(This was inspired by – and written with appreciation to – R. Mansour and his inspiration from his drasha this weekhttp://www.dailyhalacha.com/m/parasha.aspx?id=833)
How little does something have to be, before it’s nothing? As strange as that question seems, it lies at the heart of many religious observances (and a few technical ones as well). Consider:
- If you are fasting, and a drop of rain or crumb of bread falls into your mouth, have you broken your fast?
- If your server fails just ONE ping, should you cut an alert saying it’s down?
- If you wake up each morning during Elul to contemplate your actions and pray for forgiveness, but miss one day, will those prayers be accepted?
- If you’re important data is stored on a drive with a few bad sectors, do you migrate to new storage, or let it be?
There are, obviously, many ways to approach and answer these questions. In religion we often consider the intent of an action along with the result (although sometimes we don’t). In tech, we often consider the reasonable likelihood of a particular outcome (although sometimes we don’t).
But one approach that Judaism has is called “Bittul” – nullification of a small amount in a significantly larger amount. This is most commonly understood in the context of food. If a drop of milk is accidentally (there’s the “intent” element again) into chicken soup, is the soup still kosher, or must it be thrown out? The answer is that, if the milk is less than 1/60th of the overall mixture, it is bittul – nullified – and the soup is permitted.
But some items cannot be nullified. The rule of thumb is that it has to be an item that is self-contained and that is recognized as a discrete object. So a single grape is NOT in this category, but a single egg is. Or a bug. No matter how much you mix that bad egg or bug into, the overall mixture is forbidden.
Well, almost. You see, there is a competing opinion that whole objects can be nullified if they are less than 1/960th of the overall mixture. If mixed into something that large, the single object is nullified in the overwhelming purification of the larger whole. That goes for eggs, or bugs… or people.
As people, we have the opportunity to find, to regain, to experience purity. We just have to find a sufficient amount of pure-ness in which to immerse ourselves. This is the concept behind a mikveh, a ritual bath where men and women can immerse and thereby remove ritual impurity from themselves. A mikveh must consist of 40 “se’a”. A se’a is comprised of 24 “log” of water. For those who enjoy math, 40×24 = 960 “log” of water. By immersing ourselves in the 960, we nullify that which is impure within us.
But that’s a very physical experience, which appeals to some but baffles others who struggle with the whole concept of “impurity” to begin with, and I can respect that.
However, after nearly a month of self-reflection, few people would look at themselves and proclaim perfection. We all have flaws, we all have mistakes we regret, and we all have aspects of ourselves we wish we could change. The question is how do we go about actuating that kind of existential change?
While Elul lasts a month, we continue to awaken each morning and say selichot – prayers of repentance – for another 10 days. 40 days, to be exact. 40 days comprised of 24 hours.
We immerse ourselves in the purity of the only thing our non-physical aspect can truly appreciate – time. By immersing ourselves – by reflection, study, re-dedication, and repentance – during the 960 hours from the start of the month until the end of Yom Kippur, we have the means to nullify that part of us we know to be contradictory to our values and growth.