The Rebbe’s Positivity Bias extended deeply into his habits of speech. In Yiddish, Hebrew, English, and all the other languages he spoke, the Rebbe constantly strove to phrase every teaching, idea, question, reflection, or suggestion in the most uplifting way possible. He would often note a teaching from the Talmud showing how the Torah speaks in a roundabout way to avoid describing even the negative characteristics of non-kosher animals.1 It is clear from the stories that follow that the Rebbe believed that words matter, and that they should encourage and exalt in all circumstances.

One story that illustrates the Rebbe’s practice of positive language is told about the Lag BaOmer parade in Crown Heights:2

R. Jacob J. Hecht, the official emcee of the parade, was having a difficult time one year. Leading up to the parade, he had worried that people wouldn’t turn out, and that even if they did, they and their children wouldn’t be entertained. During the parade, Rabbi Hecht viewed the floats and crowds with a jaded eye, seeing only the flaws and problems. He was anxious and apprehensive when the Rebbe came outside to address the crowd.

All of a sudden Rabbi Hecht noticed things changing for the good. The Rebbe delivered a talk to the children, saluted the soldiers who joined the parade, and admired the well-prepared floats. Perhaps it was the Rebbe’s smile, perhaps it was his aura of good will or simply his presence, but Rabbi Hecht felt a sudden feeling of elation and good spirits in that moment.

At the end of the parade, Rabbi Hecht thanked the police, the organizers, and all the parade staff. He turned to the Rebbe and asked if he had enjoyed the event.

“Very much,” the Rebbe responded.

Then Rabbi Hecht thanked the Rebbe for the great favor he had done for him personally—for having aroisgeshlept, shlepped or dragged him out of his troubles.

The Rebbe raised his hand in surprise and replied, “Aroisgeshlept? Oifgehoiben! (Schlepped you out? Uplifted!)” To the Rebbe, the idea of dragging him out implied that Rabbi Hecht had been in a bad place and had perhaps left it unwillingly. Whereas to be oifgehoiben, uplifted, suggested that Rabbi Hecht’s state simply went from the everyday to much better.

The Big Idea

This seemingly random rephrasing of Rabbi Hecht’s words in the midst of a conversation was far from an isolated incident. There are many stories of the Rebbe adjusting someone’s language—whether spoken or written—ever so slightly to reflect a more positive predisposition. When taken as a whole, it becomes clear that each of these incidents represents an expression of the Rebbe’s general theory and practice of putting thoughts into words: Our language defines us and the world we inhabit; our words can limit or liberate us. Therefore, we need to choose them carefully and consciously.

The idea that words are the medium through which thoughts become things is rooted in centuries of Kabbalistic teachings and based on a metaphysical understanding of the beginning of the Torah in which G‑d speaks the world into being. Detailing the many ways in which the Divine cosmogonic power of speech trickles down to human expression is beyond the scope of this present volume. Suffice it to say that a heightened sensitivity to the power of language is a foundational principle that runs through every facet of rabbinic teaching and text—including the Torah, prayers, the binding nature of oaths, and the spiritual and interpersonal repercussions of gossip.

This in-depth understanding of the relationship between our words and our experience is not limited to Kabbalists. According to neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and Professor Mark Robert Waldman, words can actually change your brain. In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, they write, “A single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”

For instance, MRI scans demonstrate that a single negative word can increase the activity in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. In fact, just seeing a list of negative words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel even worse, and the more you ruminate on them, the more you can damage key brain structures that regulate memory, feelings, and emotions, further impacting your sleep, appetite, and overall sense of wellbeing. Moreover, if you vocalize your negativity, even more stress chemicals will be released, not only in your brain, but in the listener’s brain as well. Both people will experience increased anxiety and irritability,3 undermining potential for mutual cooperation and trust.4

Conversely, research indicates that the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain. For instance, functions in the parietal lobe start to change, which changes your perception of yourself and the people you interact with. Studies have shown that positive words such as “peace” and “love” can actually alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning.

Over time, the structure of the thalamus, which is the part of the brain that acts as a center for perception, changes in response to your words, thoughts, and feelings, affecting the way in which you perceive yourself, others, and the world. Using the right words can literally transform your reality.

