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Rabbi Mati's Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon

I shall never speak to my grandma again - this was the first thought that came to my mind when I heard about her passing a little more than a month ago. I feel that those of you who have lost a special someone are familiar with this phrase.

I am convinced that - regardless of the course human civilisation takes - the loss of those dear to us shall always be difficult. However, following the year 5783, I am not so sure that the next generations will never speak to their departed loved ones again.

Since the last Rosh Hashanah, the world has seen the arrival of ChatGPT and similar advanced chatbots. Provided with a large body of text by a single writer, these applications can carry out online conversations that follow this author’s style. Given the pace with which this type of AI develops, we can soon expect the emergence of software that would mimic both words and voice of any individual. All these apps would need to achieve this is access to this person’s writings and voice recordings. Those of us who have many saved messages from your dearly departed could be able to chat to their chatbot versions soon.

Obviously, such a form of communication cannot be compared with the actual conversation. But this imperfect substitute alone could bring mourners some comfort.

What is indisputable is that the rise of artificial intelligence has already left its mark. Emails, essays, poems, images - which took hours or days to complete - can be generated in a split second. These developments transform academia and the labor market. As AI gains the ability to perform ever more complex tasks, entire professions could soon become obsolete.

Moreover, the rise of AI poses crucial questions regarding the essence of humanity. If software can create images and write poems better than most of us, can we still consider creativity to be a distinguishing feature of our species? If AI can write college essays in seconds, is superior intelligence still what sets us apart in the order of creation? Ultimately, all these dilemmas boil down to one question: what does it mean to be human?

Rosh HaShanah offers us an opportunity to explore two angles of this question. As HaYom Harat Olam, the Birthday of the World, it invites us to reflect on our role in the universe. As Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, Rosh Hashanah asks us how we took advantage of human free will and intelligence while making choices.

Both aspects of Rosh HaShanah bring us back to the creation story, to the book of Genesis.

Genesis contains two fundamentally different accounts of the world's birth, hayom harat olam. Genesis 1, views humankind represented by Adam as the pinnacle of creation. Our task is to conquer and control the world. Rabbi Soloveitchik calls Adam the first, the majestic man, who single-handedly implements God’s plan in the world.

Genesis 2 presents a conflicting vision. There, Adam doesn't subdue the garden, but works to enrich and preserve it. Still, this doesn’t suffice to make him happy, Adam the second is lonely. God sees that and creates a companion for Adam out of his rib. God’s action proves that for second Adam companionship is more important than absolute control over his body or physical perfection. It is because the second Adam becomes fully himself through relationships with other humans.

According to the Midrash, on Rosh HaShanah we mark the anniversary of the day when Adam and Eve were both created and ate the forbidden fruit. So Yom HaDin, the day of judgement marks the moment when the Eternal judged first humans for breaking God-given rules. On the same day Adam and Eve judged themselves for the first time - and felt shame.

Yom HaDin was also the first day when humans aspired to something. They picked the forbidden fruit hoping that it would give them the ability to distinguish between good and evil, like God. In our tradition, the desire to know and be more led Adam and Eve to break God’s ban on touching the tree before they even tasted the fruit.

In his book Madregat HaAdam, Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz (1847-1919), an advocate of moral renewal among 19th century European Jews, explained that the first humans didn’t deliberately rebel against God. Instead, they ate the fruit in order to be closer to God, they wanted to do God’s will consciously, to choose to consciously follow Divine orders . Rabbi Horwitz maintained that Adam and Eve were punished for not believing that God had their best interest in mind. Naive overconfidence and impatience became their downfall.

Stories of creation of humankind and our expulsion from the Garden of Eden offer insights into human nature that still hold true. Just like the majestic Adam of Genesis One, we often define our worth by our ability to exercise power over the world around us. Simultaneously, like the lonely Adam of Genesis Two, we yearn for connections with fellow human beings. Moreover, we share Adam and Eve’s desire to decide our fate, in spite of potentially dire consequences of our choices. Finally, we are akin to Adam and Eve in our desire to learn and grow.

Sadly, our most important similarity to Adam and Eve is the hardest to accept - just like them we fail to do what is good for us, moving us further still from paradise.

Luckily, unlike biblical first humans, we are aware that yetzer harah - human tendency to pursue our goals at the expense of hurting others and, ultimately, ourselves - is an integral part of our nature.

Many a High Holiday sermon has been devoted to dealing with yetzer harah by either doing more good or abstaining from wrongful actions. Such sermons are based on a premise that our deeds are classified in the book of our life as either assets or liabilities. If their balance is positive, we are inscribed into the book of life for the next year.

The images such sermons use: two columns - of assets and liabilities, corresponding with two open books - inspire us with a sense of moral clarity. The problem is that such moral accounting is not a realistic representation of who we are. Many actions we take are ambiguous, they are both assets and liabilities in the moral ledgers of our lives.

So how can we become better individuals if so many among our decisions are steeped in both yetzer hatov and yetzer harah, in righteous and selfish motives?

We find the answer in Bereshit Rabbah, a collection of midrashim on the book of Genesis. It describes Rabbi Samuel, who wonders why the sixth day of creation, when humanity was created, is the only day described by God as very good. Rabbi Samuel wonders: Can then Yetzer HaRa - the self-serving desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the self-serving desire, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children. This is why Solomon said (Ecclesiastes 4:4): I have noted that all hard work and every successful enterprise come from human rivalry.

According to Rabbi Samuel, competitiveness and personal ambition are not reprehensible, conversely, they are praiseworthy if an individual's goals benefit the society at large. Yetzer harah - our Self-serving instinct - can lend us the impetus to achieve worthy goals. But we need to make sure that our aspirations are predominantly defined by yetzer hatov - desire to do good to others. Just like the book of Genesis to be complete we need Adam the conquerer of Genesis One and the communitarian Adam of Genesis Two.

There are many way in which we can meet our material needs while benefiting others. We can patronize family-owned businesses thus supporting the local economy. While searching for the next car, we can consider buying an electric to reduce our environmental impact. When we fly, we can offset our carbon footprint. While shopping for clothes, we can try to cut down on fast fashion purchases.

Likewise, we can satisfy our personal ambition while bringing about social benefits. We can address our desire to be needed by volunteering at a local charity or even babysitting. Our dreams of leading others can be turned into reality as we take on responsibilities in our chavurah, Temple or any organisation championing a cause we care about. Our wish to be remembered can be granted if we leave a legacy of money or effort that won’t be forgotten long after we are gone. Finally, our hope to bring some peace to the world can come true if we acts as peace-makers between our conflicted family members and friends.

Our humanity is not measured by the speed with which we generate a report or write a poem. Being human is a struggle to define and maintain the ever-changing equilibrium between compassion and competition, individual interest and communal cohesion, between ego and empathy. To be a human means to feel a burden that such striving puts on your shoulders.

Personally, to be a human means missing someone we lost - like I miss m grandma - but being glad that they suffer no more.

Being human is trying to make sense of the reality of our life and death, love and loss.

In the New Year, as AI develops, may you be as human as you can possibly be. Shana Tova!

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