In the previous chapter, we explored the different views of Viktor Frankl and Sigmund Freud concerning human nature in general. What are people made of? What really lies beneath the surface of the masks we wear and present to the world? Are we splintered selves motivated by competing desires, or are we aspiring souls seeking deeper meaning and connection with others?

The answers to these questions that we subscribe to are not just theoretical or academic, they define in our minds what it is to be human, which in turn validates or challenges what we take to be acceptable or achievable goals and behaviors. In so many ways, our lives are our personal answer to that most existential of questions: Who and what am I?

In this chapter, we will continue this line of inquiry as we analyze a further extension of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias as it applies to the Jewish soul in particular.

Hypocrite Redefined

A man once told the Rebbe that he felt like a hypocrite when he went to shul on Yom Kippur because he didn’t go the rest of the year. The Rebbe responded by saying that the natural place for a Jew to be is in shul. “You’re not a hypocrite when you go to shul on Yom Kippur,” he said. “You’re a hypocrite when you don’t go to shul the rest of the year.”1

So many Jews struggle with their Jewish identity. Based on how they were raised or what kind of life they lead, they tend to think of themselves as “bad Jews” or “good Jews,” religious or secular, and so on. This self-definition then influences their decisions to participate in the life and rituals of the community or not. According to the Rebbe, however, being Jewish means that fulfilling the mitzvot is the most natural and truly authentic thing for one to do. Anything else is just another expression of exile from one’s indigenous soul.

The Rebbe further emphasizes this point in a letter written to someone who had sought his counsel:

There can be no question of hypocrisy when a Jew learns Torah and conducts his life in accordance with the Torah and mitzvot, even if some of his other actions, even feelings, do not always harmonize with his Torah study and observance; because the incongruity lies not in acting according to the Torah and mitzvot, rather it lies in acting contrary to the Torah and mitzvot.2

The Rebbe saw the Jewish soul as being healthiest and most fulfilled when in alignment with Torah. This is indeed a Jew’s most natural state of vitality, and anything else is a stress and shock to their system. Accordingly, he worked tirelessly as a kind of spiritual chiropractor, realigning an entire generation and reconnecting each of us to our true source of power and purpose.

Family Tree of Life

In a letter written to a youngster who informed the Rebbe about his upcoming bar mitzvah, the Rebbe added the following postscript:3

Regarding that which you write that you “stem from a secular family”: certainly the “secular-ness” is an ancillary condition and an external “garment” that covers your essence and core. For every member of your family is a son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a daughter of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; and, following them were tens of generations of followers of Torah and its precepts.

G‑d gave Man choice with regards to his actions; however, he cannot whatsoever change the essence and core of his truest nature.

Our families and our lives may appear staunchly secular on the surface. But this betrays our bedrock disposition as “believers and children of believers.” According to the Rebbe, faith is the cornerstone of our individual and collective consciousness. Everything else is just cosmetic additions onto a facade, so to speak.

In a related letter,4 the Rebbe clarifies this point further:

I must take exception to what you call at the conclusion of your letter, “my lost Judaism.” The expression “lost” does not really fit here, for no person can lose something that is his or her true essence and inner nature. What is possible is that this true essence of a person is sometimes in a state of “suspended animation,” or covered over with various layers of foreign substances, even those that are at variance with this essence. But this essence can never be “lost”; it can only be dormant, as it were, instead of being active and expressed on the surface as it should be.

In this letter, the Rebbe draws a distinction between a person’s actions or outward appearances and their essence or innermost aspect. According to Chasidut, as well as psychology, a human is a geological being, with strata upon strata of psychic and spiritual sediment settled beneath the surface. In the Rebbe’s view, beneath all of our competing urges, influences, appetites, and drives there is something unified, whole, and infinite—an eternal soul created in G‑d’s image. This—rather than the various forces within clamoring for our attention—is what defines us; this is who we truly always are, if only we could quiet the storms of self to hear the still voice of the soul.

Of Roots and Fruits

The Rebbe was once asked by Professor Velvl Greene whether the Freudian notion of conscious and subconscious has a parallel in Judaism.

