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“The Power of Responsibility,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

Friday, October 15, 2021

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we draw near to Shabbat.

Last Shabbat I offered the d’var Torah on the power of responsibility and who and how we make decisions. I share it with you here for this week’s Shabbat Awakening as we head toward Shabbat.

Here are some questions to ponder: Is there some higher authority that determines our decisions? Do we truly have free will or does a power exist in the universe that guides our direction toward particular behaviors?

It is time to talk about a force in our lives. Not God. That would be too wonderful. No, let’s talk about algorithms – the all-knowing, data capturing and info manipulating equations that power social media and much of the tech world – or simply and incredibly complex – predictive analytics.

Is Divine intelligence even a match for what all of this enables? What does it know and when did it know it?

This week, the Boston Globe published an interview with the author Megan O’Gieblyn (Evan Selinger, October 6, 2021) who just wrote a book about the intersection between Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning. She explores free will in the presence of artificial intelligence and wonders whether it has or will replace God.

All of this discussion leads us to ask an important religious question: Who holds the power of responsibility?

Layered on this question is the Congressional testimony of the brave whistle blower, Frances Haugon, who shared internal Facebook documents and brought the issue of responsibility and how behavior is controlled online out from the shadows.

The focus was on algorithms not free speech. Who decides our actions in front of those screens? Is it Facebook? Is it us?

I was intrigued by the concept of M.S.I. meaningful social interaction. That is what the clergy spend hours trying to figure out to promote righteous, relational and kind connection. But in the halls of Facebook, it is actually sinister. Take your “friends” and family – because Facebook knows they are supposedly the people you trust. When they post controversial links or comments, that goes to the top of your newsfeed. This is called engagement based ranking. The data shows you are much more likely to pass along or engage with those you are familiar with regardless of the misinformation or degree of controversy expressed.

All that gets amplified. The algorithm plays on trust of familiar people. The more antagonistic the more interaction the more money made. (The daily podcast of New York Times, October 6, 2021)

According to this information, who holds the power of responsibility and decision making?

This concern brought me to our Torah portion for this week. We are just in the second portion of Genesis and already there is trouble. Actually, last week’s portion ended with this disastrous description: God saw how great was human’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by their mind was nothing but evil all the time. God regretted that God had made human beings on earth, and God’s heart was saddened. God said, “I will blot out from the earth human beings whom I created—humans together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.”  (Genesis 6: 5-7)

In this week’s portion we learn the name of the wickedness: hamas. “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. ותמלא הארץ חמס” (Genesis 6:11)

The translation of lawlessness doesn’t provide the nuance to the Hebrew word hamas because the Torah doesn’t ever specify—even elsewhere—what it really means. The commentators tried to explain. They, too, wondered what kind of choices had the people made to provoke God’s response to want to destroy them. Clearly not good ones.

Let us not underestimate, however, the Torah’s concern with behavior and the kind of decisions that humans beings make once placed here on earth. Let’s also recognize that God has a vested interest in our actions since God made us in God’s image. We reflect back on God as much as God reflects upon us.

Remember the garden? How beautiful and filled with everything that those primordial humans could ever need? There was one instruction that limited their ability to eat and to taste all of it. But the snake, shrewd in its ability to capture human vulnerability, clearly analyzed the situation and predicted their behavior. Eve ate of it and Adam did, too. The Torah wants to show whether they are in control. God asks, “Where are you? Ayecha?” Judaism regards this as a pivotal moment. Will they own what they did? “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked (exposed), so I hid.” Adam responds. Then God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?”

The man said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” And God said to the woman, “What is this you have done!” The woman replied, “The serpent duped me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:10-13).

Jewish tradition provides us with a story about free will and responsibility. Do we know how to own it and take it or does some algorithm of the universe decide for us. Their blame of someone else sent humanity into a world to engage and to consider one’s actions and impact on the world they occupy. They must learn to hold the power of their responsibility.

Just one generation later Cain killed Abel. When God questioned Cain, Cain answered, “Am I responsible for my brother?”

Right before God provided Cain with a choice: If you do right, there is uplift. Yet sin crouches at the door; and for you is its longing. But you can rule over it. (Gen 4:7)

What is the sin? Hatat? Murder? Bringing leftovers to God as an offering as Cain did in contrast with his brother? Or could it be in the very question Cain asks as an excuse to abdicate responsibility? Why do I own this? Why should I care about my behavior, let alone my brother?

I want to go further than last week to one of the last portions of Deuteronomy. God says to the people as they stand on the border about to enter the land of great promise: I place before you blessing and curse, life and death, choose life so that you can live. (Deuteronomy)

When Noah arrived on the scene in the midst of a world dominated by hamas, we can see that the ill choices made and the responsibility abandoned has brought about what God describes as wickedness and evil plans devised by the very humans God had created. But, Noah, as the text tells us found favor with God.

What is it that Noah chooses to do in the face of hamas? Choose life. He spoke through his actions. He followed the instruction for redemption. The Torah described him with 3 characteristics:

Noah was a righteous man; אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק

he had integrity in his age; תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו

Noah walked with God.— אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ

This last one provided a deeper understanding because it uses a reflexive verb. Noah walked with God within him. That gave Noah a different kind of power and ability: to discern regarding his own behavior and choices.

The story of Noah teaches us that hamas – myopic, self-serving, wicked, morally corrupt actions can be disrupted by righteous integrity uplifted by the recognition of the presence of the divine in each of us.

We have before us an ancient cautionary tale of choice and responsibility and the free will of each person to accept upon themselves the divine option of living life, of choosing blessing. Will algorithms rule our lives? Will we turn to social media and be fooled into thinking we have free will?

There will be Adams and Eves, Cains and Abels, and a whole cadre of generations who devise plans to benefit company over country and profits over people. Sin crouches at the door; but so does righteousness, integrity and the presence of the sacred in our souls.

On the other side of the door, we move from mythic truths to a narrative of our family. Abraham and Sarah await. Their belief, their faith, their resilience lead to a whole new world on that path of righteousness, integrity, and sacred living. Come back next week and the weeks after

to experience how the Torah teaches us to control our own decision making and therefore our destiny.

Shabbat Shalom!

Connect with me HERE. I look forward to corresponding with you and to hearing your thoughts.