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This book is about problem solving. It draws on an ancient tradition whose history has been plagued by endless problems and hardships. Necessity is the mother of invention—and of solutions. In this case, circumstances permitted the evolution of an astute, shrewd way of looking at life—an approach that Jews call
literally, "Jewish head."
is neither a method nor a system of knowledge, but the accumulation of a minimal
"critical mass" of problems needed to trigger a conscious,
existential process of questioning the notion of impossible.
represents the turning point at which, after having given up hope, you recover the twinkle in your eye and dare to jump back into the game. It is that unique capacity to turn the tables and checkmate your opponent when you're up against the wall, to reject conventional thinking that keeps you stuck in a losing position and reframe yourself as a master of options that you simply hadn't thought of before.
The solutions produced by
remind me of the old Flash Gordon serials, where episodes often ended with our hero in extreme danger, seemingly beyond the point of rescue. We were convinced:
"Now he's had it—there's no way out." By the time the next episode was aired, we had gone over all the possible means of escape and found none. Of course we felt we had been tricked when the story began with a replay of the final moments of the previous episode, only now a totally new element was introduced—a rope, a weapon, a hidden ally. We were sure that this element that enabled our hero to escape had not appeared in the original scene. It is precisely this kind of blindness that prevents people from recognizing the factors that make for novel solutions—and that perhaps explains the audacity of certain producers and directors.
The hidden option is the one that we don't see when we first find ourselves up against a problem. When we manage to break the bonds of standard solutions, we are surprised to discover these hidden windows.
Take the solution of a classic problem in geometry: a given point on a two-dimensional plane cannot meet another point on this plane without passing through intermediate points on the plane. What seems impossible when viewed in two dimensions becomes possible when reframed in a three-dimensional context,
where that same point can now reach the other point on the same plane by traveling through the third dimension.
Or take Steven Spielberg's film
Raiders of the Lost Ark:
at an especially suspenseful moment, with the damsel in dire distress, the hero is challenged by a brawny wrestler deftly wielding a saber. Entranced by that mighty obstacle, the audience is surprised when the hero puts an end to the problem by simply whipping out his gun.
To an outside observer, the simplicity of a solution unlimited by our addiction to habit patterns and conventions—that is, a solution not biased by the deceptive
"aesthetics" of what first comes to mind—may seem even comical. A
is attained not so much through knowledge as through transcending a certain ignorance. There once was a television quiz show in which a contestant enclosed in a booth would have to choose a prize without knowing exactly what was being offered. "Will you trade a brand-new car for an old boot?" the host would ask, and the person in the booth would confidently answer
"Yes," much to the audience's delight. Being inside the booth—representing deafness, blindness, or ignorance—led participants to make absurd choices. Those outside our own "booths," or conditionings,
might observe much the same thing if they were to follow us around for a day.
could be translated as the moment when the fog of this ignorance dissipates. Its strength derives from the prospect of survival. Just as a dog defends itself by biting and a cat by scratching, Jews have learned to defend themselves by reframing situations to unveil amazing options. As survivors, they reaffirm and celebrate their successes.
is always a transitory condition—and whoever knows this won't give up. No other attitude fuels as much creativity or intuition as the decision not to give up. The simple fact that you choose to stay in the game affords possibilities that quite obviously will not exist for someone who has thrown in the towel.
This story comes from the Middle Ages:
child was found dead in a village. A Jew was immediately accused of committing the crime and of using the victim in some macabre ritual. Thrown in prison, the man knew he was a scapegoat and stood no chance at the forthcoming trial. He asked to see a rabbi and was granted his request.
When the rabbi arrived, he found the man in despair over the death sentence that he was sure awaited him. The rabbi comforted him: "Don't ever believe there is no way out. The Evil One himself, God forbid, will tempt you with that thought."
"But what shall I do?" asked the anguished man.
"Just don't give up, and you will be shown a way out."
When the day of the trial arrived, the judge wanted to pretend that the accused would he allowed a fair trial and a chance to prove his innocence, so he said to the prisoner:
"Since you Jews have faith, I will let the Lord decide this matter. On one piece of paper I will write the word 'innocent' and on another one, 'guilty.' You will pick one, and the Lord will decide your destiny."
As the Jew had guessed, the judge prepared two pieces of paper with the word
"guilty" on both of them. Normally we would say that the chances of the accused had dropped from fifty to zero percent—there was no way he could select the piece of paper saying "innocent," since there was no such paper.
Recalling the rabbi's words, the prisoner meditated for a moment. Suddenly his eyes lit up with a new spark. He grabbed one of the pieces of paper and swallowed it in a gulp. The witnesses were upset: "Why did you do that? How will we know your destiny now?"
answered the Jew. "Just read what it says on the other paper, and you will know that I chose the opposite."
We discover that this man's chances were only zero percent if viewed within certain confines. Through a cunning born of necessity, he created a new context in which his chances of overcoming adversity jumped from zero to one hundred percent. In other words, reframing the situation made it possible to turn reality upside down.
The purpose of this book is to study Judaism's intimate relationship with the process of reframing—the secrets of which, in fact, lie at the very core of
Judaism's proclivity for observing reality with caution. Since ancient times,
the kabbalistic tradition has maintained that reality is layered, like an onion. By peeling off layers one by one, we can dissect reality much more effectively than if we perceive only one facet of it.
The four parts of this book are based on the idea that reality can be divided into four worlds, or four dimensions. What I offer is not so much a method for discovering solutions as a way of breaking out of structures of ignorance that fail to take into account the various aspects of reality.
These four worlds are represented by the four dimensions described by the Alter Rebbe:
Apparent Realm of What Is Apparent
Hidden Realm of What Is Apparent
Apparent Realm of What Is Hidden
Hidden Realm of What Is Hidden