The Kabbalistic Actuary – a short story

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Frank LeAmuk was used to carrying out his job as an actuary with skilled persistence, making sure the company had enough assets to meet their liabilities. He especially liked getting a big piece of squared paper, drawing lots of columns, writing figures down, and adding them all up. Where many of his coworkers enjoyed the interpretation much more, interpreting the results and making commercial decisions based on those results, Frank loved the numbers and formulas.

He didn’t quit the math when he went home either. There he’d put on a yarmulke as a sign of his faith in an infinite Being, and he delved into the mystical side of numbers. Gematria, a system that assigns different number charts to Hebrew letters, was his passion. He learned the traditional methods of calculating letters and words, systems that had been handed down from God to Moses, and kept alive by kabbalists throughout the ages. Armed with mystical commentaries, he would search the Biblical Hebrew text for meaningful nuances and subtle pieces of wisdom hidden in the numbers.

But he was always trying to find something new, something that hadn’t been discussed in the ancient texts. He wanted his own personal experience of seeing the Divine, and he sensed that he’d have this experience someday through these number systems.

As the years went by he grew both anxious and discouraged; sensing that he was somehow both closer and farther away from his goal, wondering if he’d ever have the esoteric experience, the epiphany he longed for. As Moses said to God, Frank would call out in prayer, “Lord, please allow me to see your face!”

He wasn’t morose; on the contrary, he always had a smile and a joke to share. “What did the Dalai Lama say to the hot dog salesman?” he’d ask a new co-worker. “Make me one with everything.” he’d answer. In all areas of life Frank took pleasure. He was in a constant state of joy from all that the world had to offer. His wife Eve and his four children most of all, but even little things like a Hershey’s Kiss would give him satisfaction. He had learned over time how to appreciate every blessing the Almighty sent his way, from Beethoven to Ben and Jerry’s.

But like cognitive dissonance, he experienced at the same time a spiritual yearning for the transcendental experience.

One day, in the month of Kislev, a quirk entered his brain. Was it the unseasonably warm weather? Was it the change in his routine due to the holiday of Chanukah? He did not know, but he felt compelled to call in sick and take a mental health day. The night before he had been going over calculations on the eight days of Chanukah, a favorite topic for kabbalists interested in Gematria.

Eight plus seven plus six etc. counting up all the candles that get lit during the entire holiday equal thirty-six, reminiscent of the light of creation, about which “God saw that it was good.” In Hebrew the word for “good” is “tov” which begins with the letter “Tet” which is equal to nine, multiplied by the four tiny crowns found on the Tet in the Torah scroll equals 36, and the other two letters of the word tov, which are vav and bet equal eight, symbolizing the eight days. All night Frank’s head spun with calculations, sometimes as his mind grew weary, his daily calculations slipped in, “as 36 is a square of six, the candles lend themselves to a quadratic equation.” He nodded off.

 Dreams of squares, triangles, hypotenuses and equations came and went throughout the night.

⅓       ×א     ⁿ    ÷      ∞     =     0

The next morning, feeling somehow different he took a mental health day from work. With his brain still hanging on to bits and pieces of the previous night’s calculations, he decided to go look at art. Some of the pleasure he got from math and geometry he also found in the clean lines and spatial compositions in classical art.

But as luck would have it the St. Louis Art Museum was closed from the public. Construction blocked his way from entering the drive to the building. He noticed someone else trying to make their way to the museum also, a young man with paint spattered all over his sweater. An artist, Frank figured.

“Hey, is there anyplace else good to look at some art?” Frank asked.

“Wash. U. has some neat things there.” the beatnik want-to-be answered.

Well, I’m not that far from Washington University, Frank thought. I might as well check out what they have.

As he entered the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum of Washington University, he had no idea how to find his way around so he just meandered. Before he knew it he was in front of something that was about to change his entire perspective on life.

There on the wall was a painting by an artist he had never seen before. “Variation II on Mauve Corner” by Helen Frankenthaler loomed before him. That’s a stupid title for a painting, he thought. It was only a foot by two feet but it had the presence of a larger piece of art. It stuck out from everything else in the room but seemed like a simple blotch of color. An outline of a rectangle caught his eye and then it hit him.

Wait a second. This is the artist who’s painting was defaced when a 12 year old smushed his gum on it in Detroit! Hmm..blotches of color worth a million and a half dollars. Well, I guess people will pay good money for anything.

But before he walked away, just out of the corner of his eye the pattern of the painting reminded him of something. It almost looked like the window frame he had looked out of earlier into the night right before he lit his menorah. Immediately the numbers jumped into his mind’s eye. A grid appeared on the lithograph. 288 square inches. $5208. an inch.

Just as the quadratic equation shifts into two dimensions in geometry, the numbers and Hebrew letters became transposed for him into three dimensions. At once the numbers became the letters and the letters became a reality that enveloped him from head to toe. He became one with the thought of every molecule of creation forming a grand pattern out to the cosmos that expressed the Infinite Being.

All things became intertwined in his mind. Frank was lifted up out of the museum into a loftier, lighter space. He traveled through time and understood all of his personal experiences in all his incarnations from the beginning of time, through an objective lens.

He wanted to cry, but he was transfixed. He wanted to speak, but he had no mouth.

Nothing is an accident. Nothing is an accident. These four words kept repeating in his mind and he wasn’t sure if he was saying them, or they were coming from another realm. He saw the boy putting the shiny gum on the painting, Helen Frankenthaler walking in Madrid in the hot sun, pages of lines and boxes melting like wax dripping from thirty-six candles.

How or when he returned home later he did not know. But speaking with his wife and kids, they could tell he wasn’t the same. “Abba, are you o.k.” his daughter asked. “I’m wonderful,” he answered.

They couldn’t put their finger on it, but they sensed a calmness about him.