Parshas Chukas (5776)
One nice summer day, a man was walking through the park when he noticed something very strange. A man was holding his hand up to his head as if it were some kind of telephone receiver, and was listening through his thumb and responding through his pinky. He stopped the man and asked him, “What exactly are you doing?” The man replied, “Don’t you keep up with technology? The latest thing is a tiny computer chip that they implant in both your thumb and your pinky, turning your hand into a virtual smartphone!” The man walked a little further in the park and came across another bizarre scene. Someone was strolling leisurely with his hands behind his back, all the while talking to himself! Not being able to contain his curiosity, he interrupted the fellow and asked him to explain why he was talking to himself. The man responded, “I’m not talking to myself! Didn’t you hear about the latest invention? A small microprocessor is inserted directly into your brain, so that when you talk, an e-mail message is automatically sent out!” “Wow!”, said the man, “I do need to get out a little more!”. Walking a little further, he noticed a man leaning against a tree and heaving violently. He asked the man, “Are you okay?”. The man replied, “Yes. I’m just receiving a fax!”
All kidding aside, it is truly amazing to see how far technology has progressed in just the past 200 years alone. From the telephone and the telegraph, to the phonograph and the photograph, to the radio and the television, to the computer and the fax machine and beyond. Who knows what they’ll come up with next?! It’s kind of exciting but also a bit scary. (Why just last night I had a dream that I was cloned! When I woke up, I was beside myself!).
The problem with all this technology and progress in the modern era is that it flies in the face of the teaching of our Torah Sages that the earlier generations who were closer to the Revelation at Mount Sinai were far more advanced – spiritually and otherwise - than we moderns could ever hope to be.
For example, the Talmud in Shabbos 112b relates how the rabbis revered the rabbis of previous generations. They would say, "If the earlier generations were like angels, we are like humans. But if they were like humans, we are like donkeys." Every generation further from Sinai felt inferior in wisdom and greatness to the generation preceding it.
And this has always been the attitude of our great Torah scholars throughout the centuries and millennia. The rabbis of the Talmud would never dare to argue against the rabbis of the Mishnah who preceded them. Similarly, the halachic authorities of today do not feel that they have authority to dispute the rulings of earlier authorities.
If, indeed, it is true what the Sages say that the earlier generations possessed greater wisdom and were far more advanced than we moderns, then why were all these new technologies only developed in the past 200 years?
This question was actually posed by the saintly Torah scholar and Jewish leader, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen ZT”L (1839-1933), known to all as the ‘Chafetz Chaim’ (the name of a classic work he authored on the Laws of Lashon Hara and Slander), although he added the invention of the telescope in the 1600’s to the mix.
Let’s see the fascinating and thought-provoking answer that he offers to this enigma (you can find it in the original Hebrew in a book he wrote in 1893 titled Shem Olam Volume I at the end of the book):
The Chafetz Chaim explains that the ultimate purpose of each of these new technologies is to strengthen our emunah (faith) in G-d and in His hashgachah (Divine providence) over the world. These new inventions of the modern era are G-d’s gift to us, making it easier for us to believe that there is “an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and all one’s deeds are recorded in a Book” (as taught by our Sages in Ethics of our Fathers 2:1).
Earlier generations who were far more advanced, were strong in their emunah and didn’t require all these inventions to bolster their faith in these fundamental truths of Judaism. Only in the last few hundred years when the Jewish people’s faith has become weaker did it become necessary for G-d to send us these amazing new technologies, as each one is designed to help us with a different aspect of our emunah in G-d and His Divine providence:
1) The telescope, through which one can see great distances, boosts our faith that G-d sees and is aware of everything that we do here on earth, even though He might be very far away.
2) The telephone strengthens our belief in tefillah (prayer), for just as one can talk into a phone on one side of the world and his voice can be heard on the other side of the world, so, too, does G-d hear all our prayers – even though they are very long-distance calls!
3) The photograph is a recorded picture of a person who might not be aware that he’s being photographed, and that picture can last long after the person in the photo is gone. This makes it much easier for us to believe what our Sages teach us that one day – after we die and are brought up to the Heavenly Court to be judged for our actions here on earth – we will be shown ‘photographs’ of every single thing that we did throughout our lives – good and bad. Yikes!
4) The phonograph, through which a person’s voice is ‘captured’ and can be played back at a later date – even after he dies – allows us to believe the teaching of our Sages that we will one day have to answer to G-d for all the inappropriate conversation and Lashon Hara that we spoke in private – as it was all captured on that ‘great big phonograph in Heaven’.