the number-driven life
Each morning when I sit behind the wheel of my car, I look at the odometer and do two things. First, I check to see what kind of poker hand I have. Second, I ask myself whether I will, today, drive through a palindrome. You know palindromes: numbers or words that read the same forwards as backwards, like "Ah, Satan sees Natasha," or 34643. Why should I care about a palindromic odometer reading? Why do I have an instant of irrational worry if, after dictating an operative note, the service tells me I've just dictated #341790? Superstition, you'll tell me, is fundamentally irrational. You might as well ask why I keep a hunk of wood in my pocket so that I'll always have something to knock on. (That's a joke. Not a good one, admittedly, but I'd rather you not think me a full bowl of Fruit Loops.) I'll cop to the knocking-on-wood being irrational. But the numbers? Baby, that's in the blood.
Imagine eleven-year-old me: a good-hearted, believing bar mitzvah-in-training, though not too good-hearted. Actually, I was a surly little bastard who resented the fact that all these Arcadians in my class were a full socioeconomic level above me, and they never let me forget it. Surliness is next to godliness (what, you never heard that one?) so my teachers (who inevitably pronounced my name Dog) frequently sent me to the library to, you know, soak up some Proverbial wisdom. That's where I discovered Chaim Potok's The Chosen, and through it, gematria.
Forget the Bible Code. The Jews got there a couple thousand years ahead of you guys. We've been crunching sentences into phrases, phrases into words, words into numbers, and numbers into even smaller numbers, because -- and I'm sure of this one -- we're not content to accept God's word at face value. You know that Biblical literalist bumper sticker, "God wrote it, I believe it, That ends it"? The Orthodox Jewish version would be, "God wrote it, now let's figure out what he really meant."
The only thing I remember from The Chosen was the gematria -- the way the rabbi wowed his Hasidic congregation with wild feats of numerical prestidigitation. If I remember correctly, someone comments to the protag that the rabbi's math is all wrong, but no one ever cared. And, the funny thing was, I didn't care either, because the idea of parsing the Torah into numbers that had meaning struck me as unbearably attractive.
I invite you now to delve into that wellspring of knowledge which has given a spiritual enema to Britney Spears, Demi Moore, and (the archetype of all Judaically born-again celebs*) Madonna: kabbalah. For gematria is, in fact, the mathematics of kabbalah. Here's that website again: The Art of Gematria.
So: is this stuff really in my blood, or did it merely get its teeth into me during my impressionable youth? I'm not sure. What I know -- what I feel -- is that numbers have a life beyond the abstract; that numerical functions have a foothold in reality that goes way beyond their graphical representation; that when we look at the world around us, we see a mathematical universe, or would see it, if only our senses didn't lie.
*Sammy Davis doesn't count. As far as I know, he really did become Jewish.