Seventeen-year-old Sara Posner1 was torn. With multiple options for what to do the following year, she had come to the Rebbe seeking guidance and clarity. Should she teach at her father’s school in Pittsburgh or accept an offer from a school in New York? Should she travel to Eretz Yisrael or perhaps join her sister Bessie in Milan, where she and her husband served as Chabad emissaries?

She waited nervously for her first private audience, worried about how she would begin explaining everything.

Then her turn came, and the door opened. As she walked in, the Rebbe was sitting behind his desk, writing something, and he lifted his head. “Good evening, Miss Posner,” he said. Sara, surprised, just burst out laughing and felt instantly at ease. The Rebbe asked her many questions — including why she looked so unwell — and she explained that she was studying very hard for final exams, and also teaching in another school. The Rebbe gave her a blessing that she should be successful in all her endeavors. He also told her not to worry about what to do next year; just to take some time off and relax.

Sara left the audience relieved, and with a warm feeling of support and reassurance. “I felt like I was walking on a cloud,” she relates.

At the end of that summer, the Rebbe told her parents that she should go to Milan to help her sister. As only married couples were sent at the time as the Rebbe’s emissaries abroad, Sara was honored and excited to be an exception to the rule. At the same time, she was a little concerned about not knowing the language. The Rebbe said, however, that it would be okay because she would be working with small children, and language would not be a barrier.

Sara came to Milan and taught kindergarten. She was working seven days a week [with responsibilities for children’s Shabbos gatherings], and also trying to learn Italian. After a few months of this, she began to feel quite overwhelmed by the amount of pressure she was under. This led to her feeling insecure and unsuccessful, as well as underappreciated. And so she wrote a long, very emotional letter to the Rebbe about it.

In reply, she received a long and most amazing letter — sent by special delivery.2 This letter is illustrative of much of the Rebbe’s sensitive and nuanced approach to mental and emotional wellbeing. One can discern many lessons from the Rebbe’s response to one seventeen-year-old girl. The following are some examples, as well as their relevant excerpts:

The Rebbe validates challenges to one’s mental and emotional state as a natural and very real part of the human condition:

Since one is only human, it is not unusual to relapse occasionally into a mood of discouragement…

I trust that since you wrote your letter, your mood and outlook have considerably improved, and that this letter will find you in a completely different frame of mind. Nevertheless, I am sending you this letter, since one is only human and subject to changes of mood...

At the same time, the Rebbe strongly rejects the pessimistic perspective she had of herself and her reality, helping her reframe the narrative to one of empowerment. The Rebbe encourages her to do all she can to avoid slipping further into a spiral of negativity:

Needless to say, I was somewhat taken aback by the tone of your letter. It is a good illustration of how it is possible for a person to read and to learn and to receive instruction from books and teachers, and yet when it comes to actual experience all this instruction goes by the wayside.

I refer to the things which you have surely learned in the books of Mussar [Jewish ethical works] and especially Chassidus, about the tactics of the yetzer hara [evil inclination] to instill spirit of depression, discouragement, and despondency in order to prevent the Jewish person from fulfilling his Divine mission . . This is exactly what has happened in your case, and I am surprised that you do not realize it. The proof is that from the information that I have received, I can see that you have accomplished a great deal more than you imagine.

You surely know of the saying of the Baal Shem Tov that a soul comes down to live on this earth for a period of seventy to eighty years for the sole purpose of doing another Jew a single favor materially or spiritually. In other words, it is worthwhile for a Jewish soul to make that tremendous journey and descend from heaven to earth in order to do something once for one fellow Jew.

In your case the journey was only from the USA to Milan and can in no way be compared with the journey of the soul from heaven to earth. And however pessimistic you might feel, even the yetzer hara would have to agree that you have done not only a single favor, but numerous good deeds, and even only your work with the children of the gan [kindergarten] would have justified it...

As for your mentioning the fact that no one seems to be interested in your work, et cetera, surely you will admit that G‑d, whose knowledge and providence extends to everyone individually, knows and is interested in what you are doing . . and I need hardly mention that I, too, am interested in your work.

If it seems to you that you have been left to “carry the ball” yourself, it is surely only because there is confidence in you, and that since you have been sent to Milan you undoubtedly have the ability, qualifications and initiative to do your work without outside promptings, et cetera.

The Rebbe also emphasizes the importance of physical self-care and the critical role it plays in one’s mental health and consequently spiritual service:

One should also bear in mind, as the Old Rebbe [Rabbi Schneur Zalman] has stated most emphatically in the laws of learning and of teaching children Torah, that a person who is engaged in teaching children Torah should especially take care of his health, since it directly affects the success of the work.

