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Parashat Vayera 5773 — 10/31/2012

Parashat Vayera 5773 — 10/31/2012

R. Levi said: “The Judge of all the earth shall not do Justice.” (18:25)  If You want a world, there can be no Strict Justice.  But if You want Strict Justice, there can be no world.  (Bereishit Rabbah 49:9)

Rashba (R. Shlomo ben Aderet, Barcelona 1235-1310, student of Ramban) elaborates: The world could not exist with either justice or Mercy by itself. It could not exist with Justice by itself, because there is no man so wholly righteous on earth that he always does good and never sins (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Every person sins; and every person who sins would immediately be smitten by the Attribute of Justice, such that the world would become desolate. As our Midrash states (Rashba paraphrases), “If You want strict justice, You do not want a world.” Similarly, if the world were created solely through the Attribute of Mercy, it could not exist, for the Attribute of Mercy would forgive everything, and there would be no difference whether a person served Gd or denied Him. The purpose of Creation would thus be thwarted, for we were created to serve Gd, to choose good and eschew evil [and to be rewarded or punished accordingly]. The world therefore requires both Attributes to be fused together: the Attribute of Mercy is necessary to give the sinner a chance to repent, and the Attribute of justice is necessary to punish the sinner, in this world or the next, if he does not choose to do so. (Artscroll commentary ad loc)

There are many places in Torah and in the Talmud where a measurement is specified: tithes must be exactly 10% of the crop; the spices that go to make up the incense must have precise proportions and so forth.  In some cases, including the incense mixture, the consequences of making a mistake are quite severe – the Talmud specified “if one left out [some of] any one of the spices, he is subject to death [at the hands of heaven].”  Consequently there is some discussion in the Talmud as to whether it is possible to measure precise amounts, and if it is not, how one gets around the consequences.

Now the issue of whether or not human beings can be precise in measurement revolves around two points: (a) the capability of human senses and (b) the nature of reality.

The first point, regarding our ability to sense small differences, would seem to be fairly straightforward.  It is clear that our senses are limited – that’s why we build measuring instruments.  Nobody knew, for example, that Jupiter had satellites until the telescope was invented.  The separation between Jupiter itself and its moons is simply to small for the unaided human eye to resolve at their distance from earth.  The sense of touch can resolve two pinpricks (i.e. sense that there are two pins instead of one) on one’s fingertip down to perhaps a millimeter or so separation, but not a whole lot closer than that.  Similarly all 5 senses have limits below which signals cannot be distinguished.

This lack of ability to perceive below certain limits with the unaided senses has halachic consequences incidentally.  For example, it is forbidden to eat “creeping creatures” which includes virtually all invertebrates.  Now the minimum amount of “eating” for which one is liable is, in most cases, an amount the size of an olive.  The exception to this rule is that a whole creature is considered significant in and of itself, and therefore eating one is as serious a violation as eating an olive’s worth.  Recently the water in New York City has been found to have many small, aquatic creatures in it.  Since these creatures are visible to the naked eye it is forbidden to drink the water without removing them.  Now virtually all drinking water (except perhaps bottled purified water) has microsopic creatures living in it.  By definition “microscopic” means you can only see them under a microscope.  But creatures that are not visible to the naked eye are halachically non-existent, and therefore, because of the limitation of our senses, one can drink that water.

The second point has to do with the nature of the objects being measured.  Take the spices used in the Temple incense for example.  The relevant passage from the Talmud (Kereitot 6a) is quoted in the daily preliminary service:

There were 11 kinds of spices: stacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense each weighing 70 maneh (1 maneh = about 20 oz); myrrh, cassia, spikenard and saffron – each weighing 16 maneh, costos – 12 maneh, aromatic bark – three; cinnamon – nine.  (Cf. Artscroll expanded siddur, nusach Ashkenaz, pp 36-7).

Now each of the plants involved was very finely ground, which means it consisted of tiny grains.  The point is, none of these spices was continuous, able to be measured out in any quantity at all.  Rather there was a minimum “quantum” of each spice, and if you wanted a completely precise to the 50th decimal place measurement, you probably can’t get it.  One more grain and you’re overweight.  One less grain and you’re underweight.  But an absolutely precise measurement is impossible.

Even in the case of liquids, which appear to us to be continuous, we now know this not to be the case.  Liquids are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, and these atoms and molecules are held to each other with weak intermolecular bonds as long as the temperature is below the boiling point of the liquid.  Thus, if we want to measure a certain volume of liquid, besides the effects of surface tension between the liquid and the sides of the measuring apparatus (Google for “Meniscus” for details, or go to, it may well be that one cannot get a precise volume because of the inherently granular nature of all physical substances.

When we turn to quantum mechanics the problem deepens.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that there is a fundamental lower limit to how fine a measurement we can make, no matter how good our instruments are.  Since, in quantum mechanics, a “particle” is not really a particle but rather a wave, any attempt to localize the particle is bound to fail – we are attempting to apply a mapping of our mental reality onto a physical reality that is fundamentally different from our concepts, and it is this mismatch that limits our ability to measure exactly.

The bottom line in this discussion is stated succinctly by R. Levi: Strict, absolutely exacting justice is simply not compatible with the creation as we know it.  Now Torah is not primarily concerned with how accurately we can measure things.  Gd does not make impossible demands on us – Gd requires that we do our best, and then the Talmud concludes: “Gd protects the simple.”

The  same approach can be taken in the spiritual realm as well.  We are, at our basis, pure, unbounded souls, but we inhabit finite bodies in order to be able to affect the physical world.  These finite bodies have their own agendas, and we are given free will so that we can choose whether to respond to our bodies’ agendas, or our souls’ agendas.  Given this fact, it is obvious that there will be times when we make the wrong choices, and when that happens, if we were subject to the full rigors of Strict Justice (midat haDin) we would be crushed.  If You hold onto our sin Gd, Lord who could stand up?! (Ps 130).

If this is the case, why did Gd create us with the ability (or propensity) to fail?  Perhaps we can understand this by considering the alternative – suppose there were no creature in the universe that had free will.  The universe would be an automaton, like a wind-up toy.  There would be no moral failure, because everything would proceed according to the laws of nature, like a gigantic clockwork.  But on the other hand, there would be no moral success either – no love, no altruism, no self-sacrifice, no emotions, no art or music or literature.  Is there anyone who would prefer this kind of perfection?  Apparently Gd doesn’t.  Apparently Gd so values our successes that he is willing to put up with our failures, our weaknesses, our wrong choices.  The only thing that Gd does demand is that when we fall, we reach out to the Hand He extends to us and pick ourselves up and keep striving upward.

Our Sages tell us that Gd created and destroyed many worlds before ours; every one had the wrong mix of Attributes.  Our world may not be perfect, but it is perfectable.  We may or may not live long enough to see world history brought to completion in the Messianic Era, but we have Gd’s assurance that if we do our part to make it happen, there will be ample reward for us to enjoy in eternity.