R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai, a great Talmudic Sage and leader, once sent his students out into the world to ascertain the best advice for living a righteous and fulfilling life. When his student R. Eliezer ben Horkenus returned from his travels, he reported: “I have searched, and I have found that the best advice is to develop an ayin tov, a good eye.”1

When your eye, your lens on life, is good, what you see will be good, no matter what.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to work on developing the capacity to see G‑d and the good in all. This is the essence of a good eye.

When you view the world in such a way, you will tend to find positive interpretations of events and experiences, as well as judge others in the most favorable light. Every human being possesses this capacity for redemptive vision, but achieving and maintaining it requires effort.

Between You and Eye

One area in particular that benefits from an ayin tov is personal relationships, whether at work or within the family or community. Interpersonal relationships are complicated and messy, as we each have very different views, definitions, associations, narratives, word choices, insecurities, and projections, creating near-constant opportunities for misunderstanding and judgment.

When we speak with others, we are often unconsciously importing the energy of our previous encounters, and we sometimes carry over the residue of angst and resentments from the past. In any conversation or encounter there is the possibility for misappropriation of meaning and intent, giving rise to unnecessary skepticism, and ultimately suspicion of others. A person can easily fall into a default mode in which they immediately assume the worst about people.

Imagine how positive and kind our daily encounters could be if we would adopt a good eye and condition ourselves to view others more generously. Imagine a world in which the baseline of human interaction is the benefit of the doubt. Such a world would draw forth and activate the inherent kindness of our nature in a never-ending loop of mutual reinforcement.

It is important to remember that there is always more than one way to view a person. A study explored this phenomenon using a famous optical illusion, “My Wife and Mother-in-Law” (pictured left), which portrays a young woman or an old woman, depending on how it is viewed. The researchers found that the social standing and expectations of the subjects predicted which image they saw first, the young figure or the old. In other words, the way they saw directly impacted who they saw.

This shows that who we are colors our expectations of others, which in turn contributes to their character sketch in our eyes. Often this image of the other has more to do with us than with them. As the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, taught: You see what is inside of you. Therefore, the more you condition yourself to look for the good in others, the more good in others you will see.

The good news is that you can rewire your neurological pathways and shift your patterns of perception to consciously focus on the positive in others.

With practice, you can reconfigure the fundamental way in which you approach and interpret your interactions with others, leading to the development of an interpersonal Positivity Bias. This will allow you to be more fully present to receive others with greater understanding, empathy, and trust.

In this chapter we will explore various demonstrations of the Rebbe’s good eye, and the transformative effects of this particular application of his Positivity Bias on the people he encountered.

A Precious Kiddush

The Jewish People have struggled mightily throughout history to maintain its identity, tradition, and physical existence in the face of occupation and exile. However, among all the many tragic events in this history, the saga of Soviet Russia could be seen as one of the most forceful and successful attempts at stomping out the Jewish spirit. In other, earlier episodes of oppression, persecution by our enemies actually served to elicit our spiritual resistance, which called forth an even stronger adherence to tradition. In Soviet Russia, however, it seemed to be a continuous fall with no rebound. Therefore, it was natural for many who were looking in from the outside to view Soviet Jewry as a lost cause—an entire generation of Jews who were all but completely disconnected from their Judaism and identity, and therefore not worth the effort to reach out to and reconnect with.

The Rebbe saw things differently, vehemently rejecting such a dismal and cynical analysis. With his characteristic good eye, the Rebbe pointed out time and again that there were indeed many resisters—Jews who tenaciously clung to their tradition, creating underground Torah academies and prayer services, and holding Jewish weddings and circumcisions, all in secret and at the risk of their lives. Even as the general Jewish population appeared to have given up their Jewishness, the Rebbe saw hidden rays of self-sacrifice penetrating the Iron Curtain. Instead of focusing on the widespread desecration and destruction, the Rebbe chose to highlight Soviet Jewry’s heroism and holiness.

In one conversation2 with another Chasidic Rebbe who bemoaned the state of Soviet Jewry, the Rebbe went so far as to compare 20th century Soviet Jews to the Jewish People enslaved in Egypt, who never changed their Hebrew names or Jewish appearance despite unimaginable prejudice and oppression.

