The famed Chasidic master, R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, once met a Jew who was smoking on Shabbat. He said to him, “My friend, perhaps you forgot that today is Shabbat.”

“No, Rabbi, I know that it is Shabbat,” he replied.

“Ah,” said R. Levi Yitzchak, “perhaps you forgot or never learned that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat.”

“Of course I know that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat,” the man said, cutting off his last reasonable defense.

Hearing this, R. Levi Yitzchak turned his gaze upward and called out fervently, “Master of the World, who is like Your People, Israel?! Even when I gave this Jew every opportunity to lie and mitigate his offense, he refused to do so. Where is such scrupulous honesty to be found in all the world?!”1

Even in the face of such a brazen, public dismissal of the dictates of Torah law, R. Levi Yitzchak made a point of finding something positive to focus on. This kind of redemptive vision, always able to find a hidden spark of goodness to build on even in the worst circumstances, is a hallmark of the Chasidic worldview in general, and the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias in particular, as we will see in the following stories.

The Sincerity of a Child

On Shavuot, 5738 (1978), outside 770 Eastern Parkway, a child wandered up and took the Rebbe’s hand, thinking it was his father’s. The Rebbe held his hand and continued walking with him. Still not realizing his mistake, the child took the Rebbe’s coat and wiped his face on it.

The child’s mother was horrified to hear of this, and penned an apology to the Rebbe, exclaiming that she was pained by what had happened. She soon received her letter back, with the Rebbe’s response.

The Rebbe had written “?!” after the word pained. He then added, “On the contrary: He brought me great pleasure. One cannot begin to measure the heartfulness, simplicity, innocence, and sincerity of a child—if only similar qualities could be found in adults.”2

Rather than reprimanding or reacting negatively to the “disrespect” of the child wiping his face on his coat, the Rebbe chose to focus on the positive character traits expressed in such an act of loving familiarity.

No matter the type of embarrassment, problem, or disadvantage presented to him, the Rebbe could pinpoint some hidden fulcrum within it and flip it into an advantage or benefit.

Indeed, within almost any event or conversation, there are positive and negative elements. With practice and diligence, we too can learn to locate these inner sparks of goodness and make them glow.

Startup Pedigree

A couple once sought the Rebbe’s advice regarding a possible match for their daughter. They were hesitant because they came from a very distinguished religious lineage, but their potential son-in-law did not.

“Is this not a valid reservation?” they asked.

The Rebbe responded: “Would you have refused to take Abraham, our forefather, as your son-in-law? After all, his father, Terah, worshipped idols…”3

The young man was not raised religiously, yet the Rebbe saw in him the glimmer of a heroic prototype. He had surely shown some level of sacrifice in departing from the environment of his upbringing—like Abraham himself. Perhaps the parents would accept him, not despite the fact that he had led an irreligious past, but because of it—because of the conviction and courage it took to leave the familiar behind.

A Yiddishe Mamme

R. Chaim Gutnick of Australia once reported to the Rebbe regarding a class on marriage and motherhood that he had arranged. He complained that only one woman had attended. The Rebbe replied, “And how many mothers did Moses have?”4

There is no such thing as failure for a virtuosic optimist, a composer of life. For such a person, every woman or man is understood to be a potential instrument of redemption, vibrating with unsung merits that could potentially add the culminating notes to the symphony of human history.

Every situation, too, can be seen as part of a much wider picture, if we would have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Love Your Competitor as Yourself

A shliach of the Rebbe moved to an area where the Jewish institutions were winding down. Some organizations had already given up on building up Jewish life there because they didn’t see any potential. The shliach courageously entered the fray, nonetheless. After eight years of constant efforts to seed a community, he had just begun to see a sprout emerging. Then, suddenly, other organizations began investing heavily in parallel programming, competing with his work and undermining everything he had created.

The shliach wrote to the Rebbe and asked permission to move to a different area where he would see greater success from his efforts.

