“He who is born under [the mazal or constellation of] Mars will be a shedder of blood. R. Ashi observed, [he can channel that aggression by becoming]: Either a surgeon, a shochet (kosher-slaughterer), or a mohel (circumciser).” –Shabbat 156a

In the early 1950s, a couple and their young daughter had a private audience with the Rebbe. After the wife and husband had asked for advice on various issues, the Rebbe turned to the girl and asked if she had any questions. Her parents tried to quiet her as she began to speak, so as not to take more of the Rebbe’s valuable time, but the Rebbe encouraged her to go ahead. With a concerned look on her face, the girl asked the Rebbe whether he thought that atomic energy was good or bad. “In your kitchen at home, there is a knife. Is the knife good or bad?” the Rebbe asked.

The girl replied, “It depends on what it is used for. If it is used to cut food, then it is good. If it is used to hurt someone, then it is bad.”

“That is a good and true answer,” the Rebbe told her, “and the same could be said for atomic energy or any other technology that man has developed.”1

Although the above story, which occurred during the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, is focused on how we relate to emergent technologies, the Rebbe also applied this same “neutral” approach as a general principle to numerous areas in our lives.

In fact, a fundamental aspect of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias was that (as long as permissible according to the Torah) anything and everything has the potential to be illuminated and elevated, if channeled in the right way. This “permissive” approach of the Rebbe, albeit with a halachic caveat, stood in stark contrast to many of his rabbinic contemporaries.

For example, many Orthodox Jewish leaders of the time viewed new media technologies such as radio, television, and the first iterations of the Internet as spiritually dangerous, and therefore to be avoided at all costs.

The Rebbe, however, saw them as neutral instruments with immense potential for good.

Similarly, the Rebbe turned our perception of numerous psychological attributes upside down, revealing positive spiritual potentials cloaked within seemingly superficial, shallow, or self-centered personality traits and behaviors.

Simply put: The Rebbe sought to channel and spread Divine consciousness by any means necessary.

Based on his spiritual calculus, the redemptive rewards almost always outweighed the regressive risks. It was just a matter of locating and amplifying the G‑dly spark within.

What follows are numerous stories in which the Rebbe can be seen offering a counterintuitive view on what are commonly considered as deleterious character traits and behaviors. The Rebbe encouraged elevating these toward positive ends.

Beauty: Not J ust Skin Deep

One Sunday morning, a winner of the Miss Israel competition visited the Rebbe for a blessing.

The Rebbe blessed her and then said:

The Torah says, Beauty is false, but the verse continues, a G‑d-fearing woman is to be praised.2 The commentaries explain that if a woman is G‑d-fearing, she uses her [physical] beauty for beautiful [spiritual] endeavors…. Good tidings, and please relay this message to your friends and the organizers of the event.3

What’s remarkable about the Rebbe’s message is that it turns the literal meaning of the verse on its head. Instead of reading the second half of the verse as a rebuke or negation of the first, i.e. that the only thing laudable is one’s inner character, the Rebbe sees the second half of the verse as qualifying the first, meaning that beauty is naught unless a woman is righteous and G‑d fearing. If she is, her external beauty is no longer empty or deceptive but reflects and expresses an inner spiritual beauty. If utilized appropriately, such beauty can be used as a means to inspire grace, faith, and kindness in others.

Prestige, Titles, and Status

Philanthropists Count and Countess Maklouf Elkaim were reluctant to use their inherited titles, deeming it pretentious to do so.

The Rebbe once addressed their hesitation in a private audience:

Since, by Divine Providence, you possess these prestigious titles, don’t hesitate to use them to open doors for Jewish causes. People will take you more seriously if you introduce yourselves as Count and Countess. Others may use their titles egotistically, but you should use this unique privilege to positively impact the people you meet.4

A lust for lofty titles or status can often bring out the worst in a person as they seek to climb the social ladder at the expense of anyone who stands in their way. Additionally, once such status has been attained, it can easily seduce them into thinking that they are better than others or above the law. However, here we see the Rebbe encouraging those privileged with such a position not to shy away from it, but to own it and use it for the good of others.

