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Parshat Vayishlach 5780

April 17, 2005

John Brisbane came home from work exhausted. A full day of meeting with clients and cajoling them into taking out mortgages far larger than they could afford was more tiring than most people could ever imagine. As he closed the door to his Upper East Side condo, one thing was clear; it was time for a little bit of “Johnny Time!” Ten minutes later, John was on the couch in his pajamas, a bowl of ramen noodles and some day old pizza at one side, a six pack of beer on the other. In his hands was his favorite thing in the whole wide world; his Playstation 2 controller.

Johnny was rapidly transported to a small village in Normandy, France, where he and his unit were battling a Nazi platoon shortly after D-Day. Panzer tanks rolled by ominously, but Johnny took them out by throwing Molotov Cocktails into their treads. Entering burned out ruins, Johnny took up sniper positions and blew away dozens of Nazi infantry. Occasionally, Johnny was killed, but he came back to life just a few seconds later and continued his valiant battle. By 3AM, Johnny had completed four missions. He must have killed thousands of Nazis, his trusty Tommy gun wreaking havoc on the German 243rd Infantry division. He crawled into bed, and fell asleep with the pride of a true war hero.

April 17th, 2010

The mortgage bubble had long ago collapsed, and John had been out of work since 2008. Life in the real world wasn’t great. He had been evicted from his condo, and was now living in a rent controlled apartment in Queens. His resume was posted on Monster.com but people only reached out to him for jobs once a month or so, and usually for jobs that paid less than his unemployment check. He kept waiting for those algorithms at Monster.com to find him the job he told them he was looking for, but they weren’t doing their job. He probably would have gone crazy if not for Second Life.

Second Life was the virtual world in which no one cared about his unemployment, his lack of motivation in job searches, or even the 40 pounds he had put on since losing his job. Because in Second Life, Johnny had a young, hip looking avatar, dressed in the finest virtual clothing. He was able to roam the endless streets and cities of a virtual world, meeting people from all over the world, going to virtual lounges with them, checking out other people’s houses and islands, and attending parties with other Second Life denizens. Real life was painful, but John spent 14-16 hours a day logged into Second Life, where he had a vibrant virtual life.

April 17th, 2013

Who would have thought that a former abuser of the mortgage system would get a job as a mortgage liability evaluator? Evidently, John’s experience in the industry was enough to get him a job with MIAC Analytics, the nation’s largest mortgage risk analysis company. Now, John spent most of his workday in front of a computer screen, taking in mortgage applications and determining their default risk. Johnny’s little secret was that he didn’t understand risk analysis at all! But he didn’t have to, because the MIAC Analytics software did it all for him.

Sure, sometimes there were errors not picked up by the software, which meant that somebody might end up defaulting on their mortgage and lose their house. But clearly that wouldn’t be John’s fault, it was the software! Duh!

April 17th, 2027

Johnny loved his Workplace Inclusion Mechanized Persona (also known affectionately as his WIMP).It was the absolutely best product to ever be made by iRobot, the largest company in the world. The WIMP, a roll around robot equipped with video, audio, GPS, and mechanized hands, insured that John never had to come to work again. He conducted face to face meeting with clients and colleagues without ever leaving his couch! He loved standing around the conference table and looking at dozens of his colleague’s faces projected on their own WIMPs, it felt so 24th Century! Now an exec, he would talk about how MIAC could create even more robust software to eliminate more error-prone people from the very important job of risk analysis!

By now Johnny had moved to a posh Williamsburg loft, and the only thing he still had from his previous life was the couch. He felt it was almost part of him, or he was almost part of it, and these days, it was getting more use than ever. Work? From the couch. Social life? Hello, couch and computer! Food? Johnny asks Siri for pasta, steak, and milkshake from DeLuca’s, and the delivery robot brings it right to Johnny! Fresh air? Blown in from outside with his FresherAir 4000Max. Shower? Usually a quick spray from an aerosol anti microbial did the job. Besides, it’s not like anyone was coming over… remember? Social life is on the computer! Johnny loved 2027!!

October 22nd, 2027

Even in the modern era, occasionally, John did have to go out of the house to survey a property. October 22nd, was a cold and windy day, and Johnny stumbled from the elevator to his self driven car. The leaves were turning in Prospect Park. Johnny probably would have enjoyed seeing them, they might have reminded him of the years he spent playing tennis in park in the crisp fall air, but he had his favorite gaming system, Playstation 17, playing right out of the instrument stack. He knew he wasn’t supposed to play while being driven, drivers were supposed to stay alert in case something went wrong, but that almost never happened.

Except on October 22, 2027. Twelve minutes into his trip, while his car was zipping along the elevated section of the BQE at 65MPH, a semi-trailer hauling a shipment of iRobots began to fishtail on the road. The trailer smashed into John’s front fender, disabling the car’s computer system. With his car skidding dangerously across the road, and only the manual controls working, John tried desperately to straighten out his sliding car. He vaguely remembered something about pumping the brakes and steering into the skid, but he hadn’t driven in years, and he simply couldn’t do it.

