Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

‘Agents and Demons’ Parashat Behar-Bechukotai 5781

The Tochecha (Admonition) is a graphic description of what will happen if we abandon G-d and His Torah. It is read twice a year, once in the portion of Bechukotai and once in the portion of Ki Tavo. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [31b] teaches that the Tochecha is always read in close proximity to the holidays of Shavuot, the day commemorating the giving of the Torah, and Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement. This is in order to make its message more relevant: The Torah is the source of life. Leaving it will surely lead to death.

The Tochecha begins with a warning [Vayikra 26:15-16]: “If you do not obey Me and you do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you…” Noting the Torah’s subsequent warning [Vayikra 26:18] “If, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins”, our Sages in the Midrash suggest that the Tochecha presents a quid pro quo (mida k’neged mida) in which the Jewish People are punished for each of the seven sins enumerated in its opening verse[1]: [1] Not listening to G-d, [2] not performing His commandments, [3] rejecting His laws, [4] spurning His rules, [5] not observing His commandments, [6] breaking His covenant, and [7] not repenting for our sins[2]. Over the years, many of the commentators have gone down this path of quid pro quo, mapping the punishments in the Tochecha with the sins that caused them.

Midway through the Tochecha, we are introduced to the concept of “keri” [Vayikra 26:21]: “If you remain hostile (keri) toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.” Our Sages in Midrash, noting that the word “keri” shares its root with the word “mikreh (coincidence)”, assert that the Torah is adjuring us not to explain away our punishments as mere coincidence or happenstance. Only if we understand how we are being punished, can we understand why we are being punished.

Not recognizing this causal relation will result in deadly repercussions [Vayikra 26:24]: “I too will remain hostile (keri) to you: I in turn will smite you sevenfold for your sins.” If the Jewish People attribute punishment to mere randomness, to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then G-d will, quid pro quo, cloak His punishment in randomness, rendering it all the more difficult to recognize that we are being punished and making it impossible to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation. Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century, teaches that if the Jewish People do not get the message and if they remain blind to the cause and effect, eventually G-d’s quid pro quo response will begin to break down. Additional randomness will be progressively added to the punishment until it becomes impossible to extrapolate the cause from the effect. G-d will go completely undercover in what our Sages refer to as “Hester Panim (Hiddenness of the Divine Countenance) [3]”.

Before presenting an alternate explanation for the concept of “keri”, some historical background is necessary. We were rudely introduced to the concept of phantom traffic jams in the summer of 2005. We were returning home to Manchester from Birmingham, where we had spent the day visiting Cadbury World, definitely one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was a Friday, but because Shabbat came in so late, we thought that leaving at 2:00 pm would give us sufficient time to get home and prepare for Shabbat. What should have been a short two-hour drive turned into a four-hour nightmare. Soon after we got onto the highway, traffic suddenly came to a standstill. About thirty minutes later, just as suddenly, the traffic dissipated. This cycle repeated itself multiple times. The fascinating thing was that there we could see no discernible cause for the traffic jams — not an accident nor a policeman with a radar – nor was there a clear reason for their sudden dissipation.

Phantom traffic jams are easily modelled and can be reproduced and predicted using simulations. Each car is modelled as an “autonomous agent” or “cellular automaton”. An autonomous agent senses the environment and reacts to stimuli via a set of rules. A well-known autonomous agent is “Conway’s Game of Life”, devised by John Conway in 1970. The Game of Life is played on a grid, where each point on the grid is either “dead” or “alive”. The state of a point is determined by its immediate neighbours: not enough living neighbours causes a point to die of loneliness while too many living neighbours causes it to die of starvation. The game is run iteratively, where at each iteration, or generation, each point on the grid re-evaluates whether it is dead or alive. When visualized, the Game of Life exhibits interesting and predictable patterns. Highway traffic can be modelled as a set of autonomous agents, where each agent (car) will attempt to maintain a certain speed and to keep its distance from nearby agents. Simulations can demonstrate how small perturbations to the system, such as one driver hitting his brakes or one car merging onto an already-full highway, can cause traffic to quickly come to a standstill. Autonomous agents can also be used to simulate pedestrians. In 2015, a stampede that broke out in Mecca caused the deaths of more than 2400 pilgrims. Subsequent modelling and simulation showed how the stampede was the result of traffic patterns that were shaped by a four-story pedestrian bridge. Oddly enough, that bridge had already been redesigned after a similar incident in 2006.

The use of autonomous agents to simulate traffic is somewhat dehumanizing. Human beings — both drivers and pedestrians — their thought processes, their decisions, their goals, and their conscious, are reduced to a point on a grid that blinks on or off according to a few simple rules. Life becomes deterministic and freedom of choice ceases to exist. It is almost demonic. This concept of causal determinism was formulated by the French mathematician and physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace. Laplace hypothesized the existence of a “demon” that possesses complete knowledge of the universe at any particular time, allowing it to perfectly predict the future and flawlessly retrace the past via the laws of mechanics.

With our newly-found knowledge of agents and demons, we can revisit the concept of “keri”. Rather than equating “keri” with the word “mikreh (coincidence)”, I propose equating “keri” with the word “kara (happened)”. I suggest that that the Torah is adjuring us not to face life deterministically, as a series of events that transpire while we stand back and watch helplessly. Man is adjured to use his freedom of choice to counter determinism. He is ordered to shape his future according to G-d’s will. The Tochecha warns us that if we refuse to accept this mission, if we allow the world to be governed by deterministic laws of physics, then G-d will grant us our wish and He will no longer shield us under His Divine wings.

Last Thursday, on the holiday of Lag Ba’omer, tens of thousands of Jews flocked to the town of Meron, as they do every year, to celebrate at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. For reasons that are still unclear, a stampede ensued and forty-five people were tragically crushed to death. This stampede, like the one in Mecca, could easily have been predicted using autonomous agents. It was an accident waiting to happen. I would never, Heaven forbid, attribute this tragedy to punishment for some sin but we must, nevertheless, learn something from it. The tragedy in Meron could and should have been prevented, by reducing the number of celebrants or by using autonomous agents to adjust the topography of the site in a way that made extreme overcrowding less probable. Instead, we acted with keri, daring the laws of mechanics to work. G-d did not intervene and forty-five people lost their lives. As we read the Tochecha this week, let us vow to act as agents of G-d, not with determinism, but with determination.

Yehi zichram baruch – May their memory be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] This list is the one proposed by the Or HaChaim HaKadosh. It differs slightly by the list proposed in the Midrash Sifra. For our purposes, it will suffice.

[2] “Not repenting” is not explicitly mentioned in the opening verse of the Tochecha but it appears numerous times in the course of the Tochecha.

[3] The approach of the Or HaChaim HaKadosh can be used to explain an ensuing verse [Vayikra 26:28] “I will act against you in wrathful hostility (hamat keri)”. The term “hamat keri”, literally “the heat of keri”,  can be understood as randomness that has been repeatedly amplified.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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