Jewish Traits Gone Bad

I have long suspected that the Jewish stereotypes invoked by comedians, impolite pundits, and anti-Semites contain some grain of truth. After all, even a powerfully positive middah, or personal trait, can, if mangled or misapplied, devolve into a parody of its essence. And when that happens, a negative stereotype results.

Take, for instance, the obsession with money and possessions about which Jews are regularly impugned or mocked. (Some may recall—it was before my time—the Jewish radio jokester who, accosted in a skit by a mugger demanding “Your money or your life!” pauses a few seconds and then, when the stick-up man repeats his warning, responds: “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”)

But concern with currency is only mockery-worthy when it has degenerated into stinginess (as in the case of the fictional muggee) or thievery. In its pure form, it is called frugality, and is lauded by the Torah.

“The possessions of the righteous,” the Talmud teaches, “are as dear to them as their bodies.”

That comment is not meant to counsel miserliness; it conveys a deep and quintessentially Jewish thought: Every honestly earned penny has true worth, for it can be turned into something meaningful. We might think of someone who, say, rinses out and re-uses a Styrofoam cup as some sort of miser; and maybe he is. But he might also be a truly righteous man, appreciative of, and reluctant to waste, something still usable. If he’s generous to the needy, we know which one he is.

And so while stinginess may be ugly, frugality is not; indeed, it is a Jewish trait, and should be proudly embraced as one.

Similarly, the stereotype of Jews as cliquish is rooted in our very real and proper sense of peoplehood. When, however, we unwittingly give the impression that we look down upon others similarly created in the image of Hashem, we offer mockers (and haters) ammunition. It is important to not let our special bond with the “family” that is Klal Yisrael send a negative message to others. But internalizing that special bond, in the end, is essential to being a Jew.

Of late, I’ve been thinking about another Jewish stereotype: the worrier. The fellow who frets about whether he turned the oven off or locked the door before he left home, about what might happen if he boards that plane, or what that stomach pain might mean. Of course, all sorts of people worry about small or far-fetched things. But there does seem to be a particular stereotype of Jewish overanxiousness. What middah might it, in a twisted way, reflect?

What occurs is that worrying about unlikely things that might go wrong might be the flipside to something very Jewish indeed: Appreciating the myriad things that regularly go right.

We say “Modeh Ani” each morning to acknowledge the all-too-easily-ignored miracle of our waking up. We say “Asher Yatzar” to remind ourselves not to take the functions of our bodies for granted. We say “Modim” during each of our prayers to thank Hashem for His continuous gift of our lives and sustenance.

That all reflects a fundamental Jewish middah, “hakaras hatov”—in the phrase’s most literal, most fundamental, sense: the “recognition of the good” that Hashem bestows on us daily, indeed every hour, every minute, every second.

To be exquisitely sensitive to all the blessings from which we constantly benefit requires us, on some level, to realize all that could go wrong. There are people, after all, who don’t wake up from their night’s sleep; whose bodies do not function normally, whose lives or livelihoods are imperiled. Only a keen recognition of such possibilities can lead us to fully appreciate what so many people mindlessly take for granted.

Could that quintessential Jewish characteristic be what sometime decays into “Jewish worry”? Might anxiety be a warped expression of what, ideally, should be a feeling of joyful gratitude to the Creator for “nisecha sheb’chol yom imonu”—the “miracles that are with us each and every day”?

Perhaps, in other words, the Jewish worrywart, by obsessing over the myriad things that can go wrong, is mangling the Jewish middah of gratitude to the Creator for when things go right.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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