Tazria-Metzora: 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.

* * *

Question of the Week: How much are we humans truly capable of? Do we over or underestimate our potential? And why?


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17 years ago

Fantastic article, elucidating the power of Kabbalistic analysis with powerful metaphors. A refreshing call to action in todays troubled times. Thank you, Rabbi Jacobson, for your eloquent, altruism-imbued reflections!

Do we expect too much or too little
17 years ago

When we live by our expectations; we are not receptive to the wisdom of our body which directly responds to Ashem. It is that wisdom that is never limited by our mind.

17 years ago

Guess our national leaders didnt expect this, hmm? On Thursday, Darrell Scott, the father of Rachel Scott, a victim of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, was invited to address the House Judiciary Committees subcommittee. What he said to our national leaders during this special session of Congress was painfully truthful.

They were not prepared for what he was to say, nor was it received well. It needs to be heard by every parent, every teacher, every politician, every sociologist, every psychologist, and every so-called expert! These courageous words spoken by Darrell Scott are powerful, penetrating, and deeply personal. There is no doubt that God sent this man as a voice crying in the wilderness. The following is a portion of the transcript:

Since the dawn of creation there has been both good & evil in the hearts of men and women. We all contain the seeds of kindness or the seeds of violence. The death of my wonderful daughter, Rachel Joy Scott, and the deaths of that heroic teacher, and the other eleven children who died must not be in vain. Their blood cries out for answers.

The first recorded act of violence was when Cain slew his brother Abel out in the field. The villain was not the club he used.. Neither was it the NCA, the National Club Association. The true killer was Cain, and the reason for the murder could only be found in Cains heart.

In the days that followed the Columbine tragedy, I was amazed at how quickly fingers began to be pointed at groups such as the NRA. I am not a member of the NRA. I am not a hunter. I do not even own a gun. I am not here to represent or defend the NRA – because I dont believe that they are responsible for my daughters death. Therefore I do not believe that they need to be defended. If I believed they had anything to do with Rachels murder I would be their strongest

I am here today to declare that Columbine was not just a tragedy — it was a spiritual event that should be forcing us to look at where the real blame lies! Much of the blame lies here in this room. Much of the blame lies behind the pointing fingers of the accusers themselves. I wrote a poem just four nights ago that expresses my feelings best. This was written way before I knew I would be speaking here today:

Your laws ignore our deepest needs,
Your words are empty air.
Youve stripped away our heritage,
Youve outlawed simple prayer.
Now gunshots fill our classrooms,
And precious children die.
You seek for answers everywhere,
And ask the question Why?
You regulate restrictive laws,
Through legislative creed.
And yet you fail to understand,
That God is what we need!

Men and women are three-part beings. We all consist of body, mind, and spirit. When we refuse to acknowledge a third part of our make-up, we create a void that allows evil, prejudice, and hatred to rush in and wreak havoc. Spiritual presences were present within our educational systems for most of our nations history. Many of our major colleges began as theological seminaries. This is a historical fact. What has happened to us as a nation? We have refused to honor God, and in so doing, we open the doors to hatred and violence. And when something as terrible as Columbines tragedy occurs — politicians immediately look for a scapegoat such as
the NRA. They immediately seek to pass more restrictive laws that contribute to erode away our personal and private liberties. We do not need more restrictive laws. Eric and Dylan would not have been stopped by metal detectors. No amount of gun laws can stop someone who spends months planning this type of massacre. The real villain lies within our own hearts.

As my son Craig lay under that table in the school library and saw his two friends murdered before his very eyes, he did not hesitate to pray in school. I defy any law or politician to deny him that right! I challenge every young person in America, and around the world, to realize that on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School prayer was brought back to our schools. Do not let the many prayers offered by those students be in vain. Dare to move into the new millennium with a sacred disregard for legislation that violates your God-given right to communicate with Him. To those of you who would point your finger at the NRA — I give to you a sincere challenge. Dare to
examine your own heart before casting the first stone!

My daughters death will not be in vain! The young people of this country will not allow that to happen!

Do what the media did not – – let the nation hear this mans speech.

17 years ago

Dear Rabbi Jacobson:

I read your last mail with some dismay. I took your class at the Open Center and enjoyed hearing you speak and thank you for sending me your writings. Your agreement with David Brooks column, The Morality Line prompted me to reply. I find him to be essentially a dishonest man, he is moralistic in the worst sense and often uses moronic reasoning in his columns to emphasize the righteousness of his viewpoint, a narrow judgmental, political view. In this column he makes a link between trying to make explanations or what may motivate human behavior and making excuses for behavior. This is typical of Brooks inability to think straight and linking two concepts, which are distinct, to attempt to make his point. It is a cheap trick.

