I can’t wait for the self-driving car. I can’t wait to get into my car, which will know where I’m going because it’s connected to my calendar, and take out a book and start reading, or take out my laptop and start working. My car spends the next twenty minutes driving; I spend it working, reading, FaceTiming with friends. When my family goes to relatives in NY or Boston for Yom Tov, it will no longer be a grueling twelve-hour drive, where I find myself pinching my thighs, blasting music, and slapping my face, trying to stay awake while everyone else in the car sleeps. In the future, we’ll just rent a sleeper car, the whole family will tuck in for a luxurious nap, and wake up in another city! The self-driving car doesn’t even need us to pump gas, it will drive into automated fill stations, position itself where the hose will be robotically inserted, and pay using the credit card stored on the car’s hard-drive.
I’m also ready for a car that will run errands and do carpool. I’ve got the baby sick at home, so I program my car to drop off our other children at their various schools, they climb in and away they go. I also program it to go to Meijer’s afterward. When my car gets to Meijer’s it drives into the automated car pickup lane. I’ve pre-ordered my groceries and paid for them online, and the bags are now waiting in the automated car pickup area, where a robot who scans the license plates, recognizes my car, and brings the groceries over. The car’s liftgate automatically opens, the robot places the groceries inside, and my car brings them back home.
Before it gets home, I send it some new instructions. I’ve taken a swab in my child’s mouth and inserted the result into a mini-diagnostic tool connected to my phone, and uploaded the results. My doctor got the results, diagnosed my baby as having strep, and sent a prescription to my local pharmacy. I reroute my car to Rite-Aid where it picks up the medication, and then finally comes home. I’ve dropped my children off at school, picked up groceries, brought my child to the doctor, and picked up his medication without ever having left my house.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy driving, I absolutely love the thrill of getting out on the open highway, mashing the gas pedal, and blissfully sailing down the road. Sometimes. Actually, it would be more accurate to say rarely. Most of the time, I wish I could be doing something else. I drive about 15,000 miles a year. If you assume an average of 50MPH, (somewhere in between city and highway speeds), that translates into 300 hours of driving. That means that each year, I spend about sixteen days’ worth of my waking hours driving a car. Having a self-driving car would allow me to be far more productive, sixteen more days each year to learn Torah, work on projects, and of course, write Shabbos emails!!! If I ever get the itch to drive, I can always rent one of those vintage cars with steering wheels and brake pedals and have some fun.
But having more time to answer emails is the least important reason for the self-driving car. The much more important factor is a longer lifespan. After decades of declining fatalities, the US has seen a spike in deaths on the road in the last two years. The fatalities are remarkably low, at about 37,000 a year, when you take into account that there are 6.3 million crashes in the US each year, or about 17,250 a day! Most of those accidents are caused by a few factors; distracted driving, drowsy driving, drunk driving, speeding, and driver errors of judgment.
Self-driving cars, while not yet at the stage of development necessary for taking over our roads, will solve all those problems. Cars never drink alcohol, they only drink gasoline (and even that will slow down dramatically as electric cars slowly take over the fossil fuel burners). They never get distracted by their cell phones, never shave or apply makeup while driving, and scan the roads ahead and behind them hundreds of times a second, using complex algorithms to respond to road conditions in hundredths of seconds, far faster than human reflexes. They can be programmed to never climb above the posted speed limit. Simply removing human fatigue and alcohol impairment from the equation and US fatalities on the road would drop by 45.5%!
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver related causes explain 93% of motor vehicle crashes. The breakdown is roughly this:
38.6% due to failure to recognize a danger on the road, i.e. inattention, i.e. cat videos
31.2% due to decision error like driving too fast or driving under the influence
9.6% due to performance error, like trying to get out of an ice skid by turning the wheel against the skid
6.5% due to non-performance error, like falling asleep at the wheel
7.4% due to other Driver Related Reasons
Evidently, despite humans doing the vast majority of the driving on the planet, we are really not great at it. Having ever vigilant machines, that never panic, never get road rage, never fall asleep, and can have twenty “eyes” on all sides of the car is not that bad of an idea.
Using data from technology already found in cars on the road today, we can see some of those benefits. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, cars equipped with forward collision alert and automated emergency braking were 50% less likely to rear end the cars in front of them. If every car on the road had just those two systems that are already available, we could reduce the collisions on roads in the US by over a million a year, and reduce over 400,000 injuries!
So where is my self-driving car? Parts of it are here. Some luxury cars already have adaptive cruise control and traffic jam assist, that maintain the proper distance between cars, braking and accelerating on its own for optimum efficiency. We also have lane departure assist that uses cameras to track the lines between lanes and makes sure cars stay in their lane. In a small area of Phoenix, there is a fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans that operate as taxis for Waymo, Google’s self-driving car division. You hail the cabs with an app, get in the back and middle rows, and the taxi takes you to your preprogrammed destination without any driver in the driver seat!
But one of the most significant holdbacks is the perception people have of self-driving cars. To put it plainly, people are afraid of two-ton vehicles speeding along the highway with no-one there to make sure they don’t plow into a school bus. When MIT conducted a study earlier this year to gauge the public’s interest in self-driving cars, about half the people said they would never buy a self-driving car. Even among young people, who generally are more comfortable with technological change, only 20% said they are comfortable with the idea of a totally automated car. They don’t feel comfortable with the loss of control, and don’t trust the technology. They feel the cars aren’t safe.
Realistically, all rational people should need is evidence that a self-driving car is SLIGHLY safer than a human driven car for them to pile on board. But that is not how people work. Despite evidence that self-driving cars would cut human fatalities on the road in half, savings tens of thousands of lives each year, people still don’t want to give up control. When researchers asked both the driver and passenger of the same car, if they wanted to switch to an automated driver, the passenger was much more open to the idea than the driver. The passenger doesn’t feel in control either way, and sees the data showing machines to be more reliable, and wants the machine driver. The driver, feels in control, sees the data, and says, but I’m better than that!
In thirty years from now, this will be a moot point, because by then we’ll all be driven by automated cars, and please hold me to this prediction! We’ll talk with nostalgia about the days of human driven cars. When coming back from trips abroad, you’ll hear people say things like, “You can’t understand how primitive the people in Ukraine are! They still drive their own cars!” But there will be a lot of ink spilled and a lot of passionate debates before we are willing to cede our control over the steering wheel. I can hear people saying, “You’re going to have the pry the steering wheel out of my cold dead hands before I let go!” And because of that attitude, because of our unwillingness to give up control of something we’re not particularly good at, tens of thousands will die each year. It’s time to get comfortable with letting go!
There is a very interesting correlation in our views of the world from a spiritual perspective. According to Jewish tradition, we have very little control over our environment. The Talmud famously tell us (Tractate Brachos, 33B), “Everything is in the Hands of G-d, except for Fear of Heaven.” Our Sages explain that G-d controls our finances, our health, our longevity, and every other aspect of our lives with the exception of our moral choices. We get to control whether we are honest or deceitful, angry or calm, whether we use our time thoughtfully or waste it, speak gossip or refrain, and whether we search for meaning or search for comfort.
Important caveat: We can of course negatively influence our finances by gambling our money away or using it frivolously. We can similarly damage our health and longevity by smoking or overeating. This statement doesn’t mean that we can’t lessen what we are Divinely entitled to by bad choices, it just means that we can’t work harder and make more money than we are supposed to make, or do extra yoga and live longer than we are supposed to live. That is where we don’t have control.
While Judaism teaches us that G-d controls our finances, we still don’t seem to want to give up. We scrounge around trying to make an extra buck, often neglecting our family in the process. We sometimes even do deceitful things in business, hoping to make more money, when in the end, we are not going to make a penny more than G-d ordained for us to make the previous Rosh Hashana. And our perceived control of our finances is not making our lives any easier. An APA poll in 2015 found that 72% of Americans felt significant stress within the last month about money. Thirty five percent of people in stressed relationships said that money was the primary stressor.
