Monday, October 29, 2018
Listen to tonight's class on Parashat Hayei Sarah, "The 'Sighting' of a New Couple," here.
Follow along with the sources here.
Sunday, October 28, 2018
Listen to this morning's class on Ramhal's Derekh HaShem here.
Follow along with the source sheets here.
For further research:
Read our related devar Torah for Parashat VaEra here.
Read R. Dr. Norman Lamm's comprehensive "The Unity Theme and Its Implication for Moderns" here.
Friday, October 26, 2018
"Here I Am!"
Thoughts on VaYera 2018
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We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers – and with good reason. We have never looked for ourselves – so how are we ever supposed to find ourselves? (Friedrich Nietzsche)
In order for the trial to be authentic, it would necessitate that Avraham act totally within the limits of his free will. This is borne out by the not insignificant detail that Avraham was addressed by his personal name. (R. Avraham Y. Kook)
The formative years of Avraham’s life are bookended by parallel episodes. His first and last dialogues with God were each initiated by the command of lekh lekha – “go forth.” Both missions entailed separating from family – at first leaving his “land, birthplace and father’s home” (Ber. 12:2) and later parting with Yisshak at the Akedah (22:2). And each of the trials was accompanied by God’s subsequent promise of blessing and bountiful offspring.
Avraham is the personality in the Torah who is most often associated with hesed. He demonstrated that trait by caring for and mentoring his nephew Lot, begging Sarah not to send away Yishmael, and sitting at his tent’s entrance in search of needy travelers. Ironically, however, most of his life’s critical moments were actually characterized by separation from others. In a life framed by the famous departures of lekh lekha, Avraham was forcibly separated from his wife Sarah upon descent into Egypt, from Lot upon return to Canaan and from Yishmael when he finally settled down. What was God’s intended message to Avraham with those many separations?
Consider the Zohar’s unique explanation of God’s initial command to Avraham:
R. Shimon said: … ‘Lekh lekha’ – To perfect yourself. ‘From your land’ – From the place of dwelling within you, in which you consider the wisdom with which you were born. ‘To the land that I will show you’ – There it will be revealed to you that which you seek, the power that is appointed over it (the land), which is deep and hidden.
God’s repeated command of lekh lekha entailed more than a simple call to “go forth” (lekh). It called for a courageous act of individuality (lekha). He challenged Avraham to “go for himself,” forcing him to struggle through the difficult process of identifying himself. “This verse is addressed to every person,” the great kabbalist R. Moshe Zacuto wrote. It teaches us to “Search and discover the root of your soul, so that you can fulfill it and restore it to its source; its essence.”
Albert Einstein once marveled at the potential for individuality: “To see with one’s own eyes, to feel and judge without succumbing to the suggestive power of the fashion of the day, to be able to express what one has seen and felt in a trim sentence or even in a cunningly wrought word – is that not glorious?” But the best-selling author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s expressed the difficulties that are posed to self-expression by of our lives as social beings:
It is relatively easy to become involved with a job, to enjoy the company of friends, to be entertained in a theater or at a concert. But what happens when we are left to our own devices? Alone, when the dark night of the soul descends, are we forced into frantic attempts to distract the mind from its coming? Or are we able to take on activities that are not only enjoyable, but make the self grow?
Although Avraham was naturally inclined to surround himself with others – as a mentor, guide and leader, God time and again forced him to distance himself from them and grapple with the important questions: Who am I? and What are my true convictions and beliefs?
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l reflected upon the unique challenge posed by the modern world to our self-identity and expression. “Urban life has contributed to the anonymity and loneliness-experience of the individual,” he wrote, “What man fails to comprehend is not the world around him, but the world within him, particularly his destiny, and the needs of which he is supposed to have a clear awareness.” Our constant thought and speech about “what we need” is misleading. We misunderstand ourselves. And that leads us in the wrong direction along the route of life. R. Soloveitchik explained: “Man responds quickly to the pressure of certain needs, not knowing whose needs he is out to gratify…adoption of a wrong table of needs is a part of the human tragic destiny.”
