Nowhere is the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias as pronounced as in his approach to loss and tragedy. Simply put, the Rebbe’s perspectives on the catastrophe of death are nothing short of redemptive.1

In his communications with people who were grieving, the Rebbe consistently emphasized that from a spiritual perspective, the loss of a loved one is not the complete loss we often consider it to be.

After Life Is...

In 1960, a group of college students came to see the Rebbe. One of the topics they discussed was the Jewish understanding of death.

The Rebbe explained:

The term used to describe death in Judaism is histalkut, which does not mean death in the sense of coming to an end; rather, it is an elevation from one level to another. When one completes his or her mission in life, the departed person is elevated to a higher plane.

Death is not a cessation of life; the word actually describes the process whereby one’s spiritual life takes on a new dimension. This notion is consistent with the scientific principle of conservation of matter, which states that nothing physical can be annihilated. A table or piece of iron can be cut up, burned, etc., but in no instance can the matter of the table or the iron be destroyed. It only takes on a different form.

Likewise, on the spiritual level, our spiritual being—the soul—can never be destroyed. It only changes its form or is elevated to a different plane.

Accordingly, the term “afterlife” is actually inappropriate, for what we experience after death is a continuation of life. Until 120 (the human lifespan mentioned in the Torah), life is experienced on one level, and from 121, 122, and 123 onward, it is carried on at another level, and we continue to ascend higher and higher in the realm of the spirit.”2

According to the Rebbe, death is not an abrupt end to life; rather, it is a continuation of the soul’s journey on its path to completion and reunification with G‑d.

Spiritual Bliss

In a letter written by the Rebbe in 1978 to a family in Milan who had experienced a death in the family, the Rebbe writes:

The only thing that an illness or a fatal accident can do is cause a weakening or termination of the bond that holds the body and soul together, whereupon the soul departs from its temporary abode in this world and returns to its original world of pure spirit in the eternal world.3

Further on in this letter, the Rebbe describes the soul’s experience when it departs this world:

Needless to say, insofar as the soul is concerned, it [death] is a release from its “imprisonment” in the body. While [the soul] is bound up with the body, it suffers from the physical limitations of the body, which necessarily constrain the soul and involve it in physical activities that are essentially alien to its purely spiritual nature…. In other words, the departure of the soul from the body is a great advantage and ascent for the soul.4

Elsewhere, the Rebbe clarifies this theme even further:

Henceforth [after death], the soul is free to enjoy the spiritual bliss of being near to G‑d in the fullest measure. That is surely a comforting thought!5

Far from being the traumatic erasure that many people imagine it to be, death actually liberates the soul from its physical limitations, allowing it to soar freely, without its prior earthly constraints.

Eternal Connection

Throughout his correspondence with those in mourning, the Rebbe insisted that there remains an ongoing, spiritual connection between the living and the deceased, and that this relationship is not merely theoretical—it is also tangible. In fact, it is a dynamic relationship that can be developed and enhanced.

In a letter written to a war widow, the Rebbe writes:

The ties between two people, and certainly those between a husband and wife or between parents and children, are chiefly of a spiritual, not of a material, nature. That means that a bullet, a grenade, or a disease can affect the body, but not the spirit or the soul. The physical bond between two persons can be broken…but not their spiritual relationship.6

The Rebbe’s teachings in this regard come to life in the following story, related by R. Nachum Rabinowitz, a Chasid from Jerusalem. He was once waiting for a private audience with the Rebbe. Among those waiting with him was a man, obviously wealthy, who looked utterly despondent. But when the man emerged from the Rebbe’s room, he looked like a different person; his face radiated vitality and optimism.

Curious about this radical change of mood, Rabbi Rabinowitz inquired about the man’s identity from the Rebbe’s secretaries and arranged to see him. When the two men met, Rabbi Rabinowitz asked if the man could share with him what had transpired in the Rebbe’s room.

“Recently,” the man related, “my only son died. At that point, I felt that my life no longer had any purpose. I saw no value in my wealth and status. I went to see the Rebbe in search of consolation and advice. The Rebbe asked me what my feelings would be if my son went overseas and were living in a foreign country from which he could not communicate with me; however, I could be assured that all his needs were being met and that he wasn’t suffering at all. I answered that, although the separation would be difficult to bear, I would be happy for my son.”

The Rebbe continued: “And although he could not respond, if you could communicate to him and send him packages, would you do so?”

The man answered, “Of course.”