Wealthier people are not immune. In a 2015 survey of investors worth over a million dollars but less than five million dollars found that half of them, and 63% of those who still have children at home, feel like one wrong move, one financial setback, can set them way back and derail their lifestyle. They feel like they have to stay on the treadmill of work, ever chasing more financial stability. Interestingly, 83% said that if they knew they only had five years left to live, they would change their lifestyle dramatically. Knowing that control had been wrested from them would ironically let them rest!
There are so many victims of our perceived financial control. There are business partners who have been cheated by people trying to get ahead. There are family members who rarely see their parents who are busy chasing down the next dollar. There are endless hours of worry that can’t change a thing.
In Psalms, Kind David tells us (53:23), “Throw your burden on Ha-shem and He will sustain you.” Let go of all that worry, you don’t control anything financial anyway, so why worry about it? The Dubno Maggid gives a great parable to explain this.
A duke was once traveling down the road when he sees a poor man on the side of the road, doubled over under the load of a heavy package on his back. He instructs his horseman to stop the carriage and asks the poor man where he is headed. Upon discovering that they are both headed in the same direction, the duke tells the poor man to join him in his carriage, and the poor man happily obliges. They set out down the road, and the poor man remains standing in the carriage, holding his heavy load. The duke repeatedly asks the poor man to put down the load, but each time he demurs. When the duke finally asks him to explain himself, the poor man says, “I’m so appreciative to you for giving me a ride, I don’t want to burden your horses with also carrying the weight of my load!”
Ha-shem is already carrying us, and if He is, we can just let him take the load off our back as well! The more we think we have control, the most stressed we get. The more we let Him do His thing, the less we have to worry about it, the less our human error gets in the way, the less fatalities there are in our families, partners, friends and community.
When we let go, when we let the areas in our life that are already controlled by the ultimate AutoPilot remain on AutoPilot, we can take the energy we otherwise would have expended in that area and use it in the one area where we are always in the driver’s seat, making proper moral choices. And when we focus all our energies in that area, that’s when we really get out onto the open road, mash the gas pedal, and blissfully sail down the road.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In the beginning of this week’s portion we read about how Eisov (Esau) sold his rights as the firstborn to his brother for a meal of beans. (Now there’s a guy who either really likes beans, or really doesn’t care about the rights of the firstborn, which include service in the Temple!) Let us look at the verses surrounding this monumental sale, and see what we can learn from it.
Yaakov was simmering a pottage when Eisov came in from the field, exhausted. Eisov said to Yaakov, “Please give me a swallow of this red [pottage], for I am exhausted.” He was therefore named Edom [Red]. Yaakov said, “As of this day, sell your birthright to me.” Eisov said, “Here I am about to die, what [good] is this birthright to me.” Yaakov said, “Swear to me as of this day.” He swore to him, and sold his birthright to Yaakov. Yaakov then gave Eisov bread and a pottage of lentils. He [Eisov] ate and drank, got up and left. [Thus] Eisov scorned the birthright. (Gen. 25:29-34)
As we can see, Eisov had no respect for the birthright and it was Yaakov the brother who did care for it that really deserved it anyway. (Mini lesson- If you don’t appreciate the gifts you get, you don’t deserve them.) But what we need to put the magnifying glass on, is the idea that the nation that came out of Eisov acquired their name through this event, and a strange name at that.
In the Holy Tongue (Biblical Hebrew) a person’s name represents the essence of what they are. The word for name sheim is spelled exactly the same way as sham, which means there, because a person’s name tells you where they are. For example, Avraham is called Avraham because it is an acronym for Av Hamon Goyim, Father of Many Nations, which he was as he fathered the Jews, and the Arabs (through Yishmael, his other son, the one we don’t invite to our Chanukah parties), and spiritually he was a patriarch to the world.
