Judaism does not believe in freedom of speech. There are certain ways of speaking about other people that are forbidden or discouraged. This heightened sensitivity to language is based on a profound respect for its power.

Ultimately, words matter.

Kabbalah teaches that speech itself has an effect beyond the simple event in which one person says something to another. The very fact that the words were pronounced has a certain significance and makes an energetic imprint.

A negative example of this phenomenon is the case of lashon hara, which translates literally as evil tongue but includes any kind of detrimental speech, including gossip, even if it is true and well-intentioned.

The Torah forbids speaking1 or even listening to lashon hara. Moreover, the Sages tell us2 that in addition to negatively affecting the speaker and listener, gossip has a negative impact on the person about whom it is spoken beyond the obvious defamation of character, even if they did not hear it.

We can understand why the speaker and the listener of lashon hara are punished; they have committed a serious transgression.

But why should the person spoken about be negatively affected?

The Kabbalists explain that by speaking about a person’s negative qualities one invokes their expression. Although the person might not even be aware that they are being spoken about, the fact that their character flaws are being discussed concretizes their content on a certain level.

In his book of daily meditations, Hayom Yom, the Rebbe illustrates the deleterious effect of such negative speech with a story about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism:

“Once, two men had a quarrel while in the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue, and one man shouted that he would tear the other fellow to pieces like a fish.

“In response, the Baal Shem Tov told his pupils to hold hands and stand near him with their eyes closed. Then he placed his holy hands on the shoulders of the two disciples next to him. Suddenly the disciples began shouting in great terror: They had seen that fellow actually dismembering his disputant.

“This incident demonstrates that every potential has an effect—either in physical form or on a spiritual plane that can be perceived only with higher and more refined senses.”3

Based on such a subtle understanding of the power of speech to negatively impact others, we can only imagine the positive effects our words can have if spoken with consciousness and compassion.

In this spirit, our Sages tell us to “judge everyone for good,” including empathetically trying to understand the source of other people’s shortcomings and “walk a mile in their shoes.”

Beyond this, we can actively find ways to praise each person. The spiritual effect of such lashon tov, positive speech, is to enable a person’s good qualities—which may be hidden deep within them—to come to the surface.4

If lashon hara is ultimately meant to tear someone down, lashon tov is meant to build them up.

There are countless recorded examples of the Rebbe practicing lashon tov. Indeed, consciously focusing on and explicitly verbalizing the good that he found in each individual was a feature of the Rebbe’s every encounter.

Beyond just a pleasant exchange of niceties, the Rebbe saw such positive words as strengthening or activating the hidden resources of each person with whom he spoke and interacted.

His positive words would constantly encourage people and were meant to have a spiritually empowering effect on them.

In the words of R. Mordechai Eliyahu, former chief rabbi of Israel: “During our four audiences, the Rebbe always sought out the merit of others. No matter the subject we were discussing, the Rebbe steered the conversation so that he could praise others.”5

In this chapter, we will see numerous examples of how the Rebbe expressed this meta-linguistic aspect of his Positivity Bias through the consistent speaking of lashon tov.

Compliments

One particular way the Rebbe would positively impact others in conversation or correspondence was to always look for an opportunity to compliment them. Receiving a compliment from anyone is uplifting, but all the more so from a world spiritual leader.

Today, You Were the Teacher

After their engagement, Jack Hardoff and his fiancé were invited to a private meeting with the Rebbe. The Rebbe shared that, like Jack, he too had studied electrical engineering, completing his degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, and that upon arriving from Europe during the war, he had worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an engineer.

The Rebbe then proceeded to ask Jack to fill him in on all the new developments in electrical engineering. What was supposed to be a fifteen minute meeting lasted for two hours. When the meeting was finished, the Rebbe blessed the young couple with many years of marital bliss. Then he said something unexpected:

“You know, Yaakov ben Eliezer (Jack’s Hebrew name), [normally] when people come here to see me, I am the ‘rabbi’ and they are the ‘pupils,’ but today you were the teacher and I was the pupil.”

In Jack’s own words: “I’ll never forget this compliment he gave me. It is something I will remember all my life.”6

Better than the Original

Raphael Nouril was born in Iran and trained as a classical artist. Eventually he moved with his family to London, where he lived next to a Lubavitcher family who invited the new neighbors over for a meal. Upon entering their house, Raphael was immediately drawn to a picture of the Rebbe they had hanging on the wall. Inexplicably moved, he decided then and there that he wanted to paint a portrait of the Rebbe.

