This week I saw a group of people studiously sawing off their feet… at least metaphorically. I went to my local bank branch about twenty minutes before opening to deposit of a few checks, and right in middle of the customer service area I saw them hard at work, scurrying to do the messy job before the customers starting arriving.
Wait a second, why was I at the bank twenty minutes before opening if I wanted to make a deposit? Oh right, because I no longer need a teller to make a deposit, a machine does that now. The same ATM that used to simply dispense twenties and receipts now also accepts checks. It scans them in, reads the dollar amount with startling accuracy, deposits the money in your account and spits out a receipt with a mini photo copy of the checks… But you probably don’t care about this so much, you want to hear more about the sawing, OK OK, I’ll get back to that.
In the middle of the lobby, a group of five bank employees were installing a row of two shiny new computers with huge screens. They were placed exactly where the line for the tellers used to be, giving the unmistakable message, “Don’t wait on line for those human tellers, come here, tell us your problems, and we’ll have you out of here in no time! Pick me! Pick me!”
I don’t know much about the inner workings of Chase branches, but I can tell you this for certain; the number of tellers at my branch is going to go down significantly in the next few months. Deposit taking ATM’s probably took a bite out of the teller staff already (I almost never use tellers anymore), but the slick computers are bound to take even more. They are probably even equipped with phones so that if you are having a problem with the machine you can be immediately connected with a “banking specialist” in India whose daily wage will buy you a small Slurpee in 7-11.
There are three ways these new machines could have been introduced to the Chase employees. They were possibly told that due to COVID, human to human contact needs to be minimized. They might have had an honest conversation about how the branch needs to downsize and the employees who do the best at training people to use the computers will be the ones who will stay on, or they were told the standard line, “these machines are not meant to replace you, they are just here to complement you, and make your job easier and more efficient.” Sure, tell that the to the guys who used to weave cloth, or the horses who used to pull our wagons…
The employees who get it, will surely be struggling to master the way this computer works because they want to hold on to their employment. Other workers will probably say things like, “I’m not good with all this computer stuff,” or “people really prefer to deal with people, we’re not going anywhere…” They are also the ones least likely to be at the branch in six months from now. And so it happened, that I got to watch the friendly employees of my local Chase branch sawing off their legs that morning, or at least figuratively.
The Man vs. Machine is nothing new, it has been part of the human experience ever since some guy showed up with a crude wheelbarrow loaded up with the grain it normally took three men to carry. “I don’t get this whole wheel thing…” Later it was “I don’t get this whole printing press thing, people always prefer handwritten books anyway, they have more character.” Handwritten books definitely have more character, as do handwoven shirts, hand-ground flour, hand-rowed galley ships, and hand played music. But I don’t have any handwritten books or shirts, my microwave didn’t come here from China on a galley ship, and I’m pretty confident there is no live band in my computer playing the music I’m listening to as I write this.
People have always complained about machines taking over all the human jobs, with the Luddites of the nineteenth century even resorting to violence, burning machine driven factories, smashing machine looms, and sending death threats to industrialists. But the counter argument is that machines create the need for new types of jobs. Sure agriculture workers made up 40% of the work force two hundred years ago and only 2% today, but two hundred years ago they didn’t have computer engineers, app developers, iPhone assemblers, hackers, flight attendants, appliance repairmen, electricians, cyber security specialists, or Uber drivers. Central California may have been populated by the Forty Niners, people searching for gold using nothing but pans, shovels, and sifters, but today it is populated by millions of people panning for digital gold in Silicon Valley.
There are many prominent thinkers who believe that we are reaching a point where automation is taking over jobs at a faster rate than technology can create new jobs. As Google, Tesla, Waymo, and Cruise perfect their computer driven cars, 3.5 million truck drivers nervously watch the developments I personally would advise them to start taking online courses, I think we’re going to have very few people driving long haul trucks in ten years. Already now, TuSimple, a San Diego based company focused exclusively on autonomous trucks, has a fleet of 40 trucks hauling loads between freight depots in Arizona and Texas. Tick Tock…
Traditionally, people moved to service sector jobs as robots took over manufacturing jobs, but waiters and salespeople have already seen computers invade their space. More people shopping at www.lululemon.com means less people selling overpriced yoga pants in stores. The pandemic has accelerated this development dramatically. For more than six months, people couldn’t buy things in brick-and-mortar stores if they wanted to! All those companies poured billions of dollars into more robust online shopping experiences and even people who used to like shopping in person have become accustomed to online shopping as their primary form of shopping. We are never going to get back to the same number of retail workers as there were pre-pandemic.
