William Hamilton

More Modest Solutions

“Stop bringing us problems. Start brings us solutions. This is America!” An angry State Department official demanded of Rory Stewart years ago when the US was trying to change Afghanistan. The UK-born advisor knew a lot about the region, but wasn’t giving US Officials the answers they wanted to hear. “Stop telling us what we can’t do, and start telling us what we can do and how to do it.”

What’s the solution? What about the day after? Sound familiar? To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with seeking remedies. Who among us doesn’t want relief from back-pain or a kink in your neck? And driving forward more promising policies is always a good idea. 

Still, hasty solutions to complicated problems rarely work. This may be, in part, due to our tendency to overestimate what we know, while, at the same time, underestimating what’s uncertain. 

We welcome new tools that help us attain the goals we set. Reliable tools extend our strengths. The hammer in the carpenter’s hand. The pair of binoculars for a soldier’s eyes. Yet as much as they can extend our strengths, they also may alter them. Once upon a time, I used to remember a friend’s telephone number. 

A marvelous new Journal called Sapir came on the scene a few years ago. It collects fresh ideas and puts more eyes onto problems. It derives its name from a word in this week’s portion of Torah. Atop Sinai, following the Ten Commandments, Moses and the Elders experience a personal audience with God. It’s highly enigmatic. Mystics love it. And our word, Sapir, which can mean sapphire, as in sky-blue bricks or, perhaps, clarifying and purifying stories (l’sapair), flow forth in the form of revealed divine wisdom (Ex. 24:10).

Bret Stephens, its founding editor, has a rich essay in the most recent issue on President Lincoln’s approach to technology. On the eve of Lincoln’s birthday, our 16th President’s counsel about new inventions feels remarkably current. “The test of any technology is whether it makes us more human, not less,” the essay concludes. 

It’s worth recalling that the things that make us most human are the least computable. Things like empathy and volition, knowing what it means to be in love or to be hurt.

One of the recurring concerns about tools is that we become extensions of them. Rather than vice versa. Just as we tend to become what we worship, so too our dependence upon a tool can become a codependence. Maybe this also applies to an addiction to a stubborn instance of finding solutions to all problems.

Let’s aim for a more modest solution: a Gaza and a Lebanon and a Syria and a Yemen and a Palestinian town that’s a more prosperous and less predatory place. 

Until then, may we strive to bring more humility to our solutions and more humanity to the tools we use to enact them.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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