Mordechai (Mel) Landow was a successful businessman with close ties to the Lubavitch community who had recently come upon hard times. After hearing about Mr. Landow’s troubles through a mutual friend, the Rebbe reached out and wrote him a letter.1

Rather than comforting or merely commiserating with Mr. Landow on account of his downturn, the Rebbe took the opportunity to encourage him to capitalize on it:

I surely do not have to emphasize to you that the true businessman is not the person who can [only] manage his affairs when conditions are favorable and things run smoothly and successfully, but also, and even more so, when he shows that he knows how to cope with an occasional setback. Indeed, facing up to the challenge of adversity makes one a stronger and more effective executive than before, with an added dimension of experience and a keener acumen, to put to good use when things begin to turn upward. Sometimes, a temporary setback is just what is needed for the resumption of the advance with [even] greater vigor, as in the case of an athlete having to negotiate a hurdle, when stepping back is the means to a higher leap…. In plain words, I trust that you are taking the present difficulty well in your stride…and that the setback has indeed served as a springboard for the great upturn in the days ahead.

In this inspiring letter, the Rebbe deftly applies one of the most important principles in Chasidic thought, known as yeridah l’tzorech aliyah (descent for the sake of ascent).2

This profoundly paradoxical concept is based on the premise that G‑d is the ultimate good, and thus wants only good for his creations. Therefore, at the core of every event or experience, including those that appear wholly negative, there lies a divine spark of purpose. This idea gives birth to the notion that every fall has within it the potential for a subsequent rise.

The Rebbe regularly referred to and invoked this principle of descent for the sake of ascent in response to people’s struggles and conflicts. This was one of the strongest expressions of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias, as we will see in the examples below.

A Running Start

Shortly after the Rebbe assumed his position of leadership, several young American men from secular backgrounds began studying in the Lubavitcher yeshivah in Brooklyn. One of them, a student from Chicago named Mendel Greenbaum, received his draft notice a few short months after he had begun studying.

He was very upset. “While I was not observant,” he explained to his friends, “I had all the time in the world and I misused it. Now, when I’ve begun to appreciate the importance of time and have begun using it productively, I am no longer my own master. How could G‑d do this to me?”

Afraid that his practice of Torah and mitzvot would suffer at the army base, he went to the Rebbe seeking guidance.3

The Rebbe responded, “Sometimes in life one must take a step backward in order to be able to go forward in the future.” The young man remained silent, with a puzzled look on his face.

When the Rebbe saw his bewilderment, he got up from behind his desk to illustrate his point. The Rebbe took a chair and said, “If I wanted to jump over this chair I couldn’t do it, because I’m right in front of it. But if I would just take a few steps back and get a running start, I could gain the momentum required to clear the obstacle.

With the Rebbe’s blessing, Mendel enlisted and spent two years in the army, serving in various posts across Western Europe. Throughout this period, he continued to faithfully observe the mitzvot, finding time to pray and study in even the most difficult of circumstances. Following the Rebbe’s advice, Mendel began reaching out to the dozens of other Jewish servicemen he encountered throughout his tour of duty. From wrapping tefillin to preparing for Pesach and learning the weekly parshah, Mendel went from being a self-interested student of Torah to becoming a leader of sorts, teaching and tending to others as the circumstances required.

This story demonstrates an important dimension of yeridah l’tzorech aliyah, namely that it is the experience of descent itself that provides the very momentum to break through prior limitations. Far away from any communal or religious support system to rely on, Mendel had to activate the Divine point within himself, which empowered him to become a spiritual support system for others.

By contextualizing our temporary isolation within a wider process, yeridah l’tzorech aliyah revolutionizes the way we understand our falls. We are then able to see how being distant can bring us even closer to our goal than we were before.

Elevating Exile

The Rebbe further applied the concept of yeridah l’tzorech aliyah to the most devastating and disorienting event in Jewish history, namely galut—the exile and dispersion of the Jewish People from the Holy Land, the epicenter of Jewish spirituality.

Exile has played, and continues to play, an enormous role in the fashioning of Jewish identity and spiritual expression. After more than 2,400 years punctuated by numerous national exiles, the trauma and vulnerability of our collective homelessness is indelibly stamped upon our psyche and expresses itself in countless ways.

Beginning with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the numerous displacements of the Jewish People from the Land of Israel, including the most recent Roman exile, the motifs of eviction and wandering have in many ways defined the diasporic Jewish worldview.

The most common interpretation of this painful history offered by the Sages very early on is that exile expresses G‑d’s harsh judgment of our national shortcomings. However, when seen through the Chasidic lens of yeridah l’tzorech aliyah, exile itself takes on a positive connotation.

As the Rebbe wrote in response to an existential letter he received requesting his insight into the meaning of galut:4

To be sure, we recognize galut as a punishment and rectification for failures to live up to our obligations in the past as, indeed, we acknowledge in our prayers: “For our sins we were banished from our land.” But punishment, according to our Torah, called Torat Chesed (a Torah of loving kindness), must also essentially be chesed, loving kindness. Since G‑d has ordained the Jewish People to carry the difficult and challenging task of spreading—in all parts and remotest corners of the world—the Unity of G‑d through living and spreading the light of Torah and mitzvot, the greatest reward is the fulfillment of this destiny, or, as our Sages put it, “The reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.”5 Thus the ultimate purpose of galut is linked with our destiny to help bring humanity to a state of universal recognition of G‑d.