“This is precisely your present situation,” the Rebbe concluded. “With every prayer you recite, you are sending a message to your son. And with every gift you make to charity or institution you fund, you are sending a ‘package’ to him. He cannot respond, but he appreciates your words and your gifts.”7

Continued Impact

In a related letter, written to the grieving teenage daughter of Mrs. Rasha Gansbourg, who had passed away suddenly on the second day of Sukkot in 1969, the Rebbe elaborates further on this idea. He explained that through performing good deeds in her mother’s merit, especially those inspired by her mother’s influence, she and her siblings were not only reaching out to their mother in the next world, or “sending her packages,” so to speak, but they were actually enabling her to have a continued presence and impact in the physical world:

The bond between the living and the soul that has ascended endures, for the soul is enduring and eternal and sees and observes what is taking place with those connected with her and close to her. Every good deed they do causes her spiritual pleasure, specifically the accomplishments of those she has educated and raised in the manner that brings about the said good deeds. That is to say, she has a part in the deeds that result from the education she provided her children and those whom she influenced.8

In another letter to someone grieving the loss of a loved one, the Rebbe continues developing this theme:

The departure of the soul from the body is a great advantage and ascent for the soul…the loss is only for the bereaved, and to that extent it is also painful for the soul, of course.

[However], there is yet another point that causes pain to the soul after departing from the body. While the soul is “clothed” in the body, it can actively participate with the body in all matters of Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds practiced in the daily life here on earth. But since all this involves physical action and tangible objects, the soul can no longer engage in these activities when it returns to its heavenly abode, where it can only enjoy the fruits of the Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds performed by it in its sojourn on earth. Henceforth, the soul must depend on its relatives and friends to do mitzvot and good deeds also on its behalf, and this is the source of true gratification for the soul and helps it ascend to even greater heights.9

Therefore, the good deeds performed by those in mourning can certainly be a source of comfort to the bereaved, filling the void left by death with positive action. But they also provide comfort and pleasure to the departed soul, providing them with a way to maintain an ongoing, even active, relationship with their loved ones.

Life is the Best Commemoration

When the Rebbe’s cousin, Yitzchak Schneerson, wrote to him in 1952, telling him of his involvement in the creation of The Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr in Paris, today called Memorial of the Shoah, memorializing the victims of the Holocaust, the Rebbe wrote back politely but forcefully:

Forgive me if my view is not in accordance with yours…. Now at a time when there are hundreds of thousands of living martyrs, not “unknown” by any stretch, who live in abject need of physical bread, and many more in need of spiritual sustenance, the main impediment to meeting their needs is simply lack of funds. Therefore, whenever funds can be procured, this immediately creates a dilemma: Should the monies be used to erect a stone [memoriam] in a large square in Paris to remind passersby of the millions of Jews who died sanctifying G‑d’s Name, or should these monies sustain the living who are starving, either literally or figuratively, to hear the word of G‑d? The solution to your dilemma is, I believe, not in doubt.10

It is only natural to want some tangible way to hold on to the memory of our departed loved ones. However, throughout his talks and correspondences, the Rebbe continually encouraged people to take positive action to create a living legacy rather than a static one, even when the legacy proposed was a holy one. In this spirit, the Rebbe taught that the best way to do this is not just by creating memorials of bricks and stone, but by pursuing positive deeds that will tangibly impact those still living, while simultaneously also benefiting the souls of the departed.

Consolation Through Activity

This was an important and consistent theme throughout the Rebbe’s teachings: Intensifying positive activities after a loss helps foster a heightened sense of purpose and can be an effective means of achieving comfort.

In 1956, after a vicious terrorist attack at a school in the Israeli village of Kfar Chabad had claimed six lives, the local inhabitants were completely devastated.

In the words of a newspaper article that appeared at the time, “Despair and dejection pervaded the village and began to eat away at its foundations. Some officials in town wanted to close the school. Others saw what happened as a sign that their dream of a peaceful life in the Holy Land was premature. Perhaps we should disband, seek refuge in safer havens? The village was slowly dying.”

The Rebbe’s reaction? While Judaism does not provide explanations for tragedy, it does have a response. Thus, the Rebbe’s message to the stricken village was: “I strongly hope that, with G‑d's help..., you will overcome all hindrance, you will strengthen private and public construction, you will expand all the institutions in quantity and quality, and you will intensify Torah study—our protection—and mitzvah fulfillment with joy...”11

The doubts the residents of Kfar Chabad had begun to harbor regarding their communal project of establishing a village were being exponentially exacerbated by their preoccupation with grave thoughts and pessimistic conversations. Only by immersing themselves in positive activities to further growth would they begin to see their mission in a better light, and their faith in its future would blossom again.