In our next story, the Rebbe encourages someone to work toward attaining a professional title in order to be more effective in their spiritual pursuits.

As a physics student at Penn State University, Dr. Yaakov Hanoka took a year’s break from pursuing his PhD to study Judaism in a yeshivah. He became so enamored with Torah-true Judaism that he wanted to remain in the yeshivah instead of continuing with his doctorate. Toward the end of his first year, he had an audience with the Rebbe, during which he brought up his plans for the future. Much to his surprise, the Rebbe said, “I want you to go back to the university to get your PhD.” “But Rebbe,” Dr. Hanoka countered respectfully, “if I stay on in yeshivah, perhaps I can become a campus rabbi and go on to share my experience and religious passion with Jewish students, inspiring them to learn more about their heritage.”

The Rebbe answered with a smile: “You will accomplish more for Yiddishkeit with three initials after your name.”5

The Rebbe understood the social psychology of titles, brands, and packaging. Rather than scoffing at the wider culture’s obsession with mere labels, the Rebbe sought to employ it to spread a positive spiritual message to the largest possible audience.

After Dr. Naftali Loewenthal completed his PhD thesis on “The Concept of Mesiras Nefesh, Self-Sacrifice, in the Teachings of R. DovBer, the Mitteler Rebbe,” he wanted to have it published as a book to reach a wider audience. He asked the Rebbe whether he should send it to a general Jewish publisher, to the Kehot Publication Society—which specializes in specifically Chabad topics—or to an academic publisher. The Rebbe replied, “You should try to get it published by the most famous academic publisher.”6

Publicity

It is accepted as a general principle in Judaism that the most spiritually refined way to go about performing mitzvot is to do them discreetly and for their own sake rather than for public acknowledgment or personal reward.

The qualities of inwardness and discretion in regard to a person’s own merits are highly valued in Chasidism, as they serve to mute or nullify our pernicious ego, which constantly craves affirmation.

Maimonides spells this out clearly when he writes:7 “The highest form of charity is that the giver doesn’t know to whom he gave nor the recipient from whom he received.”

Nevertheless, the Rebbe sought and encouraged people to publicize their spiritual achievements and positive accomplishments in as loud a voice as possible. Commenting on the nature of contemporary media, which focuses on scandals and cynicism, the Rebbe taught, “If noise could be used to spread the message of negativity, why can’t we use noise for the good!?”8

On a different occasion the Rebbe told a public figure, “It would be good for you to study Torah regularly, even if only a few minutes every day. And if you do this without keeping it a secret, you would be a shining example for others!”9

In our current media climate, saturated as it is with news of people’s flaws and failings, the Rebbe clearly understood the importance of publicizing good deeds and positive qualities. Faith and hope need fuel for their spiritual fires. Stories of small but meaningful victories can swell other people’s sails.

Indeed, the Rebbe once told a shliach, “We do not hear anything from you.” The shliach sent the Rebbe a detailed report. The Rebbe responded and said, “Mitzvah l’farseim osei mitzvah (It is a mitzvah to publicize those who do a mitzvah).”10 Based on this comment, the shliach took upon himself to write an article about his latest successful activities and published it in numerous local newspapers.

Similarly, in answer to a philanthropist who wished to give charity anonymously, so as not to be motivated by the desire for honor and recognition, the Rebbe suggested a different perspective: “If a building is dedicated in your name, and your name on its wall is visible to all who walk by, others will also want to give. More people will thus benefit.”

Arrogance

The Rebbe told the story11 of a Chasid of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, R. Mordechai Liepler, who claimed that his arrogance was responsible for keeping him on the right path. He said that when his yetzer hara (negative inclination) would confront him and say: “Mottel, come on, commit a sin,” he would face it resolutely and respond: “I am a Chasid, not to mention I am wealthy, well-respected, and learned—and you are attempting to convince me to transgress?!”

A high self-estimation, if related to properly, may actually serve as a safeguard. In this way even arrogance can be used for positive spiritual means—as a deterrent against lowering one’s spiritual or moral bar.