In response,5 the Rebbe referred to Maimonides’ explanation of a particular halachic question,6 in which the rabbinic court is allowed to influence a person’s behavior to act in accordance with the prescribed law. On the surface, this may appear as “tampering” with a witness or defendant to elicit the desired answer or outcome. However, the Rebbe creatively employs Freud’s division of the human psyche to reveal the deeper psycho-spiritual dimensions of Rambam’s halachic ruling.

…To use contemporary terminology [as requested in your original question]: The conscious state of a Jew can be affected by external pressures that induce states of mind and even behavior that is contrary to his subconscious, which is the Jew’s essential nature. When the external pressures are removed, it does not constitute a change or transformation of his essential nature, but, on the contrary, is merely the reassertion of his innate and true character….

The Rebbe viewed the Jewish soul as intrinsically whole and holy at root, and it is therefore only on the surface that the fruits of our actions may become rancid. Our essence, however, is always pure and predisposed to divinity.

A disciple from a neighboring Chasidic community once visited the Rebbe for a blessing. After discussing his personal issue, the Chasid asked a question: “The Talmud states7 that ‘even the “sinners of Israel” have as many good deeds as a pomegranate has seeds.’ But isn’t that statement contradictory? If someone is truly a ‘sinner of Israel’ how can the Talmud say that he is full of good deeds?” The Rebbe closed his eyes and nodded, quietly beginning to cry.

“I have a question on the very same passage,” replied the Rebbe. “If the Jew we speak of is truly ‘full of good deeds,’ how can he be called ‘a sinner of Israel’?”8

Obviously, these different viewpoints have nothing to do with the percentage of good deeds versus sins performed by those whom the Talmud calls the “sinners of Israel.” For everyone knows that even those who sin have some merits as well, and by the same token even righteous people have shortcomings.

The real question raised by this story is therefore one of essence: Are these Jews essentially sinners who have performed a few good deeds, or are they wholly righteous at their root, regardless of the fact that they have made some mistakes? In other words, what defines the essence of a Jew—the inclination to do good or the opposite? Which force is intrinsic to the Jewish soul and which is imported?

The Rebbe argued time and again, often in the face of opposition, that it is the goodness and G‑dliness of the Jewish soul that defines who and what a Jew is, regardless of their level of religious observance. As the Talmud teaches:9 “Even when the Jewish People have sinned, they are still called Israel.” Any momentary deviation from this pure essence is just that—a deviation from the eternally established norm. As the Tanya further explains: “Even while the sin is being committed, the Divine soul always believes in the One G‑d and remains faithful to Him.”10

Here then is a classic example of two individuals looking at an identical text but seeing something vastly different. What becomes clear from this story is not just the spiritual state of the Jews under discussion in the Talmud, but also the mind state of the people having the discussion itself. For each is choosing what to focus their attention on—the negative or the positive aspects at play.

As illustrated by this story, we are all inescapably biased in some way. The question is: What is your bias? When you judge others, or even yourself, are you actively looking to emphasize positivity or its opposite? It’s up to you to decide.

For, at the end of the day, we see what we are looking for.

Spirit of Folly

Yet the above discussion raises an important and unavoidable question: If I am so good, where does sin come from?

In response, the Talmud answers profoundly,11 “A person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of folly enters him.” Far from being needlessly metaphorical, the Talmud here weighs in precisely on our question regarding the makeup of a human being.

Unlike others—whether religious or secular—who believe that mankind, due to some original stain or disposition, are selfish sinners by nature, the Talmud suggests that we are in essence righteous beings who are nevertheless vulnerable to the wiles of an external “spirit of folly.” If undetected, this spirit can lead us astray from our inner soul-essence, which is purely good. However, the Torah teaches12 that G‑d created man in His image. Just as G‑d is inherently good, so too is the being He created. Thus, in Jewish thought, it is evil, not goodness, which is alien to man; a foreign product smuggled in from the outside, a forbidden fruit grafted onto our holy root. Goodness, righteousness, holiness—this is who we are by Divine design, and what we naturally want to express in life.

It is essential for our own mental health and self-image to distinguish between our actions, which may waver from good to bad, and our essence, which is always good. We may sometimes be hijacked or led astray, but that does not change who we are on the deepest level. However, it does raise the issue: How do we regain control and realign our actions with our essence?

