A traditional Jew who found himself in a relationship that is discouraged by the Torah once visited the Rebbe to discuss his religious quandary. He desperately wanted to live his life according to the letter of Jewish law, and yet his heart was persistently leading him in a different direction.

After presenting his situation to the Rebbe, the man fell silent. He braced himself for a strong rebuke, expecting to be told in no uncertain terms how grave a transgression he was committing.

The Rebbe, too, remained silent for a while.

“I envy you,” he finally said. Caught off guard, the young man did not quite grasp the meaning.

The Rebbe continued: “There are many ladders in life; each person is given his or her own. The ladders present themselves as life’s challenges and difficult choices. The tests you face are the ladders that elevate you to great heights—the greater the challenge, the higher the ladder. G‑d has given you this difficult test because He believes you can overcome it, and He has endowed you with the ability to do so. Only the strongest are presented a ladder as challenging as yours. Don’t you see, then, why I envy you?”1

Not only did the Rebbe not chastise this young man, he even went so far as to completely upend his perception of the situation he found himself in. No longer was the young man “cursed” as a victim of circumstances outside of his control; rather, he was now blessed with a golden opportunity to ascend a spiritual ladder whose upper rungs reached higher than most.

His unique challenge was no longer a source of shame and suffering; it was a sign of G‑d’s special faith and favor.

To more deeply appreciate what the Rebbe meant, we must first understand the basic sources of such an outlook in Jewish thought. Only then will we be able to clearly recognize the profundity of this particular expression of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias.

While Torah is undoubtedly an organic whole, with each concept being interdependent on every other concept, it is possible to isolate a handful of core teachings that form the basis of the Rebbe’s radical approach to challenges.

First, it is a basic premise that struggles reflect strength, not weakness. This idea is expressed in the Talmud, which states, “G‑d does not make impossible demands of his creations.”2

Just as it is inconceivable that loving parents would knowingly give their child a task that is beyond their capabilities, G‑d, our loving Parent, does not present us with a challenge that is beyond our capacity to meet.

From this perspective, each of our individual tests are actually signs of G‑d’s confidence in our dormant potential; they are, in effect, proof of our unexpressed superpowers just waiting to be revealed.

Secondly, and this is key, G‑d is good and wants nothing other than to provide us with the ultimate good. To receive this ultimate good, we have to work for it and earn it; otherwise it is what our Sages refer to as “bread of shame.”3

Bread of shame is everything that we have been given in our lives without honest effort on our part. It may be good, but it is not the ultimate good, and we therefore do not fully appreciate it.

From this perspective we can understand each one of our individual life challenges as another opportunity to “earn” and enjoy a higher level of goodness, as we will, through our efforts, “own” what we have achieved.4

Thirdly, and this idea may be the most counter-intuitive: The holier or greater the person, the more vulnerable they are to base temptations. This, too, is expressed in the Talmud, which states,5 “The more righteous one is, the more powerful is their negative inclination.”

On one level, this reminds us that even those who are spiritually advanced always remain susceptible to error. But on a deeper level, this teaching forces us to never lose sight of the potential saint within every sinner. For it is precisely those who have the highest spiritual potential who are confronted with the strongest temptations.

With these three core concepts in mind, let’s now explore a handful of different areas in which the Rebbe expressed his unwavering optimism in people’s abilities to overcome their particular challenges and reveal new light from within their perceived darkness.

Transitioning into the Mundane World

In response to an individual who was struggling with making the adjustment from the world of the yeshivah—where Jewish life is supported on every level—into the mundane world, where distraction and deviation are so much more readily available, the Rebbe penned the following powerful response.6

If anyone wishes to attain any worthwhile objective, the road is not an easy one, and one must be prepared to make certain sacrifices. As a matter of fact, the more ambitious and worthy the objective, the greater must be the effort and sacrifice, which in themselves are criteria as to how important the objective is.

In this case, the Rebbe actually interprets the existence of a challenge as a metric to determine value in the spiritual domain.

Another point made by the Rebbe is that only through facing up to challenges is a person’s highest self made manifest. This reveals an even deeper purpose to the challenges we experience—that of an existential exfoliant.

As a final point, the Rebbe adds:

Looking back into Jewish history, you have surely noted that the Jewish People became worthy of receiving the Torah only after going through the crucible of Egyptian bondage, after they had proven themselves able to retain their identity and not be assimilated in a culture that in those days was regarded as the highest and most advanced. And so it is in the personal experience of an individual….

Meeting Business Challenges

The following example demonstrates the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias in relation to business challenges.

A certain individual once wrote to the Rebbe seeking guidance and support as his business—the profits of which had been earmarked for various charitable donations—had taken a severe downturn.

After acknowledging the individual’s understandable feelings of anger and confusion at having experienced such a loss immediately after pledging to donate his proceeds to support Jewish education, the Rebbe drew an encouraging connection between his current challenge and the “trials and tests of the first Jew, our Father Abraham”:

Abraham was told to go to a land unknown to him (Canaan, later to become Eretz Yisrael), where, he was promised, he would become great and a source of blessing for all.

Yet, no sooner did he arrive there, than a famine broke out in that particular land with such severity that he had to leave at once and go to Egypt, which undoubtedly was with G‑d’s approval.

Under these circumstances, one might have expected that Abraham could very seriously question Divine Providence, which seemed so inconsistent and contradictory…. Yet, Abraham not only did not complain, but did everything with joy and gladness of heart, taking his whole family with him, etc.

