Computers double in speed every 18 months.
Custom-tailored DNA will soon be as commonplace as 3D printing.
The AP now has automated computer programs that output crystal clear, financial reports in English from numerical data inputs.
We’re making progress.
But towards what destination?
If “progress” is synonymous with technological progress, it could be anywhere.
Faster computers could translate for many to faster hacking. DNA modification could lead to genetic elitism. Computer-produced journalism, while relatively safe when reporting the rising and falling of stock prices, will bring with it a whole slew of complexities when dealing with anything more subjective than raw numbers.
Technology is a vehicle. One that rapidly gets faster and more efficient at getting us to where we want to go. It can be self-driving and equipped with a GPS that will take us wherever we tell it to.
But the destination? That can only come from us. Whether we decide to use it for serving the greater good or for serving ourselves alone.
Technology is agnostic. It does what it’s told. It doesn’t hold its own beliefs.
Although we associate technology with modernity, so did every generation before us. Everyone has had to reckon with technology in their time. The problem of technology is therefore not a new one; it’s as old as humankind.
Noah’s name means “rest”*.
For us in the 21st century who go to sleep and wake up answering never-ending streams of emails and workflows, just the word can evoke a yearning sigh. Real rest. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Noah’s father named him based on a premonition that his son would bring about a transformation in a world that desperately needed respite from the round-the-clock work of farming that had been consuming people’s waking lives for hundreds of years**.
When Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden, the Earth was cursed with them. No longer would delicious, succulent fruits of every kind grow on their own without human effort. Those days were over. If you wanted to put food on your table, you were going to have to work for it.
The theory behind the curse was that we had been spoiled in the Garden, and that’s why we messed up. If, however, we learned to make the land blossom, we would come to appreciate the value of work, and eventually take responsibility for bringing ourselves to blossom through cultivating our moral and spiritual growth.
With noble intentions, Noah questioned the mechanics of the curse. Perhaps we weren’t doomed to work. Maybe we could artificially go back to a Garden of Eden state by hacking the system. “If we didn’t have to work,” he reasoned, “then we’d be free to do the real work of developing ourselves morally and spiritually.”
Noah became the Thomas Edison of his time, motivated by bringing about a mass movement of moral and spiritual enlightenment. He set out to invent a solution to the problem of work and was successful.
Noah invented the plow. It was a total game-changer. The iPlow sold like iPhones. Think about using a hoe to break up dirt a few inches at a time, and then, by hand, shoveling to make grooves to plant seeds for a whole field. Contrast this to walking your ox down the field as it almost effortlessly drags a plow behind it. A day’s work was reduced to a couple of hours, theoretically freeing up the rest of the day for study, reflection, moral development, and good deeds towards others.
Technology is meant to bring us rest, and perhaps on the micro level it does. But if we look more broadly at the macro effects of technology in the 20th and 21st centuries — although it has certainly made us more productive, we are no less busy. In many ways, we are more busy than ever. With more time, workaholics take on more work. Shopaholics shop more, which eventually requires them to work more to afford their spending habits. Hence, the vicious cycle of work and leisure. Our purpose as people gets lost in the shuffle.
When Noah saw that people just worked harder and played harder with whatever time they had gained through plowing, he lost a lot of his faith in humanity. He turned inwards, and focused on his own spiritual growth and that of his family.
God challenged him with the introduction of a new technology: the Ark. A vehicle. The challenge was: was he just going to blindly use it to save himself and his family or would he pray for the world so that it would never need to be used in the first place?***
Noah used the technology of the Ark and used it about as well as one could have. He got his family and all the animals in there, and took care of them during the flood — but he missed the essential question he was being asked. Technologies are technical, and the technical was blocking him from the essential, even though solving the essential, in this case, would have avoided using the technical solution entirely.
Technical tools cannot resolve essential questions of right and wrong. They never will. They can help us make a living, but it will not teach us how to live.**** Not even the iPhone 7 (in case someone was waiting for the new Siri to resolve complex, ethical dilemmas in their lives).
Our faith in ourselves and in humanity must come from the desire that it is not only our computers that advance every 18 months, but so much more importantly, that we do as well. Focusing on evolving technologies around us can distract us from the most important upgrades we can make. We must become wiser, more caring, and stronger of character in ways technology cannot and never will. Like the plants we once cultivated, we grow naturally — as long as we focus on the light of essential purpose and seek to grow towards it.
It should be a year of joyful spiritual work and growth for everyone!
Shabbat shalom and a blessing of peace and safety to all of our brothers and sisters in Israel,
(Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy. He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)
*נח is Noah in Hebrew. לנוח means “to rest.”
**Bereishit 5:29 – “And he named him Noah, saying, ‘This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands from the ground, which the Lord has cursed.’ ”
***The flood is referred to as the “waters of Noah” by the prophet Isaiah, attributing the flood to Noah, and placing its weight on his shoulders. He could have stopped it, but he didn’t believe in people enough to pray sincerely (Ohr Hatzafun, דקות התביעה בקצה השלמות).
****Quote from Rabbi Shmuel Lynn.