The challenge is real. Distracted by others, we lose sight of our true identity. How can we regain our focus and discover the inner-self that lies beneath? R. Norman Lamm once remarked: “I have never known a really creative person who did not precede the creative act with at least a moment of profound, thoughtful solitude.” He explained that our creative spirit is forged “in the silence of the mind when the outside world is shout out.” In the presence of others it would be difficult for Avraham to distinguish his individual thoughts from those of the group. In solitude, his true self could emerge.
Approaching Avraham for his final challenge at the Akedah, God prefaced the command by calling out his name: “Avraham!” (22:1) He challenged Avraham to answer the call of his true self-identity. And Avraham courageously responded “Hineni – Here I am!” His single-word response reflected his confidence in completing the ultimate test of his life’s mission – self-identity. “One is tempted to suggest that Abraham, by responding as he does, almost passes the test even before it begins,” Leon Kass wrote, “he knows who is calling and before whom he stands and he makes himself fully available to a source beyond himself.”
As the frightening encounter atop the mountain neared its end, God’s messenger reappeared to Avraham and addressed him: “Avraham, Avraham!” Avraham then understood that his life’s mission was complete. Having achieved a genuine self-identity, he became the model for future seekers of God. And so, he confidently responded “Hineni – Here I am!”
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Sunday, October 21, 2018
Friday, October 19, 2018
Thoughts on Lekh Lekha 2018
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Is there a man who travels and does not know to what destination he travels? (Midrash)
He who has attained to only some degree of freedom of mind cannot feel other than a wanderer on the earth – though not as a traveler to a final destination: for this destination does not exist. (Friedrich Nietzsche)
I love to travel but I hate to arrive. (Albert Einstein)
We read about Avraham’s initial journey at the end of Parashat Noah:
And Terah took Avram his son and Lot son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abrahm, and he set out with them from Ur Casdim toward the land of Canaan… (11:31)
His travel contrasted with the Torah’s preceding episode of Migdal Bavel:
…And it happened as they journeyed from the East they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there … And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” (11:2,4)
Unlike his surrounding society’s attempt to settle, Avraham was determined to move.
Parashat Lekh Lekha continues the story of Avraham’s journeys, as God then commanded that he “Go forth” from his familiar habitat toward a land which He would show (12:1). Avraham’s life as a journeyman had thus begun. He soon descended to Egypt during famine (12:10), fulfilled God’s repeated commands of “Rise, walk about the land” (13:17) and “Walk in My presence and be blameless” (17:1), and ultimately rose to the occasion of “Go forth to the land of Moriah” (22:2). Significantly, it was upon these very paths that Avraham encountered God. In a constant search for the Almighty during his lifetime, Avraham would find Him – learning about God’s ways and understanding His essence – along those desolate trails of his travels.
How did Avraham’s “journeys into the unknown” lead him to God?
Consider the recurrent theme of movement in many of our common expressions regarding thought: We “let our thoughts wander,” while “thinking on our feet” and “arriving at a conclusion.” John Kaag explained: “These are no simple figures of speech, but reflect a type of mental openness that can be achieved only on the move.” Noting the words of the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “I never do anything but when walking, the countryside is my study,” Kaag remarked: “The history of philosophy is largely the history of thought in transit.”
By marching away from the world that he knew and into one that he did not, Avraham’s eyes and mind were opened to a greater understanding of God and His world. R. Zvi Grumet elaborated:
Abram’s search for the place is not a test of his obedience to God, it is an essential element of how he will become who he will become. The search for, and ultimately the discovery of, the land, is empowering. Abram is not shown the land; he must figure out how to discern it.
Indeed, even prior to any specific instruction from God, he had detected the mistake of the builders of Migdal Bavel. He understood that their passion for stability would lead to a stagnant life of stunted growth. And so, he began a life of discovery through movement.
Avraham’s life teaches us about the importance of constant movement in our lives. It shows that the hidden aspects of life can only be found upon the paths of our personal journeys of lekh lekha.