Why oppose science and psychology for doing research on how the mind and consciousness works? What does this even have to do with problematic, bad or even crazy behavior, let alone excusing it? My favorite Jungian author, James Hollis has a new book out on the concept of the shadow (the unconscious part of oneself which often leads to problematic behavior). Whatever the concept may be the latest research has nothing to do with morality. If you are seriously interested in concepts of the self, you may read Stephen A. Mitchell or any other reputable psychologist.

As for lowering expectations — when people will say any crazy thing, as Brooks does, to make their point, when we live with leaders who are psychopaths………..what do you expect Rabbi? When hypocrisy rules and integrity becomes rare, what do you expect? When money and greed is our god, what do you expect? Even romantic love has more sway in our culture than any real faith…at least for many people. Watch the movies, listen to the music out there and tell me what is lowering expectations.

The Kabbalah is also a psychology of its time and place and simply one more projective system of the psyche. Thats what people do Rabbi, they project their own stuff onto others. Whether its the alchemists, the kabbalists………very few people are able to really think for themselves let alone take responsibility for it. If you are looking to admire someone in the Times, I highly recommend Paul Krugman who is a man who can think straight and has integrity. Or Frank Rick, his column on this latest rampage just about gets it right. Bob Herbert also has integrity. David Brooks is a sad choice for a moral man, since anyone who reads him carefully may find this hard to swallow.

Todays Times has a front page article on the gunman, a loner becomes a killer. I find this an encouraging sign, that we show some interest in understanding the dark side of human nature despite the cultures yearning for simplistic laws of attraction based upon magical thinking and a spirituality based upon such childish new age beliefs.

Most sincerely,


Dear A.,

I greatly appreciate you writing to me. I for one welcome dialogue and discussion even when someone may disagree with me. After all, thats how the best ideas emerge.

Regarding this particular issue, I happen to agree with your very reasonable points about not linking the legitimate and necessary search for behavioral motivation and the nature of human consciousness with finding excuses for human behavior. Even if Brooks was making that point, it was not my position. My view, as I wrote in my article, was not in any way to dismiss the study of human nature; anyone reading my writings could not accuse me of that. Rather, I was addressing all the factors — and you added a whole bunch more — that contribute to our lowering expectations of ourselves and others.

Where I disagree with you is this: I was not endorsing or rejecting David Brooks per se and his general theories. You seem to be more familiar with his general view on politics and morality, and you recognize him (as you write) as essentially a dishonest man…moralistic in the worst sense and often uses moronic reasoning… I, on the other hand was simply reacting to some specific thoughts that Brooks made in this particular column. Im sure that you agree that even if Mr. Brooks is usually wrong (in your opinion) that does not mean that he can NEVER make a legitimate point. But regardless, by citing Brooks in my article, I dont feel that I chose Brooks as a moral man (a sad choice as you say). The moral men and women that I have chosen are not writers in the NY Times or any other newspapers — people who I dont personally know — but those that have demonstrated their morality in real life and in real time. I dont even look to admire these writers — and other pop cultural icons — as moral or spiritual paragons; they have, as we all do, their virtues and fallacies, and we can sift through their material and take the best and reject the rest.

I found your writing highly reasonable and balanced, so I can only assume that Brooks has consistently demonstrated to you a reprehensible approach. I am not that familiar with him and his writings to qualify me to agree or disagree with you. But I do respect your position and appreciate you pointing out Brooks flaws as well as directing me to the writers you respect. I will also check out the psychologists you mentioned.

Please continue to share your thoughts with me.

