Life Happens in the Margins - The Messenger's Problem and The Tong of Tongs

Post date: Apr 22, 2013 3:42:42 PM

We'll connect them in a bit.

We were preparing for Passover and our kitchen is kosher. Kosher is all about drawing distinctions. In our house, we recognize and maintain lots of separations - between dairy and meat, Passover dishes and the rest of the year, not to mention foods that may be allowed on the premises (tahor) versus those never allowed (tamei).

The list goes on, but this is not a discussion of kashruth (the laws of keeping Kosher). It is a discussion about the lines themselves, what happens at the margins, at the borders.

In tomorrow's Perasha Shemini, responsibility for conducting the sacrificial rituals of worship transitions from Moses to the Cohanim, Aaron and his sons. It opens with Aaron slaughtering 3 animals. One for his own atonement, one for the atonement of the family of Cohanim, and the last for atonement of the people Israel. To expiate his own sins, he slaughters a calf, which might just allude to that major sin of forming of the golden calf.

After Aaron slaughters and sacrifices these animals exactly according to Moses’s instructions, a tragic event happens. Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, step beyond the boundary - outside the box. They perform an extracurricular ritual (Aish Zarah - an alien fire) that was not ordained, and die immediately.

There is a relationship between the study of ritual boundaries, communications theory, and the original tongs that G-d made in the twilight of creation, the Tong of Tongs. Kashruth is just a good foil to discuss all those things.

As I said, it was Passover, which means that there was a period of transition from the normal year-round dishes, flatware, serving utensils, and work surfaces, to the ones that were special for, or specially prepared for Passover. And normal and Passover must not touch. That’s the rule.

Which brings us back to boundaries. We had created all sorts of boundaries while we were cleaning the refrigerator, oven and counters, and moving our day-to-day 'Hametz' (leaven-exposed) dishes into storage and taking our Passover dishes out of storage. We had a hametz sponge to clean any hameitz dishes before storing them, and a Pesah sponge for cleaning Pesah dishes coming out of storage. Having two separate sets of dishes was truly a luxury, no matter how unequal they were, but still, this was not easy. So, what did the border look like between Hametz and Passover?

In Perasha Shemini, we see a border - a transition - from Moses physically performing all rituals to the delegation of that responsibility to the Cohanim - the priests - Aaron and his male descendants. That proved to be a difficult transition. Nadab and Abihu apparently did not appreciate the line between responsibility for performing the rituals and responsibility for creating the rituals, and it cost them their lives.

There is a well known problem in communication theory, called the Messenger Problem or the 2 generals problem. It goes something like this: two generals, call them A & B, need to coordinate their attack on a common enemy, but the generals can only communicate with messengers who must traverse hostile territory. The messengers can not be guaranteed to get through. General A sends a courier (messenger) to B, but he can not know for certain whether the message was received. Similarly, even if General B receives the message and sends an acknowledgement back to A, General B can not be certain that A received the acknowledgement. Without detailing the logical proof, suffice it to say that Generals A & B can never know, with absolute certainty, that the other received a communication. Furthermore, that uncertainty exists whether the communication happens through couriers or iPhones. They must agree to something beforehand, on faith. And the space between the two generals? That is where the enemies mingle. That is a no man's land in which nothing is really certain - where anyone can die.

Again this basic problem exists no matter what the communication technology is used. There is always a fundamental uncertainty.

Getting back to Pesah. Three quarters or more of our kitchen was Passover-ready. There was just one island of Hametz - our kitchen table - where leavened products were allowed. It is at that table where we ate our Hametz meals for the day or two before the Festival started. This was our no man's land.

Something funny happened there. My wife, Shelli, who is the final arbiter on kashruth in our house, was drinking tea from a Passover mug. But there was no empty surface on which to set down that Passover tea cup, except for somewhere on that Hametz table! Never without a solution, she improvised, putting a clean cloth on the Hametz table and declared it to be a Passover napkin on a Hametz table in a Passover kitchen.


No. That is the nature of all boundaries. It is where two sides mingle, and you can never know for sure, like the Generals, about the reliability or truth of anything coming out of the mingling area.

Which brings me to the Tong of Tongs.

