We live in unique times. Never before has there been a time when life-changing technology arises not once in a lifetime, but at least once in a decade. Just think how our lives have changed in the past few years with smart phones like the IPhone and the Droid. And how about the IPad, kindle, netbooks, flat screen tv’s—not to mention the advancements in medicine and pharmacology. I’m sure that it’s not an exaggeration to say that 10 years from now our lives will be so different as well.
Question: is this all really good for us? The Jewish perspective is that nothing is inherently good or bad. It depends upon on what it’s used for. For me, the computer has changed my life—especially my rabbinic life. I can tell you that the most important commentator used by today’s rabbi’s in preparation of their sermons and classes is not Rashi or Rambam or the Ramban, but Goggle!
Once, during my Sunday morning class on “The Secrets of Creation,” we were discussing how the world was originally covered with water and the subject of the flood of Noah came up. 2 women approached me after class and said that they were looking in the text to find the name of Noah’s wife and couldn’t find it, and asked me what it was. The fact is, the name of Noah’s wife is never given in the Torah. But the sages in the Midrash do have a tradition for her name.
At that moment I just couldn’t remember what it was, so I asked the women to wait there a moment and told them I’d go into my office and check the ancient texts for the answer. I walked into my office, closed the door, headed straight to the computer, typed into Google, “Noah’s wife,” and out came the name—Naamah. And when I went out and told this to the women, they just couldn’t get over how brilliant I was! I, myself, couldn’t get over it!
And so, on the one hand, with the access to information it provides us, technology is a real blessing. A colleague told me he just bought some CD ROMs for his computer that has on it 613 Jewish books—and the entire Talmud counts as only one book! I have apps on my Droid phone that has the entire Siddur on it, one with the entire Torah, another with the Jewish calendar, another with Israeli news, one called Kosher GPs that tells me—no matter where I am—the kosher restaurants within 20 miles—all on my phone! We have information at our fingertips today that generations before us never had during the course of a lifetime.
And yet, who can deny that there are dangers to this technology as well. Not everything that comes across the computer and enters our homes is a blessing. Facebook has been a powerful mode for teenage bullying that has even led to suicides. One of the most common problems I see in my work as a couple’s therapist is how computer pornography and chat rooms can destroy a relationship. It’s not hard to understand why some right-wing Jewish communities forbid the internet in their homes.
Today is one of the 4 special Shabbatot before Pesach, Shabbat Hachodesh, the Shabbos that introduces the Jewish month of Nisan—the month of Pesach. It has a special Torah reading establishing Nisan as the 1st month: Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim, “This month—the month of Nisan—is to be lachem—for you…for you to use as the 1st of the months” in measuring time. Rashi points out that this—the commandment on how to measure time—is the 1st commandment given to the Jewish people. What was so important about it to be the 1st commandment?
Our sages give one comment on the word lachem, “for you,” that appears twice in the text, that explains it all: “This month is to be the way of setting time lachem, for you,” lachem hu masur v’eyn ata m’surin b’yado, “time is to be given to you…you are not to be given over to time.” You are to control time; never allow time to control you! And the Seforno adds: “From here we learn that the months are for you to do with what you please; but during the time of slavery, your days were not your own but were for the work of others.”
And so we must ask ourselves today: have we become slaves to technology? Let’s see how we answer the following 10 questions I got from an email sent to me:
- 1. How many years has it been since you last played solitaire using real cards?
- 2. When was the last time you dialed the phone number of any of the members of your immediate family? Who even remembers telephone numbers anymore?
- 3. Do you find yourself using Email in order to connect with your co-worker, even though he or she works at the desk right next to yours?
- 4. Have you texted a member of the family when you knew they were still in the house with you?
- 5. Do you still keep in touch with any of your friends who don’t have email?
- 6. Do you ever stop to check your messages, when you are on the way back from the bathroom to your bed at night? Or do you at least think about doing it and have to resist the temptation?
- 7. Did you get this list from 8 different friends, whom you never hear from anymore, except when they forward jokes and lists like this to you?
- 8. This one’s my favorite: Have you ever entered your password, out of habit, when you wanted to start your microwave?
- 9. Have you reached the stage where, when you disconnect your computer, you feel like you are pulling the plug on a loved one?
And l0. When you heard this list, did you smile and nod in recognition?
How many of these questions did you say “yes” to? Tell the truth! There’s no doubt that technology has taken over much of our lives. So, is it good or bad? Well, I guess it depends on when and how it is used. The saintly Maharal once wrote: “If the thing is impure, it is impossible that it will not have some purity within it. Likewise, if the thing is pure, it is impossible that it will not have within it some impurity. And man is like that as well.” Yes, there is some purity and impurity in everything and in every one of us.
So let’s take this lesson to heart when Shabbos is over. When I was in my 20’s and 30’s, the minute Shabbos was over, I was in the car going somewhere fun on a Saturday night. These days, the second Shabbos is over, I find myself turning on my computer. Tonight I’m going to wait a little bit…and show who is boss! It might be the only place in the house left where I am the boss, but ultimately I can control my time. I need not let time and technology control me. In fact, that’s what Shabbos is all about—the one day a week we leave technology behind and just be. Let’s all learn to take control of our lives so that we can appreciate the preciousness of the time and gifts Gd has given us. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis