Thursday, August 11, 2011

Would you have rioted in Tottenham this week?

London's ugly underbelly screamed across the media this week in a blaze of arson and looting. Charred and embattled London this week looked like the evil twin of the dignified and regal city that transfixed two billion people in April. A far cry from the elegant formalities of the Royal Wedding, this week's violent protests seem wholly un-British.

Stereotypically, the English are tea-sipping, punctillious prudes who follow the law to a tee. I guess, just as stereotypically, Africans are a lawless bunch of savages. How ironic then to see crime-ridden South Africa issue a travel advisory this week relating to Great Britian.

You can appreciate how emotions run high when the cops kill a man unecessarily. You can appreciate the family's anger and the community's frustration. You can even forgive them spewing anti-establishment vitriole or launching a suit against the police. But anger doesn't justify wholesale damage to property, torching cars and buses or stealing plasma screens for your home in the ensuing chaos.

Perhaps Africa's jungle-law lives somewhere in England too. Perhaps it lives inside every one of us.

Culture and grooming define how you behave in public; they don't modify who you are. The well-spoken, highbrow art critics and Bach-lovers who massacred six million of our people are still fresh in our memories. Push an emotive button in a person and his primal instinct kicks in, shutting down his brain.

I saw it summed up well this morning: "Anger is the wind that extinguishes the lamp of the mind."

To be a Jew is to learn to use your mind to still and direct your emotions. We'll all have flare-ups; moments when our emotive instinct threatens to overwhelm everything that makes sense. Our Holy Temple was destroyed because of one such incident, where a man was mistakenly invited to his enemy's party. On arrival, he was publicly disgraced and unceremoniously ejected. You can appreciate his burning shame, but it didn't justify his extreme reaction: To slander his own people to the Romans, claiming that the Jews were about to launch a revolution. Rome's military response saw the destruction of Jerusalem.

Momentary blinding anger can rip apart a family or destroy a lifelong friendship. Any of us can becoming a Tottenham rioter, smashing to bits those very relationships that keep us human. We owe it to ourselves to learn Judaism's mind-over-impulse techniques so that we can keep our families and community whole.

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