D'var Torah

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A D'var Torah (Heb: דבר תורה), also known as a Drasha in Ashkenazic communities, is a talk on topics relating to a parashah (section) of the Torah – typically the weekly Torah portion.

The weekly Torah portion, popularly just parashah (or parshah /pɑːrʃə/ or parsha) and also known as a Sidra (or Sedra /sɛdrə/) is a section of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) used in Jewish liturgy during a single week.

Each weekly Torah portion takes its name from the first distinctive word in the Hebrew text of the portion in question, often from the first verse. Public Torah reading mostly followed an annual cycle beginning and ending on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, with the divisions corresponding to the lunisolar Hebrew calendar, which contains up to 55 weeks, the exact number varying between leap years and regular years.

Creativity and Responsibility

Creativity and Responsibility

Shabbat Pikudei 5779, 9th March 2019. Czech Scroll Shabbat

Our sidra brings us to the end of the book of Exodus and the end of the long description of the commandments concerning the tabernacle, followed by the description of the tabernacle itself, which demonstrates that it was made as God commanded. However distant the tabernacle may seem to us it is clear that to our biblical ancestors it meant a great deal, not only that it was made but that it was made according to God’s instructions.

A clue to its importance is in the finding of biblical scholars that the recounting of the dedication of the tabernacle seems to echo the story of creation in Genesis, with similar words being used in both. As the Plaut Chumash puts it, ‘The erection of the Tabernacle was thus traceable to the creation of the world itself.’ Just as God created the world, so human beings created the Tabernacle. Thus, our Torah makes it clear that human beings have the power of creativity, and that their creativity can be used to serve God and bring about God’s purpose.

Creativity is one of the hallmarks of what being human means. A recent, very moving, television programme, showed how the earliest human beings, thousands of years ago, were already painting images of what they saw around them. Even Neanderthals have left traces of early art. Our creative impulses are present very early, and can be seen in the youngest children. In art, music, dance and imaginative writing, our creativity finds expression in some of the greatest achievements of humanity. In science too, creativity is essential to the greatest advances. Logical thinking can take us so far, but the leap of imagination that creativity demands can take us to unexpected, new and wonderful places.

It is generally thought that creativity distinguished human beings not only from other animals but also from artificial intelligence. The mathematician Marcus DuSautoy challenges this idea. As AI is able to work on increasingly complex problems, he suggests that it is likely to become more and more outwardly human, able to interpret emotions from faces, converse persuasively and create music and art. For most people, this seems a frightening prospect. If AI is able to replicate in some way what humans do, where is the place of human beings? Will we be displaced, will robots take over the world, what will our purpose be? Marcus DuSautoy understands this, but also considers that humans and AI devices may be able to work together in the future, to the benefit of human beings.

In an uncanny way, the relationship between humans and AI as DuSautoy sees it mirrors the way that Judaism understands the relationship between human beings and God. God is the ultimate creator, the power that brought us to be and endowed us with our humanity. Yet God also made us co-creators, working in the world to complete the work of creation by helping God to perfect the world. It is a remarkable and audacious idea and poses many questions about our role as human beings and our relationship to God. The rabbis were aware of the difficulties with this view. Once God had created human beings, they were given free will and the ability to do both good and evil. So often we have misused the power we have been given. A famous story in the Talmud relates that the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated for two and a half years whether human beings should have been created or not. In the end they agreed that they should not have been created, but now that we had been, we should look to our deeds. 

So often, we have failed to look to our deeds. As we mark the anniversary of receiving our Czech scroll this Shabbat, we cannot but be aware of the terrible deeds done by human beings against one another. The scroll is in our possession because the Jews of the village of Podivin which owned it were murdered in the Holocaust, along with more than a quarter of a million other Jews in the former Czech Republic. The brutality of the Nazis is hard to imagine. Yet, in genocides since then, we have continued to witness the worst that human beings are capable of. Just as the mythical Golem, associated with the Czech City of Prague, had to be destroyed in the end because it could not be controlled, so it sometimes seems that human beings are out of control, threatening to destroy not only our own species but much of the beautiful world that God created. Just as we fear that in the future, artificially intelligent beings might take control and bring about destruction, so do we, God’s creation, seem to have taken control and threaten destruction.

Only by recognising that we are human beings, not gods, that we have a responsibility and that we are partners with God, not masters with unlimited power, can we turn back from the brink. As we recall the anniversary of our Czech scroll, may it serve as a reminder of the worst that human beings can do and an inspiration to be the best that we can. We have been endowed with gifts of intelligence and creativity. Let us look to our deeds and use them well.