Another service sector under assault is the bar and restaurant industry. Thirty million people ate meals this month at tables equipped with a Ziosk tablet. On the large tablet anchored to their table, they could order their meal using a digital menu that shows beautiful pictures of each dish and includes all sorts of extra information that servers couldn’t possibly memorize. During the meal, if they wanted extra drinks or another order of fries, they could order them easily from their tablet without having to wait for their server. They could even order that mega-caramel-cinna-bun with ice cream dessert without having to face the judgment of a human being who is definitely thinking, “can I get you a side of obese with that?” Most importantly, they could pay and run without doing that uncomfortable “check please” motion to the busy server again and again.
Analytics tell us that people love using Ziosks. The people at Ziosk equipped tables order more food, get in and out quicker, and even tip their waiters more (the tips are pre-suggested by the tablet). Only 71% of Olive Garden customers used to check out and pay on the tablet before the pandemic, but now 92% have started adopted that practice. It’s a great system, but there is always that awkward moment when the diner looks at the waiter and says, “I’m good, I already placed my order… I don’t need any help!” How long do those waiters have before they go the way of the bank tellers? Cerca Trova, a company that operated over 100 Outback Steakhouse locations, says that Ziosk has saved them $3.7 million this year in labor savings, which means that they’ve been able to eliminate the jobs of thousands of servers because they have Ziosks.
Will new jobs enabled by technological advances take the place of the old ones taken by the same advances? My kids may never be waiters or bank tellers, but they may be custom DNA builders, teleport operators, bionic eye installers, or flying car air traffic controllers. On the other hand, computers may be so smart that they will be building all the custom DNA, operating all the teleport terminals, installing the bionic eyes using laser guided robotic hands, and even flying all our flying cars for us? Will we all be replaced by machines?
As I mulled this over yesterday, I couldn’t help but think that I will too eventually be replaced by something else. I won’t be here forever, and eventually I will go quietly into history like the hand-weavers in England in the 1800’s, the scribes after the advent of the Gutenberg press, and the friendly tellers in my local Chase Branch. But if I train my children properly, I will be building the “machines,” that will carry my message into the world with far greater efficiency that I would ever be capable of. With everything I do, I’m setting the code into a group of amazingly intelligent and adorable little machines, ones with names like Orah, Shifra, and Rachel.
They will eventually take on a life of their own, but they will be heavily influenced by the code I instill them with today. Their degree of generosity, kindness, integrity, and selflessness will be influenced by me. Whether they listen to people or wait to talk will be largely determined but what I do when they talk, their ability to hold their anger in check will be influenced by how I hold my anger in check. I won’t be here in 100 years, but you’ll be able to see me in the world through my offspring.
The flip side is that we can program our children in the negative way as well. Find someone with anger management problems, and nine times out of ten, they got it from one of their parents. Find someone who is jealous, petty, dishonest, or stingy, and usually there will be a familial pattern somewhere there. (As a therapist, I saw these patterns all the time, with frightening regularity!) Whether we like it or not, we are writing the code for the “machines” that will come after us. Obviously humans have free will, but the training they receive, and the patterns they develop at an impressionable age will usually strongly correlate to what they grow up with. Look around at your friends and you will see it everywhere…
I hope to do a lot of good in this world, and I can’t do it all myself. I’m not chopping off my legs by training my children to do good, they won’t replace me, I’m simply growing longer legs. The Talmud has a phrase, “The son is the legs of the father…” as the child usually continues to walk in his parents path, and carries their legacy on. Let’s hope that we can implant the code for selflessness, kindness, holiness, discipline, tolerance, purity and love into our children, and indeed all the people we interact with, so that long after we are retired, the machines we brought into the lobby are serving people with greater efficiency, speed, and effectiveness.
Have a Superfly Shabbos,
PS If you are still reading, and would like a bonus lesson, read on:
While mulling all this over yesterday, there was a knock at my door. I opened the door and with a smile met Shimon Betzalel, a man I never met before, but not unlike the many men from Israel that knock on my door each week, raising funds for various organizations. Shimon, a quiet man, with a soft voice and quick smile started an organization called Abir Yaakov about nine years ago. The goal of Abir Yaakov is to provide medical devices and at times basic medications to people in Israel 24/7/365. People who need diabetes monitoring, wheelchairs, humidifiers, asthma inhalers, first aid kits, nebulizers, and a whole range of other medical devices, can stop in any of the stations and get what they need immediately and for free.
They currently have fourteen stations mostly around the Jerusalem area, and plan to open another twenty two in the next few years, so that they will have one in close reach to anyone in Israel. Thousands of people use their services each year, usually at night when other venues are closed. All of their stations are manned by volunteers. When I asked Shimon what prompted him to open Abir Yaakov, he smiled and gave the simplest but best answer, “People needed it.”