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Listen to yesterday's class on Masekhet Megilah 19b, on the topic of "Hearing the Megilah from a Deaf Person, with a Hearing Aide or a Microphone," here.
Follow along with the source sheets here.
Friday, October 12, 2018
The Sound of Silence
Thoughts on Noah 2018
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Setting out to restart humanity after the flood, Noah encountered an unfamiliar world. The world he had previously known was created by God’s words and continuously sustained by His direct speech to mankind. But Noah no longer heard that voice. And as he searched for direction in an empty land, God’s explicit advice – which had once guided his every decision – was gone.
And Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself within his tent.
In his sad state of confusion, Noah drank himself to self-exposure. The lack of clarity which defined his new situation – a reality so familiar to us all – was unbearable for him.
David Gelernter commented on our own difficulty at discerning God’s true will in a world marked by His silence. He wrote:
That still, small voice you hear: is it the genuine voice of God, or merely the human stirrings of your all-too-human mind? The image you have arrived at: is it a sign (like the burning bush) of God’s presence? Or only a strange dream?
Indeed, most of our spiritual struggles stem from that perplexing “silence” of the world we inhabit. Our lives are overcome by stress and anxiety on a continuous search upon roads that are not clearly marked. They resemble Noah’s challenge after the flood. How can we succeed?
In the opening passage to his Mishneh Torah, HaRambam famously described the fundamental missvah of “yediat HaShem” – knowledge of God. In contrast to the opinion of other Jewish theologians who stressed “emunah be-HaShem” – belief in God, HaRambam never mentions that concept. The classical explanation for his omission is that HaRambam found emunah to be superficial and incomplete. He posited that the simple acceptance of God forms a much weaker connection than actual knowledge of Him. Some scholars have argued, however, for an alternate definition of emunah. They render it inseparable from knowledge in our connection to Him. Referring to a person as ne-eman – from the same root as emunah, for example, implies not a blind faith in the individual but rather a strength of connection – a reliability. Emunah, then, is an integral component of our relationship with God. Although the foundations of that bond are built upon knowledge, their stability draws from emunah. During those all-too-familiar “Noah moments” of silence and vulnerability in our lives, we must turn to emunah in order to sustain the strong base of knowledge that we have built.
Our spiritual ambitions in this life of silence, however, must stretch beyond the realm of mere prevention. Philosopher Erling Kagge articulated the depth inherent in the silence of our relationships. He wrote: “Without the tenderness that can follow peace and quiet, it is difficult to sense the nuances in a loving relationship, to understand one another.” Indeed, speech is often used as a defense mechanism to avoid the various truths of a relationship. It is the piercing “sound of silence” that exposes all that really exists between one and another. It strengthens our general consciousness and draws out levels of perception and understanding that are often overlooked in a world of constant speech.
I distinctly remember the time that I visited an elderly talmid hakham at his home in the Bronx where he was sitting shivah for his wife. Stepping into his modest living room, I was immediately overcome by the quiet that pervaded. I found my seat amongst the many guests in the room and stared awkwardly at the man in utter silence for a full half hour. As I left the home, however, I realized that by simply observing the facial expressions and demeanor of the mourner I had learned more about his wife’s impact upon his life than any words may have expressed.
Faced by the daunting challenge of silence after the flood, Noah’s feelings of insecurity drove him to the embarrassing state of drunkenness. That same world of quiet which he encountered, however, is the one we continue to inhabit. Drawing strength from emunah during our most difficult moments, those enigmatic “sounds of silence” in our relationship with God are the ironic bearers of potential growth.
Tuesday, October 9, 2018
Monday, October 8, 2018
The Real & The Ideal
Thoughts on Noah 2016
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God blessed Noah and his sons shortly after they emerged from the ark, instructing them to “Be fruitful and multiply” (9:1). The initial words of this blessing are eerily reminiscent of the identical statement issued by God to Adam and Hava immediately following their creation (1:28). The story of Noah similarly concludes with a “Table of Nations” (10:1-32), which is again reminiscent of the genealogical list that follows the creation story (5:1-32). The vision of a “new creation,” crafted in the image of an initially failed one, thus emerges at the end of Parashat Noah.
