The Rebbe’s Positivity Bias helped him see every obstacle as an opportunity waiting to be realized. This mode of thinking infused his advice and guidance to people of all backgrounds and circumstances.

Crisis or Challenge

Mr. Benzion Rader, a businessman from London who faced a financial crisis, visited the Rebbe for his counsel and blessing. “I had hoped to meet under different circumstances,” he said to the Rebbe, handing him several papers outlining his business problems.

After reading through the report, the Rebbe asked him, “Do you know what the difference between emunah and bitachon is?”

“No,” he replied.

“Let me explain it to you,” said the Rebbe. “Bitachon, trust in G‑d, is not simply a higher form of emunah, faith. Bitachon is a whole different way of relating to G‑d. If one is faced with a problem and one has emunah, then one has faith that G‑d will help him overcome his problems. But if one has bitachon, one doesn’t think there is a problem at all, for he understands that G‑d doesn’t send problems, only challenges.”1

Someone who truly trusts in G‑d’s goodness does not see obstacles, only opportunities.

Rebel with a Cause

In the 1960s, many Jewish leaders bemoaned the counterculture of the younger generation, blaming it for leading the youth away from Jewish communal life and tradition.

The Rebbe, on the other hand, saw that generation as revolutionizing the way we relate to change and ultimate authority, even going so far as to compare them to the generation that left Egypt and received the Torah.

A leader who was invited to speak in a symposium on “the future of the American Jewish community” wrote to the Rebbe for advice regarding how to address the disaffection of the younger generation, and the corresponding bleak predictions for the future of Jewish life in America. The Rebbe answered in a detailed letter, dated 15 Iyar 5724 (1964)2 in which he alludes to a phenomenon that paralleled the counterculture, namely the nascent baal teshuvah (“master of return”) movement, which saw waves of disaffected and unaffiliated young Jews embark on a spiritual journey and return to their roots.

It is customary to find fault with the present generation by comparison with the preceding one. Whatever conclusions one may arrive at from this comparison, one thing is unquestionably true, namely that the new generation is not afraid to face a challenge. I have in mind not only the kind of challenge which would place them at variance with the majority, but even the kind of challenge which calls for sacrifices and changes in their personal life.

Here, the Rebbe refers to the challenges inherent in adopting the structures and strictures of traditional life from amid a more permissive secular society. To do so seemingly places one at variance with the ideals of freedom and progress. On the other side of it, the open-minded enthusiasm and insight of the newly religious could place them at odds with the habituated world of the religious establishment they were trying to enter. The sacrifices and social consequences could thus be a heavy load. Yet the spiritual drive of this generation allowed them to bear such a burden:

Some of our contemporary young people are quite prepared to accept such a challenge even with all its consequences. This is quite different from olden days, when it took a great deal of courage to challenge prevailing popular opinions and ideas, and a person who had the courage to do so was often branded as an impractical individual or a dreamer, etc.

In my opinion, it is also an advantage that many of our young people do not rest content with taking up a challenge which has to do only with a beautiful theory, or even deep thinking, but want to hear about the practical application of such a theory, not only as an occasional experience, but as a daily experience; and that is the kind of idea which appeals to them most.

Furthermore, nowadays, we are used to seeing quick and radical changes at every level in the physical world. If this is possible in the physical world, it is certainly possible in the spiritual world, as our Sages of old had declared, “A person may sometimes acquire eternity in a single instant.”

…You will surely gather that the preceding paragraphs are in reference to the beginning of your letter, in which you express your discontent at the younger generation’s lack of deeper knowledge of the various aspects of the Torah. But as you are well aware, just prior to the departure from Egypt, the Jews were in a state of slavery in its lowest form….Indeed, anyone familiar with the conditions in Egypt in those days knows how depraved the [culture was], and much of this had tarnished the character of the Jews enslaved there. Yet, in the course of only fifty days, the Jews rose to the sublimest height of spirituality and true freedom, both physical and spiritual.

If the conditions would be similar to those which existed at the time when the Children of Israel left Egypt, with complete faith in G‑d, following the Divine call into the desert, leaving behind them the fleshpots of Egypt and the fat of the land, not even taking any provisions with them, but relying entirely on G‑d, and in this state of dedication to the truth they followed the Pillar of Light by (day and by) night—should these conditions be duplicated, or even approximated today, then one may well expect a most radical change, not only over a period of years, but in the course of a number of days.