To further his point, the Rebbe cited the story of Chananya, Mishael, and Azarya, three Jewish youths captured by the cruel, idolatrous Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar in 441 BCE. During their long internment, they were brought into the palace and educated in foreign ways. However, through it all, they never let go of their Jewish practices and heroic loyalty to G‑d. The Rebbe then quoted the Talmud, which says that if Chananya, Mishael, and Azarya had been tortured they may not have withstood the test. “But,” he added earnestly, “the Russian Jews have been held captive and tortured for over sixty years and have still maintained their spiritual integrity and soul!”

The Rebbe continued with great emotion to describe the numerous letters and photographs he had received depicting secret Jewish weddings and underground yeshivot, smuggled to him from behind the Iron Curtain. He mentioned one letter in particular from a man who had managed against all odds to acquire a job that allowed him to avoid prohibited activities on Shabbat, although to observers he did seem to be doing his work. However, he was concerned whether his halachic status permitted him to recite Kiddush over wine or whether he should rather recite it over bread, although it is not the ideal way of reciting Kiddush.

The Rebbe’s voice trembled as he recalled the sincerity of this anonymous Jewish hero: “He is willing to risk his life to keep Shabbat, and he is further risking his life just to send me a letter! And in it, all he is concerned with is whether he may recite Kiddush in the most stringent way possible.”

Where others chose to focus on the devastation that Communism wrought upon the Jewish spirit, the Rebbe, with his ayin tov, highlighted the tremendous response of self-sacrifice that the Soviet regime elicited from Soviet Jewry.3

It’s not that the devastation wasn’t occurring, it’s just that at the exact same moment there were also isolated, but inspiring, points of the highest goodness. Following the dictum that “A little bit of light dispels much darkness,”4 the Rebbe made a point of acknowledging and amplifying those divine sparks amidst the wreckage in order to strengthen people’s resolve and response to the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union.

The Future of American Jewry

Viewing other people and the world through the lens of a good eye endows us with a certain degree of optimism. From this perspective, every glass is half-full, not half-empty. A person is not defined by their lacks and weaknesses but by their strengths and potentials. Even a generation or historical period is judged according to its merits rather than its deficiencies.

Once, when giving a speech, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Herman Wouk referred to the Rebbe as “the most optimistic Jew of our time.”

To support this assertion, he recounted how, during a visit with the Rebbe in the 1950s, he had commented on the sad state of American Jewry, bemoaning the lack of traditional observance and high rates of assimilation.

The Rebbe, in characteristic fashion, replied: “While many Jewish leaders are pessimistic about the present and future of American Jewry due to their struggles with observance, I’m upbeat and hopeful. Given the challenging situation of Jewish education in America, it’s amazing that they still observe what they do observe. It is a very good community.

“While you cannot tell them to do anything,” concluded the Rebbe, “you can teach them to do everything!”5

Instead of focusing on the lacks, or perceived vices, of the American Jewish community, the Rebbe chose to focus on its advantages and virtues, seeing promise and potential where others saw only deviation and despair. In the positively biased eyes of the Rebbe, even such a classically American trait as radical independence, which in many ways can seem to run counter to upholding past traditions, is seen in a redemptive light.

The above serves as a perfect example of what the world looks like when seen through a good eye. But what happens when one encounters something or someone who is intentionally hurtful?

The Fortitude to Differ

While we may find it feasible to see the good in someone neutral, how do we recast and redeem someone who has made their negative pretension or intolerance clear? In the following stories, the Rebbe looks past outer appearances or expressions of negativity in order to connect with the spiritual integrity and potential hiding within.

For almost two decades, Levi Yitzchak Freidin and his cameras were frequent visitors to the Chabad headquarters and synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, preserving many solemn, spiritual, and elated moments there. In 1976, he held an exhibit called “770” at Tel Aviv’s journalists’ center, Beit Sokolov, and then at Bar Ilan University. These exhibits gave a wide range of unaffiliated Jews their first look at the Rebbe and the spirit, reverence, and joy of Jewish spiritual life.

The exhibit was very well received. However, one journalist commented sharply in the guest book: “With all due respect to the superb photography, the subject you have chosen is extremely clerical and takes us back to the primitive darkness of the Middle Ages.”

