In her fascinating musings on the exodus story called The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on the Exodus, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg weaves insights from Jewish tradition, mystics, and contemporary psychology into her often-compelling but sometimes dense tome. Especially interesting to me was her take on the inevitably of struggle, utilizing the Israelites and their long exodus journey from slavery through a wilderness. She calls this the “crooked road” of the wilderness, wrought with questions, confusion, and failure along the way. She writes:
Their “crooked road” into the wilderness gives them, paradoxically, a freedom to think, to ask their subversive, sarcastic questions. It gives them, also, the outrageous freedom to “zigzag,” not only geographically but intellectually, emotionally. The road that is akuma (“crooked,” “devious”) threads through places of vision and faith and, adjacently, places of doubt and revision. It makes possible a journey that is like a graph curve (a modern Hebrew meaning for the word, akuma), zigzag lines joining highs and lows, discontinuities that are intellectually baffling to the reader, but that are presented by the narrator in a matter-of-fact, empirical spirit: this is the way it was; this is the way it is. These discontinuities cannot be avoided, or dispelled.
In our chronological arrogance, we might think ourselves more wise than the former slaves who traversed the wilderness terrain, less prone to fail or to get it wrong. But this “empirical spirit” tells a story, our story, a story where our walk or our doctrine cannot be perfected. No doubt, we continue to walk. And we continue to theologize. And we speak what we believe. But we do it knowing that our way is crooked.
Our best theologizing only approximates God’s truth.
Our best days only hide our deep blemishes.
Our most noble acts conceal selfish ambition.
This is the way it was. This is the way it is.
Her words invite you and me to tremendous self-compassion. We beat ourselves up for our failures. We feel that gut-wrenching ache of humiliation when our concealed self leaps to the fore, exposing parts of us that we despise or fear or simply prefer to remain in hiding. Her words invite us to extraordinary compassion for one another, with whom we disagree and misunderstand and resent. This compassion is the soil of real forgiveness.
We are living paradoxes. And we don’t know how deep the rabbit hole of contradiction goes. This is an empirical reality. It’s a theological belief. And yet, it does not often lead us to humility. More often than not, those of us who believe in man’s crookedness most deeply are the least compassionate, the most condescending, and more apt to be “blind guides, straining gnats while swallowing camels” (Matt. 23:24). I count myself one much of the time, sadly.
On the crooked road, our waywardness requires humility. It requires community, because we need help, a hand to pull us out of the ditch. It requires honesty. And it requires intense purpose, a single-minded focus on entering that new land, rather than creating false oases along the way.
So, walk the crooked road. And be mindful of those stumbling along the way next to you.