Window for Words

Moshe Miller
Essays 2020 / Finalists

Transforming Darkness into Light, Negative into Positive

We all face negative situations and hardships in life. How do we react to them? Is the best advice to duck and wait for things to improve – “hide for a brief moment until the wrath has passed,”[1] as the Prophet Isaiah puts it? Or is there a better, more active approach, where we can be agents of change?

This essay will focus on a fundamental teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, explaining how anyone can transform the negative into the positive. It demands a certain attitude and the proper intentions, and an understanding of the technique offered. In broad strokes it has to do with the way we assign a name or a description to a person, an emotion, a thought, an object or an event. A negative name or description, even though it may be appropriate, is self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. If the name or description etc. can be changed in a way that brings out the spark of divinity within that person, emotion, thought or situation, the change can be life-altering and permanent.

This is in some ways similar to the modern psychological technique of ‘reframing.’ However, psychological reframing is largely a cognitive change that allows us to recognize and appreciate positive aspects of a situation. Chassidic ‘reframing’ I believe goes even further – it can even change the actual life-force of the person or situation.

The goal here is to outline the idea of ‘reframing’ in the Chassidic sense, briefly explain its mystical basis and its practical methods, how it can be implemented in daily life, particularly in educating ourselves and others, and how it can bring about a fundamental and enduring transformation in a person’s life.


In Tanya[2] the Alter Rebbe writes that the Hebrew name of something is a receptacle for the life-force condensed into the letters of that name. He explains further that the source of the names of all created beings is the Ten Utterances with which the world was created,[3] and even though the Torah does not mention the names of all creatures in those Ten Utterances, nevertheless different permutations of the same letters and interchanges of those letters for others (by various known procedures e.g. if they belong to the same phonetic group) produce everything in existence. The name of every created being is thus the essential aspect of its existence, because the moment that creature comes into being it has a name, which is its life-force.[4]

Why then was there a need for Adam to name the creatures, as the verse states “Adam called out the names of all the animals and of all the beasts,”[5] and “whatever Adam called a thing was its name”?[6] Did they not already have name, indicative of their essential nature?

We must conclude that Adam giving them names achieved something even loftier than bringing them into existence. [7]

The explanation is this[8]: Even though every creature is endowed with a divine spark of life that animates it – which is its name in Hebrew – nevertheless this spark of divinity is not yet revealed in that creature. Moreover, the creatures themselves are not (generally) aware of the divine spark instilled within them, and that their entire being stems from G-d’s true existence.[9]

“Adam called out the names…” indicates that he brought out and revealed in every creature the divine spark of life animating it (which was its name).

The name that parents give their child is also of great significance. The Arizal declares that when parents give their child a name, this is not merely by chance. Rather, they are divinely inspired to give the appropriate name for that particular soul…[10]

In this vein the Talmud[11] tells the story of three great sages who were once on a journey together – Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose. Rabbi Meir was in the habit of analyzing the name of a person [to know whether they were honest and upright or not], but the other two rabbis did not analyze names. On one occasion they sought lodging in a certain inn for the Sabbath. Rabbi Meir decided not to leave his wallet with the inn-keeper over the Sabbath when he learned that the man’s name was ‘Kidor’ – indicating that he was a wicked person, as the verse (Deuteronomy 32:20) states, ‘For they are a generation [ki dor] of rebelliousness’.” Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose did deposit their wallets with Kidor for the Sabbath, but when they went to the inn-keeper to reclaim their wallets after the Sabbath, he denied that they had given him anything for safekeeping.

This is the meaning of what the Sages of the Talmud[12] declare, “The name of a person is a causative factor” – Divine Providence arranges events to match the names of the people involved.[13]

The principle that a name is a causative factor applies to the way we name or describe events as well, as we will see.


Shmini Atzeres 5697 (1936) the Rebbe Rayatz related that his father, the Rebbe Rashab, heard seven teachings from the Baal Shem Tov himself in Gan Eden [the Garden of Eden]. This mystical experience took place on the day commemorating the Baal Shem Tov’s birthday – the 18th of Elul – in the year 5652 (1892).[14]

The fifth teaching is directly relevant to the subject we are discussing:

The entire Torah is [comprised of] the Names of the Holy One, blessed be He.[15] The Sefer Yetzirah[16] (4:12) states: ‘two stones build two houses [i.e. there are two possible permutations of two unique letters a-b; b-a. Three stones build six houses’ [there are six possible permutations of three unique letters]. The [letters comprising the] word tzohar[17] [a window or source of light[18]] has six possible permutations. Five of them form known words; one does not: haratz; tzarah; ratzah; tzohar – one who runs; pain and suffering; desire or will; window or light respectively. [And rahatz has no meaning].

