Rabbi Richard Jacobi
11 October 2016
The Torah portion that those of us gathered here on Saturday morning studied ended with a verse which detained us for some time. It stated: “The secret things belong to the Eternal One our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
The separation of secret things (תֹרָתְּסִנַּה) from the (לתְגִנַּה) things revealed is an appropriate one for us to consider this Yom Kippur. On this Day of Atonement, we are urged by the spirit and the liturgy of the day to consider not only our words and our deeds, which are revealed, but also our thoughts and our feelings, which are hidden.
Tonight, with the darkness outside, seems the time to consider with you those aspects of us that are hidden. What does Yom Kippur mean for our thoughts and our feelings, our inner self? Tonight, I am very aware that we arrive here with much to occupy our minds and challenge our souls. As human beings, whose evolution from our pre-homo sapiens form took thousands of years, the radical increase in the quantity and immediacy of information is challenging. Brains that coped with a lifetime of information in the sixteenth century get as much information in one Sunday newspaper. Many of us here are old enough to have been given homework at school including the instruction: “Find out all you can about…” We are not designed to cope with such a rapid and radical transformation.
And it’s not just affecting us more mature, older people. The young are under pressures that we could not conceive of. The Mental Health Federation suggests that one in five UK teenagers will suffer a mental health disorder in any given year. 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
Last night, the London Eye was turned purple in support of World Mental Health Day. The global Light Up Purple drive was set up in memory of Canadian teenager Amanda Todd, who killed herself on 10th October 2012. The 15-year-old brought the problem of cyber bullying to mainstream attention after she posted a video on YouTube in which she told her story with handwritten signs. Her story was one of cruelty from others, and it was a story told unspoken. What is going on in our society that means young and older people who have mental health problems cannot reach out for and receive help?
Yesterday’s World Mental Health Day focussed on the importance of psychological and mental health support for all. Tonight, I want us to focus our attention on our attitudes and beliefs, our thoughts and feelings. If you feel mentally healthy, then please listen on; if you don’t, then please relax now and feel free to approach me later.
In our prayers, we suggest that our sins in these internal matters are between each person and God, because it is only when we speak or act that our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs affect others. A prejudice is a thought; discrimination or abuse is the word or deed that flows from it. We cannot avoid having prejudices, but we can avoid turning such attitudes and beliefs into speech or action.
One goal for any faith community has to be to foster good mental health for all its members and their children. As the Mental Health Foundation states: “Good mental health is not simply the absence of a diagnosable mental health problem; it is this state in which we can thrive, spending quality time with our loved ones, while coping with and managing change and uncertainty. Being unwell can rob us of this irreplaceable time to thrive and enjoy life.” Many things will inevitably be shaken up as Woodford and Bet Tikvah cease their independent synagogal existences and a new community is formed. We have a tremendous opportunity to form a centre, a beacon of well being, to allow into the open what is often painfully hidden through the taboos surrounding addictions, depression, anxiety and so many other mental health concerns. We must continue and grow our work and campaigning on mental health as a synagogue and as a movement.
Just yesterday, the killer of Dr. Jeroen Ensink was sentenced to indefinite detention in a hospital in a tragedy that owes much to our societal failings in terms of understanding, funding and giving priority to mental health provision. Dr. Ensink was stabbed to death on the way to post some cards announcing his baby daughter’s birth, by a young man in a psychotic rage. The 24-year old stabber had had charges dropped after being arrested for possession of a 30-inch blade and then for attacking and biting the arresting officer. 11% of UK homicides are committed by mental health patients. Dr. Ensink’s widow, with her fatherless baby daughter, is an inspiring exemplar of dignity and her questioning of how someone with the killer’s history of mental health problems was not in a secure unit should be strongly supported.
To face up to all this, we have to overcome our fears and our prejudices. We have to be willing, each and everyone of us sitting here tonight to conduct the cheshbon hanefesh – the self-examination, the searching of the soul – to face ourselves as we are. That is our task tonight.
In writing this sermon, for the first time, I came to an understanding that I can live with of why our Torah and tradition speak so much of the fear of God. As we are asked in the book of Deuteronomy: “And now, Israel, what is it that the Eternal One your God requires of you?”
The answer begins with: “That you will fear the Eternal One your God”.
Why does the answer start like that? I now think the explanation is, as follows: when our fear of God outweighs our fear of humanity, then we act according to our consciences and in a considered fashion. Then, the rest of the verse from Deuteronomy chapter ten follows: “To walk in God’s ways, to love and serve the Eternal One your God with all your heart and soul.”
However, when the fear of humanity and what other people might do to us outweighs our fear of God, then we are in trouble. Our baser instincts come to the fore, our prejudices surface, and we deny our full humanity. When, for us men, the banter of the ‘locker room’ infects our moral compass; when for any of us, the worst xenophobic rhetoric starts sounding appealing, then our moral compass is being pulled awry by the fear of humanity. This is what our Talmudic teachers meant when they taught: “Everything is in the hand of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven” (Meg. 25a; Ber. 33b).
Tomorrow morning, we will be confronted by the liturgy and by the Torah reading with a choice – between life and good, on the one hand, and death and evil, on the other. In the calm of the synagogue, we know which way to choose. In the hubbub of a scary world, with images, information, and impressions that can all too easily overwhelm us, the choice becomes more blurred and confused. We might not stop to understand those who need and warrant our support. We might rush to judge prejudicially others who don’t look, talk or behave as we’d expect. We might dim the beacon of light that we and our community should hold up that encourages the faint-hearted.
Tonight, if we feel mentally healthy, is the time to examine our souls – our feelings, our emotions, our prejudices, our thoughts, our beliefs – in order that tomorrow we can complete our atonement. Tonight, with the echoes of Kol Nidre still fresh in our ears, we need to listen to the voice of conscience and prepare to use better words and behave better in the year ahead. May the fear of Heaven guide us in this examination.
More sermons & pieces about the High Holy Days
Watch Rabbi Charley Baginsky on BBC’s Sunday Morning Live21 September 2020 – 3 Tishri 5781
Download or order pre-recorded High Holy Days services15 September 2020 – 26 Elul 5780
Bring a global justice perspective to your Sukkot14 September 2020 – 25 Elul 5780
High Holy Days 2020 – service information and resources31 August 2020 – 11 Elul 5780
More HHD Pieces
Share this Thought for the High Holy Days