Chief Rabbi's Rosh Hashanah Message 5782 (2021)
In 1968, social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley conducted a remarkable study, known as the Smoky Room Experiment.
Subjects were placed alone in a room and asked to complete a task. While they were doing so, smoke began to fill the room from a nearby air vent. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of subjects reported the smoke within a matter of minutes. However, when subjects were placed in the same room in groups, the results were dramatically different. Rather than reporting the smoke, the subjects looked to one another. If the others in the room seemed unmoved by the smoke, it was ignored.
The authors of the study observed that, if people are alone when they notice an emergency, they consider themselves solely responsible for dealing with it. However, when others are also present, they feel less of a responsibility for taking action.
As social beings, we often cannot help but use the actions of others as our frame of reference for the way in which we choose to behave. This poses a profound challenge to our society. Can we lead more environmentally sustainable lives or act cautiously to prevent the spread of Covid when those around us seem disinclined to do the same? Can we lead lives of responsibility and morality when those around us do not?
The Jewish answer to this challenge is our High Holy Days.
The Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah seems a surprising choice. On the anniversary of the creation of the world, we would surely expect to read about the creation from the Book of Genesis. Instead, we read the story of a person who was born into a world of idolatry and sacrilege. Yet, Abraham, the father of our people, repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to Hashem without hesitation. He became the first parent in our tradition to circumcise their son and was even prepared to countenance sacrificing him.
While not hiding behind the standards and expectations of those around him, Abraham knew what Hashem required of him. No amount of social pressure could dissuade him from his life of truth and sanctity.
On the Yamim Noraim, each one of us stands, accountable for our deeds, before Hashem. As we recite so powerfully in our Musaf prayers: Just as a shepherd appraises his flock; just as he passes every sheep beneath his staff; so too, every one of us is counted and evaluated by Hashem. There is nobody for us to hide behind, nor anyone for us to blame. As such, our High Holy Days are a moment of the purest and most honest dialogue with our Creator. He knows every challenge we face as well as our capacity to rise to them.
The last eighteen months have been a period of extraordinary adversity which has imposed challenges upon us all in ways that we may only be beginning to understand. As we enter 5782, the High Holydays provide a precious opportunity for each one of us to look deep within ourselves and reframe our attitude and our behaviour. Let us be guided by our eternal Torah values rather than the transient whims of others. In doing so, may we all be blessed with a future of spiritual fulfilment, joy and success.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis