Bukra Fi Mishmish and Jewish Chutzpah


I believe the answer lies in Jewish history. Emmanuel Ringenblum, the Jewish historian of Warsaw Ghetto fame once said that Jews do not have “history”...we have memory. Every moment of the past is not just remembered but relived. On Passover we do not simply “remember” the story of the exodus from Egypt, but we are commanded to “remember it as if we ourselves came out of Egypt”. We must make the experience of our ancestors our own...Our tradition even insist that every Jew alive and even those not yet born were present at Mount Sinai when Moses came down with the revelation. We do indeed favor memory over “history”.

But the Jewish sojourn in Human history does provide another answer (by no means the only one). If we try to explore how did Jews survive as a distinct group in environments which were often hostile, we find that an important factor has been the Jewish attitude toward the world around them. The Jew has always been a believer in free will. Even among the most observant Jews it is understood that while the Mitzvot need to be fulfilled, each individual has the right to decide what to do. The individual can choose. This in turn, breeds a different way to look at the world; as Jews we believe we have a responsibility to fix the world, and that we have the ability to do so.

Take some traditional Jewish phrases: When we are asked if we think we'll be able to do something, the traditional answer is “Baruch HaShem” or some variation thereof, implying that with we'll do it and we ward off the evil eye by blessing God. By contrast, in Muslim tradition, for example, the answer would be “Insallah”, best translated as “May that be God's will”. While the Jew hopes that God will give him (or her) a hand, the Muslim surrenders to the will of God.

Life is full of challenges, and how we respond to those challenges is conditioned by our education and our traditions. Christians tend to look at world (depending on which branch of Christianity we're talking about) as a means for salvation, a waiting room for the world to come, or an opportunity to live up to Jesus' teachings. Islam tends to look at the world as pre-ordained according to God's will; a place where the role of the individual is to follow Allah's will as recorded in the Q'uran; submission to God's will is indeed a central tenet of Islam. In Judaism, tradition tends to look at the individual as a (junior) partner in the act of creation, and the role of the individual is to “fix the world”...some would say through the fulfillment of Miztvot, others through the learning of Torah, others through fighting injustice – yet all Jews of any denomination will see themselves with an active role in history.

From those general differences, emerge others. A common Arab phrase is “Bukra Fi Mishmish”, which loosely translated would be the rough equivalent of the English phrase “when pigs will fly”. The phrase reflects a view of the world in which some things are simply beyond our control because the world is as it is.

The Jewish perspective on the same subject was best presented, in my opinion, by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in a speech he delivered at the recent AIPAC convention: “Judaism is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility”. In a way, our tradition focuses more on what it could be rather than on what it is. We don't look at the world for what it is, but for what it could become – and we feel compelled to make it happen. Maybe that explains the Start Up Nation...


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