Whenever Raphael painted someone’s portrait, he always got to know them in some way before beginning his work. This particular portrait, however, posed a unique problem for Raphael.

“I felt distant on a number of levels. In addition to being thousands of miles away from the Rebbe, as a secular person I didn’t feel like I could relate to him on a personal level. In my quest to get closer to him, I began to pray, to put on tefillin, and even to keep Shabbat and the holidays.”

Upon completion of the portrait, Raphael traveled to New York with his neighbor to show the Rebbe his handiwork. After commenting on the position of his hands in the painting, Raphael asked the Rebbe what he thought about the face.

“Very good!” he said three times, and then added with a smile: “Better than the original!”7

Praise It Forward

In a letter to Mrs. Rachel Altein, Camp Mother of Camp Gan Israel in Swan Lake, NY, the Rebbe wrote:

During my recent inspection visit at the Camp, I was gratified to see how happy the children looked, and the evidence of the good care and attention that they are receiving. No doubt you have a substantial part in this, as Camp Mother. Although I know that your work at the Camp is motivated by the highest ideals, so that an expression of thanks may be superfluous, particularly as I know your education and background, as well as those of your husband. Nevertheless, I want to tell you about my feeling on visiting the Camp, as I hope that the knowledge of your success will redouble your efforts on behalf of the children and the Camp.8

Empowerments

Another way in which the Rebbe would positively impact people through speech was to empower them in the virtues they were already expressing, or even in pointing out to them some unrevealed potential.

A General in the Rebbe’s Army

David Chase, a successful American businessman, had a very close relationship with the Rebbe and continually sought to support his projects. Once, at the annual meeting of the Machne Israel Development Fund, he told the Rebbe how honored he was to be “one of the soldiers in his army.”

The Rebbe raised him with this quick reply: “You are not merely a soldier; you are my general!”

A short while later, Mr. Chase encountered the Rebbe during Sunday Dollars. After greeting the Rebbe, he promptly received another promotion: “I regard you as a five-star general.”

In these two short exchanges,9 the Rebbe expressed his confidence in Mr. Chase’s leadership abilities, thereby encouraging him to step out of his soldier’s shoes and put on his general’s uniform. He had dutifully followed orders long enough; it was now time for him to become a leader.

Beautiful on the Inside

Susan Schuster grew up secular in New York. She went through school, became a nurse, and married a successful plastic surgeon. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Florida and began to have children. One of her sons befriended a Lubavitcher family at his Hebrew school, which spurred her own family to become more religious together. Eventually they made a trip to Brooklyn to meet the Rebbe, which was, according to Susan, “beyond words.”

After that first meeting with the Rebbe, they returned many times and continued to become more religiously involved. In a subsequent encounter, the Rebbe said to Susan, “Your husband is a plastic surgeon; he makes people beautiful on the outside. It should be your mission to make people beautiful on the inside.”

Susan took these words to heart and began inviting people to their home for Shabbat meals in an effort to help them find spiritual meaning in their lives. In her own words: “I took great pains in preparing these meals and in making the table very beautiful, so that it would reflect the inner beauty of Judaism.” As a result of the Rebbe’s continuous encouragement and empowerment, the Schusters even started and ran a successful minyan for many years in their neighborhood, providing others with opportunities to come together and connect to a higher purpose.10

What’s in a Name?

One very personal way that the Rebbe would empower others was to link his encouragements and blessings for success to their given name.

This practice is based on the Talmudic statement that Rabbi Meir would find references to a person’s character in his name, and on the Kabbalistic idea which asserts that any person or thing is on some spiritual level defined by and further revealed through the word(s) by which they are called, which means that their inner essence can be creatively explicated through the prism of their name.

To Influence the Whole World

During one of the many Sunday Dollars, R. Yitzchak Kaduri an influential Sephardi Kabbalist and teacher, asked the Rebbe for a blessing for the success of his new project, a Kabbalistic yeshivah in Israel. The Rebbe responded with abundant blessings for the project’s success and potential impact “to influence the entire globe, which is appropriate for your name, Kaduri (meaning global). [Through your yeshivah] you will be able to influence not only Israel, but the entire world.”11

From a Place of Love

Shortly after the Crown Heights riots in 1991, US Senator Alfonse D’Amato came to visit the Rebbe with the then US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York to assure him that they were very aware of the issues in the neighborhood and that they were taking the protection of the Jewish People very seriously.

