Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
Tales of Two Cities
I was five or six years old the first time I stood before a congregation. It was Purim, and the synagogue was holding a kids’ talent show. The M.C. asked anyone who would like to perform to raise his or her hand. I raised my hand. I knew what I wanted to do: I was going to tap dance, just like those fabulous dancers who enthralled me on television variety shows so popular in the 1950s. When the M.C. called on me, I bounded up to the stage. The M.C. introduced me and my act. I started shuffling my feet, and waving my hands and arms too. In a matter of moments, I demonstrated my first profound insight before a congregation: I didn’t know how to tap dance. Simultaneously I experienced my first moment of profound embarrassment in front of a congregation. The thought of one day becoming a rabbi would have been the furthest thing from my mind.
Jump ahead a few years to third grade. One of my Hebrew School classmates wrote a play based on the apocryphal tale that Adam had two wives: Lilith first and then Eve. I was cast as the male lead, Adam, beleaguered by his first wife, then beguiled by his second wife. I learned my lines carefully and performed them with panache. I could tell that I was charming the audience, comprised of easy to please parents. The play suddenly came to a halt. I waited for Eve to say her line, then gestured to her to speak. Eve then spoke indeed. She cued me on the first few words of my line, which I had forgotten to say. Another lesson learned: When performing in a synagogue, pay attention to what you’re supposed to say, don’t be enchanted by how well you think you’re saying it. It was another moment of both insight and embarrassment.
Awkward moments in the synagogue notwithstanding, I liked being Jewish. I was the only Jewish kid in my class in public school, and by second grade, I was the only Jewish kid in the entire school. Being Jewish made me feel special. I did get into a fight with the class bully, but not because I was Jewish. He was a braggart as well as a bully, and he didn’t like me speaking this truth to his power. I lost the fight, teaching me the lesson that sometimes when you speak truth to power, you get your butt kicked. Nonetheless, I was glad for standing up to the class bully, so I also learned that sometimes saying truth to power is worth a fight, that something is always won even if you lose.
Another lesson in public school that made a deep impression upon me was a moment that only happened to other kids but could never happen to me because, well, I thought I was the smartest kid in the class. One day I raised my hand to answer the teacher’s question, and when she called on me, I forgot what I was going to say. Oh the mortification! Ever since, when I am about to open my mouth to talk, I think before I speak. I generally follow my own good advice; sometimes I wish that others would do the same. Imagine a world where everyone followed Judaism’s traditional silent meditation, Elohai, netzor l’shoni me-ra, “My God, keep my tongue from doing harm, and my lips from lies and deceits.” …Imagine this nation, plagued by harmful words and deceitful speech. Because all of us can control only one tongue, over the years at particularly important moments like this, I write out exactly what I want to say.
My fate and yours is defined by an age that doubles down on Dicken’s famous verse, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
Never has history witnessed the prosperity and opulence that the United States enjoys since the end of World War II. Never has all of humankind hovered in fear of extinction self-inflicted when World War II was quickly followed by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, a threat now renewed, fearsome as ever.
Neither has the history of the Jewish people witnessed an age of such stark contrasts. After a two-thousand year exile, we have returned to our people’s historic homeland, but the joy and glory of that return still exacts a bitter toll on body, heart and soul. The prelude to that return was the nightmare of the Holocaust. The older I get, the closer the Holocaust gets to me, so close that I have become a survivor. All of us are survivors. Simultaneously, at this moment there are more refugees than there have ever been in world history, sixty-five million worldwide – half of them from three countries alone, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia – and more than half are children. But for the first time in two-thousand years, not one refugee is a Jew. Bordering on the miraculous, this is thanks in part to American Jewry, but in far larger part to the rebirth of the Jewish national homeland and the realization of the Zionist dream to ensure safe haven to Jews.
This is the best of times in ways we never realized. “Whereas in ancient agricultural societies human violence caused about 15 percent of all deaths, during the twentieth century violence caused only 5 precent of deaths, and in the early twenty-first century it is responsible for about 1 percent of global mortality.”
This is also the worst of times in ways we never realized. “Whereas in 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 people across the globe, most of them in developing countries. For the average American or European, Coca Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.” “Sugar is now more dangerous than gun powder.” “By 2030, half the world’s population is expected to be overweight,” proving that one phenomenon by itself can demonstrate that this is the best and the worst of times.
