Just one week ago, the Jewish – and particularly the ultra Orthodox – world was up in arms about an insensitive front page headlining the recently slain Orthodox Menachem Stark as being murdered almost deservedly so. Understandably, the timing – if not the content alone – was indeed insensitive. But, also understandably, the New York Post is a known tabloid, notorious for its highly sensationalized and often crass slurs. This helps their sales, as does the inevitable ensuing uproar.

With the Stark tragedy and all that has followed it on my mind all week, I had an interesting realization in a simple yet rousing moment yesterday.  Headed for the Holland Tunnel en route to Manhattan, I suddenly was unsure if I had updated the credit card on file for my EZ Pass (a recent lost CC called for new cards to be issued). Not knowing if it would work, I checked my purse for the necessary amount and headed for the longer cash lane. Upon reaching the tollbooth, I handed the young attendant my ten-dollar bill, but simultaneously asked if she could first scan my EZ Pass to see if it was in fact working. She apologized, explaining that it would be impossible for her to do so as I had entered the cash only lane, and, if I wanted to check the status of my EZ Pass, I could call, check online, or should have just gone into the EZ Pass lane. I politely thanked her and told her that, although I could have done that, had I done so and my EZ Pass would not have been working, I would have caused unnecessary back-up in an otherwise expedited lane. Pausing briefly, she handed me my change and said; “It’s nice of your type not to do that”. With a scarf covering my hair, and a Yarmulke covering my son’s in the back, I was suddenly awakened at the wheel.

We, our nation, our people, are far more in control than we think. We can choose to focus on the negative, or increase the positive to a point where the negative will cease to exist. Either that, or it would become so insignificant it would require grueling efforts to smear us and find something worthy of ample negative publicity.

Indeed, we cannot change the world in the snap of a finger. We cannot sue, demonstrate or boycott our way to a positive world-view of us. Nor can we spend our lives in search of our enemies to knock them down one by one. It is our legacy. We will always have those that seek our demise. Those that celebrate our downfalls. Those that are jealous of us.

But, here’s what we can do: We can choose to ignore them. Live above them. And, instead of pointing fingers and looking outside of us to blame those that are bringing us down, we can look inside of ourselves to see what we are doing to bring ourselves up.

The biggest thing we can do, is take one small positive step at a time…

We can actively take upon ourselves as individuals to not be a part of any Chilul Hashem, thereby also effecting a Kiddush Hashem. We can make sure that when we look or will be identified as ‘one of us’, we do in fact act like ‘one of us’ should. When we take ourselves or our families out to a public venue, the staff and guests should be looking our way in wonderment of how appropriate we are, or how well behaved the children are, despite the large number of children that may be in tow.   Just because something is free does not mean we should take more than our share. The concept of a line was created to promote orderliness and fairness, and finagling ones way a few spots ahead, or, miraculously to the front, does not a mentch make. Children (and parents – it starts at the top) should not litter on the streets, or in any other public venues, even when no one is looking. We should not be the first to sue for something we would not ourselves want to be sued for, or excessively take advantage of company return policies despite the many ways we can justify returning the threadbare shoes no longer our size. We should not run red lights, double park indefinitely in areas where other cars will definitely need to pass/leave, back up around street corners, or drive the wrong way up a one-way street, even though the coast is seemingly clear of other traffic and law enforcement officers. G-d did not command us to follow the laws of the land simply to avoid penalty. I would venture a guess that He wants us to exalt His name, the reputation of His Chosen People, and also the physical world He created for us to inhabit. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. This is what it means for we.

As for the active Kiddush Hashem, Mitzvoth Aseh, Mentchlichkeit, – call it what you will – remember your manners and keep them holy. Teach your children to say please, thank you, and excuse me. We should be the first to offer up our seats on  subways, buses, and benches to the elderly, pregnant, and anyone who seems to have had an ‘anything but easy’ day. We should teach by example and encourage our children to want to do the same. Let the other car in, it won’t kill your day and may even make it better. Use indicators. Always use indicators.  They were created for a good reason, and, if it has become ‘Minhag Yisrael’, then go with it. It’s for the physical and mental wellbeing of all of us.  We should speak respectfully when spoken to, regardless of the tone of others, even if being berated by an official. Sure, this can be difficult at times, but politeness will always pay off. If the store gives us more than was paid for, we should be as quick to return it as we would be to call them out on having shortchanged us. We should ask before taking, and give before being asked.

The world does indeed hold us to a higher level. (Are we giving them what to look up to? Are we truly maintaining our higher status?) It’s true.  But so does G-d. If not for the sake of keeping with the standards the world holds of us (or invalidating the negative views some maintain), then do it for G-d. Do it for your children. Do it for your parents. But most importantly, do it for your self. After all, at the end of the day we have no one to answer to more than ourselves. The concept of a Din V’cheshbon goes far deeper than we may realize, and, if done religiously could probably stave off a whole slew of therapy bills.

It’s easy to get defensive and take no blame for any of the examples cited above. On an individual level, some may be able to say none of it applies to them. Still, collectively we must take responsibility. Each of us maintains a responsibility to the greater whole. All too often we are clumped together as ‘one of them’, ‘a Jew’, ‘an Orthodox Jew’, despite the many unique differences amongst us. If ever a time the significance of Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze L’ze comes into play, it resonates strongly here.

Rather than pointing fingers at those who seek to bring us down, let us look in the mirror and answer honestly if we are doing what we must to uphold ourselves. Let us rise up in our standards so that no others will be able to raise their boots high enough to step on us. Because, at the end of the day, it is up to us how the world sees us.  If we cry out insecurely each time our integrity is called into question, we will come to rely upon the world for our own approval. Why be at the whim of others when we can control our own destiny? The passion we put into defending ourselves should instead become – or at the very least be matched by – a passion put into strengthening ourselves.

That there are many in the world who continually single us out in a negative light is nothing new. If we could try to ignore it, and instead dispel those beliefs and accusations by way of positive action, there will be something new. It takes only a little light to dispel a lot of darkness, and, one good deed at a time, we can not only create a lot of light in this world, but in so doing dispel a lot of darkness.

To quote Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, OBM: “Fighting evil is a very noble activity when it must be done. But it is not our mission in life. Our job is to bring in more light.”

Instead of signing a petition against others, let us sign a call to action for ourselves.

Change. It begins here.