Ego

A man asked the Rebbe: “Rebbe, what should I do to get rid of my inflated ego?” “Why get rid of it?” the Rebbe replied. “Why not live up to your own great expectation of yourself? Be the amazing person whom you believe you are.”

Classical Chasidic thought emphasizes and values bittul, the nullification and negation of ego or entitled self. In fact, yeshut, the strong sense of selfhood, which is predicated on a skewed sense of self-importance, is considered by the Chasidic masters to be the nemesis of holiness.

However, according to the Rebbe, ego too can be channeled for holiness; in fact, it must. From this perspective, the ego is not inherently negative. Furthermore, if integrated within a broader spiritual structure, it can play a catalyzing role in our attempts to serve a greater good.

In a related story: A prolific lecturer on Chasidism visited the Rebbe to discuss a personal struggle. “Rebbe,” he said, “I don’t know if I have enough ahavat Yisrael to be doing what I do. Teaching sometimes makes me feel superior to my audiences, and I feel like my ego has become inflated as a result of my lectures. Perhaps others are better suited for this work, as they would not allow it to go to their heads.” “Do not hesitate because of these feelings,” the Rebbe responded. “When it comes to doing good, action is what’s most important.”12

Never let a little ego scare you away from doing good for others. The initial motivation of the gesture does not matter to the recipient of kindness. This activist’s sentiment is expressed beautifully in a quote from R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi when speaking to a student troubled by the presence of his ego in the performance of what were meant to be selfless deeds: “Though your charitable donation may lack sincerity, I can assure you, the poor man eats with sincerity.”13

Self-Centered

While self-centeredness often has negative implications, the Rebbe, while commenting on the spiritual purity and presence of children, emphasized its positive essence:14 The sense that we each play an absolutely central role in the purpose of Creation. When we direct this innate conviction toward its most elevated expression, we do so in the faith that nothing is without significance and everything has a real, even cosmic effect.

Instead of a tyrannical sense of absolute entitlement, holy self-centeredness can ground us in a loving stance of absolute responsibility. As our Sages state,15 “Every person is obligated to say: For my sake was the world created.” Therefore, its health and vitality is up to you, too!

This matter of our perceived impact on the world is essential in the Chasidic understanding and approach to the service of G‑d.

What you do matters! The world needs you! Live like it all depends on you!

Insecurity or Inspiration

A Chasid went to the Rebbe for a private audience and complained that his outwardly righteous behavior was frequently prompted by inner thoughts and concerns about his public image. “I am often consumed and motivated by thoughts of what others will say or think about me,” he said.

The Rebbe replied:

That’s not a bad way to think if used as a motivator. Next time you are debating whether to stay and study longer, think to yourself, “What will people say about me?” and this will cause you to study for longer.16

In an ideal world, our positive behavior would be motivated by an inner identification with our core values rather than by the way we may or may not be perceived by others. However, the Rebbe’s view was that our flawed inner intentions should never get in the way of doing a mitzvah or helping someone in need. According to this view, we can harness our seemingly shallow hunger for status and attention to inspire us to go beyond where we might have reached based on our “pure” motivations.

Transform insecurity into inspiration.

Dissatisfaction

Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister of Israel, was in a private audience with the Rebbe. “How are you?” the Rebbe asked him warmly. “I can’t complain,” Rabin replied, “life is good.”

The Rebbe replied, “It’s true that our Sages teach,17 ‘Who is rich? One who is satisfied with what he has,’ but this applies only to material wealth.

“When it comes to spiritual matters, however, a person must never be content with his current state. No matter how much he has achieved, he must strive for more the next day.”18

A cultivated sense of perpetual dissatisfaction is not in vogue these days, to say the least.

We live in an era of “be here now,” in which everyone is working on “accepting what is,” in a constant search for fulfillment. But the Rebbe points out that, although positive in relation to material riches, this kind of enlightened contentment is not productive spiritually. In relation to the soul, we must constantly strive to dive deeper and climb higher.

A Chasid would constantly update the Rebbe with news of his communal activities. He asked whether the Rebbe was happy with his report.

The Rebbe smiled and replied: “Happy, I most certainly am—but by nature, I’m never satisfied with what has already been done in an area where even more can be achieved.”

