasidic philosophy), we each have the power to define and influence our experience based on our perception. Knowing this with every fiber of his being, the Rebbe rigorously developed and consistently expressed what I would call a profound and programmatic Positivity Bias to life, to the Torah, and to people, leading him to seek and find the pure and positive essence within everyone and everything.

Always seeing the Temple beneath the ruins, actively seeking the positive aspect or opportunity in any given situation, believing deeply in G‑d’s ultimate goodness and immanent presence, living with purpose, responsibility and meaning—these qualities provide the psycho-spiritual foundation of the Rebbe’s radical theory and redemptive practice of life.

Cultivating this consciousness was his way of tending G‑d’s Garden, while helping each of us become better, holier and happier gardeners ourselves.

Quite simply, this Positivity Bias, which is the key to unlocking G‑d’s Secret Garden, became a cornerstone of the Rebbe’s teachings over the next four decades, expressing itself in myriad ways, especially as he continued to elaborate on Bati L’gani year after year.

What a Wonderful World

In a well-known address delivered twenty-two years later, on 10 Shevat, 5732 (1972), the Rebbe again expounded on Bati L’gani, addressing the potential cognitive dissonance one may experience when comparing the contention of this teaching, that the world is G‑d’s garden, to the world they actually live in. The Rebbe explained:

When we look about with physical eyes, we only perceive the physical aspects in all that we see and we naturally wonder: What is happening with the world? The situation is steadily deteriorating—from one generation to the next, and even from one year to the next. Goodness does not prevail, conditions are not improving, holy and spiritual values do not dominate.

Such thoughts easily lead to the conclusion that this world is but a jungle dominated by selfish beasts, and that it certainly does not even remotely resemble a garden that yields delectable fruit….

“Such thoughts also lead to dejection and despair. How can we hope to affect and change the world for the better if the situation is consistently degenerating?

The shape of our thoughts directly impacts the color of our emotions, the tone of our speech, and even the efficacy of our actions. Certain thoughts are more likely to lead us down dark and destructive pathways, while other thoughts have the power to inspire and strengthen us in pursuit of our highest purpose.

Therefore:

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.2

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….

Knowing that a precious treasure awaits discovery, we remain focused on our task and do not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by other endeavors….

We must know that we inhabit a wonderful world. And through contemplating the above, we may assuredly traverse through life…secure in the knowledge that we will find the fruits of G‑d’s garden.

Easy for You to Say

Regardless of how well-intentioned they are, such statements often leave one feeling as if the person saying them must never have experienced true suffering.

However, let’s recall that the Rebbe lived through waves of pogroms, a typhus epidemic, a refugee crisis, the killing fields of World War I, the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of Communism, the forced exile of his father, who ended up passing away while in exile, World War II, and childlessness. Additionally, as a Rebbe, and even before—as we will see—his life was dedicated to absorbing and carrying the pain of hundreds of thousands of individuals who came to him for healing, advice, blessing, support, love, acceptance, help, and even a reason to live.

Similarly, R. Yosef Yitzchak, who first introduced the idea that the world as we know it is yet “G‑d’s garden,” also lived a life of unimaginable pain and suffering, both personal and historical.

After all, R. Yosef Yitzchak was imprisoned, tortured, exiled, and sentenced to death by the Soviets, survived the carpet-bombing of Warsaw at the beginning of World War II, suffered from multiple sclerosis, lost a daughter in the Treblinka death camp, witnessed the members of his movement drastically dwindle due to Communism and the Holocaust, and saw the widespread assimilation of American Jews upon his arrival.

In the Rebbe’s own words:3

All of the above are the views of a man who has seen affliction (Lamentations 3:1), who underwent unspeakable suffering, both before and after arriving on the welcoming shores of America….

And yet, as the Rebbe pointed out in 1972, he was still able to see G‑d’s garden beneath all of man’s destruction and desecration.

The Rebbes had lived through the violent paroxysms of a world gone mad and witnessed up close the “most civilized of nations” as it was transformed almost overnight into the cruelest of killing machines.

Suffering alongside millions of their brethren, they looked on broken-heartedly as European Jewry was destroyed, all while the “developed” and “enlightened” world stood silently by and wondered what to do about “the Jewish question.”

These men had every right to be cynical about the world and the human condition and lose faith in the progress of history and humanity.

And yet, despite all they’d been through, both Rebbes steadfastly maintained this fundamental teaching throughout the period of their leadership: “The world is inherently good, intentionally crafted, and not only that, but beautiful too. Reality itself is a veritable work of sacred art!”

Both, in their own way, committed every fiber of their beings to healing the broken spirit of a battered people, and helping rebuild and renew their faith in G‑d, His world and creations, one day at a time, and one good deed at a time.

Time and again, no matter what they faced in life, they stated loud and clear: This world is a garden! Its upkeep has been left in our care.

No matter how littered the past is with our collective monstrosities and personal mistakes, we are each, in essence, eminently capable of revealing the holy sparks of light that lie scattered beneath the surface of a shattered world.

Toward this end, we must each make sure to attune our perception to never lose sight of life’s pristine beauty, nor forget Whose hand fashioned its design!

This is our redemptive work as faithful gardeners, for which the Rebbe never stopped preparing us: To always see good in the world, to always see G‑d in the world, and to tend to His garden.

This fundamental spiritual mission statement, full of holy chutzpah and hope, came to the forefront of Jewish consciousness when it was most needed, rising like a phoenix from the smoldering ashes of hatred, fear, and genocide to inspire an army of like-minded illuminators.

This was the Rebbe’s way—to banish darkness through light.