Thoughts on the challenges of being a chossid (or trying) in a modern world.
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Friday, 5 May 2017

The Economy, Jobs, Life Expectancy & Moshiach

In Jewish times of crisis, such as war or danger to Israel, we often think about and pray for Moshiach. I recall the Rebbe saying - perhaps during the Gulf War - that "der veld tzittered" (the world trembled with fear) and that these global events are indications that the arrival of Moshiach is imminent.

While we often look towards global geopolitical events (mostly the negative ones) and associate them with the birthpangs of the Messianic age, in the modern world, there are so many positive signs of Moshiach if only we look and take note.

I was at a sheva brochos shortly before Pesach, and a discussion turned to human life expectancy. Scientists have recently discovered the elements in DNA that cause cells to age, and how to stop this and even reverse it, and will shortly start testing this on humans. While this might seem like fantastic news, and a harbinger of the messianic prophecy בלע המות לנצח, as often happens in society the removal of one problem creates a new problem elsewhere. In this case, the problem is social: if people live forever, what would they do all day, especially after they retired and were no longer able to work?

As it happens, we don't need to wait for the advent of immortality to have to deal with this challenge - it's already happening today: technology is replacing jobs at an alarming rate. Manual tasks are being replaced by robots, and the economies of scale in huge factories mean less humans are required to deliver the same output. While countries embrace technology and automation, they are not ready for the social consequences of how people will manage all their extra leisure time.

The union movement is well away of this. Having fought years ago for the 40-hour working week (which is traditionally celebrated on May Day), they see the writing on the wall for jobs. Even when unemployment is low, there is simply not enough work to go around in many Western countries. Their solution: the 30-hour week or the 3-day weekend, Advocates suggest this will lead to more time spent with families and a more caring society.

We are blessed to live in a world of plenty. We have so much that charities are setup to take surplus food from restaurants and caterers and deliver them to people in need. Even in the Third World, poverty rates are steadily declining, and ambitious projects are underway to eradicate disease. All of this points to a future of what is called a post-scarcity economy - a society where there is plenty for everyone and minimal human labour required.

When things are bad, big thinkers dream of large scale solutions that will transform society for the better. Marxism and Communism emerged in the late 19th century as solutions to poverty and inequality. The challenge is to also think transformatively when things are going well. In the 1960s, people imagined a world where there was plenty for everyone, where money didn't exist, and man's pursuit was exploration. and they did this not from a place of need, rather in a world (and a part of the world) where the standard of living was good and getting better. I'm talking about the sci-fi classic Star Trek, One thing the show did not examine is what happens behind the scenes. If man is boldly going where no man has gone before, who is doing all the work? Who is paying for everything? This fascinating article examines this imagined world from an economic perspective.

Whether the imagined world of the future, or the world not so far in the future where the nature of work has changed completely, the social question remains: with all this extra leisure time, what will people do with it? Watch even more Netflix and Youtube?

The answer is simple, and is the the Haftorah of Achron Shel Pesach: כי מלאה הארץ דעה את יהוה כמים לים מכסים. In the future, all this 'surplus' leisure time as a result of immortality and the end of work as we know it will be for one purpose: to deepen our understanding of God and the spiritual realms.

This all came together for me at the Seudas Moshiach at the end of a wonderful Pesach program in the Gold Coast. Perhaps there's an extra significant in contemporary times to celebrating Moshiach in the final meal of eight days of festive eating and overindulgence?

While Moshiach quickly comes to mind when things are going bad, in modern times we must also look at all the good things around us and global trends that also clearly point to the imminent coming of Moshiach!

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