The Rebbe continued softly, “Somehow, I feel this is a part of my nature that I needn’t change.”19

Envy

Jealousy and envy are not character traits often cast in a good light; indeed, “Do not covet”20 is one of the Ten Commandments. Petty, vindictive, judgmental, possessive—these are but a few of the descriptions of someone in the grip of jealousy. In spiritual traditions across the globe these traits are identified in order to be avoided.

Our Sages, however, thought and taught differently: “The jealousy of scribes increases wisdom.”21

Along these lines, the Rebbe would often say that if you see a person who is better than you in a particular field, don’t give up or be dejected. See it as an indication that you can learn from him and become better yourself.

We can see this dynamic at play in a letter addressed to Professor Velvel Greene,22 in which the Rebbe says he is envious of the recipient due to his unique ability and work in spreading Torah to the most far-flung places.

After sharing a story he heard from his father-in-law, the Rebbe, about his grandfather, R. Shmuel, the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, in which similar envious sentiments were expressed to one of his followers, the Rebbe wrote, “I will only add the obvious, that envy in matters of Torah and mitzvot is quite in order.”

In a world of social networking where we are bombarded with other people’s success stories, it is especially relevant for us to learn how to react to others’ accomplishments not with resentment but with motivation to reach higher.

Stubbornness

The L‑rd said to Moses: “I have seen this people and behold! they are a stiff necked people.”23

In a conversation with the Rebbe, a young student recounted her difficulties in adjusting to a new program she was enrolled in. Although she was following her dreams by immersing herself in this new field of study, she felt out of her element and lacking in prior learning.

The Rebbe replied:

You can do it. You have a strong will. And not only that, we are a stiff-necked people; we are stubborn about wanting to achieve….24

This classic description of the Jewish People, used in the Torah to describe their penchant for endless complaining, is used here by the Rebbe to describe a positive spiritual trait—the stubbornness necessary to stay the course, to never give up, to achieve and to excel.

Lack of Trust

A student of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev knocked on his door one day. He said, “You say that you can and must elevate everything; everything has a divine spark, and it’s our job to find it and bring it out. I have a question: What is there to elevate in a lack of trust in G‑d?”

R. Levi Yitzchak calmly replied:

When someone knocks on your door and asks for your help, it is best not to trust that G‑d will help this person, but instead to act as if their well-being depended on you. At such a moment, it is good not to be so trusting.

The well-known Israeli journalist Shlomo Shamir once scheduled a private audience with the Rebbe. During the discussion, which revolved around faith in the contemporary world, the Rebbe said:25

There are many among us who are living in despair. They’ve despaired of our spiritual condition; they don’t believe that anything can be changed. Some raise their eyes to the heavens, saying, “Only G‑d in heaven can help.” This is dangerous.

It’s very dangerous nowadays to walk around in despair, relying on help from heaven alone.

My father-in-law, the Rebbe, once told me: “The Talmud says that before the arrival of Moshiach, insolence will rise, the wisdom of sages will be used for lowly things, truth will be absent, the face of the generation will resemble the face of a dog, and so on. And the Talmud concludes: ‘Upon whom can we lean [rely]? On our Father in Heaven.’ Leaning [solely] on our Father in heaven is another one of the ‘calamities’ the Talmud is enumerating.”

In another instance of turning a well-known Torah dictum inside-out, both Rebbes read the end of this passage not as an admonition against what was previously stated, but as another proof of the generation’s depravity. By relying on G‑d alone, we relinquish our agency, the very power that endows us with G‑d’s image and blessing.

Similar to the story of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev cited above, the Rebbe suggests that such “complete faith” may stand in the way of our own, and the world’s, eventual redemption. Claiming that “it’s all in G‑d’s hands,” can be merely seeking to absolve oneself of responsibility. In such a way we turn our faith into a theological sleight-of-hand, a kind of existential vanishing act, to let ourselves off the hook regarding the state of the world or our own souls.

