Easy as Pi – By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz, The Observant Jew


Easy as Pi

It has long been a mark of intelligence to memorize the value of ? (Pi, the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet) for as many decimals as possible. Pi is a mathematical constant originally defined as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

In 1981, an Indian fellow named Rajan Mahadevan, recited 31,811 digits of Pi from memory. In 1989 a Japanese man recited 40,000, and the current world record goes to Suresh Kumar Sharma, who in 2015 recited the value of Pi out to 70,030 digits.

I get that these people have phenomenal memories and the ability to learn these numbers takes plenty of discipline. What I question is the intelligence of it.

While the value of Pi is important, and Chazal discuss it regarding such things as the Kiyor in the Bais HaMikdash, they generally use the number 3 to get us into the vicinity of the actual number. I believe the other calculation used for Pi is 22/7, as quoted by the Rambam, but 70,000 digits? Who needs to go into that much detail of this number? Where’s the wisdom in that?

Ah, you may say. Sure, when we discuss a historical vessel we can be off a little but when life is on the line we need to be very exacting! If that’s true, it is only so to a point. NASA, when sending astronauts into space, only uses about 15 digits of Pi, which, by the way, is precisely equivalent to the 22 divided by 7 that the Rambam quotes.

It seems that our Sages didn’t bother with anything more. To get an atom-precise measurement of the universe, you’d need around 40 digits. But we have no practical need for such precision and anything further is just to show off computer calculating power or human memory feats.

In essence, we only need to get to the heart of a matter to a certain extent. After that it’s just arrogance. So now let us extrapolate that to other instances. Say someone does something you think is wrong. Just how sorry do you need them to be?

If they understand that they hurt you, or that they violated a halacha, and will not do it again, do you have an obligation to drill into their heads just how severe this infraction was so they understand that they were very, very wrong and should be very, very sorry and contrite? If you continue to berate them are you doing anything practical or are you merely pleasing your own ego?

How about when things happen that we don’t understand? People have existential questions about life, good and evil, and why bad things (seem to) happen to good people. For some of us, the answer, “It came from HaShem and He has a plan” is sufficient. It enables us to move forward and continue to be productive. That’s like saying Pi is around 3. If I have an engineering puzzle I need to be a bit more precise, but if I just need to understand that there is an Engineer, that’s enough information.

Other people, however, feel they must understand every single action and reaction in the Universe and if they can’t come up with a rational answer, then there must not be one. I don’t have to even point out the arrogance behind that. How can one person believe that he or she has all the insight and data necessary to make such a determination?

Now, here comes the cosmic joke. The same people who question HaShem when they don’t have rational answers are often enamored with Pi and with the science and human intellect it represents. It’s ironic and humorous because Pi itself is an irrational number!

Think about the fact that there are people who will continue to calculate the digits of Pi knowing they will never reach the end because they feel they’re coming closer to the Truth. Why waste that on a mathematical number with no practical application? Do that when it matters!

Why not keep trying to get to know people and understand what makes them tick instead of putting them into a box or category based on limited information such as how they look or from a brief conversation with them? We’re often ready to be satisfied with less understanding of others when in fact we should be delving deeper into what makes them unique and special. I’d say that’s irrational.

The more we look at the world the more we should be learning about HaShem and how He runs it, yet we often figure “all I need to know about G-d I learned in Kindergarten” and after that we take the natural world at face value and believe it is an absolute.

I’m no mathematical scholar but I think that if you want to show the world how smart you are, you’ll ignore things that don’t matter so much, like a slight to your honor or if someone thinks or acts just like you, and focus instead on gaining a better understanding of HaShem and mankind. It takes more discipline than memorizing numbers that don’t change, and the more you do it, the more you’ll find it’s easy as Pi.


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