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Jewish Guilt?

Friday, 11 March, 2011 - 12:48 pm

A Jewish mother sent her son Joey two new sweaters ahead of her visit. When she arrived, Joey made sure to be wearing one of the sweaters. Upon arrival, his mother took one look at him and exclaimed, “What’s the matter? You don’t like the other one?”

These stereotypical jokes of Jewish mothers have been around for years, with jokes about Jewish guilt coming in a close second. With a disproportionate number of Jewish comedians, there’s bound to be many “internal” Jewish jokes. I haven’t researched the matter and I don’t profess to know the source of this humor (perhaps these jokes grew out of their authors’ experience?), but this myth of a uniquely Jewish brand of guilt has almost been accepted by American Jews as reality.

Notwithstanding the fabricated nature of “Jewish Guilt”, therein lies a profoundly Jewish concept; the responsibility and control that we have for our actions, for our decisions and for our life’s choices. Even when faced with personal challenges, with pain and suffering, we don’t ask why it happened, rather what we can do about it.

In 1974, shortly after the Yom Kippur War, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, came to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York. Israel was slowly and painfully beginning to recover from the losses endured in the war. In the course of the conversation, the Rebbe asked him what was the mood “on the street” in Israel. Rabbi Lau responded that people are asking, “Vos vet zain – What will be?”

The Rebbe grasped Rabbi Lau’s arm and passionately replied, “Yiden fregen nit vos vet zein; zei fregen, vos geyen mir ton? – Jew’s don’t ask ‘What will be?’ [Rather,] they [should] ask, ‘What are we going to do?”

The next time we are faced with a challenge, no matter how seemingly insurmountable, we must remember to ask the positive, proactive question of “What are we going to do?” rather than the reactive, despairing question of “Why?”

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