An optimist sees the cup half full. The pessimist sees the cup half empty. The engineer sees a glass that’s two times too large for its contents.
I’ve been reading Rebbe, the recent tome written by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin on the occasion of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s 20th yahrzeit. It’s incredibly well written and, though there are many points on which the Rebbe and I would disagree, inspiring.
Our portion is Dvarim based on the second word of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ final oration to the Israelites prior to their entering the land and his death. It’s worth noting that the word in Hebrew for ‘word’ Davar can also mean ‘thing’. Indeed there is a strongly held Jewish understanding that words have power, both creative and destructive. Remember the first few verses of the Torah where God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.
One of the things I read about the Rebbe was his sensitivity to words. He never had a ‘deadline’ but rather ‘due dates’ with the understanding that when a task was completed it would begin the life of something else rather than indicate the demise of a project. In Hebrew, he never used the common word for ‘hospital’ Beit Cholim because it means ‘House of the Sick’ but rather said Beit R’fuah, ‘House of Healing.’ He knew that if someone was in a ‘house of the sick’ they might be less likely to get better as fast as they might in a ‘house of healing.’
The theory of anchoring was first formulated by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. In one of their first studies, participants were asked to compute, within 5 seconds, the product of the numbers one through eight, either as 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8 or 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1. Because participants did not have enough time to calculate the full answer, they had to make an estimate after their first few multiplications. When these first multiplications gave a small answer – because the sequence started with small numbers – the median estimate was 512; when the sequence started with the larger numbers, the median estimate was 2,250. (The correct answer is 40,320.)
In another study by Tversky and Kahneman, participants observed a roulette wheel that was predetermined to stop on either 10 or 65. Participants were then asked to guess the percentage of the United Nations that were African nations, participants whose wheel stopped on 10 guessed lower values (25% on average) than participants whose wheel stopped at 65 (45% on average). The actual percentage, I think, is 28%.
When he sang Ani Maamin, I believe in the coming of the Messiah, the Rebbe would never sing the words for ‘and even though he tarries’ but rather would hum the notes normally paired with those words with the idea that simply by avoiding articulating the idea that the Messiah might tarry would bring him sooner than later.
Shabbat is a time to hum those words rather than state them as it’s supposed to be a time of anticipating the world to come and not putting it off for yet another week.
The Rebbe may have been an engineer but, in his use of words, he was an optimist. He tried to anchor us in life and health and a bright future.