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Protests, Riots and the Rebbe’s Message of Positivity

Updated: Jun 27

A teenager held her phone steady enough to capture the final moments of George Perry Floyd’s life, as he suffocated under the weight of a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck. The video went viral — like COVID-19.

What happened next has played out time and again in American cities after high-profile cases of apparent police brutality. Vigils and protests were organized in Minneapolis, around the United States and around the world to demand police accountability. People, especially from the Black community, are hurting deeply. But while investigators and officials called for patience, unrest has boiled over. News reports soon carried images of property destruction, buildings up in flames, and police in riot gear.

For many, the reactions to scenes of mayhem in Minneapolis and beyond over the past few days were predictable. People throughout the political spectrum, progressives, conservatives, conspiracy theorists, secular-humanists, religious fundamentalists, all have their “take” on why this is happening. The savvy information consumer most likely knows how diverse media will report on the very same event in an attempt to validate the conclusions already reached by their respective viewership or to indoctrinate the newbie.

I couldn’t help but wonder what this turmoil all means. I’m isolated in my home in Montreal. There have been some peaceful protests here and destruction and mayhem as well. But, nothing really in my own backyard. I would say I’m a bit… removed.

I think, through a mix of nature, nurture, and free will, we each possess a certain lens that frames and forms the way we see ourselves, others, and the world around us. It is simply not possible to erase all traces of our past experiences and deeply-held beliefs from our observations, expressions, or actions — no matter how hard we may try. Frames of mind that we adopt, whether consciously or unconsciously, deeply impact the way we perceive reality. These matrices of understanding become our operating system, so to speak — they become the default mechanisms through which we contextualize, react, and interpret every event and interaction we experience.

If our biases inevitably colour the way we interpret and experience the world, it follows that a primary focus of life should be to assess and reset our biases. What are my biases? How can they be adjusted or changed to better serve myself and others?

Am I a white privileged male unable to empathize with my Black brothers and sisters? Is my initial reaction to the civil unrest to just shut it out of life? Do I too have an innate bias against others? It’s really easy to paint everyone with the same brush. Can I be empathetic to a cause that has long been left unheard, like a stone left unturned?

This week, I started teaching a zoom course called Positivity Bias, presented by the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI). It’s based on the book Positivity Bias by Rabbi Mendel Kalmanson, which I highly suggest you read. The premise of this course is the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s “Positivity Bias.” The default lens or frame through which the Rebbe viewed others and the world at large was fundamentally positive. We are actually a month from the 26th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing and the course I’m teaching is going to end a few days before Gimmel (the third of) Taamuz, the anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, so, I thought with everything going on in the world, it would be a perfect time to attempt to learn to look at the world through the Rebbe’s eyes.

The Rebbe’s Positivity Bias is impossible to miss. There are countless documented stories, letters, anecdotes, and vignettes from the Rebbe’s life and behaviour that demonstrate how the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias illuminated every corner of his thoughts and every nuance of his speech, and infused his every action, reaction, and interaction with the power of Positive Living.

The Rebbe’s optimistic and redemptive perspectives on an/and all issues — or what we call the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias — were definitely not reflective of the Rebbe’s incredibly challenging life circumstances. Actually, the Rebbe’s positivity is almost in stark contrast with the “cards he was dealt,” so to speak, in life.

The Rebbe lived through waves of pogroms, the killing fields of World War I, a Typhus epidemic, a refugee crisis, the persecution and forced exile of his father (whom he never saw again), the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Communism, World War II, the brutal murder of his brother, grandmother, and numerous other relatives at the hands of the Nazis, and a life of childlessness.

Add all of that to the fact that the Rebbe personally absorbed and carried the crushing pain of hundreds of thousands of individuals who sought him out for healing, comfort, love, acceptance, help, and sometimes, simply a reason to live.

I’ve always wondered, where does the positivity come from after such darkness? How do we find the positivity in a world filled with COVID-19 and the complete mayhem of riots after the needless and gruesome murder of countless Black people? It’s interesting that bias is almost synonymous with something negative. We are conditioned to look at the world through a negative lens. Actually, in and of itself, bias just means a predisposition. We each have one. The question is, what is ours and can we change it?