‘One who runs’ [haratz]: by running to perform a mitzvah, tzarah [suffering] can be transformed into tzohar [a window or a light].

This is in a manner of “May it be Your will,” i.e. eliciting a new Will from Above [ratzon chadash, a derivation of the root rtz”h, to be read as rotzeh – ‘G-d’s will’], to the extent that things become illuminated [tzohar].

The Baal Shem Tov concluded: If only the power of the permutations of the letters of Torah were well known, then every Jew would be expert in Chumash and Tehillim.

The Rebbe Rayatz adds that the Baal Shem Tov explained that the Ark (the Taivah) in which Noah was ordered to make a window or a light alludes to another meaning taivah – ‘word,’ referring to the words of Torah and of prayer.[19] Thus when Noah was told “Come… into the Ark (into the taivah)” (Genesis 7:1) he was also being directed to enter into the words of Torah and the words of prayer. And when he was told to make a window or a source of light in the taivah this meant that he had to imbue his words with light – with enthusiasm and energy – to learn and pray with chiyus (energetically, enthusiastically). Such enthusiasm would that indicate that he had succeeded in arousing his inner will to harmonize with G-d’s will. This too, is the meaning of rotzeh.

Torah study and prayer with chiyus create the situation that a light – tzohar – will illuminate one’s words, so that tzarah (pain and suffering) will be transformed into a source of light – tzohar.

This also alludes to the verse, “It is a time of trouble (tzarah) for Jacob; from it they will be liberated” (Jeremiah 30:7). Not only will he (Jacob, but referring to the Jewish People in general) escape pain and suffering – “from it he will be rescued,” but the pain and suffering itself will become the source of his liberation – “from it he will be liberated,” the suffering will be transformed into a source of light…[20]


The Rebbe asks[21] how it is possible for evil to exist in the world since “all of existence stems from G-d’s true existence,”[22] and everything was brought into existence via the Ten Utterances and their different permutations and letter exchanges and interchanges, as mentioned earlier. It follows that all of existence, even that which appears to be evil, in truth has its origin in the holy letters of the Ten Utterances. But in certain cases the letters descended into permutations that allow evil to appear.

Evil exists due to the concealment and obscuring of holiness (like darkness is the absence of light; it is not an existential creation in itself). Evil thus appears where the Divine Will is not manifested.[23]

Now since holiness is also the origin of evil (the Ten Utterances by which the world was created), the work – the avodah – of transforming evil (rather than merely banishing it) must be done in such a way that evil itself is utilized for the sake of holiness. And since evil can be utilized for holiness, this must have been the true intention of its creation in the first place.

An analogy for this can be gleaned from innovations in the printing industry.[24] As the Baal Shem Tov declared – everything that a Jew witnesses or experiences or hears is an instruction in serving G-d.[25] In the past, using the cold-type method of printing, the sequence of letters set on a plate that would print a page could not be altered or reset. If an error crept into the sequence of letters the entire plate had to be discarded and a new one set.

In avodah (one’s Divine service) this signifies a situation where certain ‘sequences of letters’ – i.e. events in a person’s life – are involved with the opposite of holiness. In the past the only way to improve the situation was as the Mishnah states “smashing the vessel is its rectification.”[26]

But more recently, a new method of typesetting has been invented that does not require smashing the printing plate to correct an error. Instead, those very same letters can be rearranged in the proper sequence, forming the correct permutations. This provides us with a clear instruction as to how we must serve G-d by rectifying the evil in our times. It is possible to change the permutations animating evil into holy permutations. In short – it is now possible (and therefore mandatory) to transform evil into good.

It is at this point that the Rebbe invokes the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov mentioned above regarding the verse, “Make a tzohar (window /source of light) for the Ark” and how the three letters of the word tzarah – “It is a time of trouble (tzarah) for Jacob” – can themselves be transformed into tzohar.

The lesson we learn here from modern innovations in printing is not to destroy the letters animating the unholy aspects of the world, but to use those very letters themselves for holy matters; one has only to change the permutations!

