Introduction: As we mentioned in the previous letter, we have entered a season in which we turn inward. During this season, it is appropriate to rediscover our inner strengths and develop them, so that we can fulfill the unique and universal mission of our people. According to Jewish tradition, one of the special strengths of our people is our “chutzpah” - a Jewish term which refers to bold, brazen, or audacious behavior. Jewish tradition teaches, however, that each of our special strengths, including chutzpah, can be used in holy or unholy ways, and in a future letter, God-willing, we will discuss “unholy” chutzpah. In this letter, we will discuss the “holy” chutzpah which has helped to preserve our people and our heritage:
The Midrash describes those with chutzpah as chatzufin, and it states: The most chatzufin among the nations are the People of Israel (Exodus Rabbah 42:9). The Midrash then cites the following teaching which explains how this statement is actually a compliment to the People of Israel, as this chutzpah later enabled them to defy those who threatened them with death at the stake if they did not abandon the Torah:
Rabbi Yitzchak the son of Radifa said in the name of Rabbi Ami: Do you think the above statement is derogatory? It actually praises them, as they say, “To be a Jew or the stake!”
Yes, we are a people with chutzpah; thus, we were able to defy the powerful oppressors who tried to force us to abandon the faith and path of the Torah. We realized that the Torah is the raison d’etre of our people; thus, we told our oppressors, “Either we remain loyal Jews or we will be nailed to the stake.”
This holy chutzpah is one of the factors which helped us to survive as a people during the centuries of our exile, as it gave us the strength and the courage to be different. For example, during the Christian Crusades the Jews were offered the choice, “The cross or death!” Entire communities of Jewish men and women refused to accept Christianity, and they died proclaiming, “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!”
There is an ancient piyut - poetic prayer - which is chanted during the Festival of Succos known as Om Ani Chomah. It refers to the courage, fortitude, and holy chutzpah of the Jewish people during the long and painful exile, and the following words of this piyut became especially meaningful to the Jews who were persecuted in Christian Europe:
A nation that declares, “I am a wall!” Brilliant as the sun - yet exiled and displaced; likened to a palm tree - yet murdered for Your sake and regarded like a sheep for slaughter. Although scattered among her provocateurs, she hugs and cleaves to You and bears Your yoke - unique in declaring Your Oneness.
At what stage of our history did we develop holy chutzpah? According to our tradition, this chutzpah began with our Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and our Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah). A source for this idea can be found in the prophecy of the Gentile Prophet Balaam, when he viewed Israel camping in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Through his prophecy, Balaam became aware of the chutzpah which gives Israel the courage to be different, and he proclaimed:
“For I see it from the top of the rocks, and I behold it from the hills; this is a people that will dwell apart and not count itself among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9 – Translation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)
Rabbi Hirsch explains the above prophecy in the following manner: In the ideal future, Israel will live as a separate people in its own land in order to accomplish its inner mission; moreover, it will not strive for greatness by trying to become a national entity which seeks to impress other national entities with its power.
The Prophet Balaam proclaimed that he was viewing Israel from “the top of the rocks” and “from the hills.” According to Midrash Tanchuma, these words have a deeper meaning, as the “rocks” are a metaphor for our Patriarchs, and the “hills” are a metaphor for our Matriarchs. Based on the Midrash, Rashi explains that Balaam was looking at “their origin and at the beginning of their roots” – the source of their strength.
Through the combined insights of the Midrash, Rashi, and Rabbi Hirsch, we can understand the above verse in the following manner:
Through the strength that they get from their Patriarchs and Matriarchs, they have the chutzpah and the courage to dwell apart and not count themselves among the power-seeking nations.
Our forefathers and foremothers had the chutzpah to take a separate and holy path in a world which had lost its way. In this spirit, the Book of Genesis (14:13) refers to our forefather Abraham as the Ivri – the Hebrew. This word can also mean, “on the other side”; thus, the Midrash offers the following comment on Abraham being an Ivri:
“Rabbi Yehudah says: All the world was on one side, but he was on the 'other side.” (Genesis Rabbah 42:8)
Abraham had holy chutzpah! We, his descendants have this chutzpah, and so do the sincere converts who join us through accepting the faith and path of the Torah. A convert needs to have chutzpah in order to join our people, for in a world of several billion people who do not share our beliefs, we are only a fraction of one percent of the population. Yes, we are a small people, and as current events remind us, we still have many enemies in the world; nevertheless, through the power of holy chutzpah, we can fulfill our destiny to become a vessel for the Divine light and thereby become a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. Another word in our tradition for chutzpah or boldness is az. This word is related to oz – a Hebrew term for strength, and az refers to the strength to be different in order to follow one’s convictions. The Talmud mentions that Israel is the “az among the nations” (Beitzah 25b).
2. The Mishnah states in the name of the sage, Yehudah ben Tema:
Be az as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven. (Pirkei Avos 5:23)
Be az as a leopard – Although modesty is a recommended trait, there are occasions when one must have the boldness of the leopard when doing certain mitzvos or defending certain spiritual truths which are not popular in the greater society.
3. The late Abbie Hoffman, a Jewish radical of the 60's generation, described being Jewish in the following manner: “I see Judaism as a way of life. Sticking up for the underdog. Being an outsider. A critic of society. The kid in the corner that says the emperor has no clothes on. The Prophet.” (Tikkun, July-August 1989)
Abbie Hoffman did not have the benefit of a Torah education which would have made him aware of the Torah’s holy path to “tikun olam” – the repair of the world; nevertheless, he sensed in his soul that the Jewish people had the chutzpah to be an “outsider” in a corrupt and unjust world.