This story took place back in the early 1960s, when big mainframe computers were first being introduced into business. Mainframes are computers that are known for their large size, amount of storage, processing power, and high level of reliability. They are primarily used by large organizations for applications requiring high volumes of data processing. It is often referred to as a “dinosaur” not only because of its size but because it’s becoming extinct.
There was a professor in Argentina who became fascinated with these machines. He studied them and understood everything there was to know about computer mainframes. At the same time, he began learning about Judaism and became fascinated with it, observing many of the commandments that he learned. In the course of his studies, this intellectual came up with a question that bothered him very much, and no matter which rabbi or Orthodox Jew he went to for clarification in Argentina, he was not satisfied with the answer. Upon the advice of a colleague, he traveled to New York to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson zt”l, and pose the question to him.
The man arrived in Crown Heights and came to the Rebbe’s house. He asked for a private meeting and eventually was granted an audience. “I have been taught,” stated the professor, when he finally came face to face with the Rebbe, “that everything that exists in the world, even something that is discovered at a later point in the path of history, has its source somewhere in the Torah. If so, rabbi, I must ask: Where are computers written in the Torah?”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe did not hesitate and answered immediately, as though he had the reply prepared:“T’filin.”
The professor groped to understand, but helplessly. Small black leather boxes that Jews wrap on their arms and heads have little apparent connection with anything of the 20th century, never mind the modern-day computers.
The Rebbe saw his bewilderment and hastened to explain. “What’s new about a computer?” he asked, after a short pause. The professor did not respond. He was thinking about the huge mainframe monsters. Machines that took up whole floors of buildings. Desktop computing wasn’t even in science fiction. What was new about these machines?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe continued to stretch the professor’s intellectual capacity. “You walk into a room, and you see many familiar machines: a typewriter, a large tape recorder, a television set, a hole puncher, a calculator. What is new and unique about the computer?” Another pause. The professor was thinking hard.
“I will explain it to you,” said the Rebbe warmly. “A mainframe computer is a huge machine that seemingly can do it all on its own. But under the floor,” the Rebbe went on, “unseen cables connect these machines so that they work as one.”
The professor nodded, enthusiastically. He knew all about these machines and how they operated. He himself hadn’t realized before, but, yes, this is all that a computer is: a synthesis of media and processing devices.
The Rebbe continued in a soft voice. “Now look at your own self. You have a brain. It is in one world. Your heart is in another. And your hands often end up involved in something completely foreign to both of them. Three diverse machines.
“Furthermore, your whole day could go along the same path: You brush your teeth, you pray to G-d, you go to work, you eat your kosher food – each an act, yet another sundry, unrelated fragment. And so, the entire Jewish people could go the same way. Each does his mitzvah (commandment), follows his path, but what one does has no relation to the other.”
The professor looked at the Rebbe as he continued to speak, and his mind was racing. “So, you put on t’filin – small, little black boxes – one on your head and the other on your arm. It is the first thing a Jew does in the day. Why do you do it? In order to connect your head with your heart with your hand with these leather cables – all to work as one with one intent. And then when you go out to meet the world, all your actions find a harmony in a single coordinated purpose.”
“And, whether you understand it or not,” the Rebbe concluded, “when a Jew puts on t’filin in Argentina, it affects another Jew who may be fighting in a war in Israel.”