July 17, 2024
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July 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

These days it’s too easy to offend people. People are offended by statues of people who are long dead and that have been standing since before the offended people were born. They get offended by statements or non-statements. Some people are offended simply by the existence of other people.

The crazy world we live in validates these offenses and turns people into offenders even if they haven’t done anything. If someone doesn’t like what I said, I’m an offender. If someone takes issue with what I believe, I’m taken to task for having insensitive beliefs. But here’s the problem with that: I can’t really offend anyone. I can try to offend them, but I can’t actually do it because they need to actively be involved.

“I’m offended” makes sense, like “I’m hungry.” It’s an internal feeling and I can share it with you by telling you how hungry I am. But what about “You’re making me hungry!”? Can someone actually make you hungry?

Well, if I haven’t eaten today and you suddenly appear with a dozen fresh doughnuts, sweetly fragrant and tantalizingly warm, I might say they made me hungry. It wouldn’t be nice for you to tease me with them and make me think I was getting one then refusing to give me, but it’s not really possible to “make me” hungry.

What if just before they arrived I’d gotten my own fresh dozen doughnuts, and by the time you sat down there was nothing left but a nice memory and a growing stomachache? Would I be tempted by the new batch? Not likely. But wait—you are trying to make me hungry! Nope. Sorry. Not happening.

The reason someone else can’t make me hungry is because they are not in control of my physiology. They can’t make my glands do this or my taste buds do that. If it’s something I dislike, they won’t get my mouth to water no matter how delectable they think it is.

Now let’s go back to being offended. The reason we say someone “was offended” or “takes offense” is because they are in control of their own emotions. When they choose to take something in a negative way they feel bad about it. But they did the active part, not the other person.

There is no bracha on giving tzedaka. Do you know why? The reason is that the recipient might refuse to take it. Since it’s not in our hands to control or complete the mitzvah, we can’t make a blessing on the act despite our good intentions.

In a similar vein, if I try to insult someone but he refuses to be insulted, I haven’t insulted him. I may be a jerk for acting that way, and may be sinning by doing so, but though I tried to hurt him I haven’t—because he used the most powerful defense mechanism: his free will to not take offense.

As a youngster, I was once at an amusement park. An older teen began to hurl anti-Jewish insults at me. It didn’t bother me because I didn’t know him and I’m proud of my Judaism. Instead of getting angry and yelling back, or crying that he insulted me, I silently blew him a kiss from about 30 feet away. This incensed him because I’d effectively deflected his hatred. Baruch Hashem we were getting off a ride and the park staff shooed him away toward the exit, but it showed me that it was possible to block insults simply by choosing not to take offense.

When people are mean to us, or say things to hurt us, we can give in to their desires and feel hurt, or we can remind ourselves that we should not give anyone control over our emotions. So how do we fight back?

The basic method is simply to remind ourselves that what others say to us (for the most part) is merely their opinion. It may not even be their own, but one they picked up from listening to someone else. I don’t have to accept it as truth, and even if I do, I don’t have to be hurt, but can take it as constructive criticism.

If I see a statue of a Confederate leader, I can choose what it means to me. The people who are offended because they think these statues glorify slavery are writing that story themselves. How do they know that at the time it was erected the people weren’t proud of the person for standing up for liberty and their beliefs? Or for defending their homes from an attack either real or perceived? True, one key point of contention in the civil war was slavery, but that doesn’t mean everyone was fighting for hate.

Maybe they were just offended that people were telling them what to think, so they went to war and erected these statues as a monument to the right to individual thought? In that case, we should respect their offense and their right to be offended by keeping the statues standing. Except that they offend other people, and so it’s a cyclical argument.

Because people tend to be very sensitive, and will take an innocent remark the wrong way, there is no simple answer to how to stop offending others. However, if we all sought to stop taking offense and feeling insulted we’d be fighting a lot less.

So, instead of getting angry the next time someone says something inflammatory and rude followed by the phrase “No offense,” just smile, ignore the comment, and gently respond, “None taken.”

By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

 Feedback is welcome and appreciated. E-mail [email protected] to share your thoughts. Life is full of inspiration, just waiting for us to find it. It’s a treasure hunt and the rewards are greater than we can imagine.


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