Part 21: Greater Expectations

Beyond the Usual Suspects

— Samach-Vav Part 21 —

With distressing news shaking up the world – senseless murders at Virginia Tech, bottomless quagmires in Iraq, endless pain wherever you look – we sure could use a respite. Just in time – Samach-Vav comes to the rescue.

Samach-Vav is the fundamental series of mystical – Kabblistic/Chassidic – discourses delivered one hundred years ago (1906-1908) by the Rebbe RaShaB (Rabbi Sholom Dovber – 1860-1920). This column has been following the progression of this series, with analysis and discussion (click here for the previous installments of the series).

Now, after a six-month break, in which the Rebbe Rashab spent time in Wurzberg, Germany, this week one century ago he resumed this 61-part classic, with his 49th discourse, addressing the… cosmic comb.

Well, as expected, everybody is weighing in on the latest tragedy coming out of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia.

I, for one, will rely on the flood of commentary deluging us via all possible mediums – some more worthy than others, everyone identifying different culprits, analyzing the current state of affairs, searching for the causes that allow for tragedies like this.

One article that stands out amidst them all is David Brooks’ “The Morality Line” in today’s New York Times. Brooks points out how individual choices have been replaced with a complex series of biological, chemical and social causes, effectively reducing the scope of the individual to:

“A cork bobbing on the currents of giant forces: evolution, brain chemistry, stress and upbringing.”

Instead of personal responsibility we now have – as scientists, psychologists and social experts explain – many background forces at work.

It seems that as time passes we are finding better and more sophisticated ways to lower expectations of our selves and each other. We have developed an entire slew of “reasons” – which are really just camouflaged excuses – for our behavior: Chemicals, natural selection, environment, television, President Bush, Ann Coulter, Hillary Clinton, Noam Chomsky, and of course… Don Imus. (Feel free to add your own culprits).

Did anyone ever consider that the greatest cause for our lower expectations is… lower expectations? The mere fact that we keep lowering the bar of what we expect of the human race is causing us to feel less responsible and less accountable. The lower we drop the bar of expectation the less we will actually expect of each other.

Did anyone ever consider that the greatest cause for our lower expectations is… lower expectations?

While the pundits debate these issues and search for the “usual suspects”, I am tugged by my commitment to Samach-Vav. The Rebbe Rashab, one hundred years ago this week, beckons us to rise to a greater place.

And yes, he does have expectations – great expectations of us.

Indeed, the entire Torah – and its journey though history – is one grand document celebrating the majestic journey of the human spirit.

And what does the Rebbe Rashab have to tell us this week?

In the discourse he delivered 100 years ago this week the Rebbe Rashab continues where he left off, by elaborating on the central theme of the entire series: The enormous power unleashed by the struggles of life. How we move worlds and define destiny – our own and the universe’s – through our self-generated effort and personal choices. How our individual difficulties and descent into the depths become springboards to reach the most glorious spiritual heights.

More specifically, the Rebbe Rashab discusses the strenuous process of sifting through confusion to achieve a state of clarity. This process begins on the cognitive level, and then extends into the personal domain.

This week’s discourse focuses on a cryptic Talmudic passage (Rosh Hashana 26b): The rabbis did not know the meaning of the word Salseleho in the verse (Proverbs 4:8) “Salseleho u’teromemecho (and she will exalt you).” One day they heard Rav’s maidservant say to a certain man who was playing with his hair, “How long will you be mesalsel (comb) your hair?”

Explains Samach-Vav that according to the Talmud the verse refers to the study of the oral Torah, which is compared to combing hair: The exertion necessary in understanding the depths of the oral Torah is like combing hair, untangling each strand, separating them from one another and ensuring that each lies in its proper place.

The Torah comes to teach us the secrets of existence and serves as a blueprint for life. However, these laws remain obscure and unknown, until we exert ourselves in the strenuous process of excavating the Torah’s wisdom to discover its message. The hair represents the wisdom of Torah, as it is ostensibly understood. Combing the hair is the challenging process to analyze a Torah idea from all angles, “turn it and turn it” in all directions, questions, counter questions, arguments and counter-arguments – all in an exerted effort to untangle the contradictions, organize and categorize the ideas, and finally reach the ultimate clarity.

The analogy of hair is used in order to explain the paradox of the unconscious mind – which emerges through the mental exertion necessary in plumbing the depths of the oral Torah. The unconscious is rooted in the highest dimensions, but manifests (precisely because it carries such potency) in “thin strands” (i.e. in a limited way) as it descends into the depths of existence. The oral Torah is like the strands of hair which originate from the cosmic “skull” (unconscious) and addresses the way we should conduct our lives on earth. But the only way to access the unconscious is through “combing” through the hair strands and untangling the mess until you achieve a higher clarity. Because the Torah’s message is concealed in a confused world, this arduous “combing process” accesses the “skull” itself – the essential “ayin” (nothingness) of the supra-conscious, which is higher than the conscious and revealed wisdom of the hair strands. (1) [If you didn’t understand the last paragraph, don’t worry; you’re not alone. But it won’t stop you from following the rest of this article].

