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Who Is Guilty?
Beyond the Usual Suspects
By Simon Jacobson

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 atrocities like this.

One article that stands out amidst them all is David Brooks’ The Morality Line in the April 19th issue of the 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.

Did anyone 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”, we as Jews are tugged by the standards of human behavior established by Torah, which has 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. It tells us about the enormous power we each have to move worlds and define destiny – our own and the universe’s – through our personal choices. How our individual difficulties become springboards to reach the most glorious spiritual 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, seduced by the distractions of the here and now, the Torah yanks you right back and tells you: 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).

Torah carries us – if only we allow ourselves – on its wide wings to places hitherto unknown, to unimaginable heights. When you immerse yourself in the study and the vision of Torah, 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.

Events today help us appreciate our heritage. So, here’s a toast to the Torah which has helped the Jewish people rise to the greatest heights. Despite our challenges throughout history, in times far harsher than today, the Torah has allowed us to transcend our immediate circumstances and actually use our difficulties to propel us to the highest standards of human dignity, helping us be the best we can be, to expect the most of ourselves and others.

Posted on April 20, 2007
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