Posts Tagged 'Einstein'

Defining the Problem: Be a Part of It

One of favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is:

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

We need to define the problem before you trying to solve it. This approach always saves time and energy, regardless of whether the issue is big, small, complicated or complex. And the time and energy saved increases with the number of people involved.

I got thinking about this in the context of reading Tazriah – Metzorah, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn the laws of tumah v’taharah, ritual impurity and purity. In particular we learn about Tzaraat (often mistranslated as “leprosy”). It is a supra-natural plague, which can afflict people as well as garments or homes. If white or pink patches appear on a person’s skin (dark pink or dark green in garments or homes), a kohen is summoned. There we read:

When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. ( Leviticus 13:2-3)

What is the significance of the priest pronouncement? Time after time we need the priest to share his judgement of the situation. It seems weird. Either the person has the affliction or not, what is the relevance of the diagnosis?

In Kol Dodi Dofek on this notion of “pronouncing” , Rav Soloveitchik writes:

We know well how to ‎criticize, to look ‎for blemishes and to express opinions as self-styled experts. One thing, however, ‎escapes us, and ‎that is that the priest who pronounces defilement must leave the encampment to ‎be with the ‎afflicted sufferer so as to purify him. “And the priest shall leave the encampment … ‎and the priest ‎shall command” (Leviticus 14:3–4). ( Kol Dodi Dofek)

It is easy to find fault in things and be critical of people. It is profound to think that in our commitment to understand a problem we need experience deep empathy. In having to pronounce the problem the priest commits to being part of the solution.

Bertrand Russell said,

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

It is important to realize that the lesson of the priests’ leadership is that they cannot be cold and distant thinkers. This model of leadership assumes that the solution needs empathy and support and not just thinking. We need to identify our own role in the problem and the solution to get to any change. That might take more than 5 minutes.

One Dream: Einstein and Yosef

Recently we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein‘s Theory of Relativity. Einstein stated that the theory of relativity belongs to a class of “principle-theories”. As such it employs an analytic method. This means that the elements which comprise this theory are not based on hypothesis but on empirical discovery. The empirical discovery leads to understanding the general characteristics of natural processes. Mathematical models are then developed to describe accurately the observed natural processes. Therefore, by analytical means the necessary conditions that have to be satisfied are deduced. Separate events must satisfy these conditions. Experience should then match the conclusions. There is no disputing Einstein’s unique genius and contribution to life in the past 100 years. I like to think there is part of his thinking that can be rooted in a Jewish sensibility of curiosity.

I was thinking about this when reading Miketz, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn that Pharaoh is being vexed by two strange dreams. His cup-bearer recalls his experience of Yosef who correctly interpreted dreams in prison.  On the merit of Yosef ability to interpret Pharaoh will through the veil of the dreams of the cup-bearer and the baker, Pharaoh brings Yosef to interpret his dreams. After  Pharaoh recounts his two dreams we read:

And Yosef said to Pharaoh: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one; what God is about to do God has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and ill-favored cows that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do God has shown to Pharaoh. ( Genesis 41: 25- 28)

Yosef, like Einstein, had a gift to interpret subtle facts and a desire to share that vision even if it did not make sense to others.  Like Einstein Yosef’s theory would  be tested to ensure that the experience matched the conclusions ( or minimally he bought himself 7 years to live). The most interesting part for me is his claim that is all “one dream”. As we see in the rest of the Torah the drive for the descendants of Israel is to forge a relationship to the unified God. Both Yosef and Einstein felt drawn to come up with a plausible and unified theory for how the world works. Even if you do not believe that God created the universe in which this Theory of Relativity might be true, you could image how the story of the Yosef  and the Israelites pursuit of the One might have inspired this Theory.


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