(Excerpted from my Shavuot (2023-5783) message to our synagogue’s Confirmation class)
My family and my office staff know that I am not very good with computers, the internet, and virtual technology. My grandson has had to come to my aid on many occasions. What comes naturally to all of you, I often find intimidating. It is, in part, a generational gap. So, I may need to call on you guys for assistance after retirement.
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the benefits and the risks of Artificial Intelligence, virtual technology, and social media. AI allows machines to understand and generate language. It can advance to the point where it eclipses human intelligence and then can become dangerous to human society.
Social media, and other forms of digital technology, despite many practical benefits, are, I believe on the whole, bad for society. They corrupt civil discourse, and social interaction. They can contribute to mental issues, including depression and anxiety, especially among teens.
Technology is seducing. It brings goods to your door. It promises efficiency, and even happiness. We are enticed by it. Everybody is doing it. We can’t go against the tide. Yet, study after study shows that social media is harming us, especially our youth, but we feel trapped. It is hard to put down. Ever seen a smart adult totally wrapped up in “Wordle”?
So what is to be done? It is important to recognize the double edged sword, the blessing and the curse. We need to use it, without it using us. We need to own it, without it owning us. We need to make the right choices so that impersonal algorithms do not choose for us. The Torah we celebrate today says, “Behold, I place before you good and evil, blessing and curse, choose….” Choices, balance, proportion are at the heart of being human, of being Jewish.
Scientists believe that we are at the point when machines can not only process the data and understand the language imprinted into them, but can generate new language, yielding results that may not just be incorrect but dangerous. Such technology has already been used for political propaganda, fraudulent news broadcasting, and false advertisement. Students can use it to plagiarize papers at school and universities. Will we produce a generation of scholars who do not know their subject, of doctors who do not know their science, of teachers who cannot write?
So, the great challenge is how AI, social media and other computer robotic technologies can serve and advance human purposes, rather than endanger personal and social welfare. I guess we cannot go back to manual typewriters and wall hanging, extension cord, dial phones (although I would not be totally against it). But society needs to make sure that our moral judgement and legal institutions stay ahead of scientific developments, or we will be consumed by our own devices.
Having offered these words of concern and warning about digital technology in general, I want to talk on a more positive note about one particular intelligent App that I have come to like and rely upon. It is called WAZE and it helps you to navigate and get to your destination, like Google Maps, but I believe, better. It was developed by some pretty smart young Israelis. Proud of that!
We have some smart Jewish kids right here tonight. Some of you, I’m sure, will be future computer entrepreneurs. Remember always, it is good to be smart! But it is smarter to be good! And it is the Jewish thing!
You may wonder what do WAZE and Judaism have in common? WAZE accompanies us as we get around in the world. It guides us from place to place, gives us options, and alerts us. If you make a wrong turn, WAZE will reroute you and put you back on track. And WAZE is community minded. Users share information about hazards, traffic jams, police warnings. WAZE alerts you when it might be time to take a rest. WAZE does not dictate your destination, you can always change it; but it patiently guides you as you move along your journey’s highways, byways, roads, and streets.
Judaism, like WAZE, provides us with directions and guideposts as we move through life’s journey. It takes us through the cycles of life and the stages of the year. It reminds that it is good to take a break for Shabbat and holidays. It takes us through life’s ways from birth, to adolescence, through marriage and family life, through profession and vocation, through health and illness, onto our final destination.
WAZE benefits from networking effects. The more people use it, the better it gets, which encourages even more people to join in. Judaism, too, is better when shared with others, with family and community.
But Judaism’s guidance, unlike WAZE, is not just geographic. Judaism offers us spiritual and moral coordinates to navigate our life experience. Like WAZE, Judaism reminds us that we do not travel alone, but journey in community. We need the support, guidance, and the warnings of others to make the path safe for all, to enjoy the ride, to get to our destinations. An ancient African proverb teaches: “If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel long, go with someone.” Or a Hebrew saying: “There is a long way that is short, and a short way that is long.”
Like WAZE, Judaism warns us if we are speeding through life; it suggests we slow down to protect ourselves and the lives of others as we make our way through life’s mergers, exits, and entry lanes.
Many of you are getting your driver’s permits and are beginning to take to the road. Shavuot is the day when our ancestors, having taken the road to freedom, stood at Sinai and received the Torah you confirm today. Torah is your driver’s license through the WAZE of Judaism.
Today you pass your Jewish driver’s test and your rabbis, teachers and parents consider you certified to drive responsibly through Judaism’s highways and byways, roads and side streets.
Today you Confirm your readiness for the journey of Jewish living, not only to destinations you know and have learned about, but to new destinations, discoveries, and explorations.
My dear Confirmands, your parents, your Rabbis, Cantor, and teachers place their trust in you. You’ve learned about Judaism, its beliefs, customs, history. But more importantly, you have developed the qualities of mind and heart to navigate the world as Jews.
Remember that you do not travel alone. Your travel companions go back to Abraham and Sarah who were first told: Leah L’kha, “Go forth,” take the road! Your ancestors journeyed from slavery to freedom, from persecutions to new beginnings. You travel with hundreds of generations before you who, despite obstacles and challenges held on to the hope and promise of arriving at new, hope-filled destinations. You travel together with the Jews of today and the Jews of tomorrow to discover new places and make the world better and safe for all.
When we return the Torah to the Ark we sing the words: Etz Hayyim Hee…. “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths lead to peace.” The Torah, Judaism, is the Way, our WAZE. May it guide you to journey safely, responsibly, and happily to many wonderful destinations, in good company and in good health. Remember, when there is a Jewish will, there is a Jewish WAZE. I wish you safe, happy, and peaceful travels to exciting, familiar, and new destinations.
“May you be blessed as you go on your way;
May you be guided in safety and in peace;
May you be blessed with health and joy;
May this be your blessing.” Amen.
(Debbie Friedman, adapted)
And stay off those phones while on the road!