By Yochanan Gordon
Technology is not exactly a four-letter word, but many feel that it should be treated as such. After countless attempts in recent decades to shun the use of technology or to ban it outright, it seems that the approach has shifted, with the stark realization that it is not going away. Since the number ten represents completion and signals a sense of staying power, it seems apropos in 2017, ten years after Apple’s iPhone—an icon of modern technology—was introduced, to reopen this discussion.
This week, when we prepare to read the final parashah in Sefer Bereishis, carries an added layer of significance on this matter. Although the Torah is apportioned into books, chapters, and verses, the entire corpus of Torah is ultimately one unified and interconnected whole. So there is a tradition amongst exegetes to expound the significance of the beginning and end of a parashah, or the beginning and end of a book of Torah, and so on. With this week being the final week in the book of Bereishis and more or less the beginning of the year 2017, I wanted to try lending a healthier perspective about using technology for its intended purpose.
Chazal say that G‑d created everything in this world for the sake of His honor. The precise quote from the Mishnah in Avos is: “Everything which G‑d created in His world was not created except for His honor.” There is an interesting nuance in the syntax of this statement which begs attention. This passage seems to suggest that the world was simultaneously “created” and “not created” by G‑d.
However, this can be seen, in an indirect way, as addressing the famous Talmudic dispute whether man (the purpose of creation) was better off being created or not. The dispute, cited in the Gemara in Eiruvin, involves Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel.
A cursory glance over the stances of Shammai and Hillel and their respective academies throughout Shas shows that Shammai sees things based on its potential while Hillel is focused on the reality of the matter. As it pertains to this argument, G‑d, with the creation of the world, did so for the purpose of seeing the full manifestation of His infinitude, which would require the transforming of this physical and mundane earth into an abode befitting His residence, requiring the creation of a world, man, free choice, reward and punishment, and all the virtues and vices that come along with that.
In the worldview of Shammai, however, since the ultimate purpose of creation was to get as close to G‑d as possible, that reality was so prior to the creation of the world, when the souls were all on high; therefore, he maintains that man was better off not having been created.
This dispute notwithstanding, since G‑d decided to create a world, the purpose is to fuse the finite and the infinite in creating a residence for an infinite G‑d in a finite world.
In Parashas Bereishis, we read about the creation of the world, culminating with the creation of man. Man was put into this world with one commandment—to refrain from partaking in the fruit of the tree at the center of the garden. Is it logical to suggest that man’s failure to live up to the challenge he was confronted with on the day that he found himself in a new world reflects one way or another on the soundness of G‑d’s decision to create the world? Even following the sin of Adam, The world possessed an amazing amount of potential for good and blessing, despite all the unavoidable setbacks that we would encounter along the way.
The point here is that today’s discovery of technology is much like the day that Adam was placed in a new world with new opportunity for blessings and curses. Being that technology possesses the possibility for both, to define it as a vehicle for evil withholds the amazing blessing and good within it from ever being realized.
In a ma’amar in Torah Ohr on Parashas Vayigash, titled “Vayigash eilav Yehuda,” the Ba’al HaTanya describes the notion of an inverted signet or stamp, which ultimately says that the things which in this world seem the furthest and most unrelated to G‑d and spirituality originate in the most sublime sources. He arrives at this conclusion based on a fundamental question regarding the four levels of creation—inanimate matter, plant life, animal life, and human beings—which we have always perceived laid out in ascending order. The question, however, is, if inanimate matter is the lowest in the hierarchy of creative matter and plant life is above it, how do you explain the fact that plant life originates within the ground and sprouts up from within it?
He explained this based on the principle of “That which is last in creation is first in thought.” This means that the lowly earth, which from our perspective seems furthest removed from G‑dliness, was closest to Hashem’s mind at the time of creation.
Moving ahead to this week’s parashah, Vayechi, there is a series of questions on the opening verse, namely why the Torah singles out the 17 years that Yaakov lived in Egypt. How is it that the Torah describes his remaining 17 years as “living” when Egypt was the most depraved society on earth and he had previously lived in Eretz Yisrael? And lastly, why in recording Yaakov’s age prior to his passing does it state the lowest number first and distinguish it from the larger digits, which the Torah did not do by Avraham and Yitzchak?
Since G‑d created this world seeking a dwelling place for His glory in the lowest space, it is our job to redeem the sparks of holiness in those spaces in order to allow the Shechinah to dwell there. If in so doing we are fulfilling the will of G‑d, then that is the definition of living, which explains the Torah’s use of the term “Vayechi.” This, too, is why the Torah highlights the number seven, distinguishing it from the higher 140 years, since the number seven refers to the seven lower middos of chesed through malchus, which require a process of refinement—which is tied to our objective in being created in the first place.
The Torah commands us to make a Mishkan inside ourselves for G‑d to dwell in. One of the main building materials in the construction of the physical Mishkan was cedar wood or, in Hebrew, atzei shittim. Interestingly, the etymology of the word shittim is similar to that of the word shtus, meaning folly. The implication of this is to impart the message that many things which seem challenging are not necessarily evil. To the contrary, the greater the inherent challenge, the greater indication there is of its upside. What we need to do is use those things to add light to the world, while the world at large uses them to disseminate darkness.
This was the objective of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zy’a, who 40 years ago urged his chassidim to teach Torah on the radio airwaves, to televise farbrengens and the public menorah lightings and Chanukah festivities—all to refine the lowest elements within society, which he understood possessed the most powerful sparks of holiness. Today his shluchim continue in his footsteps, harnessing the power of technology to bring Jews together and ultimately back to their Father in heaven.
It appears that part of the problem that many in the Jewish world have had in coming to terms with technology and being disciplined in its constructive use is the fact that it has been presented as a pitfall. Aside from being a destructive outlook, this is in a sense heretical. If we start seeing ourselves within the Divine plan and everything within creation as a vehicle for attaining our goals, I think people as a whole will be infused with a sense of purpose. They will be driven by a Divine force and will ultimately bring about a showering of Divine blessing of epic proportions and a fulfillment of G‑d’s purpose in creation.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.