Technology and Torahs

Eikev By :  Joshua Heller Posted On Aug 19, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

One of the hazards of dealing with technology is its built–in obsolescence. The computer that you bought two years ago is suddently too slow, too short on memory to perform even the simplest task. It is true that the frenetic pace of change in today’s society accentuates the problem, but it is a fact of the natural world that every product of human hands has a limit to its useful lifespan.

Even those human creations which do not become obsolete must someday wear out. Even clothing that withstands the whims of fashion must eventually become too stained or threadbare to be worn. Indeed, in this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, Moses recites a list of miraculous ways that God cared for the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering in the desert, and one of them was the fact that their garments did not wear out (Deuteronomy 8:4).

Ritual objects wear out, too. The threads of a tallit fray, whether used daily or weekly or thrice yearly. A bible or prayerbook will reach the point where its binding is too broken, its pages too smudged and torn. A Torah scroll is much more sacred, and much harder to replace. It may have its cracked or faded letters repaired many times, but eventually, the decision must be made that it is beyond repair.

The tradition teaches us that ritual objects which have outlived their usefulness deserve a measure of respect. In fact, there is a specific commandment which prohibits destroying an object which carries the divine name, or words of teaching, even if it has outlived its usefulness Here at JTS, there are two bins next to practically every photocopier: one for regular recycling, and one for special treatment of those pages which bear the divine name. These documents are called “sheimot” because they bear the divine name, or “shem.” As in Jewish institutions all over the world, these documents are stored in a special area called the Genizah, and at regular intervals, are disposed of in a respectful way (usually through burial).

There are a number of ways in which our tradition reinforces this reverence for things that have seemingly outlived their usefulness. One is by discovering examples of such reverence in the stories of our sacred texts. Perhaps the first written ritual objects in all of Jewish history were the two tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written. In this week’s parasha, Moses recounts the story of their destruction in abridged form. He brought these tablets down the mountain, and, upon witnessing the Israelite’s worship of the Golden Calf, smashed these tablets in a rage.

The tablets were useless—any words written on them, even in God’s own hand, were no longer legible. Indeed, the rabbinic legend (B. T. Pesachim 87b) teaches that when the tablets were shattered, the very letters flew free, so that nothing was left but the fragments of cold, dumb stone. Once God had commanded Moses to hew two new tablets, what possible use could be served by keeping them? And yet, in Deuteronomy 10:2 God says to Moses: “I will write on these (new) tablets the words which were on the first tablets that you broke, and you put them in the ark.” My translation accentuates the uncertainty in the verse–is it the new, second set of tablets that are to be put into the ark, or the fragments of the broken ones as well? Our sages resolved that uncertainty “Luhot v’shivrei luhot munachim ba’aron” (B.T. Bava Batra 14b). Both the tablets and the fragments of the tablets were placed together in the ark. Any pebble or shard that had once borne the divine name deserved the same level of respect as the whole Ten Commandments, a place of highest honor, in center of the camp, in the holy ark.

Our sages, however, understood that veneration of objects for their own sake borders on idolatry. What matters is how our treatment of those objects brings us to love and respect the ideas that they represent, to love and respect God, and other people. They saw this broken set of tablets, that had once held great teaching but now taught no more, as a metaphor for one who had once held great teaching but had lost that knowledge. Those people who had lost their wisdom with age, deserved the same respect and tender care as those broken tablets.

The message of our sages is perhaps even more important today than it was in their own day. Modern medical technology enables us to preserve the mechanical functioning of the human body, but it is powerless to prevent the very essence of human intellect, memory and personality from slipping away. What once was seen as senescence is now obsolescence. Over a period of years people become too slow, too short on memory to perform even the simple tasks of daily life. The body can become like the first, broken set of tablets B once a transmitter of much that was good and holy, but now no longer capable of sustaining the simplest message.

The ethical and philosophical questions surrounding aging and the eventual end of life are complex in heartrending ways. It is beyond our comprehension why some are fortunate enough to keep their wits about them until the end of life, while for others the years bring a steady diminution. But we learn important lessons from the way we treat our ritual objects. Even as the very soul trickles out of the vessel which is the human body, that vessel deserves respect and dignity. Though perhaps the intellect that taught us through the years has faded, the wisdom that led to good deeds is gone, we owe a debt even to the vessel that once carried them. We owe it to them not to leave them behind or abandon them, but rather to preserve them in the midst of the community as long as possible, like the broken tablets held in the holy ark.

For a Torah scroll, there comes a point where scribe and congregation conclude, with great sadness, that the damage of time is too great and the letters can no longer be replaced. The scroll itself, a product of human hands, will soon be laid to rest. It is not so different with us. The body reaches a point where its parts can no longer be repaired and replaced, where the letters and words of teaching are no longer recognizable. But we can hope that perhaps the words themselves, created by God, and no longer bound by rock or parchment or flesh, fly free and whole.

Rabbi Joshua Heller