Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Chaos Theory:
Reflections on Life in the Sights of a Sniper

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Another time, in another place. I remember meeting with a man who was addicted to gambling. There were ink stains on his fingers, and a squint in his eye: years of reading the fine print in the paper, looking, he told me, for "the pattern." It had to be there, he was convinced, some meaningful set of data, some winning formula that would allow him to extrapolate and translate the victors of the past to winnings in his bets.

I thought of this man again in recent days. I am reminded of him as I watch the police in my county, the investigators in my back yard, the criminologists in the next neighborhood frantically scramble to solve this puzzle, and relieve us all of the death-dealing delusional psychopath known as the serial sniper. For it has to be there: a pattern, a predictability, some sense of meaning in the midst of this madness. There is a sense of grim determination: maybe we'll catch him by luck, it seems to say, but we can grab him for sure if we can only use our minds, and tease out a rational sense of what is coming next.

But there is no pattern. There is no predictability. And there is no sure fire winning formula we can use to win this game of chance, this random roulette.

It is a primal human need, this search for meaning. The very act of creation, detailed in the first chapter of the Torah, the story we tell of ourselves, is the imposition of order, upon a watery and formless mess. Only in Genesis, it is God who brings order. And the madman in our midst -- is claiming precisely the same identity.

The search for meaning is depicted, as well, in one of the best existential templates of our time, that television program appropriately called "Get Smart." For there, the enemy was everyone, and the enemy had a name. The enemy is "Chaos." And the forces of goodness and humanity and meaning and order went by the name of "Control."

Funny, that Control was a government agency. Fact and fiction blend together, but the goal remains the same. What would we give up of chaos, for a renewed sense of control? And is Big Brother watching, and waiting, for the moment when we reach that point?

We're getting e-mails once again from friends in Israel. Once again, as after September 11th, they want to know if we're OK.

Are we OK? The bus stop was deserted this morning, until the moment the bus pulled up. Then, some kids appeared out of the cars they had been waiting in. Some. About half of those who should have been there.

Are we OK? Children are asking why the can't go outside. Gas stations are shadows of their former selves, and its a really good time to get a table at that too-popular restaurant you've been wanting to go to. We tell our kids too little. Or we tell our kids too much. And when the lights are out, and the blankets pulled up, we wonder what to tell ourselves.

A friend said: well, it's worse in Israel. Another friend disagreed. Because there, at least you know why. And still we search for answers, and for meaning.

So here is my meaning for the moment, a lesson I have learned from watching the plumes of the Pentagon, and learned anew from living in the shadow of a sniper. Since September 11th, and again now, at every opportunity, I have been trying to convey to people -- this is what it means, to live in Israel. Now is the time to say: we are all Israelis.

But yesterday, with the roadblocks and the searches, with the disruption to everyone's lives in the search for a single person, in the delays and inconvenience and indignity and uncertainty, in the inability to just get to work on time, yesterday the Educator at our congregation said something else. Yesterday she said: "Today, we are all Palestinians."

No pattern. No predictability. But an insight and an understanding, because that is what human beings do. This time the realization that a full picture requires us to look through both sides of the scope.

Life is a crap-shoot. The odds are still in our favor. But still we spend our time, afraid of the random, making sense out of madness, trying with all our might to be gods ourselves, imposing order on chaos. Creating a world which feels safe once again.