I trust, therefore, that you are looking after yourself in matters of diet and rest, et cetera, and that you will always be in a state of cheerfulness and gladness.

Finally, offering true empathy and understanding, and acknowledging the significant benefit of sharing one’s true feelings with another, he invites the young woman to continue doing so in her correspondence with him:

The above should not be understood to mean that if you do find yourself in such a frame of mind, you should try to conceal it and not write about it. For our Sages have said, “when a person is anxious over something, he should relate it to others,” for getting something off one’s chest is in itself already a relief.

Encouraged by the Rebbe’s empathy and responsiveness to her feelings, Sara took the letter to heart and recognized that indeed, her gloomy perception of herself and those around her was a distortion of the reality. She was, in fact, accomplishing a great deal and her efforts were certainly appreciated. She returned to her work with renewed vigor and motivation.

* * *

A Holistic Approach

The Rebbe would often quote the words of the Maggid of Mezritch that “a small hole (ailment) in the body, is a big hole in the soul!” In other words, we cannot divorce our physical health from our spiritual health. How much more so is this true when we are dealing with issues of the mind and heart, where the impact of our spiritual health on our mental health and vice versa are self-evident and of tremendous consequence.

The struggles in this arena vary over a huge spectrum. There are those who struggle periodically with moments of doubt, worry and sadness. Many battle more chronic disorders such as clinical depression and anxiety or are confronted by suicidal thoughts.

Amongst the many and varied issues regarding which individuals throughout the world turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for guidance, matters of mental and emotional health rank prominently. Hence the veritable mountain of responses and statements that offer guidance on this subject — through his voluminous correspondence, through answers relayed via his secretariat, through private audiences, and through public pronouncements at the Chassidic gatherings known as farbrengens.

The Rebbe’s approach to health and healing is holistic. The Rebbe would take into consideration the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of an ailment or of the ailing individual and would advise accordingly.

The Rebbe stressed the critical role of a G‑d-centered, moral education in preventing many societal, psychological or physical challenges. Often noting that Torah is a true guide for life — “the Torah of truth, the Torah of life,” the Rebbe pleaded with parents, educators and legislators to raise children with a clear sense of G‑d’s presence and involvement in their lives and His unlimited love for them. The children needed to be empowered with the understanding that they contained a spark of G‑d within themselves and therefore they possessed the ability to overcome any obstacles in their path and fulfill their Divine purpose. In the Rebbe’s words3 :

The fundamental role of education, and one of its earliest and most important goals is to mold a healthy, productive individual and to safeguard a person against his own potential negative tendencies and offensive traits…

And in a letter, after noting that it is difficult to advise in matters of psychology and education, as individual circumstances vary4 :

I would like to make one general point which can be universally applied in educational problems...

I refer to the effort to make the children aware that they possess a soul which is a part of G‑d, and that they are always in the presence of G‑d (as explained in Chapters 2 and 41 of the Tanya).

When this is done persistently, and on a level which is suitable to the age group and background of the children, the children come to realize that they possess a great and holy quality which is directly linked with G‑d, the Creator and Master of the world, and that it would therefore be quite unbecoming and unworthy of them to do anything which is not good.

At the same time they come to realize that they have the potential to overcome temptation or difficulty...

The Rebbe drew a clear line between the physical and psychological and the spiritual aspects of healing. Certain matters could be addressed strictly from a spiritual and educational perspective — especially at the preventive stage — while others also necessitated professional medical intervention, especially in order to cure existing mental conditions. The spiritual aspect was not intended to serve as a substitute for the medical treatment; it worked beside it and complemented it.

The following excerpt is one example5 :

As for the problem of some children having a habit to take things not belonging to them, this may fall into one of two categories:

a. The attitude mentioned in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos “Mine is thine and thine is mine.” In this case the effort should be made to educate the child that just as it is necessary to be careful not to offend or shame another person, so it is necessary to be careful not to touch anything belonging to somebody else.

b. An unhealthy condition which should be treated medically by specialists who know how to handle such an aberration.

In the light of the above, it is self-evident that the medical treatment, when needed, would need to support spiritual healing and not detract from it. Thus, the Rebbe urged that professionals seen for the treatment of mental health conditions value belief in G‑d and religious practice.