Best wishes,

Simon Jacobson

James Gawron
17 years ago

Dear Rabbi,

Someone must respond to Arlene160. Here are a few of her gems and I quote. The Kabbalah is also a psychology of its time and place and simply one more projective system of the psyche, Whatever the concept may be the latest research has nothing to do with morality and finally …when we live with leaders who are psychopaths……what do you expect Rabbi?
With the first statement we are informed that all thought can be reduced to the psyche. (The author makes it clear she prefers the Jungian version of the psyche) What one might ask her is if there is any possibility in her mind that The Kabbalah is not a psychology of its time and place but rather that Jungian Psychology itself is a hopelessly weak 20th Century form of Kabballah. By choosing to limit herself only to the psyche she isolates her own ideas from morality and religious faith (see the second quote as proof). Finally, unable to see the leadership of this country as morally responsible for defending us from attack, she lashes out and claims we are led by psychopaths.
It is this very article that makes Mr. Brooks look so good. Maybe it is Mr. Brooks dated delivery that upsets her or maybe it is her own expectation of an endless supply of grant money for old Jungian bromides that connect to nothing else. Not only is Professor Librescu’s heroic behavior inspiring to us all but I have heard that a Chabad House will open up on the Virginia Tech campus. What a breath of fresh spiritual air that will be. An endless diet of pure agnostic psychology (even the softer feminine Jungian form) and well……what do you expect Rabbi?

James Gawron

17 years ago

First of all, thank-you for yet another generally uplifting article. I look forward to the end of the week knowing that something will arrive from you in that vein. Or at least something that gets my “ire/Irish” up, sometimes enough to make a remark or two in response. This time it is both.

1. I too was impressed by the David Brook(s?) article in the NYT.

2. I can’t recall if the Brook(s?) column used the term “free will” or not. He probably did. I know you did. The point — his and your more fundamental point — on this is well taken. But the term “free will”, in my judgment, trivializes the mystery of human freedom. It skews this most mysterious phenomenon in the direction of philosophical bromides (Aristotle, Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas, and even Kant) which have little to do with human freedom. Ish and Ishah first instantiated human freedom. They most certainly did not exercise the bromide called “free will.” And it is to be noted neither Scripture nor classical Rabbinic texts (i.e. pre-Geonic) — with the famous exception of one of Rabbi Aqiba’s remarks — do not use this language even though Scripture and classical Rabbinism presuppose the mystery of human freedom

3. Your reference to the Bavli Gemara (at 26b) of tractate Rosh HaShana made me wonder. I checked the reference before taking “pen” in hand. It is a charming section filled with the apparently unintended wisdom of maidservants. Your account focused in on the secrets/mysteries of Torah. Fine. But why did you specify the ORAL Torah? The Bavli Gemara at this point does not. Are there not “secrets” of the Torah — either as Chumash or as the whole Tanakh — proper? Are you implying that the secrets of the Torah (Chumash/Tanakh) can come only through the Oral Torah? Isn’t that like bringing coals to Newcastle? Are you implying that the only access to the Torah (as Chumash/Tanakh) is through the Oral Torah; that Scripture can only speak for itself (including its secrets and mysteries) through the medium of the Oral Torah? Is it not possible that forcing Scripture to speak through the lens of the Oral Torah is a distortion of Scripture and guarantees that the secrets of Chumash and of the Tanakh in general will not be revealed to us? When I ask these questions people sometimes believe that I am a naïf or a simpleton such as the wannabe convert who wanted to learn only the Written Torah but not the Oral Torah as is related in the Bavli Gemara to tractate Shabbat at 31b; or worse that I am arguing for a return to Tsadduqeanism or Karaism. Let me assure you that those two Movements have virtually zero appeal to me. They keep Judaism away from its burning living center much more — orders of magnitude more — than the tendency of Rabbbinic Judaism to put the Oral Torah as prism by which to approach Scripture. Nor do I believe I am like the wannabe convert. [[I happen also to maintain that the presentation of Hillel’s manner of treating the wannabe convert does have a truism validity about it, but that vignette does not all do what many say it does: validate the Oral Torah <> as a necessary condition for approaching Scripture.. Phwew (sp?)! I got that off my chest.]]

4. The “Ayin” of which you speak. Is that the “Ayin” of Qabbalah [[apparently generated from a torturous reading of Job 28:12]]? If so, is that not a false Ayin? After all such an Ayin is “””””really””””” not nothing at all. Rather it is a super-abundance of plenitude which — due to the limitations of our finite minds and our finite language — seems as “nothing” compared to our experience of ordinary reality. As such it is anything but nothing. The true and “real” nothing [[one must end up speaking oxymoronically in these matters]] the utterly vacant tehiru devoid of even a reshimu of Divine light as postulated by Rabbi Nachman of Uman.

Yeah. I have an agendum. I challenge many of things you say. Even so I still look forward to your end of the week offerings. thank-you.

You are invited to confer my website http://www.theteshuvahtrilogy.com

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