I’ve just quoted a few of the many eye-openers in Homo Deus, the best selling book by Yuval Harari. Re-reading a book is a measure of its magnetism; that we read the Torah year after year sets an unrivaled benchmark. But Homo Deus is exceptional in its own way; I’ve now read and re-read it three times. Israeli born and Oxford educated, Yuval Harari is a professor of world history at Hebrew University. His first book “Sapiens” subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind” was also a bestseller. Now comes “Homo Deus,” subtitled “A Brief History of the Future.” Harari’s writing is lucid. His scholarship is meticulous. His analysis is probing and profound. He is a master story-teller.
Harari has the knack of speaking unvarnished truth to power: in Sapiens, every power that has shaped the evolution of our species over the last seventy-thousand years, and in Homo Deus, every power shaping our destiny through the rest of the twenty-first century. Harari dispels the myth that our species’ evolution leading to civilization’s history have been guided what we call “progress,” let alone humanity’s “better angels.” Nor has our species’ evolution ceased with Homo Sapiens; Homo Deus is Harari’s name for where our species is headed, much sooner than later. Moreover the difference between Homo Deus and Homo Sapiens will be more dramatic than the difference between Homo Sapiens and our primitive predecessors, Homo Erectus and Neanderthals. Harari professes several times that he is not engaging in prophecy, he is merely presenting well-reasoned probability.
I will cite one example among Harari’s many that take us from the present to the future.
I assume that many of you are familiar with Waze. For those of you who are not, Waze, W-A-Z-E, is a smart phone app that indicates the best ways, w-a-y-s, to get around in traffic. Waze was developed in Israel, and it is now used in some sixty nations in almost forty different languages. For those of us who use Waze, somewhere sometime we’ve all questioned its accuracy, insisting that we know our way around better, only to discover that Waze in fact knows better than we do. Moreover, the more people who use ways, the more accurate and helpful Waze becomes, because not only does Waze know, Waze also learns and thinks. If Waze couldn’t learn and think, it would simply direct all of us away from one traffic jam into another somewhere else.
Pretty neat, isn’t it? But Harari’s point is that Waze knows something better than we do. And it’s all because of algorithms. Harari writes, “Algorithm is arguably the single most important concept in our world.” Today when we hear “algorithm” we think of a computer program, but algorithms, a process or set of rules leading to a calculation or a conclusion, are as old as Euclidean geometry. Convincingly Harari describes how we are algorithms, biochemical algorithms, from our DNA to our thoughts and emotions, even to our occupations.
In 2013, two Oxford University researchers published “The Future of Employment,” in which they surveyed the likelihood of different professions being taken over by computer algorithms in the next twenty years. Forty-seven percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk, from manual labor to skilled labor to professions based on higher education. Rather than worry at least forty-seven percent of you here in the Sanctuary, I will focus on the one profession that has only one professional here this morning: the rabbi.
One thing I find daunting as my retirement approaches is moving all my books, numbering more than a thousand, from my study here at Temple to my home; boxing them, shlepping them, and finding ample space for them at 10 Carleton Drive, where I already have several hundred books. Contrast this with Sefaria.
Sefaria is the catchy name derived from the Hebrew word for “Library,” Sifria, taken from Sefer, “Book” in Hebrew. Sefaria is a smart phone app with three-thousand years of Jewish texts – Torah and the entire Bible, the Mishnah and Talmud – in the original Hebrew or Aramaic and English translation – classic Midrash texts, Kabbalah, Halacha, traditional commentaries by Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, both Ashkenazic and Sefardic prayer books, the Passover Hagadah, a Jewish calendar, everything but a partridge in a pear tree. Sefaria is free, no less! In other words, every first year rabbinic student already has half of my library and more in his or her smart phone. Now lest my young millennial future colleagues feel smug, a trait which they inherited from their Baby-Boomer parents or grandparents when we were young, they will face a far larger problem than the obsolescence of books. They are facing their own obsolescence.