Social scientists talk about a negativity bias we each possess. They speak of this negativity bias as part of our DNA, our genetic composition. Over time, it helped us deal with dangers and threats that were lethal. The problem is, we’ve taken thousands of years of that type of conditioning and we are now applying the same degree of hyper anxiety to things that are relatively benign and non-lethal. We are conditioned to immediately focus on the negative, on the drama; we are conditioned to fan the flames of violence.

Actually, positivity is a choice. It’s not just a matter of circumstance. And, it derives from perspective, not just personality. And the greatest case study of positivity is the Rebbe himself.

Let me share a beautiful story that I’ve been living with over the past few years. There was a fellow who circumvented the protocol, if you will, at 770 (the location of the Rebbe’s shul and of his office in Brooklyn). Typically, if you wanted to meet the Rebbe, you had to contact the secretary and set up a meeting, which may have taken months to get. This man sort of ambushed the Rebbe, if you will, on his way out from 770, to his car after a very long day of work, and he had to be back in a few hours to see people through the night as he did.

This fellow started to talk to the Rebbe. The personal secretary of the Rebbe recognized that this was one of those guys who, if he wasn’t stopped, would go on forever. And so he gently interjected and said, “the Rebbe has to go home. Um, if you’d like to speak to him further, see me later.”

As they got into the car, the Rebbe admonished the secretary gently, but lovingly, but firmly at the same time. He said, “the Holy Baal Shem Tov taught that each of our souls can come into this world and spend an entire lifetime just to do one favour for one individual,” and the Rebbe says to his secretary, “who knows, maybe my soul came into the world to do this one favour with this one individual right now.”

And what I love about the story is that for the Rebbe, every encounter, every interaction was, “maybe this is the one.” So, it is a positive bias that fused every interaction with that sense of reverence and awesomeness and auspiciousness. When you live switched on to that level, everything changes.

We each were created with a personality. And sometimes we think, “if only I had a different personality, or if or if only this piece of my personality, I could delete it. I could Photoshop it out.” The Rebbe didn’t want us to delete it, the Rebbe wanted us to transform it.

If you’re super ambitious, use that ambition for something Holy. If a person is very attached to their self image, then live up to a very high self image. There is a way to channel anger. In the Psalms, King David talks about anger, he says Ohavei Hashem Sinu Ra, those who love G-d or good hate evil. Without hate, evil would flourish.

You know, at that point in your life where you feel, where you just want to curl up in your bed and give up… I just can’t let this go on. Let that instead become the impetus for activism, for community service, for whatever it might be… recognize that activism that came from that anger. That anger can serve a positive purpose.

Anger means I can’t let this go on anymore, but it’s not anger with someone. It’s anger at an idea. And that’s the brilliance of the Rebbe where he disassociates the person from the philosophy. The Rebbe was tremendously positive, but he did take to task certain ideologies that he felt were very harmful for the Jewish community and for society at large. And it was amazing to watch him do that. That’s genius. To see the surgical precision of attacking perhaps or questioning the idea, but loving the person.

In his book, Rabbi Kalmenson shares the story of Shirley Chisholm. 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. Chisholm soon found her Congressional career stunted by race-related politics. Bowing to political pressures from Southern politicians, the House’s leadership assigned the very urban Chisholm to the Agriculture Committee, a committee focused on the needs of rural America, 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, her office received 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 importing produce,” 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, 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 millions of people each month.

Dr. David Luchins shared that during her retirement party, Shirley Chisholm shared the following moving words: “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!”

Scientists have coined the term “negativity bias” to describe a common human phenomenon. Essentially, our engrained negativity bias ensures that experiences of a more negative nature have a greater effect on our psychological state and consequent behaviour than neutral or positive ones, even when they are of equal intensity.

According to neuroscientists, our brains have developed specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in our emotional memory so that we can learn from them.

On the other hand, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve; we experience them, enjoy them, and quickly forget them.

Accordingly, we use much more brain space to scan and process negative experiences than positive ones, because negative stimuli, if not registered and responded to appropriately, can be fatal. Out of necessity, we have become masters of fixating on the negative aspects of our lives and environments.

At that moment when there seems to be nothing positive, when you really want something, and then you don’t get it, then you have a true sense of loss. On much deeper levels, when you lose a friend, a member of the family, G-d forbid loss, you experience loss. In that whole range of human experience, when you really suffer a loss, what does the Rebbe say about that?