Abir Yaakov is not the only organization providing services in Israel for the needy. Every year I meet more founders of amazing organizations in Israel, each with its own niche to fill. One organization may solely buy electronic wheelchairs for children with mobility problems, while others provide rides to the hospital and doctors office for cancer patients, weekend retreats and camps for children with developmental disabilities, second hand clothing for those in need, or entertainment in homes for the elderly. The services offered by kindness organizations in Israel is staggering.
Besides the thousands of non-profits in Israel, there are private G”MACHs. G”MACH is the acronym for Gmillut Chassadim, acts of kindness. G”MACHS are usually home-based lenders of anything others would need. In Jerusalem alone, there are over 2,500 G”MACHs. They lend (or give away) everything from tables and chairs for simchas, to fax services, crutches, wedding dresses, financial consulting, bris outfits for baby boys, jewelry, gluten free products, pack and plays, haircutting equipment, ties for grooms, burn treatment kits, and hundreds of other products. Here in Detroit we have over sixty G”MACHs.
You would think that with all the good that people are doing, there would be no more room to do anything new that is good without stepping over anyone else’s toes. Yet somehow, there is always room to do more good. There is always need, and when the human spirit is inspired to do good, there is always an outlet for them to put that inspiration to practice. We are not limited by anything other than our imagination and gumption. As Shimon Betzalel found, when he opened his eyes with a desire to do good, he easily discovered an area that was lacking, an area where “People needed it.” There were already thousands of organizations, G”MACHs, and people doing good in Israel nine years ago, but that didn’t mean there was no place for him to lend a shoulder to help people bear their burden.
The world markets may not only run on what people need, they may also run on what people want, but I believe firmly that as our world gets more technologically advanced there will always be more things that people need and want, and job opportunities for people who are ready to fill those needs or wishes. The only thing limiting our job growth is imagination and gumption.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Parsha starts off with G-d telling Moshe to tell Aaron the exact procedure for lighting the Menorah. Rashi explains why the Torah juxtaposed this topic to last week’s Parsha which ended with the sacrifices the princes of the Twelve Tribes brought for the inauguration ceremonies of the Tabernacle. When Aaron, the High Priest saw all the princes bringing their inauguration sacrifices and he had none, he became very disturbed and troubled. G-d sent him a message saying “I swear by your life, yours is greater than theirs because you will prepare and light the menorah.” What does this mean? How is the lighting of the Menora better that inaugurating the Tabernacle?
In order to understand this let us look at the very next Rashi which explains the Torah’s use of the word be’haloscha to describe the lighting of the menorah. This word literally translated means raise up, while figuratively it means to light. Anytime the Torah uses a word that has a literal meaning that is distinct from its current usage, it warrants an explanation. Rahsi’s explanation in our case is that while lighting the menorah the Kohen was required to hold the candle close to the wick until the flame of the wick would “rise up” on its own. What does this answer mean on a deeper level and what can we learn from this to apply to our own lives?
The menorah is the vessel in the Temple that represents knowledge, intellectual depth, and understanding. The symbolism is clear, as it is the one vessel whose primary function is to illuminate, which is what knowledge does. As a matter of fact the Sages tell us that if one wishes to become wiser, he should face slightly southward while praying the Amidah, because the menorah was on the southern wall of the Temple. Parenthetically one who wishes to become wealthier should face slightly northward, as the Table which represented wealth was on the northern wall of the Temple. (It is always interesting to see who faces northward and who southward, who wants wisdom and who wants $$$!)
Knowing this, we can understand a deeper level in the Torah’s message that when lighting the candles one has to keep the flame near the wick until the flame rises on the wick on its own. When we impart knowledge onto someone else, and teach them intellectual discernment, it is not enough that we simply dump our insights onto them, but rather we have to teach them how to use knowledge until they are able to understand things on their own. We have to kindle the flame until it rises on its own! A great teacher is not one whose students rely on him for all their understanding, but one who produces great thinkers each able of creating understanding for themselves as well as for others. This is the secret of lighting the menorah, of keeping the flame there until it rises on its own.
This can help us understand the message G-d was telling Aaron. The princes indeed had a very special job to inaugurate the Tabernacle, but Aaron’s job is greater. The prince’s job was to turn the key in the ignition and start the engine going, but Aaron’s job is brining the wisdom of Torah and spirituality into the world in a way that will produce people who will carry the torch on to the next generation and the next all the way until the Messiah! Additionally, this helps us understand the Mishna in Avos that says “be among the students of Aaron” as the students of Aaron are the ones who understand the value of not just knowing the right things but of helping train others to perceive the right things!
