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He Never Smiled:The Virginia Tech Shootings and Us

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Rabbi Beryl Wein tells the story of when he had Rabbi Mendel Kaplan as a high school rebbe in Chicago, just after Rav Mendel came to America from Europe. Rav Mendel did not know how to speak English very well. But he had an amazing knack in being able to interest and motivate his students, even though they were red-blooded young American boys, and he was European. He would often utilize unconventional methods in his teaching.

One day, he had the following brainstorm idea. He told his boys that he really needs to learn how to speak English better, and he wanted the boys to teach him. Here was the deal. Every day, Rav Mendel would bring in the newspaper. The boys would read him the paper; they would teach him how to read English, and in return, he would teach them how to read the news! He explained that one has to know how to understand world events, what lessons should be take from them. It's not enough to simply read the facts and get a general understanding for what's going on in the world. One must read the news in depth, analyzing and internalizing the true lessons of human behavior and outlook that should be gleaned.

With this in mind, we come to a most tragic news story which shocked America this past week. As we all know, a 23 year old student turned gunman, originally from South Korea, Cho Seung-Hui, randomly and indiscriminately shot and killed 32 Virginia Tech college students and teachers, before killing himself. Let us read some of the comments from those who knew him before he went on his killing spree, and see if we can derive some personal lessons, trying to emulate Rav Mendel Kaplan's approach to reading news.

News reports said that he may have been taking medication for depression and that he was becoming increasingly violent and erratic. "He was a loner", school spokesman Larry Hincker said. A student who attended Virginia Tech last fall provided violence-laced screenplays that he said Cho wrote as part of a playwriting class they both took. "He was very quiet, always by himself," neighbor Abdul Shash said, "Cho would not respond if someone greeted him."

Classmates painted a similar picture. Some said that on the first day of a British literature class last year, the 30 or so students went around and introduced themselves. When it was Cho's turn, he didn't speak. On the sign-in sheet where everyone else had written their names, Cho had written a question mark. "Is your name, `Question mark?'" classmate Julie Poole recalled the professor asking. The young man offered little response. Cho spent much of that class sitting in the back of the room, wearing a hat and seldom participating. In a small department, Cho distinguished himself for being anonymous. "He didn't reach out to anyone. He never talked," Poole said, "We just really knew him as the question mark kid."

Everyone who knew Cho, said they never saw him smile and the most he would ever say would be one word answers to questions.

We clearly see that what contributed to this person becoming a madman was his total and extreme lack of social contact. He never smiled and he barely talked. Though some people tried to make small-talk and act friendly, he refused to participate and respond in kind. He never found that one person he could connect with; he never found a friend.

We are reminded from this story how vital friends are to a human being's lifeline. We blatantly see how important it is to be sociable with people, to say hello to them, to give them a warm greeting. Even if they resist our overtures, we must continually try to get through their self-inflicted social blockade.

And for ourselves, we are taught from this tragedy how significant it is to smile, for our own mental health and well being. The following poem, whose author is unknown, brings this point out so well:


It costs nothing, but creates much.
It enriches those who receive, without impoverishing those who give.
It happens in a flash, and the memory of it sometimes lasts forever.
None are so rich they can get along without it, and none so poor that aren't richer for its benefits.
It creates happiness in the home, fosters good will in business, and is the countersign of friends.

As our Sages tell us, a smile and a kind word cultivate an undernourished self-image:

"Better to whiten your teeth (smile) at your friend than to give him milk (even if he's very thirsty)" (Talmud Ketubot 111a).

The saying goes that "It takes 37 muscles to frown. And 22 muscles to smile. So Smile. It conserves energy."

Whether this is scientifically true has yet to be proven but human experience teaches us that smiling definitely gives one more energy to live and to love. This is true even if one forces himself to smile.

As Barbara Mikkelson writes: "In a 2002 study performed in Sweden, researchers confirmed what we already knew: that people respond in kind to the facial expressions they encounter. Test subjects were shown photos of faces - some smiling and some frowning - and required to respond with their own smiles, frowns, and non-expressions as directed by those conducting the experiment.

Researchers noted that while folks had an easy time frowning at what appeared to be frowning at them and smiling in reply to the photographed smiles, those being tested encountered difficulties when prompted to respond in an opposite manner to the expressions displayed in the images - they instinctively wanted to reflect what they'd been exposed to, answering smile for smile and frown for frown, and could not easily overcome this urge even when they were quite consciously trying to. Facial expressions do not merely signal what one feels but actually contribute to that feeling. If we smile even when we don't feel like it, our mood will elevate despite ourselves. Likewise, faking a frown brings on a sense of not liking the world that day."

The Virginia Tech tragedy will always be remembered as one of the worst events in the annals of U.S. history. And one of the very important lessons for us to walk away with from this event is to remember what everyone said about the killer: 'He never smiled.'

Rabbi Boruch Leff is a vice principal in Torah Institute of Baltimore. His book, Forever His Students (Targum/Feldheim) contains practical and powerful contemporary insights, inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory. For info on the book, email him at:



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