Return to the Land of Your Soul

The famed medieval Spanish Kabbalist and Biblical commentator, R. Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides or Ramban (1194–1270) had a disciple named Avner. Following a crisis of faith, Avner rejected his Jewish faith, left the community behind, and became a government official.

One Yom Kippur, Avner sent guards to summon his former teacher to appear before him. Spitefully, he then proceeded to slaughter, roast, and eat a pig in front of Ramban, on the holiest fast day of the year.

The Ramban asked him, “What brought you to this point? What caused you to reject the holy ways of your ancestors?!”

“You did, Rabbi!” Avner retorted venomously. “Your teachings were exaggerated and had no basis in reality. You once taught us that in the brief Torah portion of Haazinu, a mere 52 verses, the Torah encodes the entire history of the Jewish People until the coming of Moshiach.

“This is just ridiculous!” scoffed Avner. “How could 3,000 years of history (and literally millions of names) be condensed into just 614 words?”

“But it’s true,” replied Ramban, holding his ground.

“Then show me my name and my fate,” Avner challenged incredulously.

The Ramban fell into a state of meditation and prayed silently to G‑d to reveal this secret.

“Your name, Avner, can be found in the third letter of each word in the verse, אמרתי) אפאיהם אשביתה מאנוש זכרם).”13

The verse reads: I [G‑d] said in my heart that I would scatter them, causing their memory to cease from mankind, referring to those who had rejected Torah and a Jewish way of life.

Avner’s face turned pale as heavy tears began to fall.

“Is there any hope for me?” he sobbed. “What can I possibly do to rectify my unthinkable sins?”

“The verse itself has provided the rectification,” said Ramban. “It says that G‑d will scatter them until their memory is erased. You, too, must scatter those distracting, alien thoughts and impulses that have held you captive for too long, until they are forgotten. Relocate to a new environment, free from your former associations and addictions, and in this way you can return to your essence anew and be remembered for good among your people.”

At a farbrengen in 1982,14 the Rebbe shared that as a child he was taught this story by his teacher. The traditional point stressed by his teacher was the uniqueness of Parshas Haazinu and the infinite nature of the Torah. How, indeed, could the Torah contain such esoteric codes and secrets? “However,” the Rebbe added, “there is another layer of depth to the story that has been overlooked. If you notice, the words quoted by the Ramban begin not with an alef, for Avner, but with a reish (Amarti). The letter reish is often used as a formal prefix for ‘Reb,’ an honorific term. Therefore, his name as quoted in this verse is Reb Avner, revealing how he is actually seen in G‑d’s eyes through the lens of the Torah—as a spiritual being deserving of respect and reverence.”

This self-revelation, like a lightning flash, instantly brought R. Avner back into alignment with his higher nature. In fact, the moment he was exposed to the error of his ways, a spirit of teshuvah was immediately awakened within him. After having left his faith, even going so far as to mock and taunt its devout leaders on its holiest day, the vision of his soul that was reflected back from within the Torah instantly aroused a yearning within him to return to his roots.

Jewish thought is essentially positive in its assessment of the soul; there is no need to be “born again” or to “turn over a new leaf” in the process of the spiritual journey. Even if a person sins and seeks absolution, there is never any need to become something completely different.

In fact, the Hebrew word teshuvah, which is commonly translated as repentance, actually means to return.15 This existential orientation further reinforces Judaism’s core principle: The soul is eternally, essentially, and unalterably pure, no matter what; this is our root. We may sometimes branch out in various ways, but we are always attached to that root. To rectify our actions and reconnect to our soul, we merely need to reclaim and return to who we truly are and always will be—a spiritual being eternally connected to our Divine Source and Essence.

You Are What You Seek

“I came here to look for some Yiddishkeit,” said a philanthropist who had traveled overseas to visit the Rebbe. “You didn’t have to come all the way here for that,” said the Rebbe. “You only had to look deep inside your own heart.”

In the Rebbe’s view, Jewishness or Jewish faith is not something to be sought or superimposed; rather, it emerges and expresses itself from deep within. In fact, the Talmud teaches16 that each baby is taught the entire Torah while in the womb, which is then forgotten at the moment of birth. Torah is thus already integrated into the deepest levels of our beings; it merely seeks further expression in the world through sanctified thoughts, speech, and action.

R. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb moved with his family to Maryland to pursue a career in psychology. At one point he was going through a difficult time and decided to call the Rebbe for guidance. The Rebbe’s secretary answered the phone and asked the caller to identify himself. Not wanting to disclose his name due to the sensitive nature of his questions, Rabbi Weinreb replied only, “A Jew from Maryland.” He went on to outline the questions for which he wanted the Rebbe’s guidance—uncertainties regarding his life, his career, and his faith. Suddenly, Rabbi Weinreb heard the Rebbe’s voice in the background: “Tell him there’s a Jew in Maryland with whom he can speak. His name is Weinreb.” The secretary repeated the Rebbe’s words. “Yes,” he exclaimed to the secretary, “but... my name is Weinreb!” Rabbi Weinreb then heard the Rebbe saying gently: “If that’s the case, he should know that sometimes a person needs to speak to himself.”17

This radical faith in each Jew led the Rebbe to see holiness and sanctity in every person, even when they themselves might not.

In a candid interview with Israeli author Shlomo Shamir, the Rebbe shared some of his thoughts on faith and the Land of Israel:18

“Every single Jew living in Israel today is a great believer,” he said. “Sometimes without even knowing it. The Land of Israel is a ‘barrel overflowing with faith,’ just waiting for the spark to ignite it into a great flame.

“Take, for example, a Jewish man who lives in Eretz Yisrael and is a member of the Communist Party. He’s apparently a communist, right? I believe that he is a great believer. There he is, living with his wife and children in a country surrounded by enemies who wish to annihilate him and his children. What’s keeping this Jew in Eretz Yisrael? Faith in Marxism? No, I don’t think so. He lives in Eretz Yisrael, and every once in a while rises up to defend it, because—perhaps unbeknownst to him—he believes in G‑d and in the fact that Eretz Yisrael was given to the People of Israel. We only have to awaken inside of him the awareness of his own faith….”

“How do we do it?” asked Shamir. “How do we find a path to these great and precious believers? Need we launch a campaign of religious hasbarah (publicity and promotion)? Must we first acquire good and wise leaders?”

“No,” said the Rebbe. “There’s no need for religious hasbarah, and great leaders are only needed to create something when there is nothing. The faith exists already. It’s inside each Jew, just waiting to be liberated.”19

It’s Yours!

In an inspired attempt to summarize the essence of Judaism for students and seekers of all ages, the Rebbe selected twelve Torah passages from the entire corpus of Jewish literature and presented them as a crystallized curriculum of Jewish faith.

The very first passage states: The Torah that Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.20

The Torah, given to us by Moses, does not belong just to rabbis or scholars, it belongs to every single Jew. Every Jew has his or her portion in the Torah. In fact, the soul of every Jew is like a letter in the Torah, which is only complete when all letters are present and accounted for.

The Torah is our inheritance; our birthright. And like an inheritance, the inheritor is entitled to it whether or not they know all its intricacies and details. It is all theirs, all at once, even before they know what it is. They do not have to earn it, but they do have to claim it.

As the Rebbe once said in reference to this inheritance of the congregation of Jacob: “What’s the value of a priceless inheritance if you don’t claim it and cash it in?”

Are You Jewish?

The view that the Torah and mitzvot are the automatic inheritance of every Jew regardless of prior learning or level of observance led the Rebbe to initiate a host of outreach programs whose sole purpose was to provide Jews with as many access points and opportunities to perform mitzvot as possible. Whether it was wrapping tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles or hearing the shofar, the Rebbe set about distributing the inheritance of the Jewish People, even going against the expressed opinions of many other religious authorities of his time who felt that mitzvot should only be performed by the “properly prepared.”

Like the companies that comb through public legal and financial records searching for unclaimed inheritances to distribute to their rightful recipients, the Rebbe’s emissaries, on his orders, position themselves on street corners around the world asking passersby, “Are you Jewish?” What they’re really saying is: “I may have something meant for you, something precious, something priceless. Don’t you want to claim your birthright?”