As the Rebbe writes:

In connection to your writing that the said individual finds himself under the care of a mental healer… There is a specific class of therapists who commence their therapy by deriding G‑d, spirituality … and the like. If that is the type of therapist he is seeing, then even if the therapist is distinguished in his field, much examination and clarification is required in order to ascertain whether the benefit he may receive from him outweighs the long-time harm that may result [from this form of therapy] with the passage of time.

* * *

How to Read the Responses

We remind the reader to keep in mind on their journey through the book that most of the material assembled in this work consists of private responses to individuals. The Rebbe addressed each person in the context of their lives, their values, their emotional state and their struggles. At times, the words are soft and compassionate, while to others the Rebbe uses stronger and more demanding language — and at times a combination of the two.

The Rebbe’s answer to one individual may not necessarily apply at all to another, for, as the Rebbe once wrote,6 “It is patently obvious7 that a directive to an individual does not serve at all as a directive to the public, even when the issues are the same.”

To address this challenge we have included varied approaches from the Rebbe as quoted from numerous responses. Also, by noting that numerous answers are written in the same vein, we have an indication of the Rebbe’s overall approach to a specific issue or matter.

Moreover, some of the responses to individuals may be given in the context of that time period’s state of medical advances and accepted practice, particularly since the Rebbe would at times encourage the use of the latest medical advances, procedures, and medications, some of which were the cutting-edge treatments at the time.

Some of the terminology and medical definitions have changed over time as well, and hence the importance to read the letters in the context of the scientific knowledge and vernacular of the times they were written. While many of the letters included in this book are translations from Hebrew or Yiddish, those written in English are reproduced here virtually unchanged, with only minor grammatical edits. The dates or sources cited may be of benefit in addressing the above notes.

In light of all the above, and in keeping with the Rebbe’s deeply-held request for every individual to seek the guidance of a personal mentor in spiritual matters, the reader is encouraged to explore — together with a mentor well versed in the Rebbe’s teachings — how the ideas expressed throughout this book might apply to their own life.

* * *

Revised Edition

In the early 2000’s, Sichos in English published a three-volume series titled Healthy in Body, Mind, and Spirit: A Guide to Good Health, whose content — largely excerpts of letters of the Rebbe — focused on issues of health and well-being.

The third volume in the series focused primarily on mental health, with a large percentage of its content focused on inspiring people and advising them how to rise above the challenges of depression, despondency and grief. This revised edition of that third volume has 100 new pages of content and many new other changes.

During the Covid pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in challenges to mental health. Feelings such as loneliness, anxiety, fear and grief are some of the reactions to the circumstances of our time. This has led to a surge in individuals seeking guidance, help, support and medical intervention for their mental and emotional well-being.

The Rebbe’s advice in this area is invaluable. This is why we embarked on publishing a second and revised edition of this volume, where we collected and translated more of the correspondence by the Rebbe addressed to those who reached out to him sharing their questions concerning their struggles, pain and even hopelessness at times.

* * *

In Gratitude

The first edition was compiled and translated by Rabbi Sholom Ber Wineberg, who also translated the additional letters included in this new volume. The editing was done by Rochel Chana Schilder, with editorial assistance by Uri Kaploun. Yosef Yitzchok Turner designed the layout and typography for both editions, and Rabbi Yonah Avtzon, OBM, prepared the text for publication.

For the revised edition, a team of researchers added additional sources from the Rebbe’s letters, and the formatting and design of the publication was revamped by Spotlight Design to provide an easier reading experience.

We thank the following individuals for their contributions to this second edition: Rabbi Levi Avtzon, Rabbi Motti Seligson, Zalmy Avtzon, Motti Diskin, Meir Avtzon, Mrs. Chanie Wolf and Chaya Berger; Rabbi Shmuly Avtzon for leading and managing the project from start to finish.

For some of the new content we thank Kehot Publication Society, Chabad.org, A Chassidisher Derher magazine, JEM and the many individuals who published and contributed to journals over the years containing the Rebbe’s advice and guidance concerning mental health.

* * *

In a letter to a family who suffered a tragedy the Rebbe writes8 : “May G‑d bless you in all matters that you require, among the most important of them true serenity and peace of mind. May He bless you that your life be such that matters will be good for you in all aspects, including goodness that is overtly revealed and intellectually comprehensible.”

May we merit to witness this beautiful blessing in our lives; and may we witness the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “G‑d will wipe tears from all faces”9 , with the coming of Mashiach who will usher in the complete redemption — a time of true serenity, peace and clarity — speedily in our days, Amen!

Sichos In English

Pesach Sheni, 14th of Iyar, 5781