Rabbi René Pfertzel
Yom Kippur – 9 September 2019
We have a choice. We always have a choice.
We have a choice between taking the road on the left, or the path on the right.
We have the choice to confront our fears, our shortcomings, our flaws, or to indulge ourselves in self-justification or self-righteousness.
We have the choice to confront the reality of our world, and to talk openly about what, or who is divisive in our society.
We have the choice to make the correct choices the ones that enable proper social interactions with our fellow human beings, to enhance the quality of our communal and social life, and to ensure that no one is left out of forgotten.
After decades of optimism and a sense of progress, our western world is becoming increasingly confusing, bewildering, and deeply worrisome. Psychologists now recognised that there are anxieties related to Brexit, to global warming, and to the use of social media.
Our world of Instagram and Facebook is putting the self to a pedestal that can hardly hide the sheer uncertainties surrounding our lives. Mental health has become a great concern for parents, and carers, and many of us experience some sort of mental health issues in our lives. Of course, that is nothing new. Philosophers say that human beings are confronted with the ultimate fear of finiteness of life, of the knowledge that our time is limited, and the unknown that death is. Some people even say that religions were a mean of the past to give sense to our life by explaining why we must die and what happens after we are gone. Today, people of faith, at least in our Progressive corner of Judaism, understanding religion and religious life as a way to give meaning to life, and not to death. We will die a good death if we lived a good life. Reaching the end of our days when we had a full life will make the passage easier.
Beyond the hardship and challenges of life, that generate this anxiety that is part of life, there are three factors that generate, in my humble opinion, great and unnecessary anxiety: Brexit, global warming, and social media.
More than three years into the referendum result, nothing is sorted yet. We are still supposed to crash out the EU without a deal. The debate around Brexit has shifted from a conversation about the EU and the European construction to a profound identity crisis that this country is currently undergoing. More and more policy makers talk about difficult decisions, painful, or harmful moves, necessary suffering to reach some glorious shores that exist only in the delusional minds of some extremists. We know now that Brexit is an exercise of self-harm that this country is inflicting on itself, such an incredible move for a country that has been known to be a pragmatic country immune to extremist ideologies. Those who promise blood, sweat and tears, but the final victory in the end, as did Winston Churchill some eighty years ago, are precisely those who won’t be affected by this suffering. They are safe and wealthy enough to be protected by their own decisions. And the rest of us, the vast majority of the country, will have to live on with that scar for decades to come. However ready we may be – and personally, I am not, because I don’t know how -, when the stuff hits the fan, we will suffer. Brexit has become this divisive issue that cut across families, friends, political parties and communities. What choice do we have here? To overcome divisions, to accept that this issue is out of our hands now, whether you are leaver or remainer.
Global warming creates anxiety and guilt. We are already living the effect of global warming, and as far as I can remember, we’ve always been told about the deadly effects of our life style. It seemed far away, and it is becoming real. We feel powerless, because our entire life style generates global warming. Will it really make a difference if I walk or cycle here than using my car of public transport? Of course, all these little drops will add, and the streams of our little decisions will become a river, but is it enough? The answer can only be political and global, and entail a complete shift in our political and economical system. And we are known as a species to be bad at working together for the common good.
Social media have had two major effects: they have generated an inflation of the self and the ego, and an increase in fake news and the creation of a post-truth mentality.
We have many choices: we can choose to get proper and documented information, instead of listening lobbies with self-aggrandizing agenda. We can choose to exercise our critical thinking – and to teach our children critical thinking – instead of buying into ready-made ideologies. We can refuse to give in to emotional politics and to listen to populists that offer simple solutions to complex situations. Instead, we can decide to make informed choices by listening to those who have dedicated their lives to understand how our complex societies function; we can also refuse to participate in the pointless debates on social media, where people shout at each others and draw from that arena a self-justification of their preconceptions and prejudices. We can choose to value our community as a place where each of us is equal, has the right to be respected and loved, a place where we learn the healthy Jewish conversation, a place of learning to be equipped with the tools of our ancient wisdom that has passed the test of time and allowed our people to go through difficult times, as ours is.
Yom Kippur is about choice. Forget the fast, the long services, the somehow antiquated words that are in our machzorim, and think about the call of Kol Nidrei: whatever decision you’ve made, whatever vow or oath you promised, you, each of you as individual, and you as a community, have the choice to correct the course of your lives. You can refuse the prophets of doom or the false prophets that promise eternal life after suffering; you can make your own decisions and choose to make ethical choices. It is not easy. We are constantly called into meaningless fights and smoke screens
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