Carefully examining the subsequent words of God’s respective blessings in each of these instances, however, reveals that the two “creations” are not quite as similar as perhaps expected. Consider the blessing to Adam and Hava: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth” (1:28), and that to Noah and his sons: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. And the dread and fear of you shall be upon all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the heavens, in all that crawls on the ground and in all the fish of the sea. In your hand they are given” (9:1-2). Whereas the “initial creation” described man’s future conquest and dominion of the world and its creatures, the “second creation” envisioned his intimidation of them.
The blessing to Adam and Hava continued: “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree that has fruit bearing seed, yours they will be for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens and to all that crawls on the earth, which has the breath of life within it, the green plants for food” (1:29-30). Consider, again, the contrast to Noah and his sons: “All stirring things that are alive, yours shall be for food, like the green plants, I have given all to you” (9:3). Whereas Adam and Hava joined the animal kingdom in their permitted consumption of the land for nutrition, Noah and his sons were permitted consumption of the animals for their sustenance.
Why did God change His blessing and mission to man from the “first” to “second” creation?
Noticing this shift from the vegetarianism of Adam in Gan Eden to the permitted consumption of animal meat of Noah after the flood, several medieval scholars developed the notion of vegetarianism as a moral ideal. Their conception of this ideal lay not in a concern of the welfare of animals, but in the potential development of negative character traits (such as meanness and cruelty) latent in their slaughter and consumption. R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook similarly viewed vegetarianism as an ideal, yet cautioned against the adoption of vegetarianism as a norm of human conduct prior to the coming of Mashiah. While the heightened moral awareness of the messianic era will effectively return mankind to its original state in Gan Eden and appropriately restore a vegetarian norm, Rav Kook argued against its standard implementation during any prior period.
We might thus distinguish between the Torah’s depiction of the ideal in the “initial creation,” and its recognition of and concession to reality in the “second creation.” In the related words of Leon R. Kass: “The new world order takes human beings as they are, not as they might be.” An ideal world commissions man with its peaceful conquest and dominion; a realistic one acknowledges and accepts his intimidating force over nature.
Let us now consider the final statements of God in His blessing to Noah: “And from humankind, from every man’s brother, I will require human life. He who sheds human blood by humans his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made humankind” (9:5-6). God herein suggested a system of retributive justice: one who causes another’s death shall be put to death. Why was this concept only introduced now? Why weren’t Adam and Hava similarly warned and instructed following their creation?
Commenting on the sixth command that “You shall not murder,” the Zohar noted the unique ta’amim (cantorial signs) of the Torah reading, and exegetically suggested that the word “lo – you shall not” be conceptually separated from the subsequent word, “tirsah – murder.” The Zohar thus comments, “Had the ta’am not separated (between the two words) there would have been no remedy for the world, for it would have been forbidden to put any soul to death – even one who transgressed the Torah…” Though the Torah in many instances explicitly sanctions penalty by death for various transgressions, this passage is perhaps hinting at an ideal existence wherein causing another’s death would not exist under any circumstances. It is an existence which must remain an abstract ideal, as the realistic existence of civility in this world is dependent upon man’s fear of punishment for his actions.
The death punishment for causing the death of another was thus inappropriate for the “ideal vision” of the initial creation. It was instead introduced after the creation and existence of the “real world” that followed the flood.
This difference between Adam and Noah is perhaps hinted at by Rashi in two separate midrashic statements that he mentioned in his commentary to the Torah. Defining the rationale for Noah’s name, Rashi (5:29) cited from the Midrash: “Until Noah appeared they did not have implements for plowing, and he devised such implements for them.” Noah’s practical invention of the plow stands in stark distinction to Adam’s method for growth of crops, as explained by Rashi: “When Adam came and realized that they [the rain] are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them and they came down and the trees and types of vegetation sprouted.” Whereas Adam’s “ideal existence” sprouted seeds by means of prayer to God, Noah’s “practical existence” necessitated the invention and usage of the plow.
