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The Chief Rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah Message

By Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

On 23rd June 2019, something extraordinary happened in Turkey; something which provides an insight into how each of us might successfully navigate a society which feels more divided and despondent than it has for many years.

Increasingly, when faced with a major problem, public figures discover that they find acclaim by apportioning blame. Immediate, oversimplified solutions are promised and their impassioned rhetoric alone can be enough to generate widespread public support. Over time, those holding an opposing view feel compelled to resort to many of the same tactics in order to be heard and society becomes polarised. Those who might be cast as an obstacle to the success of one side or another are scapegoated. Before long, people become defined by their perceived ‘allegiances’ and a destructive culture of demonisation of ‘the other’ sets in.

Today, we call this populism. Its impact is felt across the globe, from here in the UK, right across Europe, the United States and even in Israel. These are times of disharmony, which many of us never believed we would see.

Citizens in every country are prompted to make a choice: Will we do the easy thing? Will we sit back and allow ourselves to be swept up by the dangerous currents of hostility to ‘the other’? Or, can we find a port somewhere in the storm where we can remain considered and temperate; where we can be discerning about truth and justice within our fragile world?

The signs thus far have been less than encouraging, but earlier this year a Turkish man, Ates Ilyas Bassoy, provided a flicker of light in the darkness.

Mr Bassoy had observed how actor, Robert De Niro had publicly insulted President Donald Trump at a high profile awards ceremony the previous year. His expletive-ridden remarks were greeted by a standing ovation, but they also served to motivate and embolden the President’s supporters. Not surprisingly, anger generated yet more anger. Mr Bassoy concluded that a more effective strategy would be one of what he called ‘radical love’ – to meet aggression with peace, insults with praise and hatred with love. To most, it sounded like a naïve – if honourable – approach, but he was provided with an opportunity to prove it could work when he became the campaign manager for a virtually unknown district mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu. Mr Imamoglu was to stand for Mayor of Istanbul against the might of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powerful party regime. Bassoy described his campaign strategy as having two simple rules: Ignore Erdogan and love those who love Erdogan.

Few people believed that his candidate stood any chance. After all, Istanbul had long been a stronghold of the ruling AKP party and President Erdogan had a large base of support in the Turkish capital. Astonishingly, on 23rd June this year, against all the odds, Ekrem Imamoglu was elected mayor of Istanbul, striking a blow for civility, selflessness and decency.

The lesson of this most unlikely political earthquake is that the port in the storm is not in fact beyond our reach, nor is it something that we must wait for others to provide. On the contrary, the answer is and has always been right under our noses.

Our societies can take a lesson from our Torah tradition:

דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום

“The Torah’s ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17)

It is within our power to break free from the cycle of polarisation. It begins by modelling what Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, referred to as ‘Ahavat Chinam’ – causeless love: making time to give of ourselves to others with no expectation of reward or reciprocity.

Our Sages taught: We become truly wise by learning from every person. We become truly mighty by conquering our own negative inclinations. We become truly honourable by honouring others and we become truly heroic by turning enemies into friends.

A highlight of our Yom Kippur services is the repetitive chanting of the 13 attributes of Hashem’s mercy. The Talmud explains that we do so in order to inspire us to emulate the ways of the Almighty: just as He is merciful, so too should we be merciful; just as He is kind, so too should we be kind. (Shabbat 133b).

Over the High Holy Day period, when we lower our heads for viduy (confession), we will admit to the sins of sneering, impertinence and obduracy; of disrespect, hard-heartedness and insincerity; of deception, tale-bearing and baseless hatred. Are these not among the most transgressed sins of the social media generation? In these times, when decency is no longer the norm and humility is mistaken for weakness, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur inspire us to buck the trend and to change ourselves so deeply that those around us cannot fail to be influenced by it. This is how the seeds for real global change are sown.

Valerie and I extend our heartfelt wishes to you all for a happy, peaceful and fulfilling New Year.

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