By choosing to intensify forward movement in the face of loss—especially in the face of terrorism and acts of hatred—we quietly claim a victory for peace and hope over violence and fear. In effect, our actions become living proof that evil does not prevail, and that ultimately life triumphs over death. Conversely, reducing positive efforts and activities on the heels of tragedy only contributes to promoting the ideological goals of the perpetrators.

The Hidden Yield Within Destruction

In fact, through the redemptive lens of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias, disaster can be seen as paving the way for even greater regeneration and blessing than ever before.

An incredible demonstration of transforming a void left by the loss of life into a positive force for life was illustrated by the Rebbe himself when on 25 Adar 5748 (1988), only one month after his wife’s passing, the Rebbe inaugurated a global Jewish birthday campaign on the day that would have been her 87th birthday, saying:

Here is a suggestion, and it would be of great merit to her soul, that in connection with the ascent of her soul, the following custom should be established: Jews should begin to [publicly] celebrate their birthdays, [even though] in previous generations this was observed only by certain individuals and in a discreet manner….12

To the Rebbe, the most appropriate and noble way to commemorate the loss of life was through the enhancement and celebration of birth.

As the above story illustrates, on each occasion that the Rebbe experienced personal loss, he channeled and redirected the pain and grief into building and expanding opportunities for growth and affirmations of life.

There are, in fact, numerous examples of this approach. During a gathering in 1980 marking the passing of his father, the Rebbe announced that Jewish seniors should be assisted in using their time to continue to learn and grow. He went on to establish a network of educational institutions for the elderly, named after his father, of righteous memory. Similarly, when the Rebbe’s mother passed away, the Rebbe created and dedicated a series of weekly talks in her honor. Understandably, the loss of his wife was very difficult for the Rebbe. Soon, however, in addition to the Birthday Campaign mentioned above, he also began requesting that her legacy be memorialized through other positive actions. Toward this end, he bestowed special blessings on those who initiated projects in her name, such as the building of a girls’ school, for instance.

Resurrection

In conclusion, one of the most uplifting expressions of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias in the context of loss was the emphasis he placed on a basic article of Jewish faith: One day, all souls in history will return to earthly life and physical body, with the coming of Moshiach. The Rebbe would emphasize again and again that not only is death not an ending, and not only does the soul live forever, but an element of bodily existence itself is eternal. The following story demonstrates this powerful conviction.

In October of 1967, a few months after the Six-Day War, a terrible tragedy struck the home of Ariel Sharon, the famous Israeli army general and subsequent prime minister. Sharon’s eleven-year-old son Gur was playing outdoors with an old gun and was killed.

The Rebbe immediately reached out to Sharon with a letter, which included the following message:

I was deeply grieved to read in the newspaper about the tragic loss of your tender, young son, may he rest in peace….

At first glance, it would appear that we are distant from one another, not only geographically, but also—or even more so—in terms of having been unfamiliar, indeed, unaware of each other, until the Six-Day War… But on the basis of a fundamental, deeply rooted, age-old Jewish principle, namely, that all Jews are kindred...it is this interconnectedness that has spurred me to write these words to you and your family….

An element of solace even in so great a tragedy is expressed in the traditional text [of the words spoken to a mourner], hallowed by scores of generations of Torah and tradition among our People: “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

On the face of it, the connection [between the individual mourner and the mourners of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple] appears to be quite puzzling. In truth, however, the main consolation embodied by this phrase is in its inner content:

Just as we have complete confidence that G‑d will certainly rebuild the ruins of Zion and Jerusalem, so do we trust that regarding the loss of the individual mourner, G‑d will fulfill his promise: Awake and rejoice, you who repose in the dust,13 and we will experience true joy when all are reunited with the future resurrection of the dead.14

There is no greater loss in this world than death, yet the Rebbe tirelessly worked to reveal the hidden light within this realm of profound darkness, balancing empathy with elevation, pain with perspective, and dignity with deeds of loving kindness.

It is truly a testament to the strength of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias that he continued to apply its redemptive perspective even in such sensitive and painful circumstances. Through his compassionate example, we can learn to transform grief into growth, loss into life, and ultimately, tragedy into triumph.