Flipside: Life sentences

"Throughout his incarceration, the man turns a lever, around and around, without the faintest idea what it is connected to."

ruthie blum 88 (photo credit: )
ruthie blum 88
(photo credit: )
'Think of a prisoner," the rabbi says, stroking his beard, "After spending all day, every day for 20 years performing the same dreary task of cranking a lever, he is released." "OK..." Adam says, leaning in more closely to gear himself up for the ensuing wisdom he is desperate to hear - words he is praying will help him. The rabbi continues, taking a deep breath and then deliberately exhaling slowly: "Throughout his incarceration, the man turns a lever, around and around, without the faintest idea what it is connected to - or what function it is fulfilling." "Yes?" Adam has difficulty containing his impatience. Particularly since the parable sounds thus far so potentially meaningful. So uncannily relevant. "And then?" "And then the man is released from the jail," the rabbi says, removing his glasses and cleaning them methodically with a handkerchief. If this were anywhere other than a rabbi's office, Adam would be tapping nervously on the desk, or fiddling with a paperclip by unfolding and refolding it until it broke in half. But decorum dictates that he behave out of character for once. If he is able to do so, it is in part due to the kippa on his head. So unfamiliar a fixture to his "look" is bound to have an effect on his "act." Like whenever he wears a jacket and tie to appear on TV. Suddenly, he finds himself speaking more formally. Using literary Hebrew as opposed to his hip Tel Aviv lingo to attack the government for its "appalling lack of humanitarianism vis-a-vis the elderly and the poor." "What happens when the man leaves the jail?" he asks, now removing his own glasses and wiping them on the tail of his shirt. The imitation is unconscious. Like the instinctive mimicking of someone removing a fleck from the corner of his eye. "Well," the rabbi says, crossing his hands, "the man goes around the building to inspect the other side of the wall where the lever was located - to see, finally, what it was the lever was operating. Do you know what he discovers?" "No," Adam says quietly, swallowing. He is totally engaged. "Nothing," the rabbi says, banging his fist on the desk. "Nothing?" Adam asks, waiting for something more substantial. "Nothing... but a wheel," the rabbi says, pausing to examine Adam's facial expression. "A wheel," Adam repeats, wracking his brain to understand the profundity. Wheel, he thinks. Wheel. The wheel of life? The wheel of fortune? The wheel of time? The wheel of history? "A wheel." "Yes," the rabbi says, satisfied with the contemplative efforts of his new student, this university professor who thinks he knows it all. With his fancy degrees and diplomas from Israel and Europe and the United States. This Jew in goy's clothing. "The point being?" Adam is baffled. "The point being that the man has been turning a wheel," the rabbi enunciates each syllable, "which has no function. No purpose. Mere manual labor for the sake of it." Adam purses his lips, then licks them - a habit he cultivated for uncomfortable silences at cocktail parties and lecture-hall podia. "Go on," Adam says in the tone that usually accompanies the packing of his pipe. "The man has two choices," the rabbi says, holding up his index and middle fingers. "Either he can bemoan the futility of his 'life sentence,' or he can actually get on with his life." At this, the rabbi makes a gesture that is somewhere between a shrug and a bow. Adam takes this to mean that "the rabbi has spoken." That his time in these chambers is up. His heart sinks. Like the way it does when the 50 minutes with his shrink have slipped away just when it dawns on him what he really needs to talk about. "I see," Adam says, not daring to allow the silence to cut short the discussion. "But..." "But what?" the rabbi asks. Adam notes a twinge of impatience in the rabbi's voice. "But what if this same prisoner gets released and discovers that the lever he has been turning actually does have a function?" Adam suggests, the animation of intellectual discourse replacing despair. "The point being?" the rabbi raises one eyebrow. He is clearly not pleased. "The point being that the man has been performing a necessary - even useful - task," Adam enunciates each syllable, "which has genuine purpose. Labor with fruit, so to speak. Yet he still bemoans the futility not only of his 'life sentence,' but of his life." "DO YOU keep kosher?" the rabbi asks. Adam is taken aback by the seeming non sequitur. "Uh, no," he says, surprised at his own embarrassment. "Do you lay tefillin in the morning? Pray three times a day? Keep Shabbat? Fast on Yom Kippur?" the rabbi interrogates, the animation of intellectual discourse replacing disdain. "No," Adam shifts in his chair. The rabbi smiles without a trace of condescension. "It's no wonder, then," he says, "that you are unable to understand - and that you feel imprisoned." That's what I get, Adam tells himself, for seeking this particular kind of counselling. Serves me right. But he is strangely compelled to hear more. "What do you mean?" Adam asks, with a peculiar mixture of irritation and hunger. Of all the things Adam has been accused of in his life, the inability to grasp philosophical concepts has not been one of them. "It's in the doing, you see," the rabbi says, with a peculiar mixture of irritation and compassion. Of all the people who have sought his advice, no one has ever challenged his presentation before. "In the doing," Adam repeats. "Thinking can get you just so far," the rabbi points to his temples and grins. "Not to mention give you headaches." Adam coughs a laugh. The reason he started seeing a psychologist was because of the increasing frequency of his migraines. "You're not trying to tell me that religious people don't get headaches," Adam says, steadying his kippa so that it won't fall off while he stands up. The rabbi shakes his hand as he leaves. "I'm trying to tell you that the soul follows the lever," he says. ruthie@jpost.com