The Power of Positive Thinking

The Torah provides helpful tips for aspiring enterpeneurs, say Rabbi Levi Brackman and Sam Jaffe in an excerpt from their new book Jewish Wisdom for Business Success


December 9, 2008
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Clearly, thoughtful optimism breeds success. Take a room full of CEOs, millionaires and others who have reached the pinnacle of their goals, and you’ll almost certainly find a room full of people who are, by their nature, optimistic and positive.

There are plenty of explanations for why that is true. Some claim it is because positive-minded people are cheerful and fun to be around, and are therefore chosen over negative people when it comes time to win the contract or make the sale. Others believe that it is just part of a good investment and business strategy. Yet others say that it’s a fundamental law of the universe (often referred to as “the law of attraction”).

While not discounting the former two theories, the Torah seems to support the third thesis as well. While it offers no mathematical formula that proves it, anecdotal evidence abounds. Torah teachings stress optimism and positive thinking as keys to attracting success and positive outcomes.

At the same time, the Torah also stresses that thought itself will not accomplish anything. It is only when thought is combined with action, that positive thinking can result in the realisation of dreams and the bringing of success.

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The idea that positive thinking results in positive outcomes can be traced back to the story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis. The Torah generally calls kosher animals tahor (pure) and non-kosher animals tamay (which means “impure”, but also brings with it connotations of unholiness and immorality).

However, in the famous story of Noah and the flood, where a sample of all animals entered the Noah’s ark to take refuge from the massive floodwaters, the Torah says (Genesis 7:2): “From all tahor animals and from the animals which are not tahor.”

In this case the Torah desists from using the word tamay, which has more negative implications, and instead refers to the tamay animals as “not tahor”. The Torah does this even though it is generally careful not to use additional words – in this case three extra words – unless it wants the reader to learn something from them.

The Talmud (Pesachim 3a) explains that the reason for the reluctance to use the word tamay in this story is to teach us not to use words in the negative construction (to avoid the additional connotations) even if it means using additional words in a sentence. Simply stated, the Torah is trying to teach us to speak in the positive rather than the negative.

The Talmud commentators note that when the Torah discusses laws – and clarity is an absolute priority – it uses the word tamay many times. However, when it is relating “stories”, it uses additional words to say things in the positive. This is because words have power, and when we say something negative, we are attracting that same negative thing towards ourselves.

The Torah teaches us to use words that do not have negative connotations so that they do not bring negativity into our lives. Since a person’s words come from their thoughts, the mind is the source of our positive or negative language. The opposite is also true; our words influence our thoughts.

Speaking what’s on our minds gives permanence to our thoughts. In addition, when we talk about something, more thoughts about the same subject will appear. Since words have such power, it is vitally important that our words reflect a positive attitude. And it is equally important that our thoughts – the source of our words – are positive. We should therefore replace our negative thoughts with positive ones so that we can attract positivity to ourselves.

The power of positive thinking – and by extension positive speech – has been reiterated by the great Jewish mystics. The great Chasidic master and Kabbalist Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said: “If you believe that you can ruin, then believe that you can fix.” In other words, instead of focusing on the negative, concentrate on the positive, using your mental resources to repair things than to damage them.

The best example of the suggested use of the power of positive thinking taught by Torah sages, however, comes from the great Kabbalist and Chasidic master known as the Tzemech Tzedek (1789-1866). Once asked to pray on behalf of a seriously ill person, he responded, telling the family to practise positive thinking.

He advised in Yiddish, “Tracht gut vet zain gut,” meaning “Think good and it will be good.” Many people assume that this is some sort of wishful thinking, but consider for a moment whether you have ever heard someone who is very successful in their line of work speak pessimistically. Think, too, about the person you know who always complains that things aren’t going right. Almost always, you will find that successful people don’t focus on the negative, while unsuccessful people often do.

You might say that is because a successful person has nothing to complain about, but this would be untrue; even the richest among us has known sorrow and loss and disappointment. However, we put forth the proposition that people’s positive attitude is a primary reason for their attraction of success and accomplishment.

Reprinted by permission of Amacom Books. Excerpt from Jewish Wisdom for Business Success, £13.99. Copyright 2008 Levi Brackman and Sam Jaffe. All rights reserved.

    Last updated: 3:49pm, March 3 2010