As seen above the Parsha starts off with the owners manual for the menorah telling you when to change the oil and how to light it properly. Following that is the Consecration of the Levites. In previous weeks we discussed how the Levites were given some of the holy jobs originally reserved for the firstborns. Here the Torah describes the procedure that the Levites underwent to begin their service. As most Temple procedures went, it included bringing specific sacrifices but it deviated a little in that it included shaving all of one’s hair, and Aaron picking up and waving each and every one of the 22K+ Levites. (No, Aaron, unlike some MLB did not use steroids, he was miraculously given the strength to pick them all up.) The Torah then tells us that the Levites would begin their apprenticeship at 25, begin working at 30, and retire at 50. (Where do I sign?)
The next part of the Parsha deals with the Pesach offering brought during the second year that the Jews were in the desert (the only year they brought a Pesach offering in the desert, the next one they would bring would be when they got to the Promised Land, 40 years later). It also talks about the people who couldn’t bring the offering due to ritual impurity who came to Moshe with a complaint “why should we be left out?” to which G-d replied with the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni which is a makeup date a month later for all those who couldn’t make it on the regular date.
Being that the Jews were about to embark on their first journey since encamping at Sinai, the Torah teaches about the Jewish travels in the desert. It talks about the signs of G-d that were omnipresent (cloud by day, pillar of fire at night), the frequency of their travels (totally random, ranging from once in 19 years to a day apart), the trumpets that were used to tell the Jews that they were about to pull out of their current parking spot (also used to call the elders together for meetings with Moshe), and the order of the people while marching. Moshe at this point invites Jethro his father-in-law to stay with the Jews, but he says that he has to go back to try to convert the people of the land from which he came.
I would like to preface the next part of the Parsha with the following explanation. The Jews who were in the desert were on an exceedingly high spiritual level after seeing G-d reveal Himself at Sinai and after witnessing the miracles in Egypt and at the Reed Sea. Therefore, as we read in the coming weeks the mistakes they made and the punishments meted out, we need to understand that when someone is so close to G-d, the judgment is so much more strict, much the way a top official in the government is scrutinized so much more than an average Joe. Additionally, a lot of the mistakes have deeper meaning that explain that they were not the large mistakes they appear to be, rather they were judgment calls which were made in the wrong direction, but with good intentions.
Soon after the Jews first travels, some of the evil people amongst the Jews began to complain about their fate in the desert. G-d responded by sending down a heavenly flame that devoured some of the complainers. Moshe prayed to G-d and the fire stopped. Soon after that the people began to complain about the manna which was a spiritual food that came down from heaven daily. One cannot imagine a better food. It tasted like whatever you wanted it to be (think prime rib for breakfast every day!!), it produced no waste products, it didn’t cause you to gain weight, and was delivered to the ground where you just had to pick it and eat it! (Imagine the cover of the 1312 B.C.E. Readers Digest: New Diet! Eat whatever you want and never gain a pound!)
Most of these complaints were initiated by the mixed multitude a group of people who joined the Jews as they left Egypt, many of whom were insincere converts, and didn’t have the tools to appreciate true spirituality. This bothered Moshe to the point where he asked G-d how he was supposed to deal with such a difficult nation alone. “Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers?” (Numbers 11:12) In response to this G-d told Moshe to appoint seventy Elders to be the Great Sanhedrin, a group charged with helping Moshe lead the nation. (I think I need seventy people just to help me with my two daughters!) After this G-d responded to the complainers by sending flocks of quail to the camp, which were lethal to anyone who ate them. (Most people didn’t eat them because they were more than happy with G-d’s spiritual food.)
The Torah also talks about how when Moshe called together the 70 members of the Sanhedrin, G-d increased the spirit of prophecy of Moshe to extend onto all the others. The Sages compare it to a candle which can light another flame without losing any of its light. (If you are still reading, thank you, and please email me back, I’m trying to get a feel for how many people read this part of the email.) After this event, Miraim, Moshe’s sister was talking to her brother Aaron, and she discussed the fact that Moshe left his wife (this was done because he spoke to G-d so frequently and with such clarity, that he wasn’t allowed to have any distraction). She talked in a slightly negative way, and she was immediately punished with tzara’as the spiritual affliction of the skin reserved for people who speak lashon hara, negative speech about others. Because of her greatness, the entire Jewish people waited seven day until she was healed before moving. This was a reward for her waiting at the riverbanks when Moshe’s cradle was cast in the water in the beginning of the Book of Exodus. This shows us that every act we do, no matter how natural it seems to us (as a sister guarding her brother in the water), is evaluated, appreciated and rewarded. Well that’s about all for this week folks.
Quote of the Week: Today was once the future from which you expected so much in the past. ~ Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: Black whales are born white.
Funny Line of the Week: Free cheese only in mouse catching machine! – Russian teen on application for school in the US
Have a Glorious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham