“I have often lamented that people don’t share good news.” The Rebbe used this phrase countless times in his responses to petitioners. 770 Eastern Parkway in those days would receive more mail than any other private address in New York. Most of these letters were pleas for blessings for health, family, safety and success. The Rebbe would personally open each envelope, read each letter and jot or dictate a personal answer. When his secretaries suggested that the Rebbe save time by using a letter opener, he refused, saying that envelopes sealed with tears deserved to be opened by hand.
The Rebbe would never underplay another’s pain. His public addresses include candid emotional commiseration with Israeli war widows, Russian Refuseniks and bereaved individuals. I vividly remember the Rebbe’s pain when he addressed the crowds after a young Crown Heights woman had been murdered in the early ’90s. You’d have thought he was racked by the loss of a sister.
He invited hundreds through his door to assuage their anguish. As the crowds swelled, he expanded access to his counsel through his famous “Sunday Dollars” line. When you believe that someone has the power to bless, help and guide you, you tend to share your problems, usually your biggest ones, not your victories. He empathised with our pain, yet he insisted that we share with him good news.
Why did the Rebbe prod us for good news stories? After hearing all our woes, did he need a lift? Did he feel that he deserved to share our good times, as we had forced him to share the bad ones?
The Rebbe certainly did not intend to whitewash our experiences or downplay our hardships with a call to “lighten up”. The Rebbe was no stranger to pain. He had lost his father to Communist brutality and his brother, a brother-in-law and sister-in-law to the Nazis. The Rebbe was under no illusion that feel-good stories could soothe a person’s anguish.
The secret of the Rebbe’s call for “good news” seems to resonate with his consistent perspective on life. The Rebbe records in his memoirs how his childhood dream was of the utopian world of Moshiach. His opening address as the new Rebbe of Chabad centred on seeing the world as a Divine garden, which each of us could transform into a home for the Almighty. To the Rebbe, every person was a trove of unique potential to unveil the inherent goodness of our world.
In a post-Holocaust world where Jews were haunted by the empty seats at Pesach Seders, the Rebbe pushed to fill them with as-yet uninspired Jews. When rabbis wrote off assimilated American Jews, the Rebbe spotlighted their flair for bringing pizazz to a staid shtetl Judaism. As women rebelled against patriarchal leadership, he inspired Jewish women to lead their communities.
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks famously commented that the Rebbe saw leaders where ordinary leaders saw followers. Yehudah Avner was touched by how the Rebbe saw a flame of great potential in him and offered him a match to ignite it. To countless ordinary folk he wrote, “I assume that your omission of good news is not because you have none to report, but because you have simply not mentioned it.”
The Rebbe insisted that we write to him with good news, because he emphatically believed that each of us can and should generate good news. The media cajoles us into believing that our world is infected with hardship. Our Rebbe taught us to rebel, protest and show the world that for every black ink dot, there is a large swath of white paper.
“Bring me good news” may well be the clarion call of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Our forefather Abraham earned his name “Ivri” (Hebrew) because he was gutsy enough to stare down the then-dominant pagan worldview and insist that there was only one G-d. Our generation’s Abraham had the gumption to reject Depression Culture and insist that we find a path to joy, meaning and good news. Your timeline is probably full of bad news right now: Covid, rising antisemitism, economic challenges, political discord, societal erosion. The Talmud says that a person’s environment should not shape them, rather they should shape their environment. The Rebbe took that Talmudic teaching literally.
It’s easy to be dragged into the vortex of gloom, but the Rebbe charged us with a rebellion, “Share good news!”. What he meant was, “You are powerful and our world is innately good. You can make the difference. Be an ambassador of optimism and a purveyor of goodness”. Maimonides famously taught that one good deed could change the world. This Sunday marks the 27th yartzeit of our beloved Rebbe, who believed that your next one could be the tipping point.