The Rebbe understood this metalinguistic dynamic in a very profound yet practical way. What follows are a number of stories and examples demonstrating this particular aspect of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias in a wide array of contexts, including casual conversations, public speeches, and written correspondence.

Common Words and Colloquial Phrases

The Rebbe consistently sought to avoid locutions that expressed attitudes of contempt, derision, or negative judgment. Even more strikingly, he would actively rephrase common words and colloquial phrases that many of us speak or write without a second thought.

For instance, he disliked the word deadline, with its connection to death, preferring due date,5 with its connotation of birth. He wouldn’t call a spiritual getaway a retreat,6 because “retreat” connotes regression and surrender; in the Rebbe’s playbook, there was only one direction: onward and upward. He didn’t “undertake” projects, possibly because he saw a connotation to half-heartedness in the prefix "under" or because he associated the word undertaker with death.

Even terms used universally by Jews were subject to the Rebbe’s preference for positive rephrasing. For example, he objected to the label for the Torah portion of Metzora, because the word refers to a skin affliction that was associated with negative speech, lashon hara. He thought it better to call the section Parashat Taharah, purity, after the process it describes, which helps restore ritual purity once the affliction had abated.

Despite the fact that the Rebbe essentially jumpstarted the baal teshuvah movement, as discussed in a previous chapter,7 he did not like to refer to anyone by this term, which means master of repentance.8 He felt it was disparaging to label someone in a way that insinuated they had done something that required atonement.9

In an extreme example, the Rebbe didn’t even like to characterize geographical places as far away. When a Chabad rabbi introduced the Rebbe to a donor from East Asia, the Rebbe said to the donor, “You come from a place in the East called the opposite of near.”10 He also objected to calling Australia a faraway land, preferring to call it “the opposite of close.”11

Each of these examples reveals how seriously the Rebbe took this practice of positive language, applying it even to trivial dimensions of common parlance.

Self-Definition

Obviously, the Rebbe saw great importance in the psychological impact of words. He felt that the way a label or concept was framed linguistically was not only relevant intellectually but had great value in shaping a person’s identity and outlook.

He objected strongly, for example, to the Israeli phrase for hospital, beit cholim, which means house of the sick. Why was the hospital not called beit refuah—house of healing—he asked? In a letter to Professor Mordechai Shani, director of the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, he wrote,12 “Even though...this would seem to represent only a semantic change, the term beit refuah brings encouragement to the sick; it represents more accurately the goal of the institution...which is to bring about a complete healing. Therefore, why call it by a word that does not suit its intentions?” By changing the way we refer to hospitals, the Rebbe felt that we would strengthen and sanctify health rather than prioritize illness.13

When a man from Curaçao described himself as “a small Jew” in a letter to the Rebbe, the Rebbe wrote back14 that “there is no such thing as a small Jew,” reminding him that the soul of every Jew is “part of G‑d.” Therefore, “a Jew must never underestimate his or her tremendous potential.”

Another man came to the Rebbe and said, “Rebbe, something must be wrong with me.” He began to bemoan his spiritual state of being. The Rebbe said, “Just as it’s forbidden to speak disparagingly about someone else, even if one speaks the absolute truth, it’s also forbidden to speak negatively about oneself.”15 The Rebbe wasn’t accusing the man of a transgression; he was reminding him that the words we say manifest what we’re speaking about. If it doesn’t propel you forward, don’t dwell on it.

The Rebbe suggested to Mrs. Chana Sharfstein, who had written a research paper about the Chasidic community of Crown Heights, that she change her wording from “the hard life of a Chasid” to “the hardships of life.”16 The Rebbe’s reservation was not so much that she thought the lives of Chasidim were more difficult than those of people in the secular community; rather, it was because the phrase equated life itself with hardship, perhaps precluding joy. Better, the Rebbe thought, to acknowledge that while life does contain hardships, they should not define life as hard in and of itself.

On a more historical and national level, the Rebbe was reluctant to refer to the genocide of European Jews during World War II as the Holocaust, sometimes even referring to it as the so-called Holocaust. The word holocaust comes from the Greek for “completely burned,” and the Rebbe may have objected to feeding the idea that the destruction of six million Jews had any connection to the idea of ritual animal sacrifice in which an animal is completely burned and reduced to ashes. He was opposed to the idea of even tenuously linking animal sacrifice, a holy act, with the murder of six million Jews. The Rebbe vehemently rejected the idea, held by some in the Jewish community, that there was any spiritual meaning or purpose in the genocide or that it was a retribution from G‑d, and he wanted his language to reflect this view.17

The Problem with ‘Inanimate’ Objects

The Rebbe’s incredible sensitivity to language extended even to objects. When a Chabad rabbi brought an armload of lulavim for Sukkot into the Rebbe’s office and asked where to set them down, the Rebbe replied,18 “Oif di eitzim (on the wood),” referring to the wooden floor. Apparently he did not want to use a word for the surface on which a ritual object was to be laid that denoted something lowly and commonly stepped on.

Before the war, the Rebbe was the editor of Hatamim, a scholarly journal published by Chabad, headquartered in Warsaw at that time. During a conversation with the publisher, R. Schneur Zalman Gourary, the Rebbe perplexed him by hinting, rather than saying plainly, that Rabbi Gourary didn’t need to place the title and page number at the top of each page. Then, as now, that information was called a heading or header, but the Rebbe was unwilling to say that he wanted each page “without a head.”19

A yeshivah student once lent the Rebbe a sefer (a book on a Torah topic). After some time had passed, the student approached the Rebbe after prayers one day and asked respectfully, “Rebbe, do you no longer need the sefer I lent you?” The Rebbe responded warmly, “When referring to a sefer, we don’t use the expression ‘don’t need….’”20

While standing upstairs at Chabad headquarters, the Rebbe once heard one of the gabba’im (congregational officials) refer to the downstairs synagogue as “unten,” which means “below.” The Rebbe took the time to interject: “We don’t say ‘unten’ about a shul.”21

The Rebbe even took issue with the term “inanimate.” When he commissioned noted author R. Nissan Mangel to translate the Tanya into English, Rabbi Mangel used the conventional translation, “inanimate,” for the Hebrew word domeim. The Rebbe objected, emphasizing that all existence is a continuous flow of G‑dly life and energy.22

One of the major themes of Tanya (in Shaar Hayichud VehaEmunah) is that in truth there is no such thing as something “inanimate,” because everything contains a Divine spark.… The Rebbe edited Rabbi Mangel’s translation, replacing “inanimate” with “silent,” meaning to say that while there is life even in domeim, an object in this realm is “silent” about it, concealing the inherent Divine spark it possesses. Rabbi Mangel, still wanting to maintain an elegant style, kept the word inanimate and placed the word silent nearby in brackets. When the Rebbe edited the translation for the final time, he removed the brackets around “silent” and placed them around “inanimate.”

In that context, the word inanimate wasn’t just a misnomer or a technical misuse of a word, it represented something more. The difference between these two words touches on the essence of reality, on its Divine root and makeup. For it is this very spark of living Divinity present in all of Creation to which we pay tribute and respect, and for which we exhibit sensitivity and consideration.

The Opposite Of...

It was common for the Rebbe to avoid negativity in speech by phrasing a condition or quality as “the opposite of” something good, rather than saying something was bad or evil. For example, there were a few occasions when instead of referring to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, the Rebbe said, “The yetzer that is the opposite of the yetzer hatov (the good inclination).”

Instead of saying that things are getting worse, there were times when the Rebbe would say, in Yiddish, “Nit-der-seder vert altz shtarker”—the “opposite-of-order” is getting stronger. Or, “The portion that is not positive (or good) is being strengthened.” The Rebbe would not describe someone whose behavior or spiritual life was declining as regressing or descending; he would use a variation of the blessing, “May you go from strength to strength,” and say that the individual was “going from strength to strength in the opposite direction.”

The Rebbe had many such locutions:

• When he spoke about Jews who treated each other badly, he would say they were behaving with the opposite of ahavat Yisrael, love of one’s fellow Jew.23

• He would refer to an increase in sins against Divine instruction as “the opposite of increase in Torah and mitzvot.”

