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It’s time for a reality check!

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil

In the year 5776 what kind of a world are we living in? Given historical trends, would you say the world has become more violent or peaceful?

War seems more widespread than ever; Israel, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine,  Afghanistan, etc. Violence on the streets seems to be growing too. Yet in 2011 Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker concluded that we are actually living in one of the most peaceful times in history.

Pinker pointed out that during World War II, the human population lost 300 of every 100,000 people each year. During the Korean War it was in the 20s, before dropping into the teens during the Vietnam era. In the 1980s and 1990s, it fell into the single digits. For most of the 21st century it’s been below one war death per 100,000 people per year.

Lately however there has been an uptick globally as a result of the civil war in Syria, doubling from 0.5 per 100,000 to 1. But Pinker says “you can’t compare 1 with 15 or 25 or 300.”

This finding has sparked a rigorous debate between some of the world’s most prominent thinkers.

Compared to our anarchic beginnings, levels of violence are at an all-time low and the “Long Peace” after the Second World War is, for now, still with us.

But when confronted with tragic events such as those in Israel, Tunisia, Kuwait, France and many more, Pinker’s conclusion offers little solace.

There are many that argue that we are living in changing times and things are starting to get out of control. What could be the cause of this perceived or real increase in violence? What should we be focussing on to change the words path to a peaceful future?

The mouth is one of our most potent weapons. Our world was created at the word of G-d, to teach the power of communication. It is in this week’s Parasha that we read how the Presence of G-d Almighty descended on Har Sinai, as the entire united people witnessed the giving of the Ten Commandments.

The world was created with G-d’s word and the Torah is the word of G-d.

Our sages (Yalkut Shimoni 250) relate that the entire Torah was included in the Ten Commandments and the Ten Commandments were uttered in one word. Before we begin our journey as a nation we are taught the importance of speech, and in the first commandment we are taught the importance of belief in One G-d  that is everlasting and Just.

The sixth commandment relates “You shall not murder.” (20:13)

Note the Torah does not say do not kill (Taharog), rather it says (loosely translated) do not murder – Lo Tirtsach.

If “You shall not kill” were the proper translation, no person who took the Ten Commandments seriously could kill in self-defence, even if it meant loss of the threatened person’s life, or could kill in warfare, even if his or her country were attacked. There are therefore times when we are allowed to kill, but there is no such time when it comes to Retsach – murder.

The Talmud teaches that he who destroys a single soul is as if he destroyed an entire world.

Each of us is a world unto ourselves, intersecting with the worlds of other people – parents, kids, other relatives, friends, but there is a world that exists that we are at the centre of. Murder someone and you have destroyed that world, and damaged the worlds of others who would have been influenced by that world.

Rabbi Akiva states: “Beloved is a man, for he was created in the image of God… Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious vessel (the Torah)…”

G-d tells us that we are to be “My own treasure from among all peoples; for the earth is Mine. And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation…” (Shemot 19:5-6)

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, the great Italian Sage explains this further:

“The entire human race is more precious to me than the lowly animals… but you will be my ‘kingdom of priests’ to help the human race understand and to teach it to call upon the Almighty in prayer and to worship Him in unison. That is the future role of Israel. ”

Our role is to lead by example. Utilise that powerful mouth in prayer, worship the Almighty and help the world understand.

Yet the world we live in has changed dramatically over the past few years.

With the conception of the internet, and global reach of media together with Facebook, twitter and the ease to video real live barbaric scenes we have entered a new frightening age.

The younger generation that is growing up into this is being affected on a daily basis.

When a terrorist acts with barbarism it is because they have lost their ability to view their victim as a human created in the ‘image of G-d.’

In 1997, high-school student David Merrell conducted an interesting experiment to examine the influence of various kinds of music.

He built a maze and put some mice through it. The time it took for the mice to complete the maze was about ten minutes. He then divided the mice into three groups, and started to play music to two of the three groups for ten hours a day. To one group he played classical music, to the other, hard rock. Then, at the end of three weeks he put all the mice through the maze three times a week for three weeks.

The control group who had heard no music, managed to cut five minutes off their original time. The classical mice reduced their time by eight and a half minutes; and the hard rock mice took twenty minutes longer to find their way through the maze.

Unfortunately the project had to be cut short because, as David said, “all the hard rock mice killed each other. None of the classical mice did that at all.”

When the Bnei Yisrael exited the sea, they burst out in praise and song of G-d. There was unity and the spiritual high led them forward. Songs have the ability to impact. The holy words can penetrate the soul.

Yet songs can also be destructive in nature. If the lyrics are immoral then it can make people like mice subconsciously go mad.

If you get your view of the world from the news, you’re always going to think that we’re living in violent times. But even worse, it will eventually affect your habits. Things that were once terrible to view, now become the norm and as a society we are lowering our level.

Torah brings life, its keeps us on a just path. Keep strong in the face of this social media manipulation, value the life of others as we were all created in the image of G-d. Through unity the world can be a better place.

Sometimes we need to switch off in order to switch on.

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