Monthly Archives: October 2011

Reflections on Steve Jobs, Noach and Innovation in Society

At the end of parshat Berishit (Genesis) we read about the birth of Noach (Noah)

וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ נֹחַ, לֵאמֹר: זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ, וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ יְהוָה

When Noach was born, hope was born. The world was in a sorry state, the ground was cursed. You would plant wheat – and harvest thorns. To plant a seed meant digging with your fingers in the unforgiving, arid soil.

Lemech, Noach’s father, sensed that Noach would make the  world a better place. His prophecy was correct. Indeed, Noach invented the plow  – the first technological innovation that made people’s lives incomparably easier.

And that was the promise of Noach’s birth – relief from the pain of the hands, the nasty brutish sub-human existence of eking out a living from the soil.

But there is a problem. Hinted at in the verse, and writ large in the story of the flood.

Did things get better or did they not? While the plow was invented, humanity was destroyed.

What happened?

What happened was this:

Think again of Lemech’s promise:  זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ   This one shall comfort us.

What should Noach have been called – Nachum or Menachem – those names mean comfort or consolation. However, what was he actually called? Noach. Noach means rest or ease. Ease of living.

Lemech promised that Noach would make a difference – and he did. But his prophecy was off. He thought Noach would change the world by changing humanity. He would comfort us, he would help us change the curse, help us figure out a way back in to G-ds favor. He would fortify us, encourage us, teach us.

But Noach didn’t. Instead, he invented something. He brought technology – he changed the world. But he didn’t realize his role was to try to change humanity.

Noach didn’t invent the plow. You know what he invented? The iPlow™.

Noach made the lives of individual humans more convenient. He brought them rest. They didn’t have to work so hard. But they used that time, not to get closer to G-d, but rather to become father away. The story of the decline of humanity – a sorry tale of violence, robbery, rapacious behavior, adultery and perversion – begins then. After Noach’s great invention.

That’s not to say that plows are bad. Or that Noach caused the flood. But we see from the story of Noach that technology, itself, doesn’t save. Rather, that while it can make life easier, it doesn’t necessarily make people better.

Ultimately, Noach was a failure – he tried to change the world but he didn’t try to change the people in it. He innovates, but he never communicates. And the proof is, in the entire Noach narrative, right until he curses his children, Noach doesn’t say a word! There was no dialog, not with G-d, not with human beings, not with family. No conversation, no protesting against the morals of the world, no personal appeal to a neighbor to mend his ways. Nothing!

Noach, perhaps, didn’t realize his own strength. He didn’t realize his capacity to influence other people. Apparently he never tried. When he was born, it was understood that he could bring comfort – nechama – to the world and people would change on the inside. Instead he merely brought rest and repose.

Noach represents the awesome potential of the individual, and the tragedy of what happens when it is unfulfilled.

We live in a society where to be an innovator is to be a hero. For many, Steve Jobs was a hero (and I’m not going to add to that discussion). Personally I don’t have any Apple products, but if iPods and iPhones and Apple Macs are great contributions to humanity, then they are to be celebrated.

But what matters about humanity is not what we own, but who we are. When Steve Jobs unfortunately passed away a few weeks ago he was lauded as an individual of vision and a true leader. And I am sure he was. But we as a society idealize the innovator, the inventor, the Noach, but we neglect the Menachem.

The reaction to Steve Jobs’ death is more of a comment on our society – that now, as then, we expect to find the solution to our problems through technology and innovation. But that’s a mistake. Because your iPhone won’t make you happy. (If it did, they wouldn’t have to keep making upgrades.)

And it won’t make you righteous.

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Posted by on October 29, 2011 in current affairs, parsha, Rabbi Shaul Robinson



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