כ״ו באדר ה׳תשע״ג (March 8, 2013)
Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble … Exodus 35:1
If you have a computer and internet access, chances are you have come across an internet security feature called a Captcha or a ReCaptcha, similar to the one below.
The purpose of these boxes is to ensure that you are a human looking for information, and not a “robot” scanning the web and stealing data or filling out forms. The way they work is very simple: You get one or two fuzzy words to read and type into a white box … if you get them correct the assumption is that you are human, and you gain access to the data. Yes, they are often very hard to read and quite frustrating, but they serve a purpose … to protect our information.
What you may not know (and which may make it less frustrating when they do appear) is that these ReCaptcha boxes are actually doing something really incredible, courtesy of a brainwave by Dr Luis von Ahn, professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. What von Ahn realized is that every single day millions of people are reading words and typing them out as a form of internet safety, and that this had amazing potential. What if the words they were typing were not just random words, but were words that actually needed retyping? What type of text needed lots of people to retype it?
The answer is that there are millions of books out there that are waiting to be scanned and uploaded to the web for us all to benefit, whether by Google, Amazon etc., but no one to do the job. To scan all those books with minimal spelling errors needs to be done by humans, or at least checked by humans. So ReCaptcha was invented. Instead of just reading a random word (the old Captcha system), the new system means that every time you fill out one of these boxes, you are helping to digitize a book somewhere in the world — one fuzzy word at a time. (For further accuracy each word appears a few times, to different people.) If you think that the few words you type are insignificant, look at the big picture; about 100 million words are now being digitized every single day, not by professional proofreaders, but by random teenagers, adults and senior citizens across the globe.
The Torah reading this week begins with the words “Vayakheil Moshe – And Moses assembled.” Who exactly did he assemble? … “the whole community of the Children of Israel,” the entire spectrum of souls who made up the Jewish people, all gathered into one cohesive whole to build the Tabernacle (Mishkan). Then the Torah goes into detail about each individual article in the Mishkan and about the individual craftsmen and women who put it together, including Betzalel and Ahaliav, the skilled artisans who project-managed building the Mishkan. First the nation, then the individuals; first the Mishkan, then the individual items.
The Talmud (Berachot 58a) discusses a special blessing which should be said upon seeing an enormous crowd gathered together – a crowd of more than 600,000 people. The blessing is: “Baruch Atah … Chacham Harazim / Blessed are You, G-d … Knower of Secrets.” The meaning of this prayer is that in a crowd of 600,000 people you also have 600,000 different personalities, attitudes etc. and G-d alone is the Creator of all that colourful diversity.
There is something very special about being different, like snowflakes – no two identical – and we praise G-d for that; we thank Him for our individuality, that we are not all generic clones. But there is also something powerful in belonging to a mass of humanity – a group, a nation, a people. So on the one hand we cherish the differences of the individual – we even praise G-d for that, but on the other hand we can see the great good that can be achieved when we work together as a group, masking over our differences. We need to be counted as individuals, serving G-d on our own individual levels and in ways that are meaningful to us; but equally we need to recognise that we are part of a whole — small cogs linked together in an incredible human network – the largest social network in history.
Within the Mishkan all the objects – the menorah, the table, the altars etc. were holy and important, but they were only able to fulfil their spiritual purpose when they were part of a whole structure, the completed Sanctuary. As individuals we too can achieve great things in life, but that is incomparable to what we can achieve when we pull together, as a family, as a community and as a nation. Something as simple as a ReCaptcha box can illustrate this perfectly. On our own we fill out one or two of these a week … but together we digitise 100 million words a day. In our own home we may feel like single individuals … but gather together all those disparate words and you have billions of out-of-print books brought back to life.
This is a message that we need to share with the world. We all have our own personalities and differences, our strength and frailties … but united together we can do incredible things. Every individual is important, as were Betzalel and Ahaliav, but there is a special magic when all those individuals join together. As we say in the daily amidah prayers, “barchenu Avinu kulanu ke’echad -” we ask G-d to “bless us as one” – for when we join together “as one” we can be sure that G‑d will bestow His blessings upon us. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Zalman Lent
Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.
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