The Torah’s depiction of an “ideal creation” which could not be sustained remains an aspiration. Similar to the prophets’ description of the days of Mashiah, the initial creation reminds us of “what it ought to be like,” and sets an appropriate goal for accomplishment. Steven Schwartzschild thus commented on yemot ha-Mashiah: “When men ask themselves how to behave or, indeed, what the standards are to be of their proper behavior, the Messianic end defines the means by which that end can and is to be attained.” His comments ring equally true regarding our apprehension of the initial creation era.
Though our existence in this world is dictated by the realistic norms created in the aftermath of the flood, we must nonetheless aspire for the realization of the ideals reflected in the history of Gan Eden and the future of yemot ha-mashiah.
See, e.g. Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966), pg. 56. This vision is further sharpened by the recent scholarly demonstration of a consistent parallelism between the flood narrative in Noah and that of creation in Bereshit. See R. Yitzchak Etshalom’s Between the Lines of the Bible vol. I (Jerusalem 2015), pg. 60-62, and R. David Forhman’s videos at: www.alephbeta.org/course/view/noah-the-flood-and-the-rainbow.
Thoughts on Bereshit 2016
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R. Yehoshua ben Levi said…No one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study. (Avot 6:2)
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. (Thomas Jefferson)
* * * *
President Barack Obama recently commented on the pace of the current progress in technology, noting, “In the seven-and-a-half years of my presidency, self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live.” Indeed, a blue paper released by Morgan Stanley predicted that everyone in the United States will have a self-driving car by 2026. This impending reality has caused many to seriously consider the various benefits and losses that it may bring to our society.
Among the many encouraging predictions for self-driving cars is their ability to open the roads to an elderly population currently incapable of self-mobilizing, to eliminate the dangers of drunk-driving, to limit environmental pollution, and increase our time for productive activity by cutting down on traffic.
At the same time, however, many fear the loss of certain freedoms classically afforded by our “lives on the road.” Consider, for example, the close association of the age when a teenager transitions into a stage of independence with the attainment of his or her driver’s license. Cars represent our ability to go wherever we want, whenever we want, and however we want.
Indeed, the rehearsal transcripts from Henry Ford II’s propaganda film Freedom of the American Road said it best: “Our ability to travel around this country in our own cars, anywhere we want, is a special kind of freedom, a unique freedom people have here in America, not quite like travel anywhere else in the world.” Ford further remarked, at the onset of the film, “We Americans always have liked plenty of elbowroom – freedom to come and go as we please in this big country of ours.” Several sociology pundits therefore fear that the rise of self-driving cars will bring an acute loss of the various freedoms represented by our “control of the steering wheel.”
Reminded of the several negative aspects of self-driven car transportation – the traffic jams, the fatal accidents and the pollution – author Robert Moor recently noted the irony that just as cars “came into their own as icons of freedom, driving began to feel less freeing.” He further elaborated, “The country’s new, deadening infrastructure of suburbs and highways made it very difficult to live comfortably without a car, and also considerably less fun to live with one.”
* * * *
Reflecting upon Moor’s astute analysis, I was reminded of a recent conversation that I had with a student, on the topic of Gan Eden. We were discussing the serpent’s famous explanation of the “benefits” of eating from etz ha-da’at: “For God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods knowing good and evil” (Bereshit 3:5), and I cited the explanation of the late Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod z”l, that “knowers of good and evil” means beings who make autonomous judgments of good and evil based on their own criteria of right and wrong. Hava’s ability to see that the tree “was good” (Bereshit 3:6) marked the first time that anyone other than God made a value judgment. Wyschogrod explained that eating from the tree did not cause them to become “knowers,” but rather represented their becoming autonomous “knowers.”
