These thoughts were originally published in Torah && Tech, the weekly newsletter I publish together with my good friend Ben Greenberg. To get the weekly issue delivered straight to your inbox click here.
Last week we were all shocked by the news that came in from Poway, CA. The fact that the shooting at the Chabad House happened during Acharon Shel Pesach, traditionally a joyous time for Jews worldwide, and only six months after the shooting in Pittsburgh makes it all the more incomprehensible.
At times like these, it’s hard to come up with an appropriate and coherent response, yet I believe that we techies, particularly techies who hold Torah values dear, are perhaps better equipped to respond.
The Talmud (Bava Basra 10a) tells of a debate between the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva and the Roman provincial governor in Israel at the time, Tineius Rufus. The following is a loose translation:
Turnusrufus the Evil asked Rabbi Akiva “if your God loves the poor so much, why doesn’t he provide them with sustenance himself?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “So that we may merit the world to come by helping them.”
Tineius Rufus said “to the contrary, helping the poor makes you guilty in God’s eyes, let me give you an example: suppose the emperor got angry at one of his servants and had him thrown in prison, he commanded all of his other servants not to feed him. Now suppose one servant defied the king’s orders and fed the errant servant, wouldn’t the king be angry at him?”
Rabbi Akiva replied “I will give you a more accurate example: suppose the emperor got angry, not at his servant, but at his son, and in his temper he had him thrown in prison, he commanded all of his servants not to feed him. Now suppose one servant defied the king’s orders and fed the errant son, wouldn’t the king send him gifts when he found out? Similarly, we are all God’s children, as it is written ‘you are children of the Lord, your God’ (Deuteronomy 14:1).”
This argument may sound arcane, but it’s strangely relevant. Tineius Rufus was committing a well-known logical fallacy known as the Just-World Fallacy. We all have an innate need to feel that the world is just and fair, so if we see someone suffering, say they are poor for example, we try and justify it by saying that the person must be lazy, or that they lack ambition, all as a way of justifying the seeming unfairness of their poverty. When taken to the extreme, as Tineius Rufus did, this argument can be used to defend why we don’t do more to help them out.
Rabbi Akiva replied that such a world-view is false. When we see imperfection in the world, we need to see it as a challenge, a place we can improve.
This idea is especially relevant to us in tech.
One of the first things I had to learn when I was learning to program was how not to be afraid of error messages.
One of my favorite quotes that helped me get through that mental block was from Steve Klabnik:
“Programming is a movement from a broken state to a working state. That means you spend the majority of your time with things being broken. Hell, if it worked, you’d be done programming.”
“Civilians” are afraid of error messages. It’s this scary thing the screen barks at them, which may or may not be their fault, and usually something they can’t fix without the help of IT. As programmers, we see lots of error messages, but for us, error messages are guides, they are opportunities, they show us where the code broke and how to fix it.
We thrive in broken environments. We view systems that aren’t working as an opportunity to fix and improve.
While other people may see darkness in the world and shrug while saying “what can you do?” or even “I guess that’s the way it is…” We know better. When we see evil in the world, we see it as an annoying error message, and if there’s one thing we know about error messages, it’s that we can eventually get to the bottom of it. It might not be easy, it might not take a few minutes, but if we persist there’s no bug we can’t eliminate.
Let us take the feelings of anger and outrage and use them as a motivator to make the world a better place.