Nine months ago, the city of Pittsburgh rolled out the red carpet for the company Uber to deploy and road-test a fleet of self-driving taxis. Ford is looking to have a fleet of affordable self-driving cars at marker within a few years. Google has logged over three million miles of road-tests for its own self-driving cars. So, would you ever sit in the backseat of a car driven by a computer?
By the numbers, it would seem to be a no-brainer. Nearly 95% of auto accidents are caused by human error, including driving while drowsy or distracted. As human beings, we are all often either drowsy or distracted. By contrast, almost all of the accidents that Google has reported for its self-driving cars are incidents of their own cars being rear-ended by human-driven cars. Furthermore, every time the computer system gets a little bit better, every single car in the fleet shares the benefit, simultaneously.
Still, there is something deep within us that likes to be in control. We want to feel the wheel in our hands and the pedals at our feet. We trust ourselves to make both the split-second decisions and the general course adjustments along the way, and it feels strange to give that up, despite what the data indicate. How many of us see the GPS directions on our screens but go our own way instead, on the strange assumption that we know a faster way that the satellites just can’t see?
This is not a new question. It is an extension of the debates around manual v. automatic transmissions, or manual v. power steering. It goes all the way back, in fact, to our torah portion this morning, which describes the beginning of how the Israelites marched through the wilderness.
For one thing, although the Israelites knew where they were going – to the land of Israel – they didn’t have a say in the path they took to get there. Instead, they followed a cloud that represented God’s presence. That cloud determined which way they would travel, when they would rest, and how long they would camp at each waypoint before continuing.
The Israelites who marched first, who physically led they way, were the Levites who carried the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders. However, the commentators go out of their way to emphasize how even they were also in the backseat. The Talmud records a tradition that the Ark was “nose’ et nosav,” that it literally “bore its bearers.” They didn’t carry it – they just held on as it carried them, directed, miraculously, by itself. Sound familiar?
So maybe we, even more than previous generations, can understand that the people were not content to sit in the backseat and be driven from place to place. Over the course of the book of Numbers, they complain about the route they take, the length of the trip, and, several times, they threaten to ignore the GPS and take the wheel themselves, some to march towards the land of Israel, and others to return to Egypt. Moses, foreshadowing centuries of commentators, criticizes their lack of faith, their stubbornness, and the slow pace of their development from a nation of slaves to a Kingdom of Priests. But, maybe, they were also the kinds of people who preferred to pay for a ride with a human being sitting behind the steering wheel, even if they knew that by the statistics they were less safe, than to sit in a free Uber driven by a computer.
There is tension here, because we do tend to see the Israelites as complainers and malcontents. After all, God had just redeemed them from slavery, was bringing them to the promised land, was sustaining them through the wilderness – if God now wanted them to make a right at the oasis instead of a left, there was probably a good reason. Still, we also do have to appreciate the inherent dignity and sense of fulfillment that comes with doing things ourselves, by actively living our lives as opposed to having things done for us.
Today’s Torah portion also describes how the Israelites ate the manna that God provided, literally on their front walks each morning, and it is a bit puzzling. On one hand, the manna is described as “lekhem min hashamayim,” bread from heaven, ready-made and ready to eat. On the other hand, this morning we read that the Israelites would grind it up, shape it, form it, and bake it into cakes.
The Midrash is confused by this, and understands that the manna was never actually processed and rebaked. Instead, it would miraculously assume a flavor **as if** it had been. That is a classic interpretation, but it’s not what the story actually says. Instead, the Torah describes a push-and-pull between the people’s sense of autonomy and their knowledge of what was best for them. The food came ready to eat, but they rebaked it anyway. Perhaps they didn’t like the manna’s natural flavor or consistency, and rebaked it according to their own preferences. But maybe they just weren’t comfortable with being dependent and provided for. Even they didn’t do anything really constructive to their food at all, they at least wanted to feel as though they were part of the process.
This is most apparent at the end of the portion. Moses tells the people that God will punish them by giving them what they want. God will send them quail, which they would have to prepare themselves, and they would eat so much of it that they would become sick from it. What’s amazing is that this is exactly what happens. Given the choice of eating fully-prepared food that would nourish and sustain them on one hand, or preparing their own food at great effort that would eventually make them sick, the people overwhelmingly choose the later. If this reminds you at all of the story of the Garden of Eden and its aftermath, that is probably not by accident.
They may have been malcontents who received their due comeuppance, but, again, there is something heroic, something essentially human about the episode as well. Our own lives are ever-more controlled by smarter and smarter algorithms that are able to deliver us the right products, and to the right places, before we even know that is what we want. Whether we are pushing back against God or Google, it’s worth taking the time to think about the forces around us, and the extent to which, as we live our lives, we are simply along for the ride.
Delivered Shabbat Parashat B’ha’alotkha
June 10, 2017
The Hampton Synagogue