Noach's Technology Lesson
The rabbis were not so much critical of Noach – as he is paid the highest of
compliments, throughout the Torah as a righteous person – but they were wary
of him. I have often felt that this attitude is born of the idea that Rashi
himself states in commenting upon the origin of Noach’s name. Rashi makes a
point that the name Noach should not be construed as a derivative of the
Hebrew word “nacheim” – meaning to comfort - but rather it is derived from
the other Hebrew word “noach” – meaning, rest, leisure, comfortable but not
comfort as in consolation.
Rashi attributes this understanding of Noach’s name to the fact that he was
the father, so to speak, of modern agricultural technological advancement
and progress. The iron plow, the first great essential tool for farming
developed for humans, enabling settlers to abandon a nomadic existence, was
an invention of Noach. This was his great contribution towards the
advancement of human technology.
Noach therefore becomes the source of human technological progress which
grants us leisure, eases our physical workload and gives us many physical
comforts in life. However, technology alone with all of its attendant
blessings does not guarantee us any sort of mental, spiritual or social
comfort. It does not console us in our hour of grief nor does it strengthen
our spirit in our moments of self-doubt and personal angst.
If Noach could have achieved these goals then Rashi points out that his name
would have been Menachem – the one who brings true consolation and comfort
to troubled souls. Hence Noach is viewed in tradition as being incomplete –
technologically advanced but spiritually wanting – in short a pretty
accurate description of our current human society.
The Rabbis of the Talmud taught us that if “one tells you that there is
wisdom, knowledge and skills present amongst the nations of the world you
should believe him.” However, if one tells you that there is Torah amongst
the nations of the world, then do not believe him.” Judaism and Jewish
society has no basic argument against the advance of technology. We are not
the Amish nor are we willing to be consigned a back seat in the drive to
physically improve the human condition of life on this planet. Yet Judaism
realizes that true psychological and spiritual comfort cannot be found in
the latest version of the ipod.
Noach’s technology can be enormously beneficial in a society that adopts
Avraham’s values and beliefs. But bereft of any spiritual focus or
restraint, technology run wild makes our world a more fearful place to
inhabit and forces many to yearn for the good old, less technologically
advanced, eras that preceded us. Noach’s grand technology could not save the
world from the ravages of evil that brought upon humankind the great flood
described in this week’s parsha.
Avraham’s grand values and holy behavior almost saved the seat of world
evil, Sodom. The world is Noach’s world but its survival is dependent upon
the survival and eventual triumph of Avraham’s children, ideas and beliefs.
Rabbi Berel Wein