Now that was a mouthful. But one thing is certain, whether we comprehend Samach-Vav fully or not: Much is expected from us humans. We carry great potential and despite our entanglements in a fragmented and tortured universe, we have the ability to comb our way through it all and reach unimaginable heights.

We carry great potential and despite our entanglements in a fragmented and tortured universe, we have the ability to comb our way through it all and reach unimaginable heights.

But then, we are drawn back to immediate events, and to all the naysayers discouraging us from great expectations. “You are merely another speck of evolved bacteria, wired to crawl your way through life and competing to survive. You want to dream, you want to believe, you want to imagine that you have free will – go ahead and indulge yourself; these fantasies may even serve a role in natural selection. But it’s all been pre-determined. Blah, blah, blah.” Thus speaks many a contemporary thinker.

But just when you are about to give up, just when you get carried away by the moment, seduced by the distractions of the here and now, Samach-Vav yanks you right back and tells you: Start combing the hairs of wisdom. Immerse yourself in the embrace of scholarship – turn and turn, exert yourself and find the deeper truths, comb her strands and she will lift you to great heights.

Instead of looking for scapegoats to blame our actions on and lowering expectations of ourselves and each other, we must remember what we are capable of.

The true story behind Virginia Tech is not the spineless, depraved mind of the 23-year old gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, but the selfless heroism of 75-year old Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor who was killed blocking his classroom door with his body while his students fled to safety… Professor Librescu’s courage embodies the highest standard of human behavior.

Yes indeed, the cause for our lower expectations is lower expectations. Like a self-defeating prophecy spiraling downward in a vicious cycle, the less we expect the less we will deliver. Where will it end? How little do we need to expect of each other before we discover that we have lost all semblance of personal dignity?

Conversely, the more we expect of ourselves, our children, our students – the more will live up to the expectations. The actual expectation motivates us to rise to the occasion, to dig deeper and plumb the reservoirs of our rich resources.

Try it out. Expect the most of yourself and others, and even if we won’t always live up to it, we will achieve far more than when we expect less. (Needless to say, expectations must be realistic for them to work, but it still may be better to err on the side of greater rather than lesser expectations. Especially since we can never know the depths of our potential).

Samach-Vav carries us – if only we allow ourselves – on its wide wings to places hitherto unknown, to unimaginable heights.

As you immerse in the spiritual power of the discourse, it allows you to soar above the din and the pain. And when you return to earth, you are never the same. No longer can you dismiss human choices simply to deterministic forces shaping our destinies. We no longer are reduced to mere computer programs playing out a pre-written script. We can never again search for the usual suspects to blame our actions on.

Above all, free will remains the ultimate expression of human dignity.

Obviously, there are people and situations in which factors out of our control can affect human behavior. We must always be sensitive and empathetic in such situations. But this cannot be used to undermine human dignity: The power to shape our destinies. Each of us has our limitations, but it never impedes our free will.

So, here’s a toast to Samach-Vav. The year 1907 (5767) – one century ago – was not an easy one. Times then were far harsher than today. Senseless violence was ravaging the land. Yet, despite the burning fires all around, the Rebbe Rashab, the true leader that he was, transcended immediate circumstances and actually used the difficulties to propel him and all his students to the greatest heights of human dignity. The ultimate test of human resilience and personal dignity is when we are faced with adversary.

One century later, Samach-Vav remains a monumental testimony to the power of the human spirit, not to speak of its enormous contributions to understanding life and our relationship with G-d.

And in the process it lifts us all up – helping us live up to the highest standards, to be the best we can be, to expect the most of ourselves and others.

Our role is to not be distracted by the endless knots of life and comb for clues in our search for the deeper unity that lies behind all the fragmentation.

Next time you go to the hair stylist think about the metaphor of life playing atop your scalp. Every stroke of the brush, every wave of the comb, every knot untangled, is another step in the difficult process to unravel the messy forces of life, to resolve the doubts, clear the blocked paths and illuminate the dark passages – and discover seamlessness, as smooth as the freshly brushed hairdo.


(1) According to this, the Rebbe Rashab explains a fascinating Talmudic query about the nature of hair growth (Nazir 39a): Does hair grow at the roots or at the tips? The Talmud concludes that from the way hair grows after it is dyed we can infer that hair grows at the roots. Explains Samach-Vav that the Talmud’s dilemma is about the primary cause for the growth and expression of knowledge: Do the “strands” of conscious knowledge originate in the unconscious “skull” or in the conscious mind? And the conclusion is the former. Because the power to draw energy down to the lowest levels (through the hair strands) comes from the highest levels of the unconscious.