The Rebbe takes a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, the breakdown of Jewish community and continuity, and in a stroke of redemptive genius sees a bright and bold opportunity for spiritual breakthrough and Jewish renewal.

Traditional religious leadership looked at the explosive questioning of authority by the youth as the blatant beginnings of deterioration and degeneration, while the Rebbe recognized in this disruptive turn of events the signs and seeds of renewal and regeneration.

Historical adherence to a traditional mold always provided a certain measure of certainty for Jewish continuity; however, it also limited any progress beyond that mold. Just as tradition defines, it can sometimes confine. One of the potential downsides of any traditional system of authority is that its regimented nature can limit authentic individual spiritual expression and creativity, desensitizing its adherents to the marvel and mystery hidden within the tradition’s core.

On the other hand, Jews who left or were raised outside of traditional structures, when introduced to the living wisdom at its core, can become a powerful force of inspiration and revitalization. They can utilize their newfound passion and perspective to illuminate the very structures that seemed limiting, revealing their inner vitality and light.

In truth, Judaism does rely heavily on transmission and tradition, so the Jewish establishment was right to fear that everything of value could be wiped away in one fell swoop. However, the Rebbe asserted the opposite. With no boxes, the sky was the limit. Thanks to the probing questions and justified challenges of the youth, the ground was now laid for a massive rebirth of authentic Jewish exploration, emotion, experience, and elevation.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Rebbe’s predictions were certainly borne out. The widespread socio-spiritual phenomenon of the 1960s, based on questioning authority and returning to one’s roots, is in fact what started the baal teshuvah movement, carrying along unprecedented levels of freshness and insight with each new returnee. This massive wave of spiritual creativity has successfully touched hundreds of thousands of people’s lives and continues to impact every corner of the Jewish world today.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Sometimes the more difficult an obstacle the greater the opportunity that lies within. In the next story, the Rebbe helps a political leader see a blessing where she had formerly seen a curse, and to turn insult into inspiration.

When Shirley Chisholm was elected in 1968 to represent New York’s 12th Congressional District, which included her own neighborhood of Crown Heights, she made headlines as the first African-American woman elected to Congress. However, she soon found her Congressional career stunted at its start by race-related politics. Bowing to political pressures from Southern politicians, the House’s leadership assigned Chisholm to the Agriculture Committee, a place where it was assumed she could have little influence.

At the time, some in the New York media questioned the appointment and expressed doubt as to Chisholm’s ability to affect the legislative agenda.

She was committed to taking care of the issues in the inner city, but her committee didn’t have the power to do so. She felt depressed and angry.

But then came a phone call from the Rebbe’s secretary: “The Lubavitcher Rebbe wants to see you.” During the meeting, the Rebbe told the congresswoman, “I know you’re very upset.”

“Yes,” she answered, “I’m deeply insulted. What should I do?”

“What a blessing G‑d has given you!” the Rebbe told the stunned Chisholm. “This country has so much surplus food, and there are so many hungry people. You can use this gift that G‑d gave you, your current position, to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it.”

Tasked with this charge, Chisholm happened to meet Senator Bob Dole on her first day in Washington. He was looking for help for Midwestern farmers who were losing money on their crops. “Americans have started purchasing produce from Cuba,” the senator told her, “and as a result of those imports, our farmers are losing business. Now they have a huge surplus of unsold food, and we don’t know what to do with it.”

“Aha!” Chisholm thought, “the Rebbe’s advice!”

During the next few years, and for the duration of the 1970s, Chisholm worked to expand the national Food Stamp Program, which allowed poor Americans to buy subsidized food from Midwestern farmers. Finally, in 1973, the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act mandated that Food Stamps be made available in every jurisdiction in the United States. She and Senator Dole went on to co-create the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which today benefits more than eight million people each month.

The ultimate impact of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias, on display throughout this book, is movingly summarized in Shirley Chisholm’s words at her retirement party: “I owe all of this to a rabbi who was an optimist, who taught me that what you may think is a challenge is actually a gift from G‑d. And if poor babies have milk, and poor children have food today, it’s because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision!”3

We cannot control what happens to us or what life throws our way, but we can control the way we relate and respond to it. Is your life a never-ending parade of aggravating obstacles, or a non-stop flow of amazing opportunities? The choice is yours!