HHD Reflection 5777 – Day 6

Robin Moss, Board of National Officers
High Holy Days 5777

Growing up in ULPSYNC/LJY-Netzer, I’m not sure I realised how many Jewish principles I absorbed just by singing my little heart out in song sessions. One particular favourite of mine, and I’m sure of many other Liberal Jews, begins thus: ‘mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveira goreret aveira’, which is translated as ‘one mitzvah leads to another, one sin leads to another’.

This comes from Pirkei Avot and I want to explore two possible explanations for why it might be true, not for the sake of cheap “self-help” advice, but as two realistic models for reflection over these Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe.

The first is what one might call the “Do As I Do” model. Humans are social animals, and we take our moral cues from those around us. An environment where others, particularly our peers, behave in a certain way creates a normalisation of that behaviour. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days recently with a friend and his wife who have two young children, one four and the other 18 months. The older child started throwing their food out of the bowl onto the floor, and almost immediately the younger one, seeing that this was ‘the done thing’, followed suit. Mum and Dad had a conversation with the four-year-old later in the day about the huge responsibility of being the older sister – she sets the tone for her sibling. Although as adults we like to think of ourselves as less susceptible to peer pressure, contemporary psychological research suggests we are probably kidding ourselves. If those around us perform acts of moral value, we are more likely to follow suit. Conversely, a community of turning a blind eye, of cutting ethical corners, of treating others as means rather than ends will exert a deleterious impact on any new members. The toleration of immorality in a very real sense is complicity in it. This is a social model of mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveira goreret aveira.

A second way to understand this is personal, what we might think of as the “Be The Change” model. We are creatures of habit. When working out how to behave in a given circumstance the vast majority of us, the vast majority of the time, do not engage in a conscious moral calculus, carefully weighing up the merits and demerits of a particular course of action. Rather, we have a set of gut feelings, moral rules of thumb and intuitive senses of what is right and wrong. These do not emerge from a vacuum; indeed, they are at base socialised by our communal environment (see above). But we are not total automatons. We can, and do, cultivate certain behaviours. By consciously choosing to act in one way rather than another, we slowly sculpt our character. Over many iterations – over months and years and decades – we become people of virtue or of vice.

Much of the liturgy of the High Holy Days is beautiful, but mysterious. The talk of sin, atonement, return, confession etc is challenging to the (post-)modern sensibility. For me, though, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are my annual chance to reflect on the kind of person I am and want to be, and the kind of community I am part of and want to be a part of.

Doing the right thing can and does lead to more good, both by shaping communal norms and sculpting one’s own character. But the reverse is true too. Our actions have consequences – for ourselves and for our communities.

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