One example of this concerns the verse, “To those who fear You, You have given a banner (nes) to be raised up high (lehitnoses)” (Psalms 60:6). The Rebbe Rayatz, based on a Midrash[27], translates this as [“You have given us] many tests and trials (nisayon, plural nisyonot – related to the word nes) in order to raise us up to a much higher level, just like a banner is raised up high.[28] The letters of the word nisayon can be salvaged and reinterpreted as a challenge to which the person can rise and even transcend himself.


In our own lives, we can learn a number of lessons from these teachings:

  • The way we name or describe something has a major effect on how the future of that object or event will unfold. By framing or reframing the object or event positively, it is far more likely to turn out positively. The lesson for education (the way we frame our children’s or students’ behavior) is clear – rather than calling the child or the student or a behavior ‘bad,’ we can look for a ‘window’ or source of light in them. This plays a major part in making it that way.
  • Alacrity and enthusiasm invested in destructive behavior or emotional patterns, instead of being suppressed, can be redirected into Torah and mitzvos and good deeds. One of the very important conclusions from the above is that action is primary (“one who runs to do…”)
  • Negative self-descriptions can be turned into positive ones with a focus on action, a positive attitude. For example, “I’m depressed” can be reframed as “what am I doing (or can I do) to instill more joy in my life?” “I’m angry about x” can be reframed as “x is annoying, but I’ll soon be over it; it isn’t worth brooding on.” “I always blow it” can be “I usually do it right and sometimes make mistakes,” and so on.

In conclusion, the power of this Chassidic concept of ‘reframing’ in our everyday lives is evident. We are given the ability to reframe our lives and view the world through a transformational Jewish lens. Moreover, we can actually change a situation or a person, not merely our cognition of it. We are no longer victims of the circumstances of our lives, but can be masters of insight and illumination for ourselves and for the world.

[1] Isaiah 26:20. The Talmud in Bava Kama 60b limits this approach to certain circumstances.

[2] Tanya, Sha’ar HaYichud VeHaEmunah chap. 1 See also Likkutei Torah, Behar, p. 41c.

[3] Avos 5:1.

[4] Likkutei Sichos vol. 35 p. 4

[5] Bereishis 2:20.

[6] Bereishis 2:19.

[7] Likkutei Sichos vol. 35 p. 4.

[8] Likkutei Sichos vol. 35 p. 4 ff.

[9] As the Rambam notes in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:1

[10] Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Hakdama 23 cited by the Rebbe in numerous sichos and letters, e.g. Likkutei Sichos vol. 2 p. 666; Igros Kodesh vol. 12:4,170; vol. 22:8,339.

[11] Yoma 83b.

[12] Berachos 7b, Commentaries.

[13] Arizal, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Hakdama 23.

[14] Keser Shem Tov, Hosafos p. 136; Sefer HaSichos 5697 p. 161.

[15] See Zohar II, 87a; Ramban, Introduction to the Torah.

[16] The Book of Formation, said to have been taught by Abraham and written down by the First Century sage, Rabbi Akiva. Some versions have this as 4:16.

[17] The three letters are tzadi, hei, reish (צה”ר in Hebrew).

[18] See Rashi to Genesis 6:16 where both interpretations are offered.

[19] Tzva’as haRivash, 75; Ohr Torah (Maggid of Mezritch) 7b; Igros Admo”r HaRayatz vol. 3 p. 199 ff; Sefer HaSichos 5696 p. 23.

[20] Sefer HaMaamarim 5689 p. 204-5.

[21] The following is based on Toras Menachem vol. 9, p 86 ff.

[22] As the Rambam notes in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:1

[23] See Toras Shalom p. 134b.

[24] In the sichah the Rebbe refers to a new form of printing that was one of the innovations of the day – phototypesetting – a method of setting type that uses a photographic process to generate columns of type on a scroll of photographic paper. It replaced an earlier form of typesetting called the ‘cold-type method’ – which prepared the texts on a printing plate. Phototypesetting was in turn rendered obsolete with the popularity of the personal computer and desktop publishing software.

[25] See Keser Shem Tov, Addenda 223; HaYom Yom 9 Iyar.

[26] See Keilim beginning chapter 2. The subject there is how to purify a vessel that had become ritually impure. The term used in the Mishnah is ‘purification,’ not ‘rectification.’ However, in Kabbalistic works, the smashed vessels of the World of Tohu are said to be rectified in the World of Tikun.

[27] Bereishit Rabba 55:1.

[28] Sefer HaMaamarim 5680 p. 105, p. 113. Sefer HaMaamarim 5689 p. 203. Torat Menachem vol. 3 p. 179 etc.