The Rebbe’s approach to positivity and to loss and to tragedy were also positive. The Rebbe taught us to take grief and channel it into something Holy and constructive. And it’s incredible to note that the Rebbe in his own personal life, experienced quite a few moments of grief. Every single occasion where he lost someone, almost as quickly as he experienced the loss he launched the campaign of growth and productivity and creativity.

For example, after his wife’s passing, the Rebbe launched a birthday campaign, encouraging all Hasidim and communities beyond to mark one’s birthday with a spiritual gathering of friends and family, acts of goodness, kindness, and charity resolutions.

Now you have to appreciate that for the longest time, and traditionally, Jewish people didn’t place great emphasis on birthdays, but rather on yahrtzeits. Because the yahrtzeit, the day of passing allows us to evaluate a lifetime in its entirety. But a birthday, you’re still in the middle of the game and it’s like you’re running a lap, you’re in the Olympics, and then round three you sit down, break out a bottle because you were doing well, no, when you finish the race, we’ll see how quickly you came in.

But the Rebbe taught that a birthday is a day of potential. It celebrates why we’re here. So birth, he would say is G-d’s way of saying you matter. The birthday celebrates the mission that we came into this world to do. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov would say that the day you were born was G-d’s way of saying the world couldn’t exist any longer without you.

That’s what a birthday is. The Rebbe would tell us to make a Shehechiyanu blessing on a new fruit and on the day itself. The Rebbe taught us that our birthday allows us to recognise that we’re here and we have something to do on this earth. The passing of the Rebbitzin impacted him deeply. Taking death and tragedy and turning it into growth, this is what the Rebbe did.

The Rebbe would always emphasise action, saying, “go out and do what you can.” Go out and March, go out and protest. If that’s the way the Jewish community organized itself, and that’s what’s happening. Go out and write op-eds.

Go out and spread goodness and kindness. Go out and fight senseless acts of evil with senseless acts of goodness. Senseless is the key word here, because terrorism and the hatred in this universe today have reached feverish levels of senselessness, which means there is no exchange. There’s no give or take. That’s not transactional. The good that we do, sometimes, though is very calculated. So rise above calculation, do an act, a random act of goodness and kindness, and that will tip the scale.

So much of activism today is based on fighting a negative, fighting an injustice. And it seems to really motivate and rouse this generation. At some point, if all you do is kind of sort of fight negatives and kind of sort of fight injustice, it ends up sort of influencing your soul. We seem to always be fighting a negative.

The Rebbe had a unique view on the youth of the sixties and seventies, which I think could be extended to the millennials of today. Many have shared a harsh word or two about millennials, saying that within their generation and those thereafter there’s no sense of loyalty and commitment. But, I was having a conversation with my wife some time ago and she said something quite brilliant. She asked me, “where is that coming from though? It’s coming from a place where these are individuals who want impact. They want meaning. They want to see that they’re doing something good and they’re willing to sacrifice the comfort of a secure job to do so.” That’s genius. That is a positivity bias, and it’s true. Millenials are really willing to work to move on to different jobs much more quickly and readily than generations before, which looked more for the security of the paycheck. Millenials want to know “I’m making a difference.” And that’s a brilliant thing.

The Rebbe with Mayor David Dinkins, August 25, 1991 (Photo: Jewish Educational Media)

Our people are no strangers to protest and riots. We have protested side by side with some of the greatest people of our time and we have all too often been the target of vengeful hatred. Following the 1991 Crown Heights riots, in an encounter with David Dinkins, New York’s first African-American mayor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe expressed his hope to Mayor Dinkins that “the mayor would be able to bring peace to the city.” Mayor Dinkins quickly added, “to both sides.” The Rebbe corrected him, explaining: “We are not two sides; we are ONE side. We are ONE people living in ONE city under ONE administration and under ONE G-d.”

The Rebbe reminded us all of something so basic, so essential and so crucial — we are all children of G-d. We are all created in G-d’s image. We are all unique — blessed with a unique purpose in bringing light and goodness to the world. We are all deserving of respect and love.

Now more than ever we need to be there for one another. We need to heal as ONE people. We need to help our ONE community, our ONE country, our ONE city heal. We need to unite and move forward toward a stronger, kinder and more inclusive and socially virtuous society than ever before.

(A special thanks to Yosefa Leiba (Julia) Ginsburg for editing this article.)

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