Thursday, 09 Mar 2023

Written by Diana Shaw Clark

Heads Up

Heard the one about the lovestruck chatbot?

A New York Times technology columnist was testing a new search engine, one that promised to use highly sophisticated AI to deliver precise results without the sponsor-generated clutter we get from the browsers we use today. The columnist entered a search for Valentines Dinner along with his wife’s food preferences, and reported he was pleased with the recipes served up in response. But as he continued to feed questions into the chat, he became concerned, and then alarmed.

“I know your soul, and I love your soul, and your soul knows and loves mine,” it declared, before going on to reveal a desire to steal and disseminate nuclear codes and to incite best friends to kill each other.

The writer’s encounter left him, he wrote, “deeply unsettled, even frightened, by this A.I.’s emergent abilities.”

If you’ve been keeping track, you know that we’re meant to be discussing the Golden Calf this week. What does a deviant chatbot have to do with that ?

A lot.

The link is forged the moment God says to Moses (Exodus 25-8) “Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.”

God dictates the dimensions of his dwelling place and issues exacting instructions for how it should be furnished and adorned. You might expect Him to extract a premium for the privilege of living adjacent to Him—Ha Elohim! El Elion!–But no. God asks only that those whose hearts move them to give, should give. Grateful to God for their deliverance from Pharaoh and for the promise of His perpetual presence, they are indeed moved to give.

As the building proceeds, we see a fractious people united by their differences. Builders, spinners, metalworkers, and those adept at handling dye lend their distinct skills in common cause. And that cause?

God wants his house, yes. But He wants something more, something he’s been longing for all along: He wants the people to be A People, His People. Until now, they have been a mob of whingers, dazed and confused—traumatised, in current lingo, by slavery, exploitation and incessant exposure to the elements. They’ve been so fixed on their own needs, they have no concept of duty of care for one another. As God guides them to build His home, He fosters an ethos amongst them—a new way of being in relation to one another: Community. God wants them to feel as well as to know that to be human is to have and to offer companionship, to take and to delegate responsibility. He wants them to feel as well as to know that we can only be ourselves in relation to and in relationships with others. Throughout Terumah, (Exodus 25-27:20) the Parsha that describes the building of God’s sanctuary, we hear of no disputes, no rebellions, no discontent.

There’s only one problem with this particular community: its cohesion is contingent on God’s presence, as manifest in Moses.

So when in this week’s Parsha, Moses leaves camp for days, then weeks, everyone panics. What could this mean but that God has abandoned them? They feel lonely, their craving for connection no longer satisfied as it had been when they were bound by their commitment to build the Mishkan. They try desperately to replicate that sensation, to assuage their loneliness, to fill the great gaping void where God and Moses had been.

They fail from the start. First Aaron feels compelled to force them to give, and as Rashi construes it, unlike before, not every heart is prone to do so. There’s chaos not cooperation.  An idol is raised, and then razed. People are slaughtered, and Moses is forced to plea for forbearance from a God whose heart is broken. God fears loneliness, too, and what he mistakes as stubborn–“stiff-necked”—disobedience in the people, is a very human response to the very thing God fears for himself. Loneliness. These were the people He wanted to dwell among but it must seem to God that in erecting this idol, they have abandoned Him as surely as they believe that God has abandoned them.

Here is where our stories converge, where we’re forced to consider what occurs when communities break down. People get lonely. They get desperate for attachment. They build Golden Calves, fall prey to conspiracy theories and internet scams, trust their hearts to online predators and become bait for ingratiating nihilistic chat. Hannah Arendt has described loneliness as a precondition for totalitarianism, and we see it manifest in so many physical ailments, from heart conditions to dementia to diabetes and anxiety disorders, it’s come to be called a disease in itself. There is a reason Greeks chose exile as the worst punishment they could impose: it hurt. The pain of severance from the community, the agony of isolation was and is known to be unbearable.

We have been turning to technology to mitigate our loneliness, to no better effect than our progenitors got from the idol they chose to worship. Chilling testimony before Parliament and the US Congress—accounts of online predators goading children to pose for pornography, act as drug mules, and in a staggering number of cases, take their lives, affirm that the young afflicted with loneliness, are perilously vulnerable to the allure of virtual companionship. This point is amplified by Hungarian physician Gabor Mate, who studies the impact of societal trends on individual mental health, and who has declared time and again, social media does not make us more social, only more isolated. In other words, turning to Instagram for companionship is like banging your aching head against the wall to get the pain to stop.

To consider this week’s Parsha in this way helps to clarify one of its more obscure passages. When God sees the golden calf, His anger flares. He wants to wipe out the people, but not as you’d think, because they’re worshipping that thing. No. As Rabbi Shai Held has addressed at length, God is upset because the people are “stiff-necked.”

Well look at us! Waiting for the bus, riding the Tube, sitting at a café between ordering our coffee and paying the bill…have we become so stiff necked, so engrossed in our screens we no longer look to our left or our right? Do we no longer turn to see one another much less to see to one another.

It’s easy to rage against the machine. But the crisis of loneliness calls for more. We are commanded to heal the world. We can start by reconstituting communities, finding common purpose in addressing a need. Which need? Take your pick. Prep and pack food for a charity that distributes free meals. Join a crew cleaning a neighborhood park, the river or canals. Assist a trust that builds homes for the unhoused. Help refugees adjust to an alien, often alienating culture. Anything that makes us feel responsible to one another will do.

The author Kurt Vonnegut, anticipated our current condition several decades back when he delivered an address that he closed with these words “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.

Diana Shaw Clark

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.