Torah and Science

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Computer Contemplations

by Rabbi Moshe Y. Wisnefsky

The Ba'al Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that a Jew can learn something about his relationship with G-d from everything he experiences.  The logic behind this is straightforward: If G-d masterminds and controls everything that happens, this surely includes matching up all the occurrences of life with the people who go through them.  And furthermore, since "G-d does nothing for naught" [Talmud Brachot 31a], the reason why He presents a person with a particular situation must be so that the person can learn something from it that will be to his spiritual benefit.

Such should be any Jew's thoughts when confronted with something new, and such were mine when I started using a personal computer quite a few years ago. "What can I learn from this machine about my spiritual life?" I wondered.  The associations were not long in coming.

Although computers are dumb, they learn very quickly, and the first thing they do while warming up is measure their IQ (available "memory" or RAM)--to take a quick stock of their potential. Similarly, upon awakening in the morning, a Jew reminds himself of who he is and 1how he is going to operate that day.  This he does by saying Modeh Ani, the short statement recited immediately upon becoming conscious in the morning: "I gratefully acknowledge, living and eternal King, that You have mercifully restored my soul to me, as an expression of Your great trustworthiness."  The powerful spiritual potential of his soul enables each Jew to have a meaningful positive day if he uses it properly.

The next thing the computer does is "load" the Disk Operating System (DOS) into its active memory.  This is what gives the computer the ability to perform certain basic functions and to eventually run any other program or software. This corresponds to the morning prayers.  It is here that the Jew consciously connects to G-d and establishes a spiritual base that will enable him to relate to all his various activities (=programs) that day in terms of his Jewishness.

The state of control that the Jew is expected to possess over the consciousness-confusing bombardments of his environment is called da'at, ("integrated awareness"), which in Ashkenazic pronunciation is daas, very similar to "DOS."

Once DOS is loaded, the computer is ready to execute specific programs, whatever they might be (word processing, accounting, graphics, games, etc.).  So too, although all Jews pray the same Morning Service, each one draws the specific potential he needs to fulfill his own individual task properly, whatever that might be (businessman, parent, student, farmer, etc.)

When control is lost over a program, it is possible to reload the operating system without turning off the computer (this is called a "warm boot").  Similarly, by late afternoon, the spiritual consciousness acquired in the morning prayers has worn off somewhat and the average person is ready for a booster shot.  This is the short Mincha-Maariv (Afternoon-Evening) prayers.

Minchah and Maariv are much shorter than Shacharit, the morning prayer; the assumption is that we haven't totally lost our G-d-consciousness - become unplugged! - during the course of the day.  A person who consciously attempts to keep his Divine perspective focused will find it much easier to daven a good Minchah and Maariv than someone who has released his daas (DOS) during the course of the day.

Other operating systems (such as Windows) allow you to perform DOS operations without even leaving the currently resident software programs.  This corresponds to what the Ba'al Shem Tov called being "in-velt-ois-velt" ["in the world, out of the world"]: involved in the physical world while simultaneously sustaining intense G-d-consciousness [deveikut].

At the end of a work session, before turning the computer off, the user makes back-up copies of all his files so that no valuable information is accidentally lost. This parallels the bedtime recital of the Sh'ma, during which the Jew takes stock of the day's events, sees where he spiritually succeeded and where he did not, and resolves to transform his errors into growth-units by learning from them for tomorrow.  In this way, nothing is "lost" or goes to waste; every element of his life contributes to the better version of himself he has determined to be when he wakes up.

Turning off the computer altogether corresponds to going to sleep; the following morning one must repeat the starting processes, since the spiritual mindfulness of the previous day was released during sleep.  But if one "backed-up his files" he needn't start over altogether; after establishing his basic DOS in the morning prayers, he can pick up where he left off yesterday and continue to spiral upward in life.

Finally, in learning to use the computer, it is much easier to use the manual than to try and figure things out by yourself.  Similarly, the surest way to get the most out of life is by being as well-versed in Torah--the Instruction Manual--as possible.  However, no matter how well you read the computer manual, you don't begin to really understand and get a feel for it until you start fiddling with the machine itself. So, too, the Torah has to be lived and experienced in order to be properly understood.  And just as when the manual is reread after a little practice things takes on a new light, so too the concepts and principles of Torah are better understood and appreciated after they have been applied to life.

All of this is relevant for "end-users," those that utilize the procedures other people have written in computer-language that make the computer function in a particular way. When one begins to get into programming languages (the long strings of commands that tell the computer how to process what you give it), a further realization awaits him.  The computer is a precise machine; it does not recognize "near-hits" or "almost perfectly spelled" words.  Thus, one incorrectly typed command in a series of thousands can cause an entire program not to run. This recalls the halachah that a minor defect in, for example, tefillin invalidates the performance of the mitzvah. One's intentions may have been good (although not necessarily perfect, for if that were the case, he would have done all that is humanly possible to make sure his tefillin were they way they're supposed to be), but if something is off--well, the user is wearing something other than properly-functioning tefillin.  It is much the same with the computer: if one word is misspelled, there are no hard feelings, but we still have to locate and rectify the error before our application program can be valid.

The computer is a versatile tool, but it is only as creative as its user is.  So, too, although Torah, mitzvot and prayer are powerful tools with which we can accomplish tremendous things, in order for them to be truly effective we have to put our heart, soul, and mindfulness [kavannah] into them.  Each person has to use the Torah-mitzvot system to perfect and spiritualize the portion of reality that Divine Providence has placed within his sphere of influence.

Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky was one of the three founders of ASCENT in 1983 in Safed.  He presently lives in Jerusalem.



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