“If not you, who? If not now, when?” —Hillel the Elder26

Melancholy

A Chasid living in London had a son named Yaakov, who was always very melancholy. He was withdrawn and did not seem to get excited about anything. The Rebbe said27 that he should use this melancholy for learning. Introversion is actually good for study, and the penchant for critical judgment is beneficial for locating what is lacking and articulating what is necessary for progress.

The Rebbe suggests that melancholy is also a sign of exceptional talent in potential, and needs to be channeled properly. In fact, its general qualities—introversion and critical judgment—are especially well-suited to excel in Torah study, contemplation, and self-refinement.28

Bitterness

In 1982, on the anniversary of his father’s passing, the Rebbe spoke of the difference between sadness and bitterness.29 Sadness is a feeling that depletes the person’s energy and leaves him feeling progressively lower and increasingly lost. Bitterness, on the other hand, has more of a bite or sting. It therefore stimulates the person to action. Its concentrated pain presents us with a direction forward.

The feeling of hitting rock-bottom leaves us with few options but to rise. It is our responsibility to transform our sadness into bitterness. This requires us to feel our sadness in order to incorporate it into our soul’s purpose, rather than become comfortably numb and relinquishing ourselves to the depressive rhythms of a disoriented existence.

It is certainly no coincidence that the Rebbe brought up such emotional concepts on the anniversary of his father’s passing:

Reflecting on the passing of a loved one is seldom joyous and often brings up feelings of sadness and even bitterness. Regarding sadness, the Tanya states that it must be avoided at all costs, while a sense of bitterness is permitted. In fact, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes that the latter can actually lead to positive results—not only for those commemorating the event, but also for the soul of the departed.

By giving ourselves the time and space to deeply feel our sadness and losses, we can concentrate their essence into a potent force of growth and inspiration in our lives, and in the lives of others, for the good.

Channeling Popular Culture and New Technologies

“Everything G‑d created in His world, He created to express His glory.”30

The Rebbe sought to consciously incorporate every possible advancement and expression of the modern age into his redemptive mission. This approach was based on a firm belief in the Kabbalistic concept that everything in Creation has a Divine spark waiting to be released and reconnected to its source. Everything has its purpose, and there is no darkness that does not harbor the potential for light.

This predilection for holy appropriation expressed itself practically in the Rebbe’s sophisticated use of every newly emergent medium of communication during the last century. Where other religious leaders found fear and danger in the new developments, the Rebbe found faith and motivation in the Chasidic belief that literally anything could be utilized for holiness.

In fact, during many of his discourses, broadcast around the world via telephone, cable, and satellite, the Rebbe would encourage the use of modern communications to unite mankind. He explained how people across the globe, normally divided by space and time, now had an opportunity to study, pray, and resolve together to do one more good deed, thereby forming a universal wave of unity.31

Through the radio, classes on the Tanya could be made available to those who could not otherwise make it to a Torah class; through his televised talks, he could communicate with many who would never think to attend a spiritual gathering; and through satellite technology, Chanukah events could be organized to bring together Jewish People from around the world.32

“One might think, ‘What can I possibly accomplish sitting in this tiny corner of this huge planet of billions of people?’” the Rebbe said. “Today, we see how one person lighting a candle in his tiny corner can illuminate the entire world.”33

In addition to new technologies and means of communication, the Rebbe also sought to inspire successful secular artists to utilize their craft as a vehicle to transmit the Torah’s light to a world often shrouded in darkness but inwardly yearning for illumination.

For example, the Rebbe asked R. Moshe Feller, the Chabad shliach to Minnesota, to encourage singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, with whom he had a warm relationship, to write a song conveying the importance of the Seven Noahide Laws, the universal code of morality for all of humankind.34

There are numerous accounts of the Rebbe not only not discouraging, but emphatically encouraging the creative kosher use of film, music, graphic novels,35 non-religious forms of meditation, and modern art as creative mediums through which the redemptive messages of Judaism may be effectively broadcast.

It is not the covering but what is contained within that truly counts. As we have seen throughout Jewish history, Torah and redemption can emerge from the most unexpected people and unlikely places. In fact, G‑dliness is often right in front of our face, hiding in plain sight. Sometimes we just need a Rebbe to open our eyes to see the true potential of the world—and ourselves.