Doing the work reminds us that as long as we’re alive, we have the opportunity to make different choices and pursue new paths.
Rabbi Rachel Bovitz
Most of us have spent at least a few minutes experimenting with ChatGPT. Maybe we’ve asked artificial intelligence technology to craft us an itinerary for an upcoming vacation or draft a blog post. One might even attempt to use the AI tool to write one’s self-assessment of their job performance. We’ve overwhelmingly learned that if we ask ChatGPT for what we need in just the right way, we might find that it gives us a satisfactory answer—maybe it’s not 100% what we’re looking for, but it likely can get us more than halfway there.
Unfortunately, it’s a tool that won’t be joining us on Yom Kippur.
These “intelligent” bots can search the Internet and digest a lot of helpful information, but one thing it most certainly cannot do is provide us with an honest self-assessment. It doesn’t tell me what I’ve learned through experiences both good and bad; it doesn’t share with me important feedback from others that helps me understand how to grow and improve; and it can’t provide me with new goals to focus on to become the person I want to be. To discover these things, there are a lot of questions that we can only ask ourselves and answer on our own.
If you’ve ever sat down to write a self-assessment of your job performance, you know it can be awkward and uncomfortable. Do I emphasize all the things I’ve done well and appear to be a braggart? Do I highlight my mistakes and perhaps lower myself in the esteem of others? Should I showcase what I know, or should I expose my vulnerability and own up to what I don’t know? One could ask ChatGPT the right approach to writing a self-assessment, but whether we take its guidance or not, an authentic assessment can only be based on our real experiences. Anything artificial will be just that.
The Jewish High Holiday season, culminating with Yom Kippur, helps us by dedicating time and providing meaningful structure to do comprehensive self-assessments—not only of our work performance both as Jews and citizens of the world but of how we’ve been in all aspects of our lives. Through self-reflection, prayer, seeking and giving forgiveness, our goal is to learn from our past mistakes and embrace the opportunity and inspiration to learn how we might do things differently.
On the one hand, this can feel scary and overwhelming. The prayer service includes our recitation of the Al Chaits, a confession to a long list of sins that we could have committed. That list includes intentional, unintended and even transgressions we might have done completely unknowingly, and if we accurately assess and are honest with ourselves, we aren’t just reading a list of possibilities, we are confessing to those things on the list that we’ve actually done wrong. And that type of assessment—one that really looks at everything we’ve done and the context—is something ChatGPT can’t really replace.
On the other hand, this confession (and the acts of repentance we are intended to do beforehand) unlocks the blessing of forgiveness, and in doing so, sets us free. Seen this way, Yom Kippur is joyful. It opens the door to new possibilities, and it reminds us that as long as we’re alive, we have the opportunity to make different choices and pursue new paths. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Who Is Man, “Being human means being on the way, striving, waiting, hoping.”
One of the ways we are “on the way” is to take every opportunity to continue our journey in continuing to grow as Jews and one of the best ways to do that is to commit to ongoing learning. By asking ourselves the right questions, we also allow ourselves to unlock the answers.
It is important to note that the Al Chaits aren’t meant to be recited in solitude, but rather in an undertone joined by those around us. The idea is that by admitting to at least some of these sins amid a community doing the same, we can find some comfort in knowing that we are not alone in sinning. The group-experienced prayer is not only meant to demonstrate attrition but also to come together to potentially motivate each other not to make the same mistake moving forward. The language in the prayer shows this by using the plural, Shechatanu (that we sinned), not Shechatati (that I sinned).
Similarly, outside of the Yom Kippur services, others on a similar path to ours serve as motivators for our continued development. We find at the Melton School of Adult Learning that many of our cohorts of learners continue to learn together for many years after their initial courses. They find learning together means growing together, through the enriching atmosphere of discussions and experiences that foster connectedness and build community.
This season reminds us of the important answers that lay deep inside of us when we unlock the right questions. It’s also a time of deep introspection and inspiration. Let’s use Yom Kippur 5784 as a springboard for growth.