Rabbi Eli Backman, rabbi at UMDChabad. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Backman.

By Rabbi Eli Backman
For Mitzpeh

“Yankel, are you a glass half full or half empty kind of guy?”

Yankel thought a moment and said, “To be honest, I’m usually a where is my glass kind of guy.”

Whatever hand life deals you, there are usually two ways to take it. Positively and uplifting or negatively and in a downwards spiral.

The fifth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber (1850-1920), was visited by two of his students from Odessa, who traveled to the Rebbe for inspiration and guidance. Before returning home, they each had a turn for a private audience with the Rebbe.

The first one enters the room and is asked by the Rebbe: “Vos tut zich in Odessa?” 

What’s happening in Odessa? To which he replies that things aren’t in a good way at all in Odessa. No one makes time for Torah study or communal prayer. Everyone is busy with their own material affairs and living lives that are uninspired and shallow. The Rebbe blesses the man and sends him on his way.

The second one enters the room, and the Rebbe asks him the same question: “Vos tut zich in Odessa?”

Tell me what’s happening in Odessa? The man’s face lights up as he begins to give a detailed account of all of the wonderful Jewish communal activity taking place. Everyone is busy studying Torah, making time for heartfelt prayer, celebrating each other’s family simchas, caring for each other’s needs with various free loan funds and visiting the sick. 

In a word: Odessa is inspired! The Rebbe gives the man a broad smile, along with a gold coin to help with expenses.

When the man leaves the room, and his friend realizes what happened, the first man walks back into the Rebbe’s study, unannounced, demanding to know why he didn’t get the gold coin. Why was he being penalized for telling the truth while his friend chose to embellish it? 

The Rebbe looked deeply into the man’s eyes and said to him: “I know full well what the situation is in Odessa. I didn’t need you, nor your friend, to tell me what’s going on there. My question to each of you was merely this: In which Odessa are you living? One of cold self-centeredness, or one of meaning and inspiration.”

Sure, we have what to kvetch about in life, especially in 2020. Yet at the same time, there are good and positive things happening too. We may not be able to change or heal the world around us, but we can make a difference in our lives and our circle.

What we say and how we say it matters. “I can’t go out tonight. My assignment has a midnight deadline.” or “My paper is due tonight.” Dead or due. One evokes images of death and ending the other one images of birth and potential.

“I’m just sitting here and killing time; sure, I’ll join you.”  Or “I’m not doing much but looking forward to spending time with you.” Again, one is dark and the other is bright.

Try this next time someone says: “How are you these days?”

Instead of the usual: “I wish I could be doing so much more, or I’m stuck in my dorm room all day,” try starting with “I am Thank G-d healthy and alive. True, I wish I could be doing so much more but I got my health, which is most important, and the rest will figure itself out.” 

Start with a better perspective, so when you share your kvetch, it is part of a completely positive picture.

“Which College Park do you live in?”

The answer lies in your hands and perspective.


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