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‘Distinguished’ Parashat Shemini – Parah 5782

Most years, the portion of Shemini is read after Passover. This year, however, is a leap year. An extra month of Adar has been added to the calendar, pushing off Passover by thirty days and bringing the portion of Shemini forward so that it is read one week after Purim. The close proximity between Purim and the portion of Shemini uncovers similarities between the two that are not typically noticed in a regular year.

The portion of Shemini begins by describing the events of the day upon which the Tabernacle (Mishkan) was consecrated. After months of preparation, G-d’s fiery Divine Presence descends from heaven and enters the Mishkan. The entire congregation is overcome with joy. And then tragedy strikes: Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, offer [Vayikra 10:1] “a strange fire that they were not commanded to bring”. G-d strikes them dead and joy abruptly turns to mourning. Immediately after the tragedy, G-d commands Aaron[1] [Vayikra 10:9] “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages”. Our Sages in the Midrash link this prohibition to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, asserting that the two men were intoxicated when they entered the Tent of Meeting and were killed as a result. Others suggest that their drinking was only indirectly responsible for their deaths. Their intoxication clouded their judgement and as a result they offered a “strange fire”, a fire for which they paid with their lives. The Torah seems to support this understanding. After prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages by Priests (Kohanim) prior to administering in the Mishkan, the Torah continues [Vayikra 10:10]: “For you must distinguish between the sacred and between the profane, and between the impure and between the pure”. That is to say, drinking wine blurs the lines, making it difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, between good and bad, between doing what is explicitly commanded and what is not[2].

If the portion of Shemini is all about “distinguishing”, the holiday of Purim is all about not distinguishing. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [7b] rules, “A person must drink on Purim until he can no longer know [the difference] between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’”. The contrast is striking: the Priests in the Mishkan are forbidden from drinking wine so that they will be able to distinguish between good and evil while on Purim, we are encouraged to drink so that we will no longer be able to distinguish between good and evil. What is it about Purim that makes drinking so desirable?

Let us take a closer look at the commandment to drink on Purim. Notice that we are commanded to drink “ad d’la yada” – “until we do not know” while the Priests in the Mishkan are forbidden to drink before their service in order that they should be able “l’havdil” – “to distinguish”. What is the difference between “knowing” and “distinguishing”? Further, why does the Talmud simply direct us to drink on Purim until we do not know the difference between “Haman and Mordechai”? What do the words “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” come to add?

In order to continue, some background in autonomous weapons is necessary. Imagine a missile that is tasked with the mission of destroying a tank located many miles away and imagine that the missile needs to perform its mission autonomously, without any human intervention. The missile is given the target coordinates and a description of the target, say a T-14 Armata tank. After the missile is launched, it flies to the target area and it aims its seeker – the missile “eye” – at where it estimates the target should be located and it begins searching for the target. The missile locates the tank in the foliage and it locks on to the seam between the tank’s hull and its turret – the most vulnerable point on the tank. It tracks the lock point until impact and subsequent target destruction. Let’s take a closer look what is going on behind the scenes. The missile seeker video consists of an array of pixels, where each pixel corresponds to a color or a shade of gray. The seeker “sees” a picture but it does not understand what it is looking at. The capability of recognizing objects in an image is called “perception”.  Perception requires the seeker to send raw sensor data – and lots of it – to the Missile Master Computer (MMC). This is where the magic happens. The MMC runs Artificial Intelligence-based perception routines that take the seeker data and try to perceive what it is looking at. First, it tries to identify tanks using “deep learning”, comparing what it sees with models of tanks stored in a library in its memory and looking for a match. When it detects a tank, it runs a different set of algorithms that identify the tank’s turret (a long pointy thing with a cannon on it) and then it runs yet another algorithm to locate the seam that connects the turret to the hull. The MMC must perform its perception routines in dense forests, snowy tundra, and sandy deserts, in the presence of rain, dust, smoke. It must operate with a high degree of confidence that the missile will hit its target and not a passing school bus.

The Hebrew word for Artificial Intelligence is “bina melacutit”. The word “bina” – intelligence – comes from the word “bein” – “between”. Bina refers not to knowledge per se, but to the capability to distinguish between two, possibly very similar, objects. In other words, “Bina” means “perception”. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known by his acronym “Netziv”, who headed the prestigious Volozhn Yeshiva in the nineteenth century, notes that the Torah distinguishes between two objects by using one of two formats: [1] “Between A and B”, such as “bein tahor l’tameh” (between pure and impure) [2] “Between A and between B”, such as “bein hatahor l’vein hatameh (between the pure and between the impure)”. The Netziv asserts that the Torah uses the second format when it wants to distinguish between things that are similar. While distinguishing “between day and night” is easy – at noon it’s day and at midnight it’s night – “distinguishing between day and between night” means determining the precise instant during twilight when day ends and night begins.

Now we can begin to tie things together. For a Priest to serve in the Mishkan, an edifice that serves as a physical bridge between man and G-d, a place where the slightest misstep leads to death, he must be able to use all of his perceptive capabilities. He must distinguish between the sacred and between the profane. He must be able to draw fine lines between fuzzy concepts, even in combat conditions. He must not let himself be overcome, even momentarily, by the spirituality of the moment. The slightest amount of intoxication will throw bugs into his perception algorithms, amplifying the potential for a potentially fatal error in judgement.

The Purim Equation is much easier to solve. Haman is pure evil. His goal was the complete annihilation of the Jewish people. Mordechai is pure good. His goal was to rescue the Jewish People from extinction. We do not need to distinguish “between Haman and between Mordechai”. We do not even need to distinguish “between Haman and Mordechai”. On Purim, the raw data tells the whole story. There is no need for perception. We must know in our gut that Mordechai is blessed and that Haman is cursed: “A person [would have to be drunk] on Purim [before] he could no longer know [the difference] between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’”.

It’s that simple.[3]

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

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

[1] This is the only occasion in the entire Torah in which G-d speaks to Aaron by himself.

[2] Another instance of “distinguishing” appears at the end of the portion, where the Torah introduces the laws of kashrut.  The Torah summarizes these laws with the following verses [Vayikra 11:46-47]: “These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, for distinguishing between the impure and the pure, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.” This instance of “distinguishing” is less relevant to the topic at hand and so it is relegated to a footnote.

[3] If you think I’m referring to remarks made by Ukrainian PM Volodymyr Zelenskyy the day before Purim to the Israeli Knesset about Israel’s support for the Ukrainian war effort, you’re bloody well right I am.

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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