We Jews don’t believe in coincidences. On the recent day of Tisha B’Av, the plumes of smoke only a few miles away from my home in London spoke to me in a very tangible way. Watching humans act in the most base and immoral of ways in the streets was a grim reminder of the potential violence that underlies our society. Clearly, the veneer of “civilization” in our society can peel away in the blink of an eye. Who would have believed that the Germany of the early 20th century – cultural, educated, sophisticated, technologically advanced – could so easily have turned into the Third Reich?
These UK riots might have been fuelled by an “underprivileged” class, and in any riot there will always be ringleaders, as well as thieves who see an opportunity arise and grab a plasma TV. But we are seeing a cross-section of society participating – young and middle-aged, lower and middle-class, male and female, Asian, black and white.
It seems that people with perfectly clean records from stable backgrounds were simply in the right (or rather wrong) place at the right time and made a knee-jerk decision to get involved. The question is: Why?
In truth, this is not much different than what happens in all our lives (albeit usually in less extreme circumstances). An opportunity arises and we are put in a position of making a decision to either engage in something wrong (but very appealing), or to do the right thing and walk away.
We are all made up of a Godly soul and an animal soul. In the heat of a moment, it’s hard to know which will win out. When the animal inside of us flares up, it can be very hard to control. When the chips are down, we’d like to think we will act in a certain way – but we cannot be sure. Every person has that animal part and the more aware we are of its existence, the more likely we are to be ready when its impulse tugs hard upon us.
We ran out of space for all that was donated.
Then there is the other side – the Godly side. My organization, Tikun-UK, put out a call for the Jewish community to donate clothes and bedding for those who have been made homeless. Within 24 hours, we were running out of space for all that had been donated. And it was incredible to see the armies of people turning up, brooms in hand, to assist, making good the destruction that had been wrought.
The ultimate success of society depends on our ability to appreciate the nature of our choices and the challenges we face in making them. We need to have deep enough and strong enough reasons that – when faced with spur-of-the-moment decisions – we will choose Godliness over base animal passion.
I was once asked what I would do if someone held a gun to my head and told me to bow down to an idol or he would kill me. There is only one true answer to that question: “I don’t know.” Of course, I’d like to think that I have the strength of conviction to say that I would die for my values. But that’s all nice in theory. We don’t know what we are really made of until we have faced a test in actuality and passed it or failed it. As the Sages say, “Don’t trust yourself until the day you die.”
Lead by Example
The urgent message to me, as a Jew, is that we still have a very long way to go. We live in a seemingly comfortable world and we indeed have a great deal to be thankful for. But the core values don’t seem to have penetrated deeply enough. While we might know how to teach people to be great doctors, lawyers and accountants, we do not necessarily yet know how to teach them to be great human beings.
The riots gradually moved closer and closer to my neighborhood, but, thank God, finished a few miles away. Do I need to wait until they are on my doorstep until I wake up to the fact that our world is my responsibility? I know that I must contribute meaningfully to the solution, or I will have no one to blame but myself if I am swallowed whole by the problem. The police may have gained control of the streets but the problem has not gone away.
As a Jew and a rabbi, I feel a unique responsibility; we must reach out more, educate more, set higher standards for ourselves, and lead by example. On the wall of our educational centre, we have a quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
If not us, then who, and if not now, then when?