I detected a similar thought in HaRambam’s Hilkhot Teshvuah (5:1), where he wrote that man’s freedom of choice is rooted in God’s statement following Adam’s eating from etz ha-da’at: “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil…” HaRambam’s reading of that source seems to suggest that man’s autonomy lay at the core of eating from that tree.
The student was markedly annoyed by this explanation. He argued that it skews a proper understanding of life by idealizing one of obligation and compulsion and shunning the pursuit of freedom. He asked how it could be that our intuitive concept of freedom as an ideal could run counter to the ultimate will of the Torah.
I suggested that the story of Gan Eden and the sin of eating from the etz ha-da’at is specifically aimed at challenging our conceptions of an ideal freedom. Consider the immediate effects of eating from the tree: “And the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves loincloths” (Bereshit 3:7). Indeed, the subsequent dialogue between God and Adam (v. 8-11) further highlights the immediate association between their eating from the tree and cognizance of their nakedness. Explaining this “revelation,” HaRambam (Moreh Nevukhim I:2) distinguished between “rational knowledge” (muskalot) and “accepted conventions” (mefursamot). While one may describe a public show of nakedness as “bad,” he cannot describe the notion of the earth being flat as “bad,” but rather as “false.” By eating from the tree Adam and Hava effectively discarded their ability to decide in a purely rational way – in the realm of “true” and “false,” and were now dependent upon the thoughts and beliefs of others – in the realm of “good” and “bad.”
This analysis, in turn, returns us to a fundamental issue underlying the story of Gan Eden: the freedom of man. The current debate regarding the future of self-driving cars is instructive. Much as Robert Moor revealed an ironic loss of specific freedoms inherent in the attainment of others, so too does the Torah set forth in the story of Gan Eden. While Adam and Hava may have discovered an ability to autonomously decide by eating from etz ha-daat, they concurrently lost their freedom to decide rationally, and were forced to reckon with the thoughts and beliefs of others. Alternatively, using the words and terminology of famed social psychologist Erich Fromm, Adam and Hava’s attained a “freedom from the sweet bondage of paradise” but were left empty of a “freedom to self-governance and individual realization.”
God may have in fact hinted at this paradoxical reality during His initial instructions to Adam:
And God commanded Adam saying, “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.” (2:16-17)
The statement’s language seems odd. God first granted Adam the freedom to eat from every fruit of the garden, but at once forbade him indulgence from the etz ha-da’at. His wording suggested that the prohibition of eating from etz ha-da’at existed not as an exception to Adam’s liberty, but as an addition to it. God was thus hinting that true freedom consists of rational thinking – “eating from all the fruit of the garden,” which can only exist when accompanied by the restriction of “From the tree of knowledge…you shall not eat.”
The Hakhamim further sharpened their conception of the “freedom” inherent in Torah, when they furthermore detailed the “death” that befalls those who abandon it, in an intriguing Midrash:
And what did God have in mind? This is what He had in mind: every nation and kingdom that would come and accept the Torah would exist eternally. As it is written, “The tablets were the work of God and the writing is the writing of God, carved (harut) on the tablets.” Don’t read it as harut (“carved”), but rather as herut (“freedom”). There is no truly free person but he who is not ruled by the Angel of Death.
Bearing in mind the stated punishment for eating from etz ha-da’at –For on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die (2:17) – the Rabbis’ intent becomes clear. Although the prohibition of eating from the tree and the various missvot ha-Torah may seem thoroughly restrictive, they are in fact the building blocks and structure of true freedom.
* * * *
R. Yehoshua ben Levi said…No one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study. While study of the Torah and adherence to its words seemingly engenders anything but “freedom,” R. Yehoshua ben Levi hinted at the irony inherent in that concept, and encouraged us to rethink the matter.
“Barack Obama: Self-driving, yes, but also safe,” Op-Ed for the Pittsburg-Post Gazette, Sept. 19, 2016, available at: post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2016/09/19/Barack-Obama-Self-driving-yes-but-also-safe/stories/201609200027.