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Rabbi Miriam Berger

Kol Nidre 5782

You can listen to Rabbi Miriam's sermon or read it below:

It’s the image of the shop window which intrigues me most. People standing stock still, looking out, watching the real people on the street go by. They stand making the display look enticing, willing passers-by to come in and choose them, but all the while noticing the minutest detail of the routines just the other side of the glass. Those sharp brains; seeing, learning, absorbing and preparing themselves to be your perfect companion.

Why be powerless to the feelings your child might endure because of bullies or the loneliness suffered if they feel they don’t fit in, when they could have a friend, hand-picked off the shelf, by their side every moment, day and night.

Surely at any age, a friend, programmed to take their social cues from you, who has learnt to appreciate the world through your eyes, would make the perfect companion? Wouldn’t an artificial friend, a synth, be the answer to the grief following a bereavement, the loneliness after divorce or the isolation of old age? Someone designed to look the way you find most attractive. No worries that there might be a sinister side to them or that they aren’t exactly who they say they are, as you powered them into life. Once just empty behind the eyes, now oozing the emotions you need them to feel.

Perhaps it was the backdrop of the pandemic that made certain books and themes sit longer with me over the last several months. I couldn’t shake off the questions Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and countless other authors and screen writers were creatively pushing us to ask. What makes us human?

In all these narratives of the future, that we used to think of as science fiction but, since all our childhood sci-fi has proved to be glimpses into a world we never saw coming, perhaps we have to see such literature not just as preparing us but pushing us to ask the big questions, hypothetically before fear, prejudice or convenience cloud our judgement.

We see the roles of humans being superseded by the robot or synthetic human. They will be able to follow instructions without human error, get through tasks more efficiently and faster and will not need to tend to bodily functions with loo breaks, food stops and periods of sleep. Yet I don’t have to tell you that however well-programmed an artificial friend may be, whether they can be taught to make conversation, feel just like the human touch and appear to express sympathy and behave empathetically, be riled into an argument or be taught to fall in love, they just won’t be human. But why?

What is it of us that can’t be replicated? Emotions are learnt and behaviours copied whether human or synth.

It isn’t our beating heart, nor our free will or our inclination for good or evil that make us human. All these things can be replicated by the right algorithms. Even the acts we put on in public, our attempts to hide our true selves, or our whole selves, from each other could be written into the code.

“Not only had I learnt that changes were a part of Josie,” the artificial friend speaks in Klara and the Sun, “and that I should be ready to accommodate them, I’d begun to understand also, that this wasn’t a trait peculiar just to Josie, that people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers-by – as they might in a store window, and that such display needn’t be taken so seriously once the moment had passed.”

It’s the reason behind our thinking we need to put on a show, not be our true selves, even for those we love, that really makes us human. We are trying to mask the fact that we are fallible.

It is our failings and failures, our brokenness that makes us human. The pain of our lived traumas and the pain that lives with us.

“Sometimes,” Josie said, “even at special moments like that, people feel a pain alongside their happiness. I’m glad you watch everything so carefully, Klara.”

This year we approach Yom Kippur our most broken selves. Even those of us who have trotted out the phrase ‘I’m one of the lucky ones’ so many times that we’ve even started believing it ourselves.

We have spent eighteen months in fear. Fearing for our own health and the health of others. We have been bombarded with numbers of those who are dying locally and globally and told that everyone and everywhere poses a risk. We’ve been given the hope that the vaccine is the answer and then been terrified once more by those getting ill despite being vaccinated. We’ve been peddled conflicting information, having to make choices but feeling like we can’t win. We have been unable to plan things to look forward to and lived with so many, ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’. And every time we thought there was light at the end of the tunnel we get plunged back into darkness.

I see a community exhausted by life. Emotionally, physically, collectively and individually wrung out. Some may put it down to the pandemic, others will tell you the countless other reasons life feels so hard at the moment but if you are listening to this feeling as your best self, feeling like you are winning at life, then I can guarantee you are in the minority, and we all want to know your secret. No, we haven’t been in the trenches and food has not been scarce, many are living through harder experiences on a daily basis and yet how do we allow ourselves to acknowledge that it’s taken its toll? That it’s left us feeling a little more vulnerable, it’s made us feel mortal. It’s made us feel human.

We can hold in tension being both the lucky ones and feeling a little broken by it. We can acknowledge how much it’s aged us, taken its toll physically. It’s taken its toll horrendously on the mental health of our young people. It’s put strain on marriages, made people question their choices in life, it’s made loneliness unbearable for so many and has made geographical borders separate families for almost two years. People are desperate to be reunited: parents and children, grandchildren whose lives have changed so much in the two years apart.

Some are so keen to feel they are mending the fractures of this experience, so desperate to draw a line under these last eighteen months that, were the situation to change again and COVID circumstances worsen, I worry how they would respond.

What does it mean to acknowledge a world in which all feel battle-weary, while others are living with post-traumatic stress?

The starting place has to be to see each other as our fellow veterans. We lived this together and will build back together but we have to stop thinking that to be human is to be successful and the master of all. Let’s leave perfection and success to the synths, the artificial friends, the computers and let’s acknowledge that to be human is to be broken and to be a mensch is to accompany the brokenness in others.

When we do not fear that others may see our weaknesses and failings, we are able to be our true selves. How do we reshape society after our experiences this last year to make brokenness, failing, weakness part of what makes us who we are and recognise that without such imperfections we are nothing more than the artificial friend, the synth, the computer-generated code? To express our humanity is to share our weakness. To be a community is to hold the brokenness of each other and to tread lightly together.

Rabbi Jordan Braunig shares a teaching attributed to R’ Elimelech of Lizhensk “who, when considering his myriad faults, wondered how he would fare on a day of judgment. In the end, he concluded, ‘my broken heart will stand me in good stead.’ There are so many places where I hope to improve, where I recognise my weaknesses and my failings. I am heartened by the wisdom of R’ Elimelech that we might be regarded not for our degree of completion, but for our brokenness.”

If an 18th century rabbi could teach us to have two pockets, in one it is written “I am but dust and ashes” and in the other it is written “for me alone was the world created”, then this 21st century rabbi urges us to have two pockets, in one reminding us “we are one of the lucky ones” and in the other admitting “I am a little broken by my experience of the world.”

May we be a community who treats each other with the kindness which can only be expressed by a shared admission of our individual and collective frailties.

As we turn to the middle of page 312 may we remember that to sin may be a natural human trait but to see the brokenness in others and to be the glue which hides the cracks, is to find the divine in each of us.

Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782