Most of us have become accustomed to using WhatsApp to communicate and in some cases manage our family, social, and professional lives. Indeed, WhatsApp is used to send more than 100 billion messages a day (although most of those are just in the group my wife and I have with our children). To give you a sense of how dependent we are on WhatsApp for working for and with the BRS community, for example, Rabbi Moskowitz and I are currently in 206 groups together including our BRS staff group, groups for organizing shiva minyanim and chesed, sharing Torah, and much more.
A year and a half ago, a virus forced us to socially distance, quarantine, and lockdown physically. This past week, a bug in technology, at least temporarily, put a wedge between us and kept us apart from one another for several hours. Both were terribly unpleasant, uncomfortable, and even painful. But they also both presented opportunities to reflect, reset and recalibrate, the former on our connection with people and the latter on the role and dependance on technology in our lives.
While our generation is struggling to navigate the unprecedented proliferation technological breakthrough, we are not the first to confront what progress should mean, how it should impact how we spend time, and what our ultimate goals should be.
The central story of our Parsha is the “hard reset” that God performed on the world, undoing all that He had created and restarting the world anew. Hashem took such a drastic measure because, the Torah tells us, the world had become filled with corruption and moral depravity.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 108a) makes a mysterious comment – “the generation of the flood became corrupt as a result of the great blessing that God had bestowed upon them.” Which blessings are the rabbis referring to and how did they corrupt humanity?
The great Rav Avraham Pam zt”l suggests that the key to understanding this Gemara and what happened to Noach’s generation can be found in his very name. The Torah tells us that Lemech named his son Noach saying, “This one will bring us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands from the ground which Hashem had cursed.” Rashi explains that until that time, the world had continued to suffer from the curse that God gave Adam, “b’zeias apecha tochal lechem, you will have to work with the sweat of your brow to draw bread from the ground.” Until Noach was born, man labored from morning to night and worked tirelessly with his bare hands just to have food to eat, leaving no recreational or down time.
Lemech saw prophetically that Noach was destined to invent the plow and other agricultural tools that would make man much more efficient and would ease his burden. Lemech therefore named him Noach from the root nuach, to rest, because his Noach would provide tremendous relief to an overworked population.
Rav Pam explains, the inventions of the plow and other tools were the great blessing that rabbis referenced. Yet, instead of becoming empowered, liberated, or enriched by these innovations, they became corrupt. These inventions, these gifts from God increased productivity, improved efficiency, and yielded more free time. This time could have been used constructively, productively, and meaningfully. Instead, the generation used their newfound downtime for corrupt activity. The breakthrough and advancement could have brought spiritual ascent, instead they brought moral decline.
We are blessed to live in the greatest era of technological breakthrough of all time. Simple tasks that used to eat up our time can now be accomplished in seconds, or through automation or even speech recognition, in no time at all. We long ago became accustomed to the washing machine, dishwasher, bread machine and microwave, but we now even take things like GPS navigation systems, or the ability to Facetime or WhatsApp video with multiple people in multiple destinations across the world, for granted.
Every single day, something is invented which is meant to make our lives more noach, easier. They are designed to free up precious time. The question is, do they? Do we fill that time meaningfully and mindfully or is that time squandered on mindless behavior? Perhaps it is no coincidence that Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp were first wiped out and then flooded with messages in the week we read Noach as a reminder that a generation is defined by what it does with the blessing of progress it experiences and the free time it discovers.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (3:1) quotes Akavya ben M’halalel who teaches that a person should always keep in mind, “Before Whom he will have to give Din V’cheshbon, judgment and reckoning.” What is the difference between din and cheshbon?
The Vilna Gaon explains that din refers to judgment for mistakes, indiscretions, and poor decisions we made. Cheshbon is not about what we did wrong with our time, but what we could have done right during that time. We will have to give din for mistakes we made but we will also be held accountable even for the cheshbon, the calculation of what we could have accomplished if we had only taken advantage of the time we claimed we don’t have.
Do we use the gift of greater time to binge watch, to pursue frivolous activities and to indulge in hedonistic experiences? Or, do we use the time we are gaining with each breakthrough for meaningful, productive, and constructive activities? Are our greater comfort and expanded time leading to moral decay and decline or moral development and progress?
Technology can either enslave or liberate, free up time or eat up our time, move us forward, or take us backwards. Moments like a worldwide outage can and should be opportunities to consider our own relationship with technology and time, and hopefully inspire us to bring us closer to a place of true, earned noach.