Technology is taboo in certain communities. We live in a community that for all intents and purposes, embraces technological advancement, even while the yeshivos constantly decry its pitfalls and occupational hazards. Like all things, even technology and the trajectory of its progression from the birth of the locomotive until today can teach us an important lesson about the upcoming yom tov of Pesach.
From its inception, the purpose of technology was meant to enable the optimization of time. The automobile, the locomotive, and commercial airliners enabled people to travel long distances in far shorter intervals of time. The telephone enabled communication without the need to send letters in the mail which required days or weeks to receive and reply to them. It seems that at that early stage of the technological age, the objective was to make the world smaller and more accessible. There are places outside our four cubits that we need to get to and technology has burst onto the scene to convey to us that those places are within our reach.
And while the world continues to get smaller and the ability to communicate in high definition and full color progresses, technology continues to explode in directions which were never before thought to have been possible. Artificial intelligence, which is a topic for a completely different article, enables people to harness technology to be creative where they are unable to be, and virtual reality strives to bring the world into our four cubits, precluding the need to travel anywhere. The focus here is on the shift of technology enabling travel and communication outside of our four cubits to its progressive move inward, bringing the world under our own two feet.
Lending a little more thought to this distinction, there is precedent within the Torah itself for these two movements. There is the notion of kefitzas ha’derech which we find a number of times, specifically when Eliezer was sent by Avraham to find a shidduch for Yitzchak and when Yaakov lay down to sleep at Har HaMoriah for the first time in 14 years. Rashi teaches us: “Kipel kol ha’aretz tachtav,” that Hashem folded the entire earth underneath him. While I don’t, at this time, understand the significance or the distinction of these two terms in the context they were written, I wanted to focus on the hashgachah pratis at play in the movement of technology inward as it relates to Pesach, which is just a few weeks away, in addition to the geulah klalis, the redemption in general—the latter being an outgrowth of the former.
It has been quite a while since Michael Jordan graced the hardwood of a basketball arena in shorts and sneakers. But I was a child and an avid sports fan when “Be Like Mike” was playing on television sets across America. Kids were pulling their parents into their local sneaker stores to buy the latest pair of Air Jordans and they were spending every free moment on the basketball court, trying as best they could to mimic the form and athleticism of arguably the world’s greatest athlete.
Like many things airing on TV, there is something extremely hazardous and disingenuous about wanting to “Be like Mike,” and that is that only Mike can be Mike and should be Mike. Each of us has talents, virtues, and a story that is unique to us, and we were put in this world to figure out our purpose, to author our unique story, and dedicate our lives to fulfilling our G-d-given purpose in it.
L’havdil, I remember as a young boy learning Gemara, the great pleasure and excitement in intuiting the questions of Tosafos, the Yam Shel Shlomo, and other Rishonim and Acharonim. Although when it comes to learning, it is different, I suppose, because Torah is about ohr, light, rather than merely about information. So when you intuit a question or an answer that is dealt with in the voluminous literacy of the commentators throughout the ages, it is hopefully less of an indication of mental and intellectual acuity and more about uncovering layers of Divine light. Still, we are taught and we ask in our prayers every single day for G-d to grant us our unique portion in Torah; therefore, the focus in learning should never be about filling the shoes albeit of another great sage and more about becoming the person that G-d envisioned when you were conceived.
Coming from Purim, we deduce from the Megillah that “Kol ha’omer davar b’sheim omro meivi geulah l’olam”—anyone who attributes a saying in the name of its author brings redemption to the world. One of the rules in the study of Rashi is that he only attributes authorship of a teaching when it aids in the understanding of pshat. As a rule, Rashi cites teachings without attributing them to the source. The question was asked: “If citing attribution is so virtuous that it delivers redemption to the world, why would Rashi, as a rule, not cite attribution? The answer given was that the only time it is necessary to cite authorship is when the teaching that is being cited hasn’t been internalized. Once a teaching has been internalized it becomes the property of the person citing it.
As I continued to mature and take prayer more seriously, I sought out sefarim and books that could help open my heart and mind to the words we say day in and day out, in an attempt to inject my prayers with meaning, depth, and significance. I held onto these self-help prayer books for quite a few years until I began to feel that I was dependent upon it to offer a lucid and effective prayer. I guess you can look at it like training wheels in relation to bicycle riding; most kids require the help of training wheels to develop a sense of confidence and align their balance on a two-wheel bike, but to remain dependent on the training wheels for a lifetime will stifle them from becoming true bike riders.
Tefillah is referred to as avodah she’b’lev, the service of the heart. It is difficult to fully express one’s heart when reading off a script. If books are required at first to open up one’s mind and heart and to teach a path towards self-introspection, that is completely understandable and necessary, but at a certain point the self-help books limit our ability to open up and express ourselves freely and openly to our Creator.
I decided to write about this topic now, on the threshold of the month of Nissan, when I walked into our local Judaica store and saw the tables beginning to pile up with the latest Haggadahs. They say that the Haggadah shel Pesach is the most reprinted Jewish book outside of the Chumash. The rationale given for this, albeit in jest, is that last year’s rasha is this year’s chacham. But in all seriousness, while I, just as much as anyone else, am intrigued by new sefarim—just ask my wife or the workers in both sefarim stores within a block of my office—there is a story of servitude and redemption within each of our souls that is waiting to be told. Merely reading the commentaries in the thousands of printed Haggadahs may not bring us to that story. We read in the Haggadah, “In every generation they stand upon us to obliterate us and Hashem saves us from their hands.”
We all have influences and imprints of Pharaoh and Moshe within us that we have to be mindful of as we are making our way through the narrative. As much as Pesach represents the retelling of the story of our national servitude and Exodus, it is at the same time a formula to effectuate our own personal and collective redemption, which requires that we identify the part of our soul that is tied down and set it free.
There was a time hundreds of years ago when it was commonplace for people seeking dveykus to engage in self-abnegating practices like fasting and immersing in snow in order to repress the bodily desires and to promote the soul more pronouncedly. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught based on Kabbalah that the source of the body is more sacrosanct than the soul. In the words of Kabbalah, the root of the vessels is more sublime than the root of the light. As such, the Maggid of Mezeritch, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s main disciple and successor, once said that a small hole in the body is equivalent to a gaping hole in the soul. This shift in philosophy seems to reflect the shift in technology which initially encouraged people to move beyond themselves and of late has shifted inward.
If you are seeking to be entertained by the Oculus or virtual reality then you aren’t yet at the stage to harness its capability in using it for the purpose with which it was created. However, it is important to put everything into perspective and realize that these are tools of G-d rather than the schemes of the devil. Between now and Pesach, if we work on setting ourselves free from the shackles of this world, we could begin to see the blessing in ourselves, in our family and, friends, and in the world around us as a whole.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.