The Rebbe replied:

“Everything you have done there is having great success. You started from the alef bet [i.e., the basics] in every way. And now, through the institutions and activities you and your wife have established, your city has been transformed to the degree that other religious groups [are emulating you and heightening their activities]. Having raised the local profile of Torah and mitzvot, you have become a distinguished presence in the city, widely respected by city leaders and officials, and after all this you wonder why there are some who envy [and seek to emulate] you?5

With one simple gesture of confidence, the Rebbe overturned the problem: The sudden growth of competition was not a sign of the shliach’s failure; rather, it was a sign of his “great success.” The organizations were not weeds invading the shliach’s garden. They merely had learned from his example that productivity was possible, and they had therefore renewed their own efforts.

When we fully internalize the fact that there is a hidden point of goodness and G‑dliness within every person and event, we are then able to intuitively find and connect to those holy sparks, even when they are garbed in seemingly negative behavior or circumstances.

Music to G‑d’s Ears

The festival of Purim is delightful for children, especially when they bring their noise-makers to the synagogue in order to loudly drown out the name of the villainous Haman when it is read aloud. At one point during the reading of the Megillah in the Rebbe’s synagogue, the children got very carried away in their enthusiastic noise-making. Some of the adults grew tense because they could not hear the reading properly and attempted to quiet the children.

Later, however, the Rebbe addressed those adults:6

In their innocence, the children were enjoying the spirit of Purim. Of course you want to hear the reading, but we must also appreciate G‑d’s own great joy in seeing these children celebrate.

If we set our default mode to positive, we, too, will be able to detect divine delight within disruption and learn to celebrate the preciousness and purity of even those who appear insensitive to the spirit and inner meaning of the mitzvot.

A Good Sign

A young family had a private audience with the Rebbe on Chanukah. The Rebbe offered a gift of coins to their young child, as is customary on Chanukah. For whatever reason, the child rejected the Rebbe’s gift. After a couple more failed attempts, the Rebbe remarked kindly, “This is a good sign! He is not someone who craves money!”7

Rather than seeing in the child’s refusal the signs of a difficult personality, the Rebbe recast his behavior as an indication of good character.

By swiftly zeroing in on the good and revealing it with soul and warmth, the Rebbe healed, uplifted, educated, and encouraged everyone he encountered.

Truly New

A highly learned teacher once reported with pride that he was opening an educational program for Russian Jews who did not even know how to read from a siddur. The Rebbe responded energetically, “For them, the injunction that ‘Torah should always remain new in your eyes’ can be practiced literally!”8

This teacher, in his comment and tone, had revealed to the Rebbe that he very subtly looked down upon his students’ lack of knowledge. The Rebbe, in his characteristic loving fashion, leveraged the conversation to help this teacher see his students in a different light. While unfortunate circumstances had not allowed these students the benefit of a Jewish education, these very same circumstances allowed them to approach Torah with open-eyed curiosity and creativity. They even possessed an advantage over seasoned scholars whose knowledge can paradoxically preclude or obscure novel approaches to a given subject of study.

In our final example, it is noteworthy that the Rebbe lived the same advice he gave to others, and applied his signature Positivity Bias to his own challenges, even in matters of life and death.

The Cup is Half Full

On countless occasions the Rebbe taught that optimism, reinforced by a trust in G‑d, is just as important to the healing process as medicine and doctors. On Shemini Atzeret 5738 (1977), he suffered a serious heart attack. Two days later, he insisted on giving a talk, as he had done on that particular day for the previous 38 years.

“You must take care of your health,” the doctor insisted. “If not, there is a 25 percent chance of a relapse.” The doctor asked if the Rebbe understood what he had said. “Oh, yes,” said the Rebbe with a smile. “You said that even if I don’t take care of my health—which, I assure you, I will—there is a 75 percent chance that there won’t be a relapse.”9

The Rebbe’s positive paraphrasing of life might seem radical to some, but it is in fact a necessary perspective for all of us to engage in to the best of our ability. If we apply some of the Rebbe’s optimism to our own lives, problems would be revealed as potentials for growth, enemies would be understood as teachers, and setbacks would be seen for what they really are—springboards to the next level!