The Speed of Light, Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, and You

I’m not really sure why, but a certain line in the Talmud (Ta’anit 8a) stuck in my mind: Blessings are not to be found in things that are weighed, or measured, or counted, but only in things that the eye cannot see.

Maybe it was because I always got straight A’s or A+’s in math from elementary school through 12th grade. For a few years I let it percolate in my mind, and only recently began to delve into a few of its implications. Up to this point, I have understood implications in various aspects of life.

First, absolute and fuzzy numbers and phenomena in the world:
1. Absolute: the speed of light, Avogadro’s number and Planck’s constant (whatever they are), Pi though its digits run infinitely after the decimal point.
2. Used to be absolute:
a. Einstein upset many of what were thought to be several of Newton’s absolutes.
b. Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky disputed one of Euclid’s most time-honored rules, declaring, essentially that two parallel lines can meet somewhere. (Here I made the mistake of consulting Google and quickly got totally lost.)

Second, the fuzzy ones that might not be what they seem:
a. Hotel website customer comments — until it was revealed that many are repeat people under different names, or paid for by the hotel.
b. Polls depend on whether or not the pollsters followed the hard-and-fast rules of poll taking.
c. Commercial product surveys and research — the classic is the study of bad hair days that found that men are less productive than women if they are having a bad hair day. However, the study was conducted by Proctor & Gamble, manufacturers of shampoo.
d. Reports of CEO salaries: The salary may be $100,000, but the bonus might be $15,000,000 or $20,000,000.
e. Even Tzedakah watchdog ratings on certain websites need to be examined: what percentage of overhead is acceptable to them – if it is 40%, or 30%, would you still donate?

Third, small errors in calculation or numbers:
a. Calculating the trajectory of a rocket to the moon can mean missing it by thousands of miles.
b. A small miscalculation on one part on the Challenger rocket, led to the
explosion and the deaths of the astronauts.

A few more miscellaneous ones:
a. For the common folk, the speed limit is an absolute, but not for emergency vehicles.
b. Your health:
I. Fasting on Yom Kippur – except for some people with diabetes or other
medical conditions. This is why some Siddurim and Machzorim have a Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) for Yom Kippur.
II. Only an endocrinologist can explain to a specific patient if having an A1C of 7.1 instead the standard of 7.0 as the upper limit is insignificant or that 4 points higher or lower blood sugar on a specific day is of no major consequence.
III. Health club and personal trainers will tell you when 8 more repetitions or 6 more pounds of weights is damaging to your body, or that you are moving too fast in your increases.
IV. Losing weight: Your physician may tell you that obsessive-compulsion with the number on the scale is not the most effective way to lose weight and keep it off.
c. Finally, the law: Watch any cop show on TV and see deals on sentencing being made with perpetrators in order to get a confession and, despite what law books say on the surface, judges have to deal with mitigating circumstances when they weigh sentences.

In conclusion, my interpretation of the Midrash: from the conflicting notes, indeed, the messiness above, there can be a blessing in numbers, weights, and measures, as well as dangers and – to use the Biblical term – curses. How I have come to understand what “only hidden from the eye” means: We must not deify those calculable things that are all around us in life. Rather, they are just one aspect of our human being, and we must use our, minds, hearts, and Sechel, God-given common sense, to evaluate each in relation to higher things: Menschlichkeit, caring for others, Life itself.

About the Author
Danny Siegel is a well-known author, lecturer, and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American Jewish communities on Tzedakah and Jewish values, besides reading from his own poetry. He is the author of 29 1/2 books on such topics as Mitzvah heroism practical and personalized Tzedakah, and Talmudic quotes about living the Jewish life well. Siegel has been referred to as "The World's Greatest Expert on Microphilanthropy", "The Pied Piper of Tzedakah", "A Pioneer Of Tzedakah", and "The Most Famous Unknown Jewish Poet in America."
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