One Technological Step Forward, Two Spiritual Steps Back?

When Bnei Yisrael complained again, this time about the mann, and spoke against Hashem and Moshe Rabbeinu, Hakadosh Baruch Hu sent huge snakes and fiery serpents to bite them. A large number died of the venom. When the survivors expressed regret for their complaints, Moshe Rabbeinu once again implored Hashem on their behalf.

Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to create a figure of a serpent and place it on a pole; anyone who had been bitten could look up at this figure and his life would be spared. Moshe made a serpent of copper and suspended it high in the air.

Chazal explain that it was obviously not the snake that caused someone to live or die. When Bnei Yisrael looked upward and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Shamayim, they were cured. When they failed to do so, they lost their lives.

For the next seven centuries — four hundred years of the era of the Judges and the first three hundred years of Malchus Beis Dovid — this snake of copper remained among Bnei Yisrael. Then Chizkiyahu Hamelech did the unthinkable — he demolished it, and this act earned him the praise of the chachamim of his era.

What happened? How could he have seen fit to destroy something that Moshe Rabbeinu had created at the direction of Hashem?

The answer is the spiritual deterioration of the generations.

For centuries the Jews looked at the copper snake as a reminder that the only solution to every dilemma and every danger was to turn toward Hashem with a submissive heart. They recognized the symbolism of the snake — that their only protection was from Hashem, and that all cures and salvations, “natural” and otherwise, were merely His messengers.

But as time wore on, the Jews began to forget the symbolism and turned the copper snake itself into an object of worship. And in that case, Chizkiyahu Hamelech was right to demolish it. He also hid from human eyes the Sefer Harefuos written by Shlomo Hamelech, which contained the cure for every known disease, because it might tempt lesser generations to “forget” that refuos, like yeshuos, come from Hashem.

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In an age of dizzying technological advances, there is on occasion a temptation to look at our great-great-grandparents as primitive, backward people. After all, they lived without telephones or fax machines, let alone cell phones and email. They traveled by horse-drawn wagon and by boat, and trains were a wonder to them — while we commute in cars and fly through the sky in airplanes.

We look back with pity on our ancestors, who lit their homes with kerosene lamps and actually wrote letters by hand, with a quill.

Few if any of us would agree to return to the days of the outhouse and the donkey cart. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone from the last century envying the frenetic life of a contemporary businessman, whose thumb seems to be glued to his BlackBerry. But more important, what is the Torah view on technological advances?

When the marvelous new invention of highway paving came to the region where the Apta Rav, zy”a (niftar 5585/1825), lived, he disdained it completely. When he traveled, he continued to insist on using the dusty, muddy, rutted dirt roads. He explained that those poor roads were generally usable only by day; a traveling Yid would be forced to stop each evening at an inn, where he would daven Maariv, eat something and then learn Torah for a while before retiring for the night. In the morning he would arise, daven Shacharis and perhaps learn some more before continuing on his way.

On the other hand, on the new paved roads it was possible to travel through the night, wreaking havoc on the traveler’s spiritual obligations.

In Shem Olam, the Chofetz Chaim addresses the issue of technological advances. He holds that they do not actually signify any sort of advance, but instead verify that the generations are growing steadily weaker.

“Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a hearing ear and all your deeds are recorded in a book” (Avos).

When our ancestors learned this Mishnah, they believed it and had no need for any tangible examples, just as an adult has no need for a drawing to elucidate a simple concept. With the deterioration of the generations, it was necessary to provide an example, a drawing, so to speak, so that our inferior minds could comprehend the concept. Therefore, the Ribbono shel Olam gave people the chochmah to create the camera and the tape recorder, a telescope that could see things at a great distance, and many other devices.

The fact that everything we do and say is caught on “tape,” a “recording” that will be played back to us in the Beis Din shel Maaleh, is now tangible to all — if they wish to acknowledge it.

May the Ribbono shel Olam grant us the strength to overcome the great nisyonos inherent in the technology of our time, using it only to advance in yiras Shamayim and yiras chet.