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Jewish World Review / August 10, 1998 / 18 Menachem-Av, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg A fable: The Rat
in the Corner

IN THE HOUSE OF THE REPUBLIC, there is a light and airy room, open and inviting, with powder blue walls and white trim. Its old but well-preserved hardwood floor shines. It's simple and graceful chairs bring the Shakers to mind. Its republican simplicity invites, and its outward appeal is but the reflection of an inner integrity. The room has few adornments and needs none, any more than moral authority needs explanation.

But down in a corner of the room, its beady eyes glaring, its head and tail twitching, its sharp nails scratching on the polished boards, its long dark coat slimy and matted, its yellow teeth ready to gnaw at anything that comes within reach, there squats a rat -- feral, shrewd, eager for its next meal.

At first sight of the thing, you slam the door shut, turn around and tell yourself you only imagined it. But every time you steel yourself to open the door again, sure it will be gone, or that it was just a trick of the light, there it is. And it is growing.

Its fur is dirty brown now, its muzzle big, blunt, sniffing -- as if it fed on lies and rumors, deceptions and scandals that never stop. Yet it is still hungry. Ravening. The little pink paws patter, the claws ready to scratch and infect. The rat's presence fills the once spacious room, as corruption fills a house. Its existence can no longer be denied.

Already it is the only thing in the room, in the house, that anybody talks about. It cannot be ignored any longer. No one pretends it isn't there, the way people used to. They seldom talk about any other subject now. When they do, the rat's shadow lingers over it, too. Next time it will be even bigger. Even now you can smell its fetid, musty odor from across the room. You vow never to open the door again, never to look in again, but you will.

On the green lawn outside, the head of the household goes to and fro, smiling, waving, deflecting questions about the one and only topic. He is the picture of good cheer, but only the picture. He says he will talk about it all soon -- "completely ... truthfully'' -- under oath. "I am anxious to do it,'' he asserts. "But I hope you can understand why, in the interim, I can and should have no further comment on these matters.''

No, we cannot understand. Why should those who have lived in the shelter of this house, whose labor built it and faith sustained it, be shut out? Why can't we the people be told sooner rather than later, more rather than less?

Why the hurry to slam the door, board the helicopter, get into the limo, stride off? No, we don't understand. Or perhaps we understand too well.

If the man has been falsely accused, if he is the victim of baseless accusations, if he has not lied to us or under oath, let him gather himself like a lion, raise himself up and speak out like one wronged. Like an innocent man.

Let him act as a citizen with an honest grievance would -- not like a fugitive, furtive and evasive. Let him demand justice, not change the subject. If all these suspicions that have accumulated month after month have no basis, let him open the door of that room wide, invite the light in and be done with this shadowy thing forever.

Instead, he has denied all the accusations and insinuations with a curt comment or two, then fallen silent. He leaves any responses to his army of surrogates. Month after month. Now he begins to reap the doubt he has sown so assiduously.

For a time, he refused even to acknowledge his summons to testify. Now he approaches that duty in silence, talking about everything but the one subject that will not go away. Instead of a liberation, his date with the grand jury seems but one more burden, one more video appearance in a world only of appearances. And the rat grows larger in people's minds every day, when they dare think about it at all -- bloated, malevolent, carnivorous.

Another witness before another grand jury in another, more serious time finally cast aside dread and chose freedom -- the freedom only truth gives. The shadows disappeared, the burden was lifted, and light filled the rest of his years. To quote Whittaker Chambers in and as Witness: "It was not until months later, when I testified before the Grand Jury, that I spoke without reserve. Then it was no longer a question of overcoming my natural diffidence. By then, all defenses and shelters which ordinarily give the soul sanctuary in life had been torn down. Shyness, reticence, had become as incongruous as the legal fiction that I was still a person in the common sense of the word. I had ceased to be a person. By then I was a witness. ...''

And by then it was up to others to decide what they would do with Whittaker Chambers' truth. He only had to tell it, and he would lay his burden down. Surely that is what is meant when men say the truth will set us free. Not that speaking out will be easy, or have no consequences, or be painless. But only that duty will have been done. And that is enough. Then we can breathe free. Let others calculate and equivocate, maintain and explain, fret and stammer, and make whatever they will of our truth. That is no longer our concern. We have become witnesses. Nothing more, and at last nothing less.

What would happen if the head of state chose that course? The clouds would lift, the darkness depart, the shadows scatter. The rat, blinded by the sudden light, would be trapped, caged, got rid of. He would be gone to wherever rats go, back to the filthy sewers, never to be seen again.

No one would be afraid to enter that light and airy room again, least of all the head of state. He could look about unafraid, unflinching, at peace. It would all be behind him then. The truth would have set him free, in a way no lie ever can. And it would take nothing more than simple courage.

"Know this: Life is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.'' -- the great Chassidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate