After completing his education in Montreal, R. Mendel Lipskar went to study at the Chabad yeshivah in New York. As was the custom, students would have a short audience with the Rebbe on the occasion of their birthday; the Rebbe would offer a blessing, and the student could ask for guidance.

That year, Mendel was having difficulty with his study partner—they couldn’t stop arguing. Whatever he would say, his partner would contradict; whatever his partner would say, Mendel would contradict. When his birthday arrived and he spoke with the Rebbe, Mendel expressed his frustration with the situation: “Rebbe, there must be something wrong with me. I find myself constantly arguing with my study partner….” He then asked for guidance in this regard.

Rabbi Lipskar recalled:1

“The Rebbe said to me, ‘It would appear that you have a gift for pilpul.’ By pilpul, he meant the ability to engage in critical Talmudic debate in an attempt to clarify the meaning of difficult texts. He encouraged me to perfect this method. And suddenly, a situation that had seemed to be quite negative appeared before me as a tremendous opportunity for self-improvement.

“After that, when I studied with my partner, I had a completely different sense of what our argument was all about. It was something positive—we were arguing because we were dissatisfied with a shallow reading of the text; we each wanted to find a deeper meaning!”

This is a classic example of what therapists and coaches call “reframing,” a technique used to help people look at a particular situation, person, or relationship from a different perspective. Also referred to as cognitive restructuring, the idea is that a person’s point of view depends on the frame through which it is viewed, and defines the focus and limits of their purview. When that frame is shifted, the meaning changes, and the person’s thinking and behavior often change as well.

As evidenced in his response to the yeshivah student’s complaint, the Rebbe was a master of redemptive reframing. Through a brief encounter or even just a word, the Rebbe could reframe an entire worldview, relationship, event, or path of life.

Stories of such profound spontaneous shifts in perspective in dialogue with the Rebbe provide a revealing frame that show the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias at work in real time.

Guinea Pig or Pioneer

When Sheindel Itkin was 14, a new advanced Lubavitch girls’ high school opened in the neighborhood, which her father encouraged her to attend. Willfully asserting her independence and not wanting to feel like a “test-case” for the new program, Sheindel adamantly refused, desiring instead to attend the more established school in the district. Disappointed, her father urged her to write a letter to the Rebbe requesting insight and direction.

Sheindel did in fact pen a bold letter to the Rebbe, which she concluded with the following provocative words: “I do not want to be a guinea pig.”

Reflecting on this years later, she admitted: “Maybe it was a little bit inappropriate to write this, maybe I had no right to. But I was a teenager, and I was very independent in my thinking. And I was so adamant about not going to [the new school].”

A few days later, Sheindel received a response from the Rebbe that completely changed her perspective. Her original letter had been returned to her, with a slight modification, made in the Rebbe’s hand. The Rebbe had simply crossed out the term ‘guinea pig’, and had written: “chalutzah,” in its place, which means, “pioneer.”

“Chalutzah? You’re telling me to be a pioneer? I’ll climb the mountain, I’ll forge the river, I’ll do anything!”

“The Rebbe knew how to reach a teenager with one word. One simple word that understood the essence of who I was. My need to be unique, to be special, to be different, and to forge new paths…. So of course, I went to [the new] high school. We were the ‘pioneer’ class.”2

Following that inaugural year, Sheindel maintained a lifelong involvement with Beis Rivkah High School in Crown Heights, and is currently serving as its principal. The Rebbe reframed her situation and shifted the course of her entire life with a single word.

Invest in the Future

Bobby Vogel, a businessman in London, was instrumental in establishing a renowned Lubavitch boys’ high school. During what was to be his last audience with the Rebbe, Bobby expressed remorse that he could not continue to financially maintain the school. The burden, he said, was for the most part resting on his shoulders, and it felt like too much for one person.

The Rebbe smiled and said, “I will speak to you in the language of a businessman. Imagine you are dealing in diamonds. If you had a bag full of diamonds, and I placed some additional blue-white diamonds in there, would you complain?”

