Monday, March 31, 2008

The Zigzag Life

The Jewish Week 2/17/06

A couple of years ago, when visiting Jerusalem during the height of the Terror War, I had the pleasure of witnessing a series of skits presented by a popular Israeli theatrical troupe named Nalaga’at (“Do Not Touch”), consisting primarily of actors who are both deaf and blind. The touching production is entitled, “Light is heard in Zigzag.” At a time when Israelis reasonably feared that every bus ride, every cup of coffee, could be their last, when each mundane act contained tremors of impending apocalypse, they were inspired by the heroic daily activities of people for whom the simplest affirmations of life had become the ultimate triumph.

Adina Gal, one of the co-directors of Nalaga’at, said that when she began working with the group many of the actors had been contemplating suicide, but now they understood the contribution they could make to society. That in turn has changed her. "I always believed that there is no limit to the human spirit,” she said, “and, yes, today I know it, and this one of the biggest gifts I got in life."

For the dozen disabled actors of Nalaga’at, simple survival becomes an act of transcendence, and through their performance we begin to perceive sight and hearing in a different way, not as straightforward products of the eye, ear and brain, but as indirect perceptions, as resonant metaphors. We “hear” light in zigzag, just as the trembling Israelites “saw” the thunder at Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:15. Each moment of life vibrates with significance and sometimes the most powerful path to truth is the one that is least direct. Just as light and sound reach us obliquely, in waves, rather than in a straight line, so is life truly lived in zigzag.

Scientists and philosophers have long discussed the implications of linear versus cyclical time. Judaism presents us with a perfect balance of both. When I pick up the Kiddush cup on Friday night at 6:01 and finish the prayer at 6:03, I’ve moved forward two minutes in linear time. I’m two minutes farther removed from Creation – and that much closer to my death. But simultaneously I’ve tapped into distant memories of other Kiddushes on other Shabbats: I see my late father’s smile as I chime in with the final verse, I see my great grandparents, whom I never met, singing the prayer with their grandson, my father, at their side; I see Moses at Sinai reading off the fourth commandment, and I see God at Creation’s twilight, replenishing the Soul of the Universe. While I’ve undoubtedly moved forward by those two minutes, I’ve also tapped into a timeless cycle of an ever-present Shabbat.

Exodus 12 is one of my favorite examples of life in zigzag. Just as the Israelites are about to escape centuries of slavery with a dab of lamb’s blood on the door, we pause for a message from our sponsor. Moses gives the Israelites detailed instructions as to how Passover is to be celebrated generations into the future, right down to the matzah, the bitter herbs and the search for leaven. These slaves haven’t yet dipped their toes in the Red Sea and already they’re being given the school vacation calendar for 5766.

But that’s exactly the point. The first thing free people need is a calendar. They need to control time. And for Jews, a life of freedom is one where time’s tyranny is vanquished. We “pass over” the angel of death by conjuring an eternal present that lies beyond the destroyer’s grasp.

The zigzag path is normally associated with someone who is either drunk, learning how to ride a bicycle, skiing or fleeing a hail of bullets. Only the crow gets to fly directly to North Dakota; we have to zigzag by way of O’Hare. But how many of us would choose if given the option for non-stop, to take the least direct route – the path of the zigzag, the drunkard’s way?

Natan Sharansky did. When the former refusnik finally won his freedom after spending years in prison camps and a lifetime in Soviet captivity, his first supreme gesture as a free man was to walk in a zigzag across the bridge, to the other side where his liberators awaited. One would think that he would have run across, given his intense thirst for freedom and desire for reunification with his wife Avital. Yet when a Soviet officer ordered him to go straight over the bridge and make no turns, Sharansky said, “Since when have I started making agreements with the KGB? If you tell me to go straight, I’ll go crooked!”

Sharansky knew that life is lived in zigzag. History moves relentlessly forward, but to be fully human and fully free means to have the cherished ability to transcend time’s arrow and decelerate its monotonous, torrid pace.

A while back, a congregant in the hospital, recovering from a painful ski injury, recalled the 1998 film “Sliding Doors,” in which the protagonist’s future hinges on whether she makes it onto a departing train. The film gives us two versions, one in which she makes it and the other where the doors slide shut.

My congregant related the film to her own experiences, wondering what the past two hellish weeks would have been like had she veered left instead of right. She probably would have lived out those days in meaningless daily drudgery, not appreciating her good fortune, she surmised. When she heals from the injury, I suggested, she may find that her life has actually been enriched because she zigged when she should have zagged.

But such is the way of Judaism’s giant slalom. Replace the first “l” with an “h” and slalom becomes shalom. Through the zigs and zags of our wavy descent, our hellos become indistinguishable from our goodbyes and our descent lands us back on top of the mountain – ready to begin anew.

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