That being the case, how do we understand that Edom, the nation that came out of Eisov got their name from him asking for red beans? If Yaakov was making a split pea soup instead of red lentils, would the nation now be called Green? And maybe they should have been called Lentils because the pottage was a lentil pottage.
The reason Eisov’s nation was called Edom, red, is because that is the way he described the pottage when he saw it as it says “Please give me a swallow of this red [pottage], for I am exhausted.” He was therefore named Edom [Red]. What does that tell us about Eisov?
It tells us that he looked at things very superficially. He comes in and glances at a pot, and simply asks for some of the red stuff. He doesn’t even take the time to ascertain what it is. The color of something is the factor that one sees first, but reveals the least info about the identity of something. If Eisov would have been less superficial, less concerned with immediate gratification, he might have asked for some of the lentils or perhaps some of the nourishing food. But Eisov is the kind of person that doesn’t care for any delay in gratification, so he blurts out a request for the most surface aspect of the dish, in his rush for gratification.
This theme continues as he sells his rights as a firstborn, which would have given his progeny the rights to serve in the Temple, so that he can satiate his hunger. Imagine, if he would have simply waited and gone into the kitchen and made himself a grilled cheese sandwich, his children would possibly have been the ones who served in the different Temples for hundreds of years instead of us, Yaakov’s children! But that is not who Eisov is, as he says “Here I am about to die, what [good] is this birthright to me.” I.e. if I can’t get some immediate pleasure out of it, I’ll just trade it in for something I can enjoy right now! (This is also possibly why Eisov was born fully formed, which is how he got the name Eisov which means “made.” This showed that his core is something that expects everything all at once. Jacob was born normal which indicated that for him development was a necessary process.)
This character of Eisov of only looking at the superficial explains the name Edom, and how it represents the essence of Eisov the forebear of that nation. This is the exact opposite of Yaakov, who is willing to give up some of the lentils now in return for greatness in the future. We are the Children of Yaakov, we have inherited his spiritual genes, and therefore we have the ability to spurn the momentary pleasures of this world, in an attempt to build better character for our future, and for a glorious next world. In each of our lives we have a pottage that is red, enticing, and ready to deliver instant gratification, but we overcome the Edom in us, we spurn the momentary and choose the eternal.
The Parsha begins with Yitzchak and his wife Rivka, praying fervently for a child as they didn’t have one in twenty years of marriage. G-d grants them their wish and grants them twins. One of them is great and every time Rivka passes a Yeshiva he kicks indicating that he wants to learn. However, when she passes an idolatrous temple, the other guy is kicking away! This confuses Rivka, who didn’t know she had twins, so she goes to ask two scholars, Shem and Aver. They, through Divine Knowledge explain to her that she has two babies in her womb, both of who will be the father of great nations. They further tell her that there will be an inverse relationship between them, with one gaining power when the other loses it.
Soon two babies are born. The first comes out fully formed, and with a hairy coat of reddish hair, and he is called Eisov, which means “made.” His brother comes out holding onto the heel of his twin, and he earns the name Yaakov, which alludes to the heel he was pulling out in his attempt to get out first.
The twins as kids are pretty similar as babies (you know how it is with babies, they all look and act the same! They cry, dirty their diapers, and eat!) But when they get older, it becomes painfully obvious that these fellas couldn’t be farther apart. One spends his time learning in the tents, and one goes of hunting and robbing people in a way that would only make Ted Nugent proud. On the day they turn thirteen, Avraham dies right before his grandson, Eisov has his debut as All-Mesopotamian Bad Guy, as he spends his Bar Mitzvah committing all three of the Big Three sins, Adultery, Idolatry, and Homicide.
Arriving home from a day of high crimes, Eisov is famished and finds Yaakov cooking a lentil dish for his fathers (mourners are supposed to eat round things to remember that life is a cycle, and although they are in a down right now, things will turn up again). Eisov sells his birthright to his brother for a bowl of beans that was poured into his mouth and some bread, thus showing that he has zero appreciation for the finer things in life such as a fork and spirituality (the birthright is primarily a spiritual function as it designated who was supposed to serve in the Temple).
