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Thought for the Day: Yom Kippur 2023

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“…finding the right balance between walking ahead and walking behind.”

In 1998, 50% of the British population said it was especially important for children to be obedient. Today, only 11% feel the same way. This staggering statistic was revealed this week by the World Values Survey, one of the largest and most widely used global academic social surveys. The data shows that over the last thirty years, the perceived importance of following rules and selflessness has been overtaken by the importance of independence and hard work.

The idea of ‘obedience’ is clearly jarring to the modern ear. Perhaps it’s because it suggests unquestioning submission to parents, who don’t wish to feel like tyrants. And certainly for some, it will evoke memories of painful childhood experiences. But any healthy and loving home environment surely needs a clear structure and hierarchy to function – just as any institution does. 

In an environment where rules are no longer important, leaders become the followers. The renowned Rabbi Yisrael Salanter of the 19th century, used the analogy of a dog out walking with its owner, to identify a common flaw in poor leaders. The dog appears to be out in front leading, but when it reaches a fork in the road, it waits for its owner to show it the way. And now we can see who’s really in charge.

Good rules are not arbitrary impositions. They are the compass which guide us through life’s labyrinth. They provide structure and order in a world often marked by chaos. When we willingly submit to the rule of law it is because we accept that it exists to serve our best interests.

Starting on Sunday evening, Jewish communities will be observing the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, when we are held accountable for our behaviour over the last year. The congregation stands with heads bowed in a prayer of confession, and declares that we could never be so arrogant as to suggest that we have not erred. One of the most important prayers is ‘Avinu Malkenu’, when we address God both as our parent and our Ruler. It is a relationship of both friendship and respect; of both love and obedience.

 In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses charged Joshua with the responsibility to succeed him as leader of the people, with two separate instructions: Walk ahead of the people and walk with the people.  

The future stability of our society depends on all leaders, amongst whom parents are surely the most important, finding the right balance between walking ahead and walking beside.