John’s car bounced off the divider, and smashed back into the trailer, overturning it onto its side, and ripping its walls wide open. Car and truck careened wildly across the road locked in the dance of death, and together, almost gracefully, hopped right over the guardrail and plummeted to ground below. The last thing John Brisbane ever saw was a hundred bright iRobot boxes, emblazoned with their logo, “Bringing Humanity a Better Future.”

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As we humans increasingly rely on computers and machines to do the work we used to do, research has begun to emerge that illustrates the dangers of this trend. A recent article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic Magazine, points to the two greatest areas of concern – complacency and bias. Complacency is when we learn to rely on machines and forget the underlying skills we used to have, and then find ourselves unable to do the tasks we need to do when the machines malfunction. Two airplane crashes in 2009, both resulting in catastrophic loss of life, occurred when the autopilot systems malfunctioned, and the pilots who had lost touch with their primary pilot skills put the planes into a total stall, and caused them to plummet to the ground.

Financial professionals, who have long ago learned to rely on algorithms to assess risk, have lost their skills, and when their computers malfunctioned (such as in the infamous “London whale” case) have caused financial havoc. People are losing their vocabulary, writing, and spelling skills because we live in a world where so much of our communication takes place in a Spell-Check, Grammar-Check, typed world. Our memory has become weaker in a world, where we can look everything up on our phones that come equipped with gigabytes of memory.

Bias is also a significant concern. As we rely more and more on computers, we begin to miss the clues that we should see, that tell us that something is amiss. As recounted in the article, Inuit hunters, who for hundreds of years have navigated the Arctic by sight alone, have started to use GPS systems. This has caused a surge in accidents and deaths, as Inuit hunters miss the signs of thin ice, impending weather systems, or proper directional awareness. Their reliance on machines may make it more convenient for them, but they are relying on those machines to a fault. Research finds doctors missing early warning signs of cancer and other illnesses, because their diagnostic machines didn’t show them, and they relied too heavily on those machines. People seem to be giving away their own deductive and intellectual skills by relying on those of machines.

As Nicholas Carr writes, “Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result… Automation turns us from actors into observers. Instead of manipulating the yoke, we watch the screen.”

Thank G-d for Shabbos! G-d in His infinite wisdom, saw that mankind would begin to offload our living to machines, and He made a day each week where we go back to the basics, where we live more than we observe life. It’s ironic that we call people Shabbos observant. In reality, people who follow the laws of Shabbos, “Live Shabbos,” while other people “Observe Shabbos” through the same technological haze that we observe life every other day in this modern chaotic world.

This is not to say that all technology is bad, it is actually quite necessary! I would never want to go back to a world where we light our rooms with oil lamps, weave our own cloth, and have no way of knowing the 10-Day forecast. But creative labor, while saving us lots of time and effort, also has a way of taking us away from our most real selves. That is why G-d tells us, (Exodus 31:15) “Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord.” For six day, we may use every creative gadget out there, but once a week, we must pull back and live our own lives, and not use our creative inventions to live for us.

The word Shabbos, has the root SHAVAS in Hebrew, which means to return. It is a day to get back to the basics; a day for living in direct contact with ourselves, our families, our divine side, and most of all G-d. It is an opportunity to put away our complacency in technology and exchange it for full-on human relationships and G-dly reflection.

Humans are not the weakest link in this world. Our capabilities and powers are not something that should ever be designed out of the picture. And Shabbos is the day where we affirm that.

Shabbos: Bringing Humanity a Better Future!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s Parsha we have a showdown of epic proportions, the ultimate clash of good vs. evil, the fight between Yaakov and the angel that represents Eisav. This angel happens to also wear the hat of the Evil Inclination. They fight all night long. They can only fight at night, as night represents the time when G-d’s light is hidden. During the day, when G-d’s light is revealed, there is no place for the angel of Eisav who represents evil. Only when we don’t see G-d clearly, when it is spiritually dark, do we have to struggle with the Evil Inclination.

Yaakov wins and the evil angel begs to be let free. He says that he needs to go sing before G-d. This can teach us a lot, as angels only go to sing before G-d when they successfully complete the mission on which they were sent. When the evil angel is defeated it is considered a success.

This concept is very different than the Christian belief that incorporates rogue angels like Lucifer who rebel against God. In Judaism we know that it is virtually impossible for an angel to rebel against G-d because they see Him with total clarity. The angel who comes to entice us to do bad is not a bad angel, he is simply fulfilling G-d’s commandment just as much as any other angel. The difference between him and the rest of the hosts of angels is that G-d commanded him to entice us to sin. However, his success is his failure.

An analogy would be the martial arts fighter sent to train the crown prince. If he just goes easy on the crown prince, then the prince will never become a great warrior. Instead he must truly fight with the prince, often giving him a stiff beating. But he yearns for the day that the prince will beat him, because that will be the day that he will have fulfilled his duty – he will have truly trained the prince to be a master.

