by R. Gil Student
The internet and related technology offer us unprecedented connections across the world. As with any tool, how we use it makes all the difference. Therefore, because of the great stakes, we should spend serious time thinking about how we should interact with new technology compared to how we currently use it, and adjust as appropriate. What is technology good for? Obviously, it is good for the various errands that we can now do on our computers and phones but what amazing things can we now do with it that should be our main focus?
I. Laws We Understand and Laws We Don’t
The Torah, apparently in describing itself, says “because it is your wisdom and your understanding before the nations, who will hear all these laws (chukim) and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Deut. 4:6). We know that there are different types of Torah commandments. Some are interpersonal laws. Some are ritual laws that we understand, that make sense to us. And some are laws that seem arbitrary, without specific meaning. These last laws are called chukim, statutes, things like the prohibition against wearing sha’atnez, a mix of wool and linen. We know there is some reason for it and commentators offer different possibilities but to the general public it seems like an arbitrary rule.
And yet, it is this type of law — chukim — that the verse singles out as an indication of the Jewish people’s wisdom and understanding. Of all the kinds of commandments, this is the least likely to engender respect and admiration from the nations. The verse doesn’t highlight respect for parents or meticulous honesty in business, which would seem to be likely sources of admiration. Rather it points to chukim. Why?
II. Two Ways to Fulfill Impossible Commandments
Rav Moshe di Trani (16th cen., Israel) wrote a book distinguishing between the sources of different laws — which are biblical, which are derived through interpretation, which are known through tradition and which are rabbinic. He structured this book, Kiryas Sefer, based on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah so in some ways, the book serves a second function as a commentary on Mishneh Torah. In the introduction to Kiryas Sefer (ch. 7), Mabit points out that it is impossible for any individual to fulfill all 613 commandments. Some are intended for kohanim, some for Levi’im, some for a king, some only for women, some only for men, and so on. No individual can fit in all these different categories. Additionally, some mitzvos are impossible today because, for example, we lack the Temple in Jerusalem. If so, how can we fulfill the Torah? Mabit offers two paths to fulfilling all the commandments. On the one hand, we can encourage others to do the mitzvos that we cannot and we can urge them not to violate the prohibitions that apply to them. By encouraging and enabling others to fulfill the commandments, by giving them the tools and the knowledge they need along with the moral support and maybe even scolding when appropriate, we join with them in their fulfillment. As a community of people responsible for each other, our role in someone else’s mitzvah allows us to share in their accomplishment.
However, we do not always have the opportunity to encourage the fulfillment of every single mitzvah. We may never come across a childless widow who must perform the chalitzah ceremony. We may never be able to coronate a Jewish king. Instead, we can fulfill those mitzvos by learning their Torah. When we engage with the texts discussing those commandments, when we willingly accept them as divine decrees, our fulfillment of those commandments through Torah study is as if we have fulfilled those commandments in actual practice. The words of Torah allow us to fulfill all the mitzvos, even those we never encounter personally and even those we could not fulfill even if we encountered them personally. By learning Torah, we can fulfill all 613 commandments.
III. Commandments We Want and Don’t Want to Fulfill
Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (19th cen., Poland; Divrei Shaul, Deut. 4:6) finds a surprising application of Mabit’s two approaches. Rambam, in his Shemonah Perakim (ch. 6), points out that the philosophers and the Sages disagreed whether it is better to desire to do wrong and overcome that desire or to desire only to do good. According to the Sages, it is best to have a desire to sin which you overcome. According to the philosophers, it is best to have no desire for sin. Rambam reconciles the two views by distinguishing between prohibitions whose reason we understand and those prohibitions whose reason we do not understand. When we know the reason for a mitzvah and we understand it, deep down we should want to observe it and have no desire to sin. In that way, we align our personalities with the Torah. But if we do not see a reason for the mitzvah, if it is a chok, a statute, such as not eating pig meat, then there is nothing wrong with wanting to do that act. In fact, it is proper to desire those actions because we only refrain so to the commandment. We cannot actually do it, because of the halakhah, but we can and should want to do it.
Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson connects this split of ideas with that of the Mabit. Rambam distinguishes between two types of mitzvos. Those that we understand, we need to align our wills so that we want to fulfill them. The chukim which we do not understand, we should not want to fulfill those. The Mabit distinguishes between two ways to fulfill mitzvos that we do not encounter. Either we can encourage others to do those mitzvos or we can learn about them.
Rav Nathanson suggests that for mitzvos whose reason we understand, and for which our personal desires should match the Torah’s commands, for those mitzvos — when we encourage other people to fulfill them it is as if we did them ourselves. We want to do those mitzvos and avoid those aveiros. Therefore, when we enable others to do so, when we give them the encouragement and knowledge they need, it as if we fulfilled them ourselves. But when it comes to chukim, which we do not truly understand and which we do not want to do — if not for the Torah’s command — for these mitzvos, our encouragement and enabling does not make it as if we fulfilled them. When it comes to chukim, we cannot fulfill them through others. Either we do them ourselves or, if that is not possible, then we must learn about them and fulfill them through their Torah.
IV. Commandments and Wisdom
With this, says Rav Nathanson, we can understand why the Torah says that specifically chukim display our wisdom to the nations. These laws challenge us; they force us to study them. Even though we do not understand them and we will never fully plumb their depth, we must learn about them in order to fulfill our obligation. We must continue to ponder that which is complex and obscure, spending our time in this ultimate intellectual endeavor. We can fulfill the laws we understand through encouraging action. But when it comes to chukim, we must learn Torah. And this study, this continual intellectual pursuit, the examination of that which is puzzling, this shows our wisdom to the world. We study that which is hard; we pursue the complex. And we continue to learn throughout our lives.
These different modes of engagement with mitzvos offer us guidance on how to use the continually evolving technology. We can look at technology as a series of tools for mitzvos. On the one hand, we can connect with other Jews and teach them. Everyone can share Torah on their own level and using their own skills. Share your excitement about Shabbos or any other mitzvah and encourage others when they share their excitement. If someone asks questions or expresses hesitance about Judaism, you can discuss it with them and share with them your thoughts, how you find it meaningful. On many occasions, our communal leaders have expressed the tremendous importance of every Orthodox Jew engaging in outreach at this time of generational assimilation, before it is too late. Technology allows us to do that in many ways, on many platforms, using our own voices. When you encourage someone to do a mitzvah, it is as if you did the mitzvah as well.
Additionally, technology gives us access to an overwhelming amount of Torah. There are thousands and thousands of Torah classes available online in video, audio, text, graphic, podcasts, etc. etc. There are Daf Yomi shiurim, Mishnah Yomis, Halachah Yomi, Nach Yomi — you name it, it’s available online. There are literally libraries of sefarim available online for free. On your computer and phone, you have access to more books than were in the Great Library in Alexandria.
When you use communication technology for learning Torah and encouraging the performance of mitzvos, you not only accomplish the amazing achievement of fulfilling mitzvos that are otherwise out of your reach. You not only use technology for your own growth. And you not only help others reach their religious potential. You make a Kiddush Hashem by displaying the commitment and the wisdom of the Jewish people.