Freidin later related: “During my next visit to the States, I presented the Rebbe with the guest book. Leafing through it quickly, he noticed that negative remark. ‘Please compliment the journalist on his strength of character,’ the Rebbe said. ‘It takes fortitude to differ from all of the other responses.’”

The Rebbe then concluded with a further positive spin: “But tell him also that not everything in the Middle Ages was dark.”6

Problem or Prodigy

By 1960, Yale Butler, the son of one of the leading Orthodox families in Pittsburgh, had developed a personal relationship with R. Yossi Shpielman, a local Lubavitcher rabbi. Young Yale was an individualist, and a creative one, at that. In seventh grade, he became editor of the school newspaper. He wanted his first edition to attract attention throughout Pittsburgh’s community, so he thought of a spoof.

One of the more active figures in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community was a Lubavitcher who often wore an army hat and jacket. This and his untrimmed beard reminded many of Fidel Castro. In fact, the association was so common that he was nicknamed “Castro” throughout the community. The real Fidel Castro’s totalitarian, anti-American policies were not widely known at the time.

Yale decided to expand on and caricature the visual association between the rabbi and the revolutionary dictator. He wrote a fictional account about an invasion of Cuba in which Castro’s troops were in danger of being wiped out. In desperation, Castro called for his brethren in 770. They contacted the Rebbe and the order was given: Chasidim were to march on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, commandeer several submarines, and sail to Castro’s rescue.

Yale’s story did attract attention, but not the kind he desired. Many read his article, but few approved. Even as a jest, it was simply out of place. Leaders of the traditional Orthodox establishment reprimanded the twelve-year-old for his lack of sensitivity and encouraged him to apologize to the Lubavitcher community. The first issue of the paper was thus its final one.

Rabbi Shpielman, however, did not reprimand him. “You have to meet the Rebbe,” he told Yale. Yale was not unwilling, and Rabbi Shpielman arranged for a private audience.

One Sunday evening, Yale and Rabbi Shpielman entered the Rebbe’s room. The Rebbe motioned for Yale to sit down. As he did, he noticed Rabbi Shpielman leaving. At this point, he began to feel nervous—a seventh-grader sitting alone with the Rebbe.

The Rebbe spoke to Yale warmly, telling him that he knew of his family and their work on behalf of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. Yale was moved. The Rebbe continued, complimenting Yale for his talent as a writer.

Up until this point, Yale had been mesmerized by the Rebbe’s eyes, but then he noticed, to his terror, a copy of his article on the Rebbe’s desk. The Rebbe, however, made no mention of the article. He spoke of a person’s obligation to see his talents as a trust, meant to be used for the benefit of others. In particular, the Rebbe emphasized, a writer should use his abilities to promote Jewish unity and love of one another.

Yale began to relax, and his feelings of fear turned into feelings of empowerment. Instead of reproaching him for his disrespectful story, the Rebbe had recognized his potential, encouraged him to develop it, and gave him a positive and productive focus for the future.

By 1982, Yale had become a rabbi and also the publisher of a newspaper, B’nai Brith Messenger. In the paper, he used the talks of the Rebbe for the weekly Torah portion column. One night, as he sat reviewing the list of people who had purchased lifetime subscriptions, he came across the name M.M. Schneerson. He had been sending the Rebbe a paper each week without charge. The Rebbe, however, had felt the need to subscribe on his own accord and pay for it with a personal check.

Years later, the Rebbe remarked in a conversation that Yale—now Rabbi Butler—had shown unique skill as a writer “since childhood.”7

In this story, as in countless others, the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias allowed him to see through the veneer of youthful chaos and rebellion into the boundless potential for spiritual accomplishment waiting to be identified and activated.

The world, others, and even our own selves look differently depending on the way they are perceived.

We have the ability to choose the way we approach and interpret the world. This act of perception can impact what we perceive, bringing out the good within ourselves and within others—or its opposite.

As the saying goes, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Just like light in the famous wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics, all life can be seen as a jumble of independent, isolated particles, or as a unified wave form, with every part connected to every other part, depending on how we view it.

What color are your glasses?