Then there is a famine in the Land of Israel and Yitzchak and his wife must go to Gerar to live amongst the Pilishtim, where food is abundant. Using a trick he learned from his father, Yitzchak tells his wife Rivka to tell everyone that she is his sister, to avoid getting killed by someone trying to steal his wife. When Avimelech, the King of Gerar finds out that they are actually married, he scolds Yitzchak, saying that one of the nation (himself) almost took Rivka as a wife, and then asks them to leave town. They pack up and move to the neighboring valley, where they successfully dig up some wells that Avraham’s servants dug when Avraham was there. There are a number of fights between the local servants and Yitzchak’s servants over the wells, until finally they come to an agreement regarding one of the wells on which they made a treaty, and it was named Be’er Sheva.
Yitzchak has enormous agricultural success producing 100 times the amount his fields were assessed to produce, and eventually realizing that Yitzchak obviously has G-d on his side, comes and makes a treaty with Yitzchak.
There has been a longstanding difference between Yitzchak and his wife, Rivka. Yitzchak displays more affection toward Eisov, hoping that the extra love showered on him will turn him around, while Rivka knows that Eisov is a no-goodnik, whose not coming back so fast and she loves Yaakov more. As Yitzchak is getting older, he decides that he must bless his children before he dies. Yitzchak decides that he should give the bulk of the blessings to Eisov hoping that success will breed success. But Rivka seeing her son with the deeper understanding that women possess, understands that Eisov will take the powers and use them for the other sides and she sets up a plan to circumvent the situation in a way that Yaakov will get the blessings. (It is interesting to note that both Avraham and his son Yitzchak had a son who was wicked, and each times their wives were the ones who realized how harmful they were, and took the necessary steps to ensure that the good children got whatever they needed.)
Yitzchak calls Eisov and tells him to bring him a good meal so that he can bless him out of appreciation. Rivka sees the opportunity and tells Yaakov to bring her two young kids (the goat kind) and she makes them into a dish she knows her husband loves. She then puts some of the goat skins on Yaakov’s smooth hands and neck so that they should feel like Eisov’s hairy ones. Yaakov brings the food into his father who asks him who he is. Yaakov, understanding the importance of his getting these blessing, needs to twist the truth a bit, and claims to be Eisov. His father unsure beckons him close to feel him, and feeling the skins thinks it is Eisov, and announces “The hands are the hands of Eisov, but the voice is the voice of Yaakov!” (This hints to the powers of the respective nations. Edom the progeny of Eisov, has their power in their hands, their physical strength, while the Jewish people, the offspring of Yaakov, has their power in their mouths, through prayer and Torah study!) Yitzchak then continues to give Yaakov all the blessings.
Soon after Eisov comes to his father with the meal he prepared for him, but when he arrives it becomes immediately clear that he has been tricked and that the blessing have already been given away. Eisov cries to his father, “have you left me at least one blessing?” Yitzchak tells him that he really gave all the good blessings to Yaakov, but he gives one blessing to Eisov, that his land should be fertile, that he shall live by his sword, and that although he will serve his brother, when his brother does the wrong things, Eisov will throw off his yoke, and dominate his brother.
Eisov furious that his brother stole his blessings begins to plan for the day his father will die so that he can kill his brother. Rivka realizing the danger facing her favored son, sends him off to the land she came from to get away from his murderous brother, and to get married with someone from her family. The parsha ends by telling us hoe Eisov seeing how much his parents dislike the local Canaanite women, marries himself a non-Canaanite woman, the daughter of Yishmael. Of course he keeps the Canaanite women, marrying a different wife was just a PR ploy to get parental approval.
Quote of the Week: A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds. – Francis Bacon
Random Fact of the Week: The largest private sector employer in Africa is Coca Cola!
Funny Line of the week: I went into a clothes store and a lady came up to me and said, “If you need anything, I’m Jill”. I’ve never met anyone with a conditional identity before.
Have a Splendid Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham