Jews around the world tomorrow hear Parsha Bo (Exodus 10:1 to 13:16) declaimed in the synagogue, recounting the last of the biblical plagues, the killing of Egypt’s first-born, and our midnight departure from Egypt. It is a solemn moment in our religious calendar. Our rabbis emphasize that God did not simply rescue us from Egyptian bondage, but brought a terrible judgment against their gods. Lord, hear our cry, and bring judgment against the pagan gods who are worshipped today!
God told Moses: “I will pass through Egypt on that night, and I will kill every first-born in Egypt, man and animal. I will perform acts of judgment against all the gods of Egypt: I (alone) am God.” (Exodus 12:12). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks comments, “The plagues were not only intended to punish Pharaoh and his people for their mistreatment of the Israelites, but also to show them the powerlessness of the gods in which they believed. What is at stake in this confrontation is the difference between myth – in which the gods are mere powers, to be tamed, propitiated or manipulated – and biblical monotheism, in which ethics (justice, compassion, human dignity) constitute the meeting point of God and mankind.”
What was the upshot of Egyptian idolatry? The ruling elite wanted to live forever, and enslaved my ancestors to build grand tombs in which their mummified bodies would migrate to another life, surrounded by their wealth and some conveniently dead servants. A remarkably large part of Egypt’s economic output fed the fantasies of the Pharaohs, at which we laugh today. The desire for eternal life is not new, and hardly unique to Jews or Christians. Neanderthals buried their dead with grave gifts. Gilgamesh the Babylonian hero set out to find eternal life. The pharaohs built pyramids with our sweat and blood.
Today our progressive opinion-makers ridicule the concept of an eternal God and a world to come, but they believe that we soon will upload our minds to the Internet where our consciousness will continue intact. We laugh at the idea that the blessed would spend eternity strumming harps while seated on clouds, but enlightened opinion now believes that we shall maintain our conscious minds in Google’s cloud. Add to this a robotic body, and supposedly we can live forever. A lot of Silicon Valley billionaires take this seriously.
According to Wikipedia:
Mind uploading may potentially be accomplished by either of two methods: Copy-and-transfer or gradual replacement of neurons. In the case of the former method, mind uploading would be achieved by scanning and mapping the salient features of a biological brain, and then by copying, transferring, and storing that information state into a computer system or another computational device. The biological brain may not survive the copying process. The simulated mind could be within a virtual reality or simulated world, supported by an anatomic 3D body simulation model. Alternatively the simulated mind could reside in a computer that is inside (or connected to) a (not necessarily humanoid) robot or a biological body.
That is not science, but science fiction. The urge to escape death, though, remains as powerful today as it was when Moses confronted Ramses. A tech startup now offers a method to preserve the chemical arrangement of your brain until such time as it can be uploaded, with the minor side-effect that you will have to die in the process.
It sounds goofy, but the mainstream of enlightened opinion now believes that artificial intelligence, gene manipulation, and other techie fads will transform the human race into something utterly different. The popular writer Yuval Harari, a favorite of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama, prophesies that we will make ourselves into science-fiction caricatures of ourselves. In a recent interview, the best-selling author declared:
Given the current pace of technological development, it is possible we destroy ourselves in some ecological or nuclear calamity. The more likely possibility is that we will use bioengineering and machine learning and artificial intelligence either to upgrade ourselves into a totally different kind of being or to create a totally different kind of being that will take over. In any case, in 200 or 300 years, the beings that will dominate the Earth will be far more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals or from chimpanzees.
Harari isn’t ready to have his brain preserved for a future upload, but his vision of human self-transformation is the next worst thing. All the metaphysical and existential investigation of the philosophers, all the inspiration of the artists, all the revelation of the prophets is tossed into the recycling bin at the brain lab. It is madness, but it now offers serious competition to the biblical foundations of Western society.
Our new pharaohs believe in methods to achieve immortality as silly as the old ones. And they entertain such fantasies for the same reason: They want to make themselves into immortal gods who have no more constraint on the satisfaction of their appetites than the rapacious, concupiscent and murderous gods of ancient paganism.
The secular elite scoffs at the notion of Divine Providence, but they believe that our brains are machines subject to deterministic physical laws, which rules out the possibility of free will. Shamefully, this notion has infiltrated progressive Jewish thinking as well. If we have no choice in what we do, to be sure, we can’t be blamed for anything that we do, but I am getting ahead of the argument. If consciousness is just the electric effluvia of brain-machines, everything we do is arbitrary, and anything that anyone does is equally valid because it is equally meaningless. Change your sex; it doesn’t matter. Kill a fetus; it doesn’t matter, either. Kill a newborn child; the life of an imperfect baby is worth less than that of a healthy piglet, says Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. No-one is answerable to any authority except the pleasure principle.
Lord, our gratitude for your mercy is unbounded; as we say at Passover, had you only executed judgment on the gods of Egypt and not saved us from bondage it would have been enough; had you only saved us from bondage but not brought us dry-shod across the Sea of Reeds, it would have been enough; had you only saved us at the Sea but not revealed your Torah to us at Mount Sinai, it would have been enough. Do not think me ungrateful, Lord, when I ask you to bring judgment against the new Pharaohs and their new pagan gods.