The same is true for the Evil Inclination. If he does not try to challenge us at every opportunity he gets, then we will never become great. So he goes out each day, challenging us, beating down our spirits and driving us to places we don’t want to be. However, when we humans reject him no matter how hard he tries, his goal has been reached. So, he is the one angel out there that goes to work every day hoping to be rejected, and when he fails he can go sing to G-d because he has accomplished his purpose. Let’s try to get the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination to burst out in a continuous never-ending song of failure – success!

 

Parsha Summary

Our Parsha starts with Yaakov returning to his homeland after being on the run from his brother Eisav for thirty four ears. Trying to gauge the reception he should expect, Yaakov sends messengers (some say they were angels) to reconnoiter Eisav’s camp. The messengers come back with a message that Eisav has a loving brother’s reception committee of 400 crack troops chomping at the bit, intending to kill Yaakov. In response, Yaakov sets up the protocol for how Jews deal with conflicts. First he sends a gift, then he prays, and lastly he sets up the battle camps. This included splitting his family into two camps so that if one is attacked the other can escape.

The night before the meeting of the brothers Yaakov goes back across a river he crossed with his family to pick up some vessels he left behind. At this moment he is attacked by the angel of Eisav, the angel of evil. They fight all night long, and Yaakov wins. However, the angel manages to dislocate part of Yaakov’s thigh tendon, which is the reason that Jews are not allowed to eat this particular piece of meat. (It is clear that this fight has an infinite amount of depth, and the significance of the thigh tendon dislocation and the subsequent prohibition is much more profound than it appears on the surface.)

The next day Eisav meets Yaakov and, miraculously, he is filled with mercy. Instead of killing Yaakov, he cries with him, forgives him for acquiring the blessings, and blesses him. He even expresses a desire to stay with Yaakov, but Yaakov firmly refuses, and the two brothers part ways. Yaakov realized that living with a loving Eisav would be just as dangerous (if not more) than battling an angry Eisav.

After this meeting Yaakov heads to the city of Shechem where he hopes to stay a bit but, unfortunately, things don’t go so smoothly. Shechem, the son of Chamor the king of the city, is attracted to Dina, Yaakov’s daughter. He grabs her and has forced relations with her. After that, he and his father come to Yaakov to try to work out a way that Shechem can marry her properly.

Shimon and Levi, two of Yaakov’s sons and Dina’s brothers, are enraged that their sister has been defiled, and come up with a plan to teach everyone a lesson. They tell Chamor that the reason they can’t let Dina marry Shechem is because he comes from an uncircumcised people. If all the males in the city are circumcised, then Shechem can marry Dina. Shechem and his father go back and convince the people of the city to circumcise themselves. On the third day after the circumcision, when the pain is the greatest, Shimon and Levi swoop down on the city and kill all the males. (The commentators explain that they had the right to kill Shechem for his rape, but everyone else defended Chamor, and in the ensuing battle everyone was killed. Nachmonides says that the people of the city were considered accomplices to Shechem’s crime and were therefore also deserving of the death penalty.)

Yaakov is concerned about this move, as he feels it would give his family a bad name amongst all the neighboring people, and they might join forces to attack him. (Later, when he blesses his children before his death, he brings up this event again, and curses the two brother’s anger.) However, G-d puts an unnatural fear on the people of the land and no one moves against Yaakov’s family.

At this point, we learn of the death of Rivka, Yaakov’s mother. After that, G-d renames Yaakov with the same name given to him by the angel, Yisroel. He also blesses him and promises him that the land he promised to Avraham and Yitzchak will be passed on to his children (not the children of Eisav or Yishmael).

Soon after, Rachel gives birth to the last of the twelve tribes, Binyamin. Immediately after childbirth and the naming of her son, Rachel dies. She is buried right there on the road, so that when the Jews are exiled by the Babylonians hundreds of years later they can pray by her grave and she will be able to intercede on their behalf before G-d.

After Rachel dies, Yaakov establishes his primary residence in the tent of Bilhah, who had been Rachel’s maid before marrying Yaakov. Reuven, Leah’s oldest son, sees this as a slight to his mother’s honor, so he moves Yaakov’s bed into Leah’s tent. For a person of Reuven’s stature, this action is considered almost tantamount to adultery, as he is trying to force his father to live with one wife and not the other. Reuven realizes his error and does teshuvah immediately.

Toward the end of the Parsha we find Yaakov reunited with his father after an extended leave of absence and, soon after that, Yitzchak passes away at the ripe old age of 180. Eisav and Yaakov bury him together next to their mother Rivka in the Mearat Hamachpela, the place where Adam, Eve, Avraham and Sara were buried. The Parsha concluds with an in-depth description of Eisav’s genealogy. That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: One can never consent to creep when one feels the impulse to soar. – Helen Keller

Random face of the Week: The average annual income in the US at the start of World War II was $1,070.

Funny line of the Week: People who say they don’t care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don’t care what people think.

Have a Super-Duper Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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