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Kislev 5759 - November, 1998 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Imagination and Computers — the Danger for Us

by Rabbi Michoel Shotland

"There was a small city with only a few men within it and a great king fought against it and besieged it, and built great fortresses surrounding it. In this city lived a poor wise man and he with his wisdom saved the city. Yet no man remembered that poor man" (Koheles 9:14-15). See Rashi (v. 16) who cites the Midrash that this is an analogy to man's war against the yetzer.

My rebbe, Maran HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt'l, pointed out that the posuk does not at all tell us how the wise man actually saved the city. How did he manage to destroy the great fortresses with only his wisdom?

The wise man, the Rebbe zt'l would answer, saved the city by simply revealing that it was all a mere figment of imagination. There was never a great king nor any mighty fortresses.

(I found a similar explanation in the name of HaRav Naftoli Trop zt'l and HaRav Sholom Schwadron zt'l.)

Any intelligent person who thinks about the yetzer's uncanny power to make us imagine things realizes how significant this lesson is for us. When we analyze the tests the yetzer places before us, no matter whether we have, or, chas vesholom, have not succeeded in overcoming its temptations, we see clearly that they were always imaginary lures.

The yetzer tries to blind us and tells us: "Who knows what will happen if you don't do the aveiro?" or "How good it would be if you'd do the aveiro!" Afterwards — although it is sometimes too late — we understand how preposterous that ruse was. Chazal (Sotah 3a) when telling us that "a person does an aveiro only when a spirit of insanity enters him" emphasize how irrational it is to do an aveiro.

According to the above principle we can explain two sayings of Chazal. First: "It would be preferable that they abandon Me but observe My Torah so that its brilliance would return them to the proper way" (Midrash Rabbah Eichah, Hakdomoh 3). How does the Torah's brilliance manage to make a person do teshuvah? Another Chazal in need of explanation is: "I created a yetzer hora for him and I created the Torah as a cure" (Kiddushin 30b). What is the cure hidden in the Torah?

"HaKodosh Boruch Hu looked into the Torah and created the world" (Zohar 2:261a). The entire world now exists and was created in the past only because the Torah causes and caused it to exist. Everything follows the Torah's blueprint. Someone engaged in studying Torah is in fact engaged in studying the world's reality. Through digging deeper into the Torah and intensively understanding it a person understands reality better — he becomes more realistic. Imagination and illusions cease to impress such a person and there is more likelihood of his doing teshuvah.

This is the Torah's "cure" — its power to reveal reality so that one can more easily fight against the yetzer hora. This is its "brilliance" — the power of making distinctions, the ability to see clearly. The Torah is similar to a light driving away fog and allowing man to decide by himself what is fantasy and what is real life. With it he can walk in the correct way — the way of Torah.

@Big Let Body=Modern times with their scientific progress have provided us with almost unlimited powers of illustration and simulation. Although creative art was once limited to the talented, today almost anyone can easily produce his or her own "creations" and then copy and circulate them at will. Likewise, with the rapid growth in electronics and sound effects we can highlight and stress in various ways any picture we wish to transmit. This does not refer only to manmade works but to real-life as well. The possibility to add emphasis and to control the distribution of the works are more significant factors than the quality of the original picture itself.

Indeed gedolei dor of past generations insured that many of these "scientific breakthroughs" would not enter Torah-observant homes. Some of these infamous electronic communication devices have lowered manhood to a previously unheard of moral bottom. These sophisticated electronic means, whose power of persuasion is impossible to resist, have succeeded in instilling norms that break all standards of behavior and morality. Unfortunately some sparks of this "progress" have infiltrated into the Torah camp too. Although chareidim do not use the electronic inventions prohibited by our contemporary Torah mentors they have also been exposed to the "fantasy industry" through well designed street posters making use of various advertisement tricks.

No one denies that there is a spiritual decline within our camp and that it has recently escalated. We can explain this as follows: just like someone involved solely in realistic matters is less exposed to the world of imagination, as explained above, so someone engrossed in fantasies will have difficulty engaging in reality. You just cannot have both. The reality we are referring to is studying and delving in Torah research.

Similarly, besides the yetzer's using the power of imagination to entice us into doing aveiros, it uses the imagination itself to occupy our minds, to weaken our last refuge — the power of intensive Torah study.

With the arrival of home computers this threat has become greatly reinforced. We can today even call this threat a virtual "war between life and death." Home computers have produced several undesirable maladies that were not present in previous media apparatuses. First of all, their being such a useful and necessary device for home and work helps them more easily enter our homes. Second, the joy of being able to simulate things on the color screen is far superior to anything we previously had. Not only does a vivid picture appear on the screen and a person hears intelligible voices through the loudspeakers precisely according to how the programmers planned it, but also the person sitting in front of the computer actively uses other senses too, such as the sense of feeling (by using the mouse, etc.) and employing his intelligence to attain the right results. This causes an unprecedented identity with every message, even hidden, that the computer is trying to transmit.

These disadvantages are especially damaging because of the fact that the computer, which is merely a speechless machine used by a person, is considered by the user as more reliable than a mortal. Things that we would never be prepared to hear from a stranger we can see, hear, and even touch when sitting in front of the computer.

This does not only refer to electronic games that show children bizarre imaginary creatures thought up by people with distorted minds. Such games are infamous as having caused terrible damage.

We do not also intend to warn against the possibility to hook the computer on to external communication through the Internet or other ways. We are sure that no ben Torah would try to circumvent the issurim of the Torah either through those ways that have been for long prohibited or by using the computer found in his home. However, even without these adverse ways there are quite enough ways for the computer to harm us and especially harm our children.

@Big Let Body=In the course of my work I once met a talented programmer. While talking about all sorts of matters this young secular man began to praise computers and exaggerate their power. He declared enthusiastically that with it one "could even create worlds." The obvious falsity in what he told me was easy to prove. Everyone knows that if you merely pull out the plug the computer loses all its power. It is definitely not supernatural.

Although that person immediately understood this simple fact, I was amazed to see how he could originally express such a foolish notion. Afterwards I thought a great deal about this. I was simply astonished to see how a composed intelligent person could in all seriousness make such an idiotic statement. I learned from this that when a person works with a machine and uses it in an intellectual way to create new possibilities and answers to all sorts of demands, he can easily be enslaved to imagination. He can arrive at such a state of affairs that another person must open his eyes so that he will understand even something so simple and elementary.

Even if we do not accept such an extreme story as a standard case, we must notice that the computer world has created its own slang. Their professional jargon includes many bombastic initiatives they have developed as a result of their intoxication with power. The many silly advertisements and the computer programmers being involved in the endless trend toward progress give them the warped impression that every day another earth-shattering computer innovation has surfaced. This total absorption in the computer mania itself shows to what degree computers lack the power to elevate humanity. Possessing a computer exposes the user to all its idiocies and delusions and this happens even without using it for playing games.

Even when the user is a mature ben Torah who uses the computer for his parnosso he needs to develop enough antibodies to guard himself from its direct and peripheral detrimental effects. He must look at the computer as what it really is: a machine for editing and accounting intended to make jobs quicker and easier. Someone who allows immature boys and girls to use computers even for educational purposes should be aware of the dangers involved. He must understand the weighty responsibility he is shouldering.


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