Pirkei Avot 5:6, describes 10 miraculous things that were created by God. One of these, for example, was the donkey that spoke to Bilaam. It was a way to explain some of the events in the bible that defied observable, rational order.

The eleventh of these 10 preordained miraculous things was a prosaic, yet enigmatic item - blacksmith’s tongs. The Hachamim, the sages of the Mishna knew that for a blacksmith to forge anything, he must use metal tongs to handle that thing in the fire. But tongs are themselves forged. Therefore, how could the first blacksmith forge anything, since presumably he had no tongs with which to grab the hot metal from the furnace?

This is what is known in mathematics or computer science as a boundary condition. You need tongs to work with forged metal, but tongs themselves are made by forging metal. The rabbis stumbled into a dilemma, i.e., that the first blacksmith could not forge tongs without having tongs, so how was it that blacksmithing ever came to be? Yet, blacksmiths obviously existed.

There was no reconciliation to cross their logical impasse, just as the 2 generals can never solve problem of lack of certainty about their communication. They solved their dilemma the best they could, by leaving the mystery wrapped inside of faith - i.e., God created the first tongs.

This may seem silly to us now, in the twenty-first century, but it illustrates an important concept. Every question that we answer leads to more questions. Our human greatness is that we can unravel virtually any single mystery we face, yet we must accept that no matter how much we learn, there will always be something beyond our understanding. There is room for that mystery in Judaism. And often, we need to make room for that in our own lives as well.

All boundaries are places where logic and faith intersect and interact. The Hametz table sat in a Passover kitchen. On a molecular level, it is impossible for there not to be mingling. That is the nature of all boundaries - like the no man's land between the generals is where the two enemies meet. Boundaries are imperfect. We make an attempt to separate. Then, knowing that we can not ever truly separate things, we wrap the rest inside of faith.

This is one of the beautiful things about Judaism. We recognize the imperfection of every boundary, and we make room for it. We try to separate leavened and unleavened. But on the morning before the first seder, we proclaim: “All leaven and anything leavened that is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”

The sages of the Mishna recognized that we could not promote a rational, intelligence-centered view of the world that didn’t rely on magic while still keeping the sanctity of our holy books that contained some magic - like Bilaam’s donkey. So they made room for our holy books by limiting the magic to God’s initial creation of the universe. Now, the rest is for us to discover using logic and science, truth and understanding.

Boundaries make things holy, and boundaries are where we find God. Boundaries separate things. Le’havdil is to separate “Ben kodesh le’chol” between holy and ordinary.

Recognizing distinctions is at the core of everything we do as thinking beings. When we recognize something, we can name it. To name something is to recognize its uniqueness. That’s why in Hebrew, “Davar” means both “thing” and “word”.

That is why we take so much care, as Jews, to make written and spoken references to God, weird or stand out. (Some spell the Name with a dash, some say only “Hashem”). Because God is the ultimate not-a-thing. God is beyond all thing-ness, and to restrict God to any one thing, even by using the male pronoun “He”, is to create a form of an idol. It is to limit the Eyn Sof - the endless.

As we cross boundaries, we have an opportunity to sense God presence in our lives. When we breath, we blur the boundary between the atmosphere and our bodies. When we eat, we are taking the thing that is food and turning into the thing that is human.

That is where we experience God. In the places between one thing and another. That is one reason why we sanctify the moment of eating with a bracha - a blessing.

When two people love each other, they are crossing the boundaries between them. When I love you, your thoughts and joys and fears become my thoughts and joys and fears. That is where we may find God - in the places between one another.

And that is also where we are most vulnerable. If we don’t balance our giving selflessly with treasuring our own distinctness and purity, we run the risk of losing our self, our own spark of the Divine.

Judaism makes room for the mystery. We know that we can not know everything. We need to own our divine talent for thinking - for discerning differences and naming them. And we need to balance that with the notion that, it is only when we cross those boundaries, when we take those risks, that we can truly experience the universal. It is in the transitions that life happens.

It was on the Hametz table that we ate our food. It is in the no-man’s land that communication occurs. And it is when we love one another that we most beautifully experience God in our lives.

(delivered Friday, April 5, 2013) -Samuel Asher