Friday, January 16, 2009

Question & Answer With Mottel - The Kernel Of Truth Within Stereotypes

(Illustration courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

My mother once told me, "Another person's opinion of me is none of my business".

While I partially agree with this statement, I think a person must generally have an idea of how he is perceived by others and ensure that his actions are never regarded in a negative light. So, in a sense, another person's opinion of me is certainly my business.

The Gemara identifies the Jewish people as exhibiting three traits: compassion, modesty, and kindness. Yet, the stereotype of Jews is that they are greedy, loud, and rude.

Should we simply disregard such stereotypes as irrational anti-Semitism or should we honestly try to rectify the kernel of truth on which they are based?

Mottel of Letters of Thought answers:

Before we get into the particulars of your question, it's interesting to note a dichotomy in the Torah's treatment of the opinion of others...

On one hand it is stressed in Pirkei Avos (3:10): "He [Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa] would say: Whoever earns the good-will of the creations is the beloved of the Omnipresent, and he who the creations are not happy with, is not beloved of the Omnipresent." In halacha we see an even greater importance placed on what others think - in the form of Maris Ayin - what others could possibly assume by merely seeing one do something seemingly inappropriate.

On the other hand, there is great stress placed on the need to persevere in the face of adversity - no mater what others say. As such we see that the Alter Rebbe quotes a saying of Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima (also from Pirkei Avos 5:20) as the introduction to his Shluchan Aruch: "Be strong like a leopard, light as an eagle, run like a deer, and mighty like the lion to do the will of your Father in heaven." He goes on to explain that "strong like a leopard" refers to the inner strength needed to surmount those who scoff at one's divine service. One must be strong and stick to his inner resolve and initiative to overcome the negative comments and opinions of others.

Returning to your question then, when it comes to encountering negative stereotypes we must also deal with this dichotomy . . .

On one hand we must be strident to rid ourselves of anything that smacks at a negative stereotype or that might lead to a desecration of the Divine name. Besides ignoring obviously negative traits that we may posses, it is important to show others how an Ehrlicher Yid (an upright Jew) ought to act. In my own personal life I try to be generous and humble around others, hoping to break any negative stereotypes they may have (not to be stingy on a tip, smiling and wishing others a good day etc.). On the other hand, prejudice and hate are often symptoms of far more complicated problems - ignorance, personal turmoil in the 'haters' own life . . . there reaches a certain point when the problem is not within our power to correct.

Perhaps the best way to approach the issue is by taking a lesson from the recent Torah portion of "Vayigash". The Torah recounts the reunion of Yosef and Benyomin, saying that Yosef, "Fell on the neck of Benyomin, his brother, and Benyomin cried on his [Yosef's] neck."

On this verse Rashi tells us that Yosef cried for the Beis Hamikdash that was in his brother's territory and destroyed, and that Benyomin cried for the Mishkan that was in Yosef's area.

If these two great tzaddikim are crying for events that will befall Bnei Yisroel in the future, why were they crying about what would happen in the territory of the other brother, and not in their own?

The answer given in Likutei Sichos is that when we see something negative in another that we are unable to prevent, then we must cry to Hashem - to daven - that the person awaken spiritually and rectify the wrong. When something goes awry in our own "territory", then we can't sit back and cry - we must have the resolve to fix it.

What we show to the world is our responsibility to make perfect . . . what more the other thinks - is beyond our power.


At January 16, 2009 at 8:53:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This very beautiful and indeed does give us a true of example of what to strive for as Jews. Perhaps in what seems to be a dawning of a new era in our history, these days right now, where IYH more people are waking up we will see more of our brothers and sisters reaching to and living up to the example. Shabbat Shalom.

At January 17, 2009 at 10:24:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a lovely and thoughtful post!

At January 17, 2009 at 11:05:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

G-d bless you and yours. A truly inspiring lesson and advice. May Hashem bless us to internalise and practise it, in accordance to us believing gentiles also.

As for people wrongfully thinking jews are stingy, my personal experience via the net says the opposite. My husband is a careful and economical person, when handling the family finances, most here consider that as stingy. i dont. jacob returned to take some earthenware utensils just before his struggle with esau's messenger. The lesson to learn is everything we have is a gift from Hashem, and should be carefully kept and used, to serve Him. We do not have the right to waste and throw anything away.
thanks again for a wonderful lesson, blessings

At January 18, 2009 at 12:24:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your writings, it is very inspirational but what about in cases of someone like B.Madoff? How is a Jew supposed to answer to this?

At January 18, 2009 at 7:51:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

still love reading this, thank you


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