Weekly Sermon

BO 5783

BO 5783

Who Wrote This Sermon?

I want you to listen carefully to this sermon today. Not that you don’t listen enraptured to all my sermons, but today’s sermon is different. I did not write it! Yes, that’s right, today I’m going to plagiarize a sermon that someone else wrote. And then, I’m going ask you to suggest who wrote it. Are you ready? Here we go…

My dear friends,

This week, we read from the Torah portion of Bo, which tells the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. As we read of the plagues that befell the Egyptians and the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, we are reminded of the power of Gd to intervene in the world and guide us on our journey.

         But alongside this powerful imagery, we are also given a reminder of our own agency and the importance of free will. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “The ultimate test of freedom is not what we are allowed to do, but what we are able to do without permission.”

         In the story of the Israelites’ liberation, we see that Gd does not simply free them from slavery; rather, Gd provides them with the opportunity to choose freedom for themselves. Through the plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, Gd creates the conditions for the Israelites to leave slavery behind and choose to walk towards freedom.

         But it is not enough for Gd to simply give us the opportunity for freedom; we must also choose to take it. This is the ultimate test of freedom—not what we are allowed to do, but what we are able to do without permission.

         As we read this week’s Torah portion, let us remember the power of Gd to guide us on our journey and the importance of our own agency in choosing freedom. May we have the courage to take the opportunities presented to us and the wisdom to make choices that lead to true freedom and fulfillment. Amen!

Beautiful words, aren’t they? Gd presents us with opportunities, but we have to choose to take the opportunities. Now let me ask you, who wrote this? No, I didn’t write it. My son Joshua—the other Rabbi Kunis—didn’t write it…

The answer is surprising. This sermon was written by AI—Artificial Intelligence. It was written by a program called ChatGPT which anyone can access free on the Internet if you want to sound really creative and smart.

I read an article about Rabbi Josh Franklin and how he used ChatGPT at Shabbat service in the Hamptons, on Long Island NY. So, I decided to try it myself. I went on the website, gave it a prompt, and wrote in the instruction box: “Write a sermon for a rabbi of about a thousand words, connecting the Torah portion of this week, Bo, with the idea of Free Will and quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.” And this is what it came up with. Ok, it’s not 1,000 words as I requested—literally 269 words—but it’s pretty good.

Actually, this scares me. I thought truck drivers were going to go long before the rabbi in terms of losing a position to Artificial Intelligence and self-driving vehicles. This is a new development. Artificial Intelligence has recently exploded and come an incredibly long way from asking Siri or Hey Google, “How do I get to Starbucks.”

Artificial Intelligence wrote this sermon. Could you tell? There was an article in the NY Times last month (12/26/22): “Did a Fourth Grader Write This? Or the New Chatbot?” It listed short essays written by 4th and 8th graders and by the platform Chatbot, and asked you to choose who wrote them. I got them all but one right. It was disconcerting. Now with today’s sermon, can’t you tell I didn’t write it? You know I like to open a sermon with a quote, or a story or joke or a song. Opening with, “My dear friends,” is just not my voice. So, is this a good thing or not?

After the plague of hail destroyed most of the agriculture of Egypt, Moses threatened Pharoah with a plague of locusts that would finish off whatever vegetation was left. Pharoah’s servants were alarmed and urged him to give in to the Israelites saying (Ex. 10:7): haterem teyda ki avda Mitzrayim (Are you not aware that Egypt is lost)?

The Chizkuni comments that Pharaoh’s servants were advising him to sue for peace, to give up…while something of his kingdom could be salvaged. Why wait till all of Egypt is ruined? But despite this wise counsel, Pharaoh insists on playing hardball. The fact that he didn’t listen to his own people shows that he simply didn’t care about them.

Our ability to care is what makes us human. ChatGPT and other AI platforms show us that there will soon be very little that a computer cannot do faster, better, and more economically than a human being. Artificial intelligence can even serve as a better radiologist, pathologist and possibly even a surgeon--better than those who went to medical school.

There is, however, one thing a computer cannot now do and will never be able to do. Care! The act of caring requires us to do the opposite of what computers do. It requires us to slow down, to be less efficient, to show mercy, and have emotions—things a computer simply cannot do. The truth is, we need people to care about us in our lives—to show us that we are loved and that we matter. And we need to care for others. It elevates our spirits and makes us Gd-like, better human beings.

But humans—like Artificial Intelligence—can also pretend to care. Pretending to care is also a human trait, and sometimes it’s a socially necessary one. People who say they never pretend to care are either lying or have no friends!

What will happen if we human beings become satisfied with artificial caring just as we have accepted so many other artificial things in our lives? My hopeful side tells me that humans need real, authentic caring to survive.

There’s a debate in the Talmud (Ketubot 17a) that I think AI can’t really understand. What do you say to a bride who doesn’t look so beautiful? You tell her she is beautiful. What do you say to someone who shows you something they just bought saying, “Look at this. I got it at such a bargain, and isn’t it amazing?” You look at it and realize that it’s really a piece of junk, so what do you say? Do you tell the truth? Or do you say, “It’s really nice.”

Answer: You need to empathize with those around you to tell them what they need to hear. ChatGPT might be great at really sounding intelligent, but the question is, can it do that? Can it tell people what they need to hear? Can it empathize?

How does spirituality function in a world that is driven by data and information? It’s not easy. The spiritual world and the information world overlap a great deal, but they’re not the same. Does AI have a neshama, a soul? It has information, but does it have compassion, does it have love, does it have empathy? Those are the things that bring us together. Can AI build community? Can it build relationships?

My friends, AI, Robots and computers will render many careers obsolete—just as industrialization cast the buggy/carriage makers, the wood stove makers, and the ice delivery men into the dustbin of history. The careers that will always be safe are the caring professions: social workers, teachers, nurses, psychologists. Maybe even rabbis. Amen!



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