There’s a 2-word phrase with drastically different interpretations in Talmud vs. Chassidus, but both interpretations have relevance & lessons to our current Coronavirus Covid19 situation.

The phrase is מחשבה מועלת = thought is potent or effective. I grew up with this phrase. It’s the opening 2 words of Lekutei Dibburim anthology of talks of Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak, 6th Chabad Rebbe (1880-1950) ably translated by Uri Kaploun (magically retaining much of the richness!)

First, this phrase in Talmud Sanhedrin 26b in a teaching by R’ Ulah: “Thoughts (of concern or worry about a livelihood – Rashi commentary) can be effective in distracting, disturbing or destroying words of Torah.” See the Sefaria screenshot (great online study resource) on left. Click on it to enlarge. 

That’s R’ Ulah’s use of this 2-word phrase in the Talmud. 

And then there’s this twist on the same phrase by Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the 6th Chabad Rebbe. He quotes this same 2-word phrase in the opening two words, the opening paragraph (see image on left -click on image to enlarge) of his Lekutei Dibburim – one of the anthologies of his talks:

The potency & effectiveness of thought is our thoughts (and concerns! hence the link back to Ulah’s statement) about our fellows, how transformative it can be – even if they don’t know of it.

In the original, the Friediker Rebbe (R’ Yosef Yitzchak) is quoting the same 2-word phrase as R’ Ulah in the Talmud מחשבה מועלת but instead of the negative, it is positive, it is constructive vs. destructive, the thoughts & concern is about our fellows instead of ourselves.

While these 2 interpretations highlight a difference in style & approach between say a Talmudic or Chassidic approach, it also shows the need for both. And our current Coronavirus Covid19 situation highlights how both approaches are very much necessary:

Ulah’s approach in the Talmud has a great message for us now: Yes, we need to be aware & informed, follow guidelines etc. But obsessing over it can also be destructive to our mental health, disturbing to our kids, to the good things we can still do even while at home.

Ulah’s original message is that while livelihood is important and we have to try our utmost with it, extreme obsession and anxiety over it is counter-productive, unhealthy & destructive to other meaningful aspects of our lives. Same holds true for Covid19 Coronavirus.

R’ Yosef Yitzchak’s (Friediker Rebbe) Chassidic twist is equally relevant now! True, we are physically distant from one another due to #Covid19, but there are no barriers for thought! We can & ought to be thoughtful & mindful of one another, this benefits others in rich measure!

Aside for the serious medical concerns of Covid19, Coronavirus brings along with it other real issues of uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness. Our thoughtfulness of each other, especially when expressed to one another, can and will be of benefit in rich measure.

So we need both interpretations, we can and should live with and by both the Talmudic and Chassidic approaches of the same Torah seen through different lenses, both perspectives and guidance are beneficial to us today.