Of course, it all turned out only as a test of his Bitachon [trust] in G‑d, for soon afterward Abraham was richly rewarded, and he returned to Canaan laden with cattle, silver, and gold, as the Torah tells us…. In light of the above, you ought to consider yourself very privileged to have the zechut (merit) to be considered worthy of nisyonot (tests) similar to the above, and the similarity surely requires no elaboration.7

In this fascinating letter, the Rebbe boldly draws a symbolic comparison between this businessman experiencing a test of faith to none other than Abraham, the father of the Jewish People. Not only was he not alone in his struggles, but due to his financial hardships and the ensuing challenge to his faith, he now had the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of our most revered spiritual forefather.

In this particular scenario, we see that the ability to deal gracefully with business difficulties has definite spiritual repercussions. In fact, the way a person acts in relation to their livelihood is one of the primary proving grounds in which their faith is reflected and revealed most clearly.

Even the Incarcerated Can Focus on the Positive

For our final example, we will follow the Rebbe all the way down into the veritable pit of prison. It is in such a lowly state that the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias is put to the ultimate test. For it is one thing to tell a free and privileged person to transform their current obstacles into opportunities, but it is another thing altogether to say such a thing to a prisoner who has gone through some severely negative experiences in life.

One weekend, an organization that services the needs of Jewish inmates organized an extended Torah study program in Crown Heights for Jews in federal prisons. The program included participation in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s farbrengen (public gathering) on a Shabbat afternoon. During this gathering the Rebbe taught the following on the week’s Torah portion:8

There is something unfair about the punishment meted out to the supporters of the Biblical spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan. Granted, they had sinned by expressing disinterest in ascending to [the Promised Land], and consequently were destined to die without setting foot there. But why weren’t they brought to the border of the desert to live out the rest of their lives in one location? Why were they made to travel for forty years and live a taxing life of transience and upheaval?

The Midrash teaches that wherever the Jewish People traveled, they converted the physical ground upon which they tread. Greenery and vegetation replaced the barren and arid Sinai terrain. Wherever they went they made inroads of civilization in an otherwise uninhabitable wilderness. Theirs was a trek of positive transformation, not just meaningless and unnecessary travel from one place to the next. Therefore, their extended journey wasn’t only a punishment, it was also a privilege.

How is this ancient story relevant today? A person can find himself stuck in a virtual desert, a place on the map or in his psyche that doesn’t seem civilized, where he feels unable to be true to himself or to express himself freely. Take, for example, the situation of a prisoner. Why is he behind bars—just because of foolish errors or bad luck?

But, you see, if there is one place on earth that is most unG‑dly, it is prison. In prison a person is stripped of that which makes him uniquely human—his freedom. For this reason, there is no punishment of jail in Jewish law.

But there are certain souls that, because of their potency, were handpicked by Providence to enter the spiritual wilderness that is incarceration and transform it through meaning and spiritual creativity. Few people can achieve the inner freedom necessary to survive, and even thrive, in a prison environment. And it is these elevated souls that end up in jail.

It’s true that these people have committed crimes and must be held accountable for their actions, but like the spies, their mistakes only superficially account for their predicament. Besides, we have the right to wonder why certain people and not others are born into dire circumstances or with immoral tendencies that lead them down destructive paths.

But the idea here is that, ironically, immoral impulses allude to unique spiritual powers.

As it turns out, then, the people in jail are not the dregs of society; rather, they have the potential to be its most far-reaching members!

Needless to say, many hearts and minds were opened that Shabbat—of both the Chasidim as well as the prisoners present.

The Rebbe, in characteristic fashion, turned on its head a fate that others naturally curse, presenting it instead as a powerful source of potential blessing.

It is clear from all of these stories that the Rebbe firmly believed that everything could and should be related to as being for the ultimate good.

It is only natural for repeated moral and spiritual challenges to chip away at our self-perception of being good and holy in essence. This corroded self-image often only serves to further undermine our efforts to overcome the vicious and self-defeating cycle of sin, failing, and depression.

In the midst of any challenge, it is very easy to give up or to blame ourselves. This defeatist tendency only keeps us stuck in our own suffering, or worse, drags us down into even worse circumstances.

Furthermore, it is very easy for us to judge others who have made what we consider to be poor decisions. Always the exemplar of a higher perspective, the Rebbe saw the potential in every person and tirelessly sought to activate their dormant energies and resources for positive change. He often taught that from a spiritual standpoint, life’s tests and challenges, by definition, indicate inner strength, not weakness, as well as G‑d’s faith in us and our ability to overcome and excel.

Indeed, Chasidut teaches that the Hebrew word for test, nisayon, is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word for elevate and miracle (the latter being the elevation of the supernatural over the natural)—nes. This highlights the fact that from the Divine point of view, a test provides the means for elevation and ascent, as well as the conditions for us to perform higher and better and to create personal miracles.

As such, no situation should be seen as impossible to deal with in a constructive manner. There is always the possibility for free choice and hard work in response to any circumstance.

All challenges, if related to positively, may therefore serve to strengthen our self-image in that they communicate G‑d’s ultimate faith in our abilities to overcome them.

From this perspective, a personal struggle may even be seen as a sign of favor, for G‑d loves those whom he chastises.9 Every test of our faith or character is a potential portal of transformation for the good; it all depends on how we approach and pass through it.