Nothing Is New? A New Year Reflection

Technology is a tool, and we get to choose how we use it.

By Rabbi Ken Brodkin

Last August, my family spent a weekend at the Oregon coast. I was scheduled to be back in the office on Monday, but we booked a couple of extra nights thinking I could get online and get some work done.

We soon realized a surprising thing: Oceanside has no cell phone coverage. Then we realized the house we rented has no internet connection. I began to get nervous. How are we going to go 48 hours without cell phone or internet connection?

On Rosh Hashanah, we consider the potential for change in our world. It is hard to think of a greater change than the constant presence of sophisticated technology in our lives. Ever-present technology affects our families, our work, our communities and our society. Technology is a defining part of our lives. How does Judaism address our new high-tech world?

On Sukkot, we will read the Book of Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon. Therein, Solomon argues that matters that appear to be new are in fact old. He writes:

There is a matter about which one will say, “look this is new…”

Yet, he continues:

It has already existed in the ages before us. There is nothing new under the sun

King Solomon’s words are epic … but could he have been wrong on this front? Perhaps if he had lived to see the release of the latest Apple iPhone X or the latest android phone, he would have known there really are a whole lot of new things!

Ostensibly, Solomon was aware new inventions come along. The Book of Genesis speaks of early generations that invented the plow and various musical instruments. Solomon knew of these and many other inventions. And yet, he writes there is nothing new under the sun. What is the logic of such a statement?

Nachmanides (a 12th century commentary) addresses this question. He explains that Solomon does not mean there are no new developments or inventions. Rather, he means that when G-d created the world, every matter already existed in potential.

G-d created the world from total nothingness. Subsequently, all that comes about is not really new. It already existed in potential. At the time of Creation, G-d created all potential, setting into motion the wheels of life. Every matter that comes about – whether the plow, antibiotics, the cell phone or human wisdom to harness nature – was an integral part of the world G-d created.

G-d created a world that has a potential for everything that we see. How does that idea impact our lives? In saying that “nothing is new,” Ecclesiastes is pointing to a human problem. We all have a desire for what’s new. We long for the next new invention that will bring us some new satisfaction.

Solomon warns us: A generation comes and a generation goes, the eye is never sated with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. We are constantly seeking out the next sight or the next sound – yet we are not satisfied. If newness is deceptive, we should remember what is ancient. Go to the ancient One who created all this, Solomon hints to us.

Instead of trying to find satisfaction from the next new thing, we need to balance that by seeing where it all comes from. The basis of life is the Creator. The ultimate thing that we yearn for is to know and to connect to our Creator – our Source. In that light, Solomon wants to reorient us.  Don’t look for the deceptive newness – try to find connection to what is truly eternal.

In this light, technology brings to the fore important human challenges. On the one hand, a smart phone and the like are amazing and powerful tools. On the other hand, technology will not teach us how to use that power. Consider the following questions:

  • Tech brings our work just about everywhere: have you ever felt that the boundaries between work and home blur with the presence tech?
  • Tech raises questions of privacy – what do we post about our lives online?
  • Tech can impinge on our ability to be present. Do you ever feel that tech pulls you away from people you love at important times?
  • Have you ever used tech in ways that do not accord with your Jewish values? (Tech allows us to easily access things that truly are negative.)

These challenges are part of our new world. During the High Holidays, we go back to our bedrock of values and our ancient morals. Judaism teaches us what our lives should look like in a world that is intensely modern and changing.

Technology is a tool, and we get to choose how we use it.

Recently, I read about a CEO of a large company who has ADHD and dyslexia. He says he does not read email. While most of his colleagues spend inordinate amounts of time on Facebook, he spends his time talking with employees and clients.

We get to choose what our lives look like. We can decide that there are sacred times in our home without being on the grid. We can carve out times of prayer and Torah study that are sacred. We can determine what we share of ourselves and our world – and what is too sacred to share. In short, while connected to tech, we must remain connected to our eternal values.

In addition to connecting to ancient values, we need to see newness in life. While we seek the new, our greatest potential to be happy comes from an ability to appreciate what is old.

As things turned out during that weekend at the coast, my family’s two days in Oceanside without phone and internet turned out to be amazing! On the second night, we made a fire on the beach. There we were doing the oldest thing – sitting around a camp fire. No cell phones or Facebook posts, and we did not even feel lonely! How long in human history have we humans been sitting around the fire?

During the High Holidays, we should connect to something that is old – in a new way. This New Year, try to appreciate something that is new about your job, or your loved ones or your community. Consider the newness of life – especially in the things that you thought were old.


Rabbi Ken Brodkin is the rabbi of Congregation Kesser Israel.

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