• Someone who was deceptive was “the opposite of Yaakov ish tam”—Jacob, whom the Torah describes as honest.24

• Instead of referring to the malach hamavet, the Angel of Death, he would say, “The opposite of the malach hachayim,” the Angel of Life.25

• A professed non-believer was not an apostate or an atheist to the Rebbe; he was someone expressing an idea opposite of the central Jewish statement of belief in G‑d as stated in the Shema.26

• Citing a Talmudic teaching pertaining to Parashat Noach, the Rebbe would refer to a non-kosher animal as an animal that is not pure rather than as an animal that is impure.

There are many other such examples as well. In the Rebbe’s speech and correspondence, hatred was “the opposite of love”;27 lying was “the opposite of truth”;28 curses were “the opposite of blessings”;29 arrogance “the opposite of humility”;30 sadness “the opposite of joy.”31 Even death was “the opposite of life”32 in the Rebbe’s vernacular, and the underworld “the opposite of the Garden of Eden.”33 In this way the Rebbe emphasized the Chasidic idea that evil, hatred, and other negative conditions are not entities in themselves, separate from G‑dliness (which is defined as ultimate goodness); rather, they are simply the absence, and therefore the opposite, of good.

Positive Torah

The Rebbe was so committed to the use of positive language that he even refrained from quoting parts of Bible verses that cast aspersions on people.

One example is in the Book of Proverbs. King Solomon says in Proverbs,34 A fool believes everything, but a clever man understands his course. The Midrash35 explains that the fool who believes everything refers to none other than Moses; the Sages saw the term for fool (or simpleton) that is used here as a positive. Moses is called this because his approach to G‑d involved accepting G‑d’s word without questioning.

The Rebbe once quoted this Midrash during a discourse to make a point about this elevated level of unquestioning faith. When the editor sent in the transcript as part of the preparation for publication, he included the full quote from the Midrash: “A fool believes everything, which refers to Moses.” The Rebbe crossed out the word for fool, and rephrased it to read, “The believer of everything is Moses.” He then wrote in the margin, “I intentionally omitted this word.”36 Meaning that even though the Midrash applies the term fool to Moses in a positive way, the Rebbe did not want to use a word that could mean something derogatory in reference to Moses.

In another discourse, the Rebbe quoted Psalms:37 Difficult in the eyes of the L‑rd is the death of His pious ones. However, in the published discourse, the Rebbe quoted only the first half of the verse, Difficult in the eyes of the L‑rd, and then wrote “et cetera.”38 He didn’t want to verbalize or print the words the death of His pious ones, thus applying his sensitivity to negative words even to the holy words of Psalms.

One of the Thirteen Articles of Faith is the belief in the eventual coming of Moshiach. There is a well-known melody sung to those words. However, when the Rebbe would sing it, he did not say the words, “And even though he may tarry, I await his coming every day.” The Rebbe didn’t want to give any credence or vitality to the possibility that Moshiach’s coming might be delayed.

Abra K’dabra / I Create as I Speak

Not only did the Rebbe believe that our language choices have a psychological impact on people—ourselves included—he also believed that words have the power to affect reality itself. It is no accident that the Hebrew word davar, which means “word” and is the root for the Hebrew words for “speak” and “speech,” also means “thing.” As mentioned previously, the relationship between words and things is very close; it can be said that words manifest real things.

The Rebbe barely escaped the Nazi horror in Europe, and lived at a time when words mattered more than ever before. Hitler, may his name be erased, gained power and galvanized the German military and people to commit horrific atrocities with the power of inflammatory words and vitriolic rhetoric. That historical milieu, in which the Rebbe’s sensitivities were formulated, may have reinforced his desire to ensure that every word he or anyone else used was used consciously, compassionately, and carefully.

The Rebbe knew that words not only influence the way we think and how we react, but they also shape us spiritually and even have an impact on reality. That’s why he was so adamant about excising negativity from his own words, and why he modeled a positive approach to speaking with others. This linguistic laser focus did not stem from a vague sense that we should all get along and be nice to one another. The Rebbe had seen firsthand how words can channel raw energy into concrete action. He knew deep down that if the children of G‑d were to improve themselves, their language would have to reflect and demonstrate a commitment to that elevation.