I am totally out of my depth here, personally unfamiliar with any of the lyrics or the persona, (so take all this with many grains of salt,) but the title of the much ballyhooed album release caught my attention: “The Tortured Poet Department.” You could not miss seeing ads or posts about this. It was ubiquitous, everywhere, just before Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Passover.

So there has to be a message, a connection, a lesson for us as we prepare to enter into Passover 5784/2024. (Even if not an endorsement of every aspect of this…)

Regarding the text of the Haggadah, there’s a Talmudic teaching: “Start off with the negative (the exile, the suffering), build up to and conclude with the positive (the exodus and redemption.” Judaism always celebrates both sides of the story – the full plot. Don’t just cut to the miracles, redemption and the happy ending. You have to start at the beginning, when things weren’t good, when we had lots of problems. But the Talmud does have an argument how far back to go? Where does the beginning start? How deep and far back were the troubles and issues? Of course, there are two opinions. But that’s why the Haggadah text goes back to Laban, and its why it tells so much of the slavery and suffering and struggle. Before we get to the Exodus – the happy ending.

The verse “From the narrow straits I call unto you G-d, answer me broadly!” is said/sung in Hallel each holiday (and in the Haggadah, too), from the Book of Psalms. The call (like the shape of a Shofar’s mouthpiece) comes from a narrow, tight and constricting (emotional) space. Psalm 30 which is said near the start of our daily morning prayers has some “Tortured Poet” feel (though with a grateful and transformative tone). So much of Psalms has this personal cry, striving and yearning, even some (but not a lot) of bitterness against one’s enemies.

So there is something to be said for the “Tortured Poet” angle (if that’s even what’s meant by the album title). Remembering challenges and struggles, difficulty and adversity, gives context and contrast, it lends meaning to all the gifts and blessings and helps us appreciate them all the more!

But it so happens that this highly touted release date of April 19th is also (this year, 2024) the 11th of Nissan, which is the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The Rebbe has a very strong Positivity Bias! A chassid named Mendel Kalemenson wrote a whole book (all of its chapters are online on Chabad.org under “Positivity Bias”) which expresses and explains the Rebbe’s unique approach and inspiration in focusing forward not backward, seeking the Joys of Judaism, not its OYs. There are chapters on positive wording Rebbe used, positive twists and interpretations even where most would see as negative. How the Rebbe repeatedly encouraged and inspired people to see and seek the good, and to keep that in sharp focus. Not to focus on things like guilt and blame and anger. The Rebbe truly saw opportunity instead of problem. Read the book!

2024 is a year when it can be easy to see the problems. There is fear in the air. The negatives are obvious, open and all around us. It’s hard not to see it! Of course, we’re not meant to be oblivious, there are issues that need to be addressed. But the Rebbe would encourage us not to wallow in it either. Don’t let the negatives shape our identity. Don’t dwell on it too much, don’t let it blur or lose our focus.

So “Tortured Poet” has its place, but a limited place. Rebbe wouldn’t want that to be our primary focus, our calling. Let’s not make tortured and tormented our middle name.