Beyond the Usual Suspects
- Samach-Vav Part 22 -
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,
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.
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)
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
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
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
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. (Needelss 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
(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.
* * *
Question of the Week: How much are
we humans truly capable of? Do we over or underestimate
our potential? And why?
a question for future weeks.