Setting the Bar High
Kol Nidre 5776
September 22, 2015 – 10 Tishre 5776
Congregation Bet Ha’am
Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Daniel Kish, born in 1966, has been blind since he was 13 months old when his eyes were removed because of retinoblastoma, which is a form of eye cancer. When Daniel was a toddler, he intuitively started clicking his tongue [click, click, click] to perceive the space around him, much like the way that bats use echolocation. Because of this, some people call Daniel Batman. No one taught Daniel how to do this, but plenty of people tried to make him stop. When Daniel was in school, the school called his mother, Paulette Kish, asking her to make him stop with his clicking. Paulette refused.
Paulette was willing to take a chance on what was possible rather than restricting Daniel’s childhood and ultimately, his world. When Paulette brought her son home from the hospital after his second eye was removed, her mother practically wanted Daniel wrapped in cotton to protect him from the world. This, too, Paulette refused to do. Rather than wrapping her son in cotton or bubble wrap, Paulette decided to dismiss her anxieties and allow her son to explore his world just as any seeing child would do.
Daniel was a climber even before he could walk. One day, the police brought him home after he was caught scaling a neighbor’s fence, completely blind. The police warned Paulette that he could have fallen, but this didn’t stop Paulette from letting her son explore his world. Daniel walked to school each day, climbed trees, and explored his world, clicking his tongue all the way. Today, he can hike, he can navigate foreign cities, and he can even ride a bike. Daniel Kish was riding a bike, fully blind, by the age of 6. He just had to click faster to take in more of his environment. One has to wonder how all of this is possible.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there’s a scientific component to what Daniel Kish is able to do. Research psychologist Bob Rosenthal conducted an experiment on rats on the impact that expectations of them would have on their behavior. He placed, in his laboratory, signs above the rats’ cages. Some of the signs said that the rat in the cage was incredibly smart. Others said that the rat was exceptionally stupid. Then, he brought in a group of researchers and assigned each of them a rat, letting them know that some of their rats were brilliant and others were quite dumb. In reality, none of the rats were known to be any smarter than any others.
The so-called smart rats did twice as well as the ones that were allegedly dumb. “The expectation that the experimenters carried in their heads subtly changed the way that the experimenters touched the rats and that changed the way that the rats behaved.” Stanford psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck says the same is true of people. We interact differently with those of whom we have low expectations. “A teacher’s expectations can raise or lower a student’s IQ score… a mother’s expectations influence the drinking behavior of her middle schooler… military trainers’ expectations can literally make a soldier run faster or slower.” Of course, there are limitations. No matter your expectations of me, I cannot fly across this sanctuary through the air.
Daniel Kish believes that many blind people should be able to hike, run, and ride bikes like he can, if only the expectation existed that they could. Their inability to do such things is not only about not going through the world clicking as Daniel does, but also about society’s telling blind people what things they cannot do. Part of why most blind people can’t ride a bike is because the rest of us tell them that they aren’t able to do it. If we changed our expectations of them, as a society, more blind people would not only be able to ride bikes, but actually see.
Daniel would tell you that he does not feel blind. Much of this is because his mother had high expectations of him, but there’s also a scientific component. Daniel’s visual cortex, when examined by neurologists, lights up on the screen in much the same way that yours or mine would, when it responds to his brain’s perception of his echolocation through clicking his tongue.
Our society, even organizations for the blind, say, “Blind people can’t do that.” These low expectations actually hinder blind people’s ability to function in the world. Today, most blind children go to school with their sighted peers, but often with a paraeducator who may, with the best of intentions, do the children’s work for them. “When you lighten someone’s load, you don’t allow them to expand.”
When Daniel was in 5th grade, another boy, Adam Shaible, who is also blind, joined Daniel’s school. Unlike Daniel, Adam couldn’t get around on his own. This was unnerving to Daniel. Adam had gone to a school for the blind. There he was always being led around. Adam felt unsafe in the world, terrified by it, because the world had expected him not to be able to function on his own, so when he had to function on his own, he simply couldn’t do it.
Tomorrow afternoon, we’ll read the story of Jonah, the unwilling prophet who flees his obligations and finds himself in the belly of a great fish. “Jonah is defined by fear.” From the first time that God calls upon him, he is terrified. Instead of going to Nineveh to prophecy against them, Jonah runs away and ends up aboard a ship causing its other passengers to throw him overboard in order to save their own lives. After being swallowed by the great fish, Jonah is spit out upon the land, where he finally completes his mission. But even then, he’s terrified after his success, when he gets upset that God forgives the people of Nineveh whom he was sent to warn. Why is Jonah so afraid?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his work The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, writes about Jonah’s fear of his own greatness, indicating that Jonah was running from his own potential. Maslow calls this condition the Jonah Complex. The Jonah Complex “is a fear of marshaling all of our talents, all of our capabilities and using them to transform ourselves into the people we ought to be.” Maslow says that this comes from a fear of responsibility. I think, perhaps, this fear also can stem from someone hearing from others that he or she is incapable of such responsibility. Adam Shaible heard over and over again, in words and actions, that he could not function on his own in the world and when it came time for him to function, he was gripped with fear by that responsibility because he’d been convinced that he could not do it. The opposite was true of Daniel Kish.
When his mother, Paulette, was asked by neighbors, teachers, and friends how she could let her son do things like climb trees and ride a bike, she would look at her son and think, “How could I not?” Of course, he got hurt at times, like one time when he went full speed down a hill on his bike and slammed into a light pole. But Paulette preferred that he get hurt from time to time than that he never get the opportunity to get hurt. Too often, people don’t do what Paulette did. Instead, we tell others, “You can’t do that.”
The expectations that we have of others can deeply impact their ability to succeed. On this final day of the High Holy Days, when we have hopefully done the work of seeking forgiveness from those whom we’ve hurt, it becomes our task to figure out how to do it better in the year and years ahead. It is possible that another’s Jonah Complex rests on our shoulders because we haven’t said often enough, “You can do that.” We haven’t encouraged others despite our fears of what might happen. We haven’t helped them to see their potential and help them realize it. Maimonides teaches that true repentance takes place when we’re faced with the same situation and we make a better choice. How will we set the bar high for others in the future? How will we hold them gently and with love believing – like those smart rats in Bob Rosenthal’s lab – that they have the capability to succeed? G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life. Shanah tovah.
Lobel, Josh. Yom Kippur: Embracing Our Inner Superhero Sermon. Los Gatos, CA: Congregation Shir Hadash, September 14, 2013.
Miller, Lulu and Alex Spiegel (Narrators). (2015, January 9), 544: Batman [Radio broadcast episode]. In Ira Glass (Producer), This American Life. Chicago: PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
 Lulu Miller and Alex Spiegel (Narrators). (2015, January 9), 544: Batman [Radio broadcast episode]. In Ira Glass (Producer), This American Life. Chicago: PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
 Daniel Norris in 544: Batman.
 Josh Lobel. Yom Kippur: Embracing Our Inner Superhero Sermon. Los Gatos, CA: Congregation Shir Hadash, September 14, 2013.