Technologically, it is a small step to take all the digitized texts in Sefaria and through virtual reality and augmented reality have them presented by a convincingly lifelike avatar of their original authors. Rabbis are teachers. Our tradition calls Moses, Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moses our teacher.” So who would you prefer to teach you, Moses or me? Just like Deep Blue, the IBM program that handily defeated world champion Chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, a virtual or augmented reality Moses with a computer for its mind and memory can teach rings around today’s most respected rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks. This startling soon-to-be reality is further amplified by an old rabbinic yarn.
A great nineteenth century Maggid traveled from town to shtetl to city across eastern Europe from Shabbat to Shabbat thanks to his Baal Agola, his wagon driver. Every where the great Maggid taught, the wagon driver would listen and absorb the Maggid’s brilliant preachings and teachings. One day, en route to the next shtetl, the wagon driver said to the Maggid, “Rebbe, I mean no disrespect, but now I have heard every one of your dozens of different drashes so often that I have all but memorized each and every one, including all your answers to all the questions that have been asked, that can possibly be asked of you after your drashes. If I may, when we arrive at the next synagogue, may I be the Maggid and deliver the drasha, and you be the wagon driver?” Both amused and humbled by the proposal, the Maggid agreed. Shabbat came and the wagon driver stood before the congregation, posing as the great Maggid. He delivered a drasha on that Shabbat’s Torah portion that he had heard many times before from the real great Maggid. When he concluded, he then answered all the questions from the congregation, answers he had learned over the years from the real great Maggid. Out of the blue, he was then asked a question that had never before been asked. After a pregnant pause, he gestured toward the back of the synagogue where the real great Maggid sat and said, “Why that question is so simple even my wagon driver can answer it.”
The virtual and augmented reality Moses is also interactive. He can quickly and authoritatively answer any question that would stump a hundred rabbis putting their heads together no better than a hundred ignorant wagon drivers. Of course, rabbis do much more than teach, but you get the picture. Doctors and lawyers, tinkers and tailors, soldiers and spies, so on and so forth all face similar prospects Rare is the current occupation that will not be dramatically impacted by a computer algorithm that will do the job better in the near future.
The prosperous middle class of the twentieth century could arise only on the broad shoulders of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the Industrial Revolution also gave an outrageously disproportionate windfall to the wealthy. Today, the world’s sixty-two richest families hold one-half of the world’s wealth. Yes, natural resources of fossil fuels, ore and mineral deposits fed heavy industry, which in turn filled the pockets of the middle class, as Pittsburgh well knows. But in the twenty-first century, knowledge has become the greatest wealth. Unlike raw materials or energy resources, knowledge has no geographical or geological boundaries. Perhaps you read this week that IBM now has more employees in India than it does in the United States. In the twenty-first century, Harari is rightly concerned about the impending rise of the “useless class” which “will not merely be unemployed – it will be unemployable.”
Simultaneous with the devolution of a “useless class” of Homo Sapiens, Harari envisions the evolution of other portions of Homo Sapiens as an entirely new species he calls Homo Deus, the divine species which, by dint of knowledge in computer science, biotechnology and biochemistry, genetic engineering and surely aided by wealth, will hold immortality and eternal happiness within its grasp. MIT Technology Review devoted an entire recent issue to “We Can Now Engineer the Human Race.” One of the articles is “Engineering the Perfect Baby” subtitled “Scientists are developing ways to edit the DNA of tomorrow’s children. Should they stop before it’s too late?” MIT may be asking the ethical question, but Harari asks, “What if the North Koreans are doing it and producing amazing geniuses, artists and athletes that far outperform ours?” Or what if we Americans are all in a national healthcare program providing tiny nano-robots that course through our veins to monitor our physical well-being, reporting the slightest indication that this organ or that needs medical attention even before we manifest any perceptible symptoms, and what if all of these tiny nano robots are suddenly cyber-attacked by Russian hackers?
I have just scratched the surface of a book that is a must-read for anyone who cares about what tomorrow may bring, which should be everyone. One final thought from Harari, the historian of the future, and from anthropologists who understand the past…. In the evolution of our species, when something was gained, something else was also lost.
In particular, our semi-nomad Jewish ancestors could not begin to grasp our attachment to the little device in our hands that we so adeptly manipulate with those opposable thumbs of ours that elevated us above and beyond all other primates so that we can now rivet our attention on what we believe is the larger world. But our semi-nomad ancestors’ senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch were much keener than ours to the natural stimuli of this beautiful God-created world. We may be much smarter, or so we think; it is debatable that we are happier or more satisfied by this wondrous God-given gift of life itself. And something else we may have lost that our Jewish ancestors especially cherished is our ability to dream.
So I will remind you of a dream I spoke about on Rosh HaShana, the dream I dreamed in Jerusalem in 1973 that took me back to the US, driving on the highway that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel, but I drove up an off-ramp to the town of Weehawken. I parked the car beside a beautiful Tudor home where I was welcomed to a party by the hosts: a genie and the mother of my classmate, a woman who in fact I wouldn’t meet until the following December. I wound my way through the revelry to the dining room where the Genie approached me and said, “Mark, you will have everything that you want in life.” I was flabbergasted. I replied, “Everything?” “Everything,” he said. He then handed me a cup of punch and encouraged me to drink. I drank. Suddenly decades passed. I was now standing in my bedroom putting on a tie and jacket, getting ready to go to festivities on the occasion of my retiring as rabbi of the congregation. My wife and three sons were with me in the bedroom. Feeling the weight of the decades upon me, I was kvetchy, pensive. My sons kibbitzed with me, trying to lift my spirits and succeeding.
October 2006, thirty-three years after dreaming this Jerusalem dream, I returned to the US from a six-day rabbinic mission to Israel. Alice and I spent that Shabbat at the home of close friends in New Jersey. When Shabbat ended, our friends asked us to join them at a Halloween party at the home of their son Michael in Weehawken. The only time I had ever been to a party in Weehawken was in that Jerusalem dream in 1973. The recollection piqued my curiosity, all the more so when we parked next to a home identical to the home in my dream and we could hear the noise of the party inside. Michael greeted us at the front door. He was dressed as a Genie. No, there was no punch to imbibe, but I knew then that this 1973 Jerusalem dream portended something special about that evening of October 28, 2006, and I know now that it also portended something special about June 3, 2018.
At our Yizkor service this later this afternoon, I will tell you what was awaiting me to discover that October 2006 evening in Weehawken, something portended in a dream in Jerusalem in July 1973. For now, I want to turn to what that Jerusalem dream portended for next June 3, 2018 when I am with my wife and sons in my bedroom, putting on a tie and jacket, getting ready for the festivities on the occasion of my retirement, and I am kvetchy, pensive.
I will know better come next June 3, but for today I will speculate.
Over the years people have sometimes asked me why I tell seemingly personal stories from the pulpit. To me, these have never been personal stories about me; they have always been spiritual stories about us. I may be the loom, but we are the fabric, with God the woof and us the warp. Frankly I’d rather weave spiritual stories around you alone, but that poses a litany of complications and questions about privacy, propriety, prior notice, your approval, etc. Still, I have been given the opportunity to tell your story at weddings, when you became bar or bat mitzvah, or your children or grandchildren, and in eulogizing your loved ones. Over the years, people have told me that I am good at weaving your stories. If so, it is because each one of you is a unique and remarkable story.
But now I will share something personal about me with you. Part of me has always been the five or six year-old who had learned a lesson as he walked down from the synagogue stage that he is not a tap dancer at all, that he is basically shy and uncomfortable in the limelight. Consequently come next June 3, while getting ready to come here that evening, I will likely be extremely kvetchy and pensive. But what you have seen of me for our thirty-eight years together is a person who, when he heard God ask, “Who will take on this task of serving My people and teaching My people Torah?” becomes that five or six year old eagerly raising his hand again and again, and then like the eight year old thinking and rethinking every word he will say, so that this bully pulpit will fortify all good people to be a blessing and rid the world of big, bad bullies.
But today, I am neither kvetchy nor pensive. Rather, I am grateful for this opportunity to begin to thank you. In the months leading up to next June, I invite you to join me at the Shabbat services noted on the handout to thank you and share memories of our special moments together.
Thank you for sharing so many of my dreams. Thank you for sharing so many of yours. In these best of times and these worst times, not every dream can be realized, nor every prayer fulfilled. But this we know: Everything good begins with a dream, and every worthwhile endeavor is sustained by a dream. So dream on.