The Rebbe offered many words of wisdom and blessing, which he consistently phrased as being intended for “all the people of New York and the United States,” and then added a personal comment directed at Senator D’Amato.

“You know that the word “Amato” has a connection with the word love in Italian,” said the Rebbe.

He then continued: “If you proceed in your work with a real sense of inner love, then the entire population of New York will respond to you and your colleagues with true love as well.”12

In the words of our Sages: “Words that come from the heart, enter the heart.”13

Unifying the Multitude

R. Gedalya Schreiber served as the director-general of the Religious Affairs Ministry in Israel—among other posts. In 1980, he came to New York for a wedding. During the trip, he took the opportunity to meet with the Rebbe.

One particular topic that came up was the issue of Jewish unity. “There are so many separate camps—Ashkenaz, Sefard, the Right and the Left—but the key to our future is unity,” the Rebbe said.

He wanted to know what Rabbi Schreiber and others in the government were doing to bring the various factions together. After hearing about the many activities of the Religious Affairs Ministry to further that goal, the Rebbe urged Rabbi Schreiber to keep doing more, and not to be satisfied with what they had achieved thus far.

When it was time to leave, the Rebbe said, “Your name is R. Gedalya Schreiber. King David says in Psalms (55:15), Into the house of G‑d we walked with a multitude. The Hebrew word for multitude—ReGeSH—is the acronym of your name, R. Gedalya Schreiber.”

According to Rabbi Schreiber: “When I walked out of the room, I was a different person. This meeting with the Rebbe gave me strength of purpose, and the Rebbe’s spirit and perception guided me throughout my life.”14

Seeing Others for Who They Are

One final example of the Rebbe’s use of lashon tov to positively impact all those he met was his way of making each and every person feel special and unique—from remembering the small details of a particular interaction to providing specific guidance based on a person’s individual interests or circumstances. In the following cases we can see various ways in which the Rebbe treated each person as a one-of-a-kind soul rather than a character type or generality.

Sounding the Shofar

In February 1992, on the very last Sunday the Rebbe distributed dollars, Judge Jerome Hornblass of the New York State Supreme Court came to see the Rebbe,15 with whom he had multiple previous interactions over the years.

Upon his approach, the Rebbe looked up and said, “Oh, tekias shofar,” a reference to the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

This greeting didn’t make any sense to Judge Hornblass until he later met R. Zev Katz, the gabbai of the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway.

Rabbi Katz said to him, “Maybe you remember me. My mother was a patient at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital this past Rosh Hashanah, and you came to blow the shofar in her room.”

Suddenly, it hit him: “Did you, by any chance, tell the Rebbe about this?”

“Yes, I told him,” said Rabbi Katz.

“When did you tell him?” asked the judge.

“Right after Rosh Hashanah,” he replied.

Out of all the people he met and the stories he had heard in that time, the Rebbe remembered Judge Hornblass and his act of loving-kindness, and he was not going to let it go unacknowledged.

Precious Things

The wife of a distinguished New York rabbi came to the Rebbe one Sunday to receive a dollar for charity. The Rebbe greeted her warmly, saying, “It’s so nice to see you. You have not been here for a while, but that’s the way it is with really precious things. You see them only from time to time.”16

G‑d Loves You More

In yet another example of the Rebbe uplifting others by acknowledging their special spark or soul attribute, he once said to a convert during Sunday Dollars: “G‑d loves you [the convert] more than he does me [the Rebbe].”17

Perhaps the Rebbe was alluding to the fact that the Torah commands us to “love our fellow” only once but instructs us to “love the convert” no less than 32 times.

Ever sensitive to the feelings of others, in this story the Rebbe makes a point of elevating the spirit of an individual who might have seen and felt himself to be an outsider on some level. By highlighting the reality that in G‑d’s eyes the convert was perhaps even more of an insider than others as a result of the sacrifices he had made for his faith, the Rebbe was letting him know that he was truly deserving of the highest honor and recognition.

We can see from all of the above stories, which are just a drop in the ocean, the Rebbe’s commitment to lashon tov. In every interaction he constantly sought out a way to compliment, inspire, or acknowledge each person’s special talent, strength, or potential. This was a direct expression of the Rebbe’s belief that speaking positively to or about others manifests and strengthens their inherent points of goodness.