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Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Synthetic Reality” Parashat Bo 5782

The Jewish People are boxed in. In front of them lies the Reed Sea and behind them Pharaoh and his army are barrelling in. They cry out to G-d, Who tells them to “Keep Calm and Carry On”, straight into the sea. G-d miraculously parts the waters and the Jewish People safely enter [Shemot 14:17]: “The waters formed a wall for them on their right and on their left”. The Egyptians, believing this could not possibly be a trick, barrel in after them. As expected, G-d returns the sea back to normal, drowning the Egyptians and irreversibly freeing the Jewish People from their bondage.

The Torah summarises the events at the Reed Sea in two verses that we recite each morning as an integral part of the Shacharit service [Shemot 14:30-31]: “G-d delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. When Israel saw the wondrous power which G-d had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared G-d; they had faith in G-d and His servant Moshe.” The events at the Reed Sea were miraculous beyond imagination. The Jewish People witnessed wholesale abrogation of the laws of physics. Our Sages in the Midrash describe an assortment of wonders that transpired at the Reed Sea:

  • Not only did the waters of the Reed Sea part – so did the water all around the world[1].
  • The sea split into twelve separate paths, one for each of the twelve tribes.
  • The sea did not split completely in one fell swoop – as the Jewish People walked, it progressively opened ahead of them.
  • The floor completely dried and formed an exquisite mosaic underneath their feet.
  • The water covered them on all sides and above their heads, forming a canopy.

The Me’am Loez, a compendium of the Midrash, written in Ladino by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in the eighteenth century in Turkey, enumerates no less than fifty miracles that occurred on the sea. Our Sages in the Midrash teach that at the Reed Sea, a person of the lowest spiritual stature witnessed things that were not even seen by the greatest of the prophets. A person could literally point with his finger and say, “I can see G-d right over there”. G-d’s presence was physically tangible. This exhibition of divinity was unprecedented and as a direct result, “The people feared G-d; they [finally attained] faith in G-d and His servant Moshe”. Any doubts they might have harboured evaporated as a result of what they experienced.

In 2005, I heard a fascinating talk given by Rabbi YY Rubinstein called “Harry Potter and Halacha”. The Harry Potter series was all the rage back then and Rabbi YY was explaining whether wizards, witches, and magic could be reconciled with Judaism. Rabbi YY asserted that if the Torah bans magic[2], it must mean that magic works. Otherwise, there would be no interest. The reason that the Torah forbids magic is because magic can lead to incorrect conclusions. The Rambam explains that building a religion based on miracles is like building a castle on the sand [Yesodei HaTorah 8:1]: “The Jews did not believe in Moshe, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery. All the wonders performed by Moshe in the desert were not intended to serve as proof [of the legitimacy] of his prophecy, but rather [each was] performed for a specific purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. We were thirsty, so he split the rock [providing us with water]. Korach’s band mutinied against him, so the earth swallowed them up. The same applies to the other wonders. What is the source of our belief in [Moshe]? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard it say, ‘Moshe, Moshe, go tell them the following…’ How is it known that the [revelation] at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moshe’s prophecy that leaves no shortcoming? Scripture states [Shemot 19:9]: ‘Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, [so that] they will believe in you forever.’ It appears that before this happened, they did not believe in him with a faith that would last forever, but rather with a faith that allowed for suspicions and doubts.” If the Jewish People did not believe in G-d before the Revelation at Sinai, then how does the Rambam understand the words “They had faith in G-d and His servant Moshe”? This question is magnified if we look at the interpretation of Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, known as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh reinterprets the verse from “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea” to “Israel saw the Egyptians dead from [where they were standing on] the shore of the sea”. Of course the Jewish People believed in G-d and his servant, Moshe! They witnessed the actual deaths of the Egyptians with their own eyes.

Or maybe not. This past summer, an amazing video was uploaded to YouTube in which the actor, Morgan Freeman, begins speaking with the words “I am not Morgan Freeman and what you see is not real”. It sounds exactly like Morgan Freeman and it looks exactly like Morgan Freeman but it is not Morgan Freeman. The video is what is called a “Deep Fake”. It is made by a voice actor imitating Morgan Freeman and by using Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN) to generate Freeman’s face. A GAN is a machine learning technique that pits two neural networks against each other. According to its inventor, Ian Goodfellow, “Given a training set, this technique learns to generate new data with the same statistics as the training set. For example, a GAN trained on photographs can generate new photographs that look at least superficially authentic to human observers, having many realistic characteristics”. A GAN replaced the voice actor’s face with Freeman’s face in a way that perfectly mimicked his lips, his eyes, and even his expressions. To the naked eye, it is inconceivable that you are watching anything but Morgan Freeman. Deep fakes have come a long way. A few years ago, I saw a deep fake of Barack Obama. At the time it was cutting edge but it was sloppy. It was clear that Obama’s face was being pasted onto the clip. But this video was so real.  “Freeman” asks, “What is your perception of reality? Is it the ability to capture, process, and makes sense of the information our senses receive? If you can see, hear, or taste something, does that make it real? I would like to welcome you to the era of synthetic reality.” In the third decade of the twenty-first century, reality is no longer reality and truth is no longer truth.

The idea was presciently leveraged more than two hundred years ago by Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein, who lived in Poland at the turn of the nineteenth century. Writing in “Ma’or Va’shemesh”, Rabbi Epstein asks a simple question: If the Jewish People saw with their own eyes “the wondrous power which G-d had wielded against the Egyptians”, why did they require faith? They possessed hard proof. The answer lies in the very next verse [Shemot 15:1] “Then Moshe and the Israelites sang this song to G-d. They said: I will sing to G-d, for He has triumphed gloriously”. When the Jewish People saw Pharaoh’s army bearing down upon them, they were terrified [Shemot 14:10] “Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to G-d”. After they had witnessed the miracles on the sea, they still had, in the words of the Rambam, “suspicions and doubts”. They did not know for certain what was real and what was synthetic. This belief came only at Sinai. But the faith that they did attain enabled them to transmogrify their fear into song. They might not have understood exactly how they were saved but they fully understood that they had been saved. They understood that their reality might be synthetic but their redemption was genuine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] One way this could have transpired is by the raising of the freezing point of water by about thirty degrees to (Egyptian) room temperature, noting that this would require changing its molecular structure.

[2] See Devarim [18:10-11].

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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