A Link in the Chain of Jewish Memory
Past President of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Aaron Panken, zichrono livracha, wrote this Yizkor meditation:
When we ask God to remember the souls of our departed at Yizkor, we request more than a mere mental act. We pray implicitly that by focusing on our loved ones’ souls, God will take action on their behalf and save them from whatever pain they may be suffering, wherever they may be. At the same time, the implication is that this act of remembrance also constitutes a guarantee of Jewish continuity -- well beyond just those we remember, and far beyond us as well. In remembering and in asking for God’s remembrance we request divine help in continuing our people’s trajectory beyond ourselves, to achieve the ultimate aims of our people’s history. -- Yizkor is, in the end not a prayer for the dead, but a promise by the living.
Rabbi Panken, not knowing that he would be taken from this earth far to early, knew that he was but one in a chain of many. His lessons, his passion, his love, it all lives on through his family, friends, students, and all the other lives he touched along his journey.
Recently, I was listening to a podcast that was discussing how inventions throughout history have changed the way we grieve our lost loved ones. Technology has helped to make the memory of our loved ones live on. For instance, the phonograph, the first device to record human voices, allowed loved ones to hear their families voice after they passed on. This invention changed the way we could access our memories of loved ones.
Over time, technology has continued to shift the way we grieve, and with the invention of the internet and artificial intelligence, it seems there may be no limit to what we can do. When a loved one dies, we can access their memory through videos and social media. Now artificial intelligence experts are working to design software that will allow us to, in a way, communicate with loved ones once they are gone. Muhammad Ahmad could not stand the idea of his grandchildren not knowing him, so he created an AI version of himself. He wants to use this technology to radically transform the way we mourn. The data scientist believes artificial intelligence will eventually allow us to craft the data left behind by an individual into convincing text-based simulations of that person. These “griefbots” will respond when prompted, imitating the deceased’s cadence, tone, and idiosyncrasies. Ahmad thinks these griefbots could make grieving for loved ones an interactive experience.
At first when I heard about this artificial intelligence, I considered how it could change the way we learn about people in history. Just imagine if students could hop on a computer and chat with former presidents and famous activists to find out more about their lives. The idea is pretty incredible when you put it in those terms… But when I consider an AI bot of my dead loved ones chatting with my nephew, my future children, well… it concerns me.
Life is but a number of cycles that we pass through, beginning at life, and ending in death. Our life, our love, our memory… those are supposed to live on in our loved ones, not on the internet.
Just think -- what if someone created a grief bot from our online data. Would we like what it says? Would our online persona match the person we are on earth?
While I don’t like the idea of a "griefbot" being created from my data, I realize that it might not be up to me… which begs the question: What will I leave behind online?
Many of us share a lot about our lives through our social media. Typically we share the good, and try to steer clear of the bad. I have heard friends say that Social Media should be just that - social. Not a place for politics and philosophical disagreements. On their pages you might find photos from their vacation, of their pets, or their kids playing, pictures of the beautiful dinner they ate, or the fancy cocktail they ordered... But because they only share the good, the data left behind will leave out the more difficult realities of their life. We don’t always post to let the world know that we are struggling with depression, or going through divorce, or grieving a loved one… And these difficult parts of life are often the ones that we learn the most from. So if the learning moments are left out of our digital re-creation, what will be left for our ancestors to learn from.
There is a story of a well-known doctor who was famous not only for his medical expertise, but also for his extraordinary bedside manner. He was gentle and kind, and often helped people far beyond the call of duty. He had one fault, though: he loved talking about his righteousness, and felt that he was due honor for his deeds.
Once, as the doctor traveled along in his fancy car, he noticed a rabbi walking along the side of the road. The good doctor graciously offered him a ride, and the rabbi accepted. As they rode, the doctor began to talk about his good work. “When a patient comes to me who cannot afford to pay, I treat him exactly as I do a paying customer,” said the doctor.
“Oh, yes,” responded the rabbi, “I do the same.”
The doctor was surprised. The rabbi did not appear to have any medical skills at all. What could he mean? Most likely, mused the doctor quietly, he treats whoever asks him rabbinical questions in the same manner. Hmmm . . .
The doctor spoke up again. “When I see patients who cannot afford to pay my fee, I provide free medication for them as well.”
The rabbi listened intently and responded “yes, I do the same.”
Perplexed, the doctor began thinking to himself: Was the rabbi dispensing medicine too? No, no, no . . . He must mean that when people need things from him for which he normally charges a fee, he gives it away to the needy for free.
The doctor tried again: “When I see patients who cannot afford to pay for my fee or medicine, and need to go elsewhere to recover from their illness, I sponsor their trips to various spas and health centers.”
Confident that he had, finally, topped the rabbi, the doctor was flabbergasted to hear the rabbi say, “Aha! I do the same.”
This continued until finally the doctor lost patience. “Excuse me, honored rabbi. I don’t understand you,” he said with aggravation in his voice. “Are you a doctor? Do you provide medical care and medicine, or arrange that needy patients can stay in health spas? What do you mean, ‘I do the same?’”
The rabbi answered with a smile: “I just wanted to tell you that I, too, tell others only about the good things I do. My faults I never talk about, just like you… ”
Now I am not saying that we should all start posting everything good and bad on our social media. However, we should think twice about how it represents us, both now and in the future. And when it comes to making sure that our memory is carried on, we should share ourselves with the people in our lives who matter to us. We should share recipes, and stories, and Jewish traditions. For we are but a link in the chain, and it is up to us to carry memory and pass it on.
Delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5780
Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur
Podcast: American Hysteria, Ep. 15, "Talking to the Dead" and Bonus Ep. "Griefbots".