Here we see the Rebbe applying his signature Positivity Bias to one of the most negatively perceived events in all of Jewish history. According to this view, despite the immense suffering it brought on, galut was ultimately a positive development, because it provided the necessary conditions for the Jewish People to evolve spiritually. It also brought them into fruitful encounters with an array of host cultures across the many lands they inhabited and influenced throughout their stay.

In the words of John Adams, the second president of the United States: “I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civiliz[ing] men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations…. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.”6

From this perspective, the archetypal descent from the Holy Land is but a necessary step in the ultimate ascent—the redemptive process of history that will ultimately unite the Jewish People and all of humanity in peace and holiness with G‑d.

Saving Sin

One may have noticed in the above teaching that, along with the first archetypal exile from the Garden, the Jews’ historical exile from the Holy Land was initiated through moral or spiritual failure. This holds true for our individual experience as well. Our shortcomings are what ultimately push us to progress, if processed properly. This is perhaps the most radical expression of the idea of yeridah l’tzorech aliyah, finding the positive potential in the lowest point of human behavior—in the experience of sin itself. Obviously this does not condone sinful behavior as a strategy for spiritual growth.7 It is only meant to contextualize our sins and falls, both national and individual, within a larger8 constructive process.9

In the Rebbe’s own words delivered at a farbrengen:10

The deteriorations that the world and an individual suffer as a result of human actions and free choice are also in accordance with G‑d’s plan, and therefore must also lead to a productive goal. As such, these diminishments are also part of G‑d’s intended goal. Although the sinful act is certainly contrary to G‑d’s will, the decline of the state of the world or the individual that results from the sin is not contrary to His will. It follows then that the decline is not a true descent, but a necessary component of the ascent to which it leads. Since the deterioration was enabled by G‑d, the quintessence of goodness, and it is the nature of the good to bestow goodness, it must be that there was no other way to arrive at an ascent of this magnitude. For if there was an easier and straighter path to the destination, one that does not involve hardship and painful plunges, why would G‑d allow for the more difficult path?

Like a rubber band whose reach, when released, depends on how far back it was pulled in the opposite direction, so is the powerful yearning for closeness that is created by temporary distance and deviation. A break, when mended, can create an even deeper bond and more lasting cohesion; the temporary separation of partners can lead to even greater closeness. There is greater profundity and passion in reunion than in a static state of unceasing union.

Filling the Void

Thus far we have explored positive dynamics present within experiences of descent, deviation, and distance. In our final story, we will uncover the hidden fullness within emptiness.

In 1977, the Rebbe suffered a serious heart attack during the joyous festival of Shemini Atzeret. While a doctor was drawing his blood during his treatment, the Rebbe asked: “What is it that draws the blood from the veins, the needle itself or the vacuum of the syringe?” The doctor answered that it was the vacuum.

“That reminds me of a troubled man who once came to see me,” the Rebbe said to his secretary, who was standing nearby. “He complained that he was ‘empty’ inside and unfit for anything. I told him that, in fact, the opposite was true—an empty vessel can draw in with much greater intensity than a vessel that is full, so he is actually full of potential.”11

The Rebbe then applied this idea to the general sadness that his absence at the holiday gathering had created among the Chasidim.

“Since I will not be able to speak in public on account of my health,” he said to his secretary, “I ask you to repeat this teaching. Just as a vacuum draws in more forcefully than something that is filled, at the gathering tonight, even though the person usually sitting in my chair will be absent, the spirit of the festival should not be dampened. On the contrary—the vacuum will evoke all good things from heaven.”

Similar to a syringe whose emptiness is what pulls substance into it, the Rebbe encouraged the Chasidim to harness the void created by his absence in order to draw forth deeper spiritual energies from within themselves. This would give them the momentum to reach greater spiritual heights than they might even have achieved with the Rebbe in attendance. Remarkably and redemptively, the Rebbe was able to find greater presence in his own absence.

In all of the above stories and teachings, the Rebbe consistently challenges us to not only see the silver lining within each cloud, but to remember the joyful harvest contained within each drop of rain. Within each setback there is a hidden springboard to a more fully revealed and redeemed future.

In the poignant words of R. Jonathan Sacks,12 reflecting on his time spent intensively studying the teachings of the Rebbe: “I began to see how one theme ran like a connecting thread through many of his talks—the idea of yeridah l’tzorech aliyah, a descent for the sake of an ascent. Yes, the Jewish People had undergone a monumental tragedy during the Holocaust; yes, Jewish life as he found it in America when he became the Rebbe was in a weakened state. But the Rebbe, with his profound belief in Divine Providence, was convinced that descent is the beginning of ascent, disconnection is a call to reconnection, and tragedy itself is the prelude to redemption.”