The Rebbe concluded warmly, “You are carrying diamonds. Never put them down; carry on.”3

In this deceptively simple metaphor, the Rebbe turned Bobby’s frame inside-out. What was initially perceived as a burden was revealed to be a blessing. Each student is a precious gem to be polished and prepared for a life that illuminates and enriches its environment. From this perspective, a child’s education is not a costly obligation but a golden opportunity.

As a lasting result of the Rebbe’s “reframe,” Bobby continued his financial support of multiple schools and educational projects over the next 40 years.

Second Class Citizen

A young yeshivah student who was, despite his best efforts, only academically average, felt badly about not achieving the level of scholastic excellence he aspired to based on the expectations of his family and community.

This caused him to fall into a depression. When one of his peers asked him what happened, he explained that he had gone to the rosh yeshivah, the dean, to discuss his gnawing feelings of inadequacy, failure, and fear that he would never achieve the Torah renown he so desperately hoped for.

Trying to comfort him, the rosh yeshivah explained that even if he never became a Torah scholar or teacher himself, he could always go into business and use his success to support other Torah scholars and institutions.

Although well intentioned, these “comforting words” caused the young student to fall even deeper into despair. He had been raised with the belief that the highest achievement attainable was to be a great Torah scholar. Now he was being told that this childhood aspiration and dream was beyond his abilities, and at most he could support the achievements of others.

The friend to whom he had unburdened himself advised him to write a letter to the Rebbe to express his bitter feelings, which he did.

The Rebbe wrote back the following:

There is a Mishnah that clearly articulates the mission statement of human existence: “I was created to serve my Creator.”4

According to this simple but profound teaching, the goal of all human existence, our raison d’être, is to serve G‑d. There are numerous pathways to do so. One of them is the study of Torah, but another, just as important, is the support of Torah study.

Some personalities and abilities are well suited for one particular path, and others are better suited for another path, but the end goal for all human beings is the same, no matter the path.

Our unique abilities are G‑d’s way of teaching us which pathway toward that universal goal is right for us.

The Rebbe’s letter completely reframed the young student’s understanding of his life’s purpose and redirected his life’s aspirations and ambitions.5

As a result, his spirits were lifted and his sense of dignity and purpose were restored. In the Rebbe’s explanation, it is not that there are first-class citizens (i.e., Torah scholars) and second-class citizens (business and lay-people) who serve and support the first class citizens. Neither the scholar nor the supporter is superior nor inferior. They merely have different ways to achieve the same goal, which is service of G‑d. In all your ways, acknowledge G‑d, and He will direct your paths.6

Plowing is Part of the Process

When R. Avrohom Glick began teaching at the Chabad yeshivah day school in Melbourne, he coordinated various youth activities. After three years, his role became more administrative as the Jewish Studies coordinator. A significant portion of his day was now spent on disciplining students sent to him from the study hall. According to Rabbi Glick: “I began to feel that I was not using my time in the most productive way. Instead of being an educator, I had become a policeman.”

On his next trip to the US, while meeting with the Rebbe, Rabbi Glick mentioned these negative feelings about his current role. Without skipping a beat, the Rebbe replied:

Plowing is one of the thirty-nine categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat. This, however, raises a question. The general rule is that an activity that is destructive is not considered “work” and is not forbidden by the Torah. Plowing a field, which involves breaking up the earth, seems to be a destructive act, and should therefore not be forbidden on Shabbat.

The answer is that plowing is an essential prerequisite to planting. Seeds won’t grow if the ground is not prepared properly. And if seeds won’t grow, there will not be any wheat, and in turn there will not be any bread. Discipline in school works the same way. It’s a necessary prerequisite for teaching, and without it, proper learning cannot take place. You are not wasting your time in maintaining discipline. Far from it, as you are actually facilitating real teaching and learning.7

This reframe refocused Rabbi Glick’s view on the full arc of the educational process.8

In just a few words, the Rebbe reassured Rabbi Glick and at the same time taught him a profound lesson. What might seem like a negative task when looked at in isolation is actually serving a positive